Why Ceasefire Talks Are Stuck

A breakdown of the political dynamics that have prevented a ceasefire in Gaza.

Alex Kane
June 24, 2024

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and United States President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, October 18th, 2023.

Evan Vucci/AP

Last November, Israel and Hamas agreed on a one week ceasefire in Gaza. During that time, Hamas released 105 hostages and Israel released 240 Palestinian prisoners, and Israel allowed more humanitarian aid to enter the besieged enclave. There was hope among key mediators who had helped secure the deal that the temporary ceasefire would turn into a permanent one. “We are trying to build trust and goodwill to open the door for a long-term peace,” an Egyptian official involved in the negotiations told The Wall Street Journal. However, the temporary truce ultimately expired at the end of the week, and despite repeated rounds of attempted negotiations, there has not been another.

Now, over eight months into an Israeli assault that experts have called a genocide, yet another round of ceasefire talks is underway, with the US taking a more public role than in previous rounds. On June 10th, the US voted in favor of a United Nations Security Council ceasefire resolution for the first time since October 7th. (The US had previously vetoed three UN resolutions demanding a ceasefire, and abstained from a fourth.) The recent UN resolution backed a plan put forth in a May 31st speech by President Joe Biden himself, outlining three stages for achieving a ceasefire in the coming months. However, two weeks after the successful UN ceasefire vote, fighting continues in Gaza, with Israel’s attacks causing more civilian deaths and its siege of the Strip perpetuating what the World Health Organization has called “catastrophic hunger and famine-like conditions.”

With no ceasefire deal in sight, Israel and the US have pinned the blame on Hamas, with Biden saying it was Hamas that has to “move” on the new proposal and an Israeli official claiming the militant group had “rejected the proposal.” A Hamas official, however, said in an interview with Reuters that he saw no major gap between Biden’s plan and the group’s response, and that it was Israel that was blocking a truce. In this explainer, Jewish Currents interviewed regional experts to cut through the claims and counterclaims and examine why a ceasefire hasn’t been reached.

What is the three-step ceasefire proposal that is currently on the table, and how have the different parties reacted to it?

The proposal that Biden has advanced lays out three main stages toward a ceasefire. First, over a period of six weeks, there would be a withdrawal of Israeli troops from populated areas in Gaza, alongside the exchange of some prisoners and hostages between the two sides. During this stage, negotiations would commence for stage two, during which all remaining Israeli hostages, including soldiers, would be released; Israel would fully withdraw its forces from Gaza; and both sides would commit to a permanent halt to hostilities. The third stage would see the start of the reconstruction of Gaza, as well as the return of any outstanding remains of dead Israeli hostages.

Israel and Hamas have had different reactions to this proposal. For its part, Hamas has said it was ready to engage “positively” with the plan—a response in line with the group’s previous acceptance of an Egyptian-Qatari proposal offered in early May that was similar to the Biden plan. Hamas itself had also proposed a similar three-stage ceasefire deal in February, but Israel rejected it. On June 11th, the Palestinian group sent its detailed response to the Biden plan to Qatari and Egyptian mediators, and while the exact contents of the response are not public, Hamas reportedly proposed some changes to the plan, including demands that Israel withdraw troops from certain strategic areas during the first week of the truce, that there be a complete stop to Israel’s assault before any hostage–prisoner exchange, and that Turkey, Russia, and China sign on to the deal and guarantee its fulfillment.

Overall, experts say Hamas’s most important priority is securing guarantees that the ceasefire deal will actually result in a permanent halt to the war. “Hamas is concerned about giving away important leverage—hostages that are of high value to Israel—without a permanent ceasefire,” said Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and a fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The minute hostages are released, Israel has no reason not to try to complete what they started after October 7th, leading to even more Palestinians dying, being forcibly displaced, and succumbing to starvation.” Hamas’s thinking is informed by Palestinians’ response to the devastating toll of the war on Gaza. “While Hamas is popular among Palestinians, many of whom see it as the only party that is fighting for their defense, the group is not impervious to shifts in public opinion,” said Tariq Kenney-Shawa, US Policy Fellow for the Palestinian think tank Al-Shabaka. “There are many Palestinians in Gaza who have had their lives destroyed, and Hamas needs Israeli forces out of Gaza, a hostage exchange, and a clear prospect of reconstruction to chalk this up as a victory.”

