Is there a path to ceasefire in Gaza?
80% of Gazans have been displaced from their homes. Food, sanitation, and healthcare are harder, and harder to find. Global calls for an Israel-Hamas ceasefire are growing.
Peter Beinart says a ceasefire is essential for Israel’s own long-term security.
Aaron David Miller counters that a ceasefire would play directly into the hands of Hamas.
Today, On Point: Is there a path to ceasefire in Gaza?
Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnagie Endowment for International Peace. Former State Department Middle East Advisor, Negotiator and Analyst.
Peter Beinart, author of the Beinart Notebook on Substack. Editor-at-large at Jewish Currents. Professor of journalism and political science at the City University of New York.
MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: Days after Hamas brutally attacked Israel on October 7th, President Joe Biden flew to Tel Aviv. He told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, quote, “As long as the United States stands, and we will stand forever. We will not let you ever be alone.” End quote. In the following weeks, Israel’s ground and air war in Gaza has continued to expand, now in both northern and southern Gaza.
And the Palestinian death toll continues to rise. To the extent that many parts of the world are calling for a ceasefire, while American support of Israel has not wavered, it’s undeniable that the frustration is creeping in. America’s secretaries of state and defense and the vice president have all signaled warnings to Israel, vocally calling for greater protection of Palestinian civilians. And yesterday, a burst of frustration came from the president himself.
At a Washington D.C. fundraiser, Biden said, quote, “Israel is starting to lose the world’s support by the indiscriminate bombing that takes place,” end quote. He then criticized the Israeli government, which he called the most conservative government in Israel’s history. And he had specific words for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
The president said, quote, “I think he has to change. And this government in Israel is making it very difficult for him to move.” Perhaps in anticipation of Biden’s public airing of a rift between the two leaders, Netanyahu released a video statement earlier yesterday, before Biden’s fundraiser, saying that he appreciated U.S. support of Israel and the backing the Biden administration gave Netanyahu for Israel’s ground war in Gaza. However, Netanyahu then went on to clarify his position, saying essentially, no to any ceasefire.
Netanyahu said, quote, “I would like to clarify my position. I will not allow Israel to repeat the mistake of Oslo. After the great sacrifice of our civilians and soldiers, I will not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate for terrorism practice, terrorism and finance terrorism. Gaza will be neither Hamastan or I will not allow the entry into Gaza of those who educate for terrorism practice, terrorism and finance terrorism. Gaza will be neither Hamastan or Fatahstan.”
End quote. Though the Biden administration has not indicated any support for a ceasefire, the administration’s focus on Israel and the long-term consequences of its current actions are undeniable. So today we’re going to push the question, does any path exist at all towards a ceasefire? That path for Israel is what we’re wondering about.
If so, what is it? Aaron David Miller joins us today. He’s Senior Fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. He’s also a former State Department Middle East Advisor, Negotiator, and Analyst. And he joins us from Washington. Aaron David Miller, welcome back to On Point.
AARON DAVID MILLER: Always a pleasure to be here, Meghna.
CHAKRABARTI: Peter Beinart is also with us today. He’s author of The Beinart Notebook on Substack. He’s also editor at large at Jewish Currents and a contributor on MSNBC. Peter Beinart, welcome to you.
PETER BEINART: Thank you.
CHAKRABARTI: So I’d like to first start with a question about whether or not there’s a common definition of ceasefire in the Israel-Hamas context.
So Aaron David Miller first to you, how would you define what any potential ceasefire would be?
MILLER: They come in various different shades and characters, I think. Humanitarian pause, which we’ve witnessed for seven days, it did involve relatively speaking, a cessation of hostilities. If we’re talking about a ceasefire. to which the government of Israel and at least until now, the United States objects.
We’re talking about a permanent cessation of hostilities. That’s certainly one interpretation. You could imagine a ceasefire of a longer extent, perhaps weeks, Middle East conflict is filled with examples of ceasefires that last for any number of weeks or months. Mostly, I might add, they’re broken, which is why a conflict ending solution to the problem of Israelis and Palestinians is desperately required.
But in this case, I think the opposition to a ceasefire, and I think that’s what we’re talking about with respect to what the government of Israel believes, and again, until now, the United States, would be a relatively permanent cessation of hostilities, indirectly negotiated, perhaps, between Israel and Hamas via the Egyptians or the Qataris, which would essentially freeze all military activity in place.
