What Biden Does Next After Israel-Hamas Cease-Fire Proposal

(Bloomberg) -- Never miss an episode. Follow The Big Take DC podcast today.

Most Read from Bloomberg

While President Biden meets with Europe's leaders this week, he is continuing to push for Israel and Hamas to support a cease-fire proposal. But violence is continuing to escalate on the ground in Gaza, raising questions about what it would take to end the conflict.

Today on the Big Take DC, host Saleha Mohsin speaks with Bloomberg White House correspondent Justin Sink and Israel bureau chief Ethan Bronner about the hurdles facing the proposal and what Biden and Netanyahu might do next.

Listen to The Big Take DC podcast every week.

Here is a lightly edited transcript of the conversation:

Saleha Mohsin: President Joe Biden is in the middle of a defining international crisis in his presidency. And it’s testing the limits of his ability to wield the US’s power and global influence.

Last week, he gave a speech outlining a proposal to bring that crisis to an end.

Joe Biden: I want to give an update on my efforts to end the crisis in Gaza. For the past several months, my negotiators of foreign policy and intelligence community and like have been relentlessly focused, not just on a cease-fire, that would inevitably be fragile and temporary, but on a durable end of the war.

Mohsin: That proposal, he said, came from the Israeli government. But Biden’s speech also appeared to put pressure on Israel in a new way… And in the following days, it became clear that aspects of the speech took them by surprise.

Justin Sink: I think we've known for more than a century that peace in the Middle East is not a sort of simple task.

Mohsin: That’s Bloomberg White House correspondent Justin Sink.

Sink: When you talk to people at the White House, they say, you know, this was a genuine moment where he thought the peace was potentially in hand. Now, was that wishful thinking? It's hard to say.

Mohsin: It was a notable shift in Biden's approach to the conflict, and to his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. And it’s raised questions about just how much leverage Biden has in the Middle East, as his dreams of negotiating peace have crashed into a harsh reality.

Today on the show: what’s happened since President Biden put the weight of the US presidency behind the latest ceasefire proposal, how Israel and Hamas are reacting, and what’s at stake if things don’t go his way.

From Bloomberg’s Washington bureau, this is the Big Take DC podcast. I’m Saleha Mohsin.

Sink: Right in the aftermath of the October 7th attack, President Biden made his support for Israel sort of a central part of his political identity.

Mohsin: That’s Bloomberg White House correspondent Justin Sink.

Sink: He became the first US president to travel to Israel during wartime. He really, vocally offered support to Israel, both sort of in a political embrace, but also tangibly through shipping arms and, assistance to Israel, pushed Congress hard to pass a package that offered tens of billions of dollars of support. But even from early on, Biden said, you know, he was hopeful that Israel wouldn't make the mistakes that the US made in the aftermath of September 11th and that their sort of counter offensive wouldn't be excessive.

Mohsin: But as the war has dragged on, Israeli forces have killed thousands of Palestinian civilians in their offensive on Gaza.

Sink: And there have been high profile incidences, the bombing that killed aid workers working for the World Central Kitchen, more recently some bombings in Rafah.

The White House really warned Israel publicly and even froze certain large bombs shipments that were going to Israel and said, you know We don't think there's a way to effectively use these bombs without there being massive civilian deaths in Rafah. And so the White House was saying at that point, we wanna see restraint there.

Mohsin: But just last night, an Israeli airstrike on a school that had been turned into a shelter killed dozens of people. And last week, a fire broke out following an Israeli airstrike, killing and injuring dozens, including children.

What do we know about how Biden is talking about the Israel/Hamas conflict inside the White House. Is there anything that he's saying privately that he's not saying publicly?

Sink: I think that the president has really tried to express this idea that he is being more effective in protecting civilians and keeping the violence from spreading further than it might readily be apparent.

Mohsin: You could hear Biden, in his speech on Friday, hammering home this idea, that he’s pushing Israel towards peace.

Biden: To the people of Israel, let me say this. As someone who's had a lifelong commitment to Israel, as the only American president who's ever gone to Israel in a time of war, as someone who just sent the US forces to directly defend Israel when it was attacked by Iran, I ask you to take a step back and think what will happen if this moment is lost.

Mohsin: In that speech, Biden presented a proposal that he said came from Israeli officials.

Ethan Bronner: In essence, it was an Israeli proposal.

Mohsin: That’s Ethan Bronner, Bloomberg’s Israel Bureau Chief.

Bronner: The problem was that the language that he referred to, the way he talked about it, uh, angered the right in this country and made it think that the Israeli government had agreed to a deal which would not carry out the war's aims, meaning the destruction of Hamas.

Mohsin: Biden presented this three-part plan, which would start with a temporary cease-fire, exchange of Israeli hostages for Palestinian prisoners, and humanitarian aid. In its second phase, it’s meant to pave the way for a permanent end to the war. And Biden steered into that framing.

Biden: That's been the focus, a durable end of this war.

Bronner: So that created a storm here and Prime Minister Netanyahu issued two statements on Saturday, unusual because it's the Jewish Sabbath. Saying that that's not right, that Israel is not going to allow any deal, that doesn't, utterly dismantle Hamas' ability to rule as a political entity to carry out any military activity and to pose a threat again to Israel.

So it's kind of complicated in the sense that I don't think that President Biden lied. But I do think that the way it was presented made the right in this country nervous, forced the government to come to the defense of what it had offered.

I think people overestimate the ability of an American president to force sides that are not compatible to a deal.

Sink: And this isn't a, a typical diplomatic negotiation between two countries or parties. It's Israel and the US, Qatar, Egypt, and then a group that's been labeled a terrorist organization by the US and European Union.

