Judging by the disastrous aftermath of the regime-change wars in Iraq and Libya, it is never too early to plan for the day after Israel decimates Hamas in Gaza.
On Sunday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Gaza “can’t go back to the status quo with Hamas being in a position, in terms of its governance of Gaza, to repeat what it did.” The Israelis have “no intent, no desire, to be running Gaza themselves,” Blinken added. Therefore “something needs to be found, [and] there are different ideas, but all of that needs to be worked… even as Israel is dealing with the current threat.”
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant on Friday told the Knesset that his country has a three-phase plan for Gaza. In the first phase, airstrikes will be followed by a ground invasion “to defeat and destroy Hamas.” The second phase will be lower intensity fighting to “eliminate pockets of resistance,” and in the third, Israel will create a new security regime and relinquish “responsibility of day-to-day life.” Gallant did not mention who will take over this responsibility.
The primary candidate to govern Gaza is the Ramallah-based Palestinian Authority (PA). In 2007, Hamas killed over 300 PA civil and security officials and ejected the PA from the strip. Since then, the PA has grown even weaker. It has lost control over territory in the West Bank, which has become a hotbed of violent armed groups, such as the Lions’ Den and branches of Hamas and the Islamic Jihad.
The PA is also too corrupt, and therefore under-resourced, to fund Gaza’s reconstruction. That leaves a space for Arab governments, especially wealthy and efficient Gulf ones, such as those of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Saudi Arabia, to fill the void.
In 2020, Israel signed the Abraham Accords for peace with the UAE and Bahrain. That year, the UAE promised to fund upgrading of the Israeli checkpoints in the West Bank to automate them and make Palestinian movement seamless. The PA opposed the plan, claiming that making Palestinian lives easier was akin to “decorating a cage” and “entrenching the occupation.”
But now Saudi Arabia has joined governments that prioritize “easing of Palestinian life” over a final Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement, which has proven elusive since 1993. Through American mediation, Saudi Arabia initiated indirect talks with Israel for the normalization of ties between the two.
On Sept. 9, the White House announced a plan for the construction of an India-Middle East-Europe Corridor (IMEC) that will connect India to Europe, through the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel. On Oct. 7, Iran’s Palestinian ally Hamas burst out of Gaza into Israel, killing 1,400 Israelis, and kidnapping 200 others. Iran is part of the competing Belt and Road corridor designed to connect China to the Mediterranean.
“One of the reasons Hamas moved on Israel… they knew that I was about to sit down with the Saudis,” President Biden said. “The Saudis wanted to recognize Israel.”
Hamas’ plan to sabotage peace seemingly worked. Riyadh reportedly froze normalization talks with Israel. Arab governments issued a flurry of statements denouncing the death of Palestinians in Gaza, while anti-Israel protests erupted in many Arab and Muslim countries.
Two days after Hamas’ attack on Israel, leaders of the U.S., U.K, France, Germany and Italy held a conference call and issued a joint statement, which they reiterated over the weekend. The statement described Hamas as a terrorist organization, signaling their approval of the Israeli plan to decimate it, and added that Israel should “ultimately set the conditions for a peaceful and integrated Middle East.”
Setting the conditions for peace was exactly what Saudi Crown Prince and de facto ruler Muhammad Bin Salman, known by his initials MBS, told a bipartisan delegation of U.S. senators, on Saturday, arguing that “conditions should be set for stability and the resumption of the peace track.” That same day, Arab, European, and African leaders huddled in Egypt for the Cairo Peace Summit, which was denounced by pundits known for their proximity to the Tehran regime.
Both Iran and Hamas oppose any kind of peace with Israel, and argue that the only solution is the destruction of Israel and the establishment of Palestine “from the river to the sea.”
But if Israel defeats anti-peace Hamas, conditions will be ripe for peace. Since the PA is too weak, other Palestinian personalities may step up.
Muhammad Dahlan, a former Palestinian security chief whom Hamas ousted from Gaza, lives in exile in the UAE. With diplomatic support and Saudi and Emirati funding, Dahlan might be able to fill the void that the decimation of Hamas and the Israeli withdrawal will leave behind.
Salam Fayyad, an academic who lives in Boston, was globally commended for his outstanding performance as PA prime minister between 2007 and 2013. He is another candidate to run Gaza, post-Hamas.
Western and Gulf governments can impress on Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas to appoint Dahlan or Fayyad as the governor in charge of reconstructing Gaza. Rebuilding the PA and Palestinian politics can follow.
With peace and foreign investments, Gaza can become a tourism and services hub. Its international airport, destroyed in 2001, can be reopened. Its planned port can be built. Gaza can be turned from a pocket of misery into an oasis of hope.
But first, Israel will have to win this war, and the Arabs will have to be ready to help out on the day that follows.