Azmi Bishara: Biden's speech puts Netanyahu in awkward position

Azmi Bishara: Biden's speech puts Netanyahu in awkward position
There is now an American conviction that the war in Gaza must end, said Dr. Azmi Bishara, general director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies.
14 min read
01 June, 2024

There is now an American conviction that the war in Gaza must end, said Dr. Azmi Bishara, general director of the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, following US President Joe Biden’s speech on Friday calling for a ceasefire deal.

In a new interview aired Friday evening on The New Arab's affiliated Al-Araby TV, Bishara emphasized the significance of U.S. President Joe Biden's address, noting the optics of Biden presenting the Israeli initiative from the White House, and of adding his interpretations.

"We know that there has been an Israeli initiative, which Hamas could not take seriously because it can see through Netanyahu's tactic of proposing ideas and then reneging on them during negotiations to buy time and continue the war. This approach has been ongoing for months, with all negotiation ideas following this pattern. Netanyahu would send a security team to negotiate and then backtrack on the agreements or adds conditions. But this time, after Biden's speech, Netanyahu cannot back out of the proposed ideas,” said Bishara.

Bishara emphasized that the key development now is that Biden used his platform to re-present the Israeli initiative, adding American interpretations that Netanyahu might not like, such as stating that it is time to stop the war, something Netanyahu would not say himself, particularly since these words were not written in the Israeli initiative.

Bishara stressed that the three transitional phases mentioned by Biden are almost inevitable and will not be subject to Israeli interpretations of the success of one phase over another. The transition is practically almost immediate; if not, there will be an agreement to make it so, ensuring the ceasefire continues.

Biden’s call for ceasefire and its implications

According to Bishara, Biden took the Israeli initiative and added his touches, including the transition from phase to phase through a comprehensive ceasefire. If the second phase is successful and Hamas adheres to its commitments, it will lead to a full ceasefire. Azmi Bishara explained that the Palestinian resistance rejected the Israeli initiative in the past two days for two reasons: first, because Netanyahu entered Rafah and Jabalia, and second, because he rejected the previous initiative that Hamas had agreed upon, which his security delegation had approved. He pointed out that the resistance is skeptical of Netanyahu's intentions.

Bishara highlighted that Hamas’s demands are a ceasefire, Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and reconstruction. He noted that these principles were not present in the Israeli initiative, but what is different this time is that Biden said this is how he understands the Israeli initiative: it leads to a ceasefire, Israeli withdrawal, and the beginning of reconstruction.

Bishara expressed his belief that the resistance would respond positively to this new tone. He estimated that the resistance would say that they take Biden's words positively and want to hear them confirmed by Israel. He noted that the Israelis did not object to Biden's words yet but they said that the transition from phase to phase would be based on maintaining Israeli principles.

The Arab thinker stated that Biden used his position to present the Israeli initiative, as a significant service to Israel and ensures Israeli public support for it, in a way that contradicts what Netanyahu said a week ago about continuing the war to prevent a recurrence of October 7, 2023. According to Bishara, Biden's initiative implies that Netanyahu has already secured this because Hamas's current situation does not allow for another October 7, meaning there is no reason to continue the war if the goal was to eliminate Hamas's capabilities. He noted that Biden presented the initiative in a way that is acceptable to both Arabs and the Israeli anti-Netanyahu opposition.

Regarding the terms of the initiative presented by Biden, which include a significant portion of what the resistance has been demanding, Bishara pointed out that according to the Israeli proposal, which reached the Egyptian and Qatari mediators but not the resistance yet, the withdrawal from Rashid and Salah al-Din streets should occur between the third and seventh days of the ceasefire, with Israeli forces remaining in Netzarim and withdrawing from this axis in the final phase. He highlighted that currently, Israelis do not stay in any populated area longer than necessary to conduct military operations, except for Netzarim and Rafah.

Regarding the second phase, which Biden said involves the release of all detainees and the withdrawal of Israeli forces, and if Hamas respects its commitments, the temporary ceasefire will become a permanent cessation of hostilities. Bishara said that what Biden mentioned in this regard, in his estimation, is not present in the Israeli paper but are Biden's interpretations. He explained that Biden has been telling Arab leaders for a long time that he guarantees, after the three phases, that the war will not resume, but he now moved from saying this privately to stating it publicly on television. While Bishara estimated that the resistance would not release all the soldiers and captives before a permanent and comprehensive ceasefire and Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, he considered that Biden's speech bolster the resistance's position but need Israeli approval.

U.S. elections and normalisation

Azmi Bishara said that Washington seized the opportunity of there being an Israeli initiative that was developed under U.S. pressure, to end the war and expedite Saudi-Israeli normalisation talks before the U.S. presidential elections, seen as a major achievement for the Biden administration without necessarily achieving all its objectives. He believes that Biden thinks a ceasefire might reduce the pressure of anti-war protests in Gaza during the election period. He emphasized that Biden's public appearance constrains Netanyahu, preventing him from backing out of what he agreed to and adding interpretations that lead this agreement to a ceasefire if everyone adheres to it.

