AnalysisDiplomat: Pause should be used to reach permanent ceasefire

While US won’t say it wants ceasefire, it seeks humanitarian pause it can turn permanent

US plans to use truce to advance postwar plans, officials say, indicating they won’t back subsequent resumption of fighting, even if it means allowing Hamas to remain in some form

Jacob Magid

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

A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Younis in the distance, following Israeli bombardment on February 5, 2024 as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)
A picture taken from Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip shows smoke rising over buildings in Khan Younis in the distance, following Israeli bombardment on February 5, 2024 as fighting continues between Israel and Hamas. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

As the Israel-Hamas war reaches its fourth month, the Biden administration is sticking firm to its stance opposing a permanent ceasefire in the Gaza Strip with Hamas still intact. Publicly, at least.

“We don’t believe that right now a general ceasefire is the best approach,” White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in late January, explaining that it would leave in place Hamas terror leaders who have vowed to continue perpetrating devastating attacks like the October 7 onslaught in which some 1,200 people were killed and 253 were taken hostage.

Instead of a permanent ceasefire, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan reiterated Sunday that Washington is seeking “a sustained pause in hostilities” to get the remaining hostages out of Gaza and funnel more humanitarian aid into the Strip.

However, the administration is also hoping to use this still-elusive extended pause to negotiate a more permanent ceasefire in Gaza. Ending the fighting for good, a senior US official told The Times of Israel on Monday, would allow the administration to advance regional initiatives that include an Israel-Saudi Arabia normalization agreement and the creation of a political horizon toward an eventual Palestinian state.

“If we get a humanitarian pause, we want to be in a position to move as quickly as possible on the various pieces of day after – reconstruction of Gaza, [Palestinian Authority] reform, governance of Gaza, two states, normalization. Some of which are obviously quite difficult and quite complex,” said a second senior US official, who briefed reporters en route to Riyadh with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday.

The first US official clarified that negotiations for a humanitarian pause and a hostage deal are not on the cusp of a breakthrough, given that Hamas has not swayed from its demand for a permanent ceasefire and a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza — both nonstarters for Jerusalem.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken leaves with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of State and National Security Musaed Al Aiban, right, after a meeting with Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, February 5, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)

An Arab diplomat familiar with the negotiations said mediators are hoping to break the impasse by including language in the deal for an extended pause that would see Israel commit to holding talks during that time on a more permanent ceasefire.

However, the diplomat expressed concern that public statements from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, such as comments last week rejecting any withdrawal of troops from Gaza or the release of thousands of Palestinian security prisoners, could risk scuttling the fragile negotiations.

With much of US President Joe Biden’s foreign policy credibility ahead of this year’s presidential election hinging on the successful navigation of the complex regional crisis, Blinken is using his visits this week to Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank to help move the hostage talks forward and reassure both foreign and domestic audiences that the US has no intention of allowing the fighting to widen.

In the absence of a hostage deal, the war risks dragging on indefinitely, all but torpedoing talks for a Saudi normalization agreement, which Riyadh has said it won’t sign if the fighting is ongoing. And without a normalization accord, there is no clear pathway to a Palestinian state, given that the Gulf kingdom is conditioning a deal with Israel on progress toward a two-state solution — a more ultimate US foreign policy goal.

While the US aims to utilize the pause to negotiate a more permanent end to the fighting, left unsaid is what would happen to Hamas. The Biden administration’s approach suggests an expectation that the terror group will remain in some form.

Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders have vowed to continue the war until the “total defeat” of Hamas, and the US says it supports removing Hamas from power.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (center) meets with IDF soldiers in Latrun on February 5, 2024. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The Arab diplomat noted that regional stakeholders have already come to terms with the prospect that Hamas may remain active, but are seeking frameworks in which the terror group would not be able to continue ruling Gaza.

Accordingly, some degree of military operations against Hamas operatives — whether by Israel or a third party — may continue after the war, the diplomat speculated.

Gloves coming off

A third US official indicated that the Biden administration does not have a lot of confidence in Netanyahu’s handling of the war, citing his rejection of the Palestinian Authority retaking control of the Strip.

The prime minister’s far-right coalition partners are pushing for resettling Gaza with Israeli civilians, encouraging its Palestinian residents to emigrate and maintaining a military occupation on those who remain — policies that Netanyahu says he opposes and ones that would strip Jerusalem of any remaining support from Washington. Accordingly, the premier has avoided bringing discussions regarding the “day after” in Gaza to the cabinet, even as IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi warns that this risks foiling Israel’s military gains in Gaza.

The third US official argued that Netanyahu has thwarted regional efforts to have a new administration put in place in parts of northern Gaza cleared by Israeli troops late last year, allowing Hamas to once again fill the vacuum.

In recent days, the Israel Defense Forces has had to send troops back into the area to fight off the resurgence of Hamas activity.

Despite the Biden administration’s mounting frustration with Netanyahu, it hasn’t yet decided to take a more adversarial line against him publically, said the official.

There are those in the administration calling for a more aggressive use of the political capital Biden gained from Israelis due to the diplomatic and military support he provided after October 7, the official noted, adding that such voices are growing.

Biden’s executive order spurring first-of-their-kind sanctions against violent settlers could well have been the first sign of that approach gaining traction in Washington.

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