Biden Takes a Big Swing at Hostage-for-Truce Deal, Puts Onus on Israeli, Hamas Officials to Step Up

President Joe Biden delivers remarks
President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the verdict in former President Donald Trump's hush money trial and on the Middle East, from the State Dining Room of the White House, Friday, May 31, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

WASHINGTON — President Joe Biden is looking past resistance from key Israeli officials as he presses Israel and Hamas to agree to a three-phase agreement that could immediately bring home dozens of Israeli hostages, free Palestinian prisoners and perhaps even lead to an endgame in the nearly eight-month-old Gaza war.

Biden's big swing — during a tough reelection battle — could also demonstrate to a significant slice of his political base demoralized by his handling of the conflict that he's doing his part to end the war that has killed more than 36,000 Palestinians and left hundreds of thousands struggling to meet basic needs.

White House officials on Monday said Biden's decision to make public what it describes as an Israeli proposal — just one day after it was delivered to Hamas — was driven by a desire to put Hamas on the spot. The move diverged from the U.S. administration's position throughout the conflict to allow the Israelis to speak for themselves about hostage negotiations.

    “The president felt that where we are in this war, where we are in the negotiations to get the hostages out, that it was time for a different approach and a time to make the proposal public, to try to energize the process here and catalyze a different outcome,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said.

    Almost immediately after Biden detailed the proposal — which includes a cease-fire and phased Israeli troop withdrawal from Gaza if Hamas releases all hostages — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's office said it would continue its war until Hamas was destroyed.

    Netanyahu facing pressure from far-right

    Netanyahu's political survival depends on a far-right coalition that is adamant about eradicating Hamas. He sowed further doubt about proposal's viability Monday when he told an Israeli parliament committee that there are certain “gaps” in how Biden laid out the proposal. The prime minister said Israelis “reserve the right to return to war.”

    Kirby played down differences between Biden and Netanyahu and underscored that the proposal was an Israeli one. He added that Biden agrees with Israelis that Hamas should not govern postwar Gaza nor does he “expect that Israel should have to live next door to that kind of a terrorist threat."

    “This wasn't about jamming the prime minister, the war cabinet,” Kirby said. “This was about laying bare for the public to see how well and how faithfully and how assertively the Israelis came up with a new proposal. It shows how much they really want to get this done."

    But even if Hamas agreed to terms, it would require Netanyahu to make some difficult political calculations. Two leading members of his far-right coalition — National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — have threatened to leave Netanyahu’s government if he signs off on the proposal. That would cause the coalition to collapse.

    Smotrich said Monday that agreeing to a cease-fire would amount to a humiliation of Israel and a surrender. Increased military pressure, he said, is “the only language understood in the Middle East.”

    Biden last week expressed concern about those in the Israeli government who “want to keep fighting for years" and don't see freeing the hostages as a "priority." Administration officials on Monday warned Israeli officials that getting bogged down in Gaza could be detrimental to Israel's national security.

    “Endless conflict in Gaza in pursuit of some idea of total victory is not going to make Israel safer," said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

    Netanyahu has also faced pressure from families of hostages — officials say about 80 people captured by militants i n the Oct. 7 attack are still alive and Hamas is holding the bodies of 43 others — to reach an agreement to free their loved ones. Opposition leader Yair Lapid, however, vowed over the weekend to provide a political safety net to Netanyahu, ensuring his government would not fall over the deal.

    Optimism despite headwinds

    Even as the proposal faces stiff headwinds, the Biden administration said it was cautiously optimistic that a deal could be reached.

    White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan urged world leaders to rally behind the proposal.

    “They need to train their eyes on Hamas this week and say it’s time to come to the table to do this deal,” Sullivan said in an appearance at the U.S. Global Leadership Coalition conference in Washington.

    To that end, Biden on Monday spoke with Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani of Qatar, a key Hamas interlocutor, and said it was “the best possible opportunity for an agreement,” the White House said.

    Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. envoy to the United Nations, said the U.S. circulated a draft resolution seeking support for the proposal from the 14 other members of the U.N. Security Council.

    Sullivan, meanwhile, spoke to his Turkish counterpart, Akif Cagatay Kilic, about Turkey using its influence with Hamas to get them to accept the proposal. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has defended Hamas and hosted the group's political leader, Ismail Haniyeh, for talks in April.

    Group of Seven leaders on Monday also endorsed the deal.

    "We call on Hamas to accept this deal, that Israel is ready to move forward with, and we urge countries with influence over Hamas to help ensure that it does so," the G7 leaders said in a statement.

    Even getting to phase one is challenge

    Biden acknowledged last week that getting beyond the first phase of the proposal would be difficult.

    The first phase would last for six weeks and would include a cease-fire, a withdrawal of Israeli forces from all densely populated areas of Gaza and the release of a number of hostages, including women, the elderly and the wounded, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners.

    The Israelis, under the proposal, would also allow 600 humanitarian aid trucks into Gaza each day during the first phase. The second phase would include the release of all remaining living hostages, including male soldiers, and Israeli forces would withdraw from Gaza.

    Hamas is likely to make enormous demands about which Palestinian prisoners will be released and call on Israel to assure that it won't continue to target top Hamas leaders.

    Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. Middle East peace negotiator, said even getting to phase one — and the six-week pause in fighting — would bring about a “downshift in the escalation of the military campaign, fewer people dying.”

    “I’m not sure they can expect much more,” said Miller, now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “Negotiations work in the end only if the parties feel sufficient pain accompanied by the prospects of gain, and that generates urgency. The only party that is in a hurry here is the Biden administration."

    Indeed, Israeli officials view the conflict on a far longer timeline.

    Just last week, Israeli national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi said he expected the war to drag on for another seven months, in order to destroy the military and governing capabilities of Hamas and the smaller Islamic Jihad militant group.

    But with Election Day in the U.S. now just over five months away, Biden faces tightening pressure to more quickly resolve the Mideast conflict that’s left him bleeding support.

    AP writers Edith M. Lederer at the United Nations and Matthew Lee contributed reporting.

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