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Fmr. Israeli Peace Negotiator Daniel Levy: U.S. Pressure on Israel Is Key to Lasting Gaza Ceasefire

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Even after Hamas accepted a Gaza ceasefire proposal Monday, Israeli forces moved in with tanks to seize the Rafah crossing with Egypt. Israel says the ceasefire deal falls short of its demands, and Hamas has called for “international intervention.” Former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy says the limited information and political maneuvering of all parties raises more questions than answers right now, but the core issue is whether all parties can maintain a sustained end to hostilities. “In addition to testing each other, the Hamas and Israeli parties are testing the United States of America and the Biden administration in an unprecedented way,” says Levy. “Hamas detects that the U.S. may finally be serious about offering a sustained calm.” While Levy says growing external pressure from global protests are “having an impact,” he doubts U.S. and Israeli leaders feel they must change course yet. “The pressure does not feel sufficient that Netanuahu’s politics needs him to accept a ceasefire. He still thinks he can wiggle out of this,” says Levy. “If this deal doesn’t go through, I fear we’re in for the much longer haul.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Palestinians say nowhere is safe in Rafah, as Israeli forces carried out heavy aerial bombardment again overnight and moved in with tanks, seizing the Rafah crossing on Gaza’s border with Egypt. The Israeli military released video showing soldiers raising an Israeli flag near the Gaza side of the Rafah crossing and a tank running over an “I love Gaza” sign. Over a million Palestinians have fled to Rafah since October 7th.

Israel’s war cabinet voted to move forward with its Rafah military operation Monday even after Hamas said it had accepted a ceasefire proposal. Israel says the proposal, which was developed with mediators from Qatar and Egypt, falls short of its demands. At one point, Al Jazeera reported people in Rafah started celebrating upon hearing the announcement that Hamas had accepted the Gaza ceasefire proposal. This is a displaced child in Gaza, Malak, responding to the news Monday.

MALAK: [translated] We were optimistic when Hamas agreed to the ceasefire proposal. We were very optimistic. But Israel procrastinated, and it is going too far. They don’t want to agree for a ceasefire, and they want to raid Rafah. They dropped leaflets, and we don’t know what to do or where to go.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, thousands of people rallied across Israel Monday night calling for an immediate deal to release the hostages still held in the Gaza Strip, criticizing the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Monday, U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller responded to questions about Hamas accepting the Gaza ceasefire proposal from Egypt and Qatar.

JOHN KIRBY: The last thing I would ever want to do from this podium is say something that could put this very sensitive process at greater risk. We are at a critical stage right now. We got a response from Hamas. Now Director Burns is working through that, trying to assess it, working with the Israelis. I mean, my goodness, folks, I don’t know that it gets any more sensitive than right now. And the worst thing that we can do is start speculating about what’s in it.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s White House spokesperson John Kirby. In a statement today, Hamas called for international intervention to push Israel towards a ceasefire.

For more, we go to London, where we’re joined by former Israeli peace negotiator Daniel Levy. He’s president of the U.S./Middle East Project, was an Israeli peace negotiator under Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin.

Welcome back to Democracy Now!, Daniel Levy. If you can talk about the latest that is understood about the ceasefire proposal, what Hamas has accepted, what Israel has refused to accept at this point, though they have sent a mid-level delegation to continue the negotiations?

DANIEL LEVY: With pleasure, Amy, as long as you let me just very quickly acknowledge that John Kirby and the White House have done very little from their podium except undermine the prospects of ending this war for the last months. So I think it’s little bit rich for the spokesperson, Mr. Kirby, to stand there and say, “The last thing I’d want to do is undermine it.” You’ve done very little else for many, many months. If we are getting close, then why did you wait this long? Why have so many thousands of children died and suffered appallingly, along with all of the Palestinian civilian population? And why have those hostage families had to wait so long?

