Battle in the White House to broker a deal in Gaza

For several hours, news from the Middle East entered the White House Situation Room at a rapid rate.

Israel ordered the evacuation of 100,000 civilians from Rafah as a prelude to invasion.

Hamas could “accept” a cease-fire agreement and prevent an invasion.

Israel could carry out an attack on Rafah and launch an invasion.

On Monday, White House officials scrambled to keep track of what was happening and what it meant as the war unfolded on and off and on and on. In the end, they say each move reflects an effort to gain leverage at the negotiating table with no clear solution yet in sight, rather than as it initially seemed. I started to believe it.

In fact, Hamas has not “accepted” the cease-fire agreement, and has offered a counter-offer to the table proposal previously blessed by the United States and Israel, which itself was not deemed acceptable, but is a sign of progress. was. At the same time, the Israeli attack in Rafah was clearly not the beginning of a long-threatened large-scale operation, but rather targeted retaliation for last weekend’s Hamas rocket attack that killed four Israeli soldiers. It was both a warning to civilians and a means of increasing pressure. About Hamas negotiators.

The series of actions agreed to by President Biden and his team hope to finally end the war that has devastated Gaza, killed tens of thousands of fighters and civilians, and intensified the region. This highlights how fluid the situation in the region is, as they attempt to mediate. It sparked riots on American college campuses. In recent days, talks have shifted from high hopes that a deal is near, to a new impasse that appears to be on the verge of collapse, and new efforts by Hamas to get the deal back on track.

“Biden continues to make every effort to thread multiple needles at once,” said Mara Rudman, a former acting special envoy to the Middle East under President Barack Obama and now at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The president still warned Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that “the ground invasion of Rafah is a terrible idea,” but said he was “pressuring Hamas in every possible way to rescue the hostages and provide further humanitarian assistance.”

Mr. Biden called Mr. Netanyahu on Monday to explain the U.S. assessment of the current status of ceasefire negotiations and to renew pressure on the Israeli leader to refrain from a full-scale attack on Rafah. The president also had lunch at the White House with Jordan’s King Abdullah II, who, like other Arab leaders, is eager to end the war.

The past two weeks have been the most tense diplomatically ever since Hamas launched a major terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking more than 200 hostages. It was a fulfilling development. After months of stalled negotiations, Israel returned on April 26 with a proposal that U.S. officials believe would shift the balance of power and provide a significant opportunity for an agreement.

Under the first phase of the proposal, Israel would suspend the war for 42 days and release hundreds of Palestinians held in prisons, while Hamas would release 33 hostages, especially women, the elderly and the sick. is.

The number of 33 was up from the 18 proposed by Hamas, but lower than the 40 initially requested by Israel, mainly because Israeli authorities had not met the criteria, according to people informed of the talks. This is because they began to understand that there were no more than 33 hostages to satisfy. The person requested anonymity to discuss a sensitive story. In fact, Hamas revealed to the Israelis on Monday that the 33 people included not only survivors but also the remains of deceased hostages.

Additionally, Israel will withdraw its troops from populated areas of Gaza and allow Gazans to return to the northern part of the enclave if conditions are met. To that end, a ceasefire would allow for a significant increase in the flow of humanitarian aid. In an effort to correct Hamas’s bluff, the Israelis essentially cut and pasted some of the language from Hamas’s March proposal and incorporated it into their own proposal, according to people involved in the talks.

During the six-week ceasefire, the two sides will develop plans for a second phase, which would include an additional 42 days of cessation of fighting and the release of more hostages. The hostages released at this stage will include Israeli soldiers, a category of prisoners of war whose release Hamas has always resisted. To overcome this hurdle, the Israelis agreed to increase the percentage of Palestinian prisoners released for each hostage they brought home.

Israel’s concessions made U.S., Egyptian and Qatari mediators optimistic that a deal could be reached. However, a week has passed without a clear response from Hamas. Perhaps this was also due to difficulties communicating with Hamas military leader Yahya Sinwar, who is said to be hiding in the tunnels of Gaza.

Israel did not send a delegation when negotiators arrived in Cairo on Friday, a move interpreted by some of Mr. Netanyahu’s critics as a sign of contempt. But Israeli and U.S. officials denied this, saying an Israeli delegation was not needed at that stage because Israel had made the proposal and was waiting for Hamas’s response.

Hamas’ response over the weekend frustrated brokers, as it rejected some of the very language previously proposed and adopted by Israel, according to people briefed on the talks. The American side declared Hamas’ new position unacceptable and suggested that negotiations would probably end if Hamas really did not want a deal. But Hamas indicated that he had no intention of spoiling the negotiations and would come back with a new version.

This was the counterproposal submitted by Hamas on Monday. The Israelis and Americans did not think it would be accepted, but believed there was room for further negotiations. Technical talks are likely to resume in Cairo on Wednesday to iron out the details. This time, Israel agreed to send a delegation to consider Hamas’s counteroffer.

Analysts said Israel’s actions in Rafah on Monday could either increase pressure on Hamas for a deal or derail negotiations. Although the attack focused on targets in the border area of ​​Rafah rather than major population areas, it may be a sign of things to come.

For veterans of the region, it was not entirely clear whether either side necessarily wanted an agreement. John B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said Hamas “would be costly to prevent a major Israeli operation in Rafah because it would isolate Israel. He may have thought that it was worth it. Further deepening the rift globally and between the United States and Israel. ”

At the same time, he said Netanyahu may be “aiming for a trifecta” with Monday’s attack: pressure Hamas into submission, show the Israeli people that he had attacked Rafah as promised, and get more money from Biden. It’s about taking credit. He accused the government of not launching a full-scale offensive that Washington fears would cause catastrophe for civilians.

“There’s a secret here that I don’t know about,” Alterman said. “At the same time, I’m worried that no team knows the other’s breaking point and no team knows exactly what the other team is evaluating.”

Khalid Elgindi, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former adviser to the Palestinian leader in past peace negotiations, remains skeptical that Netanyahu may actually have wanted a ceasefire for his own domestic politics. He said he was skeptical.

“I don’t think the advances in Rafah and the moves in Rafah, including the evacuation order, are just negotiation tactics,” he said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu needs Operation Rafa to stay in power and appease the fanatics within his coalition.” It added: “Ultimately, Prime Minister Netanyahu has little to gain from the ceasefire agreement and much to lose. ” he added.

Of course, if there is mistrust on both sides, an agreement becomes increasingly difficult. Although the two sides appear to have reached an agreement on the first phase of a ceasefire and the release of hostages, there are still many other differences between the two competing proposals, according to people briefed on the matter. But the most fundamental controversy is whether the agreement will ultimately end the war.

Negotiators have tried to resolve the issue using the old diplomatic tactic of using language vague enough to be open to interpretation by both sides. Under the agreement, both countries will aim to use a temporary ceasefire to restore “sustainable peace.” Hamas wants “sustainable peace” to mean a permanent cessation of fighting, but Israel is unwilling to commit to that explicitly.

U.S. officials are content to leave the definition of “sustainable peace” somewhat vague, but a six-week or even 12-week cessation of gunfire would lead to a more lasting peace. It relies on the idea that its momentum will be unstoppable. That’s why they are putting so much energy into the days ahead.

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