While noting the resistance's wise handling of Biden's speech, announcing that it views his call to end the war positively, Azmi Bishara stressed the importance of how the Israeli government will now handle Biden's interpretations. He expressed his belief that Israeli officials would try to calm the right-wing public, meaning it is premature to talk about an agreement. He referred to the military operation in Rafah, noting that none of Netanyahu's declared goals of finding live captives and eliminating resistance leaders were achieved, prompting a countdown [for a ceasefire or his departure].

While emphasizing that the Israelis did not guarantee a ceasefire in their initiative, he concluded that President Biden's interpretation of the Israeli initiative cannot be ignored. Bishara expressed his belief that Netanyahu is still determined to continue the war, which led his national security advisor to talk about the need for seven more months of war.

Azmi Bishara clarified that Netanyahu has no vision for the day after the war, which is catastrophic for him because if Israel withdraws now or within 90 days, the only organized force controlling Gaza is Hamas. He believes that if Israel withdraws without arranging for Arab or international forces or even the Palestinian Authority to take over Gaza, there will be Israeli military rule in Gaza, making the withdrawal meaningless. He questioned who would manage the residents' lives in the sector concerning essential services, when the Israeli army fears ruling Gaza militarily because it is not ready for it and does not want it.

Azmi Bishara pointed out that, for the first time, the Americans, specifically Secretary of State Antony Blinken, are talking about the necessity of Israel presenting a vision for the day after the war. Therefore, the Americans want to impose their vision on Netanyahu. He expressed his belief that the Americans want to replace Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas because they want a renewed Palestinian Authority to manage the West Bank and Gaza Strip, primarily relying on Palestinian security forces. However, he doubted that this would happen, especially since Hamas would not accept it in the absence of a national unity government.

From Azmi Bishara's perspective, Biden's primary concern is to launch the stages of an agreement in Gaza so he can focus on the presidential elections, amid widespread boycotts from Arab, Islamic, and progressive circles against voting for him. The problem remains the lack of guarantees to achieve this due to the obstinacy of the Israeli Prime Minister and Netanyahu's coalition, although the latter could collapse.

Bishara noted that Biden's speech could bolster a potential Israeli opposition bloc, referring to the ministers in the war cabinet, Gadi Eizenkot and Benny Gantz. However, he also noted the polls that still show Netanyahu personally ahead, explaining that leading the war amid popular hysteria boosts his popularity and unites the right-wing around him. Still, he believes this is insufficient to maintain his majority, as Netanyahu's coalition will have less than 60 seats and will not form a government in an upcoming election. Regarding Netanyahu appearing tough compared to Gantz's hesitation, Bishara considered that this might be resolved if Gantz were to take a stronger stance with American support.

Bishara also noted that the prolonged war and its consequences, have led to fatigue in Israeli society and have resulted in immense suffering for the people of Gaza and rendered the Strip uninhabitable due to the brutal and barbaric vengeance against the Palestinian people. According to all polls, over 60% of the Israeli public now supports ending the war in exchange for the release of all hostages.

Bishara said that the Palestinian resistance and people should not trust Washington's words, despite its desire to return to negotiations. He believes it has been proven that the United States does not take practical steps to pressure Israel and continues to talk about eliminating Hamas's capabilities and punishing those behind October 7. He noted that some of Biden's statements leave loopholes for Israel in certain matters, which should be rejected and negotiated away. There is currently an opportunity for the resistance to show that they are not only fierce fighters but also understand politics and can respond positively to the new rhetoric. Netanyahu did not dare to present the initiative, allowing Biden to come out and present it. He appreciated Biden's presentation style, which is unsatisfactory to a large part of the Israeli right and even Netanyahu.

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A Gaza-war in the West Bank?

In response to a question about Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich's threats to the people of the West Bank to repeat the Gaza experience and whether he can carry out these threats, Azmi Bishara said that practically, he cannot implement his threats.

However, the settler gangs under Smotrich with his ally Itamar Ben-Gvir in the Ministry of National Security, responsible for the Border Police active in the West Bank, have exploited the war after October 7 and the hysterical atmosphere to strengthen the existing alliance between security forces and settlers, making it impossible to differentiate between them, to jointly raid Palestinian villages and cities more than during the second intifada, and there are scores to settle with specific areas and villages.

Bishara also noted the expansion of settlements and the reinstatement of those dismantled after the disengagement/withdrawal from Gaza. He highlighted the ferocity in killings and arrests and the return of torture policies, even using airstrikes in Jenin. Bishara believes Minister Ben-Gvir wishes to start a war in the West Bank, but he is not the decision-maker in this regard.

Regarding the Rafah massacre and incinerating people in their tents, and the anger it provoked in many countries and its impact on changing Israel's image, Bishara said that Israelis see global reactions but revert to the ghetto mentality and the notion that the world is against them and they are besieged. However, he believes this attitude in Israel will eventually collapse with the political, cultural, and economic impact on Israel of global anger, because Israel has lived with privileges in its relationship with the West as the favored child. If Israelis lose all that in the long term, especially with ICC arrest warrants for Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, it will have consequences.

