Tuesday briefing: How a deal that could mean a truce in Gaza became possible
Good morning. Before Israel’s ground invasion of Gaza began three weeks ago, there was talk of a deal to secure the release of some of the 240 hostages taken by Hamas in exchange for a pause in the bombardment of the territory. But the talks failed, and thousands of Palestinians and an unknown number of the hostages have been killed in the weeks since. Now there is growing optimism that a deal is back on.
Yesterday, Joe Biden said that an agreement was almost done; this morning, Hamas chief Ismail Haniyeh said that officials were “close to reaching a truce agreement”. Al Jazeera quotes another Hamas official who says details will emerge in “the coming hours”. If that happens, it would be the biggest change in the dynamic between Israel and Hamas since 7 October – and some believe that it could even be a vital first step towards a more permanent end to the violence. But the US has also cautioned that until a deal is absolutely final, there is still a chance that it will collapse.
For today’s newsletter, I spoke to Daniel Levy, president of the US / Middle East Project and an Israeli peace negotiator under prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak, about what it will take to get the hostages out – and why both sides are considering it when each has so much to lose. Here are the headlines.
Five big stories
Environment | The world is on track for a “hellish” 3C of global heating, the UN has warned before the crucial Cop28 climate summit in the United Arab Emirates next week. To get on track for the internationally agreed target of 1.5C, 22bn tonnes of CO2 must be cut from the currently projected total in 2030, the report said – 42% of global emissions.
Economy | Rishi Sunak has hinted at business tax cuts to boost economic growth as he promised to reduce the tax burden “carefully and sustainably” and “over time”. Sunak stressed the focus was “very much the supply side” of the economy in a signal that business tax cuts are more likely than personal ones.
OpenAI | Turmoil has engulfed the company behind ChatGPT after nearly all of OpenAI’s 700 staff threatened to quit unless ousted chief executive Sam Altman is reinstated. A letter to the company’s board said that the signatories could join Altman and OpenAI’s former president Greg Brockman at Microsoft, which announced it had hired the two on Monday.
Covid inquiry | Rishi Sunak would almost certainly have known scientists were worried about his “eat out to help out” scheme during the pandemic, Sir Patrick Vallance has said, directly contradicting the prime minister’s evidence to the Covid inquiry. An entry from Vallance’s diary from October 2020 also claimed that Dominic Cummings said that Sunak “thinks just let people die and that’s okay”.
Nature | Church surveillance cameras in the Netherlands have caught the first documented evidence of any mammal mating without intromission. In plain English, they have recorded bats having sex without penetration.
In depth: ‘The hope is that a pause in the fighting gathers momentum’
Yesterday, the families of some of the Israelis who were abducted by Hamas on 7 October met with Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet. They had come to Jerusalem after a five-day march from Tel Aviv, accompanied by thousands of supporters, and their message was simple: “We have 240 people in Gaza,” Moran Mina, whose grandmother is one of the hostages, told Sky News. “We need to bring them all back and this is our victory.”
The wishes of the families carry enormous weight in Israel – and yet there is also remarkable national unity behind the idea of neutralising the threat from Hamas. “The pressure on Netanyahu to get a deal done has been rising,” Daniel Levy said. “But there is also public support for carrying on the military assault. Getting prisoners out alive, and the life-affirming story that would tell, could be a new vector in the debate, and mobilise support for further release deals.”
According to a Hamas official who spoke to Al Jazeera this morning, a deal would involve the release of Israeli women and children in exchange for Palestinian women and children held in Israel. AFP reported that between 50 and 100 hostages – but no military personnel – would be freed in exchange for as many as 300 Palestinians, with a five day pause in fighting on the ground and limits to Israeli air operations in the south of Gaza.
Here are some of the key factors behind such a deal, and what could come next if it is finalised.
Is Israel’s position getting weaker?
