The Only Way for Israel to Truly Defeat Hamas

Why the Zionist Dream Depends on a Two-State Solution

The war Israel launched on Hamas after the group’s horrific October 7 attacks is a righteous mission. Hamas fighters massacred hundreds of innocent people, deliberately killed children and the elderly, and raped and mutilated women. They abducted hundreds of civilians—including women, infants, and octogenarians—and held them captive in dismal conditions, subject to abuse and starvation. Their actions contravened any sense of law and humanitarian principles. The slaughterers, still spattered with blood, made gleeful boasts about their atrocities that were broadcast in horrific videos and quoted in news articles. In response, Israel has waged a just war of self-defense.

But Israelis are not the only ones suffering. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in Gaza, many of them civilians, including thousands of women and children. The war is especially cruel because the fighting is taking place in congested population centers and because the enemy has turned schools, mosques, and hospitals—places where civilians seek shelter—into military command centers, communications hubs, and weapons factories and caches. Hamas, which governs Gaza, has turned the people it is obligated to protect into human shields. While Hamas’s leaders and fighters hide in Gaza’s hundreds of miles of underground tunnels, civilians are defenseless in the line of fire.

Understandably, Palestinians see the conflict differently than Israelis. Most tolerate or may even support Hamas because, in their eyes, it is waging a war of liberation against Israeli occupation, even if they reject the group’s radical Islamist agenda or recognize the inherent depravity of its sacrifice of civilians. Hamas, despite its methods, is gaining support not just among Palestinians but also in Arab-majority countries and Muslim-majority countries outside the Middle East.

The rest of the world is watching, too. As time passes and the number of Palestinians killed continues to rise, Hamas’s atrocities on October 7 are fading from public consciousness, and Israel’s have weakened its own case to possess the moral high ground. The recent strike that mistakenly killed seven workers from the relief organization World Central Kitchen who were trying to provide food to the Gazan population has further diminished Israel’s international standing. The global narrative has definitively shifted in favor of Israel’s enemies.

Israel needs to win back the narrative if it is to win the wider war. Making a convincing case is not about choosing different words—it requires Israel to change its approach. The country’s leaders have failed to outline political objectives for the war, and at this point, continued fighting will not bring the Israeli and Palestinian peoples closer to long-term peace. Israel must now launch a diplomatic track that revives the ultimate goal of a two-state solution, and it needs new leadership to do so. Only by demonstrating its commitment to a negotiated settlement can Israel reclaim the support it needs from partners in Europe, the Middle East, and the United States, which has been undercut by the past six months of war in Gaza.

International perceptions of Israel’s war with Hamas are especially important in an era when information is relayed directly from the battlefield to online media consumers, in real time and without filtration. Unlike battlegrounds in previous conflicts, the combat zone today is measured not by the range of weaponry but by the reach of an Internet signal. For many viewers at home, the war has become something of a television miniseries. People around the world reach conclusions about the justice of a particular military operation not on the basis of a legal debate but through the prism of their particular media consumption. The public decides who is right and who is not and which side is good and which is bad, and it puts pressure on its government to craft policy accordingly. The cumulative effect of global opinion is critical to Israel’s prospects for victory. If Israel’s partners deny it military, economic, or diplomatic support at a pivotal moment, it might lose the war despite battlefield successes.

Israel has had global opinion on its side before. International support for Israel was strong during the 1990s after the signing of the Oslo accords, which were intended to lead to a Palestinian state—even though Israel was waging an uncompromising battle against Palestinian terrorism at the same time. The international community considered this fight legitimate, however, because Israel was genuinely engaging in a parallel diplomatic track aimed at bringing about peace for both peoples. I was serving as the director of the Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service, during this period. Our collaboration with Palestinian security organizations led to a dramatic decrease in Hamas terrorism, but my Palestinian partners also made it clear that their continued cooperation depended on political progress toward the end of occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Israel must launch a diplomatic track that revives the goal of a two-state solution.
Yet what the world now sees is an Israel whose government denies the existence of a Palestinian people and strives to establish a “Greater Israel” by building more settlements in the West Bank—and potentially in Gaza, as well—and moving toward annexation of parts or all of the Palestinian territories. Seen through this lens, Israel’s war in Gaza looks less like a just war conducted in self-defense and more like an act of expansionist aggression.

