One year has passed since the Gaza war between Hamas and Israel came to an end. An uneasy peace prevails. The 2014 war, however, changed the calculus of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In retrospect, it was the final nail in the coffin of a two-state solution.
During the war, the Israeli public called for the demilitarization of Hamas — for the IDF to destroy Hamas’s military brigades and force it to decommission its arms. That didn’t happen. If the IDF had tried, it would have been met with pitiless person-to-person combat and house-to-house searches, making the actual 2014 conflict look like children playing a toy war.
But even if the IDF had, as a result of some remarkable phenomenon, demilitarized Hamas, at best Israel would have bought itself a respite before it would face a rearmed Hamas, which has undergone a rapprochement with Iran in the face of the threat ISIS presents to both.
Given the unfathomable levels of distrust that exist on both sides, Israel will never sign off on a two-state solution, because in a Palestinian state there would be free movement between Gaza and the West Bank, giving Hamas unrestricted access to the latter.
Retired General Michael Herzog, a veteran Israeli negotiator, told me that “no government would ever contemplate leaving the West Bank until that threat of Hamas or any other militant group to launch rocket attacks was removed.” Otherwise, all of Israel would be exposed to attack.
Confinement to Gaza limits Hamas’s offensive capacity to wage war; the strategic question it faces is how to “break out” of Gaza. The only obvious way is to acquiesce to a two-state solution that would give it freedom to move between a united Gaza and West Bank. The contiguity of such a Palestinian state would require a corridor, under Palestinian sovereignty, connecting the two parts of its sovereign territory.
Hamas would then be free to solidify its presence in the West Bank and find routes for smuggling sophisticated mobile missiles, fitted with launchers and timers, into the territory. Given the West Bank’s topography, such missiles could be fired from numerous sites toward Israel’s population centers and infrastructure, including Ben Gurion Airport. This would leave Israel vulnerable to missile attacks from any number of places. Thus Hamas running loose in the West Bank would be a much more elusive and lethal enemy for Israel.
A crushing response against rocket attacks from tiny Gaza is not all that difficult, but a crushing response against both Gaza and the much larger West Bank would be another challenge entirely. Israel would face a highly mobile Hamas, more difficult to pin down and more adept at asymmetric warfare.
Further, a “demilitarized” Palestinian state — i.e., a state without a standing army — could not guarantee that Hamas would not remilitarize. Given the prospect of Hamas rearming, a two-state solution acceptable to Hamas would never assuage Israel’s fears. Israel is more comfortable with the status quo: recurring bouts of violence between itself and Hamas.
But for the sake of argument, let’s say Hamas and other militant groups pledge to demilitarize. Who would believe them? How would Hamas get unanimity among its own factions, let alone bring other militant groups on board? Surely Israel would insist on having an international body monitor the process. Would Hamas agree to that? Would Islamic Jihad, or the ISIS-affiliated Salafi groups that are an increasing presence in Gaza?
And since nobody beyond Hamas has an exact account of its arms inventory, how would the monitoring body know whether it was being given accurate numbers? How would it actually verify demilitarization? Or preclude Hamas from rearming in due time?
Those realities frame Israel’s choice. One option is a militarized Hamas confined to Gaza, a threat Israel can deal with. The other is a two-state solution with no ironclad guarantee of a demilitarized Hamas, Islamic Jihad, or other jihadist groups — and with those groups having access to the West Bank. The former is unsustainable in the long run, but the latter is out of the question.
Given these realities, what’s next? Last week, in an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth, Israel’s most influential newspaper, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin proposed a “borderless” Palestinian-Israeli “confederation” as a solution. The fact that any president of Israel, particularly one who is a former member of Likud, would make such a breathtaking statement is an indication that fresh thinking is catching wind. Unfortunately, however, even a confederation would not negate the concerns I have outlined. Perhaps nothing short of a catastrophic war will be necessary to bring about the attitudinal changes a confederation would require.
Another sad, but unforgiving reality.
Padraig O’Malley, who holds the John Joseph Moakley Chair of Peace and Reconciliation at the John W. McCormack Graduate School, is author of “The Two-State Delusion: Israel and Palestine – A Tale of Two Narratives.”