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Biden’s bold vision: A chance to turn a brutal war into a visionary future

The proposal for a ceasefire and hostage release Biden laid out in a Friday speech won’t please everyone — but it’s the best path forward

The most important message in President Joe Biden’s Friday speech on the Gaza War came smack in the middle, when he anticipated resistance to an Israeli-proposed three-stage plan to end the war, return the hostages, secure Israel’s borders and rebuild Gaza.

“I ask you to take a step back,” Biden said. “Think what will happen if this moment is lost. We can’t lose this moment. Indefinite war in pursuit of an unidentified notion of total victory will only bog down Israel in Gaza, draining the economic, military and human resources and furthering Israel’s isolation in the world.”

It was Biden’s “choose life” moment. Instead of condemning Israel, as some expected after a weekend attack on Rafah sparked fires that left more than 40 civilians dead, he was laying out a choice. 

One option: more of the same, leading inevitably to isolation and ruin. The other, and the one Biden is urging Israel to take: an informed attempt to truly gain peace and security.

There were at least four audiences for the message. 

His words were meant for the influential Israeli cabinet members who still harbor fantasies of killing every last Hamas terrorist and occupying Gaza indefinitely. — like National Security Advisor Tzachi Hanegbi, who told the families of hostages this week that Israel won’t end the war to save the hostages.

They were meant for the general Israeli public, reassuring them that only negotiations can bring lasting security and promising that, “once a ceasefire and hostage deal are concluded, it unlocks the possibility of a great deal more progress.”

His words were meant for the protesters who demand a ceasefire, urging them to direct their demands not just at Israel, but at Hamas.

“For months, people all over the world have called for a ceasefire,” Biden said. “Now it’s time to raise your voices and demand that Hamas come to the table, agree to this deal and end this war that they began.”

And, to the extent they are listening, his words were meant for Hamas and those who have influence over it. The Palestinian people, Biden was saying, have suffered enough under you.

The three-stage deal Biden laid out starts small and builds to something regional and, given the dire state of things, visionary.

The first six-week phase would include a full and complete ceasefire, withdrawal of Israeli forces from all populated areas of Gaza, the release of “a number of hostages,” including women, the elderly and the wounded, in exchange for Israel’s release of Palestinian prisoners. American hostages would be among those released in this first stage.

Palestinian civilians would be able to return to their homes — those that remain standing — and there would be a surge of humanitarian assistance.

A second phase would see the release of all remaining living Israeli hostages, an Israeli withdrawal from the rest of Gaza, and a permanent cessation of hostilities.

Phase three would entail a major reconstruction plan for Gaza, and the return of the remains of all hostages who have been killed. 

Left unanswered were the massive questions of who would control Gaza, what role the Palestinian Authority would play, and what becomes of Hamas. Biden called for Palestinian “self-determination,” but wisely left the details to future negotiations.

The deal would also reopen the path to “a potential historic normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia,” Biden continued, holding out the vision of an Israeli-Arab “regional security network” against Iran.

“All this progress would make Israel more secure,” Biden said, “with Israeli families no longer living in the shadow of a terrorist attack. All this would create the conditions for a different future, a better future for the Palestinian people, one of self determination, dignity, security and freedom.”

It’s no coincidence that the words “secure” and “security” appeared at least 14 times in the short speech. Israelis are still living as if it’s Oct. 8. The shock, grief and sense of insecurity provoked by Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack are, for many if not most of them, still raw and real. 

This was Biden telling Israelis something they may not quite be able, in that state of mind, to hear: You have already won.

“The people of Israel should know they can make this offer without any further risk to their own security,” he said, “because they devastated Hamas forces over the past eight months.”

Hamas is now unable to launch another Oct. 7, Biden assured Israelis, and the U.S., along with other international actors, will see to it they remain incapacitated.

Whether those reassurances resonate with a traumatized Israel remains to be seen. But to a world left reeling by the extremity of violence in Israel and Gaza, they offer a path beyond blame, victimization and recrimination.

Biden acknowledged the extraordinary suffering that has led to outrage at Israel’s wartime behavior — “The Palestinian people have endured sheer hell in this war,” he said. But the speech will still displease a lot of people, including the segment of college campus protesters whose favored solution is a Middle East with no Israel; Israeli Jewish supremacists, who want a Greater Israel with no Palestinians; and Palestinians who want to see Israel made an international pariah for its actions.

But Biden understands what those groups do not: They are on the margins.

A solid majority of Israelis, 72%, want to see the United States forge a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to a recent Pew survey. A Gallup poll released in April found that 65% of Americans want the U.S. to help foster a diplomatic solution. And a May Data for Progress poll found that 70% of Americans support calls for a permanent ceasefire and a de-escalation of the violence in Gaza—a 9-point increase since November.

Those numbers reflect a significant amount of agreement in otherwise deeply divided countries. Biden’s speech may not be what some Israelis and some Palestinians, and their supporters, want to hear. But it’s what Americans want, and Americans will be a crucial partner in securing a peaceful future in the Middle East. Which means that his measured, thoughtful, quietly revolutionary plan may be just what Israelis and Palestinians need.

Correction: The original version of this column misstated the results of a recent Pew survey. It was 72% of Israelis, not Americans, that said they want to see the United States forge a peaceful, diplomatic solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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