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23 Jul, 2024
Opinion | Gaza ceasefire agreement appears within reach
1 min read

Opinion | Gaza ceasefire agreement appears within reach

After months of painful negotiations, the Biden administration appears close to a ceasefire deal that would end major fighting in the Gaza Strip, free some Israeli hostages and boost humanitarian aid to desperate Palestinian civilians.

A senior U.S. official told me Wednesday that “a framework has been agreed upon” and the sides are now “negotiating the details of how to implement it.” To forge a deal, Middle East adviser Brett McGurk and CIA Director William J. Burns have been shuttling between regional capitals since November.

Officials warn that while the legal framework is in place, a final agreement is unlikely to come anytime soon and the details are complex and will take time to work out.

If a final agreement can be reached, it would be a resounding vindication of President Biden’s patient diplomacy, as he tries to balance America’s role as a Middle East peacemaker with strong military support for Israel. It would also create a potential parting shot for the president, giving him a chance to honorably retire from his pursuit of a second term or, conversely, double down.

Like most peace agreements, this one would reflect, in part, exhaustion on both sides. After nine months of war, Israel wants to rest its troops and prepare for possible conflicts with Iran and its proxies. Hamas, which one American official said is in “bad shape” in its underground lair, is reportedly low on ammunition and supplies. It also faces growing pressure from battered Palestinian civilians who are increasingly vocal in their demands for a truce.

The agreement, described Wednesday by U.S. officials, provides for a three-stage resolution to the conflict. The first stage would be a six-week ceasefire during which Hamas would release 33 Israeli hostages, including all female prisoners, all male prisoners over the age of 50 and all wounded. Israel would release hundreds of Palestinians from prisons and withdraw its troops from densely populated areas toward Gaza’s eastern border. Humanitarian aid would flow in, hospitals would be repaired and crews would begin clearing rubble.

The stumbling block was a transition to one in which Hamas would release the male soldiers who remained hostage, and both sides would agree to a “permanent end to hostilities” with a “complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.” Each side feared the other would use the initial lull to rearm and return to the fight. And Israel wanted to make sure it achieved its primary goal of preventing Hamas from governing Gaza again.

The breakthrough came recently when Hamas backed down from its demand for a written guarantee of a permanent end to the fighting. Instead, it accepted the reassuring language of a U.N. Security Council resolution passed last month that endorsed the U.S.-brokered agreement. Here’s a key passage: “If negotiations last beyond six weeks in Phase One, the ceasefire will continue to apply as long as negotiations continue,” the U.N. resolution says. American, Qatari and Egyptian mediators “will work to ensure that negotiations continue until all agreements are reached and Phase Two can begin.”

Israel and Hamas have signaled acceptance of an “interim governance” plan that would begin with Phase 2, in which neither Hamas nor Israel would govern Gaza. Security would be provided by U.S.-trained forces and supported by moderate Arab allies drawn from a core group of about 2,500 PA supporters in Gaza who have already been vetted by Israel. Hamas told mediators it was “ready to cede power to an interim governance agreement,” the U.S. official said.

As security expands in the post-war Gaza Strip, the peace plan envisages a third phase, which the UN resolution calls a “multi-year reconstruction plan.”

As U.S. mediators neared finalizing the deal, they received crucial help from their diplomatic partners, Qatar and Egypt. To pressure Hamas, Qatar told the group’s representatives that they could not stay in Doha if they rejected the pact. Egypt provided last-minute help, accepting an innovative U.S. proposal to block any new tunnels across the Egyptian-Gaza border after Israel withdrew its troops.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who became a key contact in the negotiations, issued a statement Wednesday reported “progress… with Egypt” toward a plan “that would deter smuggling attempts and cut off potential supplies to Hamas.”

If a ceasefire agreement is reached, it would pave the way for two other major changes in the Middle East landscape – involving Lebanon and Saudi Arabia – that could reduce the risk of a larger war breaking out.

Lebanon has signaled that after the Gaza ceasefire it would support a package that includes a withdrawal of Hezbollah forces north of the border near the Litani River. The agreement would also include Israel’s acceptance of border changes that Hezbollah has long demanded and other confidence-building measures to end the deadly exchange of rocket fire between the two sides.

The Lebanese framework was negotiated by Amos Hochstein, a staff member of national security adviser Jake Sullivan. Rather than talking directly to Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed militia that dominates Beirut, Hochstein met with Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of Lebanon’s parliament and a key Hezbollah ally.

The final possible bonus of a Gaza ceasefire is that Saudi Arabia has signaled that it is willing to “move forward on normalization” of relations with Israel, according to a U.S. official. Riyadh wants a path to a Palestinian state as part of such an agreement, but that is currently a bridge too far for a shell-shocked Israel. Finalizing normalization will take time and diplomatic finesse.

The war in Gaza has been a nightmare for all combatants — from the horrific Hamas terror attack on Oct. 7 to the devastating Israeli retaliatory campaign that has killed tens of thousands of Palestinians. It has also been a searing test for Biden, who has tried to be a steadfast ally of Israel even as he clashes with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the war’s civilian casualties.

“Every war must end,” as strategist Fred Iklé wrote of Vietnam. Gaza is not over. But as one White House official said late Wednesday night, “let’s keep our fingers crossed.”