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Blinken ramps up pressure on Hamas amid doubts about cease-fire deal

1 week ago 18

TEL AVIV — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday urged world leaders to pressure Hamas to accept a cease-fire deal, saying the latest proposal represents the best opportunity to secure the release of all remaining hostages in Gaza, end the war and “alleviate the terrible suffering of Palestinians.”

“My message to governments throughout the region, to people throughout the region: If you want a cease-fire, press Hamas to say yes,” Blinken told reporters in Cairo as he prepared to board a plane to Israel.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken welcomed Hamas's positive response to a cease-fire deal, but said Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar's decision is what counts. (Video: The Washington Post)

The top U.S. diplomat said Hamas is the only obstacle to securing an agreement, despite concerns that both the militant group and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may find ways to scuttle the three-part proposal first made public by President Biden on May 31.

The stakes for Blinken’s latest trip to the Middle East are high as the war in Gaza drags down Biden’s poll numbers and the president prepares for his first debate against his expected Republican opponent, former president Donald Trump, in a few weeks.

Biden’s public pitch for the deal amounted to his biggest investment in the fate of the conflict since it began eight months ago. But if his team is unable to close the deal, it could fuel further criticisms of his leadership.

The Gaza war has divided the Democratic Party and hurt Biden among young voters and Arab Americans in key swing states. Republicans have cast the conflict as a black-and-white battle of good vs. evil.

Since Biden announced the deal’s provisions, the administration has moved across the globe to garner backing for it, producing statements of support from the European Union, the Group of Seven and the 16 other countries whose citizens are among the hostages who remain captive in Gaza after Hamas militants led a bloody attack into Israel on Oct 7.

On Monday, as Blinken began his meetings in Israel, the United Nations Security Council adopted, 14-0, a U.S.-sponsored resolution supporting the plan. Russia abstained. The vote was a rare success for the United States in the international body, where criticism has grown over what is seen by many as U.S. support for the war and Israeli intransigence.

In a statement, Hamas welcomed the U.N. measure and said it was ready “to enter into indirect negotiations” on its implementation. It would begin with a six-week cease-fire that includes the withdrawal of Israeli troops from heavily populated areas of Gaza; the freeing of all women, elderly people and children held hostage in return for Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails; the return of displaced Palestinians to their homes throughout Gaza; and a surge in humanitarian aid to the starving enclave.

The cease-fire would continue indefinitely beyond six weeks as long as the two sides were negotiating in good faith over a second phase, which would include a permanent cease-fire, complete Israeli military withdrawal from Gaza and the release of all remaining living hostages. A third phase includes Gaza reconstruction and steps toward an independent Palestinian state composed of Gaza and the West Bank.

Blinken’s remarks followed a meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi in Cairo, his first stop on a four-country swing through the Middle East aimed at boosting support for the proposed deal and brokering agreements on how Gaza will be governed once the fighting stops.

In a meeting with Netanyahu later Monday, he reinforced the deal’s benefits, including that it could lead to de-escalation in Israel’s tit-for-tat violence with Hezbollah, a militant group and political party in Lebanon, and ease tensions with other Arab neighbors.

“He reiterated that the proposal on the table would unlock the possibility of calm along Israel’s northern border and further integration with countries in the region,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

Blinken’s efforts are complicated by Israel’s raid Saturday that freed four hostages but killed more than 200 Palestinians, drawing an angry response from countries around the world and from Hamas. Another wrinkle was the decision Sunday by Israeli minister Benny Gantz to quit the government over what he said was Netanyahu’s failure to create a long-term strategy for Gaza.

U.S. officials say Gantz, a centrist member of Israel’s war cabinet, had a moderating impact on Netanyahu, whose coalition represents the most far-right government in Israel’s history. With the resignation of Gantz and war cabinet observer Gadi Eisenkot, far-right members of Netanyahu’s coalition who oppose the cease-fire deal are now jockeying for more influence.

The central sticking point in the negotiations is Hamas’s desire for a permanent cease-fire and Israel’s vow to continue fighting to achieve total military victory, a goal U.S. officials say is unattainable.

