Biden: Hamas no longer capable of carrying out another Oct. 7

‘Time for this war to end’: Biden tells Hamas to accept Israel’s hostage-ceasefire offer

President sets out Israeli proposal, urges gov’t to stand behind it; says Gaza ops can resume if terror group breaks deal; PMO: War won’t end until all goals met; Hamas ‘positive’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Israel-Hamas war, from the State Dining Room of the White House, May 31, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Israel-Hamas war, from the State Dining Room of the White House, May 31, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Declaring that it is “time for this war to end,” US President Joe Biden gave a high-stakes speech Friday, presenting what he said was the latest Israeli proposal for a hostage deal and ceasefire to end the Israel-Hamas war, and calling on the terror group to accept the offer.

The Israeli proposal was submitted on Thursday to Hamas via Qatar, Biden revealed, saying the offer would “bring all the hostages home, ensure Israel’s security, create a better day after in Gaza without Hamas in power, and set the stage for a political settlement that provides a better future for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Biden laid out the details of three phases, with particular emphasis on the first six-week phase, which was largely similar to the framework that was discussed in previous rounds of negotiations but included new conditions detailed by the president for the first time.

Several times during the speech in the State Dining Room of the White House, Biden put the ball in Hamas’s court, urging it to accept the type of ceasefire that its leaders and supporters have repeatedly called for.

While he described the latest proposal as one crafted by Israel, and thus presumably approved by the narrow war cabinet, he evidently recognized that this was not the final say from Jerusalem and urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s full government to stand behind the offer its negotiators had submitted via the mediators to Hamas.

Biden said the deal also carried with it the opportunity for subsequent gains for both Israelis and Palestinians. For Israel, it would allow for a return to calm on the Lebanon border and a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia. For the Palestinians, it would enable them to advance toward self-determination.

Netanyahu’s office issued a statement immediately after Biden’s speech, but it avoided responding directly to the president’s message. Instead, it said that the latest Israeli proposal fulfills both of Israel’s war aims of returning all remaining 125 hostages and eliminating Hamas’s military and governmental capabilities. It did not specify that the proposal it was referencing was the one Biden detailed.

For its part, Hamas issued a statement saying it viewed Biden’s speech positively, and that it would negotiate in good faith to secure a permanent ceasefire and the permanent withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

A senior US official speaking on condition of anonymity told The Times of Israel that “both Israel and Hamas will try and frame the proposal in a manner that suits them, so it’s best to listen to the way it was laid out by the president.”

Phase one

The first phase of the deal would include a complete ceasefire; the withdrawal of Israeli forces from all populated areas of Gaza; the release of a number of female, elderly and sick hostages by Hamas; and the release of hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners by Israel, Biden said, noting that American hostages would be among those released in this first stage.

Additionally, a number of bodies of deceased hostages would also be released, Biden said, revealing for the first time that Israel had moved from its previous demand not to accept any bodies during this “humanitarian” phase of the hostage deal.

During negotiations in recent weeks, Israel demanded the release of 33 female, elderly and wounded hostages who are still alive in Gaza. Hamas claimed that it did not have that many living hostages in those categories. Israel demanded that Hamas release living hostages from other categories if that were the case. But the terror group refused, saying it would only be willing to release additional bodies to make up for the discrepancy.

Further detailing the first phase, Biden said that Palestinians would be allowed to return to their homes and neighborhoods throughout Gaza, including in the north. Israel in earlier rounds of negotiations had pushed back on the unrestricted return of Palestinians, particularly to the north, fearing it would lead to Hamas regrouping. In the last round of indirect contacts, though, Israel reportedly let go of this demand as well.

Biden said 60 trucks of humanitarian aid would be surged into Gaza each day of the first phase. Hundreds of thousands of temporary shelters, including housing units, would also be delivered by the international community.

During the six-week phase, Israel and Hamas would “negotiate the necessary arrangements to get to phase two, which is a permanent end to hostilities,” Biden said.

Critically, he revealed a new detail of the first phase, which is that if those likely complex negotiations regarding the terms of the next phase took longer than six weeks, the ceasefire would be extended.

“The United States, Egypt, and Qatar [will] work to ensure negotiations keep going… until all the agreements are reached and phase two is able to begin,” Biden said.

