Influential figures: Yair Golan and Marwan Barghouti. Images: Associated Press, Roger Garfield / Alamy. Composite by Prospect / David McAllister

Who will lead Israel and Palestine to peace?

Yair Golan saved lives on 7th October. Marwan Barghouti is popular, but behind bars. In the least auspicious circumstances, could these opposing characters find common ground?
January 12, 2024

Yair Golan was asleep at home in the central Israeli town of Rosh Ha’ayin when his son told him to switch on the radio. After hearing that a heavily armed contingent of Hamas militants had broken out of Gaza into Israel, he put on his major general’s uniform and grabbed a pair of his son’s army boots. Climbing behind the wheel of his small Toyota Yaris and pausing to collect an M16 rifle and body armour from the Israel Defence Forces’ Home Front Command, he headed south.

By that night the retired 61-year-old had rescued three groups of young people who had hidden from the carnage at an all-night rave five kilometres from the Gaza border in which at least 260 partygoers were killed by Gazan gunmen. “You know, 38 years I was a soldier,” Golan tells me. “So there was no option of sitting at home while Israel was in such an emergency. And I did the best I could on this terrible day.”

As indeed it was. Twelve hundred people were massacred and roughly 240, including elderly people, women and young children, taken hostage on 7th October. Later that day, Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised “mighty vengeance”. Since then, more than 22,000 Palestinians, mostly women and children, have been killed by Israeli forces eager to fulfil Netanyahu’s stated goal of “destroying” Hamas—and what his critics increasingly see as the unstated one of ensuring his own political survival.

As the war enters its third month, with more than 120 hostages still held by Hamas and other armed factions, and with severe hunger spreading through a territory now deemed “uninhabitable” by the UN, the questions are piling up. How does this end? What is the future of the ruined Gaza Strip? And just as the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, which also took Israel fatally by surprise, led eventually to a peace treaty with Egypt, could this be, implausible at it currently seems, the catastrophe which paves the way to a lasting peace?

If it is—and it’s an enormous if—then Golan could prove a pivotal figure. For him, 7th October was a kind of reputational rebirth. Golan had been bitterly attacked by the Israeli right—and passed over for the job of chief of staff—after saying in 2016 that he detected elements in contemporary Israel of the “horrific processes” which had developed in pre-1939 Germany. Golan has never resiled from the speech, which given the overtly racist politicians in Netanyahu’s present coalition is even more relevant today.

A few days after the attacks, Golan was being filmed revisiting the area when he came across an ultra-orthodox Jew who announced on camera: “I voted for [National Security Minister Itamar] Ben-Gvir in the last election…. I hated him [Golan]. Now I love and admire him.” The two men cemented this politically serendipitous encounter with a bear hug.

It was a “very moving moment,” Golan tells me, in the Tel Aviv office where he is seeking to construct a new faction out of the electoral ruins of once dominant Labor party and Meretz, the left-wing Jewish party for which he was a Knesset member until it was wiped out in the 2021 election. “I was described as an extreme leftist person who betrayed Israeli identity and cooperated with the worst enemies of Israel. And this is a total lie. Of course, I am a very patriotic Israeli person.” His decades of military service ended with the position of IDF deputy chief of staff. “I don't have to explain that,” he adds.

For now, the pain on each side militates against what would at best be a long and arduous process

Golan has a certain charisma—something long lacking in Israel’s opposition. But what makes him highly unusual is that he elevates above all other goals a lasting political solution to the “Palestinian issue”. Like another politician-general, Yitzhak Rabin, who paid with his life a generation ago for trying to solve the conflict, Golan is a security hawk. But he argues that Israel faces a simple choice between “separation” of Israel from the Palestinians and de facto “annexation”—the one-state “Greater Israel” which the far right is steadily achieving through relentless and often violent expansion of Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank. All of which Golan denounces as “a disaster for Israel’s existence”, and which remains the primary obstacle to the Palestinian state US President Joe Biden insists he wants to emerge from this war. 

For now, the pain on each side militates against what would at best be a long and arduous process. Palestinians are living here and now through the daily horror inflicted on 2.2m Gazans by the war. Most Israelis are still living through 7th October. That’s exponentially truer for those who survived and were bereaved by the atrocities or still have family members kidnapped as hostages in Gaza. Palestinian militants murdered some children in front of their parents and some parents in front of their children; they mutilated and raped.

