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Israel's lack of a strategy is the strategy

In reporting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, I often recall a book that relates one Israeli view of it.

The late Ariel Sharon, a longtime Israeli soldier and political leader, confided his thoughts to his close friend Uri Dan, an Israeli journalist. Their beliefs can be found in This Burning Land, by Greg Myre and Jennifer Griffin.

"The bond between the two men was built on an unshakable belief. The Jews and the Arabs had been fighting for generations, and... no resolution was on the horizon," reads This Burning Land.

As Sharon and Dan saw it, "the Arabs had never genuinely accepted the presence of Israel," and so a two-state solution was not possible nor even desirable. They "accepted the conflict as a permanent feature of life in the Middle East, part of the world they were born into, and part of the world they would leave behind... In their minds—and in the minds of a fair number of Israelis and Palestinians—if you did not accept the enduring nature of the conflict, then you did not understand the conflict at all."

The 2010 book did not state the views of Benjamin Netanyahu, who at that time was beginning a long run as prime minister. But the idea of a long-lasting conflict helps to make sense of Netanyahu's interview Friday on NPR's Morning Edition, as well as several past conversations.

Asked about the future of Gaza, which the Israeli military is now wrenching from the control of Hamas, Netanyahu said what he didn't want but was vague about what he did. When asked who will rule when Hamas is deposed, Netanyahu said that for "the forseeable future," Israeli troops will have "overall military responsibility. But there also has to be a civilian government there."

Netanyahu pointedly did not say who that "civilian government" should be. He rejects the most obvious replacement for Hamas, the Palestinian Authority led by Fatah, the party that rules the West Bank. Nor did he name any other group that might take charge.

So Israel wants the freedom to strike targets in Gaza when it chooses, but does not want the responsibility of governing or providing services to 2.3 million people, and also is not ready to say who should take that responsibility. In rejecting the Palestinian Authority, Israel is rejecting a group that has endorsed a two-state solution—which the U.S. and others see as the only way toward permanent peace.

For those who think that Mideast peace is the goal, this is a significant omission. But for anyone who thinks the conflict is "permanent" and that no solution could possibly be satisfactory to Israel, the lack of a long-term plan for Gaza is desirable. It's the point.

In numerous interviews with me dating back to 2013, Netanyahu has only rarely indicated openness to a two-state solution, and not at all in recent years. He's told me instead of an idea to allow Palestinians to govern themselves only on matters of no interest to Israel, while Israelis keep all power over security matters.

In a 2022 interview, Netanyahu admitted he was offering Palestinians something far short of political equality. "I don't hide that for a minute. I say it openly," he said. Palestinians are just as open that they aren't interested.

If Netanyahu offered no direct strategy for peace with Palestinians, he was willing to pursue peace without them. He worked for years to open diplomatic relations with Arab nations, going around the Palestinians by making peace with their Arab allies. He enjoyed significant success. And until October 7 he seemed on the verge of his greatest triumph, normalized relations with Saudi Arabia.

As this happened, Israelis tried to loosen some economic controls and encourage Palestinian prosperity as a substitute for a Palestinian state. An Israeli military officer told me that until October 7, Israel believed that Hamas tacitly accepted the bargain, and that they were "not interested" in attacking Israel on a large scale.

Hamas chose a different course. Now Israel has committed to destroying Hamas (or at least knocking it out of power in Gaza). Who replaces Hamas? If it's hard to know, and even harder to know how peace could come, that may be intentional. The question is the answer.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.