How to end the Middle East’s agony

War is spreading across the region. Peace is the only way out



February 1, 2024 - 3:02 PM

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) meets with Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Tuesday, Jan. 9, 2024, during his week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, amid continuing battles between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas in Gaza. (Abir Sultan/Pool/AFP/Getty Images/TNS)

In the months after Hamas committed the worst atrocity against Jews since the Holocaust, conflict has spread across the Middle East. In all, 10 countries are now caught up in fighting. In Gaza Israeli soldiers and Hamas are still killing each other, even as 2 million people face famine. Across the border with Lebanon, Hizbullah and Israel are in a low-grade war. The Houthis in Yemen are attacking cargo ships, aggravating a financial crisis in Egypt and triggering retaliation by America and Britain. The killing of three GIs in Jordan on Jan. 28 by militias in Iraq could spark a clash between America and Iran, which sponsors the “axis of resistance.”

Locator map of drone attack on U.S. base

It is easy to despair, but there is a way out. Amid intense diplomacy, led by America and Saudi Arabia, a transformative deal is taking shape. Its novelty, we have learned, is to use a proposed hostage-release to reset Israeli politics; to use that reset to open a path to a Palestinian state; and then to use Israel’s commitment to that as the basis for a deal between it and Saudi Arabia, in which mutual recognition is underpinned by American security guarantees. Officials say the odds of a hostage deal may be 50% and, with that in place, the odds of a Saudi-Israeli deal could also be 50%. The prize is far from certain, obviously, but it promises a new economic and security architecture in the Middle East.

One reason for hope is that Israel may wish to pause the campaign. Many Israelis are desperate to get their hostages home, and fighting won’t free them. Israel has advanced towards its military goals. Hamas has lost half its territory, half its fighters (says Israel’s army), possibly a third of its tunnels and many of its leaders (but not the most senior). From now, Israel faces diminishing returns, plus an ever higher civilian toll in Gaza and corresponding harm to its reputation.

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