TLDRUpFront: Talks between Hamas, Israel, and the US facilitated by Qatar and Egypt resulted in a deal that will exchange ~50 Israeli hostages held by Hamas for 150 Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and a 4-day ceasefire. Designed as a ratcheting mechanism, if this works, there are opportunities to continue ratchets of additional exchanges and additional ceasefires.
Trading space for time with a ceasefire-hostage exchange deal.
Since the start of the conflict with Hamas’s invasion of Israel on 7 OCT, behind-the-scenes negotiations have occurred between Hamas, Israel, and the United States facilitated by Qatar(1). The goal for Israel was to secure the release of some ~240 hostages taken by Hamas during their invasion and for Hamas the release of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel. The 50 hostages released are mainly women, children, and foreign nationals, including several Americans. The 150 Palestinian prisoners released are mainly women and children. The remaining ~190 hostages held by Hamas would be mostly Israeli men with a mix of active military and civilians though some sources are reporting some women and children might remain hostages(2). Israel was accumulating Palestinian prisoners ahead of the invasion as part of a strategic calculus for such exchanges and held ~5,000 Palestinian prisoners before 7 OCT and has added another ~2,000-3,000 since then(3).
The 4-day cease-fire would allow up to 300 trucks/day to enter Gaza with relief aid from Egypt, as well as fuel. As a matching mechanism, if this initial transfer and ceasefire work successfully, additional tranches of Israelis held by Hamas could be exchanged for Palestinians held by Israel with each exchange extending a 4-day pause. The deal was approved by Israel’s cabinet last night, and although Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that he plans to continue the war after the cease-fire, the initial pause and ratcheting mechanism are crucial to creating space for alternatives or modifications to the current effort.
Political Analysis of the Ceasefire – Hostage Exchange
Frankly, Netanyahu needed this politically probably more than any other actor involved. His Cabinet has proved disastrous on the hostage issue, with several of his ruling coalition shouting down and insulting the family of hostages currently being held by Hamas and accusing them of being Hamas supporters just last week (5). This isn’t a good look for an administration that dropped the ball on preventing or mitigating the invasion in the first place. (There is a MegaMullet in the works diving deep into this aspect but haven’t been able to finish it yet. ed.)Hamas partially wins because they get a pause and may be able to parlay that pause into something else. They are unlikely to get any militants or leaders returned as it is against Israeli policy to exchange those who have committed violence. This tends to favor Israel, which as I noted treats the Palestinian prisoners as a strategic reserve similar to Hezbollah’s rocket stockpile or the US petroleum reserve, has a sophisticated process to release prisoner names to be released and any Israeli can make a court challenge. However, on current designs, the war continues after this or any subsequent cease-fire ends. So this isn’t an armistice let alone a peace deal, just a temporary pause.
Egypt and Qatar emerge as players at the table which may be setting them up for future roles to influence the outcome. This is interesting because everyone was looking to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and Turkey as the regional power brokers to watch, but they seemed to have no involvement in this deal. Egypt, of course, shares a border with Israel and Gaza and as discussed earlier has strategic interests in seeing Hamas dismantled, balanced with expressing solidarity to the suffering of the Palestinian people.
Also, though I think most will miss it, President Biden comes out of this looking pretty good. Other than his Afghanistan withdrawal debacle, which I still don’t forgive him for, I’ve been regularly impressed with the sophistication shown by Biden in his approach to foreign policy. President Trump had a few moments I respect in foreign policy, but those amounted to limited strikes (e.g. Syria air base, Baghdadi, Soelimani). The rest of the time he took a “break all the toys and then stomp home” impotent bravado if we’re being generous.
But Biden has been heavily involved in ongoing negotiations that included modifying Israel’s air campaign and ground invasion to allow operational pauses of this sort, should they bear fruit, navigating multilateral diplomacy between Qatar, Egypt, Israel, and Hamas, and allowing time for hostage families themselves to be heard in the process(2).
Unwavering Support in Public – Conditional Support in Private
By providing ‘unwavering’ support to Israel in public backed by the deployment of three aircraft carriers (two in the eastern Mediterranean and one south of Iran in the Gulf) to deter Hezbollah and Iran, he’s helped keep the conflict limited to Gaza . There have been a few incidents on the northern border between Israel and Lebanon with exchanges of rockets and artillery by Hezbollah and the IDF. Iranian-backed non-state actors have attacked Iraq or attempted to attack from Yemen. But these have been small, and just yesterday the US military reminded violent groups in Iraq that conducting rocket attacks on a US military base while an AC-130 is overhead is a really bad idea(4).
This put Biden into a position where Netanyahu, who has very few friends left on the world stage, needs Biden to give him leverage. The ‘unwavering’ public support was certainly conditional in private with, from everything I’m seeing, clear indications that the US would only go so far and there would be a time when the intensity of Israel’s approach, which amounted to a several-week Grozny rules air campaign followed by a more tactical ground offensive, to come to a halt or pause. And that time appears to be now.
Biden managed this all while kinda just ignoring abysmal polling numbers heading into an election and widespread speculation about his mental acuity and bumbles/fumbles at a podium. (And I’m now wondering if he’s pulling an Eisenhower golfing game.) It’s a focus to stay on task we never saw in Trump. A sophistication of foreign policy mix-and-match efforts that eluded Obama, who tended to be either “on” or “off” in a binary approach. And unlike Bush, Biden managed two active wars he didn’t start that have heavy US involvement without putting a single boot on the ground or plane in the air over hostile air space. I still don’t think people realize that Biden, by backing Ukraine and solidifying Western support with ratcheting increases in equipment, has effectively “won” the Fulda Gap nightmare scenario of a conventional conflict between NATO and the USSR during the height of the Cold War. Ukraine remains in stalemate and probably will until fall of 2024, but the Russian military leftover from the Cold War and built up since then has been effectively neutralized by Ukrainian resistance and NATO left-over supply; no longer a functional threat to any other peer or near-peer country that they aren’t currently occupying. Had Biden shown even a fifth of this sophistication in the Afghanistan withdrawal, I think it would’ve gone much differently, but the loss of his son, which Biden blamed on his deployment to Iraq and exposure to burn pits, was too personal I think.
Whether President Biden can pull a rabbit out of the hat and get something larger from this ratcheting mechanism remains to be seen. I still remain of the belief that both Hamas and Netanyahu’s administration of Israel need to be gone before meaningful efforts at stability can occur, and this accomplishes none of that. However, a pause is a pause and trades space for time for more things to come about.
There are lots of actors at the table and everyone gets a say in how this continues, so a violent act during the ceasefire by Hamas or Israel, or even a spoiler faction inside Gaza or even in the IDF, could turn this sideways.
So it’s a wait-and-see how it plays out. But probably the first good news since 7 OCT.