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Biden’s Israel-Hamas cease-fire plan running out of time

President Biden is running out of time to complete his goal of ending Israel’s war against Hamas and implement a megadeal to reshape the Middle East toward a position of peace. 

The administration is focusing all its efforts to first get Hamas to agree to a three-phase, cease-fire deal that would establish, immediately, at least a six-week pause in fighting in the Gaza Strip. 

But counter-proposals by Hamas have contributed to weeks of back and forth and are testing the hope and patience of mediators — and raising questions of what is Plan B. 

“I’m not sure how many more days I have of saying, ‘Well, I’m still hoping’ — within this framework,” Sen. Mark Warner (D-Va.), chair of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said during a roundtable with reporters Tuesday hosted by the Christian Science Monitor.

Biden has sought to bring international pressure to bear against Hamas, securing the support of the Israeli government; approval by the United Nations Security Council, and an endorsement by the Group of 7 nations and Arab and Gulf states on a proposal he laid out May 31. 

The first phase of the proposal includes a temporary cease-fire where Hamas would release in batches the 120 Israelis it kidnapped from Israel on Oct. 7, while Israel is expected to commit to release Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails. Supporters of the cease-fire deal say it is imperative to surge humanitarian support to Palestinians and ease suffering marked by displacement, starvation, and critically needed medical care. 

A group of Israeli families of hostages held by Hamas have put their support behind Biden’s cease-fire proposal. Andrey Kozlov, one of four Israelis rescued from Hamas captivity in early June in a daring and deadly operation, called for a cease-fire to secure the release of remaining hostages. 

“For the hostages still in Gaza, there is one decision, only one, it is the deal between Israel and Hamas,” he said in a video message published last week.

Warner put the blame on Hamas’s leader hiding in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, describing him as holding a reputation as a cold, calculating leader and who reportedly views the tens of thousands of Palestinian casualties in the war as “necessary sacrifices.”  

“This is the kind of leader who’s for the notion of the Palestinian people but doesn’t give a hoot about how many Palestinians die in this conflict,” Warner said.

Biden’s priority plan is to use the initial weeks of a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas to negotiate a permanent end to the war, establish new governance in Gaza and lay out a pathway to a Palestinian state. Those commitments would then allow Saudi Arabia to establish ties with Israel as a broader security grouping against Iran. 

Warner said that efforts to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia “absolutely” depends on first getting to a cease-fire. 

Barbara Leaf, the assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern Affairs, described Sinwar as a “psychopath” and “messianic,” but said mediators are in “intensive discussions” to bridge gaps between Hamas’s proposed changes to the cease-fire proposal. 

“We do believe ultimately, this proposal is the best roadway to get an end to the conflict now that would enable a multitude of things and that would ultimately be offered the prospect for an end to the conflict altogether,” she told a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee hearing on the Middle East on Tuesday.

‘Reality has a way of intruding’

Sinwar’s obstinance is only one challenge to the Biden administration’s grand plan. 

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, blamed by some Democrats in Congress as responsible for the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, lashed out in a video at the Biden administration for what he said was an “inconceivable” decision to hold back delivery of U.S. weapons and munitions.

Biden officials rejected Netanyahu’s characterization — the president has paused one shipment of heavy bombs to Israel — but the episode underscored the fraught tensions the U.S. is having with the Israeli leader over the course of the war. 

Netanyahu’s critics have accused him of prioritizing the military operation against Hamas over diplomacy, and U.S. and Israeli officials have also criticized the prime minister as failing to talk about what authority can rule Gaza instead of Israeli military control. 

“We are potentially weeks, maybe a month or two away from the formal military operations coming to a close and it is extraordinary that we have no viable plan from the Israeli government as to what comes next,” said Sen. Chris Murphy (D-Conn.), chair of a Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee that oversees the Middle East, pressing Leaf on the administration’s engagement with Israel. 

“There is still insufficient planning, to say the least, on the part of the Israeli government,” Leaf responded.  

