Monday, Jun 10, 2024

Controversy Rages Over Biden’s Ceasefire Proposal

 

The deliberately vague Gaza ceasefire proposal that President Biden announced at the White House last Friday afternoon, shortly after Shabbos began in Israel, has raised more questions than it answered, and unleashed a storm of controversy in Israel over the extent to which it reflects the current proposal position on a ceasefire of the Israeli government, as Biden claims.

Specifically, Biden said, “For the past several months, my negotiators of foreign policy, intelligence community, and the like have been relentlessly focused [on] a durable end to this war — one that brings all the hostages home, ensures Israel’s security, creates a better ‘day after’ in Gaza without Hamas in power, and sets the stage for a political settlement that provides a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.

“Israel has now offered a comprehensive new proposal. It’s a roadmap to an enduring ceasefire and the release of all hostages. This proposal has been transmitted by Qatar to Hamas.

“The first phase would last for six weeks… It would include a full and complete ceasefire; a withdrawal of Israeli forces from all populated areas of Gaza; and a release of a number of hostages — including women, the elderly, and the wounded — in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

“Hamas needs to take the deal. For months, people all over the world have called for a ceasefire. Now it’s time to raise your voices and demand that Hamas come to the table, agree to this deal, and end this war that they began… It’s time for this war to end and for the ‘day after’ to begin.”

In addition, Biden stated, that, “at this point, Hamas is no longer capable of carrying out another October 7 [attack],” perhaps suggesting that there is no longer a pressing military need for Israel to continue its attacks to wipe out Hamas’ remaining fighting forces in Rafah.

KEY QUESTIONS LEFT UNANSWERED

The most crucial details of the proposal which Biden deliberately avoided are the issues that will ultimately determine whether any such ceasefire/hostage exchange deal is possible between Israel and Hamas, eight months into the Gaza War. These include the permanence of the ceasefire which Israel is now willing to accept in exchange for the return by Hamas of those civilian hostages being held in Gaza who are still alive, and whether Israel is willing to tolerate the long-term survival of a remnant of Hamas following the formal end of fighting in Gaza.

Other important aspects of the Biden proposal that were not clearly explained include exactly what “a full and complete ceasefire” means, and whether the Israeli military would retain the right to retaliate if a terrorist in Gaza launched a single rocket at Sderot after the truce went into effect.

In addition, Biden did not make it clear whether the “withdrawal of Israeli forces from all populated areas of Gaza” during the initial ceasefire included the removal of Israeli forces from the central Netzarim corridor where Israel is basing its mobile forces in Gaza, and from the Philadelphi Corridor along the Egyptian-Gaza border, where the Israeli army is currently seeking out and closing down the extensive network of cross-border tunnels Hamas has long used to smuggle weapons and other contraband into Gaza.

Other crucial details missing from Biden’s proposal include the exact number of civilian hostages and imprisoned Palestinians to be released during the first phase of the ceasefire, and what would happen if Hamas fails to negotiate in good faith, and starts stalling in an effort to extend the initial phase of the ceasefire indefinitely. Biden’s proposal also fails to explain exactly who would maintain security in Gaza after the Israel military is withdrawn, and how the return of Hamas to power in Gaza, renewing its threat to Israel’s security, could be prevented.

TESTING HAMAS’ INTENTIONS

Israel’s Channel 12 reported that some of the provisions in Biden’s deal, including a long-term ceasefire, the reconstruction of Gaza, the creation of a Palestinian governing mechanism for Gaza that does not include Hamas participation, and the exile of Hamas’ leaders in Gaza, were designed as a “test” of the sincerity of Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar in the negotiating process.

Other Israeli media reports say that Sinwar is not interested in any ceasefire deal, because he believes that the longer fighting continues in Gaza, the more pressure Israel will get from the U.S. and the international community to agree to Hamas’ demands that it be allowed to survive the war while remaining in effective control of Gaza.

It also remains unclear the extent to which the deal that Biden announced reflects a “comprehensive new proposal,” from Israel, and the extent to which its controversial details were approved in advance by Prime Minister Netanyahu and his war cabinet.

According to Israeli media reports, at the crucial meeting of the Israeli war cabinet, it discussed the terms that Mossad chief David Barnea presented to CIA Director William Burns and Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in Paris a few days earlier.

DIVISIONS WITHIN ISRAEL’S WAR CABINET

A report from Israel’s Kan public radio network said that the ministers were split over Hamas’ demand that Israel permanently end the war as part of a hostage deal. Some ministers argued that there should be room for negotiation on the issue, while Netanyahu saw it as unacceptable, because it would be tantamount to an Israeli surrender by permitting Hamas to survive and remain in control of Gaza.

