[Opinion] Challenges to the Israel-Palestinian Conflict: Is there a possible bargain?

Political scientists have long been interested in why parties are unable to identify or implement a bargain before resorting to or terminating a war. But our bargaining models generally assume there are bargaining points agreeable to both parties. A key issue for the Israeli-Palestine conflict and a future Palestinian state is the possible lack of a bargain.

Before considering any bargain, there is an obstacle – Hamas. I do not foresee any serious steps toward a bargain and Palestinian statehood if Hamas continues governing in Gaza with a coherent military structure. If Israel destroys Hamas as a military structure (its five remaining battalions), and then some security force, consisting of Arab states, the United Nations, or Israel, can monopolize security in the Gaza Strip, it might allow for a non-Hamas governing body (like the Palestinian Authority) to begin governing, and we can begin to consider a bargain.

I do not expect this to happen. Israel will probably invade Rafah and destroy Hamas’ remaining battalions. But there will be an ensuing urban insurgency by Hamas and others that will require significant security forces, potentially resulting in civilian deaths, to provide an opportunity to any governing body. I do not foresee Arab states or the UN willing to provide this type of security.

But let’s say I’m wrong. If Israel destroys Hamas as a coherent military structure, and the Palestinian Authority, with outside security assistance, begins governing, is there a possible bargain?

The Clinton Parameters are a likely guide for a possible bargain and address four key issues: territory, Jerusalem, security, and the Right of Return. They stipulate a Palestinian state with more than 90 percent of the West Bank and the entire Gaza Strip with territorial compensation from Israel. Sacred sites and ethnic neighborhoods in East Jerusalem would be distributed to the two sides in a sharing arrangement. The Israeli military would mostly withdraw from Palestinian territories within a set time period and be replaced with an international security force. And the Palestinian claim of a Right of Return (to Israel) would be disclaimed. The last two issues stand out as particular obstacles for a possible bargain.

The current Israeli governing coalition refuses to adopt any steps leading to Palestinian statehood. However, if Israel’s Labor Party can develop a coalition, there is a history in Israel of leaders, Barak and Olmert, expressing willingness to adopt a Clinton Parameters-like bargain.

However, after 7 October, I expect a more hawkish sentiment will be adopted even among Israeli parties and voters more amenable to a Palestinian state. This would likely manifest in more demands related to security oversights. Because Palestinian leaders would likely demand sovereign security institutions, this would narrow the bargaining range, that is, reduce the possibility of a bargain.

Also not clear is if a Clinton Parameters-based bargain would be accepted by Palestinian leaders and if it could be implemented. The Palestinian Authority lacks political and economic institutions necessary for statehood, does not have a sufficient monopoly on violence and may lack the capacity to prevent disgruntled Palestinians actors from using violence. Even if Palestinian leaders are willing to accept a Clinton Parameter-based bargain, its successful implementation is unclear given the likelihood of violent internal opposition.

Some observers suggest specific challenges related to the Right of Return, partly because it relates to the idea of Israel itself. Some Palestinian leaders, along with international institutions and a number of Arab countries, have materially and ideologically kept the refugee issue alive, and it continues to play a salient role in Palestinian politics. I expect that it would be challenging for future Palestinian leaders to give up this claim – because of leaders’ own ideological connection to the issue, its domestic salience, and giving up this claim may generate violence from other Palestinian actors. There would likely be significant domestic costs. However, the Right of Return remains a non-negotiable stance for Israel. The Palestinians refugee problem was created in 1948 and 1967, and any significant incorporation of Palestinians into Israel proper would dramatically change Israel’s demographics and society.

So, is there a possible bargain? Even if Hamas can be replaced with another governing body it is not obvious there exists an implementable bargain. My guess is that Israelis will adopt a hawkish demand for a demilitarized Palestinian state. Giving up the Right of Return will be a challenge for Palestinian leaders – and the lack of political and economic institutions presents further challenges. I am not confident that a bargain exists, even without Hamas governing Gaza.

But the world is hard to predict. Perhaps the web of issues related to Iran and Hezbollah, external pressures and support, settlements, demographics and economic conditions, technology, religion, domestic competition, and general passing of time can interact in unforeseen ways to produce an implementable bargain.

The author is an Associate Professor at Seoul National University's Department of International Relations. --Ed.