May 1, 2024 - World

Israel-Hamas deal is only hope for Biden's Middle East strategy

US President Joe Biden during a meeting with Mohammed Shyaa Al-Sudani, Iraq's prime minister, not pictured, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, US, on Monday, April 15, 2024.

U.S. President Joe Biden during a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on Apr. 15, 2024. Photo: Bonnie Cash/UPI/Bloomberg via Getty Images

President Biden has been personally involved in intense efforts in recent days to reach a hostage and ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which he sees as a crucial element of a much wider strategy at home and abroad, U.S. officials say.

Why it matters: The president's senior advisers say the deal on the table right now is the only conceivable path to a ceasefire in Gaza and to possibly ending a war that has drawn sharp criticism of Biden among some of his key supporters ahead of the presidential election.

The latest: White House spokesperson John Kirby admitted on Tuesday that Biden is putting all his focus on the hostage deal. "There just has to be a deal," he said when asked about a plan B if negotiations aren't successful.

  • "If we can get a ceasefire, we can get something more enduring and then maybe end the conflict and then maybe move forward with normalization [between Israel and Saudi Arabia], but it has to start with a deal and getting these people back to their families," he said.

Catch up quick: 133 people who were taken hostage during Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel are still being held in Gaza, including six American citizens whom Biden says he is committed to getting home.

  • U.S. officials say the humanitarian crisis in Gaza has been improving in recent weeks, but they also stress that a ceasefire is the only real way to systematically address the situation and avert the risk of famine in the enclave. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, according to health authorities in Hamas-run Gaza.
  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that he will order an Israel Defense Forces invasion of the southern Gaza city of Rafah "with or without" a deal. The city is Hamas' last stronghold in the enclave and where more than 1 million displaced Palestinians are sheltering.

Biden wants to do everything possible to avoid that and reach a deal, which he believes would put an Israeli military operation into Rafah on hold — if not permanently take it off the table, U.S. officials say.

The big picture: The consequences for Biden stretch far beyond Gaza.

  • The White House believes a ceasefire as part of the hostage deal will extinguish other fires in the region, including attacks by Yemen's Houthi rebels against ships in the Red Sea, according to U.S. officials.
  • Senior Biden aides say the deal could also pull Israel and Hezbollah back from the brink of war on the Israel-Lebanon border where tensions have been slowly escalating over the past six months.

A temporary ceasefire could also turn into a permanent one that could allow the Biden administration to return to negotiations for a consequential mega-deal with Saudi Arabia that the U.S. was working on before Oct. 7.

  • U.S officials say the White House wants to leverage the possibility of a historic peace agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia as part of that deal to get Netanyahu to agree to a path for a Palestinian state.
  • It would be a major win for Biden ahead of the November presidential elections.

In the U.S., Biden's support of Israel risks costing the president votes from young progressive voters.

  • Biden's team hopes a ceasefire could also help to lower the temperature around protests on U.S. college campuses that are critical of Biden's policy on Israel.
  • It could also help Biden attempt to rebuild his tarnished image among Arab voters in the key swing state of Michigan.

State of play: On Sunday, Biden spoke on the phone with Netanyahu about the latest proposal from Israel, which includes a willingness to discuss the "restoration of sustainable calm" in Gaza after an initial release of hostages on humanitarian grounds.

  • On Monday, Biden talked with the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, the two mediators between Israel and Hamas, and asked them to press Hamas to close the deal.

What to watch: Hamas is expected to give a response to Egyptian mediators as early as Wednesday, Israeli officials say.

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