What Worries Me About the Gaza War After My Trip to Arab States

I’ve been concerned from the start that Israel launched its invasion of Gaza to eradicate Hamas with no plan for what to do with the territory and its people in the wake of any victory. Having just spent a week in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates taking the pulse of this important corner of the Arab world, I am now even more worried.

Let me summarize my concerns this way: Because Hamas built a vast tunnel network under Gaza, Israeli forces, in their quest to eliminate that vicious terrorist organization, are having to destroy huge numbers of structures. It’s the only way they can kill a lot of Hamas fighters and demilitarize Gaza without losing a lot of their own soldiers in the short window that Israel feels it has in the face of pressure from the U.S. and other allies to wind down the invasion.

Israel was justified in hitting back at Hamas for breaking the cease-fire that existed on Oct. 7 and indiscriminately murdering, raping or maiming more than 1,200 people and kidnapping some 240 others in its path that day. Hamas plotted and executed a campaign of unspeakable barbarism that seemed designed to make Israel crazy and lash out without thinking about the morning after the morning after. And that is just what Israel did.

But nine weeks later, we can now see the morning after the morning after. In pursuing its aims of dismantling Hamas’s military machine and wiping out its top leaders, Israel has killed and wounded thousands of innocent Gazan civilians. Hamas knew this would happen and did not care a whit. Israel must. It will inherit responsibility for a gigantic humanitarian disaster that will require a global coalition years to fix and manage. As The Times reported on Tuesday, “Satellite imagery shows that the fighting has resulted in heavy damage to almost every corner of Gaza City” — at least 6,000 buildings hammered, with about a third of them in ruins.

A recent essay on this subject in Haaretz by David Rosenberg noted that “even if the fighting ends in a decisive victory over Hamas, Israel will be saddled with a problem that almost defies solution. Most of the public discussion about what happens the day after the war has focused on who will govern Gaza. That alone is a knotty question, but the problem goes much deeper than who will be responsible for law and order and providing basic services: Whoever is in charge will have to rebuild the wreckage that is Gaza and create a functioning economy.”

That will be a multibillion-dollar, multiyear endeavor. And I can tell you based on my conversations here, no Gulf Arab states (not to mention European Union states or the U.S. Congress) are going to come into Gaza with bags of money to rebuild it unless — and even this is not a sure thing — Israel has a legitimate, effective Palestinian partner and commits to one day negotiating a two-state solution. Any Israeli official who says otherwise is delusional. “We need to see a viable two-state solution plan, a road map that is serious before we talk about the next day and rebuilding the infrastructure of Gaza,” Lana Nusseibeh, the United Arab Emirates ambassador to the United Nations, said in an interview Tuesday with The Wall Street Journal.

The most hopeful thing I can report from Riyadh, and from talking to U.S. officials in Washington before I arrived, is that when the war in Gaza ends, Saudi Arabia remains committed in principle to resuming the negotiations that were underway before Oct. 7. What the negotiators were discussing was a grand bargain in which the U.S. would enter into a security treaty with Saudi Arabia and, at the same time, Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel — provided that Israel committed to defined steps to work with the Palestinian Authority toward a two-state solution.

But I was left with the very strong impression here that the Saudis want the Americans to shut down the Gaza war as soon as possible, because the death and destruction in Gaza is radicalizing their young population (who were by and large not focused on Israel-Palestine before), while frightening away foreign investors and generally getting in the way of what Saudi Arabia wants to focus on: Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s Vision 2030 plan for transforming the country, from education to infrastructure to women’s empowerment.

While the leaders here are not the least bit sympathetic to Hamas, and would not mourn the group’s disappearance for a second, they are dubious that Israel can wipe Hamas out forever and worried that, in trying to do so, the damage to Gaza will set off unintended bad consequences.

Of course I understand why reviving this Saudi-U.S.-Israel-Palestinian dialogue would be hard for even a moderate Israeli government to commit to right now — let alone the collection of fanatics currently running Israel, who are committed to annexing the West Bank and the craziest of whom even look longingly on adding Gaza. And given what happened on Oct. 7, not a lot of Israelis want to even think about, let alone agree to, ceding territorial control to any Palestinian governing authority.

But if Israel does not come up with a long-term political vision to entice the world to help it fund the rebuilding of Gaza, it is going to be in for a lot of diplomatic and economic hurt. Gaza could end up a giant, sucking chest wound that overstretches Israel militarily, economically and morally — and takes its U.S. superpower patron along for the ride.

