Biden endorses Israeli proposal for a cease-fire in Gaza

President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Middle East in the State Dining Room of the White House in Washington, on Friday, May 31, 2024. President Biden said Friday that Hamas was no longer capable of carrying out a major terror attack on Israel and declared that it was time for a permanent cease-fire in Gaza. (Cheriss May/The New York Times)

REHOBOTH BEACH, Del. — Declaring Hamas no longer capable of carrying out a major terrorist attack on Israel, President Joe Biden said Friday that it was time for a permanent cease-fire in the Gaza Strip and endorsed a new plan he said Israel had offered to win the release of hostages and end the fighting.

“It’s time for this war to end, for the day after to begin,” Biden said, speaking from the State Dining Room at the White House. He also gave a stark description of Hamas’ diminished capabilities after more than seven months of Israeli attacks, saying that “at this point, Hamas is no longer capable of carrying out another Oct. 7.”

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“This is truly a decisive moment,” Biden said. “Israel has made their proposal. Hamas says it wants a cease-fire. This deal is an opportunity to prove whether they really mean it.”

With that statement, Biden appeared to be revealing his true agenda: making public elements of the proposal in an effort to pressure Hamas and Israel to break out of a monthslong deadlock that has resulted in the killing of thousands of Palestinians.

U.S. officials have described Hamas’ leader, Yahya Sinwar, as interested only in his own survival and that of his family and inner circle, as they presumably operate from tunnels deep under southern Gaza. But officials have also said that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel has little incentive to move to a real cease-fire, because of the widespread belief in Israel that as soon as the surviving hostages are returned, and a last cease-fire begins, he will most likely lose his fragile hold on power.

Biden’s remarks came at a pivotal moment in his reelection campaign, a day after his rival, former President Donald Trump, was convicted of 34 felony charges. At the same time, he has been facing growing pressure at home over the bloodshed in Gaza, which has led to eruptions on college campuses and on the streets of American cities, and alienated many of his own supporters.

Biden described the three-phase Israeli plan as a “comprehensive new proposal” that amounted to a road map to an “enduring cease-fire.” But at several moments in the past few months, Netanyahu has directly contradicted Biden. And so far Hamas has never accepted a comprehensive proposal, declaring in its public statements that fighting must end before major hostage releases or any agreement with Israel.

Hints of differences came almost as soon as Biden finished speaking. Following his speech, the Israeli prime minister’s office said the Israeli government was “united in the desire to bring home our hostages as soon as possible.”

But it added that Netanyahu had stipulated to Israeli negotiators that they could not reach a deal that would end the war before all their goals were achieved, including the destruction of Hamas’ military and governing capacities in Gaza.

“The exact outline that Israel has offered — including the conditional progression from stage to stage — enables Israel to maintain that principle,” Netanyahu’s office said.

Hamas reacted positively to Biden’s speech in a statement on social media, saying that it was willing to deal “constructively” with any cease-fire proposal based on a permanent truce, the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, the return of displaced Palestinians to their homes and a “serious prisoner exchange.”

Many of the hard-liners in Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition did not immediately respond to Biden’s address because of the Jewish Sabbath, which began before his remarks. Netanyahu’s nationalist allies, like Itamar Ben-Gvir, the national security minister, have said they could leave the government if an agreement ended the war before Hamas’ complete destruction.

Biden has faced questions over how long he was willing to support Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, and particularly its most recent attacks in the southern Gaza city of Rafah. The bloodshed in Gaza has left more than 36,000 people dead.

Israel’s national security adviser said this week that he expected the war to continue through at least the end of the year.

Global pressure to scale down the military operation increased after the International Court of Justice, an arm of the United Nations, ruled last week that Israel must halt its military offensive in Rafah. The court, however, has no means of enforcing the order.

Friday’s remarks were Biden’s first public comments about the war since an Israeli strike and subsequent fire Sunday killed at least 45 people, including children, and wounded 249 in an encampment for the displaced, according to Gaza health officials. A visual analysis by The New York Times found that Israel used U.S.-made bombs in the strike, forcing the White House to face difficult questions over American responsibility for rising death toll.

Biden said Friday that he saw the “terrible images” from the deadly fire.

“The Palestinian people have endured sheer hell in this war,” Biden said after describing the pain of those whose relatives were “slaughtered by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7” and the “anguish” of Israeli families waiting for hostages to be released.

Biden also said too many innocent people had been killed in Gaza, “including thousands of children,” and addressed the many Americans who are infuriated over the way his administration has handled the conflict.

“I know this is a subject on which people in this country feel deep, passionate convictions,” Biden added. “So do I. This has been one of the hardest, most complicated problems in the world. There’s nothing easy about this.”

In describing the 4 1/2-page Israeli proposal, Biden said it would be broken into three phases. The first would begin with a roughly six-week cease-fire, the withdrawal of Israeli forces from populated areas of Gaza and a release of elderly and female hostages held by Hamas, in exchange for the release of hundreds of Palestinian detainees. Biden said there were still details that needed to be negotiated to move on to the next phase — apparently including how many Palestinians would be released in return for each freed Israeli hostage.

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