Biden Administration Holds onto Cease-Fire Negotiations with Confidence in Progress

Biden Administration Holds onto Cease-Fire Negotiations with Confidence in Progress

Virtually all of the Biden administration’s hopes and plans to end the war in Gaza — and move toward a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian territories — depend on first reaching a deal for a temporary cease-fire and the release of Israeli hostages. But after months of negotiations and sporadic assurances of progress, signs of optimism this week that an agreement was near have begun to fade.

A vague statement released by Hamas on Thursday in response to a new U.S.-backed Israeli proposal again left unclear to U.S., Qatari and Egyptian mediators how seriously to take anything that doesn’t come from Yehiya Sinwar, the group’s military chief who’s said to be hiding underground in southern Gaza.

The U.S. strategy all along has just been to get the fighting to stop, however briefly, with the hope that one cease-fire could lead to another, with more hostage releases, more humanitarian aid, and the introduction of a plan to police and reconstruct a postwar Gaza under the administration of the Palestinian Authority — all with buy-in from Arab neighbors.

The promise of Arab involvement, which the administration has been actively negotiating for months, is seen as an inducement to Israel to overcome its refusal — at least under the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — to consider a separate Palestinian state. Central to the arrangement is an agreement by Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, which the United States would then reward with a new bilateral U.S.-Saudi security partnership.

But none of it is likely to happen without an initial cease-fire deal, according to U.S. and Arab officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive diplomacy. Amid mounting anxiety, there is no fallback plan — beyond trying again and again — if this negotiating round fails.

While there is no official timetable for reaching an agreement, there are a number of ticking clocks.

Most immediate is the threat of an imminent Iranian strike in retaliation for Israel’s April 1 bombing of its consulate in Damascus, which killed at least seven Iranian officials and six Syrian civilians. Tehran has threatened to respond with attacks on Israeli and U.S. installations, which could start a cycle of regional escalation and put a damper on any hopes of a cease-fire.

Then there’s the concern over the condition of the hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7, 95 of whom are still believed to be alive inside Gaza. No proof of life has been offered during nearly 200 days of captivity. The latest cease-fire proposal calls for the release of women, children, the elderly and the injured — numbering about 40 — in exchange for a much larger number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. This would exclude Israeli soldiers and men held by Hamas.

In his Thursday statement, Basem Naim, a member of the Hamas political bureau, hinted that 40 live hostages may not be available for release. “Part of the negotiations,” he said, “is to have enough time and safety to collect … more precise data about the captured Israelis” being held “in different places by different groups.” Some, he said, may be “under the rubble” caused by Israeli bombing.

Ever since negotiations that led to a week-long cease-fire and the release of more than 100 hostages in November, Hamas has said it cannot comply with Israeli demands to list the names, birth dates and nationalities of the remaining captives, because it doesn’t know where all of them are and can’t locate them under Israel’s attacks.

Recent media reports, including in Israel, have cast doubt on whether the hostages that Hamas is negotiating to release are still alive. But officials said negotiators continue to operate on the assumption that release of the initial 40 — and potentially more — is still on the table.

“We’re not in a position to verify that comment,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday of Naim’s statement. “We don’t have enough granularity on where the hostages are and in what condition they are to verify that claim. … We need to get those hostages out.”

Israel has said it confirmed that 34 hostages in Gaza are dead. U.S. officials said three of them are Americans but that five U.S. citizens are among the 95 still thought to be alive.

“Hamas has engaged in the very worst sort of terrorism, which is to not just torture those who have been captured and held hostages, but to torture their loved ones with the uncertainty,” Sen. Chris Coons (D-Del.) said in an interview this week after meeting with the families of U.S. hostages.

The assumption is that the Hamas leadership is holding the hostages in underground tunnels and that the hostages are receiving little food and no medical care. Some of those released in November reported being beaten and sexually abused.

As Israel expanded its offensive operations over the past months, Gaza’s population — civilians, Hamas militants and hostages alike — have been driven into an ever-smaller space in the southern part of the enclave, where aid organizations have described an increasingly dire situation.

As Israel has pulled back troops from southern Gaza in recent days, it has acceded to U.S. and international pressure to facilitate increasing amounts of humanitarian aid, although relief organizations say Israel Defense Forces are still blocking distribution. “We’ll see what he does in terms of meeting the commitments he made to me,” President Biden said at a Wednesday news conference, referring to Netanyahu.

In congressional testimony Thursday, USAID administrator Samantha Power said that despite Israeli denials, there are “credible” reports of looming famine in Gaza.

But despite a recent lull in fighting and additional deliveries of food aid, the lives of some 1.4 million Palestinians sheltering in and around Rafah — and likewise the hostages — would be under severe threat if Israel makes good on its promise to launch an air and ground offensive against remaining Hamas battalions and leadership in the city.

Biden has called the attack plan, which Netanyahu this week said he has already approved, a “mistake” and said he would have to reconsider U.S. policy toward Israel if it went ahead.

U.S. officials said they are unsure if Netanyahu’s statements are for domestic consumption or a negotiating ploy to get Hamas to agree to the cease-fire and hostage deal. Many Israeli troops have been withdrawn from Gaza — for rest and resupply, according to the Biden administration — and officials said they have seen no active sign of military preparations that could support a major Rafah offensive until well into May, at the earliest.

The administration is continuing its efforts to talk Israel out of it. A meeting in Washington, requested by Biden, between top U.S. and Israeli officials to talk about the Rafah offensive and civilian relocation is tentatively scheduled for next week; Netanyahu, furious that the U.S. abstained from a U.N. Security Council vote calling for an immediate cease-fire, canceled a call for that conversation this month.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration is feeling the heat to deliver an end to the conflict. Reports of famine, a Gaza death toll that according to local health authorities now exceeds 33,000 and the specter of a Rafah offensive have put the president under increasing pressure at home — most of it from Democrats and liberal voting blocs that he is depending on in November’s elections — to declare a halt on U.S. weapons sales to Israel.

The administration is also under a May 8 deadline, set by a Biden national security memorandum issued in February, to formally assess Israel’s assurances that its six-month military campaign has not violated U.S. or international humanitarian law. Were the White House to sign off on a clean bill of health, under current circumstances, it would probably increase the volume of domestic criticism.

Arab governments, including Jordan, Egypt and Saudi Arabia, are also under pressure at home to show some progress in exchange for their willingness to work with the United States on a long-term solution.

U.S. officials say much of the political and international tension surrounding the fate of the hostages, the delivery of humanitarian assistance, Israel’s conduct of the war and U.S. weapons supplies would significantly dissipate if only they could get a deal to stop the fighting — even if temporarily. That may be wishful thinking.

Late Friday morning, as another night began in the Middle East, “we are still awaiting a response from Hamas,” Kirby said.

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