Biden Faces Make-or-Break Moment in Gaza Cease-Fire Talks

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(Bloomberg) -- President Joe Biden desperately needs Israel and Hamas to agree to a cease-fire, a first step toward resolving a conflict that has shaken the region and harmed his chances of reelection.

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Under a fresh proposal for a six-week fighting pause, Israeli hostages would return home, an assault on Rafah would be put on hold and aid could flood into Gaza to relieve human suffering. That could accelerate talks on a long-desired normalization agreement with Saudi Arabia and deflate anti-Israel protests on college campuses that carry political risk for Biden.

If negotiations collapse, Biden could face an increasingly grim scenario. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu would likely move ahead with a Rafah invasion, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. It would also complicate progress toward Saudi-Israeli ties — killing a top foreign-policy goal — and demonstrators could escalate their tactics and disrupt Biden’s renomination at this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Asked Tuesday what would happen if there is no deal, White House spokesman John Kirby said, “there just has to be.”

Israel has fought a nearly seven-month war in Gaza after Hamas, which is designated a terrorist organization by the US, invaded the country and killed 1,200 people and abducted 240. Authorities in Hamas-run Gaza say more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the war.

The war has become one of the biggest drags on Biden’s bid for a second term. The president’s handling of the conflict has come under attack from both sides of the political spectrum and polls show voters have lost confidence in his approach.

The war was Biden’s worst-rated issue in a new CNN poll, with 71% of respondents saying they disapprove of how he’s handling it. That includes more than eight in 10 adults under the age of 35 — a group Biden needs in order to defeat Republican Donald Trump in November.

This week could mark a turning point for the conflict — and for Biden. The sides are the closest they have been to a deal since a week-long pause in November, with negotiators in Cairo weighing the Israeli offer. The White House is moving with urgency to ensure an agreement is reached. Netanyahu said Tuesday that Israel would invade Rafah with or without a deal.

Shuttle Diplomacy

Biden has spoken by phone since Sunday with Netanyahu, as well as the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, who are helping mediate talks. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, appearing in Riyadh, urged Hamas to accept the agreement.

The administration signed a letter with 17 other countries pressing Hamas to immediately release hostages. The US and its allies have also warned the International Criminal Court about issuing arrest warrants for Israeli officials that could jeopardize negotiations, according to people familiar with the matter.

If talks fall through, “you’d have to hang a kind of closed-for-the-season sign” on US efforts “to change the picture in Gaza and to do it reasonably soon for any number of reasons: for policy reasons, for moral reasons and, of course, for political reasons,” Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Arab-Israeli negotiator, said Monday on Bloomberg Television’s Balance of Power.

Campus Chaos

Intensifying protests on college campuses nationwide have further exposed disagreements among Democrats. Party members have squabbled over protecting free-speech rights for those concerned by the plight of Gazans and acknowledging the fears of Jewish students who say they are threatened by antisemitic slogans and intimidation.

Those tensions flared on Tuesday when New York City police officers removed pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had occupied a building at Columbia University. Clashes broke out early Wednesday at a separate protest at UCLA in Los Angeles.

If the protests continue, it could fracture the Democratic Party at a time when Biden needs it to be unified — and for progressives to cast ballots for his reelection. Representative Ro Khanna, a top progressive Democrat, urged students at a Wisconsin university last week to back Biden despite any reservations about the war in Gaza.

Whether that message resonates “remains to be seen,” Democratic Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, another leading progressive, said Tuesday. “It is very, very difficult to have any sort of conversation about voting or elections when young people are seeing other young people in Gaza die every day on their cell phones.”

Earlier: Turn Down the Ivy League? Students Consider the Once-Unthinkable

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan met with progressive Democrats on Capitol Hill Tuesday to discuss their concerns about Gaza.

Republicans have sought to capitalize on the protests, using them to paint a picture of a nation in chaos under Biden’s rule. House Speaker Mike Johnson staged a press conference at Columbia last week to call for the resignation of the university president, an appearance aimed at suburban parents who are crucial to deciding the outcome of the November election.

On Tuesday, Johnson announced a US House-led crackdown on antisemitism spreading on college campuses, including an expansion of investigations of university administrators.

Trump on Tuesday night called into Fox News as police were entering the campus of Columbia, offering live commentary of the event and suggesting that Biden had permitted the erosion of bipartisan support for Israel.

“Biden has to do something,” Trump said. “Biden is supposed to be the voice of our country — and it’s certainly not much of a voice.”

Taking over buildings is “wrong” and “hate speech and hate symbols have no place in America,” White House spokesman Andrew Bates said in a statement.

--With assistance from Courtney McBride, Joe Mathieu, Kailey Leinz, Sana Pashankar, Hadriana Lowenkron, Christian Hall, Skylar Woodhouse and Jennifer Jacobs.

(Updates with additional context, background in paragraphs 3, 5)

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