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Some Biden administration officials quietly say the hostage exchange agreement is the clearest signal yet its strategy toward the Israel-Hamas war is working.
Under the breakthrough deal, 50 women and children will be released by Hamas in exchange for 150 Palestinian prisoners, women and teenagers held by Israelis. A four- to five-day pause would allow them a safer transfer and ease the delivery of life-saving aid to suffering Palestinians in Gaza. Amid so much wreckage and chaos, the hostage deal — which was finalized late Tuesday — might prove a rare bright spot in a dark time.
Three U.S. administration officials said there’s no explicit victory lap to take as around 200 hostages will stay behind in Hamas’ grasp. And it would be uncouth to celebrate any win after Hamas killed 1,200 people on Oct. 7, leading Israel to forcefully respond with a military campaign that Hamas-led health ministries claim killed more than 13,000 people.
But all suggested President Joe Biden shouldn’t shy away from what the policy has accomplished to date. “It’s vindication,” said one of the officials earlier Tuesday before the deal was finalized, “but there’s more to do.”
Increasing demands from progressive-minded Democrats for a cease-fire and an end to support for Israel’s retaliation fell on deaf ears in the White House. Biden and his team repeated, again and again, that the only way to make meaningful humanitarian progress was a hostage deal to cool passions and temporarily stop bombs from falling throughout the enclave.
To reach such a moment, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who already faced immense pressure from hostage families and a restless nation, could only be nudged with hugs in public and quiet cajoling.
The deal may still fall apart, with U.S. officials insisting nothing is really final until the hostages are brought home and the guns go silent. Still, on the verge of the administration’s biggest diplomatic victory of the conflict, questions are swirling internally about how much credit Biden’s approach deserves.
Another three administration officials, including one senior official during an on-record interview, said that working to secure the release of hostages, and pause the fighting for four or five days, was simply necessary as Israel’s retaliation against Hamas for the Oct. 7 attack has devastated Gaza and sparked a humanitarian crisis.
“It’s not a question of vindication of strategy,” said David Satterfield, the U.S. lead on humanitarian issues in the Israel-Gaza war during a live Tuesday interview with al-Monitor. “It is the right and necessary thing to do.”
All the officials were granted anonymity to discuss sensitive internal discussions and the state of negotiations. On Tuesday morning, Biden said "nothing is done until it's done," adding that he'd spoken recently to Netanyahu as well as the emir of Qatar. "But things are looking good at the moment."
The hostage talks have been complicated at times by the sheer range of parties involved — including Israel, Hamas, Qatar and the U.S. — as well as various outside groups that tapped their own diplomatic channels, said one former U.S. official familiar with the discussions. The large number of hostages, who range in nationality and age and in some cases had pressing medical needs, added another tricky variable to the mix.
“Hostage negotiations are always challenging,” the former official said. “But this one has been very complex.”
The Biden administration insists that Israel has an obligation to defend itself but should minimize civilian harm in the process. Over recent weeks, the U.S. worked to get 100 aid trucks a day into Gaza from Egypt and is in touch with humanitarian groups on how to further alleviate the suffering of Palestinians in the enclave.
But the administration remains wary about Netanyahu’s endgame and seeming lack of a plan for what to do once Hamas is defeated. There was no sense that the pause would turn into a lengthier cease-fire, a senior administration official said. And there was some concern in the administration about an unintended consequence of the pause: that it would allow journalists broader access to Gaza and the opportunity to further illuminate the devastation there and turn public opinion on Israel.
Israel is unlikely to ramp down its military operation in Gaza when the temporary pause ends, experts say. Israeli officials have vowed to continue the offensive until it destroys Hamas, arguing in some cases that the campaign from the enclave’s north to the south helped the hostage negotiations by making a halt more attractive.
“There is no indication on the Israeli side that they think this actually changes what they need to do on the military side,” said Ivo Daalder, president of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Daalder, who is close to senior administration officials, added that the White House remains “deeply, deeply worried” about Israel’s longer-term strategy and what the next phase of the war may look like, making the next few days critical for the U.S. to ramp up pressure on Netanyahu to think through his approach.
“The administration has judged that supporting Israel post-Oct.7 was a necessary ingredient of having influence on Israel,” said Daalder. “It doesn’t mean that influence has been total … but had they not done that, they would’ve had no influence. And in some ways that remains very much the focus of their strategy.”
Back home, Biden has resisted calls from his own party to endorse a cease-fire and condition for military aid for Israel, even though his stance is hemorrhaging support from younger voters heading into the 2024 presidential election.
A Democratic aide in the House said that, depending on the circumstances of the deal, progressives would leverage the moment to push Biden toward backing longer pauses in fighting. "If there are no bombings for five days, the goal would be to turn that temporary respite into a longer-lasting cessation” to deal with humanitarian issues, the staffer said.
Shibley Telhami, a University of Maryland professor who held conversations with Senate Democrats on conditioning support to Israel, said all parties needed the deal right now, “including the Biden administration, which has come under increasing pressure not only globally, but also among Democrats who fear Biden is taking them for granted.”
“A pause and prisoner exchange is welcome of course, but whether or not it will be an opportunity for the parties to reconsider the disastrous path they have been on remains to be seen,” he said.