Why Israel Should Declare a Unilateral Cease-Fire in Gaza

Foreign Affairs, 01.05.2024
Dennis B. Ross (embajador r., consejero del Institute for Near East Policy y profesor U. Georgetown) y 
David Makovsky)
  • A Chance to Turn the Tables on Hamas and Iran—and Advance Normalization With Saudi Arabia

Until last month, the war between Iran and Israel was largely fought in the shadows. The Iranians decided to take it out of the shadows, openly attacking Israeli territory directly, from Iranian soil, for the first time in the Islamic Republic’s history. Some observers have argued that Iran’s April 13 drone and missile assault on Israel was a symbolic gesture. Yet given the quantity of drones and missiles fired at Israel and their payloads, Iran clearly meant to inflict serious damage.

Israel’s defenses were nearly flawless, but it did not repel Iran’s attack entirely on its own. Just as Iran’s assault was unprecedented, so was the direct military intervention of the United States and a number of its allies, including some Arab states. U.S. Central Command, with the participation of the United Kingdom and Jordan, intercepted at least a third of the drones and cruise missiles that Iran fired at Israel; Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also shared intelligence that helped Israel defend itself. Their readiness to play this role was remarkable, given how unpopular Israel’s war with Hamas in Gaza is among Arab publics.

Five days later, when Israel responded to Iran’s attack, it took Washington’s calls for restraint into account, firing three missiles at a radar facility that guides the S-300 missile defense battery in Isfahan, the site of Iran’s uranium conversion plant. This was a very limited response, one crafted to avoid casualties while showing Israel can penetrate Iran’s defenses and strike any target it seeks to hit.

Israel seemingly recognized that the best way to deal with the threat Iran and its proxies pose is to work with a coalition. This, too, is without precedent. The idea that Americans, Europeans, and Arabs would come together to help intercept drones and cruise missiles Iran launched against Israel would, in the recent past, have seemed like a fantasy—and, to Israel, undesirable. Israel’s ethos on defense has always been: “We defend ourselves by ourselves.” This has been both a source of pride and a principle—that no one besides Israelis would have to pick up weapons on Israel’s behalf.

But now that Israel faces not only Iran but multiple Iranian proxy groups, the cost of taking on all these fronts by itself is simply becoming too high. This development, as well as the willingness that Arab states showed in April to join Israel to confront the threat Iran and its proxies pose, suggests that a window has opened for the creation of a regional coalition pursuing a common strategy to counter Iran and its proxies.

To take advantage of this opening, however, Israel, the United States, and Arab countries—particularly Saudi Arabia—need to recognize the unique nature of the moment and seize it. A U.S.-brokered breakthrough in a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia would do a great deal to cement this emerging coalition. If the Saudis, whose king is the custodian of Islam’s two holiest sites, made peace with Israel, that would likely transform Israel’s relationship with other Sunni-majority states within and outside the Middle East following suit. U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration, as well as Israeli and Saudi leaders, indicate that they would still like to see such a deal happen soon. But the Biden administration believes that the fighting in Gaza must be paused before negotiations about normalization can proceed.

A unilateral cease-fire of four to six weeks would offer Israel many strategic benefits.

There is some hope that negotiations in Egypt on a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas will finally be achieved and produce a cease-fire of at least six weeks. But the Biden administration must not put all its eggs in that basket. Again and again, Hamas has raised hopes that a deal is imminent only to dash them. Should no deal emerge in Egypt, the Biden administration should turn to the only realistic alternative: encouraging Israel to announce a unilateral cease-fire in Gaza of four to six weeks.

Such an Israeli decision may be the only way to create the conditions for an Israeli-Saudi normalization deal to advance. Of course, a unilateral cease-fire would be controversial in Israel, both because it de-links pausing the fighting in Gaza from the release of hostages and because it may seem to concede something to Hamas for nothing in return. But a unilateral cease-fire of four to six weeks would, in fact, offer Israel many strategic benefits with few material drawbacks. And in truth, if their negotiations with Hamas fail once again, Israeli leaders will need to adopt a different approach if they hope to get hostages released while some are still alive.

The fact that Israel listened to the Biden administration when crafting its response to Iran’s attack shows that it is open to U.S. persuasion. Indeed, a new reality may be taking shape in Israel, one that could change how it approaches defense, deterrence, and the region.

When it comes to defense strategy, Israel has long been committed to doing its own fighting. All it asked of the United States was to help ensure that it had the means to do so. The help that Israel received to defend itself against the Iranian attack, however, might have been not only welcome but also necessary.

But such help also creates an obligation on Israel’s part. When others participate in Israel’s defense, they gain the right to ask Israel to take their interests and concerns into account. After Iran’s attack, Biden made it clear to Israeli leaders that they did not need to retaliate because their successful defense itself constituted a great success—and, by implication, an embarrassing failure for Iran. For Israel, not to hit back at all would have contradicted the country’s basic concept of deterrence: if you attack us, you will pay, and no one can pressure us not to respond to threats. But Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could not easily dismiss the American position.

Israel’s concept of deterrence has always shaped its responses to direct threats—with one exception that is worth recalling today. During the 1991 Gulf War, the night after U.S. forces attacked Iraq, Iraqi President Saddam Hussein hit Israel with Scud missiles. The Israeli defense minister, Moshe Arens, and other senior military officials wanted to retaliate. But U.S. President George H. W. Bush’s administration, particularly Secretary of State James Baker, persuaded Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir not to do so. Baker reassured Shamir that Israel could give the United States specific targets it wanted hit, and the United States would hit them. But he also stressed that the world stood against Saddam, and that if Israel retaliated directly, it risked disrupting the coalition fighting Iraq. Saddam was trying to transform the conflict into an Arab-Israeli war, and it was not in Israel’s interest to play into his hands.