This handout picture released by the Egyptian Presidency on November 10, 2023, shows Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi (R) receiving Qatar’s Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani in the Presidential Hall at Cairo International Airport. (Photo by Handout / Egyptian Presidency / AFP)

This provision appeared to mark an attempt by the mediators to coax Hamas to agree to the first phase of the proposal. The terror group has been adamant that it will only agree to a permanent ceasefire, while Israel insists that it will only agree to a temporary one in exchange for the release of the first batch of hostages.

This new clause would appear to enable the indefinite extension of the six-week phase, so long as Hamas is seen as negotiating in good faith.

“If Hamas fails to uphold its commitments under the deal, Israel can resume military operations. But Egypt and Qatar have assured me they are continuing to work to ensure that Hamas doesn’t do that,” Biden said. “The United States will help ensure that Israel lives up to their obligations as well.”

Biden did not detail the rate at which the Israeli hostages would be released during the first phase. Hamas in previous negotiations has sought to spread out the release of the Israeli hostages as much as possible.

However, the framework laid out by Biden would seem to encourage Hamas to complete the negotiations in the course of phase one regarding the continuation of the deal, as the complete proposal would ostensibly enable the terror group’s survival in some form.

Demonstrators hold images of five female soldiers held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, calling to ‘save those who still can be’ as they protest calling for the release of all hostages held in the Gaza Strip outside the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, May 25, 2024. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Briefing reporters on condition of anonymity shortly after Biden’s speech, a senior US official acknowledged that the negotiations during phase one would be very difficult and require the sides to agree on a ratio for how many Palestinian security prisoners would be released in exchange for the remaining male Israeli hostages in phase two.

“It’s fair to say that if [we get to] phase two and phase three, Israel will have some guarantees about its own security [so] that Gaza can no longer be a platform for terrorism and threats against Israel,” the senior administration official clarified.

Phases two and three

In phase two, Hamas would release the remaining living Israeli hostages, including male soldiers. Israel, in exchange, would withdraw its forces entirely from Gaza and release the agreed-upon number of Palestinian security prisoners.

“As long as Hamas lives up to its commitments, a temporary ceasefire would become… permanent,” Biden said.

Netanyahu’s office has denied several times to date that the proposals Israel agreed to in the past included a willingness to implement a permanent ceasefire. But Biden specified this as an element of the second stage of what he stressed was the Israeli proposal.

“Finally, in phase three, a major reconstruction plan for Gaza would commence. And any final remains of hostages who have been killed would be returned to their families,” the president said.

Palestinians waiting for aid trucks to cross in central Gaza Strip, May 19, 2024. (Abdel Kareem Hana/AP)

Elaborating on phase three, the senior administration official said it would include “a pretty extensive three-to-five year reconstruction program for Gaza… fully backed by the US, the international community and others.”

The senior official said phases two and three would also last six weeks, adding that the Israeli proposal on the table is highly detailed and four-and-a-half pages long.

Direct appeal to Israelis

Biden took time in his speech to try and sell the deal directly to Israel’s leaders and the public, asserting that sticking with the proposal would not put the country’s security at risk.

Israel has “devastated Hamas’s [forces] over the past eight months. At this point, Hamas is no longer capable of carrying out another October 7,” Biden said, making this assertion for the first time. “This was one of Israel’s main objectives in this war — and quite frankly, a righteous one.”

“I don’t think this offer would have been possible three months ago,” the senior administration official briefing reporters added.

Biden in his speech addressed the likely pushback that the proposal would face, apparently differentiating between the war cabinet that authorized the Mossad-Shin Bet-IDF negotiating team to craft the latest offer and the broader Israeli security cabinet, which includes far-right members to whom Netanyahu is beholden for his political survival.

Far-right leaders Itamar Ben Gvir (R) and Bezalel Smotrich (L) at the ‘victory conference’ at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, January 28, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“I know there are those in Israel who will not agree with this plan and will call for the war to continue indefinitely. Some are even in the governing coalition. They’ve made it clear that they want to occupy Gaza, they want to keep fighting for years, and the hostages are not a priority to them,” Biden said in a blistering critique. He avoided naming Netanyahu and his far-right partners Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir in the speech.

