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Why a “Day After” Plan in the Israel-Hamas War Is Unlikely

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There is uncertainty surrounding the resumption of peace talks, with elections in Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and the US potentially impacting the situation. The question of who rules Gaza and who speaks for the Palestinians may remain unanswered for several years.

Seldom has the Middle East produced such an unforeseen event as we witnessed on October 7 when Hamas launched its bloody incursion into southern Israel. It had reportedly picked the date quite deliberately in memory of another similar happening fifty years ago — Egypt’s initially successful offensive against occupying Israeli troops in the Sinai Desert that marked the start of the last general Arab-Israeli clash, the Yom Kippur War.

The day after

The question facing Israel, the Palestinians, the US, and the United Nations is what happens when a ceasefire is finally declared, the so-called “Day After” scenario. President Biden and his foreign policy team have been pressing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to announce his vision for that fateful day. The Israeli leader has so far sidestepped the issue other than to make clear his still-blurry ideas are quite different from those of Biden.

President Biden put forth in a Washington Post opinion piece on November 18 what he called his “basic principles” for any future Israeli-Palestinian peace talks based on a two-state solution, which, Biden proclaimed is “the only way to ensure the long-term security of both the Israeli and Palestinian people.” He also rejected Israeli reoccupation of Gaza or expulsion of Palestinians from there. He called for a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority (PA) to rule over both Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Netanyahu, on the other hand, has declared Israel will remain in control of Gaza for an “indefinite period” and said any role for the PA is “not possible.” He has never supported a two-state solution, and pushed instead for the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank. 

Neither leader has put forth a plan for how peace talks might be relaunched. There’s a good reason: There are far too many unknowns, both “known” and “unknown,” in the famous geopolitical lexicon of former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. 

Most analysts feel safe in predicting Israel will eventually prevail over Hamas militarily if outside pressure does not force it to halt its invasion beforehand.

Most analysts feel safe in predicting Israel will eventually prevail over Hamas militarily if outside pressure does not force it to halt its invasion beforehand. One major unknown, however, is whether military defeat for Hamas will translate into a political one, as both Israeli and the Biden administration dearly hope. Both have labeled Hamas a “terrorist organization,” in the US case, as far back as 1997. However, Hamas’ standing on the Arab street, if not with Arab governments, is certain to reach new heights as a result of the first even partial Arab victory over the Israeli military since 1973. 

Israeli and US efforts to exclude Hamas from the political landscape of Gaza and the West Bank thus risk keeping Palestinians as sharply divided as ever, a divide that has helped sabotage all past Israeli-Palestinian negotiations because of Hamas’ dedication to aborting the peace process and destroying the Israeli state. 

Three critical elections

The fate of  Netanyahu is as much a “known unknown” as that of Hamas. He and his right-wing government are being widely blamed at home for the massive security failure that allowed Hamas to penetrate southern Israel unopposed, massacre 1,200 Israeli civilians and soldiers, and take 240 hostages back to Gaza. Israeli parties have agreed to postpone the debate over who was responsible until after the war. But another round of Israeli elections seems to be in the offing, making it the sixth since 2019 in a closely divided electorate between secularist and religiously ultra-conservative parties.  

New elections will almost certainly have to be held as well to revitalize the equally discredited PA leadership that has governed the West Bank in partnership with Israeli security forces since shortly after the 1993 Oslo Accords. Its president, Mahmoud Abbas, 88, was first elected for a four-year term in 2005, but he is still in office 18 years later, though widely unpopular among Palestinians. Hamas won a majority of seats, if not votes, in the Palestinian Legislative Council elections the following year, the results of which neither Israel nor the US were willing to accept. So Abbas’ Fatah Party has ruled over the West Bank ever since, although Hamas seized control of Gaza by force in 2007. 

Yet another set of elections are certain to be held next November in the US. The results are yet another of Rumsfeld’s known unknowns. Should the likely Republican candidate, former President Donald Trump, emerge victorious, he is unlikely to press whoever leads Israel to push for a two-state solution or object to Israeli “indefinite control” of Gaza. He was the first US president to recognize hotly contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Thus, there are three elections whose outcomes must be known before a political solution to Gaza’s fate, or that of the Palestinians, is likely to be seriously addressed. 

Possible negotiation scenarios

How peace negotiations might be revived after fifteen years in limbo is anyone’s guess. One proposal is to hold a second international conference similar to the one in 1991 in Madrid, Spain that opened the way for the Oslo Accords that led to the establishment of the Palestinian Authority. It was co-sponsored by the US and the Soviet Union, which is obviously unlikely this time after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Could the US host yet another Camp David summit on its own? The Biden administration, which has backed Israel’s war to crush Hamas to the hilt, will likely be viewed as too biased to serve as a host by the international community. In addition, Biden will have his hands full with an uphill re-election campaign. This leaves the United Nations as one possibility. Another is a neutral Scandinavian country such as Norway, which hosted secret Israeli-Palestinian talks that produced the Oslo Accords.

The question of Hamas’ participation looms as a major stumbling block, if indeed, it shows any interest in joining a revived peace process. At the 1991 Madrid conference before the PA existed, the thorny question of Palestinian representation was resolved by including officials from the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the Jordanian delegation. 

It is doubtful that either Israel or the US would agree to a similar formula to allow Hamas even an indirect presence at the peace table, at least not until it recognized the existence of Israel and renounced terrorism. 

It is doubtful that either Israel or the US would agree to a similar formula to allow Hamas even an indirect presence at the peace table, at least not until it recognized the existence of Israel and renounced terrorism. This is what PLO Chairman Yaser Arafat was obliged to do before US and Israeli leaders would allow him into the peace process.

Biden is proposing that the PA replace Hamas in Gaza and thus become the voice for all Palestinians. But PA President Abbas bluntly told US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken at their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on November 5 that this would only be possible “within the framework of a comprehensive political solution.” 

All told, it seems unlikely there will be any answer to the conundrum of “who rules Gaza” or speaks for the Palestinians for at least several years. 

All told, it seems unlikely there will be any answer to the conundrum of “who rules Gaza” or speaks for the Palestinians for at least several years. The prospect is indeed real that Israel will maintain “total security control” for an “indefinite period,” just as Netanyahu has already declared.

The views expressed in these articles are those of the author and do not reflect an official position of the Wilson Center. 

About the Author

David Ottaway image

David Ottaway

Middle East Fellow;
Former Washington Post Middle East Correspondent
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Middle East Program

The Wilson Center’s Middle East Program serves as a crucial resource for the policymaking community and beyond, providing analyses and research that helps inform U.S. foreign policymaking, stimulates public debate, and expands knowledge about issues in the wider Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region.  Read more