In 1991, Israel’s prime minister accepted the counsel of the American president.

There is, of course, one big difference between 1991 and today: back then, the U.S. military was attacking Iraq, not simply trying to intercept its missile launches. The United States is not about to attack Iran today. That said, in 1991, Israel was not already in the midst of another war, as it is today in Gaza. And unlike today, Israel was not also juggling a tense northern front with Hezbollah that could easily escalate into an all-out conflict.

In 1991, Israel’s prime minister accepted the counsel of the American president and secretary of state because he could see that it was in Israel’s interest for the coalition against Saddam to remain intact. Shamir also believed that by responding favorably to the United States, he could repair his relationship with Bush, which had become strained over disagreements about Israel’s settlements policy.

Bush appreciated Shamir’s decision, but the two leaders continued to clash over the United States’ provision of $10 billion in loan guarantees, which Israel needed to manage a surge in immigrants from the Soviet Union. Bush wanted to condition those guarantees on Israel’s freezing settlement building in the West Bank. Shamir would not agree, and the Bush administration did not provide the guarantees until it reached an agreement with Shamir’s successor, Yitzhak Rabin, on reducing the value of the guarantees by the amount the United States estimated that Israel was spending annually on settlements.

The nature of Israel’s response to the Iranian attack shows that Netanyahu, too, is willing to take American concerns into account—not going as far as Shamir did to placate Washington but clearly limiting Israel’s response. Today, Netanyahu is also under pressure to repair rifts in his relationship with America’s president, ones that have opened not over Israel’s fundamental war aims in Gaza—ensuring that Hamas can never again threaten Israel—but over Israel’s approach to its military campaign and to humanitarian assistance entering Gaza.

As was the case in 1991, Israel’s restraint in its response to an outside attack will not, by itself, reset its relationship with the United States. With Israel’s assault on Rafah looming, the ties between Biden and Netanyahu could become even more strained. But a U.S.-brokered normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia is the most important thing that could change the trajectory of the relationship. Biden understands that because the Saudis require a credible political advance for the Palestinians in order to finalize a normalization deal, Netanyahu will have to take on the part of his political base that most staunchly opposes Palestinian statehood. And the negotiations cannot make serious progress unless the humanitarian crisis in Gaza is eased—something that cannot easily be done without a cease-fire.

No doubt such a move will be politically difficult for Netanyahu to undertake. He is likely to argue that a pause would take the military pressure off Hamas. Having already greatly reduced its military presence in Gaza since November, however, Israel is not putting the kind of military pressure on Hamas that it was when a hostage deal was brokered that month. No hostages have been released since, a reality that suggests that Hamas’s leader in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, does not feel any serious pressure to seek a reprieve. Israel’s threat to invade Rafah may increase the pressure on Sinwar, but a Rafah operation cannot take place until Netanyahu fulfills his pledge to Biden that no invasion will happen before Israel evacuates the 1.4 million Palestinians crammed into the area. Because evacuation involves not only moving people but also ensuring they have a place to go that has adequate shelter, food, water, and medicine, an evacuation will itself take four to six weeks, probably longer.

Netanyahu will have to choose between Biden and Ben-Gvir.
In light of these realities, Israel should make a virtue of necessity. If it cannot go into Rafah for some weeks, the cease-fire means that it is giving up little but gaining a number of advantages. A four-to-six-week cease-fire would allow international organizations to ease conditions in Gaza and address the world’s concerns about famine there. They could put better mechanisms in place to ensure that sufficient humanitarian assistance not only enters Gaza but is also actually distributed to those most in need. A cease-fire would refocus the world’s attention onto Hamas’s intransigence and the plight of the Israeli hostages. And it would help alter the skeptical narrative that has taken hold about Israel internationally and reduce the pressure on it to end the war unconditionally.

To be sure, the far-right Israeli ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir will oppose any unilateral cease-fire, no matter its duration. But their war aims are not the same as Netanyahu’s or the Israeli public’s. They want to reoccupy Gaza, and they will undoubtedly oppose any breakthrough with Saudi Arabia that requires concessions to Palestinians’ national aspirations. At some point or another, Netanyahu will have to choose between Biden and Ben-Gvir.

Put simply, a unilateral Israeli cease-fire for four to six weeks would create a strategic opportunity—particularly if it creates an opening to normalize relations with Saudi Arabia and transform the tacit regional alignment that emerged after Iran’s attack on Israel into a more material reality. For the Biden administration, the role that Arab states played in helping defend Israel against Iran’s attack is a tangible new development that needs quick follow-up. The U.S. political calendar, too, makes achieving progress on Israeli-Saudi normalization urgent. Getting the Senate’s approval for the United States’ direct contributions to the deal—which include a U.S.-Saudi bilateral defense treaty and a civil-nuclear partnership between the two countries—is certain to become more difficult as the U.S. presidential election approaches.

The new behavior that the Iran-Israel crisis in April provoked in numerous states shows that long-standing realities in the Middle East can change. Iran is now in a weak position, and Israel has a window of opportunity in an otherwise very difficult year. Rarely has Israel so urgently needed to seize a potential strategic opportunity. But this is equally true for the United States. Biden has a strong interest in showing that he was able to take the Israel-Hamas war and the chaos created by Iran’s proxies and forge a more stable and hopeful Middle East. There is a moment to do that now. But there is no telling how long it will last.

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