Netanyahu Has Got To Go And Progress Can Be Made In Gaza

Heather Cox Richardson

Lots of moving pieces on this Monday, with the biggest stories coming in international affairs. 

The U.S. has appointed a special envoy for Sudan, which is ten months into a civil war that has turned 8 million people into refugees, sending 1.5 million into other countries; closed 80% of the hospitals in the area of the fighting; and prompted torture, rape, and deliberate starvation of civilians, at least 14,600 of whom have been killed. Tom Perriello will, the State Department said, “coordinate the U.S. policy on Sudan and advance our efforts to end the hostilities, secure unhindered humanitarian access, and support the Sudanese people as they seek to fulfill their aspirations for freedom, peace, and justice.” 

The North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) is about to expand again. After 19 months of stalling, Hungary’s parliament voted today to approve Sweden as a new member, bringing the number of NATO countries to 32. Hungary’s prime minister Viktor Orbán, who has good relations with Russia’s president Vladimir Putin, has a history of using his country’s veto power over NATO to extract concessions; in exchange for Hungary’s approval, Sweden has agreed to provide it four fighter jets and for Saab to open an artificial intelligence research center in Hungary. 

There is also a major piece moving in the Middle East. This morning, the Palestinian Authority’s prime minister Mohammad Shtayyeh and cabinet offered to resign in order to clear the way for a new government. Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas accepted the resignations but asked the government to stay in place as a caretaker until a new government can be formed.

This is a big deal because it’s part of a larger plan for the Palestinian territories after the war. 

Since Hamas attacked Israel on October 7, 2023, the U.S. government has maintained that Israel has a right and a duty to defend itself against Hamas, but that it must operate within international humanitarian law that limits harm to civilians and that it must have a vision for a postwar political process to establish a Palestinian state next to Israel: the two-state solution. 

On the first condition, Zack Beauchamp of Vox reported last week that Israel Defense Forces (IDF) permitted far higher civilian casualties after October 7 than it had in previous wars. The result has been the dramatic destruction of lives and Gaza’s infrastructure that have so horrified many Americans that yesterday an active-duty U.S. airman set himself on fire outside the Israeli embassy in Washington, D.C., dying by suicide in protest of civilian deaths in Gaza. 

The Biden administration has worked to get aid into Gaza but has stood firm against a permanent ceasefire because it maintained that permitting Hamas to rebuild would leave the conditions for further warfare in place. It has also insisted that Hamas must return all the hostages its militants took on October 7. But in the U.S., the devastation in Gaza has fueled angry opposition to the administration by those who insist that Biden is fueling “genocide” and who demand an immediate cease-fire.

Beauchamp suggests that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has largely ignored the second condition—that Israel must consider a postwar formula—at least in part because of his own legal troubles. 

Netanyahu is facing an ongoing corruption trial and apparently counts on staying in office to keep himself out of prison. To stay in office, he must hold his coalition together, and that means bowing to his far-right partners, who want to rebuild Israeli settlements in Gaza and oppose any Palestinian control there. Any plan for a postwar settlement threatens to break his coalition and lead to new elections that Netanhayu would likely lose. Until last week, Netanyahu vowed only “total victory” over Hamas.

But while Netanyahu refused to discuss a postwar plan, leaders in Arab states, as well as the U.S. and the European Union, appeared to see the crisis in Gaza as an opportunity to change the longstanding political dysfunction in the Middle East. For months now, they have been developing plans for a postwar settlement that includes a Palestinian state overseen by a revitalized Palestinian Authority along with security guarantees for Israel backed by normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Arab states have offered billions of dollars to rebuild Gaza so long as neither Hamas nor Israel is in charge of the territory. 

As Dennis Ross, U.S. Middle East specialist under both Republican George H.W. Bush and Democrat Bill Clinton, noted, for the first time in the long struggle in the modern Middle East, the Gulf Arab states see normalizing ties with Israel as important to their own security and economies. They have refused to get drawn into the conflict, pointing out to Israel their reliance on diplomacy rather than arms to prove that normalization of relations is key to Israeli security. 

Such a process required remaking the Palestinian Authority, which administers the West Bank and administered Gaza for a year between the time that Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005 and Hamas won legislative elections in 2006. In mid-January, according to Barak Ravid of Axios, national security officials from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the Palestinian Authority met secretly in Riyadh to figure out how to revitalize the Palestinian Authority to enable it to play its role in governing Gaza. 

At the end of January, Secretary of State Antony Blinken asked officials at the State Department to review procedures for the U.S. and the international community to recognize a Palestinian state, and the Biden administration sent CIA director William Burns to help Egypt and Qatar broker a deal between Hamas and Israel for the release of all remaining hostages held by Hamas and a pause in fighting to get humanitarian aid to Gaza. 

Meanwhile, Netanyahu made clear his determination to retain control of Gaza and stood firm against the two-state solution. At his back, he has had Trump and his loyalists, who are staunch supporters of Netanyahu. The news that the State Department was figuring out procedures for recognizing a Palestinian state prompted outrage from Trump’s former ambassador to Israel, David Friedman. He wrote: “I’m hoping this is just unauthorized and false messaging from one of the many at State who despise Israel. But make no mistake—this “recognition” would be even more devastating to Israel than the attacks of October 7!! Not to mention rewarding terrorists for their brutality! Unconscionable!”

Perhaps with the security of such support behind him, on February 23, Netanhayu released to his cabinet his own plan for a postwar settlement. It said that Israel will keep control over Gaza and that rebuilding the devastated territory will depend on its demilitarization, and rejects the “unilateral recognition” of a Palestinian state. On the same day, the Israeli government announced it would add more than 3,300 new homes to settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank after three Palestinian gunmen killed an Israeli settler and wounded five more. 

During its time in office, the Trump administration reversed four decades of U.S. policy by saying that such settlements did not violate international law, but following Friday’s announcement, Secretary of State Blinken promptly restored the old rule, saying that settlements are “counter-productive to reaching an enduring peace. They’re also inconsistent with international law. Our administration maintains a firm opposition to settlement expansion and in our judgment this only weakens, it doesn’t strengthen, Israel’s security,” he said.

Meanwhile, Netanhayu said yesterday on CBS’s Face the Nation that Israel plans to continue its assault on Hamas by attacking Rafah, a city in southern Gaza where about 1.4 million displaced Palestinians are taking shelter, something Biden has warned him against doing without a credible plan for protecting civilians. On February 24, Netanyahu said he would convene the Israeli cabinet this week “to approve military plans for an operation in Rafah, including the evacuation of civilians.” 

Negotiations for a release of the hostages and a pause in fighting continue. On Friday, officials from Israel, Egypt, the U.S., and Qatar, which serves as an intermediary for Hamas, met in Paris. White House national security advisor Jake Sullivan said he hoped for a final agreement “in the coming days.” Today, Biden told reporters that he hopes to see a temporary cease-fire by next Monday. 

On February 13, Amy Mackinnon and Robbie Gramer of Foreign Policyreferred to the administration’s attempt to pull a two-state solution out of the chaos of the Middle East as Biden’s “grand bargain,” and they point out that “it faces staggering challenges.” A week later, in Foreign Affairs, political scientist Marc Lynch and foreign affairs scholar Shibley Telhami replied that “the idea of a Palestinian state emerging from the rubble of Gaza has no basis in reality.”

Today’s announcement of a new Palestinian Authority appears to be a shift.

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