The profound grief of many from the border kibbutzim is compounded by the colossal failures of policy, intelligence and military preparedness which helped to enable the 7th October atrocities, and for which Netanyahu, unlike his military and security service chiefs, has resolutely disowned any responsibility. But some are also angry that his government seemed more interested in protecting Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank than civilians in Israel itself. Symbolically, two IDF commando companies had been transferred days before 7th October from their Gaza border base to a West Bank flashpoint.

Meanwhile most Jewish Israelis are insulated from the wholesale death and devastation in Gaza because almost none of it is shown on the Hebrew TV channels. By contrast, Palestinians are transfixed by the coverage of the devastation on channels such as al Jazeera, brought to them by Gazan journalists, 70 of whom have been killed. The children being pulled from the rubble of razed buildings, the jostling of huge crowds of Gazans desperate for sparse food brought in by the painfully few aid trucks, the hasty burials of whole families, the overwhelmed minority of hospitals still able to operate. 

Israel argues that civilian deaths are a function of Hamas embedding itself among the population, but that didn’t stop US defence secretary Lloyd Austin issuing a memorable warning. “You can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians,” he said in November. “If you drive [Gaza’s civilians] into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”

Netanyahu repeatedly says this a war of “civilisation” against the “barbarism”

Since Netanyahu repeatedly says this is a war of “civilisation” against the “barbarism” that 7th October represented, it’s worth remembering that Gaza was itself a vibrant, 4,000-year-old civilisation. The 2,000lb and tens of thousands of other munitions unleashed by Israel have severely damaged or destroyed homes, schools, arts centres, universities, mosques, churches, hotels, shopping malls, apartment buildings, factories, offices, citrus orchards, olive groves and greenhouses. Much of the water, electricity and other infrastructure is beyond repair.

Emboldened by this Dresden-like devastation, Ben-Gvir and his Jewish supremacist ministerial colleague Bezalel Smotrich (on both of whom Netanyahu depends to keep his coalition together) have ramped up calls for what they describe, in a chilling euphemism, as the “voluntary” evacuation of Palestinians from the Strip. Both have proposed re-establishing Jewish settlements in Gaza 19 years after they were withdrawn by Ariel Sharon, and Smotrich has even mused that 200,000 to 300,000 Gazans (out of 2.2m) would be a tolerable number left in the Strip. For most Gazans, who are the descendants of more than 700,000 refugees who fled or were forced from their homes in the war of 1948, this has truly menacing overtones. The US and Egypt are resisting Smotrich and Ben-Gvir’s suggestions, but the possibility underlines the macabre paradox in which the Palestinians are caught: almost uniquely among war zones, Gaza is impossible to escape for the vast majority; but if they were able to flee into Egypt, it would seem like a re-enactment of the 1948 Nakba.

There is a way that this destruction could be halted: a ceasefire, on the condition that the remaining Israeli hostages—the large majority Jewish but including, like those killed on the 7th October, some Bedouin Arab citizens of Israel—held in Gaza are released. Yair Golan is signed up to the goal of dismantling Hamas militarily in the longer term and removing it from power in Gaza. But he says securing the hostages’ freedom is now the Israeli government’s number one duty. “These people are victims of the Israeli political and military failures. We have a very strong obligation to save their lives. The goal of eliminating Hamas entirely has no connection to reality. I don’t see in what way we will be able to achieve this goal in the near future and at the same time free all the hostages. There is a time to fight and there is a time to release the hostages.”

This would provide the first real chance of ending the horrific mass casualties in Gaza and could even begin to answer the question of what next for Gaza. In a striking Haaretz article in December, former prime minister Ehud Olmert called for a full ceasefire, “not a pause…. [but] an end to the hostility, period.” The condition, in Olmert’s view, would be the recovery from Gaza of all hostages in return for the release all Hamas prisoners from Israeli jails. IDF troops would remain frozen in their positions inside Gaza pending negotiations mediated by Egypt on the future of the Gaza Strip.

Nimrod Sheffer, a former CEO of Israeli Aerospace Industries, ex-chief of the Israeli Air Force and Golam ally, has fleshed out what he thinks Israel should demand in such negotiations, which he hopes would lead eventually to Gaza being governed by Palestinians (but not Hamas) and reconstructed. They amount to: Israeli control of the border between Gaza and Egypt to prevent weapons imports, demilitarisation of the armed factions, a multinational security force inside the Strip and—perhaps more problematic—the right of Israeli forces outside the Gaza border to enter if justified on security grounds.

