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Opinion | A ceasefire agreement for Gaza seems within reach
Opinion | A ceasefire agreement for Gaza seems within reach

After months of torturous negotiations, the Biden administration appears to be close to a ceasefire that would end heavy fighting in Gaza, release some Israeli hostages and increase humanitarian aid to desperate Palestinian civilians.

A senior U.S. official told me on Wednesday that “the framework has been agreed” and the parties are now “negotiating the details of its implementation.” To negotiate the deal, Middle East adviser Brett McGurk and CIA Director William J. Burns have been shuttling between the region’s capitals since November.

Officials point out that while a framework is in place, a final pact is unlikely to be imminent. The details are complex and will take time to work out.

If a final agreement is reached, it would be a clear endorsement of President Biden’s patient diplomacy, which has sought to balance America’s role as a peacemaker in the Middle East with strong military support for Israel. It would also be a potential farewell moment for the president, giving him the chance to gracefully step down from his pursuit of a second term or, conversely, redouble his efforts.

Like most peace deals, this one reflects exhaustion on both sides. After nine months of war, Israel wants to rest its troops and prepare for possible conflict with Iran and its proxies. Hamas, which is in “poor shape” in its underground hideout, according to a US official, is said to be low on ammunition and supplies, and faces growing pressure from abused Palestinian civilians who are increasingly demanding a ceasefire.

The agreement, outlined by U.S. officials on Wednesday, calls for a three-stage solution to the conflict. First, there will be a six-week ceasefire during which Hamas will release 33 Israeli hostages, including all female prisoners, all men over 50 and all the injured. Israel will release hundreds of Palestinians from its prisons and withdraw its troops from densely populated areas on Gaza’s eastern border. Humanitarian aid will arrive, hospitals will be repaired and work will begin to clear rubble.

The stumbling block was moving to an interim phase in which Hamas would release the male soldiers remaining as hostages and both sides would agree to a “permanent cessation of hostilities” with “a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.” Each side feared the other might use the initial pause to rearm and return to fighting. And Israel wanted to make sure it achieved its main goal of preventing Hamas from ruling Gaza again.

The breakthrough came recently, when Hamas backed away from its demand for a written guarantee of a permanent end to the fighting. Instead, it accepted the reassuring wording of a UN Security Council resolution passed last month that confirmed the US-brokered agreement. Here is the key passage: “If negotiations for phase one take longer than six weeks, the ceasefire will continue for as long as negotiations last,” the UN resolution says. American, Qatari and Egyptian mediators will “work to ensure that negotiations continue until all agreements are reached and phase two can begin.”

Israel and Hamas have both signaled they agree to a plan for a “transitional government” that would begin with Phase 2, in which neither Hamas nor Israel would govern Gaza. Security would be provided by a force trained by the United States and backed by moderate Arab allies drawn from a core group of about 2,500 Palestinian Authority supporters in Gaza who have already been vetted by Israel. Hamas has told mediators it is “ready to hand over authority to the transitional government,” a U.S. official said.

As security in the post-war Gaza Strip increases, the peace plan envisages a third phase, which the UN resolution describes as a “multi-year reconstruction plan”.

As U.S. mediators got closer to finalizing that deal, they received crucial help from their diplomatic partners Qatar and Egypt. To put pressure on Hamas, Qatar told the group’s representatives that they could not stay in Doha if they rejected the deal. Egypt provided last-minute help by accepting an innovative U.S. proposal to block any new tunnels along the Egypt-Gaza border after Israeli troops withdrew.

Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who has emerged as an important contact in the negotiations, made a statement On Wednesday, it was noted that “progress … had been made with Egypt” toward a plan “that will end smuggling attempts and cut off Hamas from potential supplies.”

If the ceasefire agreement is reached, it would pave the way for two other major changes in the Middle East landscape – affecting Lebanon and Saudi Arabia – and could reduce the risk of a wider war.

Lebanon has signaled that after a ceasefire in Gaza it would agree to a package that would see Hezbollah troops withdraw from the border north to near the Litani River. The deal would also include Israeli agreement to border changes long demanded by Hezbollah, as well as other confidence-building measures to end deadly rocket fire between the two sides.

The Lebanon framework was negotiated by Amos Hochstein, a member of national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s staff. Rather than speaking directly to Hezbollah, the Iran-backed militia that controls Beirut, Hochstein met with Nabih Berri, the Shiite speaker of Lebanon’s parliament and a key Hezbollah ally.

A final potential benefit of a Gaza ceasefire is that Saudi Arabia has signaled it is willing to “move forward with normalization of relations with Israel,” according to a U.S. official. Riyadh wants a path to a Palestinian state as part of such an agreement, but that is too much to ask of a traumatized Israel at the moment. Final normalization will take time and diplomatic skill.

The Gaza war was a nightmare for all parties involved – from the horrific terrorist attack by Hamas on October 7 to a harrowing Israeli retaliation campaign that killed tens of thousands of Palestinians. The war was also a severe test for Biden, who sought to be Israel’s staunch ally even as he clashed with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over the war’s civilian casualties.

“Every war must end,” strategist Fred Iklé wrote of Vietnam. Gaza is not over yet. But as a White House official put it late Wednesday, “We’re keeping our fingers crossed.”

By Everly