As Israeli eyes are riveted on emotional reunions with freed hostages and Palestinians in Gaza gather supplies during a respite from war, policy makers have been focused on when, and if, the fighting will resume. Yet an equally important question is what will happen after the war ends?
The two issues are inextricably linked: The ultimate vision for what happens after the war ought to be shaping Israel’s military strategy in Gaza. The territory has been governed by Hamas since 2007, but that is no longer tenable after the group launched a brutal wave of attacks against Israel on Oct. 7.
Thus far, though, Israel has refused to publicly consider the question of Gaza’s future. Consul General of Israel to New England Meron Reuben told the editorial board Thursday the question is “very premature.” Yet any plan for postwar governance will require preparation and deserves public scrutiny from all the parties involved — the Israelis, Palestinians, and any other involved countries. That is why beginning to talk about these issues now, publicly, is important.
The end of the war could potentially provide an opportunity for both Israelis and Palestinians to select new leadership, and each society will be at a crossroads regarding its future. Leaders will have to answer the pressing question of who will control and rebuild Gaza.
In Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was deeply polarizing before the war. His judicial reform proposal sparked nationwide protests, and he has been charged with corruption. He then presided over one of the worst intelligence failures in Israel’s history in failing to prevent the Oct. 7 attack. Israeli news source Walla! reported that Israel’s head of military intelligence plans to resign. The head of Shin Bet, Israel’s domestic intelligence agency, has taken responsibility and said there will be investigations. Netanyahu has tried to sidestep responsibility, but that cannot continue forever, and Israelis will be justified in demanding accountability from their leader, even while the war is ongoing.
Israeli citizens could pressure Netanyahu to resign and call a new election. In another scenario, the Israeli parliament could form an alternative government coalition and install it with a vote of “constructive no-confidence,” or it could vote to dissolve itself and call new elections. Either way, Israelis should be rethinking how they want their leaders to address vital questions of security, Israel’s relationship with the Palestinians, and how to rebuild society after collective trauma.
Palestinians face an even more urgent leadership vacuum. Israel’s goal of eliminating Hamas may be unrealistic, but it is nearly impossible to imagine a scenario where Hamas retains control of Gaza. West Bank Palestinians are led by Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas, of the Fatah party, who is 87 years old and widely viewed as corrupt and ineffective. Before the war, nearly 80 percent of Palestinians wanted Abbas to resign, and Khalil Shikaki, director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said that number is probably higher today.
That leaves future leadership of Palestinians in both territories an open question. Neither Israel nor the Palestinians — or their allies — want to see Israel retain a permanent presence inside Gaza, a strip of land that Israel unilaterally withdrew from in 2005. Yet Israel is virtually certain to insist on maintaining security control, including control of the border.
President Biden has suggested a “revitalized Palestinian Authority” will control the West Bank and Gaza while Israelis and Palestinians work toward permanent agreement on a two-state solution. Revitalizing the PA would take time and new leadership.
In the meantime, one potentially workable scenario would be to have an international coalition governing and rebuilding Gaza until the Palestinians are able to rebuild their leadership and hold free and fair elections. Israel has reportedly suggested an authority backed by Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. But while Arab states would be those most trusted by Palestinians, Egypt reportedly rejected a proposal from the CIA that it manage Gaza’s security until the PA can take over. Other Arab states are expected to be hesitant to get involved in the immense challenge of Gaza’s civil governance as long as Israel retains any significant control. United Nations forces are likely a nonstarter after they were deployed in Lebanon following Israel’s 2006 withdrawal and seen as largely ineffective. International funding would presumably need to be obtained.
Another possibility is a temporary Palestinian national unity government until new elections can be held. For this to be effective, Palestinians would have to find a leader who is a technocrat, capable of rebuilding an economy and strong institutions, and who is acceptable to all Palestinian factions. One challenge is that around 40 percent of Palestinians continue to support Hamas, according to Shikaki, one reason being they believe its use of force is the only way to secure the release of Palestinian prisoners and gain independence from Israel. Finding a leader who has support from the Palestinian people and who Israel and the international community will be willing to deal with will be difficult.
There are no easy answers to who will control Gaza after the war. But if the hard conversations do not start now, the risk is that the war will end with no answer — leaving either an Israeli presence or a vacuum in which an insurgent faction, potentially even Hamas, takes control. Either of those options will almost certainly lead to even more bloodshed.
Editorials represent the views of the Boston Globe Editorial Board. Follow us @GlobeOpinion.