Facing yet another ceasefire of uncertain duration between Hamas and Israel in Gaza, it’s hard not to feel resigned to a repeat of the Palestinian-Israeli time loop – the sinking sense of terrible, unwelcome and violent events that seem to tediously recur in similar ways. It’s Groundhog Day – the film in which a cranky newscaster gets stuck in an endless time-loop repeating the same miserable day of his life. These painfully familiar patterns in Gaza leave us shouting in the wind like Bill Murray’s despairing weatherman, “Well, what if there is no tomorrow? There wasn’t one today.”
But let’s pull up our socks, think and look again at a bizarre alignment of conditions behind the headlines that set off this latest violence. These factors had much more to do with the narrow but urgent interests among the respective protagonists than with the longstanding “Conflict” between Israelis and Palestinians about their inevitably shared future in the land between the River Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea. In this way, we can begin to think creatively about tomorrow.
What emerges is a spectacle unleashed by the confluence of dual factional crises within the two groups. On one side was the terrorist group Hamas seeking to affirm its ideological hold on Gaza and further delegitimize the PLO and Palestinian Authority after President Abbas canceled parliamentary elections. On the other, the Likud party, whose leader is on trial for corruption, and who was facing the real (and now proven) danger of being replaced by Israel’s first Jewish-Arab “Change” coalition government, a government set to be sworn in on Sunday.
In short, vengeful camps in both Israel and Palestine have become each other’s useful idiots, abandoning Israeli and Palestinian citizens alike. Driven by extremes in leadership, everyone in the middle suffers.
A second confluence lies in the theological bent on both sides, with similar rationales leading to wildly divergent aims. Hamas has long sought to recast the legitimate Palestinian national struggle as a fundamentally religious conflict and is supported by Iran, which aims to foment confrontation rather than negotiate peace.
So intense is the Hamas effort to derail the PA that in March it scuttled an agreement between the Palestine Investment Fund and the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company that would develop the Gaza Marine gas field and it further vetoed Israel’s agreement with the PA to enable natural gas delivery to Gaza from Chevron. Similarly, by announcing that the Israeli Leviathan gas field was a military target, Hamas made clear its political scorecard was more important than bringing stable electricity, an energy transition and water treatment to the residents it purports to serve.
Meanwhile, Israel’s far-right extremists and ultra-Orthodox coalition members have their own theocratic dreams, including the political goal of continued autonomy independent of the State of Israel’s rule of law, national service requirements, and judicial and education systems. Currently aligned with Netanyahu’s Likud party, which has lost seats in four elections over the past two years, they have been pushing the party steadily to the extremist right.
For these groups, as one such far-right coalition partner declared, a Hamas that Israel doesn’t destroy is an “asset” against the argument for a two-state solution. Conversely, the PA, since Oslo the legitimate but now out-muscled governing body in Gaza and threatened by Hamas in the West Bank, is a “liability.” Let Hamas remain active and solvent but weak and isolated, goes the reasoning, and Israel can avoid pressure and commitment to work toward regional economic development and conflict resolution with the Palestinians.
Hamas has its own racket of empowering armed gangs, including Islamic Jihad, although the organization’s leadership also saw the massive rocket volleys as a means to suppress competition from a younger, more militant generation that came of age after 2007 when Hamas seized power.
While nursing its ideological agenda, Hamas lets others – including international donors and their Iranian sponsor – provide for the nearly 2 million Gazans. It also imposes fees and taxes – and, like any other criminal syndicate, protection money and extortion payments to businesses it owns.
Supporting the unification of the West Bank and Gaza under the PA would empower moderate Palestinians, especially in any upcoming national elections.
In short, vengeful camps in both Israel and Palestine have become each other’s useful idiots, abandoning Israeli and Palestinian citizens alike. Driven by extremes in leadership, everyone in the middle suffers, the political center does not hold, attempts to solve shared problems are always piecemeal and ineffective – and the echoes of a can being kicked down the road return to haunt everyone’s hopes and dreams.
Any temporary improvement returns to whack-a-mole military actions without strategic objectives that could extricate us all from the root causes of this tiresome conflict.
Three policy measures to bypass Gazan Groundhog Day Syndrome
So what to do? Forget trying to reanimate the moribund peace process just yet. Instead, start by improving life in Gaza. This requires a three-pronged approach: stabilizing the humanitarian crisis for nearly 2 million Gazans; disarming Hamas and Islamic Jihad; and ensuring the PA’s role in Gaza, which is based on an international consensus and which also recognizes Hamas as a terrorist organization.
This action framework isn’t new, it dates back to a proposal by the United States to the UN Security Council drafted in the wake of the 2014 Gaza War. The proposed resolution included an international arms embargo followed by reentry of the PA in Gaza since it was pushed out by Hamas in 2007. In turn, Israel pledged to end trade restrictions and allow the reconstruction of Gaza, which could resonate with all Palestinian constituencies.
Of special note, the Likud-led government in 2014 broke from its traditional opposition to multinational interventions and actively supported UN involvement and this novel and constructive UN resolution.
The United States and Britain ultimately tabled the resolution in deference to Palestinian President Abbas, who was reluctant to take on Hamas at a time when his popularity was flagging.
But such a move today would serve notice to Abbas and the Palestinian old guard that deferring to Hamas is no longer acceptable, especially in light of past failed Hamas-Fatah Reconciliation agreements – 14 in as many years. More important, supporting the unification of the West Bank and Gaza under the PA would empower moderate Palestinians, especially in any upcoming national elections.
Finally, outsourcing the peace process to government-supported investors and businesses would create more jobs fast and a sustainable alternative to unwelcome patrons and extortionists. For example, the United Arab Emirates, an incoming member of the Security Council and a new diplomatic partner with Israel via the Abraham Accords, could support the UN’s multilateral efforts to defuse Hamas’s next round of violence and create new strategic and economic opportunities for Arab-Israeli cooperation.
Supporting development projects for the Palestinian economy – in reconstruction, energy development, tourism, trade, transportation – provides a way to take concrete steps toward cooperation and stability. An economic offensive to dismantle the next Gazan timebomb requires something more (but lots cheaper) than rocket science.
This approach helps ensure that when the history of this long, grinding phase of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is written, the accounts will affirm how economic strategy, financial leverage, and the creation of jobs and income overcame short-term political concerns and terrorism as the path forward.
Glenn Yago is senior director of the Jerusalem Institute’s Milken Innovation Center/Blum Lab for Developing Economies and teaches at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem School of Business and the University of California, Berkeley.
James Prince is president of the Democracy Council, an international nonprofit nongovernmental organization, and a former consultant to the Palestinian minister of finance.