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Crunch time may be around the corner as Gaza ceasefire talks stall

Crunch time may be around the corner as Gaza ceasefire talks stall

That is easier said than done, particularly given the time limitations imposed by the US presidential election in November and the likely prospect of an election in Israel once the guns fall silent in Gaza.

Timing may be the lesser hurdle to achieving the administration’s goal. Political obstacles are likely to prove more formidable.

Speaking at the Munich Security Conference this week, US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken asserted that there was “an extraordinary opportunity” in the coming months for Israel to normalise ties with its Arab neighbors.

“Virtually every Arab country now genuinely wants to integrate Israel into the region to normalize relations…to provide security commitments and assurances so that Israel can feel more safe,” Mr. Blinken said.

“And there’s also, I think the imperative, that’s more urgent than ever, to proceed to a Palestinian state that also ensures the security of Israel,” he added.

That’s where the rubber hits the road.

“The only pathway to sustainable security for all of us in the region is through Palestinian self-determination. The Arab states are fully committed to delivering that. They also are fully committed through that to delivering a true partnership with Israel and integration into the region and security for all,” said Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan in response to Mr. Blinken.

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan Al Saud speaks during a press conference after the end of Security and Development Summit in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)
Left vague was whether Messrs. Blinken and Bin Farhan were singing from the same song sheet, even if they employed similar terminology.

Attributing greater importance to Israel’s sense of security rather than recognising that Palestinians are no less traumatized by decades of violence, Mr. Blinken envisions a demilitarised Palestinian state with Israel as the major security player.

It was not clear whether Mr. Bin Farhan and other Arab leaders share that vision and what their attitude will be once Palestinians make clear that Israel is as central to their threat perceptions as Palestinians are to Israeli concerns.

Ultimately, history suggests that negotiations produce results when the price of not achieving a negotiated solution becomes too high.

Stalled Qatari, Egyptian, and US efforts to negotiate a ceasefire indicate that neither Israel nor Hamas have reached that point. Both are willing to let the Gazans pay the price for their intransigence.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu made that clear by ensuring that his scaled-down delegation at last week’s talks in Cairo with the negotiators had no authority to negotiate a deal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Photo: Tomer Neuberg/Flash9
On Thursday, Mr. Netanyahu refused to allow the delegation to return to Cairo for follow-up discussions.

In a statement, Mr. Netanyahu’s office said that “Israel will not submit to Hamas’ illusory demands. Only a change in Hamas’ position will allow progress in the negotiations.”

Hamas negotiator Ismail Haniyeh insisted two days later that the group would not “agree to anything less” than a deal involving a ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, a lifting of the blockade of the Strip, the safe return of displaced Gazans to their homes, and the reconstruction of the war-ravaged territory.

Mr. Netanyahu’s refusal to further engage in indirect talks with Hamas on Mr. Haniyeh’s terms, which enjoy broad support in much of the international community, is closely linked to the prime minister’s insistence on continuing the Gaza war till the bitter end and his opposition to the creation of a viable Palestinian state on lands conquered by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

“There is no alternative to total victory… We shall not bow down to international dictates regarding a future deal with the Palestinians… How can we recognise such a state after the massacre of October 7? This would be a reward for terrorism,” Mr Netanyahu said, throwing down a gauntlet for Mr. Blinken and US President Joe Biden.

The prime minister spoke as tens of thousands poured into the streets of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem demanding his resignation and/or prioritisation of the release of the remaining 120 of the approximately 250 hostages abducted by Hamas during its October 7 attack on Israel, even if that requires an end to the war.

Photos of the Hamas hostages displayed in Tel Aviv. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images
Mr. Netanyahu prided himself on achieving the initial release of 120 hostages in November. However, he failed to acknowledge that the vast majority were released in prisoner exchanges with Hamas during a one-week truce rather than as the result of Israeli military operations.

Mr. Netanyahu’s omission reflects his unwillingness and/or inability to recognise that four months into the war Israel has yet to achieve its war goals and that its conduct of the war has taken an unacceptable toll on innocent Gazans and caused irreparable damage to Israel’s international standing.

