Over the past decade, the “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians has long been an exercise in endless postponement. However, in recent years, the absence of sustained, widespread violence has produced the illusion of stability.
But even those who did not believe the idea that the status quo was sustainable have been shocked by the devastating outbreak of war since Hamas attacked southern Israel on October 7.
The past three weeks have seen the loss of life on a horrific scale. For Israel, this is the most devastating loss of civilians in its 75 years of existence. More Palestinians were killed in the first fifteen days of this war than during the Second Intifada, which lasted more than five years, and all rounds of violence since then combined. Worse still, it seems likely that thousands more Palestinian civilians will die if Israel pursues its stated (albeit elusive) goal of eliminating Hamas, and the same result will follow for even Israel’s less ambitious goal of eliminating Hamas’ infrastructure.
Under these circumstances, the priority must be to stop the rush towards the abyss. To achieve this end, Hamas must unconditionally release the Israeli civilians it holds. The recent release of some detainees was a step forward, and it is realistic to expect that more of them will be freed.
However, Israel does not appear to be in the mood to consider any talk about a ceasefire at this time yet, while the Biden administration was not prepared to pressure the Israelis to consider this option. Instead, the United States urged Israel to postpone a ground invasion of Gaza until more detainees are released. The beginning of such a process would lead to an unparalleled massacre, increase the risk of a broader regional conflict, and perhaps threaten stability in a number of Arab countries. The Israeli invasion of Gaza would further weaken the Palestinian Authority in the face of popular anger in the West Bank.
Given these considerations, it was difficult to digest the contempt directed at the UN Secretary-General by Israeli officials over his recent call for an immediate ceasefire to end what he described as “epic suffering” in Gaza, except as an expression of dangerous recklessness and the dissemination of a destructive spirit of aggression.
There is still some hope that the release of detained Israeli civilians will create enough space for Arab and international diplomacy to quickly find an answer to the question of what will happen the “day after,” that is, who will rule in the aftermath of the ongoing Israeli operation.
The first ideas that must be completely excluded from consideration are those about imposing any specific arrangement on the Palestinians and forcing them to submit to it. It must also be discarded, without much debate, that the Palestinian Authority, in its current configuration, could provide an answer to this question by returning to exercising its authority over the Gaza Strip.
On the one hand, the Palestinian Authority, as currently constituted, is not likely willing to assume the responsibilities of governing Gaza after the deadly and devastating Israeli attack. Even if the Palestinian Authority expressed its willingness to play this role, it would not be able to do it, especially since its diminishing legitimacy is rapidly fading under the pressure of the ongoing war.
On the other hand, the Palestinian Authority, if properly reconstituted, may provide the best option “for the next day” and beyond, providing a link to launch a regionally adopted, internationally supported effort to end the Israeli occupation within a framework that credibly addresses the structural weaknesses that have spoiled the peace process over the past three decades.
The way forward
The Palestinian Authority was established in 1994 as a transitional governing entity in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip under the Oslo Accords, which was concluded by the Palestine Liberation Organization on behalf of the Palestinian people. However, the Palestinian Authority and the PLO soon began to suffer from the erosion of legitimacy caused by the failure of the Oslo framework to fulfill the prevailing certainty, the promise of establishing a Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967.
The gradual disappointment with the possibility of achieving this goal, and the accompanying rise in support for armed resistance embraced by Hamas and other political movements that opposed the Oslo framework from the start, have contributed to this feeling. This has led to questioning the continued credibility of the claim that the PLO represents all Palestinians and that it is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people.
Along with chronic mismanagement by the PA, the exclusion of many Palestinian political factions and orientations has weakened the standing of the PLO and the PA among Palestinians.
The PLO and the Palestinian Authority should have been reformed and reshaped long ago, and the urgency of this task has never been greater. The first step must be the immediate and unconditional expansion of the PLO to include all major political factions and forces, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad.
Hamas won an absolute majority in the last parliamentary elections held in the occupied Palestinian territories in 2006. Although no such elections have been organized since then, opinion polls show that Hamas has continued to enjoy significant popular support. Moreover, it is impossible to see how the PLO can credibly commit to nonviolence as part of any attempt to resume the peace process if Hamas and like-minded factions are not represented.
The PLO can be expanded without having to abandon the requirements of the peace process. But this process must change radically in a way that addresses the root causes behind its failure to achieve its stated goals over the past three decades.
First and foremost, Israel must formally recognize the right of the Palestinians to a sovereign state in the territories it has occupied since 1967. In doing so, Israel will merely reciprocate the substance of the PLO’s recognition of Israel’s right to exist with security and peace, which formed the cornerstone under the name of mutual recognition in the Oslo Accords in 1993.
Until such recognition is secured, the expanded PLO can adopt a program that reflects the full spectrum of Palestinian views on what would constitute an acceptable settlement, while preserving the possibility of launching a serious peace process in a negotiated framework leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state within “the two-state solution.”
Finally, by the Basic Law, the Palestinian Authority, through a government approved by the expanded PLO, assumes full responsibility for managing the affairs of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip during a multi-year transitional period. During this stage, all understandings between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and all Israeli and Palestinian Authority operations will be supported by a strict mutual commitment to nonviolence. At the end of that phase, the Palestinian Authority will hold national elections at a date agreed upon at the beginning of the transitional period.
I had previously proposed similar reforms in an article I published in Foreign Affairs magazine in 2014. Since then, there has been no doubt about the feasibility of adopting such reforms, but internal disagreement and factional divisions have prevented their official implementation.
Given the seriousness of the current situation, perhaps the time has finally come to adopt this approach, albeit too late, of course, for the thousands who have died. But with the encouragement and support of Arab countries, this plan can offer a trustworthy way forward. Whatever the flaws of this vision, it would certainly be better than the options Israel is now considering, all of which would lead to more violence and bloodshed while diminishing the chances of reaching a lasting peace.