As the death toll in Gaza mounts, and even Israel’s allies voice concerns over the extent of the devastation for Palestinian civilians, there have been reports in the Israeli media about divisions among senior ministers. One side believes that the longer and more intense the military campaign, the more concessions Hamas will be forced to make; the other fears that international pressure to end the war is bound to grow, and that the terms of any deal will only get worse.
“My sense is that the Israelis are always trying to get another day, and another day, and another day of operations before agreeing to a deal,” Levy said. “Each day, they hope that they’ve won the lottery and killed [Hamas leaders] Mohammed Deif or Yahya Sinwar and that they will be able to point to a major military success.”
Does a deal give Hamas more negotiating power?
Hamas took the hostages in part because it knows the leverage that comes with the high value that Israeli society places on the release of its citizens: the most famous example is the deal struck by Netanyahu for the release of more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for a single Israeli soldier, Gilad Shalit, in 2011. (One of those prisoners was Sinwar himself.)
By its refusal to accept a deal before now, Israel has kept that leverage to a minimum. “But once that path is taken, Hamas can play that card much more effectively,” Levy said. “They’re not going to roll over for the release of the rest of the prisoners – they’re going to demand as much as they possibly can for each one.”
What does Benjamin Netanyahu get out of it?
One reason for Netanyahu’s resistance to a deal may be his understanding that once the war comes to an end, his own position will come under far more urgent scrutiny because of a wide consensus that the failure to protect civilians near the Gaza border was his responsibility. “He is almost certainly toast the morning after the war is over,” said Levy. “The same is probably true of the military leadership, so they have not played the moderating role that they might ordinarily be expected to.”
The families’ march to Jerusalem has heightened that sense of Netanyahu’s responsibility, Levy added. But it’s equally clear that any resolution that ends with the deaths of many of the hostages, or their permanent incarceration in Gaza, will also be laid at the prime minister’s door. “If this ends with none or very few getting out, Netanyahu and his government will of course say that it’s Hamas who are to blame – and it’s true that Hamas is responsible for capturing them. But the Israeli public will know that they were alive, and you chose to let them die. Under those circumstances, it’s remarkable that they’ve resisted pressure for a deal for as long as they have.”
Will Israel accept a different victory narrative?
Since 7 October, the Israeli government has been clear that its primary goal is the elimination of Hamas – with the release of the hostages second on its list. But many expert observers view the first aim as either impossible to achieve or moot because the factors that contributed to the Hamas atrocity will simply be heightened.
Even if it was never a realistic goal, so much emphasis has been put on that message that if it changes direction, and puts hostage release first, Israel will need to have a coherent story. “The government has been pushing the idea that it is only military pressure that put a deal on the table in the first place,” Levy said. And yesterday, senior Israeli adviser Mark Regev said that “the reason people are a bit more upbeat about [a deal] is because Hamas needs a ceasefire. They need some time to rest and regroup.”
That isn’t true, Levy said. “Something very similar was available four weeks ago. But if that’s the narrative that they need to make it viable – that’s fine. They might have preferred not to do the release at all, but if they have to, this is the story that they will push.”
Could a pause lead to a more permanent end to hostilities?
If there is a hostage deal, the shape of Israeli public opinion is unpredictable, Levy said. “But if you get 50 or more people out, then a story that has been about death and loss and combat heroics could shift to being a story about lives being resumed, families being reunited, and a desire for more of the same.”
The hope in the United States and elsewhere will be that a pause in hostilities could open a path to further prisoner releases, and that the previous Israeli objectives will be forgotten because of the accompanying public relief. “I think if the Israeli public was told today that a hostage deal would mean a permanent ceasefire, it would be a hard sell,” Levy said. “So the hope is that you can get there surreptitiously, bit by bit, and that a pause in the fighting gathers a momentum of its own.”
For Hamas to countenance more releases, they would need “a guarantee that this wave of the military campaign is over”, Levy said. “It’s not about a commitment that Sinwar and others in the leadership will be able to live out their natural days – they know they can’t get that.” Even if more hostages are released, he added, it is hard to see how the current circumstances would lead to the freeing of every last one, since that would reduce Hamas’ leverage to nil.
