Israel’s ‘don’t reward them’ argument misses a moment of opportunity

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The writer is author of ‘Black Wave’, distinguished fellow at Columbia University’s Institute of Global Politics and an FT contributing editor

On Sunday, Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and his cabinet approved a resolution rejecting any international attempts to impose a Palestinian state, stating that “such recognition, [after] the massacre of October 7, will grant a huge, unprecedented reward to terrorism and prevent any future peace accord”. At last weekend’s Munich Security Conference, Israel’s president, Isaac Herzog, made the same argument while former US secretary of state Mike Pompeo wrote last month that potential US plans to recognise a Palestinian state “would mean Iran and Hamas used terror and murder and got exactly what they wanted”.

None of the discussions about a future Palestinian state have even begun to seriously address what it might look like, how it can be viable and what to do about some 700,000 Israeli settlers in the occupied West Bank. Yet this “don’t reward them” argument will appeal to many on the right in Israel and the US who are eager to shut down any conversation about it at all.

That’s not how the Biden administration or, more importantly, Arab countries see it. Crucially, this includes Saudi Arabia with which Israel is still hoping to establish ties — indeed if there is one country that is keen not to reward Hamas for anything, it’s Saudi Arabia.

It is probable that several Arab countries quietly cheered the possibility of Israel delivering a knockout blow to Hamas. They see the armed group as a threat and have strained or no relations with the offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood that gravitates in Iran’s orbit. These leaders may not be able to grasp the extent of the national trauma Israel suffered on October 7 but they are correct when they argue that it is the lack of a Palestinian state and absence of a political horizon that feed the cycle of violence, while providing Iran with an outsize role in the region.

Speaking in Munich, the Saudi foreign minister, Faisal bin Farhan, said that “the Palestinians obviously have the right to self-determination, but it is also the pragmatic and correct thing to do for regional security and stability”. In other words, it is in Israel’s long-term interest to grab what US secretary of state Antony Blinken described as an “extraordinary opportunity” to normalise ties with a majority of Arab countries in exchange for security assurances and a political horizon for Palestinians.

The most noteworthy peace offers have come from Lebanon, home to Hizbollah, the Iranian-backed Shia militant group. For decades, it was Damascus, Beirut’s big sister and occupying power, that took the lead in any peace negotiations involving Lebanon. But Syria is now fragmented, with President Bashar al-Assad ruling over only parts of his battered country while Tehran calls the shots.

So in October, Lebanon’s caretaker prime minister, Najib Mikati, put forward a plan including humanitarian pauses, prisoners-for-hostages swaps and eventually an international conference for a two-state solution — which implies recognition of Israel. More interestingly, Mikati suggested that Iran should be at the table. In a column in The Washington Post in January, two former Lebanese politicians argued that “the hand of the Arab world is extended to Israel”. Would Israel reciprocate?

Much to the disappointment of supporters of the Palestinian cause, Arab countries that do have ties with Israel have not severed them and Saudi Arabia has not rescinded its offer to normalise relations. Instead it emphasised it would require substantial Israeli concessions to the Palestinians to proceed. In doing so, Arab countries flipped the script on the famous 1973 statement by then Israeli foreign minister Abba Eban: “Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity.” Now it is the Arabs asking if Israel will miss this opportunity.

After Joe Biden’s visit to Israel in mid-October, US officials pushed back against criticism of the president’s bear hug of Netanyahu: they argued it would enable Biden to rein him in. But Israel’s war machine continues to pound Gaza — and the White House is now expressing frustration with the Israeli prime minister.

Late last year, US senior officials told me that Biden’s display of support gave him a huge amount of capital with the Israeli public. This would allow him to address them directly about making difficult choices and accepting the idea of a Palestinian state. Now is the time for Biden to deploy that capital. He should drown out the Israeli far right by amplifying the voices of those Israelis, Palestinian-Israelis and Palestinians who are still courageously calling for an end to the war in Gaza, the release of the hostages and for a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace. The region’s future and Biden’s own legacy depend on it.

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