However, Israel’s support for the deal is in question. When Biden first announced the three-stage ceasefire proposal, he stressed that it was actually an Israeli plan. Indeed, the Israeli war cabinet had approved the plan in late May, and after Biden’s speech, Netanyahu’s political adviser Ophir Falk said he backed the deal. On Monday, Netanyahu also stated that he supports “the Israeli proposal welcomed by President Biden.” But Israeli leaders’ support of the deal remains in doubt. On June 2nd, Falk expressed some ambivalence about the deal in an interview to Britain’s Sunday Times, saying that while Israel had agreed to the terms because “we dearly want the hostages released,” it was “not a good deal.” Netanyahu himself has raised more serious concerns about Israel’s commitment to the deal, repeatedly stating that any talk of a ceasefire before the destruction of Hamas was a “nonstarter.” Following the UN vote, Reut Shapir Ben-Naftaly, Israel’s political coordinator at the UN, similarly said that the war would not end until Hamas’s military capabilities were “dismantled.” And on Monday, in the same speech where he voiced support for the deal, Netanyahu said Israel’s war would go on “until we eliminate Hamas’s military and government capabilities,” a position contrary to the terms of the deal.

In doubling down on this approach, experts say Netanyahu is trying to appease the far-right parties in his coalition, whose support he relies on to stay in power, and whose leaders say they would leave the government if the war concludes before Israel “destroys” Hamas. “The pressure from within Netanyahu’s coalition and from within the Likud party is very high,” said Daniel Levy, the president of the US/Middle East Project, noting that even despite protests within Israel calling for a hostage deal as well as rising pressure from the US, “Netanyahu’s interests are still better served under circumstances of continued war.”

But US officials and even Israel’s own military spokesperson have admitted that the goal of eliminating Hamas is not achievable. “The idea that we can destroy Hamas or make Hamas disappear is misleading to the public,” Israeli army spokesman Daniel Hagari said in a recent interview on Israeli television. Given this admission, Kenney-Shawa says, Israel’s insistence on “dismantling Hamas” as a precondition to a ceasefire effectively destroys the possibility for one. Besides, Kenney-Shawa noted, this stance weakens negotiations with Hamas overall. “Why would any organization agree to a plan that assures their own destruction?”

Hamas and Israel agreed to a temporary ceasefire and hostage exchange back in November. Why were they able to overcome their sticking points in that moment but not since?

In November, the political dynamics were similar to the ones shaping ceasefire talks today. Hamas wanted an end to current hostilities, while Israel maintained a commitment to “destroying Hamas.” However, these dynamics were superseded by pressures surrounding the hostage crisis. Israel was open to the temporary agreement because of pressure from hostages’ families and concerns that some sick and elderly hostages might die soon, said Hassan. Meanwhile, “Hamas had an image [problem] after the October 7th massacre,” said Mairav Zonszein, a senior analyst on Israel/Palestine at the International Crisis Group. Hassan agreed, noting that Hamas likely wanted to release civilian hostages, especially children or the elderly, to boost its image and “show the difference between how it treats prisoners versus how Israel had been treating Palestinian [prisoners].” (During the exchange, Hamas released a number of videos of hostages thanking Hamas militants or waving goodbye to their captors.) Zonszein also noted that at that point, Hamas held so many hostages that releasing some did not meaningfully reduce their leverage with Israel. “They saw it as a win-win to get rid of some hostages, including really small kids, while securing the release of some Palestinian prisoners and still be left holding hostages,” she said. In addition, “Hamas was very eager for there to be some respite for the civilian population of Gaza from almost two months of ceaseless and relentless bombing,” said Mouin Rabbani, co-editor of Jadaliyya, an independent online magazine focusing on the Middle East.

