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Suffering in Gaza and fears of escalation increase international pressure on Israel

The United States, the EU and Arab countries are mobilizing to demand Israel stops its offensive in the Strip and commits to negotiating the two-state solution

A Palestinian woman cries next to the grave of her son, killed after an Israeli bombing in Khan Younis, on January 18.
A Palestinian woman cries next to the grave of her son, killed after an Israeli bombing in Khan Younis, on January 18.Arafat Barbakh (REUTERS)
Andrea Rizzi (Special Correspondent)

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The suffering of civilians in Gaza and the expansion of the Red Sea conflict are driving increased international pressure on the Israeli government to contain its offensive in the Strip and agree to negotiations on the two-state solution, a path that has been openly rejected by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In a context of maximum friction, U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with the Israeli leader on Friday in their first known conversation since December 23. Biden reiterated to Netanyahu that Israel must accept the future creation of a Palestinian state.

The Davos Forum this week offered glimpses of this shift toward greater pressure on Israel in which, albeit with differing roles, the involvement of the United States, Arab countries, the UE and potentially and indirectly, China — which is watching the disruption of trade in the Red Sea, which affects its exports, with growing concern — is emerging. Netanyahu’s rejection of the two-state solution last Thursday can be interpreted as a public reaction to the growing, and only partly public, wave of pressure on his government.

This is hardly a novelty: Netanyahu has never considered the two-state option. What is a new development is the growing international momentum to achieve it. At Davos, the clearest message was provided by Christopher Coons, U.S. Senator for Delaware, whose voice is significant because he is a very close ally of Biden, and because he is not subject to the constraints of government positions.

“The suffering of civilians in Gaza is at an unacceptable level,” Coons said. “Israeli society should reconsider whether the strategy of having Hamas and Fatah was wise, and whether it is sustainable for Israel to continue on this path. I say no. We have talked for a long time about a Palestinian state, without making any progress. The time has come to act boldly,” the senator said. Coons also hinted at Washington’s growing irritation with Netanyahu’s attitude. Asked whether the two-state solution was viable with him in power, the senator said that the Israeli prime minister has built a career on rejecting it but that there is now an urgency to act, not least because of the election cycle. Donald Trump’s return to the White House would, in all likelihood, guarantee Netanyahu carte blanche in an even broader way than has been allowed so far by Biden.

In comments reported by Politico in a hallway at Davos, Coons went further, pointing to the enormous lever of pressure that the U.S. has at its disposal, and which Washington has never used: military aid to Israel. Coons expressed his willingness to modify — presumably downward — the conditions of that support. U.S. backing is key to Israel’s military superiority and the Biden administration has continued that support, even circumventing Congress, in the current context of Israel’s war in Gaza. Washington has criticized attacks that kill civilians, but continues to supply the bombs that Israel deploys. Many experts consider Coons a reliable indicator of Biden’s thinking, and there was a sense at Davos that the White House’s patience with Netanyahu is wearing thin and its awareness of the damage of continuing in the same vein has spurred a change of attitude.

The two-state solution was the mantra repeated by virtually all the political leaders at Davos. Significantly, sitting on the same panel as Coons, Saudi Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud said: “We agree that regional peace includes peace for Israel, but that could only happen through peace for the Palestinians through a Palestinian state.” Asked whether, within the framework of a political agreement that would include a state for the Palestinians, Saudi Arabia would recognize Israel, the minister replied: “Certainly.”

U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan made it clear in a plenary speech that the inevitable framework for a solution is one that envisages two states with security guarantees for Israel embodied, above all, in the normalization of relations with Arab countries. The Financial Times reported this week that the Arab countries are preparing a plan along these lines.

People walk among destroyed buildings in the Al Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza on January 19.
People walk among destroyed buildings in the Al Maghazi refugee camp in central Gaza on January 19.MOHAMMED SABER (EFE)

Two-state solution must be “imposed from outside”

This context of growing unease with Israel came to the fore Friday when EU High Representative for Foreign and Security Policy, Josep Borrell, who believes the two-state solution “must be imposed from outside to bring peace” pointed to Israel as a source of funding for Hamas. The EU, however, is internally divided over how far to press Israeli leaders, especially due to Germany’s caution.

The diplomatic maneuvering comes after Israel’s war in Gaza following the Hamas attacks of October 7 passed the 100-day mark, with its objectives of eliminating Hamas and freeing Israeli hostages in the Strip still unfulfilled. The Israeli response is causing a level of suffering among Palestinian civilians that has generated outrage while the expansion of the conflict in the Red Sea affects global trade and Iran has attacked targets in Iraq, Syria and Pakistan — all allied countries — against suspected terrorists after the bombing attack in Kerman earlier this year.

Experts continue to believe that Iran and its ally Hezbollah have no political intention to escalate the conflict but heightened tension raises risks and the potential for unwanted incidents. Iran does not exert total control over its allies, and the Houthi rebels who are firing on commercial ships from Yemen seem to be acting on their own rather than at the suggestion of Tehran, according to many experts. Thus, even if the will is not there, “the risk [of escalation] was real, from October 7, and remains real today,” Sullivan said.

A group of Houthi fighters in Sana'a on January 14.
A group of Houthi fighters in Sana'a on January 14.AP

But even if escalation does not occur, the situation has reached a point where the interest of many major players in acting to contain the crisis is already at an all-time high. Many Western countries, especially the U.S., are facing fierce criticism for their reaction to Israel’s bombing, which is viewed as inane, both within their societies and in the rest of the world. Arab leaders are under similar pressure.

This context induces the logic of moving into a new phase of pressure on Israel. Nothing, however, ensures that it will take shape sufficiently to have significant effect. For decades, the U.S. has never acted decisively to restrain Israel, neither in its colonization and occupation, nor in its military operations. Whether that will eventually happen remains to be seen, and if so, there are question marks over whether Netanyahu, whose political life depends on the conflict remaining at maximum intensity, will yield to it. And to whether will the Houthis, even if pressure comes from Tehran — and, in the background, Beijing — will stop attacking ships in the Red Sea.

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