Mohsin: So how much leverage does the White House have? And what can it do, now, to keep this proposal on the table? That’s coming up.

President Biden has known Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu for decades. They first met when Biden was a junior senator in his 40s, and Netanyahu was working in the Israeli embassy in Washington.

Joe Biden’s administration supports a two-state solution.

Biden: All this would create the conditions for a different future and a better future for the Palestinian people. One of self determination, dignity, security, and freedom.

Mohsin: Netanyahu, however, does not.

Bronner: They are not compatible, especially politically, but President Biden is a great believer in the state of Israel, a great supporter of the idea of a Jewish state here and he has always, certainly from the beginning of this war, believed that the best way to guide Israel's conduct in the war was as a close friend.

Mohsin: American officials have met with Israel’s War Cabinet. Justin Sink told us, the two governments have been in near constant contact, so when it came to Biden’s speech last week—Netanyahu would have known it was coming.

Sink: But there's been reporting from ABC News that he was surprised at the framing that Biden used and sort of the idea that a deal was close.

Mohsin: Because it’s not clear that a deal really is close. That has to do, in large part, with the makeup of the Israeli government.

Sink: What I think it's important to understand about how Israel's government works is it's not like the US where there's an administration that all sort of, their oars are all rowing the same direction. It's a parliamentary democracy where there are a coalition government built up of different parties and people with different opinions.

And so you can have aides or lawmakers that are very close to Netanyahu, very crucial to his effort who are not on the same page about what the best course of action is.

Bronner: The Israeli government is a complicated situation. You have Prime Minister Netanyahu, who is on the left flank of his ruling coalition. And he's hardly a left winger, so you have some hard right nationalists who do not want to give anything to the Palestinians. They're opposed to any Palestinian state. They would like Israel to be all of the occupied territories, plus what's Israel today, and the idea that there would be any sort of yielding, and a possible end to the war early is anathema to them.

The honest truth is it is kind of anathema to Prime Minister Netanyahu as well. He does not want to end the war. The difference between Netanyahu and those to his right is not that enormous, it's just that he is willing to offer a kind of rhetorical space for this deal to, to create negotiations and the ministers to his right don't trust him to let that happen. And so therefore they're not willing for even the talk of that to go forward.

Mohsin: And a group of those hardliners in the Israeli government have said if Netanyahu went forward with the deal, they’d resign and dissolve the governing coalition. Meanwhile, a different group of centrist ministers have also threatened to quit the government if a deal is not reached.

Sink: If he pushes forward and the government is toppled, Israel, before October 7th was cycling through elections at a really kind of historic clip and, um, the potential for political instability there is really high.

Mohsin: Netanyahu has said he cannot accept a deal that doesn’t allow for the elimination of Hamas. And Hamas has said they can’t accept a deal that doesn’t ensure a permanent cease-fire and the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Gaza.

Bronner: We have two incompatible goals. The goal of Hamas is to get rid of Israeli troops and to return to power and the goal of Israel is to get rid of Hamas is the position of being in power in Gaza. So these are completely incompatible goals.

Sink: At this point it seems like for all intents and purposes that the President Biden's proposal is, if not dead, very much on life support. If you talk to any diplomat about these sort of high stakes negotiations, they'll say it's a million nos until it's a yes, and so, if there's any reason for hope, it's that.

Mohsin: This raises the question — what will the White House do now? As of Thursday morning, the US had signed an open letter with 16 other countries calling for Israel and Hamas to reach a ceasefire deal that would release hostages from the group of countries.

Sink: It's hard to see areas where President Biden could really exert additional pressure here. He used the power of the bully pulpit that that all presidents had and signed himself onto this, um, proposal. And so I, I think we'll continue to hear from the president. He, over the next two weeks, he's got a series of meetings with foreign leaders. The 80th anniversary of D-Day is an opportunity for him to talk about the World Order and also, of course, the history of World War II, which is linked inexorably with, uh, the creation of Israel, and I think he'll try to summon as much momentum as he can. But realistically, you know, what had seemed like a window of opportunity here is, is now seeming to, to shut, shut close.

Mohsin: But Biden will face geopolitical and domestic consequences if the war drags on and nothing changes.

Sink: To wade into an issue that’s been a real albatross for the president I think signaled how badly the White House wants this deal to come together.

It's been, um, a real dividing point and one headed into November's election that could cost the president in states like, Michigan and Minnesota that he won very narrowly and have a young electorate, an Arab American electorate, and we saw in some of the primaries that big chunks of voters, despite the president running virtually unopposed in the Democratic primary were, were voting undecided or undeclared. And so that's a real coalition issue.

To some extent, this is already going to be sort of a central part of Joe Biden's legacy. I think that, um, he is going to be remembered for his, um, steadfast support for Israel. If the region descends into even more violence, even more carnage, um, not only is it going to become or remain a domestic political issue, which we've kind of already seen, um, but it's going to demand his attention, and it's not going to be something that he can, um, turn away from to go, you know, Um, you know, do some rallies and swing states.

An inability to broker this deal, will, I think, give his political opponents, and, and Donald Trump certainly has already, he has done this, the opportunity to argue that, um, a different approach, a more aggressive approach might have yielded different results.

Mohsin: And there are real, human consequences to either or both sides backing away from this cease-fire proposal.

Sink: We've talked a lot about the politics here and I don't want to lose track of the sort of humanity of this and a real goal of, I think the United States is, addressing what has become a devastating humanitarian crisis. And, the support for Israel through their campaign has had the unintended but real effect of tying the US to their role in providing arms that devastated lots of Gaza and has created that, that crisis. As a turn, the US has been isolated, so there's a diplomatic cost to not securing a deal.

Most Read from Bloomberg Businessweek

©2024 Bloomberg L.P.