In a recent interview with ABC, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel would handle security in the Gaza Strip for an “indefinite” period of time. With his minister of foreign affairs, Eli Cohen, insisting that Israel has no intention of governing the strip, Bibi’s comments suggest a prolonged but not permanent military occupation. His justification is simple: “We see what happens when we leave.” There is merit to Bibi’s claims; should Israel withdraw before Hamas is forever prevented from reorganizing, this invasion would have been for nothing. At the same time, “indefinite” occupation would seem the most irresponsible option available as it would generate only more resentment against Israel from all corners. This is precisely why the United States should let Bibi try to stay. Indeed, doing so may be the best way to push Israel to the negotiating table and finally bring about a two-state solution.
Ridding the Gaza Strip of Hamas is the most auspicious omen for a two-state solution since the collapse of the Oslo Accords. At nearly every peace conference since Hamas put the final nail in Oslo, the group has ratcheted up attacks. In 2006, when it won elections in Gaza, the group refused to recognize Israel, further delaying any hope for reconciliation between the Israelis and Palestinians. Since then, the organization has followed a predictable pattern of attacking Israel, eliciting a harsh response, and then basking in the public outrage it consciously instigated. As one analyst put it nicely: “Talk of a Marshall Plan for Gaza has never been credible because international donors and investors know that whatever is built is likely to be destroyed the next time Hamas decides to trigger a new conflict with the Israelis.” The October 7 attack is only the latest testimony and confirmation that Hamas is ideologically committed to Israel’s destruction and, in turn, a two-state solution. Its removal, then, is a necessary if insufficient condition to revive such a solution.
The Palestinian Authority seems to realize this. Within a week of October 7, the aged Mahmoud Abbas said, “Hamas’s policies and action do not represent the Palestinian people.” He later recanted, but the fact he said this publicly is significant. Moreover, the PLO (Palestine Liberation Organization) has signaled that it may be interested in governing Gaza after Hamas is destroyed should the United States commit to and pressure Israel to be an honest partner in a two-state solution. But for American policymakers to make this dream a reality, they must proceed carefully. What is most needed now is time. They should quietly allow Israel to occupy the Gaza Strip for a prolonged period of no more than a year, during which time they should be working with Arab rulers to bring Israel to the negotiating table.
This extended period could allow the other crucial conditions to materialize. First, it would grant Israel the time it needs to feel reasonably confident that Hamas will not emerge again from the ashes. This is a legitimate interest of Israel that should not be forgotten. The country can no longer tolerate an active, armed, and trained jihadist organization to terrorize and murder its civilians. But given the rapidity with which Israel has already reached the center of Gaza City, the country will not require years of occupation to neutralize the threat. Hamas is already disoriented and breaking. At the same time, a prolonged stay in Gaza may be what hawkish elements in Bibi’s cabinet need to realize that occupying Gaza “indefinitely” is not a real option. There is a reason Israel pulled out in 2005.
The second condition that may need to be met is a change in cabinet officials in Netanyahu’s government (or possibly a change in government altogether). With a far-right coalition committed to expanding settlements into Judea and Samaria, this government is not likely to give into central Palestinian demands for removing at least some settlements in the West Bank. But the longer Israel is in Gaza, the greater will be both domestic and international outcry. Domestically, Netanyahu is, at best, a controversial figure and, at worst, a despised one. Rather than spark unity, the October 7 attack has brought outrage against Netanyahu. At funerals, mourners shout at representatives of his government. Not only is his government blamed for a fatal intelligence failure, but the anger against his judicial reforms is only temporarily muted. The longer this anger ferments, the likelier that Netanyahu will have to build a new coalition with more progressive, left-wing parties more amenable to peace with the Palestinian Authority.
A prolonged occupation, between six months and a year, would also give Arab governments the time they need to prepare for public diplomatic engagement with Israel. While the Palestinian Authority may be eager to take the reins in Gaza, the group is both weak and widely perceived to be corrupt and inefficient. During the occupation, the PLO could convene the long-dormant Palestinian Liberation Congress to, if not select a new leader, re-endow Abbas with the air of popular legitimacy he will need if he is to govern Gaza.
At the same time, the Palestinian Authority will not immediately be able to keep order in Gaza single-handedly. It will need help from Muslim-majority countries like Egypt and Jordan. Egypt’s President Sisi has so far demurred from playing any security role in a post-Israel Gaza. Similarly, Jordan’s King Abdullah has strongly condemned Israel’s actions, even calling its ambassador back to Amman. But at the same time, the shrewd monarch knows he must eventually work with Israel. Indeed, he has already done so to coordinate a humanitarian airdrop. As time passes and pressure mounts, these governments may be faced with no choice but to help Arabs re-establish some authority in the strip. Doing so would be in their best interest; re-establishing any Arab government in Gaza can only be cause for celebration, and doing so after an occupation of intermediate length would rid them of the charge of rolling in on Israeli tanks.
It is a similar case for the Saudis, perhaps the Arab power with the most sway in Jerusalem. The Saudis still desire an expanded Abraham Accords. The country wants a security bloc against Iran and a diverse economy that Israel can help develop. Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman (MBS) spoke positively of reaching an agreement with Israel before October 7, saying it was heading “closer” to completion. It is no longer close, but it is far from canceled. The driving factors of such an accord remain and, given Iran’s role in arming Hamas, are intensified. The Saudis know this. The Israelis know this. And the Americans know this.
What has changed is that the Gaza invasion gave Saudi Arabia more leveraging power than before. MBS and President Biden can use the prospect of normalization to pressure Israel to withdraw from Gaza and pursue meaningful talks with the Palestinian Authority when the time is right. The Israelis may just cave into this long-held dream if they have time to stamp out Hamas and if public sympathy has dried up. Similarly, the Saudis could coordinate with Egypt, Jordan, and the Palestinian Authority to re-establish order when Israel pulls out of Gaza. Like the other Arab rulers, the Saudi royals will face public pressure to assist.
Of course, much could go wrong with this framework. The fringe elements in Netanyahu’s cabinet may stay entrenched, Abbas and Fatah may not be able to keep the West Bank quiet, Iran may provoke further escalation in the region, and Hamas may prove to be more resilient than expected. For it to work, Americans and Israelis should be working in back channels to acquire buy-in from Arab powers now. The removal of Hamas is a singular opportunity to bring about lasting peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, something like that which Hamas ruined thirty years ago.
Max J. Prowant is a researcher with the Institute on Religion and Democracy. He is also a Ph.D. Candidate in Government at the University of Texas at Austin.