It is said that wars end when both sides conclude they have nothing more to gain by fighting. By that logic, Israel and the Palestinians should have long ago agreed to the only solution that makes sense: separate states side by side. They’ve tried, again and again, but in this cauldron of religious passion and competing grievances, peace has always lost out. Is there any chance that things will be different when the guns fall silent this time?
On the face of it, it does not seem promising. The brutal attack by Hamas on Oct. 7 and the massive Israeli retaliatory assault on Gaza have already led to too much death and destruction and have ignited communal hatreds in the United States and beyond. Every eruption in the past — whether war, intifada or military raid — has only demonstrated that neither side can achieve its longed-for security, dignity or peace through violence. On the contrary, every eruption only hardens divisions and ensures more bloodshed next time.
In fact, what peace might look like is not a mystery: The shape of a Palestinian state has been explored in minute detail by successive peace conferences, meetings, negotiations and private initiatives, collectively known — or derided, in their apparent futility — as the peace process. The Oslo Accords of the 1990s were a major breakthrough in bringing hardened Palestinian and Israeli commanders to the table and establishing basic principles of coexistence. In 2000, Ehud Barak, Israel’s prime minister at the time, put a significant offer on the table to the Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat for a two-state solution, which he rejected as insufficient and failed to meet with any serious counteroffer. Several years later, Mr. Barak’s successor Ehud Olmert and the Palestinian Authority leader, Mahmoud Abbas, met 36 times over nearly two years to hammer out a detailed plan that involved swapping some land, sharing Jerusalem, creating a free passage between the West Bank and Gaza and cooperating on business and resources.
That initiative foundered, as they all did, through violence, politics and circumstance: the assassination of Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, a clash with Hamas in Gaza, Mr. Olmert’s resignation and Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory, the ouster of the Palestinian Authority from Gaza. Extremists — be it Palestinian Islamists determined to destroy the Jewish state or Israeli settlers determined to push Palestinians out of the West Bank — knew they could undermine any effort toward peace through provocation or terrorism.
The victims, as they always are in this cruel war, are the children, women and men who just want to live in peace. The victors, as always, are the zealots who pursue their absolutist goals by murder, provocation and deception, demonizing the other side. It is likely that Hamas launched its attack on Oct. 7 in part to undermine the movement toward an Israeli deal for normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia.
This board has called many times for an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, and we have called for mercy and reason in the current conflict. We have based this on the presumption, the hope, that there are still enough people who see the futility and horror of the endless cycle of violence on both sides and that the United States, which has invested so much treasure and diplomatic effort into resolving the crisis and has given Israel unstinting support through the decades, still has some clout. We have to believe this, because the alternative is anarchy and blood.
How the current fighting ends will shape much of what happens next. There is no telling whether a truce and hostage-prisoner exchange mediated by Qatar and the Biden administration will hold or, if it does, for how long. But there is still every reason to think beyond the fighting, if only because the terrible cost it is exacting demands sanity. These are areas that bear deliberation:
The fact that no Arab states have openly endorsed the Hamas invasion and two — Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates — denounced it outright while expressing concerns for the impact on Gaza’s civilians is important. It shows that the last thing Arab leaders want is for Hamas, backed by Iran and long dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state, to be strengthened by the current war with Israel.
That said, these states — mostly out of frustration with the Palestinian Authority’s corruption and unwillingness in past negotiations, with Mr. Barak and with Mr. Olmert, to agree on a painful, end-of-all-claims compromise with Israel — began to wash their hands of the Palestinian cause. These states needed and wanted their own direct ties to Israel, primarily to counterbalance Iran. So in the Abraham Accords and subsequent discussions about normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, the Palestinians were effectively left aside. If one outcome of this war is a still moderate Palestinian Authority with better leadership, the natural partnership between it and the Arab states can be renewed. This could, in turn, revive a two-state solution between Israelis and Palestinians, as well as widening normalization between Israel and Arab or Muslim states such as Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Indonesia.
