For the past decade, it has been clear that the “peace process” between Israelis and Palestinians long ago devolved into little more than an extended exercise in kicking the can down the road. Still, in recent years, the absence of sustained large-scale violence produced the illusion of stability. Even those who had not been lulled into complacency were shocked, however, by the outbreak of the devastating war that has been raging since Hamas attacked southern Israel on October 7.
The past three weeks have seen a loss of life on a horrific scale. For Israel, it is the most devastating civilian toll in its 75 years of existence. And more Palestinians were killed in the first 15 days of this war than during the second intifada, which lasted for more than five years, and all the rounds of violence since then, combined. Worse, it appears likely that many more thousands of Palestinian civilians will perish if Israel pursues its declared (though unattainable) objective of eliminating Hamas. The same outcome would follow even from the less ambitious goal of eradicating Hamas’s infrastructure.
Under these conditions, the first priority must be to halt the dash toward the abyss. Toward that end, Hamas must unconditionally release the Israeli civilians it is holding. The recent release of some captives was a step forward, and it is realistic to expect that more will be released.
But Israel does not appear to be in the mood to entertain any talk of a cease-fire at this time—and so far, at least, the Biden administration has been unwilling to press the Israelis to consider that option. Instead, the United States has been merely urging Israel to delay a ground invasion of Gaza until more hostages are released. The onset of such an operation would produce unparalleled carnage, magnify the risk of a broader regional conflict, and potentially threaten governments in a number of Arab countries, which might become destabilized in the face of mass protests. An Israeli invasion of Gaza would also further imperil the Palestinian Authority (PA), which is already vulnerable, as anger grows in the West Bank. Against the backdrop of these considerations, it was hard to see the scorn directed by Israeli officials at the UN secretary-general for his recent call for an immediate cease-fire to end what he called the “epic suffering” in Gaza as anything but reckless endangerment and warmongering.
There remains some hope that the release of Israeli civilians in captivity could carve out enough space for Arab and international diplomacy to find a quick answer to the question of what will happen on “the day after”— that is, who will rule in the aftermath of the ongoing Israeli operation. One idea that must be excluded from consideration is imposing any particular arrangement on the Palestinians after forcing them into submission. Also to be excluded without much deliberation is the idea that the PA, in its current configuration, would return to exercising its purview over the Gaza Strip.
For one thing, it is doubtful that the PA as currently configured would be willing to shoulder the responsibilities of governing Gaza after a deadly and destructive Israeli offensive runs its course. Even if the PA sought that role, it would be unable to perform it, especially given that its already diminished legitimacy is fast vanishing under the pressure of the continuing war.
But a properly reconfigured PA may offer the best option for “the day after” and beyond, providing a segue for the creation of a regionally owned and internationally backed effort to end the Israeli occupation within a framework that credibly addresses the structural weaknesses that bedevilled the peace process over the past three decades.
A way forward
The PA was created in 1994 as a transitional governing entity in the West Bank and Gaza under the Oslo accords, which the Palestine Liberation Organization entered into on behalf of the Palestinian people. But the PA and the PLO soon began to suffer from an erosion of legitimacy brought on by the failure of the Oslo framework to deliver on its promise of a Palestinian state on the territory Israel captured in 1967 and has occupied ever since. The progressive disillusionment with the viability of that goal and the concomitant rise in support for armed resistance, as espoused by Hamas and other political movements that opposed the Oslo framework from the very beginning, have contributed to that erosion, calling into question the continued validity of the PLO’s claim to be the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people. Combined with chronic misrule by the authority, the exclusion of a wide range of Palestinian political factions and political orientations has left the PLO and the PA with very little standing among Palestinians.
Both the PLO and the PA should have been reformed and reconfigured long ago, and the urgency of that task has never been greater than it is today. The first step must be the immediate and unconditional expansion of the PLO to include all major factions and political forces, including Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. Hamas won an outright majority in the last parliamentary elections held in the Palestinian territories, in 2006, and although no such elections have been held since then, polls show that Hamas has continued to enjoy considerable public support. Moreover, it is impossible to see how the PLO can credibly make any commitment to nonviolence as part of any attempt to restart the peace process if Hamas and factions of a similar orientation are not represented.
The PLO could be expanded without it having to abandon the requirements of the peace process. But that process would have to be fundamentally altered in ways that address the root causes of its failure to deliver over the past three decades. First and foremost, Israel would need to formally recognize the Palestinians’ right to a sovereign state on the territory that Israel has occupied since 1967. By doing so, Israel would be merely reciprocating the essence of the PLO’s recognition of Israel’s “right to exist in peace and security,” which was enshrined in the Oslo accords’ declaration of mutual recognition in 1993. Until such recognition is secured, the expanded PLO could adopt a platform a platform that reflects the full spectrum of Palestinian views on what constitutes an acceptable settlement while still preserving a pathway to a negotiated two-state solution.
Finally, in accordance with its Basic Law, the PA would, through a government consented to by the expanded PLO, assume full control over managing the affairs of the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza during a multiyear transitional period. During that period, all understandings between Israel and the PA and all Israeli and PA operations would be underpinned by an ironclad mutual commitment to nonviolence. At the end of that phase, the PA would hold national elections on a date agreed to at the beginning of the transition.
I first proposed similar reforms in Foreign Affairs in 2014. Since then, internal discord and factionalism have undoubtedly gotten in the way of their consideration, much less their adoption. But given the gravity of the current situation, their time may finally have come—although too late, of course, for the thousands who have perished already. But with the encouragement and backing of Arab countries, this plan could offer a credible way forward. Whatever its flaws or complications, it would certainly be preferable to the options that Israel is evidently considering now, all of which will lead to more violence and bloodshed with little chance of yielding a lasting peace.
Salam Fayyad was the prime minister of the Palestinian National Authority from 2007-2013. This article originally appeared in Foreign Affairs in October.
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