Amid The Israel-Hamas War, An Opportunity?

Amid The Israel-Hamas War, An Opportunity?

Time is of the essence if Washington is to attempt a diplomatic intervention in the conflict.


The prospect of an Israeli military incursion into Gaza is worrying because of the massive civilian casualties that will no doubt occur. Israelis have every right to strike Hamas, which has established its headquarters and infrastructure deep inside civilian population centers, often beneath apartment buildings currently bearing the brunt of bombardments. 

This conflict is different from others in the past, not just because of Hamas’ unimaginable brutality but also because the United States is directly involved. Over twenty-seven Americans were murdered, and a dozen or more are feared kidnapped. The Biden administration has sent two aircraft carrier strike groups to the eastern Mediterranean, providing itself with policy options. For one, it is a deterrent to others tempted to join the fight, such as Hezbollah and other Iranian proxies.


Hamas wants Israel to invade Gaza; it is goading it to do so. From its perspective, the greater the number of civilian Palestinian casualties, the better it is for Hamas, as it distracts from its barbaric attacks on Israeli civilians and presents it with the opportunity and justification to kill more Israelis. Hamas perceives this as a win-win situation since it is willing to sacrifice countless residents of Gaza.

The Biden administration can intercede to create an opening that may result in a pause in the conflict that could allow the civilians in Gaza to get a respite. In collaboration with Israel, the President can call for a temporary cessation of the bombardment and demand for all hostages, Americans, Israelis, and other nationalities, to be released unconditionally within 24 hours.  

Such a demand will certainly pit the Hamas leadership against the population of Gaza. This is more the case with Israel demanding the evacuation of northern Gaza, a stipulation that will cause further civilian pain. Before the conflict started last week, polling suggested that most Gazans opposed breaking the ceasefire with Israel. Yet, Hamas is not a democratic body. Though many may be sympathetic to Hamas, which has ruled Gaza since 2007 with an iron fist, civilians are not responsible for the organization’s decisions, nor can they hold it to account in any meaningful way. 

At this stage, a U.S. diplomatic intervention that buys time and allows cooler minds to prevail, no doubt complemented by furious behind-the-scenes maneuvering, is the best possibility to prevent a catastrophe. The Israeli war aim is clear: the destruction of Hamas. A respite in the bombardment allows the Gazans to choose: either the leadership of Hamas agrees to leave, probably to Iran, or the war resumes. 

In other words, this may resemble the 1982 departure of the Palestine Liberation Organization, PLO, and its leader, Yasser Arafat, following Israel’s siege of Beirut. Arafat then ended up in Tunis and, years later, negotiated with Israel a peace deal. Hamas and Iran agree entirely: they both want the destruction of the Israeli state. Hence, Tehran is probably the only place in the world where the Hamas leadership can feel safe.

The Israelis may not be completely satisfied with a deal that does not end up punishing the Hamas leadership, but it is a compromise that will avoid many more deaths. The eviction of Hamas may also usher in a new era for Gaza and allow its citizens, aided by the international community, to make new choices.

Similarly, these events are going to transform Israel. The moral bankruptcy of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership and its extreme-right allies has been exposed once and for all. The balance of power in Israel is likely to shift away from the right, the settlers, and the religious groups that have usurped the state and its institutions. 

Nothing is starker than the comparison between Netanyahu and his brother Yonatan, who died in the 1976 Entebbe rescue effort. One can argue that his brother sacrificed himself for his country, and “Bibi” sacrificed his country for himself. Netanyahu relentlessly pursued judicial reforms to protect his and his coalition’s interests to the detriment of other pressing concerns, leading to this week’s crisis. 

Israel, as in the past, will work things through. But, it will take time to untie Palestine’s Gordian Knot. This may be an overly optimistic prognosis, but it tops the other potential outcomes. Before one can start dreaming, the Biden administration has to follow through with the smart decisions it has made so far. It has earned Israel’s trust and deployed a formidable force that will deter others from joining. Therefore, it alone in the world can let in a ray of hope over a bleak region. 

Henri J. Barkey is the Cohen professor of international relations at Lehigh University and an adjunct senior fellow for Middle East studies at the Council of Foreign Relations.

Image: Anas-Mohammed / Shutterstock