HomePoliticsInside the White House rush to make a deal in Gaza

Inside the White House rush to make a deal in Gaza

WASHINGTON – Over the course of a few hours, news from the Middle East came fast and furious into the White House Situation Room.

Israel orders 100,000 civilians to leave Rafah ahead of invasion.

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Hamas ‘accepts’ a ceasefire, potentially ruling out an invasion.

Israel launches attacks against Rafah and possibly opens an invasion.

Developments surrounding the war sent White House officials scrambling Monday to review what happened and what it all meant. Ultimately, they came to believe, each of these moves meant less than initially appeared, but reflected attempts to exert influence at the negotiating table with no clear solution in sight.

In fact, Hamas did not so much “accept” a ceasefire agreement as make a counter-offer to the one previously on the table, blessed by the United States and Israel – a counter-offer that was not considered acceptable in itself, but a sign of progress. At the same time, the Israeli attacks in Rafah were apparently not the start of the long-threatened major operation, but a targeted retaliation for Hamas rocket attacks that killed four Israeli soldiers over the weekend – and, together with the warning to civilians, a way to increase the pressure feed. about Hamas negotiators.

The flurry of actions underscored how fluid the situation in the region is as President Joe Biden and his team try to broker a deal that they hope will ultimately end the war that has devastated Gaza, killed tens of thousands of fighters and civilians and has set the region on fire. and caused unrest on American college campuses. In recent days, talks have moved from high expectations that an agreement was near, to a new impasse that seemed to leave them on the brink of collapse, to a renewed initiative by Hamas to get them back on track.

“Biden continues all efforts to thread multiple needles at once,” said Mara Rudman, a former deputy special envoy for the Middle East under President Barack Obama who now works at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. The president still warns the prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel that a “ground invasion of Rafah is a terrible idea,” she said, while also “pressuring Hamas in every way possible to get hostages out and more humanitarian aid.”

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Biden called Netanyahu on Monday to brief him on the US assessment of the state of ceasefire talks and to put renewed pressure on the Israeli leader to hold off any full-fledged attack on Rafah. The president also hosted a lunch at the White House with King Abdullah II of Jordan, who like other Arab leaders is eager to end the war.

The past two weeks have been as diplomatically intense and tense as any since Hamas launched a major terrorist attack on Israel on October 7, killing an estimated 1,200 people and taking more than 200 hostages. After months of stalled talks, Israel returned on April 26 with a proposal that US officials said changed the dynamic and offered a serious chance of agreement.

Under the first phase of the proposal, Israel would halt the war for 42 days and release hundreds of Palestinians held in its prisons, while Hamas would release 33 hostages, mainly women, elderly men and the sick and wounded.

The number 33 was an increase from the 18 proposed by Hamas, but lower than the 40 originally demanded by Israel, largely because Israeli officials came to understand that there were no more than 33 hostages who met the criteria , according to people briefed on the discussions. who insisted on anonymity to describe sensitive conversations. Hamas revealed to Israelis on Monday that the 33 would include the remains of both deceased hostages and those still alive.

In addition, Israel would withdraw its forces from the populated areas of Gaza and allow residents to return to the northern part of the enclave once conditions are met; to this end, the ceasefire would allow for a major increase in the flow of humanitarian aid. In their effort to undermine Hamas’s blunder, the people briefed on the talks said, the Israelis essentially cut and pasted some of the language from a March Hamas proposal and inserted it into their own.

During the six-week ceasefire, the two sides would then work out plans for a second phase, which would involve another 42-day cessation of hostilities and the release of more hostages. At this stage, the hostages to be released would also include Israeli soldiers, a category of prisoners that Hamas has always been more resistant to. To overcome that hurdle, the Israelis agreed to release a larger number of Palestinian prisoners for each hostage returned home.

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The Israeli concessions left American, Egyptian and Qatari intermediaries optimistic that an agreement could be reached. But a week passed without a clear response from Hamas, partly perhaps because of difficulties communicating with Yehia Sinwar, the Hamas military leader believed to be hiding in Gaza’s tunnels.

When negotiators arrived in Cairo on Friday, the Israelis did not send a delegation, which was interpreted as a slight by some of Netanyahu’s critics. But Israeli and US officials denied that, saying there was no need for an Israeli delegation at that time because Israel had made its proposal and was waiting for a response from Hamas.

Hamas’s response over the weekend frustrated the intermediaries because it rejected some of the language it had previously proposed and that had been adopted by the Israelis, the people briefed on the talks said. The American side declared the new Hamas position unacceptable and suggested that if Hamas did not really want an agreement, the negotiations might have been completed. But Hamas indicated it was not trying to torpedo the talks and would return with a new version.

That was the counteroffer that Hamas made on Monday. The Israelis and Americans did not find it acceptable, but believed it left room for further negotiations. Technical-level talks are expected to resume in Cairo, probably on Wednesday, to discuss details. This time, Israel has agreed to send a delegation to discuss Hamas’ counter-offer.

Israeli actions in Rafah on Monday could either increase pressure on Hamas to make a deal or sabotage the talks, according to analysts. The attacks focused on targets in Rafah’s border areas, rather than key population areas, but could be a foreshadowing of things to come.

It was not entirely clear to veterans from the region whether both sides necessarily want an agreement. Jon B. Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, said it was possible that Hamas thought that “expediting a large-scale Israeli operation in Rafah would be worth the cost because it would would isolate worldwide. and deepening the rift between the US and Israel.”

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At the same time, he said, Netanyahu may be “looking for a trifecta” with Monday’s attacks: pushing Hamas to give in, showing the Israeli public that he did indeed hit Rafah as promised and taking credit for it get from the Biden administration. failure to mount the all-out attack that Washington fears would result in a civilian catastrophe.

“There are secrets here that I just don’t know,” Alterman said. “At the same time, no party knows the breaking point of the others, and I am afraid that no party accurately understands the assessments of the others.”

Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and a former adviser to Palestinian leaders during previous peace negotiations, said he remained skeptical about whether Netanyahu actually wanted a ceasefire because of his own domestic politics.

“I do not believe that measures towards or in Rafah, including evacuation orders, are merely a negotiating tactic,” he said. “Netanyahu needs the Rafah operation to stay in power and appease the fanatics in his coalition.” He added: “The bottom line is that Netanyahu has little to gain from a ceasefire and much to lose.”

Of course, that distrust on both sides makes any agreement all the more elusive. While the two sides appear to have agreed on the first-phase ceasefire and the release of hostages, there are still a number of other differences between the two competing proposals, according to the people briefed on the matter. But the most fundamental dispute is whether an agreement would ultimately end the war.

Negotiators have tried to refine this with a time-honored diplomatic tactic of using language vague enough to be interpreted by each side as it sees fit. Under the agreement, the two sides would use the temporary ceasefire to work out the return of “lasting peace.” Hamas wants “lasting calm” to mean a permanent cessation of hostilities, while Israel does not want to explicitly promise that.

U.S. officials are content to leave the definition of “lasting calm” somewhat vague, but are banking on the idea that once the weapons stop firing for six and then possibly 12 weeks, the momentum for a more lasting peace will be inexorable. That’s why they put so much energy in the coming days.

c.2024 The New York Times Company

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