11 February 2024

Why is there still no Gaza ceasefire? Because self-interested world leaders are obstructing it

Simon Tisdall

Netanyahu knows he’s barely clinging to power, Biden is playing a bigger game, and Hamas’s leadership cares little for the vast suffering since 7 October

The people of Gaza cry out for a ceasefire. Each day brings more bloodshed, more devastation, hunger, disease and tears. Spell it out: nearly twenty-eight thousand Palestinian dead. In total, about 100,000 killed, injured or missing. Among the survivors, huge numbers of children, maimed, orphaned, traumatised for life.

Around the world, millions of protesters demand a ceasefire. They appeal to politicians to do more, do anything, to stop the carnage now. In mosques, churches, synagogues, people of all faiths pray the slaughter will end. To Israel’s 1,200 October dead are daily added the lost lives of soldiers sent to avenge them and the hostages cruelly seized by Hamas.

Arab and European governments, the US, Russia, China and Iran all want a ceasefire, or truce, or “humanitarian pause” – or at least, they say they do. Yemen’s Houthis and Iraqi and Syrian militias promise a ceasefire would halt their destabilising attacks. A ceasefire could reduce the risk of catastrophic, escalating regional war.

The global view seems clear. There exists an international consensus, repeatedly expressed through the UN – whose agencies, running out of adjectives to describe the Gaza horrors, are reduced to desperate pleading. This war is inhuman, immoral and unjust. It is hugely damaging, economically and politically. It shames us all and it must be halted, now, immediately. So what’s stopping it? Why on earth is there still no ceasefire?

Each day is a rollercoaster. Officials involved in indirect, Arab-mediated talks express a note of cautious positivity; hopes are dashed, then they revive. For Palestinians trapped in Gaza and for the hostages’ families, it’s excruciating. At this moment, after weekend counter-proposals from Hamas, optimism is rising once again.

Yet even assuming the complex terms of a limited deal are finally agreed, what realistic prospect is there that it will hold, let alone bring a broader peace? The root problem is not the mechanics of a ceasefire but the greatly differing, seemingly irreconcilable short- and long-term agendas of the interested parties. No deal can banish a basic lack of trust.

Unwisely, Joe Biden is linking a Gaza deal to his over-ambitious attempt to forge a wider Middle East settlement. In the first instance, the White House wants a “sustained pause in hostilities”. Yet it continues, for now, to oppose an open-ended “general ceasefire” because, parroting Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, it says that risks leaving Hamas undefeated and in power.

Biden’s longer-term “grand bargain” ultimately includes acceptance by Israel of a vague “political horizon” for Palestinians seeking an independent state. Yet for Washington, normalisation of Israel-Saudi Arabia relations – not Palestinian self-determination – is the bigger, more immediate and enticing prize.

As long as Biden refuses to stand up to Netanyahu, US leverage is limited. And if Donald Trump triumphs in November, American support for Israel will probably become unconditional, as Netanyahu, Trump’s buddy, knows full well. Biden’s scheme reflects his electoral need for a big foreign policy win. It pays insufficient attention to what, in all justice, is actually required – starting with a full ceasefire now.

In Israel, unpopular Netanyahu clings to power by a thread. He flatly rejects Hamas’s call for a permanent cessation since this would thwart his foolish, oft-repeated vow to eradicate his enemy and achieve “total victory”. His aim of maintaining Israeli security control of Gaza indefinitely would also be rendered infeasible. He reviles the very thought of a Palestinian state.

Military pressure has not freed the hostages, as he said it would. Hamas has not been defeated after four months – and many Israeli soldiers have died. This, coming on top of the 7 October security failures, should be enough by itself to sink Netanyahu. A ceasefire lasting more than a few weeks, and resulting pressure to make it permanent, would in any event lead far-right ministers to collapse his ruling coalition.

So primarily for selfish political reasons, Netanyahu will oppose all but the most modest hostage-prisoner exchange deal, if he possibly can, and will probably insist on a strictly time-limited pause in fighting.

In such cynical calculations he is far from alone. Hamas’s leaders are split, too, between those in Gaza who, exhausted, want a ceasefire now, and those based in Doha, who are pressing for a better deal that would include thousands of “security prisoner” releases, reconstruction funding and a total Israeli military withdrawal.

Hamas’s exiled political leaders, principally Ismail Haniyeh, have shown zero concern for the vast suffering that followed the 7 October attack. Whether he or the Hamas commander in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, ordered it is a moot point. Since then, Haniyeh has sought maximum political advantage while ensuring his own safety. His overall aim remains unchanged: destruction of the “Zionist entity”.

What some call the new “axis of evil” – China, Russia and Iran – could be doing much more to attain the ceasefire they claim to support. Hamas, for example, wants them to provide guarantees. But they, in common with European leaders, have been found wanting so far. Iran’s mullahs are actively enjoying Israel’s travails. They publicly deplore the misery of Gaza’s Palestinians, yet see it privately as a means to advance the national geopolitical agenda.

So why no ceasefire? The simple answer is that self-interested, fearful and ineffectual political leaders obstruct it. One day, hopefully soon, the guns will fall silent in Gaza – if only because all wars come to an end eventually. But how long the quiet lasts is another matter entirely.

The history of the Palestinian people is one long scream of rage and pain. Sticking plasters will not work. Backroom deals and shoddy compromises fall apart. Without a credible, internationally supported peace plan and firm timetable for the creation of an independent Palestinian state, the screaming will not cease.

Simon Tisdall is a foreign affairs commentator. He has been a foreign leader writer, foreign editor and US editor for the Guardian

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