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Former peace negotiator on Israel’s war with Hamas: ‘Replace the leadership of Gaza’

Yossi Beilin was a negotiator on the Oslo Accords, the last major effort at a Middle East peace settlement. In a Q&A, he talks about anticipated civilian casualties, Benjamin Netanyahu’s political future, and the future of Gaza.

Yossi Beilin, a former senior Israeli official and peace negotiator who cofounded the Geneva Initiative, posed for a photo at his house in Tel Aviv, Israel.Tsafrir Abayov/Associated Press

Israeli politician, businessperson, and journalist Yossi Beilin played a key role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks of the 1990s. Working behind the scenes with Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, the pair developed the groundwork for what became the Oslo peace accords. But amid continuing violence, the accords, which earned the Nobel Peace Prize for Yasir Arafat of the PLO and Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin of Israel, never led to a permanent peace agreement.

More recently, Beilin and a Palestinian lawyer, Hiba Husseini, have developed a new approach to a two-state plan, known as The Holy Land Confederation. Journalist Klara Vlahcevic Lisinski interviewed Beilin a few days after the Hamas attack on Israel of Oct. 7. The following is a partial transcript of their conversation that has been edited for length and clarity.


Q. Have you at any point suspected or thought that this type of attack, which some call Israel’s 9/11, would come to pass? Because even people who write about the region or are in diplomacy seem surprised.

A. That is because this is the “black swan.” I mean, nobody thought about it, ever. Nobody thought it was possible.

Q. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s popularity is not soaring as usually happens with wartime leaders. Do you think that this is the beginning of the end for him?

A. This is the end of his political career. I have no doubt about it. After something like that, no other prime minister would’ve remained in power. And maybe even he himself [will decide to quit]. If not, he will be ousted. It’s like Golda Meir. If you remember, she was reelected after the Yom Kippur War. After four months, I believe, the street told her that she should leave. And she left.


Beilin then discussed why he believes the best hope for peace with Palestinians is through negotiations with the Palestinian National Authority, which is led by his old negotiating partner, Mahmoud Abbas, who is also called Abu Mazen.

“The PLO, Abu Mazen, and other people are ready for a two-state solution. We had informal agreements with them. We know what they want, and we know that we are speaking about land swaps. And we know that they believe. They understand that the idea of the return of all the Palestinian refugees is nonsense.

“Abu Mazen stood before Arafat and told him more than 20 years ago to stop the intifada. … So this is our partner; weak, old, whatever you wish. We don’t have a better one. And he has an advantage that nobody else has because he is still alive, and he is one of the founding fathers of the Fatah. And this is the source of his legitimacy. When he signs an agreement with us, it’ll be respected by the Palestinians, even those who dismiss him and don’t like him.

“And this is why I believe that as long as he is there, it is an opportunity to have an agreement. … I believe that this is what we have to do. This is exactly what Netanyahu didn’t want.”

Q. Were you physically in Israel while all of this was going on? And did any harm come to anyone you personally know?

A. Yes, of course. I mean, Israel is a kibbutz. Everybody knows each other. We are only 10 million people, you know, it’s not a big kibbutz. And of course, we know many people whose family members were kidnapped or killed.


Q. Do you think that global media have been objective in their reporting from both Israel and Gaza?

A. When you are victim, the media is with you. When you are seen as somebody who is conquering land or whatever, the media is against you.

Q. Do you see other Arab countries getting involved, and how — especially in terms of Gaza’s future?

A. Hamas should be replaced. …. They should be replaced, preferably by the Palestinian Authority, if not by other Arab countries. As long as it is not us [Israel].

The people of Gaza are suffering. I know some of them quite closely, and we are in ongoing relations. And they suffer. It is a cruel dictatorship. The way Hamas treats women is often close to that in Afghanistan.

What should happen now is that we will put together again Gaza and the West Bank under a Palestinian or an Arab arrangement for an interim period. And then, in that way, we are freeing them. They’ll not admit it, of course, but this is what we are doing. And we don’t do it for them necessarily. We are doing it for us.

Q. Do you think that any action right now can fully get rid of Hamas?

A. This is impossible. No. To eradicate Hamas. I mean, this is impossible. What we have to do is replace the leadership of Gaza. And this is not like eradicating them or getting rid of all the Hamas people. How are you going to physically identify them? It’s not realistic.


Q. How confident are you that the Israel Defense Forces can exert restraint in case of a Gaza invasion? Or do you think that catastrophic civilian deaths are inevitable in this case?

A. It is inevitable. First of all, one of the main reasons for the demand that they to move from the north to the south of Gaza is in order not to be involved in this encounter, in this conflict. It’ll be a tough and difficult conflict. And I think that innocent people will pay a price if they’re still there. I also can understand that if you say to more than a million people to leave their homes, it is not so simple. And you cannot then say afterward, we told you to leave and you didn’t leave. You know? Nobody wants to be in that situation. I believe that the army will be restrained and that despite the restraint, there will be victims.

Q. Is the United States playing a useful role here in giving Israel unequivocal support? Or do you think it’s sort of throwing fuel on the fire?

A. What could they do? They cannot be neutral in such a situation. The relations between the two countries are and have been unique for decades. And when something like that happens, it is more than obvious that they are emotionally involved. President Biden’s speeches were unbelievable. I’ve known him for many years, and I did not expect him to deliver such a speech.


Q. Very often you are dubbed the architect of the Oslo Accords. What scenario would you have liked to have seen occur if it would have been completely up to you — then and now?

A. Today, my hope is that there will very soon be an Israeli government that will be ready to negotiate seriously with Abu Mazen on peace, not another interim agreement but on peace, based on the material that we have already. And sign a peace treaty with Israel. If the Hamas leadership is ousted and there is one Palestinian partner, that will make it much easier.

Q. What do you dream of for Israel and the Palestinians? Will there be peace at last?

A. Well, I am not a prophet and I really cannot know. Many good things may happen and many bad things may happen. The role of the leadership is to do whatever they can to make the world a little bit better. And I’m an optimistic person, not because I believe that things will be better, full stop. But I believe that if we are doing the right things, that things will be better. We must fight for it to be better.

Klara Vlahcevic Lisinski is a freelance journalist from Croatia who specializes in reporting on conflict zones, human rights, and international relations.