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A Former Israeli Peace Negotiator Dissects the New Ceasefire Proposal

Netanyahu has yet to agree to the ceasefire publicly amid pressure from his right-wing coalition to continue the war.

U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday outlined what he described as an Israeli ceasefire proposal to end the war in Gaza, nearly eight months after Israel began its invasion in response to the October 7 attack by Hamas. Biden described three phases to release captives held by both sides, allow residents to return to the north of the Gaza Strip and begin reconstruction of the devastated territory after the full withdrawal of Israeli troops. Hamas said it looked positively on the proposal and previously accepted similar terms, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to agree to it publicly amid pressure from far-right members of his governing coalition to continue the war indefinitely. Former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy says Biden may have employed “constructive ambiguity” about Israel’s position in order to bring the two sides closer to a deal, but that the most important goal is to end the “horrors” in Gaza with a permanent ceasefire. “What are the maximal guarantees that can be given that this is not just a 42-day hiatus followed by yet further death, killing, destruction that we still now see every day?” asks Levy, who is now president of the U.S./Middle East Project.

TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Mediators from the United States, Qatar and Egypt are pressing Israel and Hamas to accept a proposed three-stage ceasefire and hostage deal that would include the eventual withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza. On Friday, President Biden outlined the proposed deal at the White House.

PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: Israel has offered a comprehensive new proposal. It’s a roadmap to an enduring ceasefire and the release of all hostages. This proposal has been transmitted by Qatar to Hamas.

Today I want to lay out its terms for American citizens and for the world. This new proposal has three phases. Three. The first phase would last for six weeks. Here’s what it would include: a full and complete ceasefire; a withdrawal of Israeli forces from all populated areas of Gaza; release of a number of hostages, including women, the elderly, the wounded, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. There are American hostages who would be released at this stage, and we want them home. Additional some remains of hostages who have been killed would be returned to their families, bringing some degree of closure.

AMY GOODMAN: Biden described the ceasefire plan as an Israeli proposal, but Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet publicly backed it. One of his aides said Israel has agreed to the framework of the deal, but no official announcement has been made.

Two far-right members of the Israeli government — the Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich and National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir — have threatened to leave Netanyahu’s government if he supports the truce proposal.

On Saturday, tens of thousands of Israelis, led by relatives of hostages, took part in protests calling on Netanyahu not to sabotage the ceasefire deal. On Sunday, families of hostages protested outside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office in Jerusalem and urged him to accept President Biden’s peace deal. This is Shay Dickmann, whose cousin is an Israeli hostage in Gaza.

SHAY DICKMANN: I’m here to support my government in taking this deal, the deal that Netanyahu suggested, our prime minister, that will get all our people back home. We are all here in support for the return of all hostages.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile U.S. House Speaker Mike Johnson and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer have invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress. Senator Bernie Sanders slammed the idea of inviting Netanyahu at a time when the International Criminal Court is seeking his arrest for war crimes.

For more, we go to London, where we’re joined by Daniel Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, former Israeli peace negotiator under Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Daniel. If you can start off by laying out what this plan is, the significance of President Biden presenting this plan, and where Netanyahu and Hamas stand on it?

DANIEL LEVY: Thank you for having me back, Amy.

This is significant, because it’s not something you can do, you know, every week, for the president of the United States to say, “Here’s the plan.” I don’t think he’s done it at the most propitious moment. I don’t know why he’s waited this long. But there you have it. He has set out this plan.

What he set out was various phases. It’s not something particularly new. I think the crucial ingredients were that President Biden seemed to suggest that this is a package which is a permanent, sustainable ceasefire in the context of the current hostilities. That was a crucial missing ingredient.

The other thing was he suggested that this is an Israeli proposal. Curiously, he then went on — considering he said this was an Israeli proposal — he then went on to outline why this was so advantageous to Israel and why, therefore, Israelis should accept their own proposal. Now, Amy, I am a strong believer that there is sometimes a place for constructive ambiguity in order to advance something, and sometimes one needs a bit of poetic license. In other words, where he gave the Israeli victory narrative, I don’t think that was an accurate reflection of reality, the balance of forces, the balance of power, but if that’s what will get us to an end to these horrors, so be it. That’s Friday night.

We then have an initial Hamas response, which talks about this being positive and constructive. We have Egypt’s foreign minister today visiting Spain, telling us that Hamas has viewed this positively. I think, for Hamas, what they have suggested is the key is making clear that, indeed, this is the on-ramp to a permanent ceasefire.

We had a couple of strange tweets from the Israeli prime minister over the weekend, in which he suggested, “Well, we’ve got our own conditions.” And then you had not only the ministers you’ve referred to, Amy — Ben-Gvir and Smotrich — but much of Netanyahu’s own Likud party unequivocally rejecting the deal.