No one should be naive about Hamas. It is a murderous organization that must not be allowed to remain in charge of Gaza. In every position I held in the Israeli security establishment, I treated Hamas as a ruthless terrorist group that Israel must fight. I opposed any attempt to negotiate with Hamas because such outreach boosted the group’s power and weakened that of the Palestinian Authority, which had recognized the Israeli people’s right to have a country.

Israel cannot win this war merely by disarming Hamas and eliminating its leadership. Even if Israel prevails on the battlefield, Hamas’s ideology will not disappear. The group will be truly defeated only when it loses the support of the Palestinian people. For that to happen, they must have reason to believe in a diplomatic process that will bring about the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

At this point, there are only two things Israel can do to change the story: choose new leaders and return to the goal of a two-state solution as part of a diplomatic end to this war. To regain global support, Israel—a country founded after the Holocaust to safeguard the survival of the Jewish people—must accept the resolutions of the international community and work to create a reality of two states for two peoples. Pursuing that path would demonstrate that Israel’s war in Gaza is an act of legitimate self-defense and would show the world that the target of the war is not the Palestinian people but Hamas, a jihadi terrorist organization that seeks to destroy Israel and drive Jews out of the Holy Land.

Seeking a two-state reality is not just a means to win back international support. It is also vital to achieve a political victory over Hamas and to ensure Israel’s long-term security. In a November 1997 interview with Filastin al-Muslima, a monthly magazine published by Hamas, the group’s founder, Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, was asked about the prospects for war against Israel. He claimed that the only thing that would prevent Hamas’s eventual victory—defined as the establishment of a Greater Palestine stretching from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea, governed under a sharia-based constitution—would be a scenario in which Israel accepted a Palestinian state alongside its own. Were the two-state solution to become reality, Yassin said, Palestinian society would not support Hamas’s preferred path. And without popular backing among Palestinians, Hamas would not exist as a political and military entity.

Yassin was right. A two-state solution would not be a defeat for Israel but a victory—and would be the only way to truly weaken Hamas. Pursuing that outcome would represent neither a capitulation to terrorism nor a submission to American diktats. Rather, it is the best way to realize the Zionist dream of an enduring state of Israel that is Jewish and democratic.

In his 1990 book, War and Strategy, the retired Israeli general turned scholar Yehoshafat Harkabi made a crucial distinction between the thinking of military leaders and that of statesmen. “In military thinking, the enemy is a collection of targets that need to be attacked; in diplomatic thinking, the enemy is a human and political entity that also needs to be won over and satisfied,” he wrote. “In military thinking, we are indifferent to the adversary’s agonies and therefore seek to increase them; in diplomatic thinking, we must be mindful of his pain as well.”

In this war, Israel has no statesmen and no diplomatic thinking. At the beginning of the war, Israel’s cabinet decided to ignore “the day after” in Gaza because merely having a discussion of the “political goal” of the operation would undermine the stability of the governing coalition. The cabinet’s members are hemmed in by their own political considerations, and they are taking the country down a dangerous road.

This failure of leadership has left Israel without a concept of victory beyond military accomplishments. War has become an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve a better political reality. Israeli history demonstrates that wars without political objectives drag on for years and conclude only after inflicting great trauma. After the 1973 Yom Kippur War, in which around 2,650 Israelis were killed, the Israeli government recognized that it could not guarantee security through military means alone, and it changed its defense doctrine accordingly. Israel accepted Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s peaceful overture in 1977 and began withdrawing its forces from the Sinai Peninsula in 1979. The Egyptian-Israeli peace deal signed in 1979 provides Israel with real security on what had historically been its most dangerous front. Despite that successful record, however, Israel seems to have forgotten the lesson that political agreements provide the best route to security.

