Hamas’ political leader has presented his terms for an end to hostilities in Gaza, to be followed by a negotiated political settlement with Israel, and the establishment of Palestinian state. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu need not respond to Haniyeh’s terms, but he now has an opportunity to present his own authoritative post-war political plan.
On 2 November 2023, in a recorded speech circulated online, Hamas’ political leader Ismail Haniyeh presented a four-step peace plan, announcing that “we are ready for political negotiations … starting with a ceasefire, opening the crossings, a prisoner exchange deal, and culminating in the establishment of a political path to the establishment of [an] independent Palestinian state with Al-Quds as its capital and the right of self-determination.” On 7 October Hamas militants humiliated the Israeli Defence Force (IDF) by showing their ability to overcome Israel’s security infrastructure and perpetrate shocking tactical violence on Israeli civilians. Now Hamas’ political leader has taken the diplomatic initiative to move the terms of engagement beyond military conflict and towards political negotiation, just as Israel is being drawn into the complexities of urban combat in Gaza. Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu need not respond to (or even acknowledge) Haniyeh’s proposal. But in due course a superior alternative will need to be articulated by Netanyahu, indicating how Israel’s military invasion will pass into conditions of post-war stability, in which Israel’s political authority is assured in the long term.
In the days before Haniyeh’s speech appeared online, another speech was the subject of anticipation in the press – the first address to be given by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah since Hamas’ 7 October attack. Scheduled for 3 November, this speech could have been used as an official declaration that Hezbollah would join the war against Israel from the north, thus bearing out textbook anxieties of Israel’s encirclement by Iranian proxies. But when it came, Nasrallah’s speech did little more than rehearse familiar rhetoric about the resistance axis, and so indicated to Israeli security experts that, for now, Hezbollah would most likely continue only with the controlled aggression it has maintained at the unofficial border with Israel since 2006. For Mariam Farida, the main purpose of Nasrallah’s “strategically calculated and constrained” speech was to legitimise Hamas as an independent political actor, emphasising that Hamas can and will conduct its operations without needing to be directed by Hezbollah.
Warranted or not, preoccupation with Nasrallah’s 3 November address is not the only reason why comparatively little attention has been paid to Haniyeh’s speech, disseminated without fanfare the day before. In it, Haniyeh criticised Netanyahu’s leadership in the wake of the 7 October attack, and, in contrast to Israel’s initial prevarication and then overwhelming military retaliation in Gaza, forcefully listed steps toward a negotiated and long-term territorial settlement. Such directness, brevity, and pragmatism in wartime diplomacy might be welcomed if it came from a party considered to be politically legitimate. But coming from an organisation already designated as a terrorist entity by Israel and its allies, and that has now perpetrated shocking violence on civilians, this latest Palestinian proposal of terms leading to future statehood will surely be ignored by Israel, disparaged by Israel’s allies, and paid little attention by a global public that is focussing on Gaza as an immediate humanitarian emergency, rather than on Hamas as an enduring political reality.
Haniyeh’s proposal involves three tactical steps pertaining to conclusion of hostilities, with the third one – hostage diplomacy – being decisive for Hamas’ capacity to exert pressure on Israel in bringing about a ceasefire and political negotiation. The ultimate objective of that negotiation, as proposed now by Haniyeh, is the same ultimate objective that has been advocated in principle by the US and external parties since the Oslo Accords of 1993; the establishment of an independent state of Palestine, with its own democratically legitimate government. In other words, Haniyeh’s speech is likely to be ignored not because of what is being proposed but because of who is doing the proposing. Now, as at the time of the 2007 Saudi-sponsored Mecca Agreement, Hamas and its leaders are considered by Israel and its allies to be outright ineligible for participation in a politically negotiated future for Palestine. This was made explicit by Netanyahu in the days before Haniyeh’s speech, when he categorically dismissed caving to the terms of terrorists: “calls for a ceasefire are calls for Israel to surrender to Hamas, to surrender to terrorism, to surrender to barbarism. That will not happen”
Haniyeh’s proposal need not be acknowledged by Israel, but Netanyahu does need to articulate a superior peace plan, and a superior proposal for territorial and political arrangements after the war. If Netanyahu were to outline a definite post-war plan now (rather than the “indefinite period” of “security responsibility” in Gaza that he intimated on 7 November), it would provide him with a rhetorical framework through which to address his citizens and voters, thus projecting an image of domestic authority that could calm dissent among citizens of Israel, and counter the criticisms of opposition leader Yair Lapid. It is an opportunity for Netanyahu to begin restoring his political reputation, badly compromised by his controversial judicial reforms and personal corruption charges, and would allow him to quell the alarm produced in Israel, Egypt, and the EU in the first days of November by a leaked Israeli government “concept paper” that described as one post-war option the displacement of Gaza’s civilian population into the Sinai. And in terms of political legacy, presenting elements of a plausible post-war plan now would be a means of responding through statecraft to the strong criticism that has been levelled at Netanyahu by former Prime Minister Ehud Barak. Barak has said that “in many other countries, the head of government would have resigned” after the national security failure of 7 October. Barak added a qualifier to say that “but here it is more complicated” – and this complicated reality that pertains to Israel’s statehood could now be reckoned with by Netanyahu, and consolidated into a concise statement of his vision for a stable political future.
In the week following Haniyeh’s 2 November proposal it became known that he had visited Tehran to meet Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after which Haniyeh and Khaled Meshaal led a Hamas delegation to Cairo for talks with General Abbas Kamel, head of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service. In other words, after having set the tactical violence of Hamas’ 7 October attack within a larger frame of political demands, Haniyeh was now proceeding with regional diplomacy – first to his organisation’s primary backer, and then with the country that crucially shares a border with Gaza.
In regional events over the same few days, Iran-backed threats to Israel’s security increased that were not limited to Hezbollah in Lebanon, and, internationally, there were indications of a growing diplomatic boycott of the Netanyahu government. Israel remained focussed on its immediate war aims, and Netanyahu is yet to articulate a post-war plan. The sooner he presents a superior alternative, the sooner he will show that he is leading a permanent political victory over Hamas – one that leads beyond short-term military retaliation against an attack that should never have been possible for Hamas to carry out.
Benedict Moleta received an MA (Research) from the University of Sydney in 2020, with a thesis on relations between the European Union and Palestine. He is currently researching Australia’s criminal listing of Hamas. His BA was in German and European Studies, with interests from Lessing to Lenin.
This article is published under a Creative Commons License and may be republished with attribution.