A report from Israel’s Channel 13 said that Netanyahu had authorized Israel’s negotiating team two weeks ago to discuss a “prolonged ceasefire” in its indirect negotiations with Hamas, and that Biden’s speech constituted an “outing” of some of the key details in the proposal that were approved by the war cabinet, but not previously disclosed to the public.

Netanyahu has not denied that Biden’s proposal was based upon an Israeli-approved plan, but he did say that Biden’s description of the Israeli proposal was “incomplete” in certain crucial respects. Netanyahu’s subsequent statements have remained deliberately vague concerning how accurately Biden’s speech actually reflects Israel’s position.

In fact, the statement Netanyahu’s office released immediately following Biden’s speech failed to mention his proposal at all. It said, “The Israeli government is united in the desire to return our hostages as soon as possible and is working to achieve this goal. Therefore, the prime minister authorized the negotiating team to present an outline for achieving this goal, while insisting that the war will not end until all of its goals are achieved, including the return of all our hostages and the elimination of Hamas’ military and governmental capabilities.

“The exact outline proposed by Israel, including the conditional transition from stage to stage, allows Israel to maintain these principles,” the statement continued.

When asked by reporters for more details about the Israeli plan, government officials would only say that, “Israel’s conditions for the end of the war have not changed.”

NETANYAHU FACING A RIGHT-WING REVOLT

Nevertheless, two right-wing ministers in Netanyahu’s coalition, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, of the Religious Zionism party, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, of the Otzma Yehudit party, who do not sit in the war cabinet that makes these kinds of policy decisions, blasted the apparent concessions to Hamas in Biden’s proposal, and threatened to resign from the government if Netanyahu fails to publicly withdraw his agreement to the Biden proposal.

The two ministers represent political parties that contribute 14 Knesset seats to Netanyahu’s 64-seat coalition. But if Smotrich and Ben-Gvir go through with their threats to pull out of Netanyahu’s coalition over his support for Biden’s proposal, the leaders of some opposition parties in the Knesset have promised to lend Netanyahu the Knesset votes he would need to remain in power long enough to implement the ceasefire/hostage release deal.

In response to that threat, Israeli President Yitzchok Herzog, speaking at a conference at the Hebrew University, said he had promised Netanyahu his “full support” if he decides to go forward with the ceasefire and hostage-release deal that Biden announced.

However, in response to continued accusations from Ben-Gvir and Smotrich that Netanyahu had compromised on Israel’s war goals, Netanyahu had to re-assure Knesset members that he had not agreed to end the war in Gaza without Hamas’ defeat or surrender. He had his office issue another statement declaring that. “The claims that we have agreed to a ceasefire without our conditions being met are incorrect.”

IS IT ISRAEL’S PEACE PLAN OR BIDEN’S?

Biden administration officials have been equally evasive when asked by reporters about the extent to which the ceasefire proposals that Netanyahu and Biden were talking about were one and the same. During one press briefing, a senior official tried to deflect the question by saying, “I have no doubt that the deal will be characterized by Israel [one way] and will be characterized by Hamas [another way], but we know what’s in the deal. We know what the expectations are.”

In an interview with Britain’s Sunday Times newspaper, Netanyahu’s diplomatic adviser, Ophir Falk, cautiously characterized Biden’s proposal as “a deal we agreed to,” and then added, “It’s not a good deal, but we dearly want the hostages released — all of them.”

Falk emphasized that Israel’s original goals for the Gaza war “have not changed — the release of the hostages and the destruction of Hamas as a genocidal terrorist organization.” He also said, “There are a lot of details to be worked out, and that includes that there will not be a permanent ceasefire until all our objectives are met.”

As the political controversy in Israel over Biden’s proposal continued to rage, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters that President Biden had anticipated that his ceasefire plan would be unacceptable to some members of the Israeli government, “And of course, we’ve seen some members of the Israeli government already come out and oppose it.” But Miller insisted that Biden’s proposal was “in the long-term security interests of Israel. It’s obviously in the long-term interests of the Palestinian people, as well.”

Miller also said that Secretary of State Antony Blinken had discussed Biden’s proposal with the foreign ministers of Turkey, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the United Arab Emirates. He also spoke with two members of Israel’s war cabinet, Benny Gantz, and Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant.

“We’re completely confident,” that Israel supports the ceasefire plan, Miller added, and noted that the U.S. was still awaiting Hamas’ formal response to the plan Biden announced.