Now, what’s going on? What has been proposed? What has been agreed? There is a document that has been leaked. I cannot speak to its veracity, but I understand that it is certainly close to what we understand to be discussed. And there are two key components to this, Amy. One is this thing that we have been circling around for months now, which is: Does a pause, a hostage release, a release of Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails — does this represent the beginning of a sustained calm, a sustained ceasefire, an on-ramp to that permanent ceasefire? Or is this limited in time, duration, and then Israel continues to enter Rafah, carry out its assault on Gaza? If Hamas turned around and said, “At the end of 40 days, we’re going to launch rockets on northern — on southern Israel,” I think people would say, “Well, that’s a bit of a strange deal.” But if Israel says, “At the end of 40 days, we’re going to launch an assault on Rafah,” then this is apparently a reasonable response. And that’s the key thing.

And I think what has happened this time around is that in addition to testing each other, the Hamas and Israeli parties are testing the United States of America and the Biden administration in an unprecedented way. What do I mean by that? I think we’ve come this far because Hamas detects that the U.S. may finally be serious about offering a sustained calm, about guaranteeing — and this can’t be ironclad, but at least credibly guaranteeing — that they do not see a continuation of the war after two weeks or four weeks or six weeks. On the flipside, Prime Minister Netanyahu is testing: “Are the U.S. serious? Are they really going to hold off my weapons supplies? Are they really going to lay the blame at my door if I’m the recalcitrant party? Because that will be difficult for me to sustain domestically.” We don’t yet have the answer from the Biden administration in unequivocal terms. I think that will be crucial. That’s the key question.

Then, Amy, there are the details of the agreement, which will be hard to iron out. But if you’ve got this core question addressed of “Are we really going to a ceasefire, or we going to a temporary pause?” — and unless it’s the former, this can’t be done — if we’ve got that ironed out, then one hopes that the questions around Palestinian movement inside Gaza, the questions around where the Israeli forces will be deployed, the questions around the entrance of humanitarian desperately needed assistance, one hopes that all those can be thrashed out. If we got there, then there’s implementation. Implementation will be difficult, especially if Netanyahu feels he can get away with slipping out of this and going back to what he clearly prefers, which is an even longer war, because that’s how his politics stacks up.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Daniel Levy, the BBC is reporting that a senior Palestinian official familiar with the ceasefire is claiming that Hamas has agreed to, quote, “end hostile activity forever” if the conditions of the truce are met. Do you place any stock in that report, from what you’re hearing?

DANIEL LEVY: I do not. Hamas is a political movement. It’s an armed resistance movement. It has committed, I would argue, violations of international law. Israel was doing that before October 7. So was Hamas. That has continued throughout this war. Hamas is also an idea, in terms of resistance to permanent, hostile, belligerent occupation. I would take with extreme caution anything we are being told by a Palestinian Authority source. They are simply not part of this, because they have marginalized themselves by becoming part of the furniture of the Israeli occupation. Unfortunately, today, it’s hard not to see them as a coopted authority.

I think it’s important to acknowledge that alongside condemning what Hamas did on October 7th, one has to acknowledge that the Palestinians have the right, under international law, to resist an illegal occupation. They must simply do so within the parameters defined by international law, just as Israel has a right to defend its citizens. That’s its responsibility. But again, it must do so within the parameters of international law, rather than violating, very plausibly, the Genocide Convention, as set out by the International Court of Justice in its provisional ruling. So, I would suggest that that kind of rumor mill is unhelpful.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And I wanted to ask you also about the protests, the continuing massive protests within Israel, even while the war continues. Your sense of the impact of these protests on the Israeli government?

DANIEL LEVY: It’s a very important point, Juan. What I think we have seen is the intensity of those protests — and those protests tend to center around the prioritizing of getting the hostages out, saying, “Do the deal. Get the hostages out.” The intensity, especially those led by members of family of those being held, by family, friends, those have increased. The volume, the extent to which this is disruptive and is impossible for Netanyahu to stare down, I do not think we are anywhere near that moment.

