Limits of the US deal

Dina Ezzat , Thursday 13 Jun 2024

Despite international and domestic pressure, Netanyahu appears determined to continue his war on Gaza regardless of the horrific humanitarian consequences.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to reporters at Cairo airport (photo: AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to reporters at Cairo airport (photo: AFP)


On 13 June, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will end his Middle East tour which began in Egypt on Monday with a meeting with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi before taking him to Israel, where he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, the outgoing Israeli member of the War Council.

On Tuesday and Wednesday, Blinken was scheduled to attend an international conference in Jordan on providing humanitarian aid to Gaza hosted jointly by Jordan, Egypt, and the UN, before travelling to Qatar.

Blinken’s eighth tour of the region since the Israeli war on Hamas began on 7 October 2023 came as part of a wider US mediation conducted by the top US diplomat, together with CIA Chief William Burns and US Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk.

“Though he is here to garner support for the US plan for a ceasefire in Gaza it is unlikely that he will go back home with sufficient reassurances about the deal’s chances,” said an official close to the Egyptian Hamas-Israel mediation.

On 31 May, US President Joe Biden announced a three-phase plan to end the war in Gaza, return the remaining Israeli hostages held by Hamas since 7 October, and establish a sustainable security framework on the borders between Gaza and southern Israeli settlements.

The plan, which Biden initially said was designed by Israel, received support from Egypt and Qatar, the lead mediators. It also met with a positive reaction from Hamas which offered to engage. It failed to secure Israeli consent.

According to Cairo-based foreign diplomats, the problem is not the plan but Netanyahu. They said that despite the heavy pressure Biden has been trying to exert, Netanyahu is unlikely to end the war anytime soon.

In the words of one: “All expectations of an end to the war that have surfaced since 7 October have collapsed.” He added that while Hamas had been “unresponsive in the beginning, today it is Netanyahu who has to decide, and unfortunately there is nothing that [the EU] or Biden can do to pressure him enough to end the war.”

The diplomats agreed that this week’s resignation of Gantz and the former Israeli chief of staff and Israeli War Council member Gadi Eisenkot would make Netanyahu more accommodating of the demands of the extremist right-wing ministers Itmar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich. Both have said they want the war to continue much longer.

On Monday, as Blinken was starting his meetings in the region, the UN Security Council adopted a resolution supporting the Biden plan. On the same day, international organisations amplified warnings about the worsening humanitarian situation in Gaza. According to the World Food Programme, the Strip is already in the grip of a full-blown famine.

On Tuesday, the international conference in Jordan was set to appeal for an immediate emergency operation to provide Gaza with food, medicines, and fuel for the operation of desalination and medical facilities. Again, there was scepticism about whether Israel will accommodate any demands that come out of the meeting.

The same foreign diplomats said it was possible that more aid would get into Gaza via the US constructed floating pier, at least in the short-term. The floating pier has been beset with problems. It was only on Saturday this week that the US resumed offloading aid material from the pier but due to bad sea conditions the offloading was suspended on Sunday and Monday.

The US has shrugged off allegations that the pier was used by Israel this week for the military operation that freed four hostages and left more than 270 Palestinians dead. On Monday, the Pentagon qualified the allegations as “inaccurate social media” claims.

According to UN humanitarian official, neither the pier nor air-drop aid operations are capable of allaying the “absolutely disastrous situation in Gaza”. Only the entry “of no less than 500 convoys a day” can do that. “And this has to happen soon and it has to be sustainable.”

For this to happen, the source added, either the Rafah crossing or some other Israeli-controlled crossings need to open.

According to the Egyptian official, while in Cairo Blinken found no change in the Egyptian position that the Rafah border cannot be opened as long as Israel is in control of the Palestinian side. Israel took control during its ground offensive on Rafah which began on 7 May.

Before Israel seized control of the border, convoys of humanitarian aid allowed into Gaza, after thorough Israeli screening, were managed on the Palestinian side by the Palestinian Red Crescent which in Gaza was affiliated with the Hamas government.

“Today, if we secure entry for the convoys, who will manage them from the other side? And how could we trust that the Israelis will not use these convoys to serve their military aims in one way or the other, all the time blaming Egypt,” the source asked. Nor is Egypt willing to accept the political and legal implications of countenancing the Israeli presence on the Palestinian side of the crossing.

What Egypt was hoping for was for the US to pressure Netanyahu to agree to the first phase of the Biden plan, a six-week truce during which Israel is supposed to pull out of major population centres, receive Israeli hostages in return for Palestinian prisoners, and engage in talks aimed at ending the war.

Speaking before the Blinken-Netanyahu meeting in Israel on Monday, the source said he doubted the US was in a position to sufficiently pressure Netanyahu to agree to any of this.

“It really depends on the political bargaining that Netanyahu is engaged in with Smotrich and Ben-Gvir and the kind of leverage he has with US Congress.”

Netanyahu has received an invitation from several American legislators to address the US Congress within weeks.

“I am not sure with this kind of political support how far he will compromise, if at all,” said the same Egyptian source.

“And even if Netanyahu agreed to give the US the six-week truce in the first phase, what will happen to Gaza after the truce expires?”

“Given the way negotiations have been going in the last few months, and given Netanyahu is still in a position to push back against pressure, I don’t think that the six weeks provides a solid basis for further progress.” He added that Egypt has been engaged in talks with several Palestinian factions this week to sound out what they want to happen, “because it is not just up to Hamas to decide the future of Gaza after this catastrophic war.”

In the face of the “atrocious Israeli operations, particularly over the past two weeks” that targeted and killed hundreds of Palestinian refugees in supposedly safe havens, it is unlikely that any of the Palestinian factions will be able to convince Hamas to show flexibility. The source added that Hamas wants a solid guarantee that if it accepts the Biden plan, Israel will halt further military operations on the ground “and the trouble is that Netanyahu will not give this commitment and would not hesitate to ignore it if it is given by the US to the Palestinians.”

According to another informed Egyptian source, with over 37,000 Palestinians killed since the beginning of the war and some 100,000 wounded, Hamas leaders have been telling Egyptian officials that they cannot now agree to anything short of a sustainable ceasefire. “Hamas is very clear that it will not free the hostages if there are no guarantees about a full end to the Israeli air, sea, and ground bombardment of Gaza,” he said.

Upon arriving in the Middle East, Blinken said that his message to leaders in the region is that they need to pressure Hamas to agree to the Biden plan while Hamas leaders have been saying that it is the US who should pressure Netanyahu “because he cannot have his hostages back and continue the brutal war on Gaza.”

* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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