Unlock the Editor’s Digest for free
Roula Khalaf, Editor of the FT, selects her favourite stories in this weekly newsletter.
The writer is a professor of International Relations emeritus at Sciences-Po (Paris) and a former senior adviser to the United Nations secretary-general
Before October 7, the world saw Israel as a start-up nation, with a European-type GNP per capita. It could rely on one of the best-equipped air forces in the world, the state-of-the art Iron Dome as well as a few dozen nuclear warheads. Externally, the country enjoyed normalisations with some Arab and Muslim countries. Nobody was really pushing Israel to revitalise the peace process: that shop had closed ten years ago and there was no intention, no reason, to open it again.
The Palestinians? They were fragmented into five different slices. One in Gaza, where Hamas was recognised as the de facto “government”. A second in the occupied West Bank, formally under a decaying Palestinian Authority, while forced to undergo a systematic policy of settlement-building which was tearing it apart. The third: refugees in Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. A fourth slice in Israel proper, where their far-from-equal rights are still substantial enough to erode their identification with those on the other side of the wall. The fifth: a diaspora scattered from Sydney to Santiago. A people already deprived of its land was expected to lose that most precious of possessions: its collective identity.
Then, with Hamas’s attacks on Israel in the early hours of October 7, that illusion was abruptly shattered. This violent eruption was followed by disproportionate use of force against Gaza. Even if it had wanted to, as it claims, Israel could not have spared the civilians in such a handkerchief of a territory. The result is here for everyone to see: annihilation. All this happened under a motto: “the complete destruction of Hamas”. But a complete destruction of Hamas is a cri de guerre, not a strategy. How many more civilians need to be killed, how many homes, schools and hospitals destroyed, so that this very elusive objective is reached?
A ceasefire would close this particular episode in a conflict that started a century ago and has not been extinguished since. Some would declare victory, others would bury their dead, but lucid observers would try and guess the form and the venue of the next explosion, knowing perfectly well that everything we have witnessed makes peace an even more distant prospect in this tortured part of the world.
To think that stability is possible while denying the Palestinians basic political rights is a chimera. Time does not alleviate thirst for a sovereign nationhood; quite the contrary. There are good reasons to believe that it has been exacerbated, that the normalisation of Israel’s relations with new countries injects renewed determination in the younger Palestinian generation. Meanwhile there is not even the semblance of a peace process to offset this.
If and when the violence comes to an end — unless it slides into a wider regional conflict through hubris on one side or miscalculation on the other — leading world powers, the US in particular, will be tempted to content themselves with a sigh of relief and a quick return to the status quo ante. When I hear leaders calling for the two-state solution, as if it were an empty mantra, my immediate reaction is to ask them: what have you done during all those past years to push that solution forward? Why should we expect you to behave differently this time?
The ingredients of that solution have been studied, negotiated, adopted, amended, rejected and then reconfirmed ad nauseam in the past thirty years. They are there in the 2000 Clinton compromise or, better, in the 2002 “Arab Peace Initiative” and so many similar documents: a truly sovereign Palestinian state, security arrangements, normalisation by all Arab countries, international guarantees. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. What is lacking is not the agreement’s content but the will to implement it and the sense of urgency that the present war makes all too evident.
A genuine political process cannot move forward with the present players in place. They have shown their uncompromising stands, their sheer incompetence and their documented corruption. The biggest impediment is the lack of new leaders on both sides, leaders who are conscious that a new cycle of violence is inevitable unless the roots of the conflict are addressed, leaders endowed with true moral authority. It also needs a fair, committed and energetic external facilitator.
These are serious obstacles. But then what is the alternative, given the status quo ante is clearly untenable, save for a renewed cycle of violence and a greater risk of a regional war? While it is naive to ignore those obstacles, it would be criminal to resign ourselves to the idea that bringing peace to the Levant is impossible.