Without any quid pro quos, at least in the beginning.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Peter Beinart, same question to you how would you define ceasefire in this moment?
BEINART: Yes, I agree. It would mean a stop to fighting from both sides over an extended period of time, and then some kind of political process to begin to deal with the underlying issues.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so that actually answered what my next question was going to be, which would be, how would a ceasefire, since both of you didn’t necessarily say it would have to be permanent, but how would a ceasefire differ from the humanitarian pauses that we have seen happen and could hopefully potentially happen again in the future?
So Aaron David Miller, pick up what Peter Beinart said.
The ceasefire, if any ceasefire were to begin, it would require some kind of process, as well, to take care of the underlying issues.
MILLER: Let’s be clear. And by the way, it’s really great to be here with Peter. This is where the problems begin.
Because if we’re talking about a ceasefire that goes beyond any sort of relatively brief period in order to allow, let’s say, humanitarian assistance to surge into Gaza, or perhaps even, as we’ve witnessed, during that brief seven-day period, hostages, negotiations are hostages to come out. That’s one thing.
If we’re really talking again back here on planet Earth, not tethered to a galaxy far away, if we’re really talking about a political process between Israel and Hamas, which essentially leaves the organization and whatever military assets remain in place, with the expectation, let’s focus on the Israelis here for the moment.
The Israelis would accept such an outcome. I think that’s virtually impossible at this stage to contemplate. You might see a cessation of hostilities if, in fact, it was tethered, for example, to an all for all. Release all of the hostages in exchange for, and I’m sure Hamas is going to demand an asymmetrical trade, not just three to one as we witnessed, but probably 100 to one of Palestinian security prisoners, roughly six to 7,000.
That are now in Israeli jails and prisons, you could imagine that, I think the government of Israel will be hard pressed to accept that, but they might be under tremendous pressure. But if we’re talking about a permanent cessation of hostilities, that brings to an end this phase of the Israeli-Hamas conflict, which has been going on over the past two decades in its current form, then I think that’s virtually impossible for the government of Israel to accept.
CHAKRABARTI: So let me just jump in here and turn back to Peter. So it sounds like, just to distill it a little, as you heard Aaron David Miller, saying that perhaps humanitarian pauses are what’s really, are truly realistic and not the kind of ceasefire which protesters around the world are talking about, when they say ceasefire. I think they’re all looking for a permanent cessation of hostilities and therefore a cessation of the death toll of the Palestinian people. Do you feel that latter version of a ceasefire is as impossible as Aaron David Miller does?
BEINART: I think it has to be made possible by a movement, the kind of movements we’re seeing around the world.
This conversation has been, I have to say, quite antiseptic. Let’s be clear about what we’re talking about here. We have been witnessing one of the greatest slaughters of the 21st century. More children have been killed in Gaza, which is a very small area, since October 7th, than were killed in armed conflict around the entire world last year.
85% of people have been displaced from their homes. Large sections of Gaza have been rendered for the foreseeable future uninhabitable, which is why people press for people like Omer Bartov, one of the world’s greatest respected scholars of the Holocaust, has called for the Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem to step in because he warns of a potential genocide.
And we have had explicitly genocidal statements by Benjamin Netanyahu and others in the Israeli military. So that’s the scale of what we’re talking about. Historians are going to judge what the United States and all of us do at this moment. So yes, there are political realities in both Washington and Israel right now that might make it seem like a ceasefire is very difficult, but for the hundreds, if not thousands of people still trapped under the rubble in Gaza, and people who are starting to starve to death in Gaza, I think it’s incumbent if we care about their lives that we try to change those political realities.
CHAKRABARTI: Aaron David Miller. Go ahead.
MILLER: How could I contest the suffering and humiliation and degradation that the people of Gaza, 2.3 million, 1.8 or 9 that have been displaced, into an area which already was only twice the size of the District of Columbia with a population density of anywhere from 20 square humans, humans per square mile. It’s a catastrophe. I agree with Peter. It’s horrible and terrible. There’s no magic wand, however and again, I’m here as an analyst.