ARE NETANYAHU AND BIDEN ON THE SAME PAGE?

There has also been a lot of speculation in the Israeli media over how much coordination there had been between the Israeli prime minister and the American president in advance of Biden’s announcement of the plan, and whether there was any connection to the formal announcement, a few hours later, that Netanyahu had been formally invited by both Republican and Democrat congressional leaders to address a joint session of Congress.

Channel 12 reported that the White House gave Netanyahu’s office and Israel’s Ambassador to the U.S., Mike Herzog, some specifics about the speech about two or three hours before Biden delivered it. But according to reports by Channel 13 and the Times of Israel, Netanyahu felt that he had been “blindsided” by Biden’s speech and was caught by surprise by some of its proposals.

Even if Netanyahu and Biden did coordinate their positions, at least to some extent, in advance of Biden’s announcement of the “Israeli” ceasefire plan, their personal relationship is still strained. That became obvious from Biden’s provocative answer to a question he was asked during a recent interview with Time magazine. When he was asked whether he agreed with the accusation by Netanyahu’s Israeli political enemies that he was deliberately prolonging the war in Gaza to keep his politically embattled right-wing government in power, Biden at first declined to comment, but then said, “There is every reason for people to draw that conclusion.”

WHITE HOUSE EFFORTS TO PUT PRESSURE ON HAMAS

Meanwhile, President Biden and his Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, have asked the leaders of Qatar, which hosts Hamas’ international leadership, to put pressure on Hamas to accept his ceasefire plan, by threatening to expel its leaders if they refuse. In their contacts with Qatar’s leaders, Biden and Blinken assured them that the Israeli government is prepared to accept the deal, despite the current political controversy there over Biden’s ceasefire proposal.

According to the White House, during his phone conversation with the emir of Qatar, Biden said that, “Hamas is now the only obstacle to a complete ceasefire and relief for the people of Gaza,” and that Egypt and Qatar are committed to “the full implementation of the entire agreement.”

In addition, Biden’s National Security Adviser, Jake Sullivan, called a top aide to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan to ask the Turkish government to use its influence to convince the leaders of Hamas of the “urgent need for Hamas to accept Israel’s proposal to bring about an immediate ceasefire as part of a hostage deal,” according to a White House readout of the call.

CONSTRUCTIVE AMBIGUITY

Meanwhile, many of the questions raised by the key details missing from Biden’s ceasefire proposal, including the extent to which the Israeli government is willing to “stand behind it,” remain unanswered.

War is a zero-sum game. If one side wins, the other side loses. Left unresolved by Biden’s ceasefire plan are the kinds of issues upon which it is unlikely that Hamas and Israel could ever agree, beginning with the outcome of the Gaza war. Either Hamas will be destroyed, enabling Israel and Netanyahu to claim victory, or a remnant of Hamas will survive the end of the Gaza war intact, which would be seen as a humiliating defeat for Israel and a long-term threat to its security and survival.

The inherent difficulties in reaching a mutually acceptable compromise on a Gaza ceasefire and hostage return agreement suggest that it is entirely possible that the vagueness and unanswered questions may have been a feature of Biden’s proposal rather than a mistake, Biden might be hoping that by leaving these key issues open to interpretation and resolution at a later date, he will make it easier for both Hamas and Israel to agree to the first stage of the ceasefire and hostage release deal.

A Gaza ceasefire would give a big boost to Biden’s flagging presidential campaign, which has been losing support because of the war from friends of Israel as well as Muslim voters and other pro-Hamas demonstrators. A hostage release deal would also relieve a lot of the political pressure on Netanyahu’s government from the families of the hostages, and it would also give Hamas’ leadership a chance to regroup and begin to recover from their severe losses over the past eight months of fighting.

There is also the possibility that, once a ceasefire is in place, and the rest of the surviving civilian hostages have been returned, it may not be deemed feasible for Israel to resume its attacks to complete the defeat of Hamas.

WHAT IS THE BEST AVAILABLE OUTCOME?

While that outcome would leave a potential future threat from Hamas in place, in the short term, it would enable the residents of southern Israel to return safely to their homes, and would deprive Hezbollah of its excuse for the continued bombardment which has forced the evacuation of more than 60,000 civilians from their homes and communities in northern Israel.

While allowing the remnants of Hamas to survive and remain in place is far from an ideal outcome, it might be the only practical way to achieve the important goals of bringing an end to the war in Gaza, rescuing as many of the surviving hostages as possible, and enabling life in Israel to return to normal, at least for the next several years.

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