And so, you have to put these protests in the context of what is the internal dynamic in Israel. Is it a dynamic where Netanyahu feels he’s run out of options? So, there’s a way of interpreting what’s happening at the moment, is that Israel has started, especially at the border crossing with Egypt, seizing a part of Rafah, a part of this area called the Philadelphi Corridor, as well, as a last-gasp thing so that the Israeli government, which feels it will have to agree to a deal, will be able to say, “You see, it was this action which got them to accept slightly better terms. We did what we needed to do.” That is the optimistic interpretation, that the pressure, internally and externally, is such that Netanyahu feels it’s closing in on him. I do not think we’re there yet. I’m not with that interpretation. I would like us to be there.

The internal pressure is such that the soft opposition, who will run against Netanyahu in the next election, led by this guy Gantz, former chief of staff, former defense minister, and Eisenkot, they are still in the government. They have still not unequivocally said that if Netanyahu turns down the deal, they will quit. Even if they quit, Netanyahu has a majority. The street protests — courage to them — they’re important. You even had — it was Holocaust Remembrance Day yesterday. You even had Holocaust survivors coming out and saying, “Not in our name. This isn’t how one goes about remembering the Holocaust.” And Netanyahu used this, as he has done throughout, in very scurrilous terms.

But the pressure does not feel sufficient that Netanyahu’s politics needs him to accept a ceasefire. He still thinks he can wiggle out of this, which is where the question of the external pressure becomes a key factor, because it’s going to be that combination of internal and external. So I think the next question one would have to address is: Where does the external pressure stand?

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to go to another clip, this of U.S. State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller.

MATTHEW MILLER: So, I can confirm that Hamas has issued a response. We are reviewing that response now and discussing it with our partners in the region. As you know, Director Burns is in the region working on this in real time. We will be discussing this response with our partners over the coming hours. We continue to believe that a hostage deal is in the best interests of the Israeli people, it’s in the best interests of the Palestinian people. It would bring an immediate ceasefire. It would allow increased movement of humanitarian assistance. And so, we are going to continue to work to try to reach one.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, if you can talk — he’s referring to the CIA Director Burns, who is intimately involved with these negotiations. He’s going back and forth. If you can talk about his significance? And when you talked about the role of the United States, how exactly has it stopped this from happening to this point, Daniel Levy?

DANIEL LEVY: Yes, I wish I could confirm that the U.S. has stopped this from happening. I mean, firstly, Amy, let’s just go back to those scenes you showed earlier on, Palestinians in Gaza celebrating when the news came through of the Hamas acceptance of the terms of a deal. I think one can understand their celebrations, not only, of course, because of what they’ve been going through, but also they have been told — if anyone takes the United States government seriously, they have been telling us — Blinken said this in his last visit — they have been telling us that all it takes is a Hamas “yes.” So I think many of us would have been reasonable in responding, “Well, we got a Hamas 'yes.' It’s all done and dusted, isn’t it?” The reason that’s not quite true is this was, I think one has to acknowledge, misinformation on the part of the U.S. government, that this doesn’t just depend on Hamas. It very clearly depends on the Israeli side, which most of the Israeli commentators at this stage are acknowledging that Prime Minister Netanyahu has constantly undermined these talks. And rather than being pulled up on this, being held with his feet to the fire by the U.S. administration, they have failed to do that.

Now, I think it matters that CIA Director Burns is still in the region, we understand, is directly engaged. Blinken has really not done a good job of this. I understand they play different roles. But one has to really ask this question, because that’s the outside pressure: Will the U.S. make it as near as impossible for Netanyahu to say “no”? If they fail that test, then Rafah will happen.

By the way, it will almost certainly still be going on when Democrats convene for their convention in Chicago. I am not suggesting — and I think this is an important distinction to draw, Amy — I am not suggesting that the administration can click their finger and stop this. What I am saying is that a U.S. administration that is willing to sustain a standoff with the Israeli leadership will place Netanyahu in a position where his military are saying, “We just can’t keep going with this.” You already have burnout. Rafah will not be easy. The military side of this has not gone well. You will have a population increasingly saying, “This is too much to put at risk this relationship.” And Netanyahu will have the hardest choice to make. And I think, over time, he will have to succumb to this.

