Commentary on Political Economy

Tuesday 13 February 2024


Opinion | Only Biden and M.B.S. Can Redirect the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict

President Biden and Mohammed bin Salman look off camera.
Credit... Mandel Ngan/Reuters
Thomas L. Friedman

One of the most unexpected developments in the Israel-Hamas war is the emergence of a powerful alignment of interests and incentives for Israel, the Palestinians, America and Saudi Arabia to all get behind a pathway to a Palestinian state that can live in peace alongside Israel.

For starters, moving toward a Palestinian state — once this war ends — is the key for Israel reconnecting with important constituencies around the world, it’s the key to an eventual secure pathway out of Gaza and it is the cement for the regional alliance Israel needs to protect itself.

I understand why many in an Israeli society still traumatized by the Hamas surprise attack on Oct. 7 don’t want to hear talk of a Palestinian state, even in a demilitarized form. But for many Israelis that was true for years before the Gaza war. To continue ignoring the subject now would be a grave error. Israel needs to shape it, not ignore it.

If Israel destroys Hamas, and then decides to permanently occupy Gaza and the West Bank, rejecting any form of Palestinian statehood, Israel will become a global pariah for the next generation, and particularly in the Arab world. This will force Israel’s Arab allies to distance themselves from the Jewish state.

And if Israel remains in perpetual conflict with the Palestinians, the entire architecture of America’s Middle East strategy — particularly the crosscutting peace treaties that we’ve forged between Israel and Egypt, Jordan and the Gulf nations — will come under pressure, complicating our ability to operate in the region and opening it to much more influence by Russia and China. Given the deaths of so many thousands of Gazan civilians, the U.S. is already having some difficulty using its military bases in Arab countries to counter Iran’s malign network of Hamas, Hezbollah, the Houthis and Shiites militias in Iraq.

And the Saudis need a pathway to a Palestinian state in order to normalize ties with Israel and thereby win support in the U.S. Congress for some kind of new U.S.-Saudi security pact.

In short, more key players in the Middle East need movement toward a demilitarized Palestinian state today than at any time that I can remember — most of all the Palestinians, for whom this moment offers a unique opportunity to realize their dream of independence in their homeland in a state next to Israel. To say that it will be incredibly hard to achieve doesn’t begin to address the complexities, but Palestinians too need to be defining it and building better institutions to achieve it through an upgraded Palestinian Authority in Ramallah, in the West Bank — now, today, urgently.

But I have no illusions. There are two key players who do not want this to happen, under any conditions, and they are very powerful: Hamas, which is dedicated to wiping Israel off the map, as it demonstrated on Oct. 7; and Benjamin Netanyahu and his far-right coalition partners — some of whom want not only to destroy Hamas but also to continue occupying the West Bank and Gaza and expanding Jewish settlements in both.

Alas, if I’ve learned anything since starting this column in 1995, it’s that neither Hamas nor Netanyahu could ever be partners for any kind of Palestinian state next to Israel, even though it could serve the interests of the Israeli and Palestinian people now more than ever. Let me explain my assessment of Hamas and Netanyahu with a couple of scenes from recent history.

The first is from 2002. Twenty-two years ago this week, when 9/11 still cast a long shadow over the world, I went to Saudi Arabia and interviewed Crown Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz. Before going, I wrote a column in the voice of President George W. Bush asking Arab leaders to lay down a constructive peace initiative: Offer Israel full peace and normalization in return for a full Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem to the 1967 lines.

After a week of touring Saudi Arabia, Abdullah invited me to his horse farm outside Riyadh, along with my host, Adel al-Jubeir, then the spokesman at the Saudi embassy in Washington and later the foreign minister. After a buffet dinner groaning with Arab dishes and attended by lots of princes and businessmen, around midnight, Abdullah invited Adel and me back to his study.

I began by urging Abdullah to consider my then-radical idea from my column, of getting the whole Arab League to offer Israel full peace for full withdrawal to begin some healing after 9/11. He looked at me with mock astonishment and said, ”Have you broken into my desk?”

“No,” I said, wondering what he was talking about.

