Seeking a Quick Exit in Gaza

World leaders, especially President-elect Obama, need to step in immediately with a courageous and creative solution to Israel’s war.

Gali Tibbon / AFP / Getty

Israel and Hamas have dug themselves and each other a trap of dire consequences by escalating in Gaza without a defined purpose or exit strategy. They now need help. Otherwise, their recklessness will cost further innocent lives and will cause uncontrollable wars that could be disastrous—and should be unacceptable.

Neither Israel nor Hamas can be victorious in this war; the losers are the women and children of Gaza and other innocent civilians on both sides of the conflict. Hamas has taken the Palestinians to war without authorization or preparation. Israel’s leaders have lost their bearings once again by launching a war they will be unable to conclude without massacring hundreds more of civilians.

The flare-up in Gaza could become the most polarizing development in the Middle East and could threaten the stability of Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon and beyond.

Hamas would welcome a ground invasion of Gaza so that Israeli soldiers are hunted down in the familiar landscape of Hamas fighters. But Hamas leaders also know too well that such an outcome would be the end of Hamas as a political organization and that Israel’s revenge will be costly to all Palestinians. Therefore, the bravado is being curtailed, so far.

Israel neither wants to take back Gaza nor is it confident it can defeat Hamas, either by airstrikes or a ground invasion. In reality, Israel is already stuck in a war it rushed into and is looking for an exit strategy.

Both the leaders of Israel and Hamas had elections and power in mind when they called on each another to escalate, acting as interlocutors for each other’s political ambitions. Both may have wanted to change the rules of the game and the situation on the ground before US President-elect Barack Obama takes office January 20.

If world leaders do not embark immediately on a courageous and creative comprehensive plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, not only will the situation in Gaza lead to the total collapse of the two-state solution but also to the collapse of the Palestinian Authority and a chaotic state of affairs where all bets are off.

One stark scenario predicts an all-out escalation that could become a pretext for Israel to force a mass expulsion of Palestinian Israeli citizens in a strategic move to resolve Israel’s demographic dilemma of a million Palestinian citizens in the Jewish state. Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni recently broke the code and spoke publicly of a Jewish state without Palestinian citizens. Hamas’ actions would serve to justify such an unimaginable move. A redrawing of the map would seal and force Gaza onto Egypt, so that Hamas would no longer be an Israeli problem but an Egyptian one. A chaotic West Bank would then become the excuse for reviving what is called the Jordanian Option, which claims that Jordan is the substitute home of the Palestinians.

Beyond the utterly unethical and unbelievable possibility of ethnic cleansing, such a scenario would never bring Israel peace or serenity, no matter how many walls of separation it erects; only the two-state solution can help Israelis live in peace and tranquility. Even a defeated Hamas would continue to create havoc for Israelis. A militant and militarized Gaza would remain an immediate neighbor no matter what measures are taken to guarantee a cutoff. An unstable Egypt would be extremely dangerous for Israel, particularly if Iran reaps the “benefits” of Israeli heavy-handedness and succeeds in using the Gaza debacle to undermine the government in Cairo.

The flare-up in Gaza could become the most polarizing development in the Middle East and could threaten the stability of Jordan, Egypt, and Lebanon and beyond. The peace-partners of Israel are in the forefront of this danger, while those who reject negotiations are most likely to benefit unless they are made to understand otherwise.

Relations between the Islamic Republic of Iran—the leader of the Hamas-Hezbollah-Syria axis—and Egypt have deteriorated noticeably recently. Hezbollah Secretary-General Hassan Nasrallah has accused the Egyptian government of abandoning the Palestinians, and has called on the

Egyptian people and armed forces to defy their government and turn against it. Such rhetoric may backfire and arouse Egyptian nationalism; nevertheless, the inherent Sunni-Shiite divide and resentment could widen and unleash a further level of violence, potentially leading to multiple wars.

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Lebanon remains an active Pandora’s box, its fate partially determined by Iran, which has full control over Hezbollah’s firepower, as the main supplier of its weapons.

For the moment, Hezbollah has neither received nor has given the marching orders to open up another front to fight Israel from Lebanon.

Syria has refrained from offering its borders with Israel to the volunteers for the resistance—those demonstrating on Arab streets or those being called on by the mullahs in Tehran to train in Iran.

Israel maybe banking on Syria’s long held promise of restraint and on Iran’s legendary knack for knowing when to stand down after going to the brink. But that does not solve Israel’s Palestinian problem.

Israeli leaders are fooling themselves and others in claiming that their lashing out against Hamas is in the interest and in support of Arab moderates. It is utter nonsense for Israel’s leaders to pretend to support Arab moderates when those leaders have evaded every opportunity to boost the negotiations option that the Palestinian Authority embraces.

The fact remains that the power struggle between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas is precisely over whether to opt for peaceful negotiations with Israel toward a two-state solution or opt for armed resistance to liberate Palestine. Israel’s actions and evasion have provided sufficient ammunition to those who ridicule Arab moderates, and have actually undermined those moderates.

