Clocks Are Ticking on a Cease-Fire Deal

By | Mar 04, 2024
JPP 2.4.24

Jewish politics and power

Jewish Politics & Power is published every other week. Sign up for our newsletter for updates.

1. Calling a Cease-Fire a Cease-Fire

For months—and yes, this war has been going on for five months already—the Biden administration went to great lengths to prove to the world it was not forcing Israel into a cease-fire. The creative term “humanitarian pause” was used to describe the temporary halt in fighting negotiated by the United States in November which led to the release of 70 Israeli hostages.

Was it a cease-fire? Sure. But the term was seen as too explosive, since it implied the end of fighting, not to mention the fact that until then it had been all but owned by far-left protesters chanting “Cease-fire now!” while in fact calling for a unilateral Israeli cessation of military activities with no reciprocal move by Hamas.

But that was back in November, when America tiptoed around the issue of Israel’s Gaza incursion and when talk about the need to chart a path to ending the war was only hinted at in closed-door discussions between U.S. and Israeli officials.

Now, with reportedly 30,000 Palestinian casualties, most of them civilian women and children, and with horrific scenes of Gaza residents being trampled, run over and shot to death while trying to get food from aid convoys, the Biden administration is saying it out loud: The time has come to stop. At least temporarily.

“There must be an immediate cease-fire for at least the next six weeks, which is what is currently on the table,” Vice President Kamala Harris said on Sunday, making the strongest call to date by the administration for an immediate cessation of military actions in Gaza. “Hamas claims it wants a cease-fire. Well, there is a deal on the table. And as we have said, Hamas needs to agree to that deal.”

The Biden administration is still putting the onus on Hamas. A senior administration official briefing reporters on Friday made clear that “We have it; the framework is there. The Israelis have basically signed on to the elements of the arrangement. And right now, the ball is in the court of Hamas.”

Israel, according to the White House, is on the right side of this dispute. It has expressed its agreement to a deal that will include, in its first phase, a six-week cease-fire during which all at-risk Israeli hostages, including children, women, the elderly and those wounded, will be released and massive humanitarian aid will enter the Gaza Strip. The bad guys in this story are Hamas leaders who are mounting obstacles and demands instead of signing on to the deal.

Still, there’s no way of avoiding the change of tone coming from Washington. Biden wants a cease-fire and he wants it now. That’s what his administration’s efforts are focused on, and there is no plan B; Israel needs to pursue this cease-fire not only in order to get its hostages home after more than 150 days in captivity but also to stay on Biden’s good side. It may also mean having to compromise a little more than the Netanyahu government would like to do.

2. So Many Clocks Ticking

Biden’s call for a cease-fire comes with a new sense of urgency.

Some of it is due to the obvious facts on the ground. Life in Gaza has become unbearable, the death toll is rising, and with no sign of Israel reaching its military goals, loosely defined as defeating Hamas and releasing the hostages, there is no reason to believe Israel will decide to end the campaign anytime soon.

Adding to the urgency is the concern that without an immediate cease-fire, Israel will proceed with its plan to attack the southern city of Rafah, which is now home to more than a million refugees displaced from other parts of the Gaza Strip. Biden has warned Israel against taking such action without first ensuring there’s a plan in place to secure the safety of these civilians, but the administration fears that without a cease-fire, Netanyahu will go ahead regardless of the consequences.

Another looming deadline is the holy month of Ramadan, beginning March 10. Entering the month-long Muslim observance while a war is still being waged will make it much harder for America to maintain its goal of containing the war to Gaza and avoiding a spillover to the West Bank, Jerusalem and the Lebanon border.

And there’s a political clock ticking as well. With every day that passes, Joe Biden is losing potential votes over the Gaza war. How great would it be for the president to take the stage Thursday for his State of the Union address and announce that a cease-fire has been reached? And how tough would it be for him to face another public benchmark as the leader who cannot stop the Middle East from spiraling into chaos? 

3. Understanding Michigan

The “uncommitted” campaign led by Arab-American and progressive activists in Michigan was a runaway success. Organizers aimed for a goal of 10,000 voters in the Democratic primary last week who would choose “uncommitted” instead of Biden, hoping to send the president a message that without changing his pro-Israel policy on Gaza he might lose the election. After the votes were counted, it turned out that more than 100,000 Dems in Michigan had joined the call, making their message reach headlines in national media outlets and moving concerns of Arab-American voters to the front burner. 

How alarmed should Biden be about this massive protest vote? First, let’s look at the numbers. Biden won Michigan by 150,000 votes in 2020. Even if we assume all the 100,000 “uncommitted” will refuse to show up on election day, or even vote Trump, Biden should be fine. (It’s also worth noting that this year’s 13.2 percent of uncommitted votes isn’t so much greater than the 11 percent of Democratic voters who picked uncommitted over incumbent Barack Obama in 2012.)

But it goes beyond the numbers. This significant group of displeased voters is coming directly from Biden’s base. If he needs to spend time, money and energy courting Arab-American voters, who should have been safe votes, he’s spending less time, money and energy on other vulnerable constituencies.

The Biden campaign believes that by November, assuming the war ends and American-led recovery efforts and post-war diplomacy bear fruit, voters will come around and see Biden as the better choice even for those who care about the Palestinian cause. This may be true. But it could just as likely be the case that voters who are so angry at Biden now will have a hard time casting a vote for him in November, even if the situation on the ground improves and even if he leads a good-faith effort to advance a two-state solution.

4. Can Benny Gantz Cash in on Some Biden Currency?

If you believe public opinion polls three years before elections are scheduled, Benny Gantz will be Israel’s next prime minister, defeating Netanyahu by a huge margin. He’s also a current member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, which might explain why the sitting prime minister threw a fit when he learned of Gantz’s plan to visit Washington this week for meetings with Vice President Harris and other administration officials as well as members of Congress.

It’s not just about the meetings, it is all about the perception.

Netanyahu would have loved to get a White House invitation. In fact, he’d probably even settle for just having his regular phone calls with Biden conducted in a more friendly tone. And now, Bibi’s rival is in Washington being welcomed to the White House and treated like a leader.

In the world of Israeli politics, this means a lot. Netanyahu built much of his brand on presenting himself as Israel’s ultimate statesman. During the 2019 elections, his campaign posted huge signs of Bibi shaking hands with then-president Trump (there was one with Putin, too—before the Ukraine war) claiming that he is the only leader in Israel who is respected on the world stage.

Now Gantz, fueled by the Biden administration’s disdain for Netanyahu, is having his moment. A meeting with the vice president may not be sufficient for a full building-sized campaign poster, but it does send a message to voters: Gantz made it to the White House, Netanyahu didn’t.

5. State of the Union for Hostage Families

There are some 15 families of hostages and former hostages who hold American citizenship. Many of them have spent much of these excruciating five months traveling back and forth to Washington, meeting with officials, knocking on congressional doors. On Thursday, their representatives will head to Capitol Hill again, this time to attend President Biden’s State of the Union speech. Each will be hosted by a member of Congress from their state.

It’s a symbolic but powerful gesture. Being present at the State of the Union means that someone cares about their cause. It also means that their loved ones will remain in the hearts and minds of lawmakers and of the American public until they return home.


Credit: Gage Skidmore (CC BY-SA 2.0) / U.S. Secretary of Defense (CC BY 2.0) 

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.