US Says Fresh Gaza Cease-Fire Proposal Is ‘Decisive Moment’

(Bloomberg) -- The US said a fresh cease-fire proposal that would pause fighting between Israel and Hamas for at least six weeks could mark a “decisive moment” in the conflict — if both sides agree terms after several failed attempts at peace.

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President Joe Biden said Hamas has been weakened to the point it could no longer carry out an attack like the deadly Oct. 7 incursion into Israel that triggered the war. Detailing the three-part proposal from the White House on Friday afternoon, he urged all parties to accept the deal.

Israel is on board with the plan and “Hamas says it wants a cease-fire,” Biden said. “Hamas needs to take the deal” and by doing so prove that the group is serious about wanting to end the conflict, he added.

Yet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu emphasized that he hasn’t changed his conditions for ending the war. Those are “the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages and ensuring Gaza doesn’t pose a threat to Israel,” his office said in a statement on Saturday.

“The notion that Israel will agree to a permanent cease-fire before these conditions are fulfilled is a non-starter,” he said.

The Israeli leader’s comments suggested a willingness to go on fighting, and his national security adviser said last week Hamas would not be defeated before the end of the year. But Netanyahu accepts the pathway laid out by Biden and was directing his latest statement at more conservative coalition members and domestic supporters, according to a US official with knowledge of the situation.

Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the US and European Union, has said it’s ready “to deal positively and constructively with any proposal” based on an indefinite stop to the conflict, including a complete Israeli withdrawal from Gaza. The Iran-backed group called for the return of displaced Gazans to their homes, and “the completion of a serious prisoner-exchange deal” for hostages.

Taken together, the comments show fresh impetus by the US to secure a deal that will be agreed by both sides — an achievement that would count as a major win for Biden just months before the US elections. Yet neither Israel nor Hamas appears to have changed its position substantially, suggesting there’s much work left to do.

Hamas said it “views positively” what the president said, particularly “his call for a permanent cease-fire.”

Israel and Hamas have held back-and-forth negotiations via Qatari and Egyptian mediators throughout the nearly eight-month war that’s convulsed the Middle East and devastated the Gaza Strip.

The two sides have been unable to reach an agreement to pause the fighting since a short break in late November. Negotiators appeared close to striking an understanding about a month ago, only for talks to fall apart. Since then, Israel has sent ground troops into Rafah, the southern Gazan city where it says some Hamas leaders and thousands of fighters are based.

Read more: Why Israel’s Rafah Operation Is So Worrying: QuickTake

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke separately by phone about the proposal with his counterparts in Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey, all countries key to longer-term regional stability. United Nations Secretary General António Guterres endorsed the framework.

The war started when Hamas fighters attacked Israel on Oct. 7, killing some 1,200 people and taking about 250 hostages. Israel’s subsequent campaign to destroy the group has left more than 35,000 people dead in Gaza, according to authorities in the Hamas-run enclave, and triggered a grave humanitarian crisis.

The war has stoked broader regional tensions and briefly brought Israel and Iran into rare direct conflict. Iran backs Hamas and other militant groups operating across the Middle East, which have ramped up attacks on shipping in the Red Sea and targeted US military bases.

Read More: How Iran-Backed Groups Provoke Wider Mideast Conflict: QuickTake

For Biden, an agreement would help blunt the political damage he’s sustained, as his support for Israel has fractured his electoral coalition. Progressive voters have called on him to break with Netanyahu and restrict arms shipments, while a series of high-profile protests on college campuses have added further pressure.

Biden sketched out a three-part road map for the agreement, with a first phase that would last for six weeks and see Israel withdraw from all populated areas of Gaza. Hamas would release some hostages and the bodies of some of those killed in captivity, while Israel would return some Palestinian prisoners.

A second phase would see the exchange of all remaining living hostages and the removal of Israeli troops from Gaza, followed by a third phase that would see a major reconstruction plan commence.

Read more: Biden Sticks to ‘Tightrope’ Israel Policy as Rafah Deaths Mount

The offer is almost identical to a cease-fire plan Hamas presented several weeks ago, according to a senior US official who briefed reporters after Biden spoke. The official, who requested anonymity to describe internal thinking, added that Hamas has privately been more open to a deal than its public statements would suggest. Israel rejected that proposal out of hand.

Biden addressed tensions within Netanyahu’s government, which relies on the support of right-wing parties, saying that Israel risks draining its resources and becoming further isolated internationally the longer the war goes on.

“The people of Israel should know they can make this offer without any further risk to their security,” Biden said. “I know there are those in Israel who will not agree with this plan.”

--With assistance from Akayla Gardner, Patrick Sykes and Josh Wingrove.

(Updates with US official comment in sixth paragraph.)

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