Primarily, I don’t see how you bring at least not yet, how you bring either the government of Israel or its key ally the United States, the Biden administration, to the point where they’re willing to accept that Hamas is a military organization. Forget ending its sovereignty in Gaza, which is another matter, that Hamas is a military organization, is essentially going to survive with the capacity, perhaps, in coming years to launch additional attacks against Israel and to basically control the economy and the politics of Gaza.
I just don’t see any way right now that either the government of Israel or the United States is going to accept that sort of outcome.
CHAKRABARTI: Let’s listen to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has repeatedly rejected international calls for a ceasefire. And here’s one moment. He laid out in late October that he believes a ceasefire would equate to a surrender by Israel.
NETANYAHU: Just as the United States would not agree to a ceasefire after the bombing of Pearl Harbor or after the terrorist attack of 9/11, Israel will not agree to a cessation of hostilities with Hamas after the horrific attacks of October 7th.
Calls for a ceasefire are calls for Israel to surrender to Hamas, to surrender to terrorism.
CHAKRABARTI: Aaron David Miller, let me ask you this, Israel has been clear on what its goal is, even if that goal is hard to define, right? They’ve said they want to eliminate Hamas. But as you hear there, Netanyahu won’t even entertain an idea of ceasefire until that goal is met.
But would it, will it actually be, “here on planet earth,” to quote you? Is that actually possible?
MILLER: Look, the Israeli objectives, Israel has three objectives, number one, to destroy as much of Hamas’s military infrastructure above and below ground as possible, to kill its senior leadership, particularly the three individuals responsible for October 7th, and to free hostages.
The political objective, I think, which the Biden administration shares, is not to obliterate Hamas as an organization. That’s impossible. Hamas is an embodiment of an idea. Exactly. That idea happens to be objectionable. We learned that from Al-Qaeda, right? And the war on terror. Which is the elimination of Israel and the creation of an Islamic state.
Those are the Israelis objectives. They’re ambitious. Two months in, I would argue they are not close to accomplishing those objectives. But I think it’s fair to understand, and Peter eloquently described the Palestinian tragedy. But we’re talking here as if there was only one hand clapping.
Let’s not forget the fact that even though the Israeli-Palestinian conflict hardly began on October 7th, that the brutality and the savagery, the indiscriminate killing, the sexual predation and savagery and the taking of hostages creates a situation in which Israel is not negotiating with the PLO.
It’s done that before. It’s not negotiating with the Palestinian authority. It’s done that before. It’s negotiating with a military slash terrorist organization that brutalized and traumatized its people. So when we talk about a ceasefire, in order to have a negotiation that succeeds, you need three things.
You need two parties who are willing, you need some mutually shared objective, and occasionally, as Peter knows, you need a third party or parties that can mediate. Right now, you have none of that, and you have none of it because one party’s objective, that is the Islamic Resistance Movement, Hamas, is simply to survive the Israeli onslaught.
Khalil Shikaki’s polls on the West Bank just out today suggest that Hamas stock on the West Bank has, its popularity, has tripled in size. As a consequence of the last two months, so this is a disaster for the Palestinian Authority, for the prospects of a negotiated settlement. In large part because the Israelis are dealing with an organization that didn’t attack Israel in order to make a point.
Or to set the stage for negotiation, it attacked Israel in order to inflict as much cruelty as it possibly could, and to provoke and perhaps even ignite, and this has not happened, fortunately, a regional war.
CHAKRABARTI: So Peter Beinart, let me ask you about something specific that Aaron David Miller said, and of course you can elaborate if you’d like, but this idea of a shared objective. I honestly don’t see any possibility of a shared objective. Because at the highest levels, Hamas has declared repeatedly its desire to eliminate the state of Israel.
But then even if there were a low, let’s say, lesser objective, perhaps of restarting any possibility of a path towards a two-state solution, the current Israeli government has come down hard and said, “No, that will never happen.” I think Aaron is making an excellent point that the twain will never meet and so therefore Israel is just going to say we have to continue until some of these other objectives are met.
What do you think?
BEINART: So first let me just entirely agree with Aaron about the utter horror and I would even say evil of what Hamas did on October 7th. And although I was speaking about what’s happening in Gaza now because it’s ongoing, we have the names of the hostages, the remaining hostages still on our refrigerator wall, and they are in our thoughts and prayers actually daily.
And part of the reason that I support a ceasefire is because I think, and probably some kind of prisoner exchange, which is what many of the hostage families are demanding, is because I think that is the only way to get at least some more of those hostages out alive.
