Ross is former special assistant to President Barack Obama in charge of the Middle East, is the counselor at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy and also teaches at Georgetown University’s Center for Jewish Civilization. He has worked on Mideast peace across six decades for both Democratic and Republican Presidents, including as Special Envoy for President George H.W. Bush and President Bill Clinton as well as a member of the National Security Council staff.
As three longtime advocates for Mideast peace, from both Democratic and Republican presidential administrations, we believe that a silver lining could eventually emerge from the shocking invasion of Israel by Hamas and the tragic slaughter of over 1,300 civilians. Despite Hamas’ intention to prevent wider Mideast peace from emerging from the Biden Administration’s effort to broker normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and Saudi’s mixed signals on their willingness to move forward, we believe a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia could yet take place and that Hamas’ murderous rampage could paradoxically accelerate regional peace once Hamas is defeated. Here’s how Israel, Saudi Arabia, and the Palestinians could still come together for a broader peace accord.
Clearly, the most important priority for Israel right now is to defeat and displace Hamas as a necessary predicate for any lasting peace. The beheading of infants in front of their parents, dragging corpses through the streets of Gaza, the rape and torture of women, the live immolation of the elderly, and the mass slaughter of hundreds of concert attendees cannot represent the Palestinian people, but it sadly does represent Hamas, which drove out the Palestinian Authority 18 years ago and has ruled Gaza since.
After years of implicitly accepting territorial control over Gaza by these terrorists, a sea change is now happening as U.S. leaders from both sides of the aisle and European heads of state now broadly agree that Israel must neutralize Hamas once and for all. That conflict will be costly, long and challenging, but if Israel can succeed in defeating Hamas, eliminating its leadership, and disarming it, there could be transformative opportunities on the horizon for Israel and the Palestinian people.
Although Hamas’ attack on Israel has temporarily empowered hardline anti-Zionist clerics across the Arab world, it does not change the fact that Arab leaders are increasingly realizing that Israel is here to stay in the Middle East, while maximal demands for a Palestinian state will not make it more likely to materialize. They also understand that Israel is its best regional ally against their shared nemesis of Iran. The defeat of Hamas will deepen that impression.
Already, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman has begun a process signaling his readiness to normalize relations with Israel by having Israeli business delegations come to Saudi Arabia, permitting Israeli ministers to attend meetings under U.N. auspices in Riyadh, and allowing Israeli athletes to take part in events in the country.
The potential opportunity for MBS remains unchanged today, despite Hamas’ terrorist attacks, with a generational opening to buttress Saudi influence in the region and contain Iranian aggression as Hamas is weakened. Why would the Saudi Crown Prince want the world to think Hamas and Iran can bully him into capitulating from what is best for Saudi Arabia? By all accounts, the Saudis were already in advanced talks with the United States to secure several long wished-for priorities, ranging from civilian nuclear assistance to military, defense, and trade pacts. The opportunity for MBS to continue his efforts to solidify his footing with the West and lessen blowback to his transformative priorities, including investments in sports, offers far greater benefits than pandering to hardline Islamic clerics. The potential accord will be an economic boon for MBS, as U.S. requests for increased oil production would significantly increase Saudi Arabia’s oil market share over rival producers, especially Russia and Iran. The choice to embrace a deal may be even easier for him with the removal of Hamas in Gaza.
If Hamas can be defeated, then the opportunities are endless for the Palestinian people to chart a new future. The people of Gaza must understand that not only is the fate of Gaza severable from that of Hamas, but that the intense impoverishment of Gazans wrought by Hamas does not have to continue. Gazans have long sought work in Israel. They want genuine economic opportunity rather than the destructive trappings of historical grievance. And economic opportunity does not mean the siphoning of wasteful aid money by corrupt leaders as we have seen in Gaza, one of the largest recipients of international assistance for years with little to show for it. That is where a past blueprint for peace we worked on, the Peace To Prosperity Plan, led by Jared Kushner and a part of the transformative Abraham Accords, becomes freshly relevant.
We are not talking about the idea of economic peace as a substitute for political peace. The reality is that economic peace will only come with political peace, but the opposite is also true: no political peace will be sustainable without economic peace and opportunity. With that in mind, the plan lays out an achievable $50 billion economic vision for Palestinian economic development predicated on political stability and private sector investment. When we launched the Peace To Prosperity Plan at a special Bahrain economic summit in 2018, private sector leaders ranging from the CEOs of Blackstone and AT&T to top regional investors said that they would never invest in Gaza as long as Hamas remained in power, despite their enthusiasm for the potential of Gaza and its potential economic advantages. As Schwarzman told us, “we invest where there is the rule of law, not the law of rulers.”
That is a message that Palestinians need to hear. The more Hamas weakens, the more the economic future of Gaza, the West Bank, and the Palestinian people can grow. As Mohamed Allabar of the UAE, one of the world’s largest commercial builders, told us, “the younger generation of Arabs will not let us continue to be trapped by our past. By generating jobs, income opportunities, and filling gaps in delivering basic services, the private sector can help build momentum behind a fragile economy and instill hope.”
The savagery and brutality of Hamas’ terrorist attack is too raw to yet imagine any readiness to move on much less shake hands. But Hamas’ invasion does not change the tectonic shifts sweeping across the Middle East. If anything a lasting defeat of Hamas may end up removing obstacles that have long stood in the way of regional peace. On a bipartisan basis, we want to see the United States take the lead on acting on the possibility. While innocence is shattered, hope does not have to be.
— With research by Steven Tian.
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