Updated: May 22, 2021 8:07:24 am
The announcement of a ceasefire by Israel and Hamas on May 21 has ended nearly 11 days of intense fighting that was threatening to draw in the wider region. Egypt brokered the ceasefire, as it has done several times in the past. But what appears to have tilted the scales was the change in the position of the Joe Biden administration. The Biden administration, which does not recognise Hamas, played a significant backchannel role in bringing pressure on Israel to end the hostilities. Until earlier this week, the US had stood by the Israeli “right to self defence” and repeatedly blocked attempts by the UN Security Council to call for a deescalation and ceasefire. But that seemed to have changed on May 19, when President Biden spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — Biden said they spoke six times in the 11 days — and asked for a “significant de-escalation… on the path to a ceasefire”. The shift appears to have been brought about by internal pressure on Biden from Democrats. Behind it is the recognition that despite all the balancing in diplomatic statements, Israel and Hamas are not evenly matched sides, and that it was up to Israel to take the first step in calling off the hostilities. The 11-day fighting left 12 Israelis dead by Hamas rockets. In Gaza, the Israeli air strikes have left more than 200 Palestinians dead.
Biden’s assertion that “the Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely and to enjoy equal measures of freedom, prosperity and democracy”, is a timely reality check for Netanyahu, who had found in the previous Trump administration a sympathetic and willing ally. A fourth inconclusive election in March this year left the Israeli PM once again struggling to form a government, but the conflict had helped him recoup some lost ground. The ceasefire is likely to stir up Israeli politics, with Zionist groups already projecting it as a surrender.
Ever since the 1993 Oslo Accords, most of the world accepts that the two-state solution is the way out. It means talks about territory, and this is where the plan has repeatedly run aground. Israel has pushed its land boundaries constantly through settlements in West Bank and is unwilling to give up its claim of East Jerusalem, which is not recognised by the UN Security Council or, indeed, most countries. The proximate cause of the hostilities was the move to evict Palestinian families from their longstanding homes in East Jerusalem. This could still prove to be a lightning rod. A few silver linings are visible: The Biden administration’s rejection of the Trump peace plan of 2020 has helped the US re-establish relations with the Palestinian Authority. And while positive outcomes have always been elusive to all such efforts in the region, the “Middle East Quartet”, comprising of the EU, Russia, US and the UN, is stirring back to life, an indication that diplomatic efforts to engage Israel and the Palestinian Authority may resume.
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