August 7

With the fighting suspended in Gaza, the area’s residents are combing through the rubble of what used to be their homes and businesses. Israel has temporarily degraded Hamas’ military capacity. Yet it seems clear the Netanyahu government is also Hamas’ greatest ally, the former’s policies and decisions all but guaranteed to validate the latter’s argument to Gaza’s population. If Israel’s government won’t do anything differently, perhaps the rest of us — the United States leading a coalition of western and Arab allies — could try something creative to change the situation there.

Maybe it’s time for a Marshall Plan for Gaza.

Of course, the very fact that such a thing seems impossible tells us a good deal about today’s domestic political situation. The constraints of debate over Israel in the United States would make it difficult to get momentum behind an idea like this one. Unless you can define something as the most “pro-Israel” position possible, most members of Congress won’t want to touch it. But that doesn’t mean the idea isn’t worth thinking about.

The area was already desperately poor, and Israeli bombing over the last month destroyed much of its industrial capacity, which will only serve to make life there even harder. Combined with nearly two thousand dead, most of them civilians, the operation doubtless renewed and strengthened the misery and hatred from which Hamas draws its power. If Hamas’ goal was to bait Israel into reminding Gaza’s population why they despise the Jewish state, then it succeeded spectacularly.

Hundreds of millions of dollars in aid already flow to the West Bank and Gaza every year from a variety of sources, including the United States. But a Marshall Plan would mean something much more dramatic — not millions, but billions. Tens of billions. Why not turn Gaza into Monaco or Singapore, and then see how much support Hamas can get?

Does that seem unrealistic? Sure. But maybe it’s not as crazy as it sounds. We’re talking, after all, about a tiny strip of land holding only 1.8 million people. The population is young and fairly well-educated. What if the international community decided it would invest $45 billion — or $25,000 for every man, woman, and child?

Yes, that’s a lot of money, but it isn’t an impossible amount. There are many extremely wealthy Arab countries who could be convinced to make an investment that would do more than any Israeli military action to destroy Hamas once and for all (Hamas is hated by governments throughout the Arab world). The United States could start things off by pledging, say, $2 billion, or 1/1000th of what we spent on the Iraq War, provided we get the other governments to join us.

The goal of that kind of investment wouldn’t be to meet the Palestinians’ immediate needs or rebuild what has been destroyed, but to create an entirely new economic reality. Would it be an extraordinary logistical challenge? Of course. It would be foolish to pretend otherwise. There are lots of things that could prevent it from happening in the first place and undermine its success once it began. Hamas would certainly fight against it, since their influence depends on Gaza’s residents being as miserable as possible.

So we could make it a bribe; the money could be contingent on the passage of a referendum renouncing terrorism and territorial claims within Israel. Make the Gazans choose: a bright future for your children, starting now, or condemning them to a life of squalor and fear so you can hold on to the impossible dream of reclaiming your grandfather’s olive grove. If they chose the future, Hamas would soon become irrelevant.

Creating a Marshall Plan for Gaza would be a terrifically complex undertaking, but it isn’t like there would be any shortage of experts and companies willing to help in the planning and execution (particularly with so much money to be made). So what would it take, politically speaking, for America to lead such an effort?

The first thing would be a willingness to think creatively, something that hasn’t exactly been in ample supply on this issue. For decades now, the only question any politician has had to answer is whether you’re “pro-Israel,” which lately is defined as blindly assenting to whatever Benjamin Netanyahu wants. But this is an unusually passive way to conduct foreign policy. It’s particularly ironic given that the American conservatives who believe themselves to be Israel’s strongest supporters are also those who want America to act proactively in the world, shaping events instead of reacting to them.

Well here’s an opportunity to shape events, to change the reality of an awful situation not by doing what we’ve been doing, but by trying something different. A Marshall Plan for Gaza might indeed be one of the greatest favors the world could do for Israel. It’s worth considering.