Biden’s Gaza Announcement: What to Make of the Bizarre Spectacle

On May 31, President Joe Biden announced what he described as a “comprehensive new proposal” offered by Israel for ending the war in Gaza that would be “a roadmap to an enduring ceasefire and the release of all hostages.” The proposal consists of three phases. The first stage would last for six weeks, during which there would be “a full and complete ceasefire,” an Israeli withdrawal from populated areas in Gaza, and the release of Israeli, American, and other hostages and Palestinian prisoners in Israeli custody. That phase would also see a surge of humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip and the building of hundreds of thousands of temporary shelters for the displaced. The second phase would be preceded by negotiations led by the United States, Egypt, and Qatar and would include the release of all remaining hostages. The ceasefire would also become permanent, with the president stressing “the cessation of hostilities permanently.” Phase three, according to the proposal, would also entail “a major reconstruction plan for Gaza.”

The president’s repetition of “the cessation of hostilities permanently” was surprising because it conflicted with everything the Israeli leadership had been saying: namely, that it would not accept a deal that ended the war. In his remarks, Biden said it was “time for this war to end.” Shortly after he announced the supposedly Israel-led initiative, Israeli officials publicly backed away from it, making it clear that their positions on “total victory” over Hamas have not changed and that they will not accept an end to the war until Hamas’s military and governing capabilities are destroyed. On a background press call, White House officials responded to questions about these conflicting statements by saying that they expected both Israel and Hamas to put out public characterizations that may differ but that privately, Israel and the White House were on the same page.

Biden a Spokesperson for Israel?

Why would Biden be the one announcing, in detail, an Israeli proposal? Despite the rhetoric of “no daylight” between the allies in Washington and Tel Aviv, it was odd for the US president to be making an announcement on behalf of Israel. The Israeli government, and particularly its premier Benjamin Netanyahu, is not shy about making its positions known to the world. What Biden had to say suggests something about why he was the one saying it. As Biden unveiled the proposal, what became clear was that it was not materially different, and perhaps not different at all, from the exchange deal that Hamas had accepted and Israel had rejected just a month prior. At that time, Hamas announced that it had accepted an Egyptian ceasefire proposal that seemed to come about as Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns was shuttling back and forth between the various parties in the region. Israel bristled at this, saying the proposal was different from the one they had agreed to.

As Biden unveiled the proposal, what became clear was that it was not materially different from the deal that Hamas had accepted just a month prior.

In addition to announcing what he called an Israeli proposal that would bring about a permanent cessation of hostilities, Biden also said in his May 31 remarks, “At this point, Hamas no longer is capable of carrying out another October 7—which [is] one of the Israelis’ main objectives in this war.” He added that “indefinite war in pursuit of an unidentified notion of ‘total victory’… will only bog down Israel in Gaza, draining the economic, military, and human resources, and furthering Israel’s isolation in the world.”

Biden was essentially telling the Israelis that this proposal will allow them to achieve all their war aims. But why did Biden feel compelled to try to sell an Israeli proposal to the Israelis? Why did he feel it necessary to try to convince the Israelis not to back away from a deal that they authored?

The explanation is likely that, after months of working with the Israelis on an exchange deal, US negotiators have come to understand that the makeup of the Israeli government and the personal political ambitions of Netanyahu are the primary obstacles to an agreement. After all, Hamas has been offering an exchange deal for a ceasefire since the early days after October 7, 2023. It has been Netanyahu—reportedly often over the objections of his own negotiators—whom the families of Israeli hostages have accused of sabotaging the cease-fire deals that would lead to an exchange.

Netanyahu knows that an end to the war is probably the end of his political career. The same is true for his right-wing coalition partners. So long as Netanyahu continues to equate an end to the war with his own end in power, he will continue to reject war ending exchange deals. Perhaps the White House is thinking that one way to break this equation is to offer Netanyahu a political boost so that he can envision a path to remaining prime minister even after the war—essentially, a soft landing for him in order to end the war.

Delivering Netanyahu’s Soft Landing

There was no winning this war for Israel after October 7, 2023: it was obvious that the only way it would end is with a ceasefire and an exchange deal. The question was how much bloodletting and destruction Washington would permit the Israelis to carry out before they were ready to get to that inevitable point. Thus far, the answer is nearly 39,000 dead and eight months of wanton destruction in Gaza, as well as unprecedented pariah status for Israel, arrest warrant applications at the International Criminal Court (ICC) for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, decisions against Israel at the International Court of Justice, unprecedented protests against Israel around the world, and, perhaps most important, consistently troubling poll numbers for the Biden campaign.

The basic deal announced by Biden had been put forward partly by Hamas in February, and envisioned a three-phase exchange, each phase lasting three weeks, culminating in an end of the war. Israel rejected the proposal then and consistently ever since at different moments of possibility, including during Burns’s shuttles across the region. Biden’s approach with Netanyahu at the moment seems to be making decisions for him that the Israeli prime minister is reluctant to make. All the parties to the negotiations know that, if there is going to be a deal, what Biden proposed is what it is going to look like. Biden is also running out of patience as he knows that the longer this war drags toward the election, the more of a liability it is for him.

It seems that the president is hoping that he can incentivize Netanyahu to make the correct decision.

Therefore, it seems that the president is hoping that, by presenting Netanyahu a choice, he can incentivize the prime minister to make the correct decision. If Netanyahu accepts the ceasefire deal, he gets something of a path to political rehabilitation. Biden has already sewed a victory narrative together for him on May 31 by making it clear the need for Israel to meet its war aims. In his judgment, Biden is offering Netanyahu a way out with an agreement instead of a hugely problematic fight with the ICC. The administration also made headlines by announcing that it would not impose sanctions on the ICC.  Yet, Netanyahu also received an invitation to address the US Congress around the same time as Biden’s announcement.

Will It Work?

Netanyahu’s coalition partners Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich have already threatened to bolt from the government if he accepts the deal. This would mean a government collapse and new elections in which a recent poll suggests that Netanyahu would be able to keep power. Will Netanyahu put his trust in Biden over Ben-Gvir and Smotrich? Based on what is known about Netanyahu, the odds are not that high.

Staying in power is still the most important thing for Netanyahu because it is his best chance of staying out of jail. He is the first foreign leader to be asked to address Congress four times (surpassing Winston Churchill) but he is also the first Israeli leader who might have several different prison cells awaiting him. His fear about the latter is more consequential than his desire for the former. Sticking to war and Ben-Gvir and Smotrich is likely where he is most comfortable for now.

But if that is the choice Netanyahu ends up making, what does Biden do then? As the November election draws closer for Biden, the ongoing genocidal war on Gaza that he is backing continues to outrage constituencies that he needs to win over. Will Biden finally be prepared to make the sort of phone call that Reagan made to former prime minister Menachim Begin in 1982, demanding Israel end the Lebanon war, and demand an end to the Gaza war? Biden has resisted choosing this option from the very beginning, even though it would have saved tens of thousands of lives. Surely, however, if the Biden White House has reached so far down the list of options to where they have now landed, hoping Netanyahu will make the right choice, there cannot be many other options left.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image: Flickr/The White House