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Opinion: A perfectly reasonable, highly unrealistic path to peace

Opinion by Frida Ghitis

(CNN) — The brief respite from the fighting between Hamas and Israel has ended, as many of us expected, reigniting the wrenching conflict that has produced so much suffering on both sides of the Gaza border. The battles are likely to continue. Unless, that is, key players in the Middle East and the rest of the international community step in to exert the necessary pressure and take risks to resolve this conflict.

Is there a way to stop the carnage? Is there any way to bring an end to this war and open a path to lasting peace?

The answer is yes. There is a perfectly reasonable, though extremely difficult and perhaps unrealistic solution. But it’s not an impossible one.

Every plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace, every element of a plan, immediately brings to mind the many obstacles it contains. And yet, there are glimmers of light, reasons for some hope. They are faint, but they are remarkable, and they hold the potential for at least a modicum of optimism.

The answer to ending the war, and even the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is hardly a mystery. Negotiators have come close to solving the decades-long conflict before. Right now, the first order of business is Hamas, a terrorist organization opposed to reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians and committed to Israel’s destruction.

No country can allow a hostile group backed by a near-nuclear armed enemy (Iran, in this case) to govern a territory on its doorstep. Removing Hamas from Gaza by military force is impossible without adding to the despairing conditions of Gazan civilians.

But allowing Hamas to prevail and stay in power would embolden it and its allies, especially Hezbollah in Lebanon. It would strengthen Iran and its network of affiliated militias in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and elsewhere. A Hamas victory — its survival in power — would destabilize the region and boost Iran. History has shown what happens when aggressors are not deterred.

But if Hamas releases the hostages and lays down its arms, this war could stop.

Why would Hamas do that? Its leaders claim that the people of Gaza, and they themselves, relish martyrdom. But it’s clear Gaza’s leaders don’t want to die. The prospect of survival would be enticing, especially given their vast financial resources. Which brings up another problem: Israel will be reluctant to let Hamas’s leaders get away. And yet, Israel has no guarantee that it can fully uproot and destroy the organization.

To make Hamas leave, Arab and Muslim countries should join the rest of the international community in exerting pressure over the group that unleashed this war.

That would be a reversal from the current push for a permanent ceasefire, which would leave Hamas in power and guarantee that it would attack again, and that another war, likely a much deadlier one, would follow. That’s because if Hamas survives, Hezbollah may well join it the next time. And by then, Hamas may have become so popular that it may be able to take control of the West Bank. If October 7 was a nightmare of killing, an assault from the West Bank and from Lebanon would have apocalyptic potential.

In exchange for Hamas laying down its arms, Israel should agree to restarting a process aimed at the establishment of a Palestinian state. I know, I know. The current Israeli government opposes that, and after Hamas’s massacre of around 1,200 Israelis on October 7, Israelis have experienced a jarring reminder that the “Axis of Resistance,” as the Iran-linked groups committed to destroying Israel and furthering Iran’s objectives call themselves, are very serious about their goal.

The Axis of Resistance should face an Alliance of Peacemakers.

A strong push for peace by Israel’s new Arab friends, the Abraham Accords countries — which normalized diplomatic ties with Israel under the series of Trump-brokered deals bearing that name — perhaps new countries joining that front, along with Arab countries that made peace with Israel earlier, could help persuade Israel that there’s a path toward peace AND security.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has become profoundly unpopular. He is unlikely to survive in power long after the fighting ends. His prospects for remaining in power look even dimmer after the latest reporting from The New York Times that Israeli intelligence officials had information about the impending Hamas attack and dismissed it.

Whoever replaces him, it’s unlikely that the far-right politicians, formerly political pariahs, he brought into his coalition will be part of the next one. Without Netanyahu, the governing coalition could include lawmakers who have refused to join the current prime minister, so extremist parties would not be required to form a governing majority. That’s another bright spot on the horizon.

Here’s the brightest one: When Hamas launched its October 7 rampage, it might have expected it to be joined by Hezbollah — maybe even by Iran — and by Palestinians in the West Bank, or by Israel’s Arab citizens, who make up about 20% of the country’s population. It might have expected Arab countries having diplomatic relations with Israel to sever them.

That did not happen.

President Joe Biden’s decision to stand firmly with Israel and deploy the US Navy in the region may have kept Iran and its proxies from jumping in. Hamas attacked Arab citizens of Israel, too. DruzeBedouins and others are in the fight.

Meanwhile, the Abraham Accords, put to the test, have held. Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates condemned the Hamas attack. The UAE then condemned Israel’s campaign in Gaza because of its high civilian death toll. But relations have survived.

A top UAE official recently declared, “The Abraham Accords are here to stay.” Just as remarkable, Saudi Arabia has indicated that it remains interested in pursuing peace with Israel, according to the White House.

The surge of anti-Israel sentiment across the Arab world in reaction to Israel’s counteroffensive in Gaza undoubtedly causes unease, even anxiety, among leaders of Arab countries that have relations with Israel. But autocracies, while cognizant of popular opinion, are not beholden to it. The Saudi and Emirati monarchies are in full control of the countries. At least for now, the popular reaction may do little more than create a temporary cooling of bilateral relations.

The UAE’s and Saudi Arabia’s reasons for wanting to strengthen ties with Israel — countering Iran, strengthening their economies, promoting regional stability — remain undiminished after October 7.

That’s terrible news for Hamas and for Iran. As others do, I believe one of the reasons for the Hamas attack was to derail reconciliation between Saudi Arabia and Israel. In fact, it may have done precisely the opposite, by showing just how dangerous Iran’s proxies are for the region and so, reinforcing Saudi’s motivation to counterbalance Tehran by drawing closer to Israel.

One of the biggest quandaries is what happens in Gaza when or if Hamas is removed from power. No Arab country wants to take responsibility for that restive territory. The Palestinian Authority, the logical governing body, can barely control the West Bank. It has lost legitimacy and public support.

And yet, this could be a moment for Arab leaders to step in with an act of heroism. Perhaps the UAE, whose forces are experienced and well-trained, could offer backing to the PA, with joint patrols and strict administration of what should be a large-scale reconstruction program. Interestingly, the UAE is already setting up a field hospital in Gaza.

A large-scale political reconstruction program is imperative throughout the PA, to root out rampant corruption and rebuild public trust. And a strong Palestinian leader advocating peace with Israel would have to emerge to prevent a repeat of the times Palestinian leaders rebuffed peace offers by Israelis, effectively destroying Israel’s peace camp and opening the door to right-wing leaders in Israel.

Again, every step toward a solution comes wrapped in a hundred problems. Reasonable and realistic are not synonymous in this conflict. That’s why the world’s top diplomats have failed to solve this problem in 75 years.

Perhaps the biggest reason for optimism is that some of the worst fighting has twice before led to progress toward peace. It happened after the 1973 Yom Kippur War and after the first Intifada, which ultimately led to peace between Israel and Egypt and to the Oslo Accords, respectively.

Allowing Hamas leaders to survive in exile, bringing the PA and perhaps the UAE to Gaza is hardly risk-free. And yet, the alternative is worse: more death, more suffering, more generations of mistrust.

Am I optimistic? Please don’t ask. But I do think there’s some chance for peace.

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