Middle East

Biden administration pushing Middle East allies to make threats to Hamas in push for a Gaza ceasefire deal

By Kylie Atwood and MJ Lee, CNN

CNN  —  The Biden administration has spent the last week pushing allies in the Middle East to make specific threats to Hamas, as part of an urgent campaign to push the group toward accepting the latest Israeli ceasefire and hostage proposal that would pause the fighting in Gaza.

US officials have publicly called on the group to accept previous ceasefire proposals on the table as Israel and Hamas have engaged in months of back-and-forth negotiations, but there has never been an all-out pressure campaign marked by specific asks to individual countries as part of the Biden administration’s push.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has held almost a dozen calls with key players in the region since Friday and other top State Department officials have been intimately involved in the all-hands on deck effort.

White House Middle East Coordinator Brett McGurk traveled to Egypt this week and CIA Director Bill Burns went to Qatar in the hopes of adding traction to the negotiations, but US officials have remained largely mum on the trips so far, citing the sensitivity of the ongoing diplomatic work.

An initial response from Hamas on Wednesday to the most recent Israeli proposal, as publicly described by President Joe Biden last week, appeared to signal that the gaps may still be significant. While it welcomed what Biden laid out, upon seeing the proposal brought by mediators, Hamas said that it “turned out to be devoid of the positive foundations contained in Biden’s statements.”

“It does not guarantee a permanent ceasefire, but rather a temporary one” and allows for Israeli forces to remain in Gaza territory, the group said in a statement obtained by CNN.

Still, the Biden administration believes there is an opportunity to close the deal, one US official said. A different source told CNN Thursday that Egypt has received encouraging signs from Hamas on the latest proposal, though they declined to detail exactly what those positive indications were.

Hamas is expected to respond to Israel’s proposal in the coming days, sources said.

As the Israel-Hamas conflict is on the eve of entering its ninth month, US officials are urging Qatar, Egypt and Turkey to turn up the heat on Hamas by using multiple pressure points. They’ve asked multiple countries to threaten to freeze the bank accounts of Hamas members and clamp down on their ability to freely travel in the region, according to two US officials. In many cases, members of Hamas have long been able to operate freely despite members of the terror group.

The US has urged Qatar – who allows Hamas to operate a political office in its capital – to declare that it will kick out the terrorist group if they don’t accept the deal, according to one of those US officials. After months of telling Hamas that they could risk getting kicked out, Qatar has now actually made that threat, that official said.

State Department spokesperson Matt Miller said on Wednesday that the US has seen both Egypt and Qatar “exert significant pressure on Hamas,” but he refused to get into the details of those separate pressure campaigns.

“We have seen both countries play I think an incredibly important role in mediating this deal, in making clear that this deal is in the interests of the Palestinian people, and doing so appropriately,” Miller said.

US officials privately say that Egypt is putting more pressure on Hamas than they have in the past, but the specifics of exactly how far the Egyptians have gone in their private dialogue with the group remain unclear. They say the US wants Cairo to threaten to cut off the access points from Egypt to Gaza, a key lifeline for the enclave.

Biden unleashed the pressure campaign

The Biden administration’s intense pressure campaign coincides with Biden’s speech last Friday declaring that Hamas must accept the Israeli proposal on the table. Biden laid out three phases of a deal that he said the Israelis had transmitted to Hamas the night before he spoke.

“And as long as Hamas lives up to its commitments, the temporary ceasefire would become, in the words of the Israeli proposals, ‘the cessation of hostilities permanently,’” Biden said of the deal.

The Biden administration had been considering Biden giving a speech addressing the Israeli public for some time and last week’s address came together quickly as an opportunity to do so.

“It was a very busy weekend after the president’s speech, with everyone working the phones, talking to regional interlockers and pressing them to get Hamas to accept the deal,” one US official said.

As US officials have feverishly gamed out every lever they can pull, there has been private acknowledgement by some that there is no plan B for what would happen if Hamas comes back with a rejection – a reality that adds to the weight of this moment.

The US political calendar also remains a key factor. US officials had hoped for the war to end by the beginning of the calendar year, well before the presidential campaign’s general election got underway. But with the ceasefire negotiations halting to a stop at multiple junctures, now, the Democratic National Convention where Biden is set to formally receive his party’s nomination is now less than three months away, adding to the urgency that Biden allies feel as the backlash against the war only continues to mount at home.

And now, one week after the latest Israeli proposal was transmitted to Hamas, it remains unclear if the pressure campaign will succeed.

US officials say they have a decent idea of how to exert pressure that would impact the members of Hamas who are operating outside of the battlefield in Gaza, but the paramount challenge is convincing Yahya Sinwar – Hamas’ leader in Gaza who is believed to be hiding underground – to accept the deal.

Miller acknowledged Wednesday that Sinwar might not see it as in his interest to accept the deal on the table.

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