Biden sought to break though that impasse in his late May speech that detailed the proposed three-part deal to bring about a “permanent end to the war.” U.S. officials hoped that by making its terms public and representing it as virtually indistinguishable from proposals already agreed upon by both sides, it could prevent Hamas and Israel from backing out.

But the strategy hasn’t paid off yet. Netanyahu responded to Biden’s speech by insisting that Israel won’t agree to a permanent cease-fire without the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capacity. Hamas, meanwhile, is pushing for more guarantees that Israel will abide by any agreement over a permanent cease-fire, according to four officials who spoke to The Washington Post on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive discussions.

The key U.S. official seeking to bridge this gap is CIA Director William J. Burns.

In discussions with Qatari and Egyptian officials last week, Burns instructed them to emphasize to Hamas political leader Ismail Haniyeh that international mediators would guarantee that negotiations over a permanent cease-fire would begin as soon as the third week of the deal’s first phase, officials said. Burns also asked that Egypt and Qatar underscore that the terms of a permanent cease-fire would be settled by the fifth week.

But those assurances were refused by Haniyeh, who insisted that Hamas would accept the deal only if Israel were to provide a written guarantee. Hamas wants the promise in writing in light of Netanyahu’s public remarks ruling out a permanent cease-fire, but few diplomats believe the Israeli leader would be willing to accept such a request.

Frustrated by Hamas’s demand, U.S. officials have urged Qatar and Egypt to ramp up pressure on the militants to accept the current proposal. As a result, Qatari and Egyptian officials told Haniyeh that he and other Hamas officials would be asked to leave Qatar if a deal is not reached, officials said.

But while Blinken has said repeatedly that the “ball is in Hamas’s court,” a senior diplomat familiar with the negotiations said Hamas’s “concerns are based on comments by Israel” that it intends to continue military operations until Hamas is completely defeated and dismantled — something U.S. officials do not believe is possible.

Instead, Biden and his senior aides have said that after months of brutal Israeli attacks, Hamas is no longer capable of launching another October-style assault and that the only sure way to prevent its reestablishment as a power inside the enclave is to quickly provide aid and stability for Gazans, along with a new political horizon for a sovereign state at peace with Israel.

The diplomat, speaking on the condition of anonymity about the closed-door negotiations, suggested that Blinken’s visit was as much to pressure the Israeli government to tone down its remarks and publicly and unequivocally back the agreement as to pressure Hamas to formally accept it.

Officials also confirmed a report by NBC News that the United States had raised with its mediating partners the possibility of a separate U.S. deal with Hamas for release of the five living U.S. hostages and the remains of three others believed to be dead. But the idea was not communicated to Hamas, the diplomat said, and “it’s not like this was something concrete.” Rather, he said, it arose amid growing frustration with both sides over the delay.

Inside the U.S. government, there are mixed assessments about the prospects for an agreement. Pessimists point out that the ultimate decision comes down to Hamas leader Yehiya Sinwar, who is believed to be in Gaza’s vast tunnel network. Some U.S. officials say Sinwar won’t agree to a deal because it would ultimately lead to the disbandment of Hamas. The militant leader sees the war as achieving his goal of further isolating Israel on the world stage, and he may prefer to die a martyr’s death, U.S. officials argue.

Optimists say Israel’s raid to free four hostages showed that the Jewish state can liberate hostages with or without negotiations. They point out that Sinwar can be viewed as a hero for securing a deal that sees the release of hundreds of Palestinians in Israeli prisons, another aspect of the current deal on offer. U.S. officials feeling bullish about a deal believe that if Hamas responds with a proposal with only minor modifications, the Israelis will accept it.

Blinken offered a hopeful assessment Monday.

“Our Egyptian counterparts were in communication with Hamas as recently as a few hours ago,” Blinken told reporters after leaving his meeting with Sisi. “Egypt, the United States, other countries, believe that we should be able to get to ‘yes.’”

After stops in Egypt and Israel, Blinken will visit Jordan and Qatar. “This is a critical moment because we see the possibility, we see the prospect of an immediate cease-fire,” Blinken said.

DeYoung reported from Washington.

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