At this point, Arab moderates will neither be the scapegoat nor the buffer between Hamas and Israel.

What needs to be done now must go beyond Gaza and must be done collectively, by international and regional leaders, regardless of the level and intensity of their differences and divisions. Beyond calling for a cease-fire and a return to Tahdi’a—a temporary calm—the leaders of the Quartet (the United States, United Nations, European Union, and Russia) and their Middle East partners must draft a plan that Obama sees fit to sign off on when he takes office.

Many smart people around the world are thinking of elements for such a plan. Some are based on a bailout of both Hamas and Israel; others are adamant that nothing is possible without the total military devastation of Hamas and its infrastructure as a starting point.

There are suggestions for international military observers at separation points between Gaza/Israel and Gaza/Egypt; there are calls for security-based partnerships in a new Middle East order.

Some feel the time is now ripe for an international conference that would revive the spirit of the Madrid peace conference but would avoid the pitfalls and disappointment of the Annapolis process.

Others are counseling an end to anything that resembles a “process” because of the negative connotation it has gained over the years, as solutions became less attainable as the “process” became an end in itself.

What is essential in any scenario is to understand how uncomplicated the requirements of a peaceful solution of this conflict are.

An Arab peace plan, endorsed by consensus at an Arab summit, would bring Israel peace, recognition, and normalization, if Israel ends its occupation of the Arab land it captured in 1967—with negotiated adjustments—so that Israel and Palestine are independent states living side by side.

Any preconditions along the lines of stopping the violence or holding the Palestinian Authority accountable for the actions of Hamas or other Palestinian factions will only weaken the chances for negotiations and moderation.

The Palestinian Authority is the legitimate partner of Israel in a negotiated solution. Israel must immediately engage the Palestinian Authority in its capacity as the responsible and legitimate representative of the Palestinians on two levels: delivering on negotiations and co-manning the border crossings.

International and regional leaders must immediately give the highest priority to pushing both Israel and the PA to conclude their lengthy negotiations, regardless of where Hamas ends up.

Should Hamas reverse itself and agree to sign off on a negotiated settlement, so be it. But it is the business of the Palestinian Authority to conduct and conclude the negotiations, not the business of Hamas.

Israeli strikes on Gaza could succeed in closing off the underground tunnels and choking off the population along with the Hamas fighters by further closures of crossing points. This collective punishment will backfire.

Some Israeli leaders believe that a two-state solution will not take care of the demographic problem within Israel, so they reject it. They want Jordan to be the substitute Palestinian state and the Palestinian citizens of Israel pushed out into that state—whatever it takes.

The only thing that will stop this madness from coming about is for the United States to say: absolutely not. The time for this “No” has never been more acutely needed than now. A recommitment to Jordan’s security and statehood by Obama is most necessary, as well as a restatement of a serious American commitment to the two-state solution.

Also, there is a need for a clear message from Obama to all concerned—Iran and others—that instability in Egypt is unacceptable. This is not about liking or disliking the ruling regime in Egypt but rather about what instability in Egypt would produce. Washington should pressure the regime of President Hosni Mubarak, but it should simultaneously draw red lines.

Iran needs to hear a clear message from the incoming administration that the new president will listen to and engage the Islamic Republic of Iran, but if it stops its interference and menace in Palestine, Lebanon, and Egypt. A message should be delivered to the mullahs and ruling revolutionaries in Tehran that there are now conditions to engaging Iran.

Arab leaders, too, must put an end to the pattern of one-upmanship over Palestine. Those who support Hamas in pursuing armed resistance to end the Israeli occupation of Palestine should stand up and be counted—open fronts for active resistance, provide Hamas with weapons, withdraw recognition of the Palestinian Authority. If they wont, they should stop the lip service, which is killing more Palestinians.

Those Arab leaders who advocate peaceful negotiation also must dare to make a clear stand against Hamas for hijacking Palestinians civilians in its pursuit of power. They must actively support the PA and launch a diplomatic offensive in Europe and the US to highlight the dangers of absolving any party to the conflict from accountability and responsibility.

Obama would surely rather not take office with such a mess and be dragged into slippery Middle East intrigues. Now he might have no other option. But there may be an opportunity for the incoming president to shape his leadership on this issue rather than follow in the steps others would like to lay out for him. He would do himself and the world a great service if he leads at the outset and defines the parameters with a bold step of his own.

Raghida Dergham is Columnist and Senior Diplomatic Correspondent for the London-based Al Hayat, the leading independent Arabic daily, since 1989. She writes a regular weekly strategic column on International Political Affairs. Ms. Dergham is also a Political Analyst for NBC, MSNBC and the Arab satellite LBC. She is a Contributing Editor for LA Times Syndicate Global Viewpoint and has contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post, The International Herald Tribune and Newsweek Magazine.