A two-state solution is the only path to peace in the Middle East
Israel had the sympathy of the world after the horrific terrorist attack by Hamas on 7 October. But the longer its assault on Gaza goes on, with the ever-increasing civilian death toll and worsening humanitarian crisis, the greater the risk of wider conflict.
The situation at Israel’s northern border is on a knife edge, as the exchanges of fire with Hezbollah militia in southern Lebanon intensify. It might only take one serious incident to trigger an Israeli ground force operation – and Hezbollah have many more missiles that Hamas ever did.
Meanwhile, the Houthi militia in Yemen have caused major disruption to maritime trade with their attacks on international shipping in the Red Sea. In my view, the United States and British governments were right to take military action in defence of freedom of navigation, and to emphasise that this was quite separate from the Israel-Gaza war. Nonetheless, it is true that the Houthis were exploiting real anger felt across the Muslim world – and beyond – at the suffering of Palestinians in Gaza.
A new peace initiative could only take shape with a new government in Israel, but that may not now be far away
The link between Hezbollah and the Houthis is of course Iran, which is only too happy to arm and encourage its proxies to exploit anti-Western sentiment and sow division and instability.
A durable settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is the surest way to reduce the dangerous levels of tension in the Middle East. That feels like a distant prospect today, but catastrophes like the Gaza war can create opportunities. It is therefore encouraging to see the first outlines emerging of a peace plan from the moderate Arab countries.
The plan follows Eisenhower’s excellent advice that, if you can’t solve a problem, enlarge it. It offers Israel the prospect of greater integration into the dynamic economy of the region through a peace deal with Saudi Arabia (following those with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in 2020) in return for a commitment to a Palestinian state.
Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to reject the idea of a two-state solution. But he is at loggerheads with President Biden on this, and divisions are opening up in his coalition. In practice, a new peace initiative could only take shape with a new government in Israel, but that may not now be far away. There is also an urgent need for a new Palestinian leadership, willing to take the path of peace with Israel.
Many other intensely difficult issues will have to be settled if there is to be peace and security in the region. Crucially, who will provide security in Gaza after a ceasefire, and what, if any, oversight will Israel have?
Israelis will rightly need to know that Gaza will never again become a base for terrorist attacks on them. In practice, the only viable option is likely to be a multinational force from Arab states to provide law and order while a massive reconstruction effort gets under way. That would also have to be funded largely by the wealthy Arab nations, with contributions from others including the United Kingdom and other European countries (which will come on top of the cost of Ukraine reconstruction).
All of this will need intensive efforts between the US, the Arab nations and Europeans. And it will only happen if a new Israeli government is willing to create the conditions for peace by accepting the principle of a two-state solution. But a regional peace settlement, even if it took years, would be a huge prize, showing that a world of disorder is not inevitable. It would also demonstrate that, for all the talk of US retreat from international leadership, it is still Washington not Beijing which is the indispensable power when it comes to containing and reducing threats to international security.
Lord Ricketts, crossbench peer and former diplomat
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