Zonszein noted that part of what was different about November was that at that point, there was not yet pressure from Israel’s allies to reach a permanent truce, leaving Israel open to negotiating a pause which would still allow it to “destroy Hamas” afterwards. Zonszein said that Israel “would still be happy for another pause to get some hostages, and then continue fighting.” Indeed, on Sunday, Netanyahu said he was “ready to do a partial deal” that would “bring back some of the people,” and then “continue the war after the pause.” But Hamas, weary of a temporary truce that ends with more Israeli bombings, continues to hold out for guarantees that another hostage–prisoner exchange will lead to the conclusion of the war. “The stakes are a lot higher now, as more than 37,000 Palestinians have been killed,” said Kenney-Shawa.

What has changed in the Biden administration’s calculations over a ceasefire in the past eight months, and what has remained constant?

Biden’s May 31st speech marked a break in how the administration approached the issue of a ceasefire. For months after October 7th, the administration refused to support a ceasefire, and instead only backed temporary pauses in fighting to increase humanitarian aid. The recent shift in the administration’s position is likely due to multiple factors, said Rabbani, pointing to Biden’s worry over the electoral costs of a continued war as well as “the US feeling increasingly isolated on the international stage.” But Rabbani said that the most important reason Biden has shifted is that a ceasefire now would prevent “the eruption of a full scale, regional conflict,” especially since both the Houthis in Yemen and Hezbollah in Lebanon—armed groups that have launched attacks on Israel in solidarity with Palestinians—have said they won’t stop their operations until a ceasefire is reached in Gaza.

Levy said that Biden’s decision to publicly lay out a ceasefire deal for the first time may have been a gambit to change Netanyahu’s calculations, encouraging him to break with his far-right coalition partners and join his political opponents Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid in a governing coalition. (Lapid has repeatedly offered to join Netanyahu’s government in exchange for his approval of the hostage deal.) But, Levy said, the Biden administration has weakened its cause by advancing the ceasefire proposal without threatening consequences if Netanyahu refuses. “Shifting Netanyahu’s calculation would require the administration to sustain a stand-off with Israel’s leadership, something they have shown no sign of doing,” he said. Instead, the proposal has been advanced “without showing any spine,” suggesting that the administration might be “equally okay with the devastation continuing,” Levy said.

Experts say that the administration could still shift Netanyahu’s calculations by applying real pressure on Israel. “There’s room for increased diplomatic pressure, there’s room for increased economic pressure, but the United States and its allies aren’t taking advantage of that opening,” said Kenney-Shawa. In particular, withholding US arms to Israel could shift Netanyahu’s interests. “If the military is feeling squeezed on the weapons front, then they are going to have to say to the prime minister, ‘we need to make some choices,’” said Levy.

The prospects of such a US policy change, however, appear to be low. “The US, as usual, is exerting all the pressure on Hamas,” said Kenney-Shawa. Biden administration officials have repeatedly blamed the Palestinian group for the stalling of talks. “They’re trying to paint themselves as wanting a ceasefire,” said Muhannad Ayyash, an Al-Shabaka analyst and professor of sociology at Mount Royal University, while “saying that the real problem is Hamas.” This way, Levy said, “everyone can be in their happy place of blaming Hamas, and pretend to their own public that they had made a fair effort.” Kenney-Shawa said that this approach is a reflection of the Biden administration’s priorities, which include allowing Israel to “achieve its [stated] objectives” with further massacres of Palestinians, while “managing the war in the eyes of the international community and the domestic public.” “If this means forcing Hamas into a ‘ceasefire’ agreement that doesn’t actually ensure the war will end,” he said, “the US seems to be saying, so be it.”

Alex Kane is a senior reporter for Jewish Currents.