As Gaza Talks Falter, Negotiators Look for a Deal or a Scapegoat

To understand what is happening now in the Middle East, it may be helpful to remember the dead cat.

That was a favorite metaphor for Secretary of State James A. Baker III as he shuttled around the region in 1991 trying to negotiate a complicated deal. With each recalcitrant player, Mr. Baker would threaten to “leave the dead cat” at their door — in other words, to make sure they were the ones blamed if the whole thing fell apart.

The question three decades later is whether today’s players are at that stage of the U.S.-brokered effort to negotiate a cease-fire in Gaza. Much of what the world is seeing at the moment is aimed at least in part at gaining advantage at the bargaining table, outmaneuvering other players and deflecting responsibility if no consensus is reached, leaving the brutal seven-month war to rage on.

Hamas released videos of hostages, presumably to remind the world of the stakes of the talks and raise the temperature on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who is already under enormous public pressure to secure their release. Mr. Netanyahu in recent days mounted airstrikes and sent tanks into Rafah in a saber-rattling move to make clear he is serious about invading the southern Gaza city. President Biden froze a shipment of American bombs to demonstrate that he is equally serious about curbing Israel’s arms supply if it does attack.

“Much of it is performative between Israel and Hamas, drawing a page from Baker’s dead-cat diplomacy,” said Aaron David Miller, who was part of Mr. Baker’s team at the time. “Part of the motivation is less to reach a deal and more to blame the other guy if it fails. The only party that’s really in a hurry is Biden.”

“And sure, he’s worried about Palestinian deaths if Bibi goes big in Rafah,” Mr. Miller added, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. “But he also knows it will make any negotiation” at that point “all but impossible.”

The prospects for an agreement appeared increasingly distant on Thursday as William J. Burns, the C.I.A. director who has been Mr. Biden’s main negotiator, left Cairo without a deal. Delegations from Israel and Hamas also departed, although midlevel officials from the United States and its fellow intermediaries, Egypt and Qatar, remained in Cairo to continue discussions in hopes of salvaging the process.

In theory, the main interlocutors were taking a break to see what Israel does with what it is calling a “limited” operation in Rafah. Reports from Cairo indicated that tempers were raw as various sides accused one another of bad faith, though American officials insist a deal is still possible.

This is the historic challenge for any negotiation in a region known for opaque intrigues, as Mr. Baker, Henry A. Kissinger and generations of other American deal-makers have learned so painfully. Much of what happens in the daylight is about posturing. Much of what really matters takes place in shadows within shadows.

Figuring out hidden motivations and actual red lines can elude even veterans of the region. All of the players at the table have domestic politics back home to keep in mind. None of them fully trusts the others. A new counteroffer can be a genuine effort to break a logjam or a clever way to put adversaries on the defensive.

The core question each side asks about the others is who really wants a deal and at what cost? Or is the whole thing just for show to claim the public high road?

“Much of what we are seeing is aimed in part at trying to gain advantage in the negotiations, but the sum total has been putting a deal farther off rather than making one come together,” said Michael Koplow, chief policy officer of the Israel Policy Forum.

The essence of a proposal on the table would call for a temporary cease-fire in exchange for the release of hostages. Israel would also free hundreds of Palestinians in its prisons, allow people to return to the northern part of Gaza and facilitate an expansive increase in humanitarian aid.

The first phase of the deal is where all sides appear closest to agreement. In that opening stage, Israel would call off hostilities for 42 days and Hamas would turn over 33 women, older men and sick and wounded hostages it seized during its Oct. 7 terrorist attack, although some of them would be the remains of those who died. A second phase would extend the cease-fire another 42 days and result in the release of more hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

The most vexing dispute centers on whether the deal would eventually lead to a permanent end to the war, which Hamas insists on and Israel has refused to guarantee. American negotiators have called for negotiating a “sustainable calm” after the cease-fire begins, without defining that precisely.

