Biden has put his credibility on the line with the Gaza plan

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The writer is author of ‘Black Wave’, distinguished fellow at Columbia University’s Institute of Global Politics and an FT contributing editor

On his visit to Israel after the Hamas attacks of October 7, US President Joe Biden gave Benjamin Netanyahu a tight embrace as he declared his full support for a grieving nation.

Critics argued this was a dangerous blank cheque. But senior US officials insisted the hug would allow Biden to counsel Netanyahu and shape the Israeli military campaign.

It did delay the initial Israeli ground invasion of Gaza and contain major regional fallout, and it has so far spared Lebanon a full-scale Israeli military campaign — but that’s no relief for Palestinians suffering in Gaza and the families of the remaining Israeli hostages.

In the eight months since, Biden has tried to cajole, coax and pressure Netanyahu to engage in discussions about the day after. The White House set deadlines and even red lines — all of which faded. Biden’s critics on the left say he never used real leverage. The right lambasted him for holding up even one shipment of weapons to Israel.

On Friday, Biden finally deployed the other bit of political capital he banked when he went to Israel in October — high approval from Israelis grateful for his support. Biden went over Netanyahu’s head and addressed the Israeli people directly in what was the most important part of his speech. 

“To the people of Israel, let me say this . . . I ask you to take a step back and think what will happen if this moment is lost. We can’t lose this moment,” he said. “Indefinite war in the pursuit of an unidentified notion of total victory will only bog down Israel in Gaza.”

Biden warned of Israel’s increased isolation in the world. Most importantly, by talking about potential calm on the border with Lebanon and the prospect of normalisation with Saudi Arabia, he offered a positive way forward for a country whose mood has increasingly darkened amid strategic drift, external pressures and internal divisions.

An estimated crowd of at least 100,000 Israelis protested at the weekend in Tel Aviv, many holding up placards with the words: “Take the deal” and “Biden save [the hostages] from Netanyahu”.

Frustration with Netanyahu was evident in how the US administration choreographed what followed Biden’s statement: an immediate chorus of voices in support of his message, including former president Barack Obama and the leaders of the G7, and a series of phone calls to regional allies. There was even an unusual joint statement with Egypt and Qatar calling on both Hamas and Israel to finalise the deal.

Crucially, US secretary of state Antony Blinken called ministers in Netanyahu’s own war cabinet, Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz, and almost suggested a fait accompli by “commending Israel’s readiness to conclude a deal”.

Much of the commentary has centred on whether this was indeed an Israeli proposal as Biden stated. But it’s a moot point. This is the deal that the American president has now put on the table, along with his credibility. Many of the details still need to be worked out, including the thorniest one: how to move from the first phase of a ceasefire to a permanent cessation of hostilities. 

Netanyahu’s far-right ministers have threatened to quit. Another minister rejected the deal and said: “No surrender, not to American pressure, not to anything.”

In June 1982, a few days after Israel invaded Lebanon, Amos Oz, the Israeli writer and peace activist, wrote about Menachem Begin’s approach to diplomacy. “Never before has Israel been assaulted by an almost daily bombardment of plans for agreements, suggested solutions, peace proposals . . . The Begin government reacts to all of them as though to an evil barrage of Katyusha [rockets].” 

Four decades later, these words still ring true. Netanyahu will have to choose between rebuffing the American president to save his rightwing coalition or accepting the deal for the sake of the hostages and his country’s long-term strategic interest. He could theoretically survive politically by forming a new broad-based coalition. He could buy time by accepting phase one and reneging on phase two. So could Hamas. Washington believes Netanyahu will find a way to take the deal. Much now depends on the response of Yahya Sinwar, the leader of Hamas in Gaza.

More than just the latest version of a possible plan, Biden’s proposal is the last option to find a way out of the dark tunnel of war.

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