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Gaza ceasefire plan: More tactical pressure or end of US support for Netanyahu?

June 3, 2024 at 4:14 pm

US President Joe Biden (L) and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meet in Tel Aviv, Israel on October 18, 2023 [GPO/ Handout/Anadolu via Getty Images]

The new roadmap for a Gaza ceasefire presented by US President Joe Biden has one man particularly worried: Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his Friday speech detailing the proposal, Biden made sure to emphasise that the three-phased plan was an “Israeli proposal”, but that has done little to keep people from reading into the fact that it was unveiled by the US President and not someone in Tel Aviv.

Then there is the response within Israel, where Netanyahu’s key allies from the extreme-right, National Security Minister, Itamar Ben-Gvir, and Finance Minister, Bezalel Smotrich, have all but confirmed that they will bring down his government if he agrees to the deal.

On the other end of the spectrum are figures like opposition leader, Yair Lapid, and the families of hostages, who are pushing Netanyahu to accept the proposal without wasting any more time.

In the midst of this growing cacophony of global and domestic criticism, Netanyahu is still trying to present the image that he is the one calling the shots, stressing that “Israel’s conditions for ending the war have not changed” and “the notion that Israel will agree to a permanent ceasefire before these conditions are fulfilled is a non-starter”.

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For geopolitical analyst, Ryan Bohl, Netanyahu’s posturing makes it all the clearer that he “is losing political support at home … and political support abroad.”

Bohl, a senior Middle East and North Africa analyst at risk intelligence firm, RANE, believes that Biden’s decision to present the ceasefire plan shows Washington’s patience with Netanyahu is at an end.

“They would like to see the end of the Netanyahu era,” he told Anadolu.

“They don’t necessarily see him as constructive and they particularly dislike his allies in the far-right … These parties are considered very problematic by the Biden administration.”

He pointed out that Chuck Schumer, the Senate majority leader, has even gone as far as calling for elections in Israel, a statement he made back in March.

The Biden government, however, is not at the same point just yet, said Bohl.

“We’re not quite at the point where the White House is doing so, but if Israel rejects this ceasefire proposal out of hand and they look like they’re not being constructive, I think the White House is going to get closer “to calling for the ouster of Netanyahu and for a new prime minister to come to power,” he added.

‘Clearly a tactic’

Bohl is not alone in his reading of the situation in terms of wanting US support to Netanyahu, but others, like Sami Al-Arian, do not believe their relationship is anywhere near breaking point.

Al-Arian, a public affairs professor and Director of the Centre for Islam and Global Affairs at the Istanbul Sabahattin Zaim University, sees the US “trying to pressure Netanyahu, particularly with closeness”.

However, Washington has shown no signs that it intends to stop arming or supporting Israel, he said.

“Certainly they (US) are pressing him to accept this proposal or at least empowering other members of the government to pressure him, as well as the Israeli public, to stop the war or, at least, accept this kind of proposal,” he told Anadolu.

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Al-Arian also sees domestic considerations at play, saying Biden “doesn’t want this killing to remain while there is an active election season and he is in need of the Arab and Muslim vote.”

H A Hellyer, a scholar with the Middle East Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, also views this as more tactical pressure from the US.

“Biden’s speech was clearly a tactic to push Israel to proceed on a deal that Tel Aviv itself signed off on, but which Biden was concerned they wouldn’t actually pursue seriously,” he told Anadolu.

“I think he’s been proven right to be concerned, based on all the statements that have come out of Israeli officials since Friday night.”

However, Hellyer, also an associate fellow at the Royal United Services Institute for Defence and Security Studies in London, is also not convinced that Biden is retracting all support to Netanyahu.

“If Biden makes it clear that support in terms of military hardware, or at the UN Security Council, would be affected, then we can start talking about the cessation of support,” he asserted.

He called the current situation a change in rhetoric, “which has not led to much in the way of actions on the ground in the past nine months.”

Internal pressures

As Netanyahu faces mounting domestic challenges over the war, including massive anti-government protests, the ongoing assault on Gaza is also taking a toll on Israel’s economy.

According to a recent Bloomberg report, the war had cost Israel approximately 60 billion shekels (around $16 billion) in seven months since last October.

The most critical threat to Netanyahu, however, comes from the political realm – the one place where he wields power and one he needs to protect himself from serious legal action.

Benny Gantz, a member of the Israeli War Cabinet, has already given Netanyahu an 8 June deadline to present a plan for post-war Gaza.

Last week, he submitted a bill to dissolve the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, to pave the way for early elections, and now Israeli media reports suggest his National Unity Party is poised to leave the government by this Saturday.

All of this is weakening Netanyahu’s government and international position, according to Bohl.

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“Gantz has said he’s going to give it until 8 June for the Israeli government to have a viable plan for the Gaza Strip. “It’s very unlikely that Netanyahu is going to meet that deadline,” he said.

Combined with the threats coming from Smotrich and Ben-Gvir, Bohl said Netanyahu is stuck between his government’s far-right and more centrist factions.

“That’s pulling his government apart at the seams … This proposal from Biden is going to make that process continue because the centre-right and the centrist factions are going to say we should accept the American proposal … and if the ceasefire doesn’t hold, we’ll go back to combat operations,” he said.

“Whereas the far-right is going to demand that Netanyahu rejects this proposal out of hand because their goals are the destruction of Hamas entirely in Gaza and also the resettlement of Gaza … (with) settlers.”

‘Declaration of Israeli defeat’

Al-Arian views the latest ceasefire proposal as a “declaration of Israeli defeat”, asserting that “Israel has not been able to fulfil any of its objectives.”

The proposal Biden announced is pretty similar to the one that Hamas accepted three weeks ago, he said.

This includes the withdrawal of Israeli forces, the cessation of hostilities, return of refugees to northern Gaza, 600 or more aid trucks every day, rebuilding and reconstruction as well as the exchange of captives, he said.

According to Bohl, another reason for Washington’s changing stance could be more a “pragmatic” assessment of the on-ground situation.

“The White House is perceiving that the war in Gaza is now changing over from these battalion-on-battalion battles between Hamas and the IDF to an insurgency phase,” he said.

These signal that large-scale Israeli military operations are no longer necessary, he said.

“The expansive airstrikes, which were questionable even at the beginning of the war, are certainly not necessary in a counter-insurgency campaign,” said Bohl.

“That is what is driving most of the civilian deaths, and causing so much of the international outrage.”

The analyst said the Biden administration is concluding that the changing situation warrants a change in Israel’s strategy.

“The Netanyahu government is still wedded to the idea of ​​big, large-scale battles, tanks rolling through streets, things that are just not militarily required,” he said.

“But the Netanyahu government is still politically incentivised to keep carrying out these large-scale operations because it helps displace people, and that makes things easier for the far-right to try to sneak in for settlements, which is their ultimate goal.”​​​​​​​

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