Despite Biden’s urging, cease-fire deal shows no progress

More than a week after President Biden declared a “decisive moment” in the eight-month Israel-Gaza war and beseeched both sides to quickly approve a U.S.-backed cease-fire deal, there is dwindling evidence that either has bought what he is selling.

Despite Biden’s personal and very public urging, his dispatch of senior administration officials to the region, the drafting of a new United Nations Security Council resolution and the marshaling of allies to join in a chorus of approval, neither Israel nor Hamas appear to have budged on their wide divergence over the proposed road map to permanently end the war in Gaza.

Israel’s successful rescue of four hostages early Saturday, while welcomed, may further complicate administration efforts, bolstering Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence on a full military victory and release of all remaining Hamas-held hostages before Israel’s guns are silenced.

Many dozens, if not hundreds, of Palestinian civilians were killed during the rescue operation near a refugee camp in central Gaza, according to hospital reports. Israel reported that one Israeli soldier died from wounds incurred during the mission.

Talks over the cease-fire proposal are still ongoing in Doha, the Qatari capital, although the most senior officials from the mediating countries — the United States, Qatar and Egypt — have gone home, including CIA Director William J. Burns. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will launch his latest tour of Israel and Arab capitals in the region Sunday.

There is little doubt among the mediators that the rescue operation will jolt the negotiations, but perhaps in a direction none of them want.

On Saturday, Biden, on a state visit to France, congratulated Israel but tied the operation to the diplomatic efforts, saying, “we won’t stop working until all the hostages come home and a cease-fire is reached.”

White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan also sought to draw attention back to the negotiations. “The hostage release and cease-fire deal that is now on the table would secure the release of all the remaining hostages together with security assurances for Israel and relief for the innocent civilians in Gaza,” he said in a statement.

But in Israel, while relatives of some of the rescued hostages urged Netanyahu to seize the moment to make a deal that envisioned the return of around 100 remaining Hamas captives, a jubilant prime minister made no reference to the proposal in remarks addressed to the Israel Defense Forces. “You once again proved that Israel does not surrender to terrorism. … We are obligated to do the same in the future,” he said, referring to the military operation. “We will not rest until we complete our mission and return all of our hostages home.”

For its part, Hamas said in a statement released on its Telegram channel that reports of U.S. assistance in the raid “proves once again the complicit role of the American administration, its full participation in the war crimes committed in the Gaza Strip, [and] the lies of its declared positions on the humanitarian situation.”

Days after the Gaza war began in October, the Pentagon acknowledged that a “small number” of U.S. military personnel at the embassy in Jerusalem were assisting the Israeli government through planning and intelligence support as part of its hostage-recovery efforts. Eight Israeli-Americans are believed to be among those still held in Gaza, including the remains of three who are believed dead.

Overhead surveillance, communications intercepts and other intelligence information about the potential location of hostages, including for this operation, have been provided, according to people familiar with the matter, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive issues. U.S. intelligence analysts also are helping Israeli officials map out the extensive network of tunnels that Hamas has built beneath Gaza, contributing powerful analytic technologies that fuse fragments of information, according to officials with knowledge of the work.

Video circulating on social media, said to be taken at the time of the raid, showed Israeli helicopters operating near the pier built by the U.S. military to deliver humanitarian aid to Gazan civilians. The IDF controls the beach surrounding the landing area.

A U.S. official, responding to questions, said the pier was for humanitarian use only and “was not used in the operation to rescue hostages today in Gaza. An area south of the facility was used to safely return the hostages to Israel. Any such claim to the contrary is false.” The official spoke on the condition of anonymity under rules set by the administration.

As the United States prepared to submit a new resolution supporting the cease-fire plan for a vote in the U.N. Security Council early next week, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Saturday called for an emergency council session to denounce the “bloody massacre by Israeli security forces” of Palestinian civilians during the raid, according to WAFA, the official authority news agency.

Many in the region and beyond see the stalemate over a broader deal that would end the war and set the terms for the “day after” as yet another indication, after months of trying for an agreement, of waning U.S. power, and point to the dissonance between its ongoing support for Israel and efforts to stop the fighting and promote humanitarian assistance.

