An Arab Mandate for Palestine

Sooner or later, the war in Gaza will end.

Hamas’s leaders hope that when it does, they will emerge from their tunnels to raise their green banners over the rubble — a symbolic victory for “Resistance” in the face of the misery they sowed on Oct. 7.

Israel’s security leaders hope that when it does, Gaza will be temporarily divided into a patchwork of subregions administered by local clans known to Israeli security services. The Israeli military will then operate in the territory for an indefinite period on a counterterrorism mission, assume greater control along the border with Egypt and deradicalize the population.

President Biden hopes that “a revitalized Palestinian Authority” will return to govern the territory from which it was forcibly ejected by Hamas after a brief civil war in 2007, with a view toward a Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank.

None of this is likely to happen.

Israel will make very sure Hamas’s leaders don’t emerge from the war alive; any sort of victory parade by the group would almost certainly meet a swift and gory end.

An indefinite Israeli military occupation of Gaza would generate an insurgency, bleed Israel of money and personnel and eventually prove politically and diplomatically unsustainable.

The Palestinian Authority is too weak to govern Gaza; revitalizing it would require not only deposing Mahmoud Abbas, its octogenarian president, but also rooting out its systemic corruption, a goal that has eluded every past effort at reform.

A Palestinian state in Gaza and the West Bank may be appealing in theory, but Israelis have reason to fear that, in practice, it could quickly devolve into a larger version of Hamastan. No plausible Israeli government, even one led by centrists, will allow it to come into being anytime soon.

So what could work? I would propose an Arab Mandate for Palestine. The (very) long-term ambition would be to turn Gaza into a Mediterranean version of Dubai, offering a proof of concept that, in 10 or 15 years, would allow a Palestinian state to emerge on the model of the United Arab Emirates — future-oriented, federated, allergic to extremism, open to the world and committed to lasting peace.

I first suggested a version of this idea in my column on Oct. 7, by transforming Gaza from a locus of conflict to a “zone of shared interests” between Israel and friendly Arab states. More recently, a long and useful report by the Vandenberg Coalition and the Jewish Institute for National Security for America makes the case for an International Trust for Gaza Relief and Reconstruction, with a “realistic pathway to an eventual two-state solution.”

The key lies in persuading moderate Arab states that they have the biggest stakes of all in achieving a better outcome for Gaza: first, because a Hamas-controlled Gaza is another outpost (along with Hezbollah in Lebanon and the Houthis in Yemen) of Iranian-backed militancy in the heart of the Arab world and, second, because a long-running crisis in Gaza will become a rallying cry for religious extremism in their own populations.

There’s worse: An unresolved crisis in Gaza will ultimately harden Israel, shift it further to the right and put an eventual Palestinian state permanently out of reach. It will also divide the Arab world, strengthen Iran and undermine the modernizing course that the best Arab leaders have embarked on. Those leaders shouldn’t pretend that the burden of a solution in Gaza lies entirely with Jerusalem or Washington.

The good news is that those leaders don’t just have the most to lose. They also have the most to give. They have a measure of legitimacy with Gazans that non-Arab actors will never have and that Palestinians in Hamas and the Palestinian Authority have forsaken. They have political credibility with Israel, the United States and the European Union.

And they have financial, diplomatic, intelligence and military resources for an extended relief and reconstruction effort, provided it is extensively supplemented by help from the West. No U.S. administration is going to want to involve itself in another nation-building exercise in the Middle East, above all if it involves American forces. But we can be part of a solution that helps Israel, hurts Iran, defangs Islamists and offers Palestinians a visible avenue toward peace, prosperity and independence.

There will need to be confidence-building measures, commitments and deadlines — not just for Gaza’s demilitarization and reconstruction but also for Israel to deliver on its end. That would begin with a halt to new settlement construction. In doing so, Israel would be fulfilling the ultimate purpose of Zionism, which is Jewish self-rule — neither rule by others nor rule over others. That’s a point the current government of Israel refuses to accept, which is one of the many reasons Benjamin Netanyahu must not remain in office.

There are many who will object to an Arab Mandate for Palestine — those who want a Palestinian state now, those who want a Palestinian state never and those who think we can somehow return to the formulas of the Oslo Accords and other failed peace efforts. In the last analysis, such a mandate is the only plausible way forward.

Originally published in The New York Times