Biden dispatches top aides to press Hamas as Israel grapples with cease-fire plan

White House  — President Joe Biden’s top aides are in the Middle East to push for a three-phase Gaza cease-fire plan that the U.S. leader announced last week as the latest offer from the Israeli war cabinet. The deal would see an initial six-week pause of fighting and secure the release of some hostages held by Hamas and some Palestinians detained in Israeli jails.

CIA director Bill Burns arrived in Doha Tuesday, and Brett McGurk, Biden’s top Middle East adviser, is in Cairo Wednesday, administration officials confirmed to VOA. The pair is expected to convey Biden’s message that Hamas should sign the deal, via key mediators Qatar and Egypt.

Earlier in the week, Biden spoke with the Emir of Qatar Amir Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, reiterating that the plan “offers a concrete roadmap for ending the crisis in Gaza.”

The deal is structured toward a permanent cease-fire in exchange for the release of all hostages and the reconstruction of Gaza. But neither party appears close to agreement.

Despite the Israeli war cabinet signing off on the proposal, shortly after Biden’s announcement Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed there will be no permanent cease-fire without “the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities.”

In response, Hamas official Osama Hamdan declared Tuesday it could not agree without a clear Israeli position on a permanent cease-fire and complete withdrawal from Gaza.

“You’re going to hear a lot of things in the media, a lot of statements from a lot of different voices and a lot of different people,” National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said. He spoke aboard Air Force One Tuesday evening enroute to France where Biden is scheduled to commemorate the anniversary of D-Day on Thursday.

Hamdan’s declaration aside, Sullivan said the administration would only consider the group’s formal response as conveyed to the Qataris, who transmitted the proposal from Israeli negotiators to Hamas.

“We have not gotten that yet,” Sullivan said, noting that the U.S. is in “hourly contact” with Qatar.

What happens next?

The plan’s three-phase outline appears fundamentally similar to a proposal that Hamas said it had accepted in early May. But given the world’s condemnation of Israel’s actions on Rafah paired with a ruling by the top U.N. court ordering the government to halt its military offensive there, the group may seek to leverage its advantage on the negotiation table.

“There is no guarantee that Hamas won’t come back with additional conditions,” said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. negotiator on Middle East peace talks who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for Peace.

Once Hamas provides its formal response, Netanyahu must present it to his entire coalition, Miller told VOA. “And that’s where things get to be very complicated.”

With far-right ministers of the coalition threatening to leave the government if Netanyahu agrees to a cease-fire, and his war cabinet members saying they would quit if he does not agree, the prime minister faces the risk of a collapsed coalition no matter what he decides. That could trigger early elections, potentially sending Netanyahu into the opposition and making him more vulnerable to a conviction in his corruption trial.

Biden’s announcement of the cease-fire plan has brought those pressures on Netanyahu to a head.

“I think Netanyahu is trying to buy his time and stretch this out and hope maybe that Hamas will actually be the one to say no more definitively,” said Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst on Israel-Palestine at the International Crisis Group.

The prime minister could also find alternative opposition parties to enter a temporary government, she told VOA. “It could be that Netanyahu has something up his sleeve to be able to go with the deal and still remain in power for a while.”

In an interview this week with Time magazine, Biden said “there is every reason” for people to conclude that Netanyahu is prolonging the conflict for his own political self-preservation.

He appeared to walk back the statement Tuesday when asked whether Netanyahu is playing politics with the war.

“I don’t think so. He’s trying to work out the serious problem that he has,” Biden said.

Biden under pressure

With polls suggesting Biden losing support from progressives and young voters over his support for Israel, securing a cease-fire ahead of the November election would appeal to swaths of Biden’s constituents.

“The Democrats would like to avoid the ugly optics of ‘Genocide Joe’ demonstrations at their August convention,” said Laura Blumenfeld, a senior fellow at Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies. Biden is set to be formally nominated as the party’s presidential nominee during the convention.

Meanwhile, Arab and Muslim Americans are having “difficult discussions” over whether to support Biden or his Republican opponent, said Muslim Public Affairs Council founder Salam Al-Marayati.

“On the one hand, no Republican has supported a cease-fire,” Al-Marayati told VOA. “On the other hand, the president himself has enabled genocide, has financed the genocide, has been a part, complicitly, of this genocide.”

Biden and his aides have rejected the characterization that Israel’s offensive in Gaza amounts to genocide.

From a domestic political point of view, Blumenfeld noted that Biden’s timing of the announcement on the cease-fire was “spot on.”

“It is one of multiple gestures meant to highlight his leadership,” she told VOA, noting a series of international engagements Biden is embarking on as the White House sought to highlight his global leadership.

Biden announced an executive order Tuesday on the migrant crisis along the U.S. southern border with Mexico. He is set to deliver a speech defending democracy on the beach of Normandy, France, on the 80th anniversary of D-Day. He’ll meet leaders of the world’s leading economies at the G7 summit in Italy later this month and host a NATO summit in July.

“We are mobilizing common action to solve the great challenges of our time,” Sullivan said in response to VOA’s question. “In these next six weeks, the president will try to put all that on display.”

Biden has invested much on his cease-fire strategy. But neither of the warring parties are in a hurry to end their conflict, Miller said.

“The Biden administration is clearly under the most pressure and the most urgency to see something happen,” he said, not just for domestic political aims but also the goal of advancing a historic agreement to normalize ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia that could only happen with peace in Gaza.

On Tuesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al Saud and reiterated that Hamas should agree “without further delay,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

The U.S. is also keen to keep in check Israel’s conflict with Hezbollah near the northern Israeli border with Lebanon, which has been fought in parallel to the Gaza war.

On this front, Biden is again dependent on Netanyahu. The prime minister said Wednesday Israel is prepared for “very strong action” against Hezbollah, saying he would restore security “one way or another.”

VOA’s Virginia Gunawan and Anita Powell contributed to this report.