Israel has a new government — but how much difference this will make to the prospects for peace is in doubt. In Gaza, Hamas emerged from its recent 11-day clash with Israel eager for confrontation, repeatedly launching incendiary balloons across the border. Israel has retaliated with airstrikes. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, nearly 17 years into what was meant to be a four-year term, recently suspended elections yet again. Beset by corruption and infighting, Palestinian leaders have offered no realistic proposals and little sign they could uphold a deal if one was struck.
Israel’s new leaders do seem eager to strengthen ties with the country’s few Arab partners. Hard-line Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has spoken with his Egyptian counterpart about reconstruction in Gaza, and centrist Foreign Minister Yair Lapid has inaugurated Israel’s first embassy in the United Arab Emirates. This outreach is commendable and should be reciprocated by other countries in the region.
Nonetheless, Israel’s government should understand that peace with their neighbors is no substitute for peace with the Palestinians.
Pursuing a just and durable two-state solution might seem naïve. The new governing alliance is beyond fragile, with only a one-vote majority in the Knesset. Its eight members include leftist, centrist and hard-right parties, supported by critical votes from Ra’am, an Islamist party. Former Defense Minister Bennett, slated to hold the premiership first before handing off to Lapid, opposes Palestinian statehood. The coalition partners aim to avoid contentious issues.
Challenging that bleak assessment is the fact that the status quo is unsustainable. The clashes between Israel and Hamas underscore the anger and resentment not just of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank, but of Arab citizens in Israel itself. Doing nothing is a formula for escalating conflict. Furthermore, the calculus that yielded the Oslo Accords nearly 30 years ago is still true: No one has presented a plausible one-state solution that would let Israel remain both Jewish and democratic. Unless Palestinians have their own nation, it’s hard to see how Israel can avoid becoming the illiberal state its critics say it already is.
The new government knows, as well, that U.S. sentiment seems to be shifting, especially among progressive Democrats, who were severely critical of Israel during the recent clashes. To win them back, and to bolster its traditionally strong bipartisan U.S. support, Israel would be wise to work with the Biden administration to improve the lives of Palestinians and keep open the possibility of peace.
To that end, Israel should avoid undermining future negotiations, for instance by evicting Palestinians from areas critical to a Palestinian state, expanding settlements in such areas, or annexing territory outright. Israel’s leaders should cooperate with the U.S., Egypt and others to rebuild Gaza without strengthening Hamas, and expand economic opportunities for Palestinians in the West Bank. They should do all they can to relieve the daily indignities that fuel Palestinian anger — halting home demolitions, allowing more building permits, and relaxing trade restrictions and limits on movement.
The U.S. should work with its Arab allies to reinforce these efforts. The administration should encourage Saudi Arabia and others to reward Israeli actions by moving toward normalizing ties. And, perhaps most important, the U.S. should press Egypt and Qatar to use their leverage to rein in Hamas and force Palestinians to hold new elections and unify their leadership with candidates who forswear violence against Israelis. If Palestinians want Israel’s new government to work for peace, they’ll have to help.