Desperately Seeking Support for Biden’s Plan on Gaza

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken just concluded another intensive diplomatic trip to the Middle East, his eighth to the region since the beginning of the Gaza war on October 7, 2023. The urgent mission, according to Department of State officials, aimed at finding support for a ceasefire agreement between Hamas and Israel as outlined in President Joe Biden’s highly publicized remarks at the White House on May 31. Subsequently, the three-phase “Biden Plan,” as it has become known in Western diplomatic parlance, quickly morphed into a primary US national security objective as the administration throws its full support behind what the president characterized as an Israeli-offered “comprehensive new proposal” in pursuit of “an enduring ceasefire” in the war raging in the Gaza Strip. The plan calls for a withdrawal of Israeli forces from “all populated areas of Gaza,” the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, the return of displaced Palestinian civilians to their neighborhoods throughout the Strip, including the north, and an immediate surge in international efforts to deliver and distribute humanitarian assistance throughout the war-torn territory.

Secretary Blinken’s mission on June 10-12, in his own words, was specifically to solicit more diplomatic support for the president’s roadmap and to generate pressure from regional allies to “press Hamas” to accept the Biden ceasefire concept as proposed. The trip included stops in Israel, Egypt, Jordan, and Qatar, in addition to bilateral meetings in Jordan on the sidelines of the Emergency Humanitarian Response for Gaza Conference with the Iraqi, Indonesian, and Palestinian Authority leaders as well as with as the foreign minister of the United Arab Emirates, among others.  The Secretary’s travel reflected the administration’s new sense of desperation and political urgency necessitated by the approaching presidential elections on November 5, growing international US isolation, and public criticism of its Gaza policy at home and abroad.

Widespread Regional Skepticism

Although Blinken was received politely by the mediating parties, as well as by other Arab and Muslim officials with whom he met at the Gaza aid conference, the American effort was viewed with widespread skepticism throughout the region, including by the two main adversaries, Israel and Hamas. Despite multiple US assertions to the contrary, the Netanyahu government, which the Biden administration has repeatedly credited with originating this plan, has yet to issue an official, cabinet-sanctioned, and unequivocal acknowledgement and endorsement of Biden’s May 31 interpretation of the plan. Indeed, a senior Israeli official said as recently as June 3 that Biden’s description of Israel’s ceasefire proposal was “not accurate,” claiming that the US president had put forward only “a partial version of the Israeli proposal.”

Seemingly unconcerned by the failure of the US administration to secure in advance ironclad public support for the plan from its Israeli ally before pursuing regional approval, Blinken challenged Arab governments and “people throughout the region” to apply pressure on Hamas to accept the deal without offering convincing evidence that Israel has already done so. “If you want a ceasefire, press Hamas to say yes,” he declared, adding, “If you want to alleviate the terrible suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, press Hamas to say yes.”

The US administration openly displayed an inherent bias and annoyance with the Palestinian side.

In contrast to its blatantly tolerant and quite flexible attitude toward frequent acts of obstruction and lack of cooperation by the Netanyahu government, the US administration openly displayed an inherent bias and annoyance with the Palestinian side despite its cautious characterization of the initial Hamas response to the American plan as “hopeful.” When asked about Hamas’s response to the passage of United Nations Security Council (UNSC) Resolution 2735 calling for a ceasefire in Gaza, Blinken stated, “It is a hopeful sign, just as the statement that they issued after the president made his proposal ten days ago was hopeful.” But he insisted, somewhat surprisingly, that what really counts is the response from Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar. Furthermore, when Hamas responded to the US initiative with clarifications and proposed amendments, the United States was rather defensive and lukewarm in its response. Blinken acknowledged that “Hamas has proposed numerous changes…Some of the changes are workable. Some are not,” without elaborating.

The secretary’s audience throughout the Arab world was left with the impression that the war in Gaza according to Washington involves only one party, Hamas, whose sole responsibility is to unilaterally deliver a complete cessation of hostilities, prevent the conflict from spreading, and offer a credible path to more durable peace and security throughout the region.

