Nadim Koteich

Post-Gaza…Underestimation is Not a Solution!

The hell that is the war in Gaza is the result of a long series of underestimations. Firstly, the Israelis underestimated the significance of Hamas’s ideology. They underestimated the capacities of some Hamas wings, assuming that these wings could never imagine the impossible and strive to realize it, and so the operation of October 7th unfolded as it did. On the other side, Hamas misjudged the gravity of Israel’s retaliation. During the first few days of the war, many Palestinians with experience in dealing with Israel told me they were certain that the process would take no more than a few weeks, and that the attack had not precipitated a strategic shift but left a wounded beast lashing out.  

Both the Israelis and Palestinians estimated wrongly the gravity of the situation. A third party also misread the situation, the Arabs, primarily the Arab public, who readily assumed that Israel does not fight anymore and that a blow like that of October 7th would "send them back to where they came from!" Many failed to see the significance of hundreds of thousands of Israelis returning to their homes to join the war effort.

An even more substantial segment of the population has yet to understand how drastically the mindset of the Israelis has shifted, particularly among those who support peace and live in the agricultural "Kibbutzim" in the Gaza envelope, most of whom are socialist leftists, after hundreds of them were killed or kidnapped. Many also underestimated just how far the West would be willing to go in supporting Israel in the war it launched in response to the operation of October 7th.

These underestimations have led us to the hell we now find ourselves in. Added to them is the assumption we can simply begin discussions around what happens the day after the war ends based on pre-war views and conceptions.
Let us begin by acknowledging that three outcomes are not possible:

1. Hamas remaining in Gaza is not possible, to say nothing about the movement being a partner in any political process with the next government.
2. It is impossible for Israel to remain in Gaza and occupy it, as that would be to ensure that the next explosion is nothing but a matter of time, in the West Bank or perhaps beyond. This is a scenario that has been tried and tested; Israel is aware of its practical and political costs.
3. A vacuum in Gaza is not feasible. That would turn the devastated city into a hotbed of extremism.

It might seem like the Palestinian Authority taking over Gaza is the obvious solution. However, that would require the formation of a completely different Palestinian government with extraordinary powers that allow it to bypass all bodies of the Palestinian political system currently in place. The system has three branches: Fatah, the Palestine Liberation Organization, and the Palestinian Authority, with its presidency, government, and legislative council.
Reformulating Palestinian political bodies, uniting them under a single unit with exceptional powers intent on realizing a political project suited to the post-October 7th world seems almost unattainable given the current mood in both Palestine and Israel.

Indeed, the Palestinians do not have a conception of the minimal terms they would be willing to accept, i.e. they do not have a vision for a transitional phase that does not give rise to a two-state solution, since it would take years to create the kind of climate needed for such a solution. As for the Israelis, they are not ready psychologically, politically, as a people, or as elites, to offer the concessions needed for the kind of solution that the Palestinians could accept.

Israel's domestic crises, although potentially resolvable within the framework of its robust state institutions, are no less significant than those of the Palestinians, and they could also break the foundations of the political settlement needed.
The Palestinians need to lay out a clear political vision for any settlement with the Israelis that includes a narrow and defined timeline. On the other hand, the Israelis need to present a clear conception of a Palestinian political entity and the commitments it would have to for Israel to agree to a settlement. Here, we should keep in mind that the Likud party, until October 7th, had been pursuing a policy aimed at perpetuating Palestinian divisions and undermining Israel’s realist partner, the Palestinian Authority. Moreover, the Israelis demand the security structures that give Israeli society back its sense of security, and this debate requires overcoming an endless list of obstacles and disagreements about the identity of these structures and their capacities.

Which comes first, then? Laying out visions for a political future or defining the political structures?
Matters are complicated further when we consider the developments we will see in the next year. Most notably, the U.S. elections will be held in November 2024, and none of the scenarios mentioned before are possible without US involvement, especially since European leadership is declining globally and the limits of what other international sponsors can offer during serious crises have been exposed.

Israel needs a few months to ensure that Hamas's military infrastructure has been destroyed, if its effort to do so is successful, and to create a new situation on the ground in Gaza. Only then can it focus its mind on political solutions. However, the US focus will have shifted by then. Starting in March, it will be entirely focused on the difficult elections, meaning that it will not have the political energy needed to focus on Palestine-Israel.

Once we add the prospect of a Lebanese-Israeli conflict to the mix in the next few months, as a sequel to the Gaza war from Israel's perspective, we are looking at years of reformulating the security and military order in the Middle East. Israel will certainly not wait for an attack like that of October 7th on its borders with Lebanon to work on totally changing the rules of the game with Hezbollah. That is the only way over one hundred thousand Israelis could return to their towns in northern Israel. If they do not, the notion that Hezbollah can displace Israelis and "send them back to where they came from" would become substantially more credible to both Israelis and Hezbollah, reinforcing delusions and fueling conflict.

Among all the underestimations I have presented, the most prominent of them is presenting solutions that assume that everything we have seen is a more dramatic repeat of previous wars and confrontations. There is much that needs to change, in Palestine, Israel, and the Arab world, before we can begin to imagine a solution.