“Even if you go much further down this path, you need a credible, workable proposition for how this can be brought to an end,” he said. “Hamas is unlikely to give up whatever final group of Israelis it would be holding without guarantees that Israel would withdraw its military presence from Gaza. It is hard to envisage how one gets to that point.”
What else we’ve been reading
As the two-year anniversary of the war in Ukraine nears, Shaun Walker’s dispatch from Kyiv shows that morale and optimism is waning. Nimo
Being the youngest of five, I know my fair share about sibling rivalry (illustrated above). Zoe Williams has put together a handy guide on how to navigate through the trials and tribulations of one of the longest relationships of your life – as a child and a parent! Nazia Parveen, acting deputy newsletters editor
For the long read, Joshua Leifer profiles Benjamin Netanyahu, exploring how he has taken his country to the right – and how, even if he goes, the approach he established will be very difficult to shift. Archie
Earlier this month, the fishing town of Grindavik, Iceland, was evacuated as magma rumbled and snaked underground amid thousands of earthquakes. Now as the country braces itself for a volcanic eruption, this National Geographic piece (£) takes a deep dive into the volcanic activity in the Reykjanes Peninsula and how it represents a new era. Nazia
If you’re hosting Christmas dinner for the first time this year, I urge you to read Debora Robertson’s guide to cooking on the big day without ending up hating everyone. Nimo
Football | An own goal by North Macedonia spared England’s blushes as they drew 1-1 in the final game of their Euro 2024 qualification campaign. Gareth Southgate’s side finish the calendar year with a record of eight wins and two draws from 10 games.
Football | Liverpool mayor Steve Rotherham has described Everton’s 10-point deduction as “wholly disproportionate” and promised to support the club’s appeal. The team were plunged into the relegation zone after being slapped with the heaviest punishment ever given to a Premier League club for breaching financial rules.
Golf | Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods’s indoor golf venture has been postponed after the purpose-built venue in Florida was damaged. The TGL, a new team golf league, was due to start early next year but has now been pushed back to 2025, after the SoFi Center in Palm Beach Gardens suffered a power cut which deflated parts of the venue’s air-supported dome.
The front pages
The Guardian’s top story is “UN sounds alarm as world on track for ‘hellish’ 3C rise in temperatures”. The Times splashes on “WFH push to get more sick Britons off benefits’ and the Telegraph says “Sunak pins hopes on ‘Thatcher’ tax package”.
The i leads with “Sunak’s eat out to help out ‘drove second wave of Covid” and the Independent says “Boris: Let Covid ‘rip’ through UK. Rishi: ‘Just let people die’”. The Sun has an interview with Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelenskiy, splashing with “Putin has tried to kill me five times”.
The Financial Times headlines “Staff revolt at OpenAI piles pressure on board over move to oust Altman”. The Express leads with “PM: We can and will cut taxes” and the Mirror says “Covid inquiry bombshell, Sunak: let people die”.
Today in Focus
How much legal trouble is Donald Trump in?
Various polls have the ex-president as favourite to retake the White House in the US election next year, but he faces growing legal jeopardy. Hugo Lowell reports on the many charges Trump is facing
Cartoon of the day | Martin Rowson
A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad
Many people say it would be a “dream” to accomplish a particular goal – for Noreen Davies it actually was. Twelve years ago, when she was 72, Davies dreamt she was skilfully playing the trombone. When she woke up, she knew she had to learn the instrument. Even though the trombone is notoriously difficult to learn how to play, Davies has mastered the instrument and spends her time gigging throughout the West Midlands with groups exploring everything from the blues to vintage jazz and big band funk.
The open world of jam sessions and gigs has led Davies to pick up more instruments: she now plays the piano, the accordion, the washboard, the baritone ukulele and is learning to play the bass ukulele. “Playing music and improvising with other people is essential to me now,” she says. “Everyone should try it out – just get yourself to a jam session somewhere and see what happens. I’m glad I had my dream.”
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