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The U.S. effort to push a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Eight months into Israel's war with Hamas, the United States is still trying to find a way to end the fighting. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is back in the Middle East, trying to push forward President Biden's plan to end the war in Gaza. Blinken says Israel and much of the world have accepted the plan that Hamas is the only holdout.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: If you want a cease-fire, press Hamas to say yes. If you want to alleviate the terrible suffering of Palestinians in Gaza, press Hamas to say yes. If you want to get all the hostages home, press Hamas to say yes.

KELLY: Well, Blinken's push comes after the weekend rescue of four Israeli hostages from Gaza. More than 250 Palestinians were killed in that operation. It comes also after the resignation of centrist war cabinet member Benny Gantz. To talk about these developments and how they might affect cease-fire efforts. I am joined by two NPR correspondents, State Department correspondent Michele Kelemen and international correspondent Daniel Estrin, who's with us from Tel Aviv. Hi, you two.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Hi there.

KELLY: Michele, you start. This cease-fire plan that's on the table that America's top diplomat is trying to rally the world behind - what's in it? What are the details?

KELEMEN: Yeah. So it's what President Biden laid out at the end of May. It's this three-phased approach to ending the war. It starts with a six-week ceasefire and the release of some of the hostages. Israel would have to release hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. That number still has to be negotiated. And once all that starts, Israel and Hamas are supposed to negotiate a permanent cease-fire, and Israel would withdraw from Gaza. Hamas wants a guarantee of all of that now, but this is a phased approach with lots of potential pitfalls and no guarantees.

And so what Blinken is trying to do is to get more countries to press Hamas to agree to it, as you heard. The U.S. also brought the plan to the U.N. Security Council this afternoon and got an almost unanimous endorsement. Russia abstained, but everyone else voted for the resolution, which the U.S. says sends a clear message to Hamas to accept the deal and for both Hamas and Israel to start implementing it.

KELLY: Daniel, just to remind people of the backdrop, one of Israel's main goals all along has been the release of its hostages. Then it launched a raid this weekend that freed four of those hostages who were being held in Gaza. How does that rescue - how does that play into these cease-fire talks?

ESTRIN: Well, I think for Israelis, that hostage rescue this weekend only reinforced that the military cannot free all of the hostages in that kind of special ops rescue. And the only way to get all the hostages out alive, as even the military spokesman himself has said, is through a deal with Hamas. So there is, you know, increasing public pressure in Israel to strike that deal.

From Israel's security establishment perspective, they feel it is the right time for the deal mostly because of the battlefield accomplishments that they see in Gaza - the Israeli military taking over the Gaza border with Egypt, going after Hamas and Rafah. And they also believe that a cease-fire deal could actually quiet the northern border with Lebanon, where there's been an uptick in Hezbollah fire. The question, really, Mary Louise, is if there is political will in Israel. You know, Blinken has said that Hamas is the one that needs to be pushed on this cease-fire deal. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu truly does not seem willing to take the political risk necessary to really embrace this cease-fire deal because his far-right political partners oppose it. They oppose an end to the war without Hamas destroyed.

From the Hamas perspective, I should add that, you know, this raid - this hostage raid killed more than 200 Palestinians, as you mentioned. We'll have to see how much of a setback that could be for the cease-fire efforts, but their position remains. They won't agree to a cease-fire deal until Israel - until there's a guarantee that Israel really means it's going to be the end of the war.

KELLY: Michele, pick up on the point that we just heard Daniel nodding at. Secretary Blinken says Hamas is the problem. Israel has accepted the deal. It's Hamas that's holding out. But Israel has not accepted crucial elements of this plan, at least as it was set out by President Biden, right? How is he squaring that?

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, U.S. officials have repeatedly said that Israel has agreed to the plan, despite what Netanyahu says for his own political reasons. In fact, Mary Louise, the U.N. Security Council, which the U.S. drafted, says that Israel has endorsed it. So in a way, the U.S. is trying to box Israel in. If the U.N. Security Council and much of the world now backs this plan and pressures Hamas to sign up for it, it will be harder for Netanyahu not to at least start this process. I mean, it's a gamble, of course, and there's a lot of political issues at play, as Daniel has suggested.

KELLY: Is it also a case of possibly different political timelines playing out here - one from the Biden administration, one from Benjamin Netanyahu - Daniel?

ESTRIN: Yeah. I mean, I think there are two different political timelines here, at least two different ones. I mean, Biden wants a cease-fire deal really soon because the war is hurting his reelection campaign. He wants to advance this historic treaty between Saudi Arabia and Israel as part of this grand bargain to end the war and to do all that before the elections. Netanyahu is on almost an opposite timeline. Many Israeli analysts believe that Netanyahu actually would probably rather wait for a potential Trump victory because he may think that Trump can offer him a better deal for Saudi-Israeli relations. Trump would not insist that Israel make concessions to the Palestinians as part of that deal. And then, you know, Netanyahu has this third timeline, which is his own political reality in Israel, the potential of new elections. His main political rival, Benny Gantz, resigned from the war cabinet yesterday. He's calling for elections in the fall. There's a good chance Netanyahu could lose those elections.

KELLY: Well, let's look ahead. Michele Kelemen, I gave you the first word. I'll give you the last word, too, because we love you. We were talking about the vote at the U.N. today. Where does the Biden administration take this next?

KELEMEN: Well, I mean, I think that vote should give a boost to Secretary Blinken, who remains in the region. And he's heading to Jordan tomorrow for a big conference on humanitarian aid for Gaza. So that should give him a big boost that the U.S. is doing something, that it has some support from the region. He's also planning to visit Qatar, which is a key country in these cease-fire talks. You know, Hamas has an office in Doha, Qatar, and that's a place where they receive the formal responses from Hamas political figures. Blinken also visited Egypt, which is the other key player in these negotiations. So he's really just trying to get these talks going and to get this first phase started.

KELLY: That is NPR diplomatic correspondent Michele Kelemen and international correspondent Daniel Estrin. Thanks to you both.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF HERMANOS GUTIERREZ'S "MESA REDONDA") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.