One of the remarkable aspects of the war between Israel and Hamas and other Palestinian extremist groups in Gaza has been the degree to which Israelis stood together in almost complete consensus about the rightness of their country’s cause.
It’s not surprising to see a rally-around-the-flag effect during a time of war, but the numbers are particularly noteworthy for a state like Israel. Roughly nine out of every ten Israeli Jews remained solidly convinced that the country had no real alternative but to take on Hamas to stop its relentless barrages of rockets, destroy its missile launchers, disable its arsenal of projectiles and blow up the growing network of tunnels it built for attacking Israel.
That extent of unity is not just unusual, it is significant and it presents a unique potential opportunity for meaningful change.
Israelis are notoriously opinionated. There are countless jokes whose punch line translates to “get two Israelis, you’ll get three opinions.” Israelis divide their political loyalties between so many political parties that no party ever wins an electoral majority and coalitions of strange bedfellows are always at risk of collapse. Prime ministers have to watch their every move, lest they anger one of the partners and unravel the coalition they have to knit in order to govern, a required majority of 61 seats out of 120 in the Knesset, Israel’s parliament.
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The normal condition of the Israeli public is not one of lemming-like support for their leaders and their decisions. That’s why the depth of support for taking on Hamas signifies an opportunity for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Even the greatest icons of the peace movement, of the Israeli left, supported the operation. The revered Amoz Oz told a German reporter, “What would you do if your neighbor across the street sits down on the balcony, puts his little boy on his lap and starts shooting machine gun fire into your nursery . . . digs a tunnel from his nursery . . . to blow up your home . . . kidnap your family?’ ”
Israel won a tactical victory in Gaza. No reasonable observer would argue that Hamas achieved anything other than propaganda points, and even that is mostly on the international stage.
The Arab public and even many Palestinians are sickened with Hamas for what it unleashed, even their hatred for Israel has been rekindled in the hyper-publicized carnage of war.
Israel, for its part, has significantly reduced Hamas’ capabilities, at a high cost in its international standing. Israel lost scores of soldiers and a few civilians. The country is safer for now. But no problem has been solved, only postponed.
The question is, What now? Will the war end with a pause that is again broken in a few months or years with another awful bout of anguish and death?
The Gaza conundrum is not unsolvable.
Hamas demands an opening of the borders, which Israel cannot do, especially after confirming that practically all the cement that crosses the border, to list just one item, has gone to build tunnels aimed at attacking and killing Israelis, rather than towards building homes for the people of Gaza. Hamas remains firmly committed to its aim of destroying Israel. Israel cannot make a deal that hands Hamas a major victory. That would strengthen its position relative to its more moderate Palestinian rivals.
The answer is to begin the process of transferring responsibility for Gaza and its borders to the Palestinian Authority with strong support from Egypt (which despises Hamas) particularly on borders, and intelligence backing on security matters from Israel and Egypt.
There is a way for Hamas to lose and the people of Gaza and Israel to win.
The far right in Israel won’t want to see the PA strengthened, but that is where Netanyahu can leverage the consensus that emerged during the fighting in Gaza. My view is that this war has made Israelis more hawkish but less ideological. This is an opening for pragmatist security hardliners. That’s Netanyahu.
To really win this war — which is, to win peace, what Israelis really want — requires reengaging with the Palestinian Authority and finding a security formula that works in Gaza. That could help develop a strategy for the West Bank, which ultimately is the only way to reach a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
No, it’s not easy. And, yes, it is risky. But this is a unique moment in history that could be molded into a turning point. The bombs have carved a small fork in the road. The new path may just lead to a more peaceful, hopeful and secure place.