Since 1948, Israel has had to fight for its existence in at least four major conventional wars, defending its small and vulnerable territory, half the size of Denmark, while surrounded by hostile neighbours. In living memory of the horrors of the Holocaust, suffering years of terrorism, Israelis have every right to feel under threat and defend themselves. Above all, Israel seeks recognition by Palestinians of its right to exist as an essentially Jewish state if progress is to be made in the creation of a viable and internationally acceptable Palestinian state. The Hamas leaders that in June 2007 seized from the Palestine Authority de facto control of Gaza, vacated by Israel in 2005, fundamentally oppose this.
Ordinary Palestinians feel aggrieved that, from the start, they have had a raw deal, particularly over land. They want peace, security and prosperity for their children but have been ill-served by their political leaders who have been weak or oppressive and more interested in power, money and their purist political legacy, than in their people’s future. For years, Israel has sought a reliable and effective Palestinian leader they could talk to and who had authority throughout the Palestinian areas. As one member of the Knesset put it to me, “the Palestinian leadership never misses an opportunity to miss an opportunity”. This failure costs lives, always disproportionately more by the Palestinians. Years ago it was put to me that everyone knows the shape of a future peace settlement. It is just a question of how many tragic body bags between now and then.
All the time that Palestinian extremists and terrorists were tolerated, often supported, by Arab governments, they felt legitimised and able to blame the people’s plight on Israel. Their target is public opinion, in the West, in Israel itself, and in the wider Muslim world. Gradually there has been a shift in attitude by arab governments, conscious that their own people also want a more prosperous future and that Israel was not the threat and could even be a key to that better future. In quick succession, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, Morocco, and Bahrain all recognised Israel in 2020, following the example of Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. This has been a massive strategic gain for Israel, potentially at risk if civilian casualties of the current counter-attack against Hamas and its close relative, the even more murderous Islamic jihad, were to grow and provoke an international reaction. Nevertheless, these same countries share Israel’s concerns about Iran. They also have worries over the influence within their own populations of the Moslem Brotherhood, to which both Hamas and Islamic Jihad have foundational affiliation, and which supports terrorism and subordination of the state to its own extreme interpretation of the doctrines of Islam.
No one doubts the ability of Israel to win a war with Hamas and Islamic Jihad, but it has been less successful at winning the propaganda battle. In any case it will see diminishing returns from its military interventions. Its objectives need to look beyond the destruction of terrorist offensive capabilities and the previous festering status quo, and move towards a better future.
The unstable domestic political situation in both Israel and the Palestinian areas have contributed to the current crisis. The elections to the Palestinian Legislative Council, originally scheduled for 22 May, followed by a Presidential election in July, provided inspiration for Hamas to stir trouble. I observed the last elections to the PLC in January 2006, which saw a victory for Hamas (winning 74 seats to 45 for the ruling Fatah party) which apparently surprised some but not those of us on the ground. Faced with a similar outcome in 2021, and in the midst of another crisis, the hapless Palestinian President, Mahmoud Abbas, has again postponed elections, but he can’t put them off for ever. The fact is, his authority does not extend to Gaza, that half of his domain where Hamas has imposed its rule.
Following an inconclusive General Election in March, the fourth in two years, Israel’s government is in limbo. Yair Lapid has been given until early June to cobble together a coalition for government otherwise there will be another General Election. Benjamin Netanyahu, still on trial on corruption charges, remains as interim Prime Minister. The latest Gaza crisis throws all this up in the air. Netanyahu’s tough stance will strengthen his hand in an election. And that election becomes more likely as Lapid may now face difficulties securing a key potential coalition partner, Mansour Abbas’s United Arab List.
The paradox of violent crisis situations is that the people want peace but put their trust in those they think most robustly defend them. They buy the propaganda of their own side. We saw this in Northern Ireland where the softer Unionist politicians were squeezed out and a harder-line loyalist DUP found itself coming to power with the terrorist political front that is Sinn Fein. Fatah is entrenched in corruption and ineptitude and is kept in power by the generosity of Western and Arab governments, mainly because it is not Iranian-backed Hamas. Palestinian voters often remarked to me that they had no idea where all that foreign money went because they never saw any benefit from it, “Fatah were those people in big black cars and fancy villas”. Meanwhile, Hamas, in familiar Moslem Brotherhood fashion, were showing their welfare side, providing medical and schooling for the people and their own harsh brand of law and order, while keeping up the war against what they portrayed as the “little Satan”, Israel.
Israel prospers as a nation, with world-leading research capabilities and inventiveness, not least in provision of water desalination and irrigation that could be of enormous value in lifting the prospects of the poverty stricken Palestinian areas. There is hope for the future if certain steps are taken.
Without external political, financial and humanitarian support, neither Fatah nor Hamas can sustain their positions. The Hamas terror campaign relies on Iran for finance, training and weapons and on the international media and extremists within the Muslim diaspora for propaganda. These links need to be broken. Neither the US nor the Europeans should weaken sanctions on Iran until it ends support for terrorism. Substitute sponsors must be discouraged. And greater effort needs to be made to communicate to the arab street – through broadcasts and social media - to explain the realities behind the continuous turmoil and poverty in the Palestinian areas.
Israel needs to act with generosity in relation to its borders and the definition of the Palestinian areas without compromising its security. It should support a novel status for East Jerusalem. It would also participate in an international programme for reconstruction – that elusive “Marshall Plan” for the region - to which the Arab nations and the democracies would contribute.
The sclerotic Fatah will need to find a new leader, willing to enter into negotiations, eager to reach agreement, and credible in both the West Bank and Gaza. He will need to renounce violence and the promotion of hatred, and, above all, recognise the state of Israel (more or less the conditions for international recognition of a Palestinian government set by the Quartet of US, UN, EU and Russia).
Distasteful as it may be, this search for a new leader may include the likes of 61-year-old Marwan Barghouti, who has spent the last 17 years in Israeli prisons following conviction for murder. Rejected by the Fatah old-guard, he retains popularity across all the Palestinian areas. He is no Mandela. International comparisons are never wholly accurate and outcomes from talking to terrorists are mixed. Turkey was prepared to negotiate with PKK terrorist leader Ocalan while he was imprisoned. The Colombian government came to terms with the FARC guerrilla movement in 2016. Britain accepted former Irish Republican terrorist leaders into government in Northern Ireland.
An end to violence and rapid movement towards a sustainable peace settlement would obviously be good for Israel, the Palestinians and the wider Middle East. It is also in all our interests as the situation there becomes steadily more dangerous and as we confront so many other major threats to the security of the democracies.
Geoffrey Van Orden is a distinguished Fellow of the Gold Institute for International Strategy, former British Conservative leader in the European Parliament and founder of New Direction. He has been visiting Israel and the Palestinian areas for over 40 years.