Here are some thoughts from this week. As we navigate the intricacies of this delicate topic, it's crucial to acknowledge that the following analysis, while comprehensive, paints in broad strokes. The multifaceted nature of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict means that not all nuances and perspectives can be covered exhaustively. With that in mind, let's delve into the recent events and what can be done to prevent them from recurring.
More than 1,000 Israeli civilians were killed on Saturday by Hamas terrorists who set out to massacre innocent people wherever they may be — at home, at work, or at a music festival for peace. Many of them were raped and mutilated, leaving hundreds of bodies completely unidentified. 199 Israelis were kidnapped to Gaza — women, children, and the elderly. The perpetrators were not ashamed of their actions; they filmed and live-streamed them to sow terror and ensure that hate continues to spread and that any hope of peace dissolves in a puddle of blood.
In the coming days, many more Palestinians will die as Israel retaliates against Hamas military targets — intentionally nestled in residential buildings, hospitals, and schools. This cycle has been going on for decades, becoming uglier and more vicious over time. It’s always more of the same.
But this time might be different.
The brutality of Hamas’s initial attack struck a chord in the hearts and minds of outside observers. It also reminded leaders near and far that the Middle East remains as pertinent as ever and that the Palestinian issue is a key obstacle on the path to regional and global prosperity. This realization highlights much that has not changed in the Middle East, but it also highlights a few important things that have. Through the horrors of the present, these changes present a new path forward or, at least, the possibility of a path toward a better future.
What has changed?
The working assumptions of both the Israeli right and left have been found wanting. The same applies to the leaders of the U.S., Russia, China, Europe, the Arab World, and Iran.
The Israeli right believed it could ignore the Palestinians and that the conflict could be “managed” while Israel continued to prosper and normalize its relations with other Arab and Muslim countries. The Israeli left believed it could focus on a progressive domestic agenda while deemphasizing the “hopeless” Palestinian issue. The Arab world increasingly believed Netanyahu had things under control and that the Palestinian struggle was not an obstacle to diplomatic normalization and regional prosperity. The Iranians thought they could continue to supply weapons to Russia and nurture proxy terrorist armies in Lebanon, Gaza, and Yemen without triggering a massive Israeli and international response. The U.S. thought it could pivot away from the Middle East and focus its attention on East Asia and, more recently, Ukraine. The EU toned down its efforts in the Middle East and focused on intelligence collaboration with Israel and under-supervised money transfers to the Palestinians. And Russia expected the U.S. and EU to gradually fade out of the region and allow Putin’s meddling to continue unchallenged.
Everyone was wrong. Still, the brutal events of the past ten days will only increase mutual distrust and strengthen extremists on both sides. Israelis are traumatized by the vicious attacks on civilian communities out of the semi-autonomous Gaza Strip and cannot imagine living next to a full-fledged Palestinian state. They see the recent massacre as a precursor to what would happen to all Israelis if Palestinians got their way. On the other hand, Palestinians have lived under a prolonged occupation, facing daily hardships, restrictions, and fears of displacement from their homes. Justified or not, many Palestinians view Hamas’s actions as a desperate response to these conditions, seeking recognition and justice in the face of adversity. They are terrified of Israel’s response to Hamas’s vicious attack and are suspicious that Israel's ultimate goal is to kick them out of their homes and turn Gaza into a new frontier for Jewish settlers. Pronouncements from extremists on both sides help foment distrust and discourage even the staunchest believers in peace.
And yet, above all the smoke, there are also thin rays of light. And under the surface, there are tectonic shifts that offer some hope. The rays of light were everywhere. Parents who lost their dear ones, yet call for peace instead of revenge. Arabs and Bedouins help rescue and treat Jews, and vice versa. Right-wing activists are celebrating the heroism of left-wing volunteers. And a massive mobilization of Israeli civil society to help everyone in need. I am sure similar acts of bravery and grace are happening on the Palestinian side as well, even though people who perform them often risk the wrath of Hamas operatives.
On the surface, it is clearer than ever that solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is more important than ever. And, unlike before, it is also a critical interest of multiple powerful players. In the past, Arab countries used the Palestinians as a forward enclave to undermine Israel’s legitimacy and security. Now, they can no longer afford any flare-ups. Egypt, the most populous Arab state, is buckling under an economic crisis and is under constant threat of revolution from the Hamas-allied Muslim Brotherhood. Jordan, with its large Palestinian majority, might not survive a full-scale war in Gaza and the West Bank. Lebanon is already in tatters and will be fully demolished if Hezbollah jumps into the fray to support the Palestinian cause.
