Biden administration clings to cease-fire talks, with no Plan B

Virtually all of the Biden administration’s hopes and plans to end the war in Gaza — and move toward a two-state solution for Israel and the Palestinian territories — depend on first reaching a deal for a temporary cease-fire and the release of Israeli hostages. But after months of negotiations and sporadic assurances of progress, signs of optimism this week that an agreement was near have begun to fade.

A vague statement released by Hamas on Thursday in response to a new U.S.-backed Israeli proposal again left unclear to U.S., Qatari and Egyptian mediators how seriously to take anything that doesn’t come from Yehiya Sinwar, the group’s military chief who’s said to be hiding underground in southern Gaza.

The U.S. strategy all along has just been to get the fighting to stop, however briefly, with the hope that one cease-fire could lead to another, with more hostage releases, more humanitarian aid, and the introduction of a plan to police and reconstruct a postwar Gaza under the administration of the Palestinian Authority — all with buy-in from Arab neighbors.

The promise of Arab involvement, which the administration has been actively negotiating for months, is seen as an inducement to Israel to overcome its refusal — at least under the coalition government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — to consider a separate Palestinian state. Central to the arrangement is an agreement by Saudi Arabia to normalize relations with Israel, which the United States would then reward with a new bilateral U.S.-Saudi security partnership.

But none of it is likely to happen without an initial cease-fire deal, according to U.S. and Arab officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity about the sensitive diplomacy. Amid mounting anxiety, there is no fallback plan — beyond trying again and again — if this negotiating round fails.

While there is no official timetable for reaching an agreement, there are a number of ticking clocks.

Most immediate is the threat of an imminent Iranian strike in retaliation for Israel’s April 1 bombing of its consulate in Damascus, which killed at least seven Iranian officials and six Syrian civilians. Tehran has threatened to respond with attacks on Israeli and U.S. installations, which could start a cycle of regional escalation and put a damper on any hopes of a cease-fire.

Then there’s the concern over the condition of the hostages taken by Hamas on Oct. 7, 95 of whom are still believed to be alive inside Gaza. No proof of life has been offered during nearly 200 days of captivity. The latest cease-fire proposal calls for the release of women, children, the elderly and the injured — numbering about 40 — in exchange for a much larger number of Palestinian prisoners held in Israel. This would exclude Israeli soldiers and men held by Hamas.

In his Thursday statement, Basem Naim, a member of the Hamas political bureau, hinted that 40 live hostages may not be available for release. “Part of the negotiations,” he said, “is to have enough time and safety to collect … more precise data about the captured Israelis” being held “in different places by different groups.” Some, he said, may be “under the rubble” caused by Israeli bombing.

Ever since negotiations that led to a week-long cease-fire and the release of more than 100 hostages in November, Hamas has said it cannot comply with Israeli demands to list the names, birth dates and nationalities of the remaining captives, because it doesn’t know where all of them are and can’t locate them under Israel’s attacks.

Recent media reports, including in Israel, have cast doubt on whether the hostages that Hamas is negotiating to release are still alive. But officials said negotiators continue to operate on the assumption that release of the initial 40 — and potentially more — is still on the table.

“We’re not in a position to verify that comment,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Friday of…

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