And just now, appearing before the Israeli Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Prime Minister Netanyahu — because I think this is important — has said the following: “The deal will not stop the war, will not stop the fighting. It will bring a temporary ceasefire for 42 days to get the hostages out.” This directly contradicts, should he stand by his word, what President Biden said. And so the question now is: Do you allow constructive ambiguity? Netanyahu having forcefully rejected this, do you allow that to become duplicity and dishonesty, or do you act differently? The ball is back in President Biden’s court.

AMY GOODMAN: So, talk about Hamas’s response, as well. And again, to be clear, what we understand at this point, the first stage proposes a six-week ceasefire, during which the Israeli army would withdraw from the populated area of Gaza. Hostages, including the elderly and women, would be exchanged for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Civilians would also return to all of Gaza, 600 trucks carrying humanitarian aid flooding the enclave daily. And then going on to the second phase, where Hamas and Israel would negotiate terms for a permanent end of hostilities. And also, even if Smotrich and Ben-Gvir — Ben-Gvir, who was not only charged with, but convicted of terrorism and supporting a terrorist group and inciting anti-Palestinian hatred — even if they were to leave the government, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the survivor, Netanyahu, would fall, which has often been said — right? — if the other parties came to his support.

DANIEL LEVY: Right. So, that’s a lot to unpack. Let’s start where you started, with the details of the plan. By the way, the plan has apparently been kept from the Israeli Cabinet, not the war cabinet but the broader cabinet in which the individuals you mentioned sit, interesting in and of itself. That plan, there are the details that you mentioned. What exactly will be the parameters of the IDF withdrawing from population centers? Can we actually get the humanitarian assistance in this time? We’ve had all these fantastical ideas: a seaport, airdrops. Why did we need to engage in these failed efforts? We knew they would fail. Because Israel has closed off the land crossings, which is how you get, normally, the humanitarian assistance, the necessary basics into Gaza. That’s one of the reasons that the chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court has asked the court to issue an arrest warrant against Netanyahu and Gallant on the Israeli side, because of the use of starvation as a weapon of war. So, you’ve got the — what are the details around getting the humanitarian assistance in? What are the details of Palestinian prisoners to be released, alongside those Israelis being held in Gaza? That already is a lot that could unravel.

But what is, I think, even more crucial is: What are the maximal guarantees that can be given that this is not just a 42-day hiatus followed by yet further death, killing, destruction that we still now see every day, mass civilian killing events. And that is where I think the heightened tension exists between what appears to be — needs to be put to the test — the position of President Biden and the now clearly articulated position of the Israeli government. So, I think that is where the focus is for the Hamas party, because their position, relatively clear and consistent, has been full Israeli withdrawal and full end to the fighting.

Now, what exactly is the Hamas response? Well, here we have an internal Hamas leadership, quite difficult for that communication to take place, as you and your listeners can imagine, given the nature of the warfare, the tunnels where people are located. You have a leadership in exile. And so, teasing out the final answer might take time. But what Hamas seems to have said is, “We want a clear understanding of what is the commitment, that phase one leads to phase two, and it can’t end at the end of phase one.”

On the Netanyahu side, he now has an equation to deal with. As you say, he could conceivably have a majority in parliament, because Gantz’s party and Lapid’s party have both said they will provide a safety net for Netanyahu if he takes the deal, and that gives him the numbers. However, and let’s be clear, Gantz and Lapid have supported this war throughout. They’ve had no qualms about any of the violations of international law that it’s committed — just so we correctly characterize those folks. But they have said they will offer a safety net for this deal, and that’s important. However, that makes Netanyahu dependent on people who want to bring him down, who want him out of power, as well they should as the leaders, putatively, of the opposition. Therefore, if he wants governmental stability, he needs to stick with the original coalition that he formed, that was in power until October 7th, that continues to be in power, which includes his own party, many of whom have opposed this deal, and which includes these characters from the extreme right, alongside his own extremists, Ben-Gvir and Smotrich. And Netanyahu, therefore — this is the crucial thing, Amy — he, therefore, looks at the proposal and says, “Is it more risky politically for me to say no to Biden or to say no to Ben-Gvir and Smotrich?”

