June 3, 2024

IntelBrief: U.S. Presses to End the War in Gaza

AP Photo/Jehad Alshrafi, File

Bottom Line Up Front

  • President Biden’s May 31 presentation of a “comprehensive” plan to end the Gaza war seeks to pressure hardliners in Israel and within Hamas to relinquish their maximum demands.
  • The three-phase plan, if fully implemented, seems to satisfy Hamas’ demand for a permanent end to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) offensive in Gaza.
  • Although omitted from the public presentation, the roadmap appears to provide for the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority (PA) to return to governing Gaza.
  • The Biden statement implied a significant role of the U.S. and Arab states in holding all parties to their commitments and reconstructing and securing Gaza over the long term.

On May 31, in a formal statement at the White House, U.S. President Joseph Biden outlined what he termed an Israeli proposal for a three-phased roadmap toward a permanent end of hostilities in the war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Appearing to pressure both Israeli and Hamas leaders to back the roadmap fully, the Biden statement stressed that the plan, if fully agreed and implemented, meets the core demands of both sides and should be accepted. The proposal appeared to reflect the results of recent intensive negotiations between the United States, Qatar, and Egypt, on new initiatives to break the logjams that have blocked Israel-Hamas agreement on another temporary ceasefire and further hostage releases. The U.S. and some Arab officials have attributed the impasse mostly to Hamas’ demand for a complete end to Israel’s offensive in Gaza as a condition for freeing remaining Israeli hostages.

For Israel, the plan provides not only for the return of all Israeli hostages, alive as well as the remains of those deceased, in return for the release of many hundreds of Palestinians held by Israel, but also the end of Hamas rule in Gaza and its terrorist threat to Israelis. U.S. officials, who elaborated on the presidential statement in background briefings, stressed that security arrangements put in place under the plan would prevent Gaza from serving as a base for attacks such as the October 7 Hamas incursion into Israel. And, all Israeli security requirements would be met, including demands for an end to all rocket attacks from Gaza into Israel.

Anticipating Israeli hardliners will criticize the plan as preventing the IDF from completely eliminating Hamas’ military wing in Gaza, U.S. officials added that Israeli forces would still be able to pursue Hamas leaders responsible for the October 7 attack, including Yahya Sinwar and Mohammad Deif, believed hiding in Hamas-built tunnels in southern Gaza. U.S. officials stated on background: “…the President also, of course, emphasized that Israel always retains the right, as does any sovereign country, to act against threats against its security. And obviously, that would continue.” Emphasizing the degree to which the plan satisfies Israel’s security needs, President Biden implied in his statement that Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu should continue backing the plan even if right-wing leaders threaten to abandon his governing coalition.

The Biden statement also held out hope for Israel to achieve additional goals beyond ending Hamas rule in Gaza. He noted the roadmap would pave the way for an agreement to de-escalate hostilities with Lebanese Hezbollah on the northern border, which would allow nearly 80,000 Israelis to return to their towns and villages. According to the president, the roadmap would also enable Israel to become more integrated regionally, including through a normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia. Along with greater integration, Israel and moderate Arab states would be better positioned to defend against threats from Iran and its “Axis of Resistance.” U.S.-Israeli-Arab cooperation already demonstrated its potential by intercepting 99 percent of the 330 armed drones and cruise and ballistic missiles launched by Iran against Israel in early April.

The roadmap assigns no role for Hamas or any of its leaders in the future governance of the Gaza Strip, reflecting U.S. intelligence assessments that the IDF has essentially defeated Hamas’ military force and neutralized the influence of its political wing on the Gaza population. However, some analysts would dispute this assessment. Israeli critics of the plan assess that a cessation of hostilities and eventual Israeli withdrawal from Gaza offers Hamas leaders the prospects of surviving the Israeli offensive, a result that the group could present as a victory. A settlement along the lines of the Biden roadmap would also enable Hamas to claim that it has elevated the continued Israeli occupation to an urgent global issue. Experts note that a growing number of European countries have already been offering recognition to an independent Palestinian state. Israeli hardliners and other critics of the plan will argue that Hamas fighters and activists might be able to regroup once Israeli military pressure eases, and can operate as “spoilers” of future Palestinian efforts to govern the territory.

Addressing future governance in Gaza, which U.S. officials say is the only viable pathway to prevent Hamas from regrouping, President Biden’s statement implied, but did not specify, that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would return to governing Gaza, as it did prior to 2007. However, in a background briefing for journalists the day after the Biden statement, unnamed senior U.S. officials stated: “We have to have a Gaza that — with Hamas no longer in power, with Hamas no longer able to threaten Israel. We have to work to reform the PA and the West Bank, which is ongoing, and ultimately having an interim administration in Gaza that can help with stabilization and a pathway forward there. So that is all kind of in train.”

In recent months, U.S. officials and other commentators have suggested that Arab and other multinational forces might deploy to Gaza to protect whatever Palestinian governance structure is established from Hamas insurgents. The Biden statement suggested the U.S. will be extensively involved as a guarantor of compliance with the roadmap, but he did not address whether any U.S. forces would be deployed as part of a multilateral security force for post-war Gaza.

The broader Palestinian population in Gaza stands to benefit significantly from the roadmap. The plan outlines, in the six weeks of Phase One, a withdrawal of the IDF from populated areas in Gaza, the ability of Gaza civilians to return to their homes in the enclave, and a surge of humanitarian aid there. A full IDF withdrawal would take place in Phase Two of the plan, if negotiations – which President Biden asserted would be difficult – permit movement to that next phase. President Biden and other U.S. officials stated Phase Three of the plan envisions a major three- to five-year reconstruction program for Gaza that would be fully backed by the United States, European, and Arab partners, particularly wealthy Gulf states such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), and Qatar. On background, U.S. officials said that, over the longer term, the plan would create the conditions for a future of freedom and self-determination for the Palestinian people. Yet, furthering the prospects for a future Palestinian state is sure to alarm Israeli hardliners who have called a Palestinian state a “reward” for the October 7 act of Hamas terrorism.

Still, there is no certainty the plan will lead to a resolution of the war in Gaza. Appearing to put the onus on Hamas leaders to accept the roadmap, U.S. officials noted the plan is “nearly identical” to Hamas’s own proposals of only a few weeks ago. They stated: “So if 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 the people of Gaza suffer, that would be their choice.  And I think the onus very much is on those leaders.”

Hamas leaders communicated a tentative and vaguely positive response to President Biden’s statement. However, Hamas leaders might believe they may be able to hold out for better terms as President Biden, in the midst of a difficult battle for re-election, puts increasing pressure on Prime Minister Netanyahu to halt the IDF offensive on the city of Rafah and more broadly, to end the war. For his part, Netanyahu might try to achieve modifications to the roadmap that would permit the IDF greater freedom of action to continue to conduct security operations against Hamas in Gaza indefinitely. He and other Israeli leaders might also try to derail U.S. and Arab efforts to reinstall PA authority in Gaza, viewing PA rule there as strengthening efforts to establish an independent Palestinian state, which Netanyahu and his governing coalition oppose. Despite objections on both sides, President Biden appeared to suggest the plan offers the last, best, and perhaps only hope to end the Gaza conflict.