How new, ‘minimal moderate’ leadership can transform Israel and Gaza

It is difficult for Israelis to look beyond the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack. Much as the U.S. was after the 9/11 attack, the country remains shocked by the savagely cruel attack on civilians.  

The Israeli effort to rid Gaza of the Hamas threat has likewise engendered intense anger in the Palestinian community. Emotions are running high, arguably too high to contemplate a future of relative accommodation, peace and security.  

Yet, the world is waiting for leaders to emerge who, in John Kenneth Galbraith’s words, possess “the willingness to confront unequivocally the major anxiety of their people in their time.” Where are those leaders today? 

There is a role to be played by major external actors in encouraging a dialogue that could lead to peace. That is being played out now by the United States, Qatar, Egypt and Israel, initially to gain the release of the hostages and to achieve a ceasefire. Yet, ultimately, only inspired leadership from Israelis and Palestinians will create the basis for a lasting peace and a two-state solution. 

The Israeli government today is led by Benjamin Netanyahu, a prime minister whose government is made up of extreme-right politicians intent on expanding Israel’s borders into the occupied territories. Netanyahu has been indicted and is seen by the majority of Israelis as responsible for failing to prevent the Oct. 7 attack. His coalition was democratically elected, and its future is clouded at best. 

The Palestinian Authority is led by Mahmoud Abbas, a man who has lost credibility in his own community because of incompetence and corruption. The Palestinian Authority has been confronted with Israeli settlements and other obstacles created by the Israeli government, but it owns its failures. Sadly, Hamas terrorists may be more popular in the West Bank than the Palestinian Authority. 

How then do leaders emerge from this scenario that have the credibility within their community to negotiate a settlement of this longstanding conflict? The answer clearly doesn’t lie with the extremes on both sides — Israeli politicians who want to control Gaza and the West Bank, or a terrorist group like Hamas which publicly avows to murder Jews and doesn’t accept the existence of the Israeli state.  

Constructivist scholars Arjun Chowdhury and Ron Krebs have researched other seemingly entrenched conflicts involving extremist elements. They conclude that coercive measures rarely succeed. They focus their attention on “minimal moderates,” individuals who may endorse some of the same ends as the extreme elements but who disavow violence. These individuals have standing within their community and can act as brokers.  

The leader of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, Yasser Arafat, played that role with a high degree of legitimacy when he returned to Gaza in 1994 after the Oslo Accords were signed. 

I met with Arafat two weeks after his return and, with the concurrence of the Israeli government, the agency I led, USAID, began working with the Palestinian Authority, encouraging a democratic relationship between them and its people, constructing housing and equipping a police force to provide security. 

After dedicating a building site beside him, I found Arafat surrounded by enthusiastic supporters. As we left I asked him who those people were. He said, “Those young men are the PLO’s opposition. They are Hamas.” 

In the theoretical frame created by Krebs and Chowdhury, Arafat had evolved from outlaw to “minimal moderate.” Through the credibility he gained as a “freedom fighter,” he had marginalized the extremists. But the benefits were temporal; he had a sell-by date. 

Over time Arafat lost standing. At the end of the Clinton administration when Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak offered a two-state solution (albeit with provisions to preserve Israeli security for a temporary period), Arafat no longer had the credibility — some would say the courage — to accept it. 

There are lessons here for the post-conflict Gaza situation. Minimal moderates like Arafat should not be so tightly embraced that they are deprived of the oxygen that enables them to lead. In the case of Arafat, we in the Clinton administration wanted to treat him as the second coming of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian leader who signed a peace agreement with Israel. Arafat may have wanted that too, but he was a revolutionary leader, not a head of state.  

When Arafat then took on Hamas in the 2001 “intifada” he was seen as a traitor to the Palestinian cause. As time went on, he was isolated in the West Bank city of Ramallah, the leader of a Palestinian Authority that was ineffective in representing the Palestinian people. 

Then in 2006, when Hamas won the right to govern Gaza, they expelled the Palestinian Authority, and the Israelis were content to point to a divided Palestinian community incapable of negotiating a two-state solution.  

There are important lessons here as the international community, Israel and the U.S. maneuver to determine how Gaza and the West Bank will be governed after a ceasefire. New and credible Palestinian leadership is badly needed. Hamas cannot be part of that equation.  

Israel will be challenged to solve its problem democratically. Will a new Israeli governing coalition be more open to negotiating for a more stable relationship with its Palestinian neighbor? Time will tell. 

Let us hope that neither the U.S. nor Israel attempts to influence the outcome on the Palestinian side. That kind of embrace would doom the legitimacy of whoever emerges.  

Is there a Nelson Mandela who could be released from an Israeli prison to take on the role of “minimal moderate?” Perhaps. But that cannot be engineered. It has to happen naturally. And that person will not sing Israel’s praises. Time and patience, not easy to find in the halls of power today, will be needed.  

J. Brian Atwood is a senior fellow for International and Public Affairs at the Watson Institute at Brown University. He served as administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development in the Clinton administration. 

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