He predicted massive protests in Israel after Biden's speech, as his words would strengthen the demand for the release of captives, even if it means ending the war.

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Western perceptions, hypocrisy and European recognition of Palestinian statehood

Bishara pointed out that Israel did not previously need to suppress public opinion in democratic countries for its sake, including suppressing the media, dispersing protests by force, and threatening journalists with expulsion if they took a stance against Israel because its narrative was dominant. However, this cannot continue in the long run, as Israelis will realize they have become a burden on the West.

Bishara highlighted the complex situation of the Palestinian issue, intertwined with two major issues: the Jewish question in the West, including Europe, which the West projects onto us to absolve itself of its anti-Semitic past, and the Arab issue in the East, which led to the existence of compromised Arab states that cannot impose dignity or respect in the world regarding its causes led by the issue of Palestine. While noting that until recently, Israel and its narrative about Palestine dominated, specifically the narrative of a democratic state defending itself, this narrative has now been shaken and needs to be imposed by force. He emphasized that a rising generation does not accept this narrative, including what right-wing extremists in the U.S. Congress say. Bishara expressed his belief that the ongoing transformations are the main achievement of the Palestinian people's steadfastness, not just the resistance.

Regarding the European countries' move to recognize the Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, he saw the issue of defining borders as crucial because a state in the modern era is a territorial entity; without recognition of its borders, recognition is meaningless. He considered this achievement, which the Palestinian Authority has no part in, as resulting also from the people's steadfastness. He stressed that any future negotiations must start from what has been achieved, a diplomatic recognition which should be leveraged by a Palestinian pre-Statehood entity, which he hopes will be a unified and elected Palestine Liberation Organization representing all Palestinian forces.

Bishara called on this [current PLO/Palestinian Authority] faction to act on this basis, considering that it currently does not play a real role in defending Gaza or the West Bank. He expressed his belief that the only solution is to agree on a national unity government in coordination with the Palestinian resistance. He also considered that there should be some distinction between the Fatah movement as a popular national movement with a broad grassroots base and a history of struggle and the Palestinian Authority. He stressed that Fatah should not be led by a group of five or six people around the Palestinian presidency, denying Fatah its historical role during a time of genocide against the Palestinian people. He believed that emphasizing the role of Fatah, if it happens, guarantees a leadership reference for the Palestinian people in this difficult phase. He considered this the only scenario that can lead to an honorable exit; otherwise, there will be a Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and another in Gaza, with a second Oslo originating from Gaza and ensuring Israel's security, i.e., a local administration in Gaza primarily ensuring Israel's security.

Bishara emphasized that forming a national unity government and subsequently rebuilding the Palestine Liberation Organization allows for leveraging the achievements, including recognition of Palestinian statehood, because it cannot be exploited in the current dismal Palestinian reality. He explained the Israeli anger over the recognition as a genuine revision of the Israeli dominance narrative. He noted that what is new is that the countries recognizing Palestine this time are from the Western bloc, from European Union countries, which is seen by Israel as a breach of its Western umbrella. Indeed, Israel is used to arguing that the issue of the Palestinian state's borders, and even the state itself, is not the world's concern and should be addressed through indirect and unconditional negotiations with the Palestinians, essentially on the basis of the strong eating the weak.

On another note, Bishara addressed the American talk about the Rafah massacre, considering that merely asking Israel to investigate its own massacres is complete bias toward it. In his view, this approach is provocative to the Palestinians' feelings when you ask the killer to investigate the murder. Bishara concluded that when it comes to human rights in our countries, Western nations are hypocritical. He believed that the hypocrisy in applying human rights, especially regarding Palestine, due to Western countries' relationship with Israel as a favored child with privileges, has become evident. He also referred to the young people protesting in Western universities, emphasizing the need to take them seriously because they approach attacking Israel from a moral standpoint. Indeed, he stressed that their role is historical and very important because, for the first time in 75 years, the Palestinian issue has become like the South African issue, linked to the liberation of an entire generation in the West. Bishara expressed his hope that Palestinian leaders would responsibly handle this new trend and develop their rhetoric to communicate effectively with them.

In response to a question about the limited movement in Arab countries and even within the 1948 territories, Bishara confirmed the necessity of saluting those who protested in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, and the football stadiums in Egypt, where they can demonstrate. Regarding the Palestinians inside Israel, Bishara said they are shocked by the extent of Israeli terrorism because they have achieved political gains over the past decades, particularly in terms of political rights. However, suddenly after October 7, Israel began an extensive terror campaign and arrested Palestinian citizens of Israel even for a post on social media, changing the rules of the game with the Palestinians inside Israel. He added, "I now sense the beginning of an awakening that refusing to give up political activism and struggle in solidarity with their families in Gaza and the West Bank is not only part of their national identity and value system but also to preserve their political rights, which Israel is trying to undermine and change the rules of the game."

Editor's note: On Saturday, the Office for the Prime Minister of Israel said in a post on X responding to Biden that "Israel's conditions for ending the war have not changed" following US President Joe Biden's announced ceasefire proposal yesterday. 

"The destruction of Hamas military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel".