Last week, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken headed for the Middle East to try to keep Israel’s war in Gaza from spinning out of control, and to begin talks on what diplomats call “the day after” — what happens after the shooting stops.
Who will govern a shattered Gaza? Who will feed and house its refugees?
Who will police its ravaged streets?
And perhaps improbably, can the war, however brutal its toll, be turned into an opening for a wider peace?
“When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next,” President Biden said last month. “And in our view, it has to be a two-state solution” — an agreement under which a sovereign Palestinian state would live side by side with Israel, with security guarantees for both.
Blinken took that message to Tel Aviv on Friday, beginning with a plea to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for “humanitarian pauses” to get food and water to civilians trapped in Gaza.
Netanyahu said there could be no pause unless Hamas releases more than 220 hostages — a sign of how difficult it will be to negotiate even a brief cease-fire.
The “day after” is the wrong way to think about these challenges. Stabilizing Gaza, setting up a new government and reviving progress toward Israeli-Palestinian peace will be the work of years, not days or months.
Planning for what comes after the war is a good idea. A vision for a better future is essential. But a reality check is in order.
I spent last week talking with U.S. diplomats who have worked on past Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, and they all had similar advice: Lower your expectations.
Almost a month after Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israeli towns and villages, the war is far from over. Israel appears to have the upper hand, but it isn’t clear what winning will look like.
Netanyahu said he intends to “destroy Hamas.” Other Israeli officials have offered slightly more limited goals: eliminating Hamas’ military capability and ending its rule of Gaza.
“Those goals are desirable, but it isn’t clear yet how feasible they are,” warned David Makovsky of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, who worked on Israeli-Palestinian talks during the Obama administration. “I wouldn’t predict that this is a slam-dunk.”
“If Israel achieves its goals, the question is what to do about Gaza,” he said. “Israel does not want to occupy Gaza. They don’t view it as a prize. They don’t want to stay … so they will want to turn it over to somebody.”
Last week, Blinken said the most logical candidate to take control of Gaza would be the Palestinian Authority, the de facto government in the West Bank. But its officials are widely viewed as ineffective and corrupt, and Blinken said it would have to be “revitalized” to handle the challenge.
“Putting the [Palestinian Authority] in now? It would be doomed to fail,” Makovsky said. “And fixing the P.A. will take a while.”
If there’s an interim, discussion in Washington and Israel has focused on persuading a consortium of Arab countries to form a peacekeeping force for Gaza, but it isn’t clear that anyone wants the assignment.
“What Arab state is going to volunteer to do counterinsurgency against Palestinians in Gaza?” asked Aaron David Miller of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, who worked on Arab-Israeli negotiations for more than two decades. “The Egyptians are a logical candidate, and they might do it as a way to regain a closer relationship with the United States … but could it endure over time?”
With all those problems, seeking negotiations toward a two-state solution may sound quixotic. But Biden and other officials insist they are serious.
Blinken says a commitment to a two-state solution is needed so Hamas or an extremist alternative does not rise again.
“We have to combat [Hamas] with a better idea … that gives people something to hope for, to buy into, to grab onto,” he said last week.
The administration also has practical diplomatic reasons to pursue a two-state solution. Without it, other Arab states, including Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are unlikely to help a peacekeeping effort in Gaza.
Plenty would need to change before a two-state solution begins to look feasible, including in Israel’s government. Netanyahu has devoted most of his career to blocking the establishment of a Palestinian state.
A change in the Palestinian Authority would help, too. Its current president, Mahmoud Abbas, is 87, discredited and unpopular.
“Under current circumstances, the two-state solution is basically an aspirational talking point,” Miller said.
Earlier wars have led to breakthroughs, he noted. The 1973 Middle East War led to a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt — six years later. The Palestinian uprising that began in 1987 led indirectly to the Oslo Agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, again six years later.
“At some point, Blinken may need to pack a few extra shirts,” Miller joked, referring to the shuttle diplomacy that earlier secretaries of State pursued. “But that time is not now. We’re still in the middle of a fricking war.”
So again, this isn’t about the day after. It’s about the years after — and many years at that.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.