“The reason I ask,” he explained, “is that this is exactly the idea I had in mind — full withdrawal from all the occupied territories, in accord with U.N. resolutions, including in Jerusalem, for full normalization of relations. I have drafted a speech along those lines. My thinking was to deliver it before the Arab summit and try to mobilize the entire Arab world behind it. The speech is written, and it is in my desk. But I changed my mind about delivering it” after a recent Israeli crackdown in the West Bank by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

We talked about this idea until about 3 a.m. when I got up and said something to the effect of, “Your Highness, you need to take this idea out of your desk and share it publicly.”

“I tell you,” the crown prince said, “if I were to pick up the phone now and ask someone to read you the speech, you will find it virtually identical to what you are talking about. I wanted to find a way to make clear to the Israeli people that the Arabs don’t reject or despise them. But the Arab people do reject what their leadership is now doing to the Palestinians, which is inhumane and oppressive. And I thought of this as a possible signal to the Israeli people.”

He concluded, “Let me say to you that the speech is written, and it is still in my drawer.”

Then I countered with this idea: “Let me write up your proposal as an on-the-record interview.”

With Adel translating, Abdullah responded, “No, you just say that this is something I am thinking about.”

I said, “No, I think you should say it.”

He said, “No, you should say it.”

I said, “No, you should say it.”

Eventually, he agreed to sleep on it.

Midmorning the next day, Adel called to say, “Go with it.”

I knew this was being done in part to distract attention from 9/11, in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudis. But I thought it could really move the needle. That Sunday we ran Abdullah’s words in a column headlined “An Intriguing Signal From the Saudi Crown Prince.”

All hell broke loose in the Arab world and Israel after it came out, and Arab leaders quickly decided that this would be the subject of the coming Arab League summit in Beirut.

On March 27 and 28 virtually all the Arab leaders gathered in the Lebanese capital. Working off Abdullah’s basic proposal, they added several other conditions on the right of return of refugees, and on March 28 approved what became known as the Arab Peace Initiative, offering “normal relations” between the Arab states and Israel in return for Israeli withdrawal from all the territories back to the lines of June 4, 1967.

It was the first, and remains the only, comprehensive Arab peace overture to Israel approved by the Arab League, including even Syria.

I honestly thought that this could be the beginning of the end of the conflict. But it never went anywhere. Neither the Israelis nor the Bush administration really seized the moment. How could Israel not have jumped right on it?

Well, a lot had to do with what happened in Israel on the evening of March 27, right after the Arab League summit opened. I’ll let CNN tell you the news of that night:

Netanya, Israel — A suicide bomber killed at least 19 people and injured 172 at a popular seaside hotel Wednesday, the start of the Jewish religious holiday of Passover. At least 48 of the injured were described as “severely wounded.” The bombing occurred in a crowded dining room at the Park Hotel, a coastal resort, during the traditional meal marking the start of Passover. … The Palestinian group Hamas, an Islamic fundamentalist group labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department, claimed responsibility for the attack.

Yes, this is how Hamas welcomed the first pan-Arab peace initiative calling for full Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 lines and the creation of a Palestinian state next to Israel. Israel responded to the Hamas terrorist attack by besieging Yasir Arafat in his office in Ramallah and everything just went downhill from there.

Hamas is a longtime enemy of reconciliation, which makes it in my mind an enemy of the Palestinian people as much as of Israel. The attack Hamas launched on Israel on Oct. 7 was not a cry for peace by an organization that had no other options. It was a brutal down payment on Israel’s destruction.

One reason Hamas is so strong today is that Netanyahu has done everything he could for the last decade and a half to undermine the Palestinian Authority, which was created as part of the Oslo agreements, governs the Palestinian-populated areas in the West Bank and cooperates with Israeli security services. At the same time, in recent years, Netanyahu deliberately strengthened Hamas, which has controlled Gaza since ousting the Palestinian Authority in 2007. That is because he and Hamas share the same objective: weakening the Palestinian Authority and preventing a two-state solution.

Aluf Benn, the editor of Haaretz, tells the whole story in two paragraphs in a recent essay in Foreign Affairs: Since Netanyahu returned to office in 2009, his strategy has been to argue that Israel “could prosper as a Western-style country — and even reach out to the Arab world at large — while pushing aside the Palestinians. The key was to divide and conquer. In the West Bank, Netanyahu maintained security cooperation with the Palestinian Authority, which became Israel’s de facto policing and social services subcontractor, and he encouraged Qatar to fund Gaza’s Hamas government.”

