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Close to a Deal? Not if Netanyahu Insists on Rafah Invasion.

The deal on the table right now should be acceptable to both sides, but Israel’s insistence on carrying through with its Rafah plans is a rod in the wheels of peace.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a press conference last month

The Israeli war on Gaza is at a critical juncture. Efforts are being exerted to ensure that a cease-fire and an exchange of hostages and prisoners take place as soon as possible. Naturally, with both sides not trusting each other, the possibility of a breakthrough remains elusive, even though the current Egyptian-proposed plan appears to have the best chance of success.

Hamas leaders have said they have no “major issues” with the latest Egypt- and Qatar-brokered truce plan, which includes a 40-day cease-fire, the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners, and the return of 33 Israeli hostages of the roughly 130 remaining who were taken October 7. But they have yet to accept the plan. Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is still holding out, insisting in public comments that his army will conduct its ground offensive in Rafah regardless of whether Hamas agrees to a hostage and cease-fire deal. That statement sounded like a person trying to put a rod in the wheels of peace, or at least rhetoric aimed at keeping the pressure on Hamas to accept the Israeli position of not agreeing to a permanent cease-fire.

The current itinerary of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is one sign of the top U.S. diplomat understanding that Bibi is the obstacle to a deal, more than Hamas. In Blinken’s six previous visits to the region, he always began in Israel. Then he went to Egypt or Qatar carrying Israeli positions and trying to convince them of what Israel wanted. On his first visit, not only did Blinken make an extremely sympathetic statement to Israel, but he initially took on their plans of convincing Egypt to allow the resettlement of Palestinians from Gaza in Egypt.

Palestinians since 1948 have learned in a hard way the lessons of leaving their homeland and not being able ever to return. Palestinians from two small Christian villages in north Israel, Iqrit and Biram, which were part of the state of Israel after the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, were asked to leave their villages for two weeks because of the fighting from South Lebanon. They have yet to be allowed to return even though they are citizens of Israel and the Israeli high court ruled in their favor.

Since his initial visit, Blinken has regularly defended the position of Bibi and his right-wing government that Israel must be allowed to militarily finish off Hamas even though U.S. intelligence and security officials have argued that the goal of eliminating a movement will not succeed.

Now, almost seven months later, and with a dramatic change in world opinion, including in U.S. universities and among a huge slice of Democratic voters, the Biden administration wants this deadly war, largely against Palestinian civilians, to end ASAP. This is the first time after six visits that Blinken begins his visit to the Middle East in an Arab country and ends it in Israel. This shows he feels that the problem is in Tel Aviv.

The main person who continues to hold up an agreement on the cease-fire is the Israeli prime minister. For Netanyahu, agreeing to a permanent cease-fire could be the end of his political career. His far-right-wing coalition partners from the religious Zionist party are insisting on war on Rafah or they will bring the government down. On the other hand, opposition leader Yair Lapid promised publicly to provide a safety net to Netanyahu to ensure that his government will not fall. Members of the far-right-wing parties hold the deciding votes. Without their vote of confidence, the Netanyahu government would be ousted by the Knesset. However, if Lapid, whose party has 17 seats, provides a safety net, Netanyahu would be able to survive.

The ball is therefore clearly in Netanyahu’s court.

While Blinken has said that Hamas should agree to the “generous” offer that Egypt has made, the reality is that Hamas has given some positive signs but is looking for assurances that Israel will indeed allow Palestinians to be able to return to their homes in north Gaza.

What began as a war justified by claims of the right of Israel to self-defense has become clear to have been all along a revenge war aimed at reclaiming Israeli hegemony and attempting to cover the mistakes of the Israeli army and intelligence by killing and destroying Palestinian lives and properties without any restrictions. The decision by the Israeli defense minister to block all food, water, and electricity to Gaza is now part of an accusation against Israel of alleged genocidal action against Palestinians. When the top European official Josep Borell says that the destruction of Gaza is worse than the destruction of cities in Europe during World War II, the justification of a defensive act can no longer be accepted.

The failure to find a path to a cease-fire and an exchange of prisoners (Israel is holding over 9,000 Palestinians in terrible conditions, with thousands of them held administratively) will continue to endanger the region. Administrative detention means that Palestinians are held without charge or trial. When the United Nations Security Council approved Resolution 1273, it called for an immediate cease-fire and the release of hostages and others being held in reference to Palestinian detainees by Israel.

By refusing to honor the binding UNSC resolution, Israel has brought about the wrath of the world, including the International Criminal Court. The ICC is said to be planning to issue arrest orders against a number of Russian generals accused of war crimes in Ukraine and, at the same time, against Israeli officials, including Netanyahu, his defense minister, and his chief of army.

Israel, which depends on the United States for arms, financial support, and defense in international forums such as the U.N. Security Council, cannot ask for help from the Biden administration without understanding that it is obliged to follow the laws of war and avoid civilian casualties at all costs.

The Biden administration has gone to bat for Israel on numerous occasions, the latest of which was the vetoing of a resolution recognizing Palestine as a full member state of the U.N. Now Netanyahu wants President Biden to help him cancel the arrest orders from the ICC. The time for Israel to pay back its due to the Biden administration, and for the Biden administration to finally draw some red lines for the Netanyahu government, has come.

Israel needs to accept the deal offered by Egypt and supported by nearly the entire world and begin the process of ending the war, getting its hostages released, and releasing Palestinian prisoners. Once that is over, a considerable effort to begin the process of negotiations must ensue so that Palestinians can live in an independent and free state alongside a safe and secure state of Israel, as Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said in Riyadh last week.