Israel Has a Choice to Make: Rafah or Riyadh

U.S. diplomacy to end the Gaza war and forge a new relationship with Saudi Arabia has been converging in recent weeks into a single giant choice for Israel and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: What do you want more — Rafah or Riyadh?

Do you want to mount a full-scale invasion of Rafah to try to finish off Hamas — if that is even possible — without offering any Israeli exit strategy from Gaza or any political horizon for a two-state solution with non-Hamas-led Palestinians? If you go this route, it will only compound Israel’s global isolation and force a real breach with the Biden administration.

Or do you want normalization with Saudi Arabia, an Arab peacekeeping force for Gaza and a U.S.-led security alliance against Iran? This would come with a different price: a commitment from your government to work toward a Palestinian state with a reformed Palestinian Authority — but with the benefit of embedding Israel in the widest U.S.-Arab-Israeli defense coalition the Jewish state has ever enjoyed and the biggest bridge to the rest of the Muslim world Israel has ever been offered, while creating at least some hope that the conflict with the Palestinians will not be a “forever war.’’

This is one of the most fateful choices Israel has ever had to make. And what I find both disturbing and depressing is that there is no major Israeli leader today in the ruling coalition, the opposition or the military who is consistently helping Israelis understand that choice — a global pariah or a Middle East partner — or explaining why it should choose the second.

I appreciate how traumatized Israelis are by the vicious Hamas murders, rapes and kidnappings of Oct. 7. It is not surprising to me that many people there just want revenge, and their hearts have hardened to a degree that they can’t see or care about all of the civilians, including thousands of children, who have been killed in Gaza as Israel has plowed through to try to eliminate Hamas. All of this has been further hardened by Hamas’s refusal so far to release the remaining hostages.

But revenge is not a strategy. It is pure insanity that Israel is now more than six months into this war and the Israeli military leadership — and virtually the entire political class — has allowed Netanyahu to continue to pursue a “total victory” there, including probably soon plunging deep into Rafah, without any exit plan or Arab partner lined up to step in once the war ends. If Israel ends up with an indefinite occupation of both Gaza and the West Bank, it would be a toxic military, economic and moral overstretch that would delight Israel’s most dangerous foe, Iran, and repel all its allies in the West and the Arab world.

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