President Biden: Provide Us Light in This Darkness

Jeremy Ben-Ami Image
Jeremy Ben-Ami
on October 27, 2023

It’s been nearly three weeks since Hamas terrorists launched the most heinous crime against the Jewish people in my lifetime.

The pain for Israel and Jews globally is still very raw. The connections to those lost and suffering are still being discovered. Over 200 people – including many friends and relatives of people in J Street – are being held hostage, and their safety and rescue remains at the front of our minds.

Israel’s military response – which it has the right to pursue to defend its citizens and hold those responsible accountable – is bringing searing pain and suffering. Thousands of families have been devastated, more than a million people displaced, and parents are struggling to feed and shelter their children with no clean water and no path to safety.

J Street’s view is that while a targeted military response to this crime against humanity is justified, the civilians of Gaza must not be made to pay for Hamas’ crimes. As President Biden has said, the Israeli government must adhere to the laws of armed conflict and to our values, which demand that more be done to protect the lives of civilians in Gaza, more than half of whom are under 18.

Earlier this week, I wrote with thoughts on the near-term – and that includes J Street’s call for strategic, humanitarian pauses in the fighting.

Yet, even as we debate what steps to take in the near-term, I’m reminded of the wisdom of my friend Ami Ayalon, who was once Commander of Israel’s Navy: “Even the best ship’s captain in the world can’t get you where you are going if they don’t know the destination.”

So, today, I write to address a question that’s part of every conversation about this crisis: Even if Israel does succeed in removing Hamas from operational control of Gaza, then what? What happens the “day after” the fighting stops?

On Wednesday, the President himself said, “When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next.” He made clear that vision is grounded – as it always has been – in the need for two states and that it will require “concentrated effort from all the parties – Israelis, Palestinians, regional partners, global leaders – to put us on a path toward peace.”

Importantly, the President related that he had spoken to key leaders in the Middle East “about making sure there’s real hope in the region for a better future; about the need to work toward a greater integration for Israel while insisting that the aspirations of the Palestinian people will be a part of that future as well.”

This is not just aspirational idealism – it’s vital to the goal of defeating Hamas.

As security expert Ian Bremmer has written: “Hamas is as much an idea as it is an organization made up of specific people: Israel can kill its entire leadership and destroy its infrastructure, but the movement and ideology will survive in one form or another so long as the political conditions that underpin its support continue to fester.”

Picking up on Ami’s admonition, I have some thoughts for the captain of our national ship, President Biden, who on Wednesday began articulating a vision and a destination.

While there’s no need for him to lay out today every fine point of a program for post-war reconstruction and reconciliation, there is more the President can and should say, even at this point:

  • The United States should make a clear public commitment to lead – in close partnership with nations in the region – a significant, earnest, multinational effort to bring about a viable, independent state of Palestine next to Israel in the wake of this conflict. Lip service to a “two-state solution” is insufficient.
  • The President should reiterate America’s commitment to full normalization of Israel’s relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds and make clear that regional normalization requires resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He could even call for a revived Arab Peace Initiative to provide the parameters for such a path.
  • The US should lead a new UN Security Council Resolution, with the support of all the permanent members, that makes clear that at the end of a set period of time (not immediate, but not too far off), that there will be two independent states (with a border based on the 1949 armistice lines with adjustments, perhaps using maps such as those negotiated around the Geneva Accords).
  • The new state of Palestine must incorporate both what is today the occupied West Bank and Gaza: One political entity – demilitarized – with physical contiguity and a sustainable economy and political system, given the assistance it needs to achieve key markers of security and administrative capacity.
  • The world – led by the US – must make clear to our ally Israel that any pretense of potential long-term Israeli control over the West Bank is over. The President should state clearly that post-war American financial and diplomatic support for Israel must be matched with actual Israeli movement to end settlement expansion and to roll back the occupation of what will be the state of Palestine.
  • He should make equally clear that the present leadership of the Palestinian Authority must agree to a transition plan for leadership that leads to early elections to re-establish the credibility of Palestinian leadership with its own people.

As a first step, at the end of conflict, a multinational trusteeship should be established for Gaza involving Arab nations in the region who have sought and expressed interest in normalized relations with Israel (Morocco, UAE, Bahrain, perhaps Egypt and Jordan, maybe even Saudi Arabia).

That trusteeship should be authorized to administer Gaza in the immediate post-conflict period. It and its member nations, as well as the US and others, should engage with the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, retool it and invest in it, so as to:

  • Build out a security infrastructure with regional and international assistance that can provide the necessary security assurances to the state-in-building’s neighbors (in particular, Israel, but Jordan and Egypt as well).
  • Invest economically with a massive Marshall Plan-like program that jumpstarts an economy that allows Palestinians to have opportunity, hope and dreams – precisely the antidote to the ideology of hate that festers in endless occupation.
  • Create a political infrastructure that leads rapidly to free and open elections of a Palestinian political leadership ready to take the reins of the new state and guide it to its place in the new regional architecture.
  • Revitalize Palestinian governance so that the more legitimate Palestinian Authority that will result from elections can promptly take over responsibility for Gaza from the trusteeship, regain the trust the world had in the Palestinian Authority during the era of Salam Fayyad, and take part in serious negotiations with Israel and regional partners.

The message to Israel must be clear: You are a legitimate and recognized state in the world. There is no question about the right of the Jewish people to self-determination in the land of Israel and to security with American support. Yet your right to self-determination in Israel does not negate the rights of Palestinians to live by your side.

Parallel to America’s commitment to building a state of Palestine, there should be a commitment to invest in the rehabilitation of the southern communities in Israel devastated by the barbaric Hamas attack of October 7.

The message to the Palestinian people must be bold and clear as well: The world sees you and recognizes you and your right to freedom and self-determination in a state of your own. Your legitimate rights will be fulfilled in a state of your own, but the path to freedom and independence can only be one of non-violence and renunciation of terror.

The world must recognize both Israel and Palestine as the national homelands of their respective peoples – and so too, each of those two states must recognize the other and their right to live next door in peace and security.

Yes, this is a bold and wide-eyed vision. Yes, it stretches the imagination and perhaps even credulity to think this way.

This vision must be developed quickly into an operational plan with a defined endpoint, a clear sense of what Israel and the Palestinians each must do, and a timetable.

The lack of a clearly defined destination was the downfall of the Oslo Accords. There will be no patience for endless process this time around.

This is a dark hour in the Middle East.

Precisely in this dark hour, leaders must provide light.

It is at this moment that we need the President to illuminate the destination on the horizon toward which we are headed and to provide his assurance that the steps we take now will lead us to that better future.

As always, we welcome your thoughts and feedback. And I want to thank everyone for the support and grace this community has shown each other in this difficult time, especially to those of us most personally impacted. It’s meant a great deal.