The end of Netanyahu is on the horizon: this is a pivotal moment for the Middle East

Plans for a post-war peace must be made now

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During his State of the Union address of 7 March, US President Joe Biden announced that a port will be constructed off the coast of Gaza to help deliver aid to Palestinian civilians. While an important humanitarian measure, it was mostly an acknowledgment of the failure to reach a ceasefire, and to convince Israel to allow sufficient humanitarian assistance in by land.

Only a fortnight ago, Biden had announced that a ceasefire deal would be reached by 4 March, with an exchange of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners expected. But despite weeks of painstaking Qatari, Egyptian and US mediation, a ceasefire was not agreed before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which began on 11 March.

The vast gaps between Hamas and Israel’s positions risk a serious regional escalation, but negotiations are ongoing with new proposals for a shorter cessation of hostilities on the table.

Continuing hostilities make it far harder to address the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza, where the UN OCHA reports that at least 500,000 people are on the brink of famine, and over 30,000 have been killed in violence since 7 October, with around 72,000 people wounded and over 17,000 children now estimated to be orphaned or unaccompanied. 

The new maritime aid corridor from Cyprus and the related US port project indicate the scale of desperate need in Gaza. They also suggest just how far off the US and other countries think a comprehensive ceasefire may be.

The new maritime aid corridor from Cyprus and the related US port project indicate the scale of desperate need in Gaza. They also suggest just how far off the US and other countries think a comprehensive ceasefire may be, and how difficult it is to convince Israel to get more aid in – which would be required for a long time after a permanent ceasefire. It is likely to take around two months to build the infrastructure proposed. 

Ramadan, beginning this week, was seen as an important deadline to reach an agreement and to bring aid to Palestinians in Gaza and ease tensions. Instead the month will now be a time of potential escalation – reports of Israeli policemen obstructing access to the Al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem on Monday highlight the kind of tensions that could lead to an escalation in violence. Humanitarian assistance as well as recovery assistance will be required for a long time even after a permanent ceasefire.

The Gaza crisis is also having a direct impact on the situation in the West Bank. The UN reports over 400 Palestinians have been killed in the area since 7 October as a result of IDF incursions and settler violence. Arrests in the West Bank have also soared and tensions are escalating there too, with fears of closure over Ramadan.

The cautiously good news

Against this background the only good news is that the era of Benjamin Netanyahu appears to be nearing its end – though no one knows precisely how long it will take to oust him from office. 

Washington has clearly signalled its impatience with Netanyahu and is seeking to forge relationships with alternative leadership in Israel. 

Washington has clearly signalled its impatience with Netanyahu and is seeking to forge relationships with alternative leadership in Israel. 

In his State of the Union, Biden acknowledged Israel’s right to defend itself, but directly spoke to its leadership, stating that ‘humanitarian assistance cannot be a secondary consideration or a bargaining chip.’

The extraordinary visit to the US made last week (despite Netanyahu’s explicit disapproval) by war cabinet member Benny Gantz was unprecedented and a clear demonstration of the Biden administration’s exasperation with Israel’s prime minister. 

Gantz, after holding talks with Vice President Kamala Harris, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Defence Lloyd Austin, also met UK Foreign Secretary David Cameron in London.

Even more stunning was the call on 14 March from Senate majority leader Charles E. Schumer, the highest ranking elected Jewish official in the US, for Israeli elections to replace Netanyahu. He also called for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to step down.

Three members of Netanyahu’s war cabinet –  his defence minister Yoav Gallant, Benny Gantz, and Gadi Eisenkott – are all signalling their intention to challenge him for the prime minister position. 

Israelis are ready for change. In recent polls, conducted by both Israel’s Channel 13 and the Israel Democracy Institute, around 75 per cent expressed a desire to see Netanyahu go. 

Even within his party, Likud, manoeuvrings are taking place for his succession, with challenges also emerging from the far right ultra-Orthodox within his coalition.  Under these circumstances it can only be a matter of time before the coalition falls apart and a new government takes power. 

While he is in power, no progress can be made. The only troubling question is how much damage will he inflict before he departs, especially given that there is a three month period when he could do considerable damage once his government falls and before a new government is elected and formed.

Seizing the pivotal moment

The departure of Netanyahu will be a pivotal moment for Israel, the region, and the world. Israel will have a real opportunity to promote new priorities, fresh ideas, and integrate in the region. It will also be a unique chance to bring momentum to a new peace process. The planning for that day must commence today.

A new Israeli coalition government composed of parties now in opposition and likely led by a former general will have US backing – although the nature and scope of that support would depend on who the next US president will be. 

A new Israeli government will try to pave a secure path to peace, and that government will need the support of both the US and Arab countries.

A new Israeli government… will need to be convinced that a Palestinian state will be the best route to protecting Israel’s security. 

The new government will also need to be convinced that a Palestinian state will be the best route to protecting Israel’s security. It may seem obvious to Arab states, but it is not obvious at all to Israelis after 7 October. Israelis’ real fear, that a Palestinian state will support another such attack, needs to be addressed. 

Peace must be based on the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, as agreed by all Arab and Muslim states in 2007. This would see the creation of a sovereign, viable contiguous Palestinian State based on the 1967 lines in exchange for Israeli normalisation with Arab states.

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There are significant obstacles beyond Netanyahu: elements within both Israeli and Palestinian politics believe an escalation of violence would serve their interests. Significant support for Hamas remains in the West Bank, and new leadership will be required on the Palestinian side as well as the Israeli.

The Palestinian Authority’s prime minister and cabinet resigned in late February under pressure to reform. On 14 March, President Abbas appointed his chief economic adviser Mohammad Mustafa as the new prime minister.

Mahmoud Abbas, President of the Authority for 19 years, is going to have to give way too.

The short term and the long term

For now, as there is no way of knowing when a ceasefire agreement will be reached, it is vital to get vast quantities of aid into Gaza and address the famine and extreme suffering – thankfully the first ship sailed to Gaza with 200 tonnes of aid. 

Meanwhile efforts must not cease to get the hostages out –  key to getting Israel to agree to a ceasefire and a flow of significant aid.

However far off a ceasefire may seem, the US and the Arab world must prepare for Netanyahu’s fall now.

But however far off a ceasefire may seem, the US and the Arab world must prepare for Netanyahu’s fall now. This should be done by all the Arab countries that have diplomatic relations with Israel sooner rather than later. 

His departure will be a vital opportunity to inject momentum into a lasting ceasefire and a credible peace process, and the world must prepare to seize the moment in order to prevent another war and secure peace and stability in the region.