Will Blinken Accomplish His Goal?

Although Secretary Blinken left the region for Europe without declaring whether his mission was accomplished, one could safely speculate that he was not fully satisfied with the conditional “yes” he received from Hamas. To avoid blame for derailing the trip, Hamas’s leader Ismail Haniyeh declared in Qatar that his group’s response to the Gaza ceasefire and hostage deal is “consistent” with the Biden Plan. It remains to be seen whether such statements will satisfy the constantly fluctuating American demands. Meanwhile, White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan stated that talks with Hamas are continuing through Qatar and Egypt, adding that “some of the edits are not unexpected and can be managed. Some of them are inconsistent both with what President Biden laid out and what the UN Security Council endorsed.” What remains inconsistent, however, is the official Israeli position that contradicts the Biden interpretation of the plan and the provisions of the Security Council resolution.

Nonetheless, there are several acts of commission and omission embedded in the ambiguous American plan that militate against its potentially successful adoption despite the Biden administration’s intensive diplomatic efforts on behalf of Israel. Such efforts include passing of UNSC Resolution 2735 by 14 votes in favor of a ceasefire in Gaza and urging Hamas to accept the deal on the table which, according to the US Ambassador to the UN, Israel has already agreed to.

There are four main impediments to the implementation of the ceasefire proposal:

  1. Official Israeli approval: Placing aside the issue of paternity rights to the so-called Biden Plan, the fundamental question that remains unanswered in this absurd process is whether the Netanyahu government officially supports the plan in light of its repeated public denials and reservations about its fundamental provisions. Hamas is justified in demanding a resolution to this ambiguity before the process is allowed to move forward. The Netanyahu government must once and for all vote on accepting the plan unequivocally regardless of the domestic political implications and outcome. Both parties, Israel and Palestine, are facing an existential conflict that will affect the lives of millions of innocent civilians and not only the political careers of individual politicians, whether in Israel or the United States.
  2. US bias: Washington must end its biased approach to resolving this conflict, which involves catering to all of Israel’s demands and whims while depriving the Palestinian side of any input into the process. Given that the Biden Plan, whether it is indeed an American or an Israeli initiative, has been and continues to be coordinated with the Israeli government, the same level of courtesy and coordination should be granted to the Palestinian side by all three mediators—including the United States. None of the main stakeholders should have veto power over the agenda or provisions of the plan if the process is to succeed.
  3. The plan’s ultimate objective: Israeli officials, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, continue to adhere to their long-term objective of eliminating Hamas’s military and governing capabilities before endorsing any ceasefire agreement. The Biden administration has repeatedly endorsed this Israeli goal. Hamas cannot be expected to sign and implement what amounts to a national suicide pact. The plan’s intent to seek an enduring ceasefire aimed at ending this conflict, as announced by President Biden on May 31, contravenes Netanyahu’s intentions. The purpose of this political initiative is not to eliminate one another’s military or governing capabilities. This must be clarified at this early stage in the process before it comes back to haunt the parties by derailing the negotiations at the end of the first phase or at later and more complicated stages.
  4. Guaranteeing the process: The abrupt and non-conventional emergence of the Biden Plan left too many loose ends for the parties to approve the deal with the necessary confidence that the other side will honor its commitments in due time. The absence of trust between Hamas and Israel has required regional and international parties to guarantee earlier ceasefire agreements. Parties such as China, Russia, and Turkey have been suggested as potential guarantorsto join the United States, Qatar, Egypt, or even the United Nations to fill that mission at this time. This explains the rationale for Hamas’s insistence on explicit written guarantees from the Biden administration with regard to key provisions of the plan, namely the promised transition from a temporary phased truce to a permanent ceasefire and the withdrawal of all Israeli forces from the Gaza Strip. In other words, as Israeli analyst Alon Pinkas recently wrote in Haaretz, the Palestinian side wants to see solid “US guarantees that the war will de facto end.” Is the Biden administration serious enough about ending this conflict by putting its money (and credibility) where its mouth is?

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.