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Palestinians make their way, as they inspect the damage after Israeli forces withdrew from Jabalia refugee camp, following a raid, in the northern Gaza Strip, May 31, 2024. Image Credit: REUTERS

Jerusalem: Two days after US President Joe Biden laid out what he called an Israeli proposal to end its war on Hamas, it’s clear that key aspects of the deal have not, in fact, been embraced by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As the war in Gaza approaches its eighth month, the impasse between Israel and Hamas over exchanging hostages for prisoners remains unchanged: Israel will pause fighting but not end it as long as Hamas’s governing and military structures remain intact, while Hamas will free hostages only if it’s guaranteed a permanent ceasefire.

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Biden said Israel has battered Hamas enough to prevent it from carrying out another attack like the one on October 7, when it killed some 1,200 Israelis and took 250 hostages, and that the time has come to end the war, free the hostages and start to rebuild the badly-destroyed Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu’s government says preventing another October 7 — the worst massacre in the country’s history — is the wrong criterion. Its position remains that Hamas, considered a terrorist group by the US and European Union, must be deprived of any aggressive capacity and that Israel won’t stop until that’s been achieved.

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Biden on Friday laid out a three-phase plan that he said was Israel’s: a six-week truce involving hostage/prisoner exchanges and increased aid, followed by a focus on a permanent cease-fire and the removal of Israeli forces from Gaza, and, finally, major reconstruction.

Hamas said it welcomed any proposal “based on a permanent ceasefire” as well as “a total withdrawal from the Gaza Strip.”

Israeli officials say the plan they’ve agreed to doesn’t include a permanent ceasefire; Netanyahu issued two statements over the weekend contradicting the US leader.

In the first statement, Netanyahu said he’d authorised his negotiators to present a proposal aimed at returning the 100-plus hostages remaining in Gaza, but which “would also enable Israel to continue the war until all its objectives are achieved, including the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities.”

Clothes hang on the balcony of a school housing internally displaced Gazans in the Jabalia refugee camp in the northern Gaza on June 1, 2024. Image Credit: AFP

More pointed statement

The second statement was more pointed: “Israel’s conditions for ending the war have not changed: the destruction of Hamas’s military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat.”

The idea that Israel would agree to a permanent ceasefire before those conditions are fulfilled “is a non-starter,” the statement added.

White House officials told reporters on Saturday that Netanyahu’s comments were related to domestic politics and part of an effort to appease his right-wing flank.

But that appears to have been wishful thinking from officials with their own political difficulties “- left-leaning and young Democrats who may not vote for Biden in November because of the Gaza war.

Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners indeed reject what Biden put forth in Israel’s name. As Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said on Saturday night, “I just spoke to the prime minister and made clear to him that we will have no part in a government that agrees to the proposed outline and ends the war without destroying Hamas.”

But concerns go beyond the far right. Benny Gantz, a centrist member of Israel’s war cabinet, stopped short of welcoming the Biden speech, saying merely that it was time “to formulate the next steps.”

There is, nonetheless, growing pressure in Israel for a deal that frees the hostages, even at the cost of ending the war. Opposition leader Yair Lapid endorsed Biden’s speech, as did President Isaac Herzog, and weekly demonstrations within Israel advocating for war’s end have grown to more than 100,000. Leaks from within Israel’s negotiating team make clear that some members would accept an end to combat in exchange for freedom of all hostages.

Members of Israel’s security establishment — including former generals who run think tanks — are also ready for that. They say that with more than 36,000 Gazans dead, according to Hamas estimates, and no sign of the capture of top Hamas leaders, Israel should focus on repairing its fraying relationship with Washington and the Arab world rather than keep the fighting going.

Some have taken to the airwaves to endorse Biden’s argument that “indefinite war in pursuit of an unidentified notion of ‘total victory’ will only bog down Israel in Gaza, draining the economic, military and human resources, and furthering Israel’s isolation in the world.”

Biden’s speech was clearly aimed at bolstering that perspective and pushing Netanyahu into that camp. As of Sunday, it was far from clear that it was working.