“I’ve urged the leadership in Israel to stand behind this deal, despite whatever pressure comes,” Biden said, clearly referring to Netanyahu.

“If Hamas comes to negotiate ready to deal, then Israel’s negotiators must be given a mandate with the necessary flexibility to close that deal,” he said, referring to the Netanyahu-led war cabinet, which is tasked with providing the negotiating team with parameters for the talks.

Turning to the Israeli people, Biden stressed that he was presenting this offer “as someone who has had a lifelong commitment to Israel, as the only American president who has ever gone to Israel at a time of war, as someone who just sent US forces to directly defend Israel when it was attacked by Iran.”

“I ask you to take a step back and think what will happen if this moment is lost.”

“Indefinite war in pursuit of an unidentified notion of ‘total victory’ will only bog down Israel in Gaza, draining military, economic and human resources and further Israel’s isolation in the world,” the president said in a more direct attack on Netanyahu, who has repeatedly vowed to achieve “total victory” in Gaza.

“That will not bring hostages home. That will not bring an enduring defeat of Hamas. That will not bring Israel lasting security,” Biden asserted.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial in Jerusalem, May 6, 2024. (Amir Cohen / POOL / AFP)

A ceasefire is just the beginning

Biden went on to explain that the hostage deal on the table is part of a comprehensive approach that will ensure Israel’s long-term security.

“Once a ceasefire and hostage deal is concluded, it unlocks the possibility of a great deal of more progress, including calm along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon. The United States will help forge a diplomatic resolution… that ensures Israel’s security and allows people to safely return to their homes without fear of being attacked.”

“With the deal, the rebuilding of Gaza will begin. Arab nations and the international community along with Palestinian and Israeli leaders [will work together] to get it done in a manner that does not allow Hamas to rearm,” Biden said.

“The United States will work with our partners to rebuild homes, schools and hospitals in Gaza, to help repair communities that were destroyed in the chaos of war.”

“With this deal, Israel could become more deeply integrated in the region,” Biden went on, highlighting the normalization deal he is working to broker between Israel and Saudi Arabia. “Israel could be part of a regional security network to counter the threat posed by Iran.”

“All this progress would make Israel more secure, with Israeli families no longer living in the shadow of a terrorist attack. All of this would create the conditions for a different future, a better future for the Palestinian people, one of self-determination, dignity, security and freedom.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman during a week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

“We have to work to reform the PA in the West Bank, which is ongoing and to having an interim administration in Gaza that can help with stabilization and pathway forward there,” the senior official elaborated soon after the speech.

Biden notably made no mention of a “two-state solution” or a “pathway to a future Palestinian state,” which have been regular talking points when the administration has laid out its post-war vision. Saudi officials had previously asserted that they would not normalize ties with Israel unless Jerusalem commits to an irreversible path to Palestinian statehood.

The absence of such rhetoric was un-ignorable, as was the proximity of Biden’s speech to an announcement from House Speaker Mike Johnson, minutes later, that Congress had submitted a formal invitation for Netanyahu to discuss the Israel-Hamas war in an address to a joint session of Congress.

The invitation had been held up for weeks by Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a close ally of Biden’s who gave a speech in March calling for early elections in Israel to replace Netanyahu. A congressional aide told The Times of Israel that Schumer’s office coordinated with the White House on the matter.

Biden clarified that even after the war, “Israel will always have the right to defend itself against threats to its security and to bring those responsible for October 7 to justice.”

The line was an indication that the US would give Israel cover to continue pursuing Hamas’s leaders after the war.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks against the US-led international nuclear deal with Iran in 2015 before a joint meeting of Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 3, 2015. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

This appeared to be part of a broader post-war approach to Hamas by the US, which seems reconciled to the terror group managing to limp on in some form. However, US officials asserted to The Times of Israel earlier this month that the broader diplomatic initiative Washington is advancing would see the terror group marginalized in Gaza and no longer able to pose a threat to Israel.

“The United States will always ensure that Israel has what it needs to defend itself,” Biden added, in his latest attempt to assure Israelis that he wasn’t abandoning them, weeks after he withheld a shipment of high-payload bombs and threatened to block more if Israel launched a major offensive in the populated areas of Gaza’s southernmost city of Rafah.