“We really thought that if there was one last hope to have a cease-fire in Gaza, this would be it,” Abdulkhaleq Abdulla, a prominent analyst from the United Arab Emirates and senior fellow with the Middle East Initiative at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Belfer Center, said of the proposal. “But I think we are now finding out it is dead on arrival. … This administration has not faced up to Netanyahu — they have the power, but can’t do it,” he said.

Senior administration officials sharply reject that assessment, noting that they have long spoken candidly to Netanyahu in private, and increasingly in public, about what they believe is his losing strategy for long-term peace for Israel. Biden has already suspended one shipment of U.S. weapons to Israel and pledged to withhold more if the continued destruction of Gaza and deprivation of civilians does not abate.

“The basic plan all along, one of the reasons why the administration has pulled punches with Israel and maintained a passive-aggressive policy with the Netanyahu government, despite tremendous anger and frustration,” has been its “belief that the only way you’re going to end up with any pathway out of this is through an Israel-Hamas agreement,” said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator through several administrations and current senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

“The problem is that in order to cut a deal,” Miller said, “you need significant urgency on the part of Israel and Hamas. And the only party that is in a hurry is the administration.”

U.S. officials still insist that underlying pressures on both sides will eventually lead them to a deal, and that once Hamas agrees, Israel will ultimately accede.

Biden’s public detailing of the U.S.-backed deal, made in a White House address on May 31, was designed to put both sides on the spot. Israel, he said, had authored the proposal, with the first of three phases to include a six-week cease-fire, withdrawal of Israeli troops from heavily populated areas of Gaza, the freeing of all women, elderly and children held hostage and a surge in humanitarian aid to the starving enclave.

Negotiations over a second phase would start immediately and the initial, temporary cease-fire would continue — as long as neither side violated its terms — until an agreement was reached on a “permanent” cessation of hostilities, complete Israeli withdrawal and the release of all remaining hostages, including members of the Israeli military.

The sweetener for Hamas was the explicit reference to a permanent cease-fire and Israeli withdrawal, effectively ending the war without the total destruction of the group that Netanyahu has vowed. “They want to be sure after the first phase that the Israelis will not attack … once they give the hostages back,” said a former Egyptian official with knowledge of the negotiations, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject.

While Netanyahu acknowledged Israel’s war cabinet had “authorized” the proposal, he has never said unequivocally that he supports it. Under pressure from right-wing extremists in his coalition, where political infighting threatens to topple his government, he has rejected an automatic “transition” between phases one and two and recommitted Israel to the complete destruction of Hamas.

Miller, at the Carnegie Endowment, suggested that Netanyahu now has even more reason for delay with the Israeli Knesset due to recess for the summer on July 25 — the day after he is due to address the U.S. Congress — making him “more or less secure, probably through the fall.”

“You don’t have to have too much imagination to see that Bibi,” as Netanyahu is widely known, “is buying time and hoping that somehow Trump will win the [U.S.] election and there will be less pressure on him to do anything,” Miller said.

There has barely been discussion of the third phase, during which the administration hopes Arab and other governments will help provide security and funding for rebuilding Gaza under a Palestinian leadership that will lead to a separate state that Netanyahu has also rejected.

As the cease-fire negotiations drag on, other initiatives have fizzled. Biden last week sent a senior delegation, headed by National Security Council Middle East director Terry Wolff, to Cairo to negotiate the reopening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Israel. Israel has occupied the crossing, the portal through which most humanitarian aid to southern Gaza has passed, since it launched its Rafah operation early last month. Egypt has refused to allow aid to pass through until Palestinians again control the Gaza side of the border.

Any agreement on the Rafah crossing, the Egyptian official said, is dependent on a ceasefire agreement.

Failure to reach that agreement has also undermined the position of the United States as a mediator in related regional issues. Negotiations between Saudi Arabia and the United States over a stepped-up defense relationship and normalization of Saudi-Israeli relations “is ready to be signed the moment this war is over,” Abdulla, the Emirati analyst, said.

“But Saudi Arabia cannot sign this while there is a war in Gaza,” he said.

George reported from Dubai. Claire Parker in Cairo, Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv, Cleve R. Wootson Jr. in Paris, and Ellen Nakashima and Missy Ryan in Washington contributed to this report.

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