May 31, 2024 - World

Biden speech renews pressure on Hamas to reach Gaza hostage-ceasefire deal with Israel

Palestinians flee with their belongings as smoke rises in the background, in the area of Tel al-Sultan in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 30, 2024

Palestinians flee with their belongings as smoke rises in the background in the area of Tel al-Sultan in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on May 30, 2024. Photo: Eyad Baba/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden's boldest attempt yet to push for a hostage deal and an end to the war in Gaza now hinges on whether Hamas leaders will return to negotiations and reach a deal.

Why it matters: Israeli and U.S. officials said the latest Israeli proposal Biden presented in a speech on Friday has likely exhausted Israel's room for compromise and flexibility.

  • U.S. officials said Biden's speech was intended to mobilize international support for the proposal and increase pressure on Hamas to take the deal.
  • For Biden, that's the most feasible path to unlock his exit strategy from the war.
  • If Hamas turns down the proposal, a ceasefire would be off the table and the crisis in Gaza would likely escalate, the officials said.

Driving the news: Hamas, which in recent days said it won't resume negotiations if Israel doesn't first stop the war, issued a statement stressing it "looks positively" at Biden's speech.

  • "We are ready to deal positively and constructively with any proposal based on a permanent ceasefire, complete withdrawal from the Gaza Strip, reconstruction, the return of the displaced to all their places of residence, and the completion of a serious prisoner exchange deal if the occupation declares its explicit commitment to that," the statement said.

What happens next depends on whether Hamas' political leaders, who are based in Doha and received the Israeli proposal on Thursday from Qatari mediators, are willing to negotiate details of the proposed deal without a ceasefire in place.

  • A senior U.S. official said there is a difference between what Hamas said publicly regrading its conditions for resuming negotiations and what it said in private to Qatari mediators.

"This deal does stop the war. That's what Hamas wants. They can take the deal. Alternatively, if its leaders choose to live deep underground, holding innocent hostages, including women, as the war goes on and people of Gaza suffer, that would be their choice," the official said.

  • The official told Axios Biden and his team believe the four-and-a-half page proposal the president laid out in his speech is "nearly identical" to the proposal Hamas presented three weeks ago, with small gaps remaining.

The other side: Two weeks ago, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected a new proposal drafted by Israeli negotiators that was presented to the Israeli war cabinet and accused them of not knowing how to negotiate.

  • A few days later, under pressure from Israel's military and intelligence chiefs and the other members of the war cabinet, Netanyahu found himself isolated and endorsed the proposal.

Between the lines: Biden on Friday presented Israel's proposal, but his speech was also directed at Netanyahu and the Israeli public.

  • Ultranationalist ministers in Netanyahu's government oppose the proposed deal and have threatened to leave the coalition, which would lead to its collapse and put the prime minister's political future in jeopardy.
  • "I have urged the leadership in Israel to stand behind this deal despite any political pressure," Biden said.
  • Netanyahu didn't welcome Biden's speech but also didn't attack it. A statement from his office confirmed the details of the proposal Biden presented and claimed it would allow Israel to achieve its war objectives, including the destruction of Hamas' military and governmental capabilities.

What they're saying: White House officials were satisfied with the reaction the speech received among U.S. allies and especially about the reactions from Hamas and Israel.

  • A White House official said the feeling among Biden's aides was that the speech managed to thread the needle and deliver the message they wanted.
  • Nevertheless, the official admitted the speech was — and still is — a risky move because its effect depends on whether it can actually move the parties toward negotiations and a deal.

What to watch: The Biden administration has limited direct influence on Hamas and its main ability to exert pressure on the group is through Qatar, which is hosting Hamas' leaders in Doha and playing a key role in mediating the deal.

  • A senior Israeli official told Axios that after Biden's speech, Qatar needs to deliver Hamas. "We hope the Qataris understand that now is money time and that they need to explain to Hamas what could happen if this falls apart," the official said.
  • White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan, CIA director Bill Burns and Biden's top Middle East adviser Brett McGurk have been working the phones over the last two days, demanding that Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani and other Qatari officials put more pressure on Hamas to take the deal, according to a U.S. official and two other sources with knowledge of the talks.
  • "It's fair to say that in the talks with the Qatari prime minister and with others there's a recognition that what is now in front of everybody is basically the terms by which Hamas was prepared to move forward," the U.S. official said.
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