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Artillery Row

Giving peace a chance

War has had its opportunity, and it has failed

Behind the sound and fury of the standoff between Joe Biden and Bibi Netanyahu lies a hidden, and sadly forgotten, hope. It comes from a President who has been bedevilled politically when it comes to the war in Gaza. Indeed, he could lose his job to Donald Trump because of it. Still, Joe Biden, for all his many failings and mistakes over the past seven months, is trying to give peace a chance. 

There’s been no shortage of criticism of Biden’s handling of this crisis — not least in the pages of The Critic. In the past few days, since he put a hold on American arms shipments to Israel and demanded that Netanyahu not storm the desperate town of Rafah, with its million-plus refugees, the crescendo of naysayers has been loud and clear, uniting the Israeli leader and a serious slice of Washington’s body politic in hot denunciation.

“Biden’s ploy will come back to haunt him, America and the West,” said John Bolton, a former National security adviser and longtime favourite of the Republican Right, accusing the President of giving in to the terrorists of Hamas, and destroying trust with allies (think Ukraine, says Bolton, or Taiwan). Biden’s “imprudent, even juvenile” strategy is all about winning votes this election year, claims Bolton. “This is no profile in courage.” 

Netanyahu’s tone, meanwhile, has been blistering — matched by his signing-off on the launch of furious fighting for the last holdouts of the remaining Hamas brigades in Rafah. “You will not chain our hands,” said the Prime Minister, speaking from the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem on Israel’s Holocaust day no less. “And even if Israel has to stand alone, it will continue to fight our enemies until it has victory.” He paused, as ever the savvy wordsmith and messenger. “We will defeat our genocidal enemies. Never again is now.”

Listening to Biden’s team in recent days, however, one finds a three-pronged argument for Israel seeking a negotiated end to the carnage in Gaza. Their case, they argue, is based on a pragmatic as well as moral analysis of the war. One, total victory is an illusion. Two, time is running out for the hostages. Finally, their own intelligence, from the weeks of deal-making via intermediaries in Qatar and Egypt, makes them believe that a deal is still possible.

Firstly, you have only to listen to John Kirby, the White House spokesman on national security, as importantly a high-ranking military commander (Rear Admiral), not just a political apparatchik. Kirby has been disarmingly straight about what US Intelligence sees from any bloody endgame in Rafah. “Our view is that a major Rafah ground operation actually strengthens Hamas’s hand at the negotiating table,” he said, forecasting that thousands of more civilian deaths would be the source of “ammunition for Hamas….strategic victory.”

Kirby’s warning has been bolstered by US intelligence openly questioning whether the Israelis can dismantle the so-called Gaza metro — the 300-plus miles of underground tunnels that serve as the Hamas trench-line. “All but impossible to destroy quickly or cleanly,” Kirby’s team concludes. “Some absolute, conclusive victory seems indeed an illusion.” 

But then there was the latest from that other critical slice of the Palestinian world under Israeli control, the West Bank, showing rising support for Hamas in opinion polls. That has been coupled with strong recruitment for Islamic Jihad in communities long since radicalised by the years of Israeli occupation, as I wrote in the pages well before the horrific Hamas assault on Israeli last October

“For every Palestinian death in Rafah, or Khan Younis, or the Jabalia camp,” to quote one longstanding aide to Joe Biden when he was Vice-President under Barack Obama, “You can count 5,10, maybe 20 volunteers.” Or, in the words of Senator Chris Murphy, a Biden ally: “Israel has to understand that more civilian casualties, then the humanitarian disaster is in the long run going to make Hamas stronger, and more likely that Israel will be attacked again, the United States too.”

Then comes the issue of the remaining Israeli hostages. The number of those alive is dwindling

Then comes the issue of the remaining Israeli hostages. The number of those alive is dwindling with every round of violence as Hamas announces the deaths of those killed. The hostages remain central to any deal in Qatar or Egypt — indeed what’s been on the table for weeks now is the release of some 33 hostages Israel asked for, part of a document that represents “basically a road map for the end of the war,” to quote a US source who has accompanied CIA chief Bill Burns to the negotiations. “This peace process is not dead.”

So, far from calling quits, the Biden team, and the President himself, insist peace still has a chance. So much so that Biden has instructed his National security adviser, Jake Sullivan, to prepare for another round of talks, including the Saudis, in pursuit of a diplomatic endgame that would have the likes of the Saudis’ ruthless but pragmatic new generation leading the Arab world in finally recognising Israel, in return for a permanent ceasefire and a Palestinian state.

Wishful thinking? Perhaps, especially given that Netanyahu’s own survival hinges on delivering that total victory over Hamas. But for once, it’s time to recognise perhaps that Joe Biden, a creature of decades in the US Senate, learned in those corridors of power that you never give up chasing a deal.

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