Hamas’ ability to maintain its position in the ceasefire and prisoner exchange negotiations highlights Israel’s failure so far to destroy the group as a military and political force. Moreover, Israel has yet to hunt down Hamas’ Gaza-based top leaders or prevent the group from reasserting itself in parts of the devastated Strip.

US intelligence estimated earlier this month that Israel has killed or captured at most 30 per cent of Hamas’ 30,000-strong fighting force.

Mr. Netanyahu’s defiance also reflects his refusal to recognise that Israel’s security lies in an equitable resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict rather than in a failed more than five-decade-long effort to beat Palestinians into submission through brutal force, repression, collective punishment, disregard for Palestinian lives, and humiliation.

If anything, the Gaza war demonstrates that 57 years of Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands has produced an endless and escalating cycle of violence.

“The definition of madness is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result… The next explosion will be,” Mr. Bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, said.

To be sure, the cycle has been perpetuated by a weak Palestinian leadership incapable of taking the bull by the horns, and that allowed Israel to continuously undermine its authority and play divide and rule. Hamas is the product of Palestinian political weakness and Israel’s cynical policies.

Breaking the stalemate on a ceasefire, prisoner exchange, and credible process to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to require a change in the United States’ policy towards Israel. The United States would have to apply real pressure rather than continue its friendly nudging that has failed to change Israeli policy and military tactics.

Conventional wisdom has it that a phone call to Mr. Netanyahu in which Mr. Biden threatens to impose conditions on arms sales to Israel or an all-out weapons embargo is all it would take to force Israel to end the war and come to the negotiating table. Mr. Netanyahu suggested in his news conference that might not be that simple.

US President Joe Biden, right, meets with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, September 20, 2023. Photo: AP Photo/Susan Walsh
The balance of power in the US-Israeli relationship has shifted.

US financial support amounted in 1981 to ten per cent of Israel’s GDP. The US’ annual US$4 billion allocation in 2021 accounted for only one per cent of GDP. Moreover, Israel today produces many of its most essential weapons domestically, making it less dependent on US arms sales.

In addition, Israel concluded in 1991 that it could no longer blindly rely on US protection after the United States did not come to its aid when Iraq fired Scud missiles at the Jewish state during that year’s Gulf war.

Despite remaining dependent on US vetoes in the United Nations Security Council and military cooperation, Israel has worked to increase its margin of autonomy, much like Gulf states did three decades later after the United States failed to respond to Iranian-inspired attacks on their critical infrastructure in 2019 and. 2020.

Moreover, the United States’ unconditional commitment to Israel is a double-edged sword.

“Far from feeling that they owe the Americans any favours, Israeli decision-makers in crisis are likely wagering that US interests in maintaining an established strategic partnership against shared and emboldened enemies, including the Houthis and Iranians, will prevent Washington from pressing too hard on Israeli policymakers,” said international relations scholar Barbara Elias.

Writing in Foreign Policy, Ms. Elias suggested that pressure on Israel would likely be most effective if the United States took unilateral steps that would put Israel on the spot rather than resorting to the traditional threat to impose conditions if Israel fails to heed US advice.

Such steps could include a threat to unilaterally release detailed information regarding targeting in Gaza, an independent inquiry into civilian deaths in Gaza, and providing humanitarian aid with or without Israel’s cooperation. The United States could also recognise Palestine as a state even before the state is established as many in the international community have done.

“The coercive message…is ‘either you implement X policy, or we will’… The historical record suggests that a credible threat of unilateral U.S. action can nudge Israel to move closer to US positions… (Moreover), it boosts US bargaining credibility regionally and reinforces that the US is an autonomous actor in the conflict… This may be increasingly important as the US may need to press against sustained Israeli occupation of Gaza and strengthen its ties to key Arab partners… Lastly, unilateral action will allow the US to do more than just lament Palestinian civilian deaths,” Ms. Elias said.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.

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