WASHINGTON — Now it’s Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s turn to show that he has the vision and leadership to build a durable cease-fire that could empower Palestinian moderates and begin building a pathway from the hell on earth that is Gaza.
Many people, including me, sharply criticized U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry a week ago for seeking a quick Gaza cease-fire that would have strengthened Hamas and its allies, Qatar and Turkey. Hamas didn’t deliver, the fighting resumed, and the process had the effect of undermining moderate Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Kerry was widely attacked, especially in Israel.
The opposite direction
Kerry isn’t the problem today, however. Over the past week, he has been crafting a cease-fire plan that seeks to stabilize Gaza under the leadership of Abbas and the moderate Palestinian Authority. After an initial truce, negotiators would gather in Egypt for talks about Gaza’s future. Abbas would select the members of the Palestinian delegation, and the PA (with the support of the international community) would have overall responsibility for the rehabilitation of Gaza.
The Palestinian delegation is already in Cairo, waiting for the talks to begin. It’s headed by Azzam al-Ahmed, a leader of Abbas’ Fatah movement and the person who brokered the reconciliation agreement last April between Fatah and Hamas.
Unfortunately, Israel right now is moving in the opposite direction, with the Cabinet deciding over the weekend not to join in the Cairo talks and to try to end the Gaza operation without a cease-fire deal. That’s a recipe for future conflict.
Leverage unity pact
The thrust of Kerry’s new plan is to leverage Hamas’ unity pact with Fatah and its pledge to transfer authority in Gaza to the PA. As a first step, the PA and its U.S.-trained security service would assume responsibility for policing the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt, as well as the passages into Israel. That’s a big deal, as it would give Abbas’ security chief, Majid Faraj, control over the most strategic ground in Gaza.
The PA would begin paying the salaries of Palestinian civil servants in Gaza, assuming the details could be worked out. The agreement might also move toward disarmament of all terrorist groups in Gaza by building on a promise Hamas made in a 2011 unity plan that the PA’s security service would be the only armed force in Gaza. This would also uphold Abbas’ own insistence on “one government, one law, one gun.”
In all these ways, Kerry is now headed in the right direction — away from strengthening Hamas and toward empowering the moderates on whom hopes for a more stable and secure Gaza depend.
The question is whether Netanyahu has the courage and political clout to move in the same direction, toward a new framework for Gaza, rather than return to the battered status quo ante with continued Hamas rule and the recurring wars that some Israelis have described as “mowing the lawn.”
It will be hard for the Israeli leader to embrace this new vision for Gaza, because he would have to reverse his earlier opposition to the Fatah-Hamas reconciliation agreement, which he denounced as an embrace by Abbas of Hamas’ terrorist ideology. Netanyahu would also have to be prepared to truly open Gaza to the free flow and people and goods, in return for disarming the terrorist groups.
Netanyahu faces a real leadership dilemma. He has prevailed over Hamas and its tunnels in Gaza, albeit at a terrible cost to Palestinian civilians. But his popularity at home is dropping, with his approval ratings down 20 points from their peak of 82 percent when he ordered the ground invasion. Though Netanyahu may not realize it, he needs Kerry’s diplomatic help to consolidate the gains of the war. The question is whether the Israeli leader has the boldness to leverage his military success in a way that brings greater lasting security for Israelis, and reduces the Palestinian suffering in Gaza.
Israel’s refusal to attend the peace talks in Cairo means returning to the status quo ante and waiting for the next round of fighting. It’s a mistake. Netanyahu could open new opportunities by treating Abbas as a real partner, starting by helping him to gain control of Gaza. Netanyahu can go down in history as the statesman who achieved greater security for Israelis as well as a measure of dignity for Arabs.
History shows us that in the aftermath of Arab-Israeli wars, there are rare opportunities for diplomacy. Kerry, stung by the criticism that his peacemaking was helping Hamas a week ago, appears ready for such a creative moment now. Is Netanyahu?