7 min read

Ceasefire negotiations show glimmers of hope

The latest news from the ceasfire-for-hostages talks in Cairo.
Ceasefire negotiations show glimmers of hope
Secretary of State Antony Blinken meeting with Arab leaders yesterday. (State Department)

Good morning! It’s Tuesday, April 30, 2024. Election Day is 189 days away. If this newsletter was forwarded to you, subscribe here. If you want to contribute to support my work, donate here.

In yesterday’s newsletter, I wrote about the protests over the Israel-Hamas war on college campuses, arguing that they may be receiving media coverage disproportionate to the faction of young voters they represent and the political impact they will have.

This morning, I want to update you on something I do think is vitally important to cover: the state of the war itself — and the talks to end it.

International pressure is bearing down on Israel and Hamas to strike a ceasefire-for-hostages agreement, upping the stakes of negotiations that have continued in fits and starts for months and so far only produced a brief, one-week pause back in November.

In the past two days, President Biden has spoken on the phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the leaders of Egypt and Qatar — who are mediating the negotiations — urging all parties to find a way to get to “yes.” A top Qatari official also called on both Israel and Hamas to show “more commitment and more seriousness” towards inking an agreement, while Secretary of State Antony Blinken touched down yesterday in the Middle East for a three-country tour aimed at bolstering the talks.

There are some glimmers of hope that the pressure may be succeeding in pushing both sides towards a deal — although, of course, there have been previous points in the negotiations when an accord seemed close as well.

The latest talks revolve around a new framework proposed by Israel, which Hamas has been receptive to. According to CNN, the proposal is split into two phases: in the first, Hamas would release 20 to 33 Israeli hostages in exchange for around a six-week fighting pause and Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners. In the second phase, Israel has expressed openness to a “restoration of sustainable calm,” during which the remaining hostages would be exchanged for more Palestinian prisoners.

The offering is notable because it represents the first substantial movement after months of Israel calling for 40 hostages to be released as part of an initial deal. (Hamas has said that many may not even be alive, and offered 20 in its most recent proposal.) The language around “sustainable calm” is also the first time Israel has tiptoed towards agreeing to an end to the war as part of a hostage deal, which has long been Hamas’ key demand.

Senior Hamas officials have told media outlets in recent days that the group has “no major issues” with the proposal and that “there’s a different atmosphere” surrounding the latest negotiations. A Hamas delegation arrived in Cairo yesterday to formally receive the proposal, before leaving with a promise to return with a written response.

Speaking in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, yesterday, Blinken called the proposal “extraordinarily generous” and called on Hamas to accept it. Meanwhile, Israeli airstrikes continued overnight, killing 22 people, including a 5-day-old. More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed during the war, according to Gaza’s Hamas-controlled health ministry, which now says their health infrastructure has depleted to the point that they can no longer count all the dead. The war was launched in response to Hamas’ October 7th attack against Israel, when the terrorist group killed more than 1,200 people and abducted around 250 hostages.

Even with the hopeful signs in the latest negotiations, there are two major factors that could potentially complicate the talks:

1. Netanyahu has signaled that Israel will move forward with an invasion into Rafah, a key city in southern Gaza, regardless of whether a deal is struck. “The idea that we will stop the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” Netanyahu said in a statement this morning. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate Hamas’ battalions there — with or without a deal, to achieve the total victory.”

More than 1 million Palestinian civilians are currently sheltering in Rafah, about half of Gaza’s entire population. President Biden has repeatedly urged Netanyahu — including in their Sunday phone call — not to move forward with a Rafah invasion. According to the Times of Israel, Netanyahu faces competing ultimatums from within his war cabinet, with centrist minister Benny Gantz calling for a hostage deal to be prioritized over an invasion and right-wing ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir urging Netanyahu to move forward into Rafah. All three have threatened to leave Netanyahu’s unity government if their demands are not met.

2. Israeli officials reportedly believe that the International Criminal Court is preparing to issue arrest warrants for Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials for alleged war crimes. According to Axios, Netanyahu asked Biden on Sunday to help prevent the warrants from advancing.

The court’s enforcement powers are limited, so — like last year’s arrest warrant against Russian President Vladimir Putin — the practical impacts of the move would be limited. But U.S. officials are worried that the symbolic impact could throw a wrench into the ceasefire talks and push Israel away from the negotiating table, per Bloomberg.