Sheffer is convinced Netanyahu won’t make such an offer because he wants to prolong the war to save his job. A “vast majority” of Israeli voters want the prime minister to go, Sheffer explains, “but half of those are saying ‘not till after the war.’” While faltering negotiations continue, Netanyahu has repeatedly suggested that relentless military pressure on Hamas will bring the hostages back. So far just one hostage has been returned alive by the IDF operating in Gaza.

For families like those of 22-year-old Omer Wenkert (he “loved to cook”), who was snatched by kidnappers from the rave and last seen photographed by them in handcuffs and underpants, this would surely bring unimaginable relief. In the Tel Aviv Museum square where families of the hostages have gathered nightly since 7th October, his close cousin Orli Salemi, 47, said in late November that in the last message Omer had sent to his family, he said he was “very, very scared.” She added: “I don’t want to get into politics… but I have to be angry about this. This was not supposed to happen. He was just there to have a good time. We are told we have the strongest army in the world. So where was it?” 

While Mohammad Bin Salman, like the Emiratis, would be quietly glad to see Hamas eliminated, and is still thought keen to strike a deal with Israel, diplomats say he has now raised his price

A ceasefire might even provide a first stepping stone towards resolution of the wider conflict. Work to this end has been underway in regional and other capitals, much of it focused on the potential role of the Gulf States, including Saudi Arabia. Part of Hamas’s motive for the 7th October massacres was may have been to prevent a US-Saudi-Israel mutual accord, which would have represented a final betrayal by Riyadh of the Palestinians, breaking Saudi Arabia’s historic insistence on not recognising Israel until they had a state.

While Mohammad Bin Salman, like the Emiratis, would be quietly glad to see Hamas eliminated, and is still thought keen to strike a deal with Israel, diplomats say he has now raised his price—not out of any love for the Palestinians but because of widespread outrage among Arabs over the carnage in Gaza. Before 7th October, he was demanding gestures, including an economic package for Palestinians and a very modest widening of Palestinian semi-autonomy, which would do nothing to end the occupation. Now he might favour “a big bold move”, reviving the 20-year-old Saudi-sponsored Arab Peace Initiative (API), which envisaged a Palestinian state on 1967 borders. Either way, Gulf leaders are unlikely to meet the truly massive costs of rebuilding Gaza from its ruins—let alone help to secure and run it— without a clear path to a wider resolution. “They are not just going to be used as an ATM by Israel until the next time,” says a Western diplomat in one of the region’s capitals.

Any such negotiations would need the intensive engagement of the US and probably the Europeans. According to Assaf Sharon, a Tel Aviv university professor working with Golan, “It’s no longer true that Israelis and Palestinians can solve this on our own.” Instead, he envisages a long hands-on engagement by the international community—military as well as diplomatic, providing Israel with the international security guarantees that 7th October shows it needs—but coupled with a “big stick” warning that Israel would forfeit support if it keeps making “the same mistakes” and again drags its allies into “bloodbath without any way out.”

For any of this to succeed, a daunting number of moving parts would have to synchronise, the first and most necessary of which would be the fall of Netanyahu. Golan, recently returned from the US, thinks a change of Israeli government is needed to persuade the US to engage more fully in the conflict. 

Opposition leaders now hope for an Israeli election this summer. That would require a key segment of Netanyahu’s coalition to abandon him. Benny Gantz, who rode to Netanyahu’s rescue for the second time by temporarily joining his war cabinet and is now favoured as prime minister by 52 to Netanyahu’s 31 per cent, will desert him at some point. That would still leave Netanyahu’s 64-strong core Knesset majority intact. But Gantz’s departure would be a trigger, if one is needed, for a wholesale return—on an even greater scale—of the mass demonstrations against Netanyahu’s government which began last year and were largely suspended when the war began. In that fevered political atmosphere, the coalition might finally break.

In the Israeli left’s ideal template, Golan, who a mid-December poll predicted might secure 12 Knesset seats for his embryonic new faction, would persuade the likely partners in a centre and left bloc to turn an election into a referendum on a two state solution. Golan, Gantz, the current opposition leader Yair Lapid and the potentially pivotal Mansour Abbas, leader of the Arab party Ra’am, could argue that such a policy would provide the security Netanyahu so signally failed to do. But Golan tells me this is unlikely: he thinks the next election is more likely to turn on the need for a “normal” government, and that the crucial choice might need to await the election after that.

