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Gaza Side Agreements

President Joe Biden meets with Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud in Saudi Arabia, on July 15, 2022. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)

Wednesday, Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu met with Senate Republicans via video link. Netanyahu’s only friends in the world seem to be Republicans in the U.S.

Republicans seem to have forgotten the example of Ronald Reagan. When Israel began heavy bombing of West Beirut nine weeks into its 1982 invasion of Lebanon, President Reagan called then-Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin and expressed ”outrage” at the ”needless destruction and bloodshed.” Begin halted the bombing the next day.

Biden is no Reagan. He has been characteristically timid and feckless in his attempts to rein in Netanyahu, who has ignored the worldwide call for a ceasefire in Gaza. Netanyahu is doubling down on the needless destruction and bloodshed in Gaza, saying that the IDF will invade Rafah no matter what anyone says.

Yet, a halt of U.S. arms transfers to Israel is on the table, with an apparent decision deadline of Sunday. Biden should impose the halt now, excepting only purely defensive weapons such as missiles fired by the Iron Dome system. Biden need not make a public announcement, if he is afraid of the political backlash. The message will get through to the only person who matters.

Netanyahu has adopted a non-negotiable stance on his invasion of Rafah, despite that it will achieve none of his stated objectives. Backing down will constitute a dramatic rebuke for him – and, unfortunately, the nation he leads. How to prevent the assault on Rafah without Israel losing complete credibility?

Side agreements.

Side agreements entered into by the combatants and major powers. The major powers seeking to facilitate bilateral agreement between the combatants should step forward as principles and sign agreements themselves.

The side agreements would anchor an Israeli-Hamas ceasefire-hostage release deal. Israel should agree to an immediate ceasefire and a phased troop withdrawal in exchange for release of all hostages, to go into effect simultaneously with two side agreements.

The first side agreement would be between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and other Arab/Muslim co-signatories. The Arab governments would agree to demand that Hamas release all Israeli hostages no later than the completion of a withdrawal of all IDF troops and to demand that Hamas cede power in Gaza to an Arab peacekeeping force, as has already been proposed. Hamas will concede to Arab nations what it will not concede to Israel. The provisions could be made parts of the peace treaties that Israel already has with Egypt and Jordan and would represent de facto recognition of Israel by Saudi Arabia. Leave to the Arab nations to work their will with Hamas.

Second, Israel would agree with the U.S. that it would cease fire immediately and, once all hostages have been released, cease fire permanently and withdraw all its troops from the Strip. Israel can station troops on its side of the border, not inside Gaza. Otherwise, the U.S. will cease all military aid to Israel until the troops have been withdrawn. Despite Netanyahu’s wrongheaded strategy and bullheadedness, he cannot refuse Israel’s only friend and protector. He can concede to the U.S. what he cannot concede to Hamas.

Insofar as possible, the signatories to the side agreements should include further provisions, including the demilitarization of the Strip and the destruction of the tunnel system. Local civil administration could remain in the hands of UNRWA. Leave to the diplomats to determine the ultimate form and number of side agreements required.

The ceasefire-release agreement and the side agreements would end the Gaza war, but they would not resolve the root causes of war. To accomplish that, the same negotiations would have to proceed regarding the West Bank. As long as Palestinians on the West Bank live under harsh Israeli occupation, Palestinians in Gaza will not feel free, no matter how enlightened a resolution in Gaza. And vice versa.

Just as Israelis and Gazans are incapable of negotiating peace, so too are Israelis and West Bank Palestinians. Once again, third-party major powers should negotiate as principles.

Logically, the same formula should work on the West Bank as in Gaza.

Saudi Arabia has already outlined the logical terms of a West bank settlement, namely the establishment of a Palestinian homeland within the Green Line, the armistice lines following the 1967 War. The Line very roughly tracks the borders between the two peoples outlined in the 1947 U.N. resolution under which Israel came into legal existence. Thus, the Line has inherent legitimacy, and more land for Israel.  

The “homeland” would not be a sovereign state. Israel could never accept anything but a demilitarized Palestinian entity – a sovereign entity would be an existential threat.

Demilitarization is not a onetime phenomenon; it requires ongoing enforcement. The enforcers would need to command trust and respect on both sides. Israel would have to trust the enforcers to keep arms out of the West Bank. Palestinians would have to trust them to keep the IDF out of the West Bank.

As Israel’s only protector, the U.S. would have to assume enforcement responsibility to engender Israeli trust. Palestinians would hardly accept the U.S. as their protector, so Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan would need to step up. Other nations should participate to strengthen and accelerate establishment of trust.

The U.S. would have to put boots on the ground, a risky proposition given the American experience in Lebanon under President Reagan. Yet, U.S. boots would be part of a multinational force comprised of U.S. allies – Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan, and, hopefully, Turkey, Britain and France.

To the many Americans who might object to the commitment of American soldiers, the question should be asked: what are the risks of not doing so? Every cycle of violence in the Holy Land has led to another. Every cycle has been more dangerous than the last. Eventually, the risks become strategic risks for the U.S., not just local or regional risks. Eventually is now.


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