And I can’t even imagine the trauma and agony of them, that they and their families are going through. I think one of the things, it’s really important to remember. And this is without minimizing the horror of what Hamas did or how fundamentally anathema its Islamist ideology is to anyone who believes in basic liberal principles, is this. Palestinians have been fighting against Israel since long before Hamas existed, including tragically in ways that killed lots of Israeli civilians.
The attacks of the 1970s, for instance, airline hijackers, the Ma’alot massacre, the Munich Olympics, none of those were done by Hamas or Islamists at all. They were done by nationalist and leftist factions. Why is this relevant? Because there seems to be some idea here that, not in Aaron, but I often hear in the public conversation, that if you could get rid of Hamas, then you would get some more moderate Palestinian leadership.
In fact, I think that it’s quite likely that out of the utter catastrophe in Gaza, the human suffering of Gaza, which will produce a tremendous desire for revenge. We know that Hamas recruits fighters from the families of people Israel has killed. You will have new Palestinian factions that could be worse.
And just as Israel could not imagine anything worse than the PLO when it went into southern Lebanon in the early 1980s and laid the groundwork for Hezbollah, and America could not imagine anything worse than Saddam Hussein and laid the groundwork for ISIS. I think that we have to think about this problem as a problem, which is much bigger than Hamas.
In my ideal world, and I think, again, we are a long way from this, and it would be very difficult. You would try to have a situation in which Hamas disarmed but joined a revived PLO, without, as a political party and the most popular Palestinian leaders like Marwan Barghouti, who have been languishing in jail for decades and decades, would be allowed out so you could have a revived Palestinian leadership.
Because most, many Palestinians don’t actually want Islamist politics, but the key thing would be you have to do the opposite of what Israel and America have been doing for years and years, which is we have politically discredited those Palestinians who have offered a vision of mutual coexistence.
We have discredited those Palestinians who have used ethical and nonviolent tactics. And we’ve done that by making the Palestinian Authority look like chumps, because they couldn’t stop settlement growth, even as they were collaborating with Israel. We’ve criminalized nonviolent forms of boycott inside the United States, we’ve shut down every Palestinian effort to use international law at the International Criminal Court.
And the U.N. If you want to change Palestinian politics, so you reverse these trends of Palestinians, don’t support this kind of horrifying attack on civilians. You have to show that there is a horizon in which ethical resistance to oppression can succeed.
CHAKRABARTI: Okay. So Aaron David Miller, I’m going to come back to you in just a moment, but I want to follow up with what Peter just said.
Okay. So Peter, I’m just going to step my mind back to, we’ve mentioned Iraq a couple of times here, and yes, look, the aftermath of the killing of Saddam Hussein and how the United States handled it, or rather did not handle it, absolutely led to the rise of ISIS and the catastrophe that Iraq became.
But there is a lesson to be drawn there, right? That there’s both the long-term changes that need to be made, that you called for, Peter, but there’s also the immediate crisis where something has to be done in order to open the doors to a long-term solution. And to that point, what I wonder is, I’ll just state, Hamas is not powerless in this question, right?
And I haven’t heard if they actually genuinely cared about the Palestinian people and the deaths of the Palestinians in Gaza right now, they could choose to say, here are these particular leaders. We feel like we’ve already had a victory. We struck a blow against Israel.
We’ve proven their weakness. Here’s the leaders that you want us to eject from Gaza. But instead, what I’ve been hearing Hamas leaders say, is the exact opposite. I’m not sure how much care they have for the Palestinian people. Just in late October, Ismail Haniyeh, the leader of Hamas, said effectively, the blood of women, children, and the elderly, we are the ones who need this blood, because it awakens within us the revolutionary spirit.
That has to, they’re making decisions that are also leading to the deaths of more Palestinians.
BEINART: Of course. I 100% agree. I don’t, I think Hamas by doing what it did on October 7th showed that it was willing to, it knew that this would lead to catastrophic destruction of the Palestinians in Gaza.
But to me, the important question really is not to ask about Hamas, who I agree, these people can rot in hell, as far as I’m concerned, is to ask about ordinary Palestinians. Why is it that the Palestinians are reacting this way. If you actually listen to Palestinians, if you listen to them, and it’s unfortunate, I have to say, that we don’t have a Palestinian on this.
