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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Biden’s Bold Gaza Cease-Fire Gambit

For weeks, American officials have referred to an “extraordinarily generous” offer made by Israel to secure a cease-fire and hostage deal with Hamas in Gaza. Today, President Joe Biden told the world what that offer actually is. Speaking from the White House, Biden laid out a multistage “Israeli proposal” for ending the current war and called on Hamas to accept its terms, and for the Israeli leadership to stand behind the deal despite internal right-wing pressure to fight on.

“This new proposal has three phases,” the president said. “The first phase would last for six weeks. Here’s what it would include: a full and complete cease-fire, a withdrawal of Israeli forces from all populated areas of Gaza, the release of a number of hostages—including women, the elderly, the wounded—in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.”

American hostages, Biden noted, would be freed during this time, while Gazan civilians would return to their homes and humanitarian aid would surge into the Strip. Notably, this latest proposal contains a key Israeli concession. Prior negotiations ran aground after Hamas insisted that it be able to include dead hostages, as opposed to just living ones, in the number required by the agreement’s first phase. In his speech, Biden indicated that Israel had now acceded to this previously rejected stipulation. “Some remains of hostages who have been killed will be returned to their families,” he said, “bringing some degree of closure to their terrible grief.”

Negotiators, the president continued, would use the six weeks of the deal’s first phase to hammer out its next one, which would serve to secure the release of the remaining living hostages and a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. Biden made sure to note that the cease-fire would be extended as long as these negotiations were ongoing, even if they were not complete at the six-week mark. The agreement’s third and final phase would couple an international initiative to rebuild Gaza with the release of the bodies of any remaining hostages. “It’s time for this war to end,” the president concluded, “and for the day after to begin.”

For close observers, most of the information in Biden’s speech was not new. Many details from the negotiations between Israel and Hamas had already been leaked to the Israeli and international press. But Biden’s remarks are the first time that the terms of the proposed deal have been officially confirmed. By making this material public, Biden clearly hopes to pressure the parties to finally come to an agreement. But the key decisions remain beyond his control.

To begin with, contrary to some mistaken reporting, Hamas has rejected every Israeli offer to date—and the terrorist group has good reason to think that this strategy is working in its favor. In the past month alone, the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court requested arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, while the International Court of Justice called for Israel to curtail its operation in the southern-Gaza city of Rafah. With global pressure only increasing on Israel, the Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar may be content to wait for outside actors to compel Israel to accede to his demands and end the war without his releasing a single hostage. This will lengthen the hostilities, during which Palestinian civilians will pay the price, but Hamas—which embeds itself among civilians and built its war machine out of aid and infrastructure intended for civilians—has openly said that it is not responsible for Gaza’s civilians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also has reason to torpedo this proposal—even though he probably authorized it. As Biden said in his remarks, Israel has indeed made far-reaching offers to Hamas to wind down the war. But a proposal made behind closed doors by negotiators is not the same as one that can withstand the public pressures of Israeli politics. Biden made explicit reference to this challenge in his speech: “I know there are those in Israel who will not agree with this plan and will call for the war to continue indefinitely—some are even in the government coalition.”

Netanyahu has a long history of painstakingly negotiating sensitive agreements only to jettison them after backlash from his right-wing base. And Netanyahu’s base—to say nothing of his far-right partners—does not want to end this war, believing that the total elimination of Hamas should supersede other war aims. The prime minister’s most hard-line allies also dream of resettling Gaza, which any cease-fire deal would preclude. Given this reality, it’s entirely possible that Netanyahu could turn on a proposal that he himself initiated if he thinks it imperils his political standing.

For now, the prime minister is characteristically keeping his options open. In response to Biden’s speech, Netanyahu’s office released a short, carefully worded statement: “The Government of Israel is united in its desire to return the hostages as soon as possible and is working to achieve this goal. The Prime Minister authorized the negotiating team to present a proposal to that end, which would also enable Israel to continue the war until all its objectives are achieved, including the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities. The actual proposal put forward by Israel, including the conditional transition from one phase to the next, allows Israel to uphold these principles.” Israelis are currently observing Shabbat, so the full contours of the country’s reaction to Biden’s remarks—and the pressures on Netanyahu—won’t be apparent until later in the weekend.

Yesterday, Hamas released a statement to the media declaring that it would not return to the negotiating table unless the fighting stopped beforehand. If the group sticks to this absolutist stance, which would leave all of the hostages under its control, Biden’s appeals will go nowhere. In response to Biden’s speech, however, Hamas appeared to indicate greater flexibility without explicitly signaling agreement to the details of the proposed deal, whose fate remains in limbo. The president has pushed events as far as he can, but even American presidents have their limits.

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