And then there are the bigger fish: Saudi Arabia is engaged in an effort to reorient its economy towards tourism, services, and innovation — seeking to create “a vibrant society in which all citizens can thrive and pursue their passion” by 2030. Under the surface, the Saudi crown prince is gradually wrestling power away from religious clerics and striking a healthier balance between tradition and economic needs. The survival of the current regime hinges on the success of this effort. And every mention of Palestinian suffering on local TV and social media plays into the hands of religious extremists and the enemies of reform. The same is also true in Europe, where friction in the Middle East brings thousands of Muslim immigrants to the streets and triggers terror attacks.
The U.S. has shaken any notions of pivoting away from the Middle East. Obama thought he could let Russia get bogged down in Syria while America focused on more important matters elsewhere, Trump thought it was better to ignore the Palestinians and focus exclusively on fellow billionaires in the Gulf, and Biden thought he could afford to alienate Saudi Arabia and leave it vulnerable to attack from Iranian proxies in Yemen. Now, Russia is engaged in a brutal war in the heart of Europe, oil prices are contributing to persistent inflation, and China is stepping up as a Middle East power broker to fill the vacuum left by America. Biden seems intent on correcting his and his predecessors' errors.
A world that seemed chaotic and multipolar a few months ago seems increasingly neatly divided and bipolar (no pun intended) — on one side, an axis with China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea, and on the other, the US, Europe, UK, and Japan. Saudi Arabia is unaligned but leaning towards deeper economic and military integration with the West. Two weeks ago, it seemed like Saudi normalization with Israel was imminent as part of a broader security agreement with the US. Now, it is clear that normalization cannot proceed without a long-term solution to the Palestinian issue — and that if it were to proceed, the next flare-up would derail it once more. Normalization would place the Saudis, Israelis, UAE, and several other Muslim nations clearly in one camp with the US and its other allies. It would also help bring India closer to that camp due to its proximity and shared interests with its neighbors across the Arabian Sea.
And so, all roads lead to the Middle East. The long-term stability and prosperity of multiple powerful nations hinge on the peaceful coexistence of Israel and the Palestinians. The world can no longer afford to let that conflict fester. At the same time, it is clear that both sides of the conflict are not able to resolve it on their own and that the divided Palestinian leadership is not yet able to rule an independent, stable country.
What is to be done?
It is time for a Marshall Plan-scale effort to rehabilitate the Palestinians, ensure their and their neighbors’ safety, and set a clear roadmap toward a Palestinian state. It should also dismantle Iran’s proxy militias — including Hamas, Hezbollah, and the Houthis — on the Israeli and Saudi borders. Such an effort should be secured and funded by all interested parties, in particular the US, EU, Saudi Arabia, and UAE. For Israel, the price would likely be a commitment to relinquish control over Gaza and over most of the West Bank. For the Palestinians, it would mean relinquishing the dream of eliminating Israel and settling for a smaller but stable and, ultimately, prosperous country of their own. This effort should encompass Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan and help stabilize these troubled countries.
Is it too ambitious a plan? It certainly isn't modest. But this is the type of effort the world is now required to make. It would take years, and it would cost billions. But it would be a better investment than never-ending wars and instability.
It is hard to see through the smoke, but we are on the cusp of an era of unprecedented innovation — an age of true miracles. We can have abundant energy, personalized education, cheap transportation, and leisure to enjoy more of the world’s beauty. I am so tired of wars. I do not want to worry about my family in the Middle East, and I do not want to fear for the lives of my children going to preschool in New York. No one should live in fear, the Palestinians least of all. People are willing to spend so much money, energy, and creativity on war. They are willing to risk so much to continue to fight. Let's do the same for peace. Let's be bold in our thinking. Let's believe that we can do better.
As I completed the draft of this article and was about to send it, the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, Ahmed bin Zayed, tweeted a 2007 article by Ambassador Martin Indyk. The article explores the idea of a "trusteeship for Palestine" — putting the Palestinian territories under the auspices of a UN mandate, led by the US and its allies, who would develop it, keep it safe, and guide it towards independence.
Are we about to witness a miracle?