It was a surreal event cooked up by some of the most extreme elements in Israeli politics.
At a moment when Israeli forces are battling Hamas gunmen in the Gaza Strip and negotiations are under way to free the hostages still in Hamas’ captivity, twelve government ministers and fifteen members of the Knesset had nothing better to do than attend a misbegotten conference aimed at rebuilding Jewish settlements in Gaza.
Thousands of right-wing activists from the religious Zionist community flocked to the Convention Center in Jerusalem to support that hallucinatory notion and to promote the outrageous idea that Palestinians in Gaza can be persuaded to leave voluntarily.
Neither of these concepts are realistic or acceptable, either now or in the foreseeable future, and should be dropped immediately.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not attend the conference, yet he made it clear that he opposes the resettlement of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew unilaterally in 2005, dismantling 21 settlements and forcing 8,000 settlers to leave.
Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, a member of the war cabinet, was more emphatic in his dismissal of the proposal, telling U.S. ambassador Jacob Lew that no such thing will happen as long as he remains in his position.
Benny Gantz, the former defence minister and another member of the war cabinet, poured cold water on the conference, saying it “harms Israeli society at a time of war, harms our international legitimacy (and) harms effort to establish a framework for returning our hostages.”
Gadi Eisenkot, the former chief of staff of the armed forces and a non-voting member of the war cabinet, also blasted the conference in no uncertain terms.
“While troops are fighting shoulder-to-shoulder in a war of unparalleled justification, and while we are choosing to look for what unites us, even if there are disagreements … others are finding time for an event that sunders Israeli society, increases distrust in the government and its elected officials, and above all, sharpens divisions over that which brings us together,” said Eisenkot, whose son and nephew were both killed in combat in Gaza.
These factors obviously were of no concern to the organizers of the conference, Nachala and the Samaria Regional Council, or the cabinet ministers in attendance.
National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, the leader of the Jewish Power Party, said, “We need to return home to rule the territory, and yes, … to encourage emigration” of Palestinians from Gaza.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the Religious Zionist Party, declared that Israel should “settle the land” and “bring security to the entire State of Israel.”
Housing and Construction Minister Yitzhak Goldknopf, the leader of the United Torah Judaism Party, called for the reconstruction of the settlements that were razed prior to Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza.
Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi of the Likud Party hewed to the same theme and suggested that Palestinians could be coerced into leaving Gaza.
These are reckless and irresponsible ideas that will deepen Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, jeopardize Israel’s relations with the United States, and sow tensions with its Arab partners and the international community.
Let’s be clear.
Israel has the right to maintain security in Gaza after Hamas is militarily defeated and ousted from governance. A power vacuum in Gaza would be detrimental to Israel’s short-term and long-term interests. But under no circumstances should Israel allow dangerous fanatics like Ben-Gvir and Smotrich to determine its policy.
After the massacre of October 7, Israel is psychologically averse to a two-state solution. Yesterday, Gallant told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defence Committee that Israel intends to exert military control of Gaza after the war, comparing it to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank.
This is not the path that Israel should follow. Ultimately, Israel should endorse a plan by the United States that provides an incremental and concrete pathway to Palestinian statehood in exchange for Saudi Arabian recognition of Israel and the establishment of formal diplomatic relations between the two countries.
If stability, peace and security are the drivers of Israeli policy, Israel can neither reoccupy Gaza for an indefinite period nor allow zealots to rebuild settlements there.
This is elementary. The overarching purpose of the current war is to smash and depose Hamas, not to subject Gaza to another Israeli occupation.