Netanyahu has shot down any talk of the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority reasserting rule in Gaza, generally rejecting the idea of an independent Palestinian state that would link both territories. 

Still, Netanyahu has, at times, signaled openness to some sort of civil governing authority for Palestinians in Gaza. He has spoken about Israel maintaining freedom of military movement to address security threats, but he floated ideas about Arab countries taking responsibility for some security aspects of the territory. 

Leaf, responding to criticisms that Arab and Gulf countries are unlikely to step up responsibilities to help stabilize the situation with the Palestinians, said “there’s no magical thinking” on the part of the administration. 

“These get to the heart of politics for every one of these governments and for the Palestinians, and the Israelis as well. But I think reality has a way of pushing even those who can’t imagine a concept such as the [Palestinian Authority] returning to Gaza, reality has a way of intruding,” she said.  

Leaf said she is likely headed to the Middle East this weekend to continue discussions with Israeli, Arab and Gulf partners on a day-after scenario. 

“There will have to be a political alternative and that’s what we’re in the process of putting together these concepts,” she said. 

Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.), chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said he is also engaged in discussions bringing regional partners onboard for a “day-after” scenario.  

“I’ve had individual discussions as well as collective discussions with the Saudis, with the Emirates, with the Jordanians, with the Egyptians, with the Qataris, all of them have been showing signs of an interest in participating … including the governance issues, including the economic issues and those types of issues,” he told a roundtable of reporters last week. 

“There’s a lot of fill in the blanks that haven’t been quite filled in, a lot of volunteers that are willing to step forward, provided that the conditions are met, that there’s a real peace in the region and there’s a commitment to move forward to two states,” he said. 

Saudi Arabia key ally in path to peace

Biden has cultivated Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as a key ally in pushing forward any prospect of a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians — given a cease-fire can be implemented to start.

The president has long-since abandoned his campaign promise of making Saudi Arabia a “pariah” state, recognizing along with Democrat and Republican lawmakers that closer ties with Riyadh are part of a bigger effort to counter Iran and weaken China and Russia’s influence in the region. 

Regional military cooperation to counter an Iranian missile attack on Israel in April served as a real-life demonstration of the defensive power linking together the U.S., Israel, and Saudi Arabia, along with other partners. 

The Saudi crown prince is laser focused on securing a mutual defense treaty with the U.S. and assistance in building a civil, nuclear program. That deal is contingent on Saudi Arabia establishing ties with Israel, which Prince Mohammed said can only happen if there’s an Israeli commitment towards agreeing to recognizing a Palestinian state. 

“In meetings with MBS [Prince Mohammed], I saw someone that I think was prepared to make the decision — if we could get this defense alliance with the United States — would stop trying to play both sides against the middle, and I think that is in America’s best interest,” Warner said.

All or nothing

Biden officials and their allies in Congress say that all parts of this megadeal must move together or not move at all — cease-fire, the day-after plan, a pathway to a Palestinian state, and normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. 

Hamas has not made public its changes to the cease-fire proposal Biden laid out May 31, but the disagreement appears to be related to Hamas’s demand for an Israeli commitment for a full end to the war and withdrawal of Israeli troops. Netanyahu has said a full end to the war can only happen through negotiation, the so-called Phase 2 of Biden’s three-phase deal. 

Warner, while raising doubt about Sinwar’s commitment to negotiate, projected some optimism that a cease-fire can be reached based on experiences over the course of the war. But he also cautioned about how quickly talks can fall apart. 

He described a moment in early May where Hamas and Israel appeared poised to come to an agreement, but a Hamas rocket attack killing three Israeli soldiers triggered a collapse of talks. 

“We’ve gotten close so many times, but that moment when, this was only a blip in the news, it was probably the time we were closest when Israel’s leaning, I think Hamas was ready, and there happened to be a random attack that killed three [Israeli military] soldiers,” he said.  

“As of these last few weeks, the blame lies with Hamas’s leadership, Sinwar in particular,” the chair said. 

Source: The Hill

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