And that is why I suggest to you that the question is for President Biden: Does he up the ante and make the cost of saying no greater, or does he allow Netanyahu to stare him down? And then Biden has the choice: “I can throw more goodies at the Israelis.” You know, the congressional invitation, that’s a goodie for Netanyahu. It’s not just the Republican leadership, as Chuck Schumer and Hakeem Jeffries signed on that letter of invitation. “Do I try and package something more around this Saudi deal, that is clearly not budging Israeli internal politics? What more goodies can I throw?” That’s not going to work. It’s failed. It’s not our first rodeo, where Netanyahu undermines and goes ahead and does what he wants and stares down the American president. His other choice is to say, “You know what? Just as I kind of did in my speech, I’ll blame Hamas. Then I can say to my American voting public, ‘I tried. It was Hamas’s fault.’” Maybe it will work. I suggest people who are following this closely will find it hard to see that as credible. Or he can up the ante and actually, rather than have Netanyahu win this standoff, escalate the cost to Netanyahu, to the Israeli security establishment, to the Israeli public and the Israeli voting system of continuing with this war, continuing with the violations and war crimes that are being committed.

AMY GOODMAN: What about implementation? I mean, we saw what happened. The ICC responds to the emergency request of South Africa and says, “Yes, Israel must pull out of Rafah,” and the next day Israel bombs this tent city, kills 45 people, injures well over a hundred, charred bodies everywhere. How does this get implemented?

DANIEL LEVY: Yes, indeed. The court’s decisions are not self-implementing. It was the International Court of Justice that called for the provisional measures on two occasions now. The International Criminal Court has requested the issuing of arrest warrants, on both the Hamas and the Israeli side. In the absence of the ability for these decisions to be self-implemented, it rests on third-party actors to try and make it costly not to implement those.

Now, the U.S. is very well versed in how to make it costly for a party not to implement. That sometimes works, and it sometimes doesn’t work. But it means that you align with the decision of the international court. And I think the American voting public, some of whom — perhaps many of whom — care about this issue, deserve to know: Does a president, seeking reelection, who is apparently standing on a platform that “I respect law,” does he also respect international law? Because his reactions to the International Court of Justice and the International Criminal Court have been criminally dismissive. And therefore, if Israel’s most important ally, if the party providing the weaponry, without which none of this would have been possible, including the latest horrors of Palestinians going to so-called safe zones, which are nothing of the sort, if that party is ready to dismiss and not abide by international law, that’s important to know. It may well be in violation of U.S. law in doing this, as well.

And does the American president, therefore, want to bring this to a close? Because if he does, then, rather than, in a mealy-mouthed way, in a CNN interview saying, “Well, I’m reviewing one transfer of weapons,” he would actually make this costly, whether that’s the weaponry, whether that’s other parties taking steps that America doesn’t oppose. Look, there’s the Olympics next month — in a couple of months. Israelis care about things. As long as it’s just rhetoric, as long as Israelis don’t see a tangible cost, then I think it will be very difficult to budge the equation where Netanyahu says, “I can win this. I can carry on. I will get away with it, and the U.S. will continue to run cover for me.”

AMY GOODMAN: You are a former Israeli peace negotiator. What do you see happening, as we wrap up this discussion, at this point? The fact that, speaking from a podium, President Biden laid this out, this plan, and suggested that Israel was supporting it, and Hamas said they were open to it, how serious is this?

DANIEL LEVY: The president has to prove its seriousness. I don’t dismiss that it was important that he set this plan out, because he’s kind of now put, in a transparent way, this is the option. If you want to get your hostages out, there are good reasons for Israel to take this deal. Israel may not be exhausted, but it’s overextended, and there are elements of exhaustion. There are less and less hostages alive, if you want to see them home living. That’s why people, many of the hostages’ families are out on the streets screaming. If you don’t want these international actions to continue, then there is a path forward here.

However, if the Israeli decision, as it currently seems to be, that this war should continue, their military objectives are not going to be realized. They have not been realized. Hamas will not be vanquished in the way that Netanyahu suggests. The Palestinians cannot be defeated militarily. Some of the fantasy day-after plans are precisely that. They are magical, not realist thinking. But if you want that equation to change, then, as the leading Israeli columnist Nahum Barnea has said in a column today, he has said there will have to be internal and external pressure to change that equation.

So, I fear that, initially, what we are already seeing is that Netanyahu will try and get away with pooh-poohing the American president’s plan and trying to have the blame placed on Hamas. Will the U.S. go along with this? That’s not a question for Netanyahu. That’s a question for the administration. The chance — the chance that we actually see an end to these horrors is if it’s is too costly for Netanyahu to continue. We are not there yet. I’m not suggesting Hamas will be an easy negotiating partner, but their position has been quite clear and consistent, and their initial reaction to the Biden plan has followed suit.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Levy, we want to thank you for being with us, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, former Israeli peace negotiator under Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin.

Up next, as protests continue around the world, we’ll go to the Brooklyn Museum, where over a thousand pro-Palestine protesters gathered on Friday. A number were arrested. Back in 20 seconds.

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