Mr. Netanyahu’s actions in Rafah in recent days, though, have complicated the dynamics. He has said he would invade Rafah “with or without a deal,” a vow that Hamas predictably considered a deal-killer. He also ordered limited strikes in Rafah in response to Hamas rocket attacks that killed four Israeli soldiers.

Mr. Biden has long objected to an assault on Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians have taken refuge, because he has seen no war plan that would not result in extensive civilian casualties. After months of warning Mr. Netanyahu against a Rafah operation, Mr. Biden finally took action after U.S. officials detected Israeli moves that they considered a prelude to an invasion. By pausing delivery of 3,500 bombs, Mr. Biden signaled that he will not provide more offensive weapons that would enable an attack on Rafah.

“Biden thinks that preventing a Rafah operation will force Israel to negotiate more concretely, and Netanyahu thinks that a new military operation will pressure Hamas to dial down its demands,” said Mr. Koplow. “But Netanyahu’s insistence that a Rafah operation will come no matter what sort of temporary cease-fire Israel agrees to removes any incentive for Hamas to negotiate.”

Moreover, he added, “Biden’s pressure to prevent any type of operation in Rafah also removes any Hamas incentive since” Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas military leader believed to be hiding out in the tunnels of Gaza, “can reasonably assume that he will soon get a de facto cease-fire for free so long as he continues to hold out.”

Mr. Koplow noted that Hamas has made demands to which it could not plausibly expect Israel to agree, like insisting that Palestinian prisoners released in the first phase be produced before all Israeli hostages have been released and insisting that Israel get no veto over who is freed. “Thus, they are perhaps more than any party here making a successful negotiation impossible,” he said.

But the dynamics have changed significantly in recent weeks. Mr. Biden originally said he was against an assault on Rafah unless and until he could be shown a plan by Israel that would minimize civilian casualties. After multiple consultations about Israeli war plans, Mr. Biden has effectively said that such a plan is not possible and that he opposes any major operation in Rafah.

“The blinking yellow light has turned a hard red,” said John Hannah, a senior fellow at the Jewish Institute for National Security of America who previously served as national security adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney. “If that holds, it’s a huge change.”

As a result, Mr. Hannah said, U.S. and Israeli interests, which were fairly aligned at the beginning of the war following the Hamas terrorist attack, have diverged sharply, transforming the negotiations.

While Mr. Netanyahu has said Israel’s mission is to destroy Hamas, the White House now sees that as an impossible goal and that Israel has already done lasting damage to ensure Hamas is not the threat it once was. Moreover, Mr. Biden is eager to broker a broader agreement that would transform the region by linking the United States closer to Saudi Arabia, which would extend diplomatic recognition to Israel for the first time — something impossible to imagine as long as the Gaza war continues.

“The president wants this war to end now — even if it comes at the price of allowing a much-degraded Hamas and its leadership to survive for the time being,” said Mr. Hannah. “He believes that he’s got much bigger fish to fry in terms of his re-election and regional agenda. In that sense, Israel and U.S. conceptions of a cease-fire and hostage deal are no longer aligned, but at loggerheads.”

Mr. Netanyahu said on Thursday he was willing to keep going with the war even without Mr. Biden. “If we need to stand alone, we will stand alone,” he said. But he has said that before even as he welcomed U.S. arms. Does he mean that now or is it the public position he has to take before negotiators return to the table? Is he really willing to alienate Israel’s closest and most important ally or does he use Mr. Biden’s position as a way to explain to his public why he backed down?

Those, of course, are not the only questions. Is Mr. Biden, who insists that his support for Israel is “ironclad,” really willing to cut off more offensive weapons at the price of heated criticism at home from Republicans and some pro-Israel Democrats accusing him of abandoning Israel?

As for Hamas, are its leaders willing to make concessions to avoid a devastating assault on Rafah? Or do they think such an operation might work to the group’s benefit by further ostracizing Israel from the rest of the world?

At the rate things are going, someone may soon find the cat on the front step. And many could pay the price.

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