Israel’s Chance to Turn Carnage into Peace

By Jeffrey Sachs*

Israel is running out of time to save itself — not from Hamas, which lacks the means to defeat Israel militarily, but from itself.  Israel’s war crimes in Gaza, verging on the crime of genocide according to the Center for Constitutional Rights, threaten to destroy Israel’s civil, political, economic and cultural relations with the rest of the world.  There are growing calls in Israel for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to resign immediately.  A new Israeli government should seize the opportunity to turn carnage into lasting peace through diplomacy. 

Netanyahu is leading Israel into the same trap that the US fell into after 9/11. Hamas’ goal in its heinous terrorist attack on 10/7 was to goad Israel into a long and bloody war, and to induce Israel to commit war crimes to bring on the world’s opprobrium.  This is a classic political use of terror: not merely to kill, but to frighten, provoke, debase, and ultimately undermine, the foe. 

Al-Qaeda, the perpetrator of 9/11, goaded America’s political class to launch disastrous wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and beyond.  The result was carnage, torture by the US, $8 trillion of debts, and the collapse of US prestige and power. Hamas is similarly goading Israel into war crimes and potentially into a region-wide war.  Israel’s actions are turning Israel’s friends around the world against it. 

Israel’s instinct is to ignore global opinion, chalking it up to anti-Semitism and believing that the US has Israel’s back.  Yet the US, weakened as it is in world affairs, can’t possibly save Israel from itself.  Just look at how the US is “saving” Ukraine.  Ukraine is being destroyed by its pursuit of NATO membership and rejection of diplomacy, both of which have been encouraged by America’s ineffective pledge to support Ukraine militarily “for as long as it takes.”

There is another deep similarity of al-Qaeda’s 9/11 and Hamas’s 10/7.  Al-Qaeda was a US creation that later boomeranged.  By covertly funding Islamic jihadists in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Union during the 1980s, the CIA effectively launched al-Qaeda.  In the case of Hamas, Netanyahu secretly backed Hamas in order to divide and weaken the Palestinian Authority. 

Israelis are told by Netanyahu and his cabinet that there is no alternative to achieve security and peace other than to invade Gaza to defeat Hamas.  The acquiescence of the US and European governments as Israel invades Gaza conveys the message to the Israeli people that their leaders are telling the truth: that Hamas can be defeated militarily, that the civilian deaths in Gaza are being limited by careful targeting of military operations, and that Israel is doing the only thing it can do for its own security.  Yet these misguided views are perpetrated by the same political class that let Israel’s guard down in the lead-up to 10/7.  Israeli leaders are seeking to cover up their blunders through the war in Gaza. 

The facts are these.  First, while Hamas demonstrated its capacity to commit a surprise terrorist attack, the truth is that Israel let its guard down on 10/7.  By bolstering its borders and its intelligence, Israel can block Hamas from a repeat attack.  Nor is Israel at risk of any kind of military defeat by Hamas inside Israel, since Israel has vast military dominance. The same was true with 9/11, which was a catastrophic failure of US homeland security and intelligence operations, but not remotely a threat of any kind of US military defeat. 

This is not to say that defeating Hamas inside Gaza would be straightforward.  Hamas will then have the advantage of urban guerilla warfare on its own turf, and no doubt large numbers of Israeli soldiers are likely to die in a major ground operation. 

There is a completely different approach to Israel’s security, the one that Israel’s political class has rejected for decades, yet the only one that can deliver real peace and security.  It is a political solution for Palestine, coupled with comprehensive, enforceable security arrangements for Israel. 

Israel sits on top of a volcano of unrest because it has long denied basic human, economic, and political rights to the Palestinian people.  Gaza has famously been described by Human Rights Watch as an open-air prison. Israel’s occupation of Palestine, is tantamount to apartheid in the view of human rights groups such as Amnesty International.  The UN Security Council and UN General Assembly have rightly and overwhelmingly voted resolution after resolution calling for a two-state solution, most recently on October 26, just days ago.

I refer readers interested in the detailed history of this long saga to the wise and scholarly study by my esteemed colleague Professor Rashid Khalid, The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine.  Historian Ian Black, in his book Enemies and Neighbors: Arabs and Jews in Palestine and Israel 1917-2017, recounts that Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving Prime Minister, “was not prepared to make the concessions needed to make [the two-state solution] possible.”  

The failure of Israel’s political class to achieve true security for Israel and justice for Palestine opens the door to a different approach.   Here is how a diplomatic solution could work. 

The UN Security Council would commit to the disarming of militant groups including Hamas and Islamic Jihad.  Countries funding and arming these groups, notably Iran, would agree to join with the UN Security Council in defunding and demobilizing these groups as part of the peace deal.  Both Saudi Arabia and Iran would establish diplomatic relations with Israel as part of the peace deal.  Israel and the UN Security Council would recognize a sovereign, independent, and secure state of Palestine, with its capital in East Jerusalem, and with full membership in the United Nations.  Palestine would be given sovereign control over the Muslim holy sites of East Jerusalem, including Haram al-Sharif

The five permanent powers (P5) of the UN Security Council — the US, Russia, China, UK, and France – all favor such a peace deal.  Indeed, Biden has recently reiterated US support for the two-state solution.  Moreover, there is scope for favorable diplomacy among the P5.  The US and China will soon hold a summit of President Biden and President Xi, and there are even glimmers of behind-the-scenes diplomacy of Russia and the US to sort out and end the tragic conflict in Ukraine. 

Iran can be brought on board to such a deal, as long as the deal includes the normalization of Iran’s diplomatic and economic relations with the EU and US. In 2015, Iran negotiated the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) with the US and Europe to end Iran’s nuclear weapons program in return for an end to Western sanctions.  It was the US, not Iran, that brazenly withdrew from the JCPOA in 2018.  More recently, Iran has reconciled with Saudi Arabia and joined the BRICS nations, demonstrating Iran’s interest in dynamic and creative diplomacy.

The rest of the UN member states also clearly support a two-state solution.  As soon as Israel embraces a comprehensive peace deal, it will garner friends worldwide, and cause a worldwide sigh of relief.  

If Israel swallows Netanyahu’s poison that “this is a time for war,” Israel will isolate itself from the rest of the world and pay a devastating price.  Israel’s attainable objective is lasting peace and security through diplomacy.  Israel’s friends, starting with the US, must help it choose diplomacy over war.  Friends do not let friends commit crimes against humanity, much less provide them with the finances and arms to do so.   


 *Professor at Columbia University, is Director of the Center for Sustainable Development at Columbia University and President of the UN Sustainable Development Solutions Network. He has served as adviser to three UN Secretaries-General, and currently serves as an SDG Advocate under Secretary-General António Guterres.