Benn then reminds us of another key scene, where Netanyahu told his party’s parliamentary caucus in 2019 that this was a deliberate strategy: “Whoever opposes a Palestinian state,” said Netanyahu, “must support delivery of funds to Gaza because maintaining separation between the P.A. in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza will prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state.’”

So pardon me if I hold a very dark view of Netanyahu’s intentions when it comes to two states as well.

Unfortunately, the longer the war in Gaza goes on, the more the views of Hamas and Netanyahu are infecting whole societies. More and more Palestinians and their supporters in the West are embracing the view that all of Israel is a colonial settler enterprise that must be destroyed from the river to the sea, and more and more Israelis refuse to even contemplate any Palestinian state on their borders.

That’s why I was not surprised the other day to hear President Biden lament from the White House that Israel’s conduct in the Gaza Strip “has been over the top” and that “it’s got to stop.” As I listened to Biden, though, it struck me that he sounded more like a columnist than a president — an observer, not someone with the power to change things.

We cannot let that attitude take root. And there are only two leaders with the power to completely redirect this story right now: President Biden and the Saudi crown prince, Mohammed bin Salman.

To both of you, I say: Finish the job that your predecessors started.

M.B.S., if you want to defeat both Netanyahu and Hamas, you have to pick up where your uncle Abdullah left off. You need to declare that you are ready to go to Jerusalem, to first pray in Al Aqsa Mosque and then speak to the Israeli people from the podium of the Knesset in order to tell them directly: If you embark on a pathway of two states for two people, Saudi Arabia will normalize relations with Israel and recognize West Jerusalem as its capital — as long as Israel recognizes Arab East Jerusalem as the capital of Palestine. You can also pledge that Saudi Arabia will support the rebuilding of Gaza.

In 1979, President Anwar el-Sadat of Egypt made a similar move, which enshrined his place in history as one of the greatest leaders of the 20th century. M.B.S., if you brave going to Jerusalem, the U.S.-Saudi security alliance should easily get through Congress and become the keystone of a regional alliance against Iran and its axis of failed states and proxies that are sucking the life out of Yemen, Syria, Iraq and Lebanon.

And Joe Biden needs to pick up where Bill Clinton left off.

On Dec. 23, 2000, President Clinton presented a basket of ideas called the “Clinton parameters," detailing how to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They are based on the principle of two nation-states for two peoples. Sadly, Clinton did not get to see the job finished, and added at the time, “I have taken this as far as I can.”

Your job now, Joe, is to carry those ideas forward to forge two states for two peoples in one land. This is your time to make bold moves that will signal to Israelis and Palestinians, to the Middle East and the world: America is serious about seeing through the two-state solution. Since Netanyahu won’t negotiate a Palestinian state, you can recognize the Palestinian Authority as a state unilaterally.

As the Israeli peace process veteran Gidi Grinstein, co-author of “(In)Sights: Peace Making in the Oslo Process Thirty Years and Counting, just wrote in The Times of Israel: “Upgrading the P.A. into a state could turn the breakdown of Israeli-Palestinian relations into a breakthrough toward peaceful coexistence.”

So let me end where I began: I totally get why Israelis, who every day are taking fire from Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis, do not want to discuss a two-state solution with the Palestinians right now. But envisaging such a future, if it can be done right, is not a reward for what Hamas did on Oct. 7. It’s a way — maybe the only — to sustainably ensure that it never happens again.

And with Gaza engulfed by conflict and the West Bank boiling, I realize it’s not as if Palestinians can call a constitutional convention. But to the extent that the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah can undertake reforms that visibly enhance its effectiveness and credibility as a peace partner, the payoff could be enormous. Once the guns fall silent in Gaza, we may be looking at the best opportunity for a two-state solution since the collapse of Oslo.

It also might be the last.

The Times is committed to publishing a diversity of letters to the editor. We’d like to hear what you think about this or any of our articles. Here are some tips. And here’s our email:

Follow the New York Times Opinion section on FacebookInstagramTikTokX and Threads.

Thomas L. Friedman is the foreign affairs Opinion columnist. He joined the paper in 1981 and has won three Pulitzer Prizes. He is the author of seven books, including “From Beirut to Jerusalem,” which won the National Book Award. @tomfriedman  Facebook

No comments:

Post a Comment