‘Hamas needs to take the deal’

“The past eight months have been marked by heartbreaking pain of those whose loved ones were slaughtered by Hamas terrorists on October 7; hostages and their families waiting in anguish; ordinary Israelis whose lives are forever marked by the shattering event of Hamas’s sexual violence and ruthless brutality,” Biden said.

“The Palestinian people have endured sheer hell in this war,” he added. “Too many people have been killed, including thousands of children. Far too many have been badly wounded. We all saw the terrible images from a deadly fire in Rafah earlier this week following an Israeli strike targeting Hamas.”

“This is truly a decisive moment. Israel has made their proposal. Hamas says it wants a ceasefire. This deal is an opportunity to prove whether they really mean it,” Biden said. “Hamas needs to take the deal.”

The senior US official briefing reporters argued that the latest Israeli proposal was almost identical to the demands previously laid out by Hamas.

Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (L), ruler of Qatar since 2013, in a meeting with Hamas leaders Ismail Haniyeh (R) and Khaled Mashal in Doha, October 17, 2016 (Qatar government handout)

“This is now at the stage where Hamas has said they’d be prepared to do deal X, and what is now on the table is basically that, with some very minor adjustments,” the official said.

Asked about Hamas’s statement Thursday that it would not be willing to negotiate further with Israel unless the IDF halts all fighting in Gaza, the senior administration official downplayed the threat, suggesting there is a difference between what the terror group says publicly and what it says privately.

The official noted that Hamas only received the Israeli proposal on Thursday night and would likely need time to make a decision.

“But [Biden] felt very strongly… that it was time to lay out very clearly what is offered in this proposal, and particularly in those first six weeks,” the senior official said.

UC Santa Cruz workers who are union members of UAW 4811, which is part of the United Auto Workers, and pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel protesters carry signs as they demonstrate in front of the UC Santa Cruz campus on May 20, 2024, in Santa Cruz, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images via AFP)

Before wrapping up his speech, Biden turned to the pro-Palestinian and anti-Israel protesters around the world who have flooded the streets for months demanding a ceasefire. Those calls have largely been directed at Israel, with little mention of Hamas at all.

Biden urged a correction. “Now it’s time to raise your voices and demand that Hamas come to the table, agree to this deal, and end this war that they began.”

Indicating that pressure also needed to be put on Israel, however, Biden added, “Let the leaders know they should take this deal.”

“It’s time for this war to end, and for the day after to begin,” he concluded.

IDF troops operate in northern Gaza’s Jabaliya, in a handout photo published May 31, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Israel ambiguous, Hamas positive

In a statement issued immediately after Biden’s speech, Netanyahu’s office said, “The Israeli government is united in the desire to return our hostages as soon as possible and is working to achieve this goal.”

“Therefore, the prime minister authorized the negotiating team to present an outline for achieving this goal, while insisting that the war will not end until all of its goals are achieved, including the return of all our hostages and the elimination of Hamas’ military and governmental capabilities,” the statement continued.

“The exact outline proposed by Israel, including the conditional transition from stage to stage, allows Israel to maintain these principles,” the statement added.

Netanyahu’s office did not clarify whether its proposal is the same one described by Biden during his speech — and did not refer directly to Biden’s speech at all.

Asked whether the deal described by Netanyahu’s office is the same one Biden laid out in his speech, a senior administration official briefing reporters avoided answering directly.

“I have no doubt that the deal will be characterized by Israel and will be characterized by Hamas, but we know what’s in the deal. We know what the expectations are,” the official said.

Palestinians look at the destruction after an Israeli strike adjacent to where displaced people were staying in Rafah, Gaza Strip, May 27, 2024. (AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi)

“Often these deals are characterized by those who might not want to see the deal,” the official had said earlier in the briefing.

In its statement, Hamas said it “positively views” the proposal presented by Biden, specifying “his call to a permanent ceasefire, the Israeli forces’ withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, the reconstruction of Gaza and the exchange of prisoners.”

“The movement affirms its readiness to deal positively and constructively with any proposal based on [these components],” Hamas said.

The terror group added that it regards the development in negotiations and the US commitment to ending the war in Gaza sparked by its October 7 massacre “to be the result of the legendary steadfastness of our struggling people and their brave resistance.”

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