Top officials from at least 10 different administrations are trying to forge a series of dizzying deals to end the Gaza war and answer the divisive question of how the territory will be governed once the fighting stops.
The most limited set of major discussions centers on reaching a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. This would involve the exchange of more than 100 Israeli hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a ceasefire and thousands of Palestinians detained in Israeli jails.
A second path focuses on reshaping the Palestinian Authority, the semi-autonomous body that administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. American and Arab officials are discussing the possibility of reforming the authority’s leadership and having it take control of Gaza once the war ends, taking power from Israel and Hamas.
In a third track, American and Saudi officials are pressuring Israel to accept conditions for the creation of a Palestinian state in exchange for Saudi Arabia establishing formal ties with Israel for the first time in history.
The demands and outcomes discussed in all three processes are linked, and the conversations are mostly considered longshots. The war began with the Oct. 7 Hamas terrorist attack that killed about 1,200 people, Israeli officials said. The Israeli counterattack has left more than 25,000 Palestinians dead in Gaza, Health Ministry officials there say. President Biden has given Israel full support for the war.
Significant obstacles need to be overcome in each set of negotiations. Most notably, Israel’s government says it will not allow full Palestinian sovereignty, raising questions about whether progress can be made on major fronts. And the Israeli military campaign has not destroyed Hamas, so it is unclear how Hamas could be persuaded to step aside while it still controls part of Gaza.
The United States is the power that tries to unite everything. Brett McGurk, the White House’s top Middle East official, was in the region last week, and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken spoke with him by phone several times during a trip to Africa, a senior Department official said. of State. The Biden administration wants to ensure that a senior US official speaks face-to-face at all times with Israeli and Arab leaders.
Officials are tossing around many ideas, most of which are tentative, unlikely or strongly opposed by some parties. Several controversial suggestions are:
Transfer power within the Palestinian Authority from the incumbent president, Mahmoud Abbas, to a new prime minister, while allowing Abbas to retain a ceremonial role.
Send an Arab peacekeeping force to Gaza to reinforce a new Palestinian administration there.
Pass a UN Security Council resolution, backed by the United States, that would recognize the right of the Palestinians to have a state.
The following is a roadmap for the three tracks, based on interviews with more than a dozen diplomats and other officials involved in the talks, all of whom spoke anonymously to discuss them more freely.
1. Hostages and ceasefire
Americans believe that ending the war is the first thing the parties must achieve. Those talks are intertwined with negotiations for the release of more than 100 hostages captured during the Oct. 7 attack and held by Hamas and its allies. Hamas has said it will not release the hostages until Israel agrees to a permanent ceasefire, a stance that is incompatible with Israel’s stated goal of fighting until Hamas is driven from Gaza.
Officials from the United States, Israel, Egypt and Qatar are discussing an agreement that would suspend fighting for up to two months. In November, the parties agreed to a brief pause that resulted in the release of more than 100 hostages by Hamas.
In one proposal, the hostages would be released in phases during a pause of up to 60 days in exchange for Palestinians imprisoned by Israel. Some officials have suggested that Israeli civilians would be released first, in exchange for Palestinian women and minors detained by Israel. Captured Israeli soldiers would then be exchanged for Palestinian militant leaders serving long sentences.
Diplomats on several sides say they hope more detailed discussions can be held during the pause on a permanent truce that could involve the withdrawal of most or all Israeli troops, the departure of Hamas leaders from the strip and a transition of the power to the Palestinian Authority. . For now, Israel and Hamas have rejected some of those conditions.
To try to advance these negotiations, William J. Burns, director of the CIA, plans to meet in Europe in the coming days with senior Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari counterparts.
Some observers hope that Friday’s call from the World Court for Israel to comply with the Genocide Convention will give momentum and political cover to Israeli officials who are pushing internally to end the war.
2. Reform the Palestinian Authority
The Palestinian Authority briefly controlled Gaza after Israeli troops left in 2005, but was forced from power by Hamas two years later. Now, some want the authority to return to Gaza and play a role in post-war governance. To make that idea more attractive to Israel, which opposes it, the United States, Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and other Arab states are pushing to reform the authority and change its leadership.
Under its current president, Mahmoud Abbas, 88, the authority is widely perceived as corrupt and authoritarian. Mediators encourage him to take on a more ceremonial role and hand over executive power to a new prime minister who could oversee the reconstruction of Gaza and reduce corruption. U.S. officials say the goal is to make the authority a more plausible steward of a future Palestinian state. Israeli officials also say the authority needs to change its education system, which they say does not promote peace, and end welfare payments to those convicted of violence against Israelis.
Some Abbas critics want him replaced by Salam Fayyad, a Princeton professor credited with modernizing the authority during a stint as prime minister a decade ago, or Nasser al-Kidwa, a former Palestinian envoy to the U.N. who broke with Abbas. three years ago. But diplomats say Abbas is pushing for a candidate over whom he has more influence, such as Mohammad Mustafa, his longtime economic adviser.
Some officials have proposed an Arab peacekeeping force to help the new Palestinian leader maintain order in postwar Gaza. Israeli officials reject that idea, but have floated the idea of a multinational force under Israeli supervision in the strip. American diplomats told the Israelis this month that Arab leaders oppose their idea.
3. Saudi normalization with Israel
In the most ambitious set of talks, the Biden administration has revived talks with Saudi Arabia for the Saudis to accept formal diplomatic relations with Israel.
The tripartite deal had been under discussion before the Oct. 7 attacks, and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia appeared willing to accept it because the Biden administration was offering a U.S.-Saudi defense treaty, cooperation on a civil nuclear program and increased arms sales. Under that deal, U.S. officials say, the Saudis would have accepted Israel’s relatively minor concessions on the Palestinian issue in exchange for Saudi recognition.
That recognition would be a major political victory for American and Israeli leaders because of Saudi Arabia’s status as a leading Arab and Muslim nation.
However, since the war began, Saudi Arabia and the United States have raised the price for Israel, now insisting that Israel commit to a process that leads to a Palestinian state and includes Palestinian governance of Gaza. American officials have also told the Israelis that Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations would agree to give money for the reconstruction of Gaza only if Israeli leaders commit to clearing a path to a Palestinian state.
These new terms were first expressed publicly by Blinken after meeting Prince Mohammed at a desert tent camp in Saudi Arabia this month. He handed them over to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel after flying from there to Tel Aviv. He reiterated them again in a public speech in Davos, Switzerland, as did Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser.
Netanyahu has publicly rejected that proposal and recently pledged to maintain Israel’s military control throughout the West Bank and Gaza. Many Israelis support this, although some US officials question whether this is an initial negotiating position on Netanyahu’s part.
To reassure the Saudis and Palestinians, some officials have suggested a U.N. Security Council resolution, backed by the United States, that would enshrine the Palestinians’ right to sovereignty. But the idea has yet to gain traction.
There is also the question of whether the Biden administration can deliver a Senate-approved mutual defense treaty to Prince Mohammed. Some Democratic senators have already expressed concern about this. And the chances of Republican senators opposing it are expected to increase as the November US presidential election approaches.
Patrick Kingsley reported from Abu Dhabi, and Eduardo Wong from Washington. The report was contributed by Aaron Boxerman, Adam Rasgon and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem; Ronen Bergman from Tel Aviv; Farnaz Fassihi from New York; and Julian E. Barnes from Washington.