WASHINGTON — As a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas came together late Thursday afternoon, White House officials who helped to mediate the agreement were divided over a crucial next step: Should President Biden make a public announcement?
The downside was that the planned halt in fighting, set to take effect at 7 p.m. Washington time, could fall apart, burning the president. The upside was twofold: presenting him as a peacemaker and publicly locking in the two sides, making it less likely that either one would shatter the plan with a last-moment strike.
Mr. Biden went ahead, making brief remarks about an hour before the cease-fire took effect in which he implicitly struck back at critics who had accused him of doing too little to bring the fighting to a swifter conclusion by boasting of his administration’s “intense diplomatic engagement” behind the scenes. The gamble paid off, as the agreement held and the cease-fire went into effect that night.
But now, having become the latest American president to walk the high-wire of mediating the long-running conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, Mr. Biden faces more challenges and risks ahead.
leading an international humanitarian effort for Gaza, one that Mr. Biden said on Thursday would be led by the Palestinian Authority, not the militants of Hamas, who currently rule the cramped Palestinian territory. In a Friday news conference with Mr. Moon, Mr. Biden added that it would be done “without providing Hamas the opportunity to rebuild their weapons systems.”
Administration officials hope to empower the more moderate Palestinian Authority, which they consider the only plausible partner for peace with the Israelis. The United States considers Hamas a terrorist organization.
The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
The White House is also bracing for a new test of the relationship with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, when it comes to its efforts to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which Mr. Netanyahu and many other Israeli leaders strongly oppose as a threat to Israel’s security.
“Israel and the United States are going to have big things to work out, in particular Iran,” said Richard N. Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations. “Both men needed to maintain a working relationship so that if and when the Iran situation moved to the front burner they would be able to work together.”
Israel. The president only increased pressure after more than a week of fighting, by which time, analysts said, the Israeli military was close to completing its military objectives.
“About 90 percent of the reason for the cease-fire is that both Hamas and the government of Israel determined that prolonging the conflict didn’t serve their interests,” said Mr. Haass. “This was a cease-fire that essentially was ready to happen.”
By some accounts, Mr. Biden was more influential, and at minimum avoided politically tempting actions that could have made matters worse. His tactic was to avoid public condemnation of Israel’s bombing of Gaza — or even a public call for a cease-fire — in order to build up capital with Mr. Netanyahu and then exert pressure in private at the right time, according to two people familiar with the administration’s internal debates.
“How does this end?” Mr. Biden pressed Mr. Netanyahu.
There is no question that, when diplomacy reached a key moment, Mr. Biden’s team played an important role in mediating the cease-fire.
At one point Thursday afternoon in the offices of the National Security Council, Jake Sullivan, Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, was on the phone with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben-Shabbat, while Brett H. McGurk, the council’s top official for Middle East affairs, was speaking with a senior official in Egypt’s government, which served as the U.S. intermediary with Hamas.