War has become an end in itself, rather than a means to achieve a better political reality.
Today Israel is sinking in quicksand in Gaza. The disaster on February 29, in which more than 100 Palestinian civilians were killed and hundreds more injured as they surrounded trucks of humanitarian aid guarded by soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces, together with the killing of the seven World Central Kitchen workers and the lack of declared political objectives, have almost totally erased the legitimacy of a war that most of the world considered unavoidable when Israel was attacked in October. If Israel does not now announce attainable political goals and activate a diplomatic channel to achieve them, the war will march the country to the precipice.

Israel must acknowledge that its past mistakes enabled Hamas’s October 7 attack, which most Palestinians now see as a victory. These mistakes include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy of bolstering Hamas, which involved encouraging Qatar to send the group millions of dollars while undercutting the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’s rival in the West Bank. To turn Hamas’s victory into defeat, Israel must use this moment to embark on a diplomatic track.

Israel can no longer reach any meaningful objectives through the continuation or intensification of its military operation in Gaza. Pressing forward in an attempt to kill Hamas’s remaining leaders will not bring Israel a wider political victory, even if that narrow goal is achieved—it will only boost Hamas’s power on the Palestinian street.

The Palestinian issue is now widely understood to be the linchpin of any potential regional accord. And the Biden administration has insisted that only an accord that leads to a two-state reality will enable the creation of a moderate Middle Eastern bloc that can serve as a counterweight to Iran and its proxies both in Gaza and across Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, and Yemen.

Israel’s immediate priority must be to bring home all the hostages still held in Gaza. Doing so would not be a military victory but a victory for morality and communal responsibility, a repayment of the debt owed to those who were forsaken by the Israeli government and the entire defense establishment. Like any debt, there is a price attached. The country will be forced to free terrorists held in Israeli prisons, including people with the blood of Israeli civilians on their hands. But Israel must agree to as long a cease-fire as necessary to secure the hostages’ release.

Then, in the longer term, Israel must choose between two courses of action. The first is to continue the occupation and creeping annexation of the West Bank. That path spells ongoing war, international isolation, and the loss of Israel’s Jewish and democratic character. The second is to pursue a diplomatic accord that will lead to an agreement with the Palestinian people within a regional framework. The United States and Europe would oversee such an agreement, and it would include normalization with Saudi Arabia and aim to build a broader coalition with moderate Sunni countries, such as Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states.

Israel must agree to as long a cease-fire as necessary to secure the hostages’ release.
Israel can be secure only if we choose the second option and participate in international “day after” discussions. The goal should be a regional accord that is based on UN General Assembly and Security Council resolutions 242 and 338, which established the “land for peace” framework for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, and on the Arab Peace Initiative, first raised two decades ago by Saudi Arabia, which provides a blueprint for member states of the Arab League to establish normal relations with Israel. All these plans call for a Palestinian state alongside Israel, with strong security guarantees.

In spite of all the challenges Israel faces, there is cause for optimism, especially stemming from the strength of Israeli civil society. For ten months before October 7, hundreds of thousands of Israeli citizens flooded the streets, defending Israel’s justice system from the government’s attempt to take it over. They proved that they are the guardians of Israeli democracy.

Yet this struggle for democracy ignored the occupation and the existence of the Palestinians as a people. On October 7, Israelis were reminded that there is no way to separate the occupation from democracy—or from security. Walls alone, no matter how high or deep, cannot protect Israel. If Hamas or groups like it think they have nothing to lose, they will choose the “Samson option,” risking all to find ways to get past any barrier Israel can erect.

More and more Israelis are now returning to the streets in anger over their government’s inability to protect its citizens and to define achievable goals for the war. They are calling for the release of the hostages still held in Gaza and new elections to replace the Israeli government. Only a coalition that excludes right-wing extremists can chart a course toward lasting peace. With a bold new leadership that recognizes the failure of policies advanced by the hard right, and with the support of the Israeli public and the country’s friends around the world, Israel may finally be able to climb out of its grief and agony and reach for a sustainable political settlement.

Since October 7, the motto “Together We Will Win” has rallied the Israeli public in the fight against the perpetrators of that day’s attacks. But Israelis must remember that any military victory will turn into defeat if it undermines the core values of a Jewish and democratic Israel.

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