The Israeli prime minister’s approach to the Palestinian problem has proved disastrous. The U.S. must use its influence to help Israel choose a new leadership.
In Israel, the attacks of October 7 have had a similarly devastating effect, destroying the nation’s sense that its territory was reasonably safe from a large-scale Palestinian attack and that the lack of a political settlement with the Palestinians was manageable for the indefinite future—that is, without a solution involving either two states or one binational state. The idea that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could provide security while kicking the Palestinian problem into the indefinite future, which he has been making state policy for nearly three decades, has lost all credibility. The question for Israelis is what will fill the void left by the loss of the old verities.
The earthquake of October 7 therefore offers the first opportunity since the U.S. brokered the Egyptian-Israeli peace of 1979 to reshape the political landscape. October 7 was the day that a two-state solution was resurrected from the graveyard of Middle East politics, at least for the moment. With everything up for grabs, U.S. leaders can now deploy the age-old mantra that “the situation is not sustainable” without Israelis rolling their eyes and wishing the Americans would just go away. As the old diplomatic adage holds, no serious crisis should be wasted.
But to help Israelis see their way toward the creation of a Palestinian state, Netanyahu must go. And the Biden administration must present Israelis with a plausible way forward once he has gone.
The reasons are simple: Netanyahu embodies the notion that Israel can manage the Palestinian problem without serious concessions to their national aspirations. It is a central tenet of his worldview. Indeed, it led him to preserve Gaza as a Hamas enclave, in order to demonstrate that Palestinians could not be trusted—to undermine the credibility of the Palestinian moderates, and thereby justify Israel’s claim that it had no partner for peace.
Some will object that the U.S. does not and should not interfere in Israeli politics. But the fact is the U.S. habitually gets involved in the politics of Middle Eastern states, and Israel is no exception. The George H. W. Bush administration, for example, encouraged the defeat of the Likud party and its recalcitrant Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir in Israel’s 1992 elections. More recently, the U.S. tried to disrupt Netanyahu’s coalition by advancing the alluring idea of normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. Because the Saudis would have required some accommodation for the Palestinians, Netanyahu would have been forced to choose between his governing partners on the far right, who would never relinquish their desire to annex the West Bank, and the validation of diplomatic relations with the region’s greatest Arab power.
The U.S.-Israeli relationship is also reciprocal in this regard. Netanyahu himself has had no compunction about interfering in American politics—most notably with his speech to a joint session of the U.S. Congress deriding President Barack Obama’s Iran nuclear deal.
October 7 was a bloody demonstration of the falsity of Netanyahu’s seductive delusion, and he bears the greatest responsibility for a fatal misjudgment of Hamas, so certain was he that the Islamist militant group wanted to govern Gaza instead of using it as a launchpad for attacks against Israel. If Netanyahu remains in office for much longer, the alternative to a two-state solution will be a redoubled effort to realize the dream of a Greater Israel. This would entail the immiseration and ultimate expulsion of the Palestinians from the West Bank—a goal some settlers there are already pursuing through violence and expropriation of Palestinian lands—and from Gaza.
Israel is justified in its effort to destroy Hamas’s control over Gaza. But declarations by several of Netanyahu’s ministers that the current military campaign would be a second Nakba (a catastrophe for the Palestinians akin to the establishment of the Jewish state) suggest a much darker future for Palestinians and Israelis—one in which Israel’s response in Gaza would “be remembered for the next 50 years,” as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant put it. That could entail the expulsion and dispersal of Gaza’s population into the Sinai Peninsula, as an official document of the Israeli Ministry of Intelligence has suggested.
As a rule, voters don’t change leaders in the middle of a war. In this case, Israelis would be well advised to make an exception. With approval ratings at a historic low, Netanyahu is now, politically speaking, a dead man walking; even much of his own party is doubtful about his future. Yet the great escape artist of Israeli politics could very well whip up hatred of the Palestinians and ride a far-right coalition to more years in office.
That doesn’t need to happen. The two members of the war cabinet who were brought in to establish a national front against Hamas—the former military chiefs Benny Gantz, who has also served as a deputy prime minister and defense minister, and Gadi Eisenkot—could bring Netanyahu’s reign to an end. They could achieve this either by demanding his resignation or by withdrawing from the government (for which Netanyahu and his coalition partners have given them ample cause).
At the moment, they show little inclination to take the political risk of bringing down a government in wartime. That is why the Biden administration should give Gantz and Israel’s centrists a reason to do so. Specifically, the U.S. should lay out its proposal for a post-Gaza peace process that will lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state, and Washington should ask Israel to sign on.
Netanyahu, who has made a habit of sticking it to American Democratic presidents, is unlikely to accede. But the U.S. can fairly say that it cannot afford to support indefinitely the scorched-earth campaign pursued by the current government, not least because this stance has real costs abroad and at home for Joe Biden. There is no guaranteeing that Gantz and his allies will heed the prompt; Gantz himself has never fully articulated a vision of peace with the Palestinians. But now is the time to test him.
President Biden has managed the situation shrewdly thus far and built up considerable political capital in Israel by standing with the country in its moment of crisis. Much of what we’re suggesting is consistent with what he and his team have been saying to date, and their advice to Israel has been sweetened by the commitment of some $14 billion in assistance. But the Biden administration’s behind-the-scenes message to the Israelis is only now being broadcast publicly. Thus far, Netanyahu has felt empowered either to abuse Washington’s discretion by deriding U.S. proposals or to equivocate by modifying his most outrageous statements about the future of Gaza without fundamentally changing his direction.
The U.S. has much to give the Israelis if they are prepared to take risks for peace. October 7 reinforced long-standing Israeli anxieties, and for the U.S. to manage those fears will likely require an offer of formal security guarantees, something that the Israelis have not previously asked for and that could expose the U.S. to risk, as well as continued military assistance. And Israel might yet achieve its hoped-for normalization of relations with Saudi Arabia as well. Plenty of risks lie ahead: a weak and hamstrung Palestinian Authority, terrorist spoilers, Iranian interference. But to avoid a post-conflict downward spiral that will endanger both the U.S. and Israel, the Biden administration should act now—before Netanyahu and his ultra-right-wing partners fill the void left by the illusions of the pre–October 7 era with something even more catastrophic.