There have been reports that some of the weapons transfers have been held up from the U.S. to Israel by the administration. Those have neither been confirmed nor denied. If you want to get a ceasefire, they’re going to have to be confirmed. That is actually going to have to happen.

I imagine that some of this move towards a possible deal, move towards possible U.S. seriousness in challenging Netanyahu, that we are not at the point of success yet. But some of the move towards that is a consequence of what you’ve shown us, what’s going on inside the U.S., the pressure, the campuses. People should not feel disheartened. What they are doing is having an impact: the fear of how this could play out politically. And so, I would say, in these crucial moments, those efforts should be redoubled, because they are meaningful.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Daniel Levy, I’m wondering: The decision of the Israeli Cabinet to urge Palestinians, 100,000 Palestinians, to leave eastern Rafah, do you sense that this is also an attempt by Netanyahu to short-circuit a potential deal?

DANIEL LEVY: I would interpret it that way, yes, Juan. There are two ways people are looking at this. Is this a smart negotiating tactic to gain more leverage? I don’t think that’s worked with Hamas thus far. I see no reason to think that was the case. Hamas had already submitted its responses. The other way of looking at this is that it’s a way of testing, prodding: Can Israel get away with this? Can this prove to Hamas that we can do it, we are going to do it, there is no deal, and therefore Hamas will retreat from its position? I think that is a more reasonable reading, given everything we know about Netanyahu, everything he and his coalition have said. I’d love to think that this is a last gasp, and I hope that’s how it plays out, but it doesn’t look that way.

There are three ways this can go, Juan. Number one, this is something that Netanyahu cannot pull off. He feels cornered. He does the deal, and it holds. That would be a precious thing. I don’t think we’re near that yet. The second is that Netanyahu says “no,” proves that he means “no.” This effort unravels. And then the question is: Do the Americans, as they have done throughout, say, “Well, of course we have to blame Hamas.” And I understand that for people to think that a Hamas negotiating position is more reasonable than an Israeli negotiating position, for those who follow mainstream American media, yeah, that’s a hard disk to switch in your head. But that’s the second option. The third option is the deal begins, but it unravels while it’s being implemented.

And if I could just zoom out for a moment, all of this is going on — we’re talking about Gaza — while the provocations in the West Bank continue to intensify. Every day there are disturbances there. It’s not just settlers, it’s the Israeli military. There are no settlers without the backing of the Israeli military, without the backing of the Israeli state. And we’re still in an extremely uncertain time in the Israel-Hezbollah, Israel-Lebanon front. So, all of this feeds into each other. And if this deal doesn’t go through, I fear we’re in for the much longer haul, and everything that you’ve reported on, with such tenacity — and I give you credit for that — that has happened over the last months, I’m afraid, will remain with us perhaps for an awfully long time.

AMY GOODMAN: And finally, we have 15 seconds. President Biden is giving what some are billing as one of the most important speeches of his administration, a speech on antisemitism. Daniel Levy, you’re an Israeli Jewish former peace negotiator for Israeli prime ministers. Do you consider anti-Zionism antisemitism?

DANIEL LEVY: This is one of the most dangerous conflations imaginable. Desist from this now. We will fail in the struggle against antisemitism. We will fail to allow Jewish heterogeneity, which has been part of being Jewish throughout. The idea that one creed can be hegemonic, and anything else is antisemitic, is an affront to Jewish history. Desist from this now, Mr. President.

AMY GOODMAN: Daniel Levy, president of the U.S./Middle East Project, former Israeli peace negotiator under Israeli Prime Ministers Ehud Barak and Yitzhak Rabin.

Coming up, we go to Rafah for reaction to Israeli forces seizing the Rafah border crossing with Egypt. Stay with us.

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Report from Rafah: Israel Seizes Border Crossing, Blocking Humanitarian Aid, as Ceasefire Talks Continue

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