Biden presents new Israel ceasefire plan, calls on Hamas to accept

By Steve Holland and Stephanie Kelly

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday said Israel had proposed a fresh Gaza ceasefire in exchange for the release of hostages, and called on Hamas to agree to the new offer, saying it was the best way to end the conflict.

"It's time for this war to end and for the day after to begin," said Biden, who is under election-year pressure to stop the Gaza conflict, now in its eighth month.

Talks mediated by Egypt, Qatar and others to arrange a ceasefire between Israel and the militant Hamas movement in the Gaza war have repeatedly stalled, with both sides blaming the other for the lack of progress.

This proposal comes after weeks of Israeli incursions into Rafah, and new pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government at home and abroad over the deaths in Gaza and the continued captivity of the hostages.

Netanyahu's office said on Friday that Israel had authorized negotiators to present a Gaza truce deal after Biden revealed the ceasefire plan.

It also comes a day after the Democratic president's Republican rival for president, Donald Trump, was convicted of 34 felony charges, highlighting the sharp contrast between the two candidates.

The new proposal Biden laid out is made up of three phases, and breaks from previous proposals because a ceasefire would continue as the parties move through all three.

During the first phase, a ceasefire lasting for six weeks, Israeli forces would withdraw from Gaza population centers, and hostages, including the elderly and women, would be exchanged for hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Palestinian civilians would return to Gaza, including northern Gaza, and 600 trucks would bring humanitarian aid into Gaza each day, Biden said.

In the second phase, Hamas and Israel would negotiate terms of a permanent end to hostilities. "The ceasefire will still continue as long as negotiations continue," the president said, a new development.

The third phase would include a major reconstruction plan for Gaza.

The proposal has been relayed to Hamas by Qatar, Biden said.

The president called on those in Israel who were pushing for "indefinite" war to change their minds.

"I know there are those in Israel who will not agree with this plan. And will call for the war to continue indefinitely. Some are even in the government coalition. They've made it clear. They want to occupy Gaza. They want to keep fighting for years and hostages are not a priority for them. Well, I've urged leadership in Israel to stand behind this deal, despite whatever pressure comes," Biden said.

"As someone who's had a lifelong commitment to Israel, as the only American president who has ever gone to Israel at a time of war, as someone who just sent the U.S. forces to directly defend Israel when it was attacked by Iran, I ask you to take a step back, think what will happen if this moment is lost," he said. "We can't lose this moment."

'PAINSTAKING DETAIL'

A senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, told reporters that Israel was able to make the new offer because of recent battleground gains.

"There is now really a road map to the end of the crisis. It is a detailed four-and-half-page agreement," the official said. "It has been negotiated, again, in painstaking detail. And what's on the table now is really kind of an endgame to the process."

Under the plan, each phase would last 42 days, the official added.

Several Israeli media outlets described Biden's speech on Friday as dramatic, and interpreted it as an attempt to appeal directly to the Israeli public. Leading Channel 12 interrupted its evening news show to carry Biden's speech live. Israel's censor had previously banned publication of the offer's details, anchor Danny Kushmaro said.

This proposal has a higher likelihood of success than previous ones, said Jeremi Suri, a history and public affairs professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

"Israel has done significant damage to Hamas, and the likelihood of Hamas being able to launch any serious strike or attack or terrorist incident on Israel is not insignificant but it's a lot lower than it was before," Suri said.

Further, global public perception is "turning against" Israel, Suri said, which could encourage Israelis to want a stop to the conflict, along with Biden's influence.

"When the president of United States really gets fully behind something, he can create a lot of incentives," Suri said.

An earlier hostage proposal put forward this year called for the release of sick, elderly and wounded hostages in Gaza in exchange for a six-week ceasefire that could be extended to allow for more aid to be delivered into the enclave.

That proposed deal fell apart earlier this month after Israel refused to agree to Hamas' demand for a permanent end to the war as part of the negotiations and ramped up an assault on the city of Rafah in southern Gaza.

Hamas said on Thursday it had told mediators it would not take part in more negotiations during ongoing aggression but was ready for a "complete agreement," including an exchange of hostages and prisoners, if Israel stopped the war.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan would meet on Friday with diplomats from 17 countries who have citizens held hostage in Gaza by Hamas.

An Israeli airstrike in Rafah on Sunday that killed 45 Palestinians sparked international outrage, but didn't cross U.S. red lines to cut off military aid to Israel.

"The Palestinian people have endured sheer hell in this war," Biden said on Friday. "We all saw the terrible images from the deadly fire in Rafah earlier this week, following an Israeli strike ... targeting Hamas."

Palestinian health authorities estimate more than 36,280 people have been killed in Gaza since Israel attacked the enclave in response to an Oct. 7 Hamas assault in southern Israel. The Hamas attack killed around 1,200 people, according to Israeli tallies.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Stephanie Kelly; Writing by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Rami Ayyub, Heather Timmons and Jonathan Oatis)