After seven weeks of battling a crisis that defies easy solutions, President Biden took solace in saving a 4-year-old girl whose parents were killed in the October 7 terrorist attack on Israel.
But as gratifying as it was to secure the release of Avigail Idan from her Hamas captors over the weekend, the challenge for Mr. Biden going forward is not just freeing the rest of the held Americans hostage, but also to use the success of recent days to change the trajectory of the war that is devouring Gaza.
At the president’s request, the two sides agreed Monday to extend the temporary pause in the war between Israel and Hamas by two days to allow the release of 20 additional hostages, according to Qatar, the Persian Gulf emirate that serves as hostage. ‘intermediate. . This gives all parties more breathing space, but only postpones for another 48 hours the most critical question – what will happen when the negotiated pause expires.
Israel has vowed to resume its relentless attack on Hamas once the hostage releases are complete, and Mr. Biden has repeatedly said the country has the right to defend itself after a terrorist attack that killed about 1,200 people. At the same time, the president hopes to influence any new military action, ensuring that it is more targeted and does more to avoid civilian casualties. The White House has already warned Israel against any advance toward southern Gaza, where many Palestinians living in the coastal enclave have fled, without a concrete plan to protect civilians.
“Biden is in a bind,” said longtime Middle East negotiator Aaron David Miller, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “He focused on Israel’s war goals: eradicating Hamas. But in the face of the growing humanitarian catastrophe and the exponential rise in the number of Palestinian deaths, he is looking for ways to defuse the situation and, ultimately, find a way out.”
“Releasing the hostages is a way of trying to extend the truce, get aid to Gaza and evacuate the hostages,” Miller added. “But the moment of decision comes when Israel seeks to resume its ground campaign. Will he pressure Israel to stop or at least try to shape its operations in the south?
Monday’s announcement of a two-day extension of the truce came after a weekend of telephone diplomacy from Mr. Biden. He consulted Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, the Emir of Qatar, on Saturday and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.
In working to extend the pause and free the hostages, Mr. Biden must consider American interests as well as those of Israel. Among the 240 hostages taken by Hamas, 10 are believed to be Americans. Among those released as part of the initial deal negotiated last week by Mr. Biden to free 50 hostages, the only American to have been handed over so far is Avigail, who has dual American and Israeli citizenship and whose Name is often spelled Abigail in Arabic. American Media.
Two American women from that group were supposed to be among the hostages released Monday in the final step of the initial deal between Israel and Hamas, but were not released. It is a significant setback for Mr Biden, who was already criticized for failing to secure the release of the vast majority of American hostages.
The question now is whether any or all of the Americans will be among the hostages handed over during the two-day extension agreed to Monday. Israel said it would extend the break by one day for every 10 additional hostages released.
“We are grateful to have two extra days to work here,” John F. Kirby, the National Security Council’s strategic communications coordinator, said before it was learned that no Americans would be released Monday. “This will result in the release of 20 additional people, women and children. »
He added: “We would certainly like to see this extension extended further until all the hostages are released. That’s really the goal here. Bring all the hostages home to their families, where they belong, however long it might take.
Mr. Biden and his team, however, have remained vague about what happens next. “We will continue to urge our Israeli counterparts, as they consider resuming military operations, to do so in the most discreet, deliberate, careful and prudent manner possible,” Mr. Kirby.
The longer the pause, the more time Hamas has to regroup for further Israeli attacks, military experts say. Jake Sullivan, the president’s national security adviser, acknowledged over the weekend that Hamas had exploited the hostage deal to rebuild after weeks of airstrikes and ground attacks by Israeli military forces.
“I can’t deny that Hamas gained some benefit from this deal,” Sullivan said on ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday. “One of them is the ability to refit and re-equip the interior of Gaza. Another solution is to try to use social media and other formats for propaganda.” But he added that the trade-off was that dozens of “innocent people were leaving Gaza to reunite with their families.”
Republicans offered mixed responses to the hostage deal, wary of challenging Mr. Netanyahu, the leader of Israel’s right-wing governing coalition, even as they castigated Mr. Biden for alleged weakness. Mr. Netanyahu agreed not only to enter into a temporary truce to facilitate the release of the hostages, but also to release three Palestinians held in Israeli prisons for various crimes for every hostage released under the deal brokered by Mr. Biden.
“What I’m grateful for is that these hostages were returned to their families,” former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a Republican presidential candidate, said on “State of the Union.” on CNN this weekend. “It’s extraordinarily important and humane to do this. So I think President Biden deserves credit for that.
“Where I think he starts to go wrong,” Mr. Christie added, is “in saying that he hopes this continues, that the truce continues. He can’t do this sort of thing, in my opinion, publicly. »
Senator Tom Cotton, Republican of Arkansas, took a tougher stance on “Fox News Sunday.” While he said he did not “want to question the Israeli government,” he was happy to question Mr. Biden, accusing him of not supporting Israel enough.
“I have to say that it appears that President Biden is putting more pressure on Israel than on Hamas and its hosts in Qatar,” Mr. Cotton said. “The Biden administration has constantly insisted behind the scenes that the Israeli government take actions that are clearly not in Israel’s interests,” he added, citing the delivery of fuel to Gaza, which he said he would help Hamas, and not just civilians.
Still, the pause in fighting has eased some criticism Mr. Biden has leveled from his party’s left wing, which has criticized him for being too supportive of Israel. The Israeli military campaign has killed thousands of civilians in Gaza, even as it has focused on destroying Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
Avigail’s release gave Mr. Biden a small but emotionally powerful victory amid all the tumult in the region. Taken hostage after her parents were shot dead in front of her, Avigail spent seven weeks in captivity and turned 4 on Friday in the hands of Hamas. His case has sparked waves of international concern and condemnation.
“She went through terrible trauma,” Mr. Biden said. “What she endured was unthinkable.”
But he rejoiced at his release. “Thank God she’s home,” he said. “I wish I was there to hold her.”