Either way, a putative deal would also require what US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called a “revitalised” Palestinian Authority capable of administering Gaza and eventually of negotiating on and running a Palestinian state. The ageing and deeply unpopular Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas, is unlikely to be able to muster support for a two state solution.

Enter Marwan Barghouti, who has spent over half his life in prison, the last and ongoing stretch of 22 years after a conviction for lethal attacks during the second intifada, of which he was a leader. A fluent Hebrew speaker with a PhD in political science, Barghouti is increasingly spoken of by diplomats and others as a potential Palestinian leader who, as a lifelong supporter of a two state solution, could do business with an Israeli government prepared to contemplate one. Barghouti has the huge advantage that, despite the sharp increase of support for Hamas since 7th October (much greater incidentally in the West Bank than Gaza), the polls consistently show that he would win a presidential election.

Under the present government his only chance of release would be in a further prisoner swap. Like most Palestinian prisoners, he has been subject to draconian new restrictions since 7th October, including the denial of access to books, television and newspapers, and severely rationed food and water. He was also removed in December from Ofer prison to solitary confinement in another Israeli jail. A January court petition lodged on his behalf alleges that Barghouti had been handcuffed naked while guards repeatedly searched his cell, and that he was punched and threatened by a warden. This may have been to punish him for the publication of a call on Palestinian Security Forces to start fighting Israel, allegedly written by Barghouti but the authenticity of which has been denied outright by his wife Fadwa.

Journalists have been blocked by Israel from interviewing Barghouti for at least a decade, but in December I went Ramallah to meet met his 32-year-old son Arab, a former investment analyst, in the modern Ramallah office of the high-tech German company Axios, where he trains IT recruits. He told me that the family had had no direct contact with his father since 7th October, but according to recently released prisoners Barghouti “as always is very strong and is very positive about the future.” He added: “he’s very worried about what’s happening in Gaza, from what he’s hearing, the crimes and the slaughtering of our people in Gaza.”

Though both men would utterly recoil at the comparison, Barghouti and Golan are in some respects reflections of each other. Both would challenge a current majority among their own publics that a two state solution is either undesirable or unachievable, or both. Arab Barghouti cannot speak for his father, whom he has not been allowed to see for over year, but there is little reason to think that the politics of father and devoted son diverge. For Arab, the younger generation now “despise” both the 1993 Oslo accords reached between Rabin and Yasser Arafat and the idea of a two state solution because they flow directly from the expansion of West Bank settlements, the purpose of which, he says, is precisely “to kill any opportunity for a two state solution”.

There may be something in this. In a barber’s shop in the city’s Amari refugee camp I visited before meeting Barghouti, a big TV screen was showing continuous images from Gaza, including of an untended dead body lying in a ruined street. The consensus among barber Mohammed Hammad and his customers appeared to be that Hamas’s military wing were laudably “resisting” Israel’s 16-year blockade of Gaza and the 56-year-old occupation of the West Bank—whatever “mistakes” had been made by those who executed the butchery on 7th October. The barber’s 16-year-old son, also Mohammed, said that since then two of his friends had been killed, one for throwing a Molotov cocktail at troops and one who was merely standing on a street corner. “I don’t believe in it,” he said, when asked about the two state solution. But then he added: “If the settlers leave, I will support it. I will accept it if there are no settlers.” 

According to Barghouti, “If the Israelis want security, they will not get it until we get our independence. That’s not a threat. That’s a fact. We can see that every decade or two, there is an uprising from the Palestinian people…. This is human nature. How can we be comfortable with, a few kilometres away, people living the best lives, amazing restaurants, amazing beaches while you’re living under their military occupation, and they’re throwing at us the most extremist people, which is the settlers.” Of his father, he says “we have a Palestinian Mandela. But we don't have an Israeli de Klerk.”

Arab doesn’t think the emergence of such an Israeli figure is impossible. Indeed, he suggests that Rabin—despite having been a military leader who oversaw atrocities—and Ehud Olmert were the Israeli prime ministers who were most “serious” about charting a solution with Palestinians. “But this is exactly why one of them got killed, and one of them was sent to prison [on corruption charges]. Because the Israeli right wing is so powerful in Israel.”