More related news to know:

  • Beyond the immediate goal of ending the fighting in Gaza, the Biden administration is also pushing for a broader regional peace deal that would involve Israel normalizing relations with Saudi Arabia in exchange for a pathway to a Palestinian state. After meting with Blinken on Monday, the Saudi foreign minister said the talks were “very, very close” to completion; a foreign diplomat told Haaretz that Saudi Arabia has decided to move forward with the deal, and is only debating whether to do so before or after the U.S. elections.
  • In those discussions, Biden has found an unlikely ally: Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC). Per CNN, Graham has “emerged as a key diplomatic channel,” staying in touch with both Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman and former President Donald Trump — in order to encourage negotiations, and to urge Trump against getting in the way. Graham has signaled that he believes Republicans would rally behind an agreement, which would likely also include U.S. defense commitments for Saudi Arabia.
  • Under a February memorandum issued by Biden, the State Department faces a May 8 deadline to certify to Congress that Israel’s use of American-supplied weapons adheres to U.S and international law. According to Reuters, State Department officials are split on the question, with some advising Blinken not to certify. At least 20 government lawyers plan to make a similar argument in a letter to Attorney General Merrick Garland, per Politico.
  • Separately, the State Department said yesterday, the U.S. has determined that five Israeli security units committed human rights violations before the current war. According to the department, four of the units have “have effectively remediated these violations”; the administration is still considering whether to restrict U.S. assistance to the fifth.
  • World Central Kitchen, the José Andrés-founded humanitarian group, resumed its aid efforts in Gaza yesterday, a month after seven of its workers were killed in an Israeli airstrike. Meanwhile, the U.S. has begun construction of a temporary pier to help deliver humanitarian aid to Gaza, which the Pentagon said yesterday will cost about $320 million.

That’s the latest news from the war in Gaza. To quickly end where I began yesterday, I’ve found it somewhat odd that the campus protests continue to overshadow so many of these important developments we’re currently seeing in the war and the negotiations.

Here, for example, is a screenshot of the New York Times homepage yesterday, with four stories about the Columbia protests — and one about luxury bus trios to the Hamptons — splashed on the top, above the lone story covering the actual developments in the Middle East lower down.

By the end of Monday night, the campus stories remained atop the page; the only change was that the one story about the ceasefire negotiations had been pushed even farther down.

I think this is a mistaken ordering for two reasons: one, the relative sizes of the human toll of the war (and of a potential end to it) vs. the campus protests. The “potential end” part I find particularly crucial: it is much easier, scanning most major news outlets, to find updates from Columbia than reports on the fact that Hamas has “no major problems” with a ceasefire proposal from Israel and that the U.S. and Saudi Arabia are “very, very close” to a major regional peace agreement, both of which would end the hostilities undergirding the campus conflicts.

Of course, normal diplomatic caveats apply — both agreements still face significant obstacles, which should not be ignored — but those developments seem like ones Americans should know about, which is why I reported on them today.

The second reason I find the current emphasis misplaced: the political impact of the protests will likely hinge heavily on the outcome of the current negotiations. This is a point former Rep. Steve Israel (D-NY) made (ironically) in the pages of the Times this weekend:

“Campuses generally clear out in summer, the energy on this issue may dissipate and the question will be whether it returns in the fall. The answer to that isn’t here. It’s in the Middle East.”

If you want to know whether the Israel-Gaza war will play a key role in the November election, it’s probably better to look to Cairo than Columbia, as the former is where it will be decided whether the fighting will actually continue into campaign season, when most voters will begin tuning into the race.

More news to know.

Breaking news: “Donald Trump was held in contempt of court Tuesday and fined $9,000 for repeatedly violating a gag order that barred him from making public statements about witnesses, jurors and some others connected to his New York hush money case. And if he does it again, the judge warned, he could be jailed.” — AP

State health care plans can't exclude gender-affirming surgeries, court rules / Axios

Poll: Biden and Trump supporters sharply divided by the media they consume / NBC

Tensions grow between Trump and Lake in Arizona race for Senate / WaPo

An assassination plot on American soil reveals a darker side of Modi’s India / WaPo

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