CHAKRABARTI: Let me just stop you there, Peter, because we thought about this, and debated for days and days about the inclusion of a Palestinian voice. And we have had many Palestinians on the show, in recent weeks. But the reason why we did not, and I need to explain this for our listeners, because they’re probably wondering the same thing, is that we really wanted to keep this focus, the conversation focused on the decisions that Israel, its goals and what it would have to make, the decisions it would have to make if any kind of additional pause or ceasefire were possible.
And we came to that framing because it’s obvious from the signals of the Biden administration that’s where their focus is. So that was our editorial consideration. This will not be our last show about, obviously, but I wanted to state that.
BEINART: I know.
I certainly appreciate that, but these things are intertwined, which is to say, when we analyze what Israel or America is doing. Those analyses are based on certain assumptions ideas about how the Palestinians are going to respond. And if you listen to Palestinians, especially Palestinians from Gaza. What they say is yes, we’re now being killed by Israel quickly, but we were dying slowly, because we were living under a blockade that, according to the United Nations, had made life unlivable for human beings, in which Human Rights Watch called an open-air prison.
And if you listen to Palestinians in the West Bank, what they say is, what we got for having a political leadership, the Palestinian Authority that didn’t use violent resistance, indeed collaborated with Israel to make sure there wasn’t much violent resistance. What we got was further, further encroachment into our land, massive amounts of settler violence and moving, being herded into the smaller and smaller enclaves in the West Bank with Israel controlling all the land in between.
So that’s the political context that makes it easier for Hamas to do the kinds of horrifying attacks on civilians. If you want to make it harder for Hamas to do that, you have to change Palestinian politics, and that only changes if Israel and America adopt a different approach.
CHAKRABARTI: Yeah, point well taken.Aaron David Miller, I appreciate you, your patience in listening in here. Pick up, give us your reaction to what Peter said, because indeed, is a path towards a potential ceasefire, a greater willingness, or even spoken willingness, let’s say.
Or openness by the Israeli government to do essentially what it’s sworn it would never do, which is pull back on settlements.
MILLER: No, you’re dealing with the most extreme, right wing, homophobic, and in terms of at least two ministers, Jewish supremacist government in the history of the state of Israel.
Dealing with this government on anything other than the immediate crisis, and the challenges of that are galactic in character, is a key to an empty room. And while I agree with Peter that a political, I would disagree with his characterization. It’s somewhat personal. In my case, in the sense that I’ve participated for decades in many of these failed efforts between Israelis, Americans and Palestinians, to create a better pathway toward a conflict ending solution.
But let’s be clear, Meghna, this is not one hand clapping. There is enough blame and responsibility on the part of all parties to reach the conclusion that on October 6th, we were light years away from any kind of conflict ending solution. What happened on October 7th, the bloodiest, deadliest, most traumatic phase of the Israeli Palestinian conflict, in which we’re still involved, is going to make it all that much more difficult to fundamentally change attitudes and have those attitudes be translated into actions.
In the end, I’d short circuit this, by basically saying the following, if you want a chance to create the kind of environment that would give Israelis and Palestinians the possibility of driving toward a conflict ending solution that would resolve the problems of Jerusalem, borders, security, refugees, and end of conflict in all claims, the one missing ingredient, on both sides, and I would argue, including in Washington, is leadership.
Without leaders who are willing to make the kinds of choices and carry their respective publics with them, and that includes Washington as well. There is no way that we’re going to be able to move beyond what we’re watching right now, at the moment, I see no way out 6, 7, 8 days into this conflict. Because the fundamental objectives of the two major combatants are still irreconcilable.
And right now, it is magical thinking, in my judgment, to believe that a ceasefire, the best you can do, and we may be reaching that point, is another humanitarian pause, perhaps of more extended duration, that would allow another hostage exchange. From Israel’s point of view, this government is under tremendous pressure to redeem.
By the way, the count now is about 117 live hostages. The Israelis believe that an additional 20, which would, the number we were working on as of last week was 137, a 127, 37, that 20 have died. And then there’s the question of the women, the 20 women that Hamas refused to return.
Which is why the negotiations broke down before. And as to why they were, but my point is —
CHAKRABARTI: we have five seconds.
MILLER: At best right now, you can imagine another humanitarian pause that would create space for an exchange of hostages for prisoners.
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