There are still distinct gaps between a Golan and a Barghouti two state concept. Barghouti envisages a “fully sovereign” Palestinian state; Golan and a potential prime minister such as Gantz would want continued Israeli security control, of borders and air space for example. And Barghouti still envisages Hamas as a political force joining the umbrella Palestinian Liberation Organization that has historically been dominated by Fatah—but on the condition it accepts the PLO’s pursuit of a two state solution. While many in Israel’s security establishment would privately agree with Barghouti’s argument that “Hamas is not a building that you can blow up. Hamas is an idea, an ideology,” they might well reject idea of even a demilitarised Hamas being absorbed into a Palestinian polity—albeit one led by a Fatah president with a clear mandate to negotiate.

Many in Israel’s security establishment would privately agree with Barghouti’s argument that “Hamas is not a building that you can blow up. Hamas is an idea, an ideology.”

Some common ground is possible. To Golan, Barghouti is a past “terrorist”. To Barghouti, Golan may appear as a “war criminal”. But while Golan shrugs off the comparison with Mandela, who he suggests was on a “different scale”, he tells me that Barghouti is an “option” as a potential Palestinian leader. In an echo of Rabin’s famous remark that “you don't make peace with friends. You make it with very unsavoury enemies,” Golan says that “reconciling with your enemies means accepting people that did something very painful to you, and reconciling with them…. The question is not whether we gain the best possible opportunity for Israel. In many cases, it’s a question of who is worse and who is worst. I prefer the worse.”

Realistically, although Golan could be highly influential in a centre-left coalition, he remains very far from becoming an Israeli prime minister. Marwan Barghouti is in jail, though he would probably run for president in any Palestinian election even if not released. Their presence in the landscape helps to undermine the pervasive myth that there is no-one to talk to on either side, provided that the international community is finally prepared to intervene in the cause of a solution.

If there is no election, the all-too-plausible alternative future is very stark. Netanyahu prolongs his premiership by continuing the war, albeit at somewhat lower intensity. More troops would be pulled out of Gaza to the boundary, and maybe to a newly enforced improvised line between north and southern Gaza, from where they would mount regular incursions, backed by ferocious air and artillery cover, to try and quell what would almost turn into a chronic insurgency.

Meanwhile Gazans would remain homeless, many tens of thousands in tents, with no economy and no schools, amid an almost total breakdown of law and order, an acute humanitarian crisis and little hope of a better future.

Any resolution to the crisis will require the involvement of a US statesman. It is not clear that Biden, who is facing his own increasingly problematic election year, is ready to come forward with an initiative even if Netanyahu falls. Ideally the crisis needs a Henry Kissinger, who for all his faults had the weight and perseverance, after the 1973 war, to push Israel into an armistice agreement with Egypt, paving the way for the Camp David Accords. Blinken likely lacks the authority to bring about such an agreement, but if Biden is serious about bringing the kind of peace that would start to eclipse Hamas then something similar is necessary. As Yehuda Shaul, co-director of Ofek, the Israeli thinktank devoted to pursuit of a two state solution, puts it: “The biggest nightmare for Hamas is a Palestinian state within agreed international parameters. The idea that you can bomb Palestinians into submission is disconnected from reality. Hamas benefits from the civilian casualties we are inflicting on Gaza and [we] are pushing Palestinians further down the path of radicalisation.”

For the west there is every reason to prevent the Gaza war turning the daily exchanges of fire with Hezbollah into a full-scale war in Lebanon, and to deter further attacks by Iranian-backed Houthis on Red Sea shipping or by active armed groups on US bases in Iraq. And there is every reason to prevent the emergence of a global Jihadist movement that uses the onslaught on the Palestinians as the pretext for a new wave of international terrorism. The long-term impact of the anger among Arab populations towards what they see as the west’s unflinching support for Israel’s devastating assault on Gaza is, as politicians from Biden to Keir Starmer have been discovering in parts of their own electoral bases, less calculable. Biden could begin to redeem the US’s regional reputation by calling in the huge debt Israel owes him for his steadfast support, insisting that in return for firm security guarantees, Israel gets serious about an agreement with the Palestinians and an end to occupation. The 7th October attacks showed, among much else, that leaving this issue alone is not going to work. The conditions for serious international engagement are more auspicious than they may seem at first sight. If not now, when?

Correction: This piece originally quoted Gantz as being favoured as prime minister by 52 to Netanyahu’s 21 per cent but has now been corrected as 52 to 31 per cent.