A glimmer of hope for Gaza

For Gaza, April may turn out to be “the cruelest month,” as it is in T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Wasteland.” Or, perhaps, as in “The Canterbury Tales” by Geoffrey Chaucer, it will begin a period of rebirth and renewal.

Recent events suggest that normally cautious politicians are concluding, albeit tentatively, that conditions may be ripe to address a conflict that has become a humanitarian catastrophe.

Following Israeli airstrikes that killed seven workers for chef José Andrés’s World Central Kitchen, and amid Israelis’ growing dissatisfaction with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Benny Gantz — a retired general, leader of the National Unity Party and member of the coalition war cabinet — called for a snap election in September. “Setting such a date,” Gantz declared, when elections are not required until October 2026, will “allow us to continue the military effort while signaling to the citizens of Israel that we will soon renew their trust in us.” And an election will provide Israel with “greater international legitimacy.”

Netanyahu’s claims that elections will prevent Israel from defeating Hamas, set back negotiations to release hostages and further polarize society are self-serving and unpersuasive. Indeed, the opposite is true. Trust in the Netanyahu government, on whose watch the horrific Hamas terrorist attack occurred, has fallen to 34 percent, and the vast majority of Israelis want him gone.

A new prime minister, possibly Gantz, will have every incentive to press the reset button on military and diplomatic tactics and strategy, humanitarian aid, hostage negotiations and perhaps even West Bank settlements. Israelis seem open to establishing a demilitarized Gaza, for example, if doing so is combined with freedom for hostages and normalized relations with Saudi Arabia.

A snap election can be called, it’s worth noting, without Netanyahu’s cooperation. Defection of five members in the prime minister’s multi-party coalition in the Knesset would bring the government down, as would withdrawal by Gantz and other moderate members of the war cabinet. And five or more members of Likud might vote “no confidence” in Netanyahu and replace him with someone else from the party. Massive protests may push some of these politicians to take the risk.

In the U.S., support for Israel has declined dramatically since Oct. 7. Even before Israelis killed the World Central Kitchen workers, half of Americans were convinced that Israel had gone too far in its attempts to destroy Hamas. A majority of them, including 50 percent of American Jews, now support a cease-fire. Large numbers of young people, Muslims and progressives, more than enough to change the outcome of the presidential election in November, expressed disapproval of what they perceive as Biden’s all-out support for Israel in Democratic primaries in Michigan and other battleground states.

Congressional Democrats are weighing in as well. Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY), a staunch supporter of Israel, called on Netanyahu to step down in March. This month, Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) proposed withholding military aid if Israel begins an offensive in Rafah without a concrete plan to protect 1.5 million Gazans living there. Former Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) joined some three dozen of her House colleagues in urging Biden to withhold the recently-announced arms package and future weapons sales if Israel “fails to mitigate harm to innocent civilians in Gaza” and continues to restrict humanitarian aid to a population on the verge of starvation.

Biden, whose approval rating for his handling of the conflict has plummeted since Hamas’s attack, has also decided that a significant change in policy is now far more politically advantageous and likely to have a decisive impact. Last week, the White House announced that the president told Netanyahu that a cease-fire “is essential, without delay.” Biden indicated as well that future American support depends on Israel taking “specific, concrete, measurable steps to address civilian harm, humanitarian suffering, and the safety of aid workers.”

Almost immediately, Netanyahu opened crossings in Erez, Jordan and the port in Ashdod for deliveries of food, fuel and medicine to Gazans. There is little doubt, however, that the Biden administration does not view this response as sufficient, and that patience with the prime minister in Israel and abroad is in short supply.

Time will tell whether these developments will be followed by intensifying pressure and concrete actions that produce life-preserving progress and maybe even a breakthrough. Although peacemakers have miles to go before they sleep, all the more so in light of Iran’s attack on Israel, at the very least we now have reasons for a glimmer of hope.

Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Emeritus Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.

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