It is also noteworthy that the Palestinian Authority under Mr. Abbas has largely stayed clear of the Gaza eruption. And the role of the Biden administration in mediating the truce, whatever it was, is, at the least, evidence that the United States, however divided, remains a go-between to be reckoned with. These factors suggest there is still a foundation for future negotiations.
But we have no illusions: Through its use of terrorism, Hamas has destroyed whatever legitimacy it had as a governing force. For these negotiations to be meaningful, the Palestinian Authority has to be overhauled. It needs new leadership and institutional reform. To generate and maintain any stable peace with Israel, the authority needs to be able to demonstrate that, in comparison with Hamas, it is more capable of governing Gaza and the West Bank effectively. In its present condition, it cannot.
At the same time, Israel and its supporters must accept that this is not an equal contest. Israel is the dominant power here, and in the current conflict, Israel will once again need to be first to move toward the establishment of a Palestinian state. For many Israelis, their primary concern is finding security, or bitachon, a Hebrew word that also encompasses trust and faith, and it requires a leap of both to believe that this will come from an independent Palestinian state. But the alternatives — continuing the occupation and incorporating occupied territories into Israel — are demonstrably worse.
To make that choice, Israel must jettison the government of Mr. Netanyahu, which has steadfastly worked against a settlement with the Palestinians.
Mr. Netanyahu cannot lead Israel in the search for peace. Now 74, he has been in and out of the prime minister’s office since his first election victory in 1996, in the wake of Mr. Rabin’s assassination by an Israeli extremist for signing the Oslo Accords. In 2009, Mr. Netanyahu gave a famous speech at Bar-Ilan University embracing the principle of a Palestinian state alongside Israel — on condition that the state was demilitarized and that the Palestinians recognized Israel as the state of the Jewish people. But everything he has done since has been to expand settlements in the West Bank and to stymie the peace process. His strategy was to undermine the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, even though he knew it was cooperating with Israel’s security services to help maintain calm there, while tacitly helping Hamas consolidate its power in Gaza. This allowed him to tell every American president: I’d love to make peace, but I have no Palestinian partner; they’re divided.
Many Israelis now blame Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right cabinet partners for fracturing the Israeli armed forces with a dangerous attempt to undermine the judiciary and diverting the army’s attention from the Gaza border by fomenting trouble in the West Bank. The Israeli media has reported that well before the Hamas invasion on Oct. 7, Israel’s military intelligence warned Mr. Netanyahu that Hamas and Hezbollah had noticed the fractures in Israeli society — and were tempted by them.
Holding Israel’s leaders to account in no way lessens the responsibility that Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad bear for the present suffering in Gaza. Hamas knew full well that a murderous attack on Israeli civilians would ensure a massive retaliation against the helpless civilians of Gaza, including innumerable children — the very people Hamas purported to represent and govern. Hamas has gained advantage by deliberately slaughtering civilians in Israel and justifying the deaths of thousands of its own people as martyrdom. The current leaders of Hamas, who have never renounced the obliteration of Israel as a goal and have pledged to continue inflicting violence to that end, have effectively rejected any role in seeking a lasting settlement.
With Mr. Netanyahu still leading Israel’s government and Hamas still in control of Gaza, it is difficult right now to imagine credible negotiations toward peace. The “river to the sea” extremists, those who ecstatically call for the eradication of the other, cannot play a constructive part.
Yet peace is still possible, and it is also possible that those who might sit at the table will include former militants. Given the history of this conflict, that is actually quite likely. The primary condition for any peace negotiation is that those who seek peace must lay down their arms and come prepared to make painful concessions. Mr. Rabin was first a military leader, and his interlocutor, Mr. Arafat, was viewed by most Israelis at the time as a terrorist. Many prominent Israeli leaders today similarly come from military backgrounds, and some of the Palestinians who could lead their side are likely to have spent time or are spending time in Israeli prisons. The critical qualification is for each side to understand the yearnings and fears of the other and to accept that the other has a right to live in peace.
How that can work is clear. The urgent challenge, as soon as the guns fall silent, is for Israel, the Palestinians, the Arab states, the United States and all other parties with an interest in a settlement to get to work.
Source photographs by Okea, via Getty Images.
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