Ending the cycles of violence in the Middle East

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After more than three months of Israel’s devastating Gaza war, Arab states are developing a plan they hope will bring an end to the conflict and lay the foundations for a sustainable peace. At the core of the US-backed initiative is to offer Israel a prize it has long sought: the normalisation of relations with Arab and Muslim states, including the grand prize of Saudi Arabia. In return, Israel would have to commit to “irreversible” steps towards the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.

The premise of the plan, which is expected to be unveiled within weeks, is simple. There can only be a durable peace in the Middle East if the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which has fuelled instability in the region for 75 years, is resolved in a manner that delivers Palestinians the dignity, freedom and homeland they have long sought. But the challenge of securing any such agreement — something that has eluded some of the world’s sharpest diplomatic minds over the years — is anything but.

For a start, there needs to be an end to Israel’s assault against Hamas in Gaza which has killed more than 25,000 people, according to Palestinian officials. The militant group must also release the remaining hostages held in the strip.

That appears remote, however. Hamas is still fighting. And Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu repeatedly rules out a ceasefire deal with Hamas, even one that would secure the hostages’ freedom. He insists only the destruction of the militants can bring back the hostages and guarantee Israel’s security.

Netanyahu also rejects any discussion on a two-state solution, even as the US and Israel’s other allies push for it as part of a longer-term political vision for the region. Indeed, he boasts of preventing the establishment of a Palestinian state during the 15 years he has towered over Israeli politics and overseen the creeping annexation of the occupied West Bank. On Sunday, he said he would not “compromise on full Israeli security control of all territory west of the Jordan River”, an area that includes the West Bank and Gaza.

Netanyahu is not the only obstacle to progress. In a nation traumatised and enraged by Hamas’s horrific October 7 attack, it is unlikely that any mainstream Israeli leader is ready to advocate working towards a Palestinian state.

There would also need to be a wholesale revamp of the failed Palestinian leadership, to produce one with the legitimacy to engage credibly with Israel and work to guarantee both Palestinians’ and Israelis’ security. Moreover, Hamas’s military capabilities have been severely degraded in Gaza but it will continue to work against a two-state solution.

Still, for all the hurdles and pitfalls, it is vital to shift the Israeli narrative towards a sustainable resolution to the conflict. The prospect of Saudi Arabia, and other states, normalising ties with the Jewish state is one of the few incentives that could shift the mood.

It will require a sustained and determined US diplomatic effort, as well as responsible leadership from both Israelis and Palestinians — all before the US presidential elections in November. As well as offering carrots, the US and European governments must also be willing to use their sticks to convince Israeli leaders that a Palestinian state ultimately serves their own interests.

As challenging as it is, the only way to counter Hamas and the violent extremism it champions is if Palestinians have reason to hope for their future. Israel has dealt Hamas a severe blow but it cannot get rid of it as a movement or ideology. Only Palestinians can. If Israel’s leaders choose to ignore that reality, they are condemning their nation, and future generations of Israelis and Palestinians, to endless cycles of violence.

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