🔒 Cease-fire talks in Gaza: Trust erodes as violence escalates – Marc Champion

Negotiations teeter on the brink as Gaza reels under Israel’s assault on Rafah. Accusations of bad faith fly from both sides, with Netanyahu’s pre-talk threats and Hamas’s deceptive counteroffers stalling progress. Al Jazeera leaks reveal a contentious proposal, highlighting irreconcilable demands. Amidst the chaos, Hamas boasts of its terror success and vows to continue the fight. With extremist agendas dictating the narrative, prospects for peace dim. Can reason prevail amidst the clash of ideologies?

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By Marc Champion

Negotiations to secure a cease-fire in Gaza aren’t yet dead, but Israel has begun its assault on Rafah nonetheless. While everyone will take a side when it comes to assigning blame for this unfolding human catastrophe, the talks have been revealed as an exercise in bad faith by all involved. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

There was bad faith from Israel because, in the days before the latest round of peace talks, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had been so vocal in his insistence that no matter what might emerge in Cairo, the Israel Defense Forces would at some point move into Rafah. This was a transparent attempt to doom efforts at bridging the gap with Hamas.

There was bad faith on the part of Hamas, because its Political Bureau Chairman Ismail Haniyeh implied by omission that the document he approved was the same one Israel already accepted. This was untrue. What Hamas agreed to on Monday was a counteroffer. I doubt Haniyeh believed for a second that Israel would accept, so for him this was about shifting responsibility for collapse of the talks.

Al Jazeera — recently banned from Israel — has published what purports to be the text of the proposal Haniyeh agreed to. Its provenance hasn’t been verified, but two elements ring true and I think go to the heart of why this war is proving so deadly and difficult to end.

The first is that the proposal was so clearly an attempt to paper over the yawning gap between two essentially unreconcilable positions. Israel wants its hostages back without having to accept an end to the war; that would leave Hamas in place in Gaza and therefore victorious. Hamas, meanwhile, will trade its hostages only for a permanent Israeli withdrawal. Both demands can’t be met simultaneously.

The purported deal mediated by officials from Egypt, Qatar and the US consists of a three-stage plan in which the first 42-day phase included detailed procedures to begin an Israeli stand down and partial hostage release. The two remaining phases, according to the Al Jazeera document, would move to a “sustainable calm” in which all hostages would be traded for prisoners and an Israeli withdrawal, followed by reconstruction and compensation. The deal was to be guaranteed by Egypt, Qatar, the US and the United Nations.

I’ve argued many times that it’s in Israel’s long-term interests, and in the shorter term that of the hostages, to accept less than its war aims in exchange for their return alive. Israel could then engage the international community to take on the burden of Gaza’s reconstruction, and crush Hamas using a much broader military, economic and diplomatic toolkit over time. The key is to stop the bloodshed, and with that the erosion of Israel’s perceived international legitimacy and rise in global antisemitism that it’s causing. 

It’s clear that Israel is not buying this argument. The war cabinet decision to reject the latest cease-fire offer from Hamas was unanimous and the IDF’s plans in Rafah didn’t skip a beat. But before dismissing that response as warmongering in its purest form, consider what was not in the mediated agreement: Any mention of Hamas and its future.

I have been critical about the way in which Israel has conducted the war, in particular its failure to build a political strategy and its high tolerance for civilian deaths. The operation in Rafah, which involves closing a key entry point for aid and attacking a town that’s host to more than 1 million refugees from other parts of the strip, can only promise worse. Even so, the Israeli concern about Hamas remaining in Gaza as the IDF leaves is justified.

It pays to listen carefully to what Hamas says, and on Monday the group’s head of international relations, Osama Hamdan, gave a lengthy webinar on the website of Masar Badil, the Palestinian  Alternative Revolutionary Path Movement. He made three things very clear.

The first is that Hamas considers its terrorist operation on Oct. 7, and the war it provoked, to have been an enormous success. His tone is jubilant, with no sign of remorse for the more than 34,000 Palestinians who the Gaza health authority says have lost their lives as a direct result of that attack.  In the view of Hamas, the operation halted the process of normalizing Israel’s global acceptance as a legitimate nation state and turned the Palestinian cause global. Again and again, he praised the “heroes” on the university campuses of the West as evidence of a geopolitical pivot in favor of Hamas.

The second point Hamdan repeatedly stressed was that the aim of Hamas is to eliminate Israel — not to make peace with it. And lastly, that the organization sees a cease-fire as no impediment to pursuing that goal; he even cast Gaza’s reconstruction as providing the means for ordinary Palestinians to join in the struggle.

“Now we are heading toward a cease-fire, but this doesn’t mean the confrontation will stop,” Hamdan said. “We need to continue our resistance against the occupation, but I think the confrontation will become bigger and wider.”

In other words, you can’t fit a piece of paper between the approaches of Hamas and the Israeli government. Neither has been serious about negotiating a cease-fire, because neither is willing to give up its war aims. This is the murderous logic of the extremists who currently dominate the leadership on both sides, bent on either Jewish or Palestinian control from the River to the Sea.

Democracy should take care of the extremists in Israel’s government soon enough; Netanyahu and his cabinet are deeply unpopular. But Palestinians can’t advance without new leadership either, and here we can’t rely on democracy (there hasn’t been a vote in Gaza since 2006).

The right kind of cease-fire would trade exile of the Hamas leaders responsible for Oct. 7’s atrocities for Israel’s permanent withdrawal from Gaza and acceptance that there must be a wider political settlement. If Yahya Sinwar and other Hamas commanders truly cared about Palestinian lives, they’d say “yes.”

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