Will the Gaza war push the Middle East to new realism?

There’s a fine line between realism and optimism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

Rob Carter

Will the Gaza war push the Middle East to new realism?

On the back of so many deaths and cruelty, talking about peace may seem, at best, naive. Some would argue - correctly - that even before October 7, peace in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was a remote prospect.

From a historical perspective, this is one of the few conflicts in which the idea of peace became so intensely real, with the Oslo Accords, only to be so tragically shattered in the decades that followed. As a result, the mere idea of peace is viewed as “naive”, or even dangerous, by segments of Israelis and Palestinians.

Even naming the Oslo Accords feels like talking about some sort of fantasy: A collective delusion both sides engaged in, and have since awoken from. The “agreements-that-shall-not-be-named” seem to discredit whoever dares pronounce their name. Decision-makers on both sides have long shifted, from an attitude that allowed for solutions to be considered, to one that lazily repeats old arguments. Each side sees itself as the victim of the other. The blame game about the past has become a toxic replacement for thoughts about the future.

Even as you (the reader) go through this piece, you will at times be tempted to wonder “but who is to blame?”. This is natural. But know this: True justice rarely comes in times of war or conflict.

When it comes to Gaza, specifically, the word peace has slowly been replaced by other words like “pause”, “ceasefire”, or “quiet”. In the past, when Israeli officials have often said the goal of previous operations was to “restore quiet” - not peace. Hamas itself only acknowledged ceasefires by saying that “quiet will be answered with quiet”. But quiet is not peace: Quiet is the pause between wars.

Talking about peace shouldn’t be a taboo, even as the dead are being buried. In fact, some of the families of Israeli victims, the same who were brutally killed by Hamas, who saw their parents executed in cold blood, still advocate for peace. It is a tragic irony that the same Israeli kibbutz Hamas attacked on a quiet morning on October 7, are in fact some of the last bastions of the peace camp in Israel.

Read more: Hamas might have miscalculated in Gaza

But it is also not a first. Hamas’s “career” has been built on the back of destroying peace. The same group is responsible for many of the suicide bombings that followed Oslo, with a clear aim: Preventing peace. Don’t believe me? Those were the words of Arafat in 1996: “We are confronting terror and we will confront terror and uproot it from our land because our dream of freedom, independence and self-determination could not prosper and be fulfilled amid a sea of tears and blood, but with thorough work to confront the terror of these extremist and dangerous wings from Hamas and Jihad”.

Israeli soldiers take part in an operation in Gaza

In Israel, adversaries of peace found a useful partner in Hamas: Netanyahu’s “divide and conquer” strategy, aimed at dividing Palestinians, has relied on Hamas to push back any pressure to resume peace talks. In that sense, Netanyahu is responsible for a much broader failure than the intelligence and military failure we saw on October 7.

Looking at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and others, from a historical perspective do suggest that there may still be a chance for peace. Sometimes, tragedies have unexpected consequences, even for those who caused them. A series of Palestinian attacks, in the late 1970s’, including what’s been known as the “Coastal Road Massacre” (the killing of nearly 40 Israelis, among them children), later led to the Israeli invasion of southern Lebanon 1982. The expulsion of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) from Lebanon, and its increasing isolation from events in Israel and Palestine, gradually led it to think about peace.

Of course this is a poor comparison, nor does it mean all of these events (the Israeli invasion of Lebanon, or the Palestinian attacks at the time) were justified or necessary to get there. Hezbollah - a party that, like its patron, has been very savvy at using the Palestinian cause to serve its own interests - also emerged from the invasion of Southern Lebanon.

Waving other exotic solutions, like a binational state, makes one sound smart, but also detached from realities - as such solutions have no support among either Palestinians or Israelis. 

But, if Hamas is isolated and degraded, and if the burden of responsibility finally befalls on Netanyahu for the October 7 failure, two non-negligible obstacles to peace would have been removed. More broadly, massacres do raise the question of how to do things differently, so as not get the same results. As the saying goes, insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.

A fine line between optimism and reality

There are many reasons not to be optimistic. Obstacles to peace were massive even before October 7. Israel's government includes some of the most radical elements Israel has ever seen, including the gun-waving Itamar Ben Gvir, and Bezalel Smotrich, whose goal is to effectively kill any prospect for a two-state solution.

Settlements have increased significantly, and Smotrich is quietly pushing plans to expand and legalize outposts that are situated deeper inside the West Bank. Those would make peace even more difficult. This should also serve as a warning to those claiming the two-state solution is dead: Radicals in Israel do not agree. And while one keeps touting the idea that the most agreed-upon solution to the conflict is no more, they are busy making sure this becomes reality. Waving other exotic solutions, like a binational state, makes one sound smart, but also detached from realities - as such solutions have no support among either Palestinians or Israelis.

A protester participates in a candlelight vigil organised in Washington, DC, by Jewish Voice for Peace against the war

On the Palestinian side, beyond Hamas's own effort to torpedo peace, the Palestinian Authority  has been discredited. President Abbas can barely exit the confines of his Presidential palace in Ramallah. He has become hated both by the Palestinian leadership, and even within the ranks of his own party, where dissent and power-struggles are constant. Once again, we could go down the "blame-game" road and wonder why Abbas is so unpopular.

Read more: Israel's conflict management: What could possibly go wrong?

But this road leads away from a solution. Abbas, who is still rhetorically committed to peace and peaceful resistance to the occupation, has become an obstacle to peace himself. He is too unpopular to put his weight behind even a fair solution to the conflict - one that would require some concessions on the Palestinian side. At the same time, whoever comes after Abbas may be either less legitimate, or far worse, explaining why as an analyst I was not optimistic about the prospect for peace even before October 7.

On each side, there is a widening camp and growing segments of the public that believe (wrongfully in my argument) this conflict can be won, rather than solved. But those who believe this is just a "security issue" have generally been proven wrong. In Israel, the heads of some of the country's most powerful services - who fought for Israel's security for decades - often acknowledge this is not a problem that will be solved through security solutions, but political ones.

Even today, as Israel seeks to get rid of Hamas, it needs to consider whether this can be done while continuing to refuse to talk about peace, and so do Palestinians. This may sound naive, and as an analyst, I tend to prefer to be called cynical than naive. But as someone living through these times, I prefer to be called naive than a cynic.

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