Yes, along for the ride …. Bibi Netanyahu is campaigning right now to keep his job by trying to prove to his far-right base that he is the only leader ready to tell the Biden administration to its face that his country will never do the minimum that the U.S. is asking: for Israel to help nurture a revamped Palestinian Authority, and to offer some long-term political horizon for Palestinian statehood in order to develop a Palestinian partner that can one day govern a Gaza liberated from Hamas and Israel.

It is why Saudi Arabia’s willingness — if it holds — to proceed with the U.S.-Saudi-Israeli-Palestinian dialogue when this war stops is so important. But this is not just some act of charity by the Saudis. This is a hard-core strategy. This generation of leaders in Saudi Arabia as well as in the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco (three countries that signed the Abraham Accords with Israel) is quite unsentimental when it comes to the Palestinian-Israel conflict. Although it’s complicated.

These leaders are fed up with being told they have to postpone their priorities and focus their energy, attention and resources on the Palestinian cause. At the same time, though, they are genuinely horrified at the civilian losses in Gaza. At the same time, they are keenly aware of the corruption and general incompetence of the Palestinian Authority. And at the same time, they detest the Muslim Brotherhood offshoots like Hamas and understand how its sympathizers around the region, with the ever-cynical help of Iran, are trying to use the images of dead babies in Gaza on television and social media to inflame Arab populations.

Western diplomats and Saudi officials pointed out to me how all of these political crosswinds are howling today in nasty inter-Arab battles going on in Arabic social media over the Palestine issue. This was especially true after Prince Mohammed, in an interview with Fox News in September, expressed enthusiasm about normalizing relations with Israel if it would move toward a solution with the Palestinians. (I believe this Saudi willingness was, indeed, a key reason Hamas attacked on Oct. 7.)

For instance, when Saudi Arabia went ahead on Oct. 28 with its annual entertainment and sports festival known as Riyadh Season — which features widely attended sports matches by prominent athletes and performances by Arab and international singers, dancers and other artists — pro-Palestinian social media influencers largely from Kuwait and Egypt began trashing Saudis for having fun while Gaza was burning. Posts contrasting images of cultural performances in Riyadh with Palestinians being bombed in Gaza began to proliferate, much to the annoyance of Saudis, plenty of whom are as enraged by the deaths of so many Gazan civilians as any other Arabs.

The Daily Mail Australia reported that at the Nov. 21 soccer World Cup qualifier match in Kuwait between the Palestinian and Australian teams, Palestinian fans “staged a protest against Israel’s actions in the Gaza Strip.” On the seventh minute of the game, they raised Palestinian flags and waved Palestinian head scarfs, kaffiyehs, “to mark the start of the war on 7 Oct. — the date of the Hamas attack inside Israel.”

That seventh-minute protest was not only a declaration of support for Hamas but also perceived as a dig at the Saudis, one official here explained to me. The Portuguese soccer superstar Cristiano Ronaldo now plays for the Saudi team Al-Nassr. Ronaldo wears No. 7 — and at the seven-minute mark of games Al-Nassr fans let out a huge cheer for him.

Two weeks ago, Saudi Arabia hosted the second preliminary regatta of the 37th America’s Cup at the Jeddah yacht club on the Red Sea coast, while Houthi pirates from Yemen were attacking Israeli-owned ships in that same Red Sea and Houthi militiamen were firing rockets at Israel. While all of this was going on overhead and on the ocean, an American friend of mine attending the regatta said one of his Saudi hosts was berating him about U.S. support for the destruction of Gaza. It’s complicated.

And yet: I was walking in the Faisaliah mall Monday when a middle-aged shopkeeper who recognized me walked out of his women’s clothing store to say hello. He talked about all the business opportunities that were opening up in Saudi Arabia. Our conversation, though, quickly turned to Gaza, and he wanted to make sure I understood that many Saudis did not support Hamas, because its mass murder of civilians and abduction of children in war was expressly banned by the Prophet Muhammad and was done at the behest of Iran.

The good news: A few months ago, the Saudi government did a private poll asking Saudis how they felt about normalization with Israel — if it were done in the context of Saudi support for Palestinian statehood. Seventy percent approved, a senior official told me. The bad news: Given the images coming out of Gaza now, he added, the government wouldn’t dare conduct that poll today.

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