Military action won’t solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s time for diplomacy.
Special to Stars and Stripes February 1, 2024
For the past several months, I’ve been gravely concerned about Israel’s war in Gaza, thinking about what I can say or do as an American, as a Jew, and as a former member of Congress. It’s crystal clear to me that this war must end.
I was deeply involved in the U.S. solidarity movement against apartheid in South Africa. Forty-one years ago, I helped confront the trustees of Williams College and launch a hunger strike to demand divestment. While we didn’t win in the moment, we raised the awareness of the entire student body and faculty, adding a modest drop to the ocean of direct action and resistance led by brave South Africans that ultimately ended the system of racist supremacy there.
That experience weighed on my mind last month when I visited an exhibit about Nelson Mandela at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Mich., which happens to be the heart of our country’s Arab American community. When I left the immersive galleries honoring Mandela and emerged into the museum’s bright main hall, I sat down on a bench and wept. I remember seeing Mandela speak to a packed Tiger Stadium when he visited Detroit in 1990, just four months after he was freed from prison. Sitting on that bench, through my tears, I felt we had failed him. I heard him asking: What are you doing to advance peace, human rights and reconciliation among those who have been so bitterly at odds?
As a Michigander, I’m concerned about President Joe Biden’s support for Israel’s war and the impact it will have on our fight to protect our democracy from former President Donald Trump. Israeli strikes have killed more than 26,000 Palestinians — including at least 10,000 children — since the war began. So many American voters, especially young people, have told me the thousands of innocent lives lost while the U.S. continues to supply bombs and warplanes make them feel ashamed.
The weekend after I visited the Mandela exhibit, I entered Shabbat as we approached a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Civil Rights Movement he helped lead. Remember the hostile reaction Dr. King received when he spoke the truth about Vietnam so early? We know he was right. I lit Shabbat candles in gratitude for our movements of solidarity that unify people in tikkun olam, Hebrew for working to repair our broken world.
Mandela’s question echoes in my mind as I consider the actions we’ve taken since the war began. In the days after the Oct. 7 attacks, senior Biden administration officials were reportedly concerned that Israel didn’t have “achievable” military objectives in Gaza. More recently, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warned that a high civilian death toll risked a “strategic defeat” that could radicalize survivors. We know there’s no military solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — only a diplomatic solution. It’s not too late for the U.S. to provide appropriate leadership to help achieve this, but several things have to happen.
First, there’s an urgent need to stop the carnage in Gaza and Israel. I call for an immediate and permanent cease-fire and an end to settler violence in the West Bank. The killing and mass destruction must end now.
Second, Hamas — and any other organization holding hostages — must free all of them in exchange for Israel freeing political prisoners, including those like Marwan Barghouti, nicknamed by some the “Palestinian Mandela,” who has been imprisoned for almost a quarter-century on charges related to his participation in the Intifada. This is a crucial step toward a lasting peace.
Third, we must rethink U.S. military aid. Supporting Israel’s missile defense is one thing; continuing to expedite military assistance as Israel kills more than 26,000 Palestinians (70% of them women and children) in airstrikes and ground operations in Gaza is another. Additionally, violence in the West Bank has escalated since the war began. Reports show U.S. weapons may end up in the hands of soldiers or settlers expanding illegal settlements. My former colleagues in Congress must do more to ensure that any security assistance to Israel is used in ways that respect international humanitarian and rights law — the same expectations we hold for any other recipient.
The depth of the problem here was captured in a New York Times investigation into Israel’s use of 2,000-pound bombs in southern Gaza, including in an area it had “ordered civilians to move for safety.” The article quotes U.S. officials saying our armed forces would not and have not used these bombs where civilians are present for decades. And yet, incredibly, it notes in closing that the U.S. has sent 5,000 of at least one kind of 2,000-pound bomb to Israel “since October.” What are we thinking? Where is the congressional oversight?
Fourth, and most fundamentally, after 57 years the occupation must end. Full stop. The world’s failure to recognize the political and human rights of the Palestinian people destabilizes the entire region and is utterly unacceptable on its own terms. Expedient normalization agreements may contribute to diplomacy but have not and will not deliver lasting peace.
The war in Gaza is on the precipice of spiraling into wider conflict. We must prevent this and protect the interests of the people in the region as well as U.S. national interests. The U.S. and European Union must work with regional partners — including not only Saudi Arabia, where much attention has focused of late, but Egypt, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar — to convene an emergency summit to address Israel’s occupation. This summit devises a two-year plan with actionable benchmarks to deliver a democratic future for both Israelis and Palestinians. Countries that have undergone difficult reconciliations themselves should participate and advise efforts, particularly on a period of much-needed transitional justice.
Life post-occupation could take many forms: two states living side-by-side; a non-geographic confederation a la former peace negotiators Hiba Husseini and Yossi Beilin; one secular, democratic state; or another plan devised with diplomatic help. Only the Israeli and Palestinian people can decide on the exact plan. But the U.S. and others must insist on action now; the timeline cannot be negotiable.
In short, ending the violence is of the utmost importance, yet its end will not be sufficient to bring about lasting peace for the people who call this region home. That’s why I introduced the Two-State Solution Act after the last conflict in Gaza. No more band-aids. No more endless cycles of violence. What Dr. King said in 1958 remains relevant today: “True peace is not merely the absence of tension; it is the presence of justice.”
Let us not pretend to revere Mandela or go through the motions of honoring Dr. King while hostages are being held for months and children are dying in unconscionable numbers. The path we’re currently on is unacceptable. The U.S. must change course.
Andy Levin is a distinguished senior fellow with the Center for American Progress. A Democrat, he served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2019 to 2023, representing Michigan’s 9th District.