As the world watches “expanded land operations” in Gaza by the Israeli army, some may wonder what happened to the news that we heard earlier today that there would be a release of captives that would end the war.
The “well-informed leak” swept across the region faster than anything else has during this conflict on Friday: “Hamas is about to release all hostages that it is holding and that will stop the war.”
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Since the flare-up of violence on October 7, the Middle East has been awash with rumours, disinformation and half-truths.
All invariably claim to be based on “leaks from well-informed sources“, “information obtained by sympathisers“, or “indiscretion from foreign diplomats”.
The unverifiable claims spread through local rumour mills in Israel and Gaza alike, then hit notoriously unreliable social networks. Some of the less absurd assertions seeped into forums, blogs and Telegram groups purportedly read by those in the know. A small-but-worrying percentage gets to mainstream media, at a speed that makes it impossible to properly check the facts.
For days the dominant “public secret” was that Israel would launch the ground attack over the weekend. An unverifiable but plausible claim that rumourmongers “confirmed” by the fact that the Israeli army released videos of their “limited” night-time incursions into Gaza.
Then came the “news” that there would be a captive release.
When we do not know where a claim originates, who is behind it, and why is it being peddled at a certain time, we must make educated guesses. It must first pass basic scrutiny: It is possible and plausible? Then we ask ourselves why it appeared now and who would it benefit.
Speak softly but carry big stick
Surprisingly, the claim of a “hostage release to end the war” passes initial scrutiny at almost all levels and appears possible, plausible and even fits in with the pattern of behaviour of many participants.
Israel initially responded with near-universal support for total war on Gaza, but when heads cooled slightly many realised that a major offensive would be extremely bloody for the Israeli military and civilians – especially the captives held by Hamas.
Then came the military command’s lack of enthusiasm for a difficult war without clear military and political objectives and precise lines of responsibility. The issue of potential differences within the Israeli cabinet on the real aim of the war also came up. I covered some of those dilemmas in my previous analyses, but ultimate answers remained elusive.
In light of that, the “hostages for peace” initiative would make sense from several points of view.
First, it would satisfy the wishes of Western officials who flew on hurried visits to Israel to secure the safe return of their nationals.
US President Joe Biden, true to the proven adage: “Speak softly but carry big stick,” deployed significant US military assets in the Mediterranean, Indian Ocean and the Middle East, in line with declared support for Israel. At the same time, he asked it to delay the ground offensive and give hostage negotiations a chance.
Hamas could claim the eventual release of Israelis and foreigners it took on October 7 in exchange for a lull in fighting, as a clear success.
The organisation, dubbed “terrorist” by Israel and many Western governments, would become a partner in negotiations even if it remains an enemy. That informal status is much more than Israel is ready to accord it now. Reportedly, the releases of two groups of two hostages each happened through intermediaries, without any contact between the foes. But the transfer of 200 captives would require at least technical communication between the enemies.
It is well known that Qatar is acting as an intermediary, citing humanitarian reasons. But other parties from the wider region could also get involved, most notably Iran.
A sworn enemy of Israel, it never relinquished its fiery rhetoric that denies it even the right to exist. The US is second on Teheran’s list of proclaimed enemies but both sides have refrained from any threatening military moves during this conflict, limiting themselves to vague warnings.
Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian just visited New York where in a speech at a special ministerial conference on the Gaza War in the UN, he warned that if the war were to escalate, the US “will not be spared from this fire”.
Careful reading of his speech shows it was not a threat, nor an announcement of imminent, or even potential, Iranian entry into war, but as a general diplomatic warning. Iran has many dogs in this fight and does not want to lose any. It stands to gain the most if it helps, even indirectly, reduce the tensions and stop the spread of the war. An Iran that can come to terms with the US, even on a single issue and with a limited scope, would gain influence and respect.
I would be surprised if Amirabdollahian’s stay in the US did not include at least one covert unofficial meeting between him, or his closest associates, and their US counterparts. Anything else would be foolish.
The icing on the cake giving the “hostages for ceasefire” rumour plausibility is that it would put Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu in an untenable position. Many Israeli citizens see him as the main instigator of the discrimination and violence by Israeli right-wingers and settlers which Hamas has said was a major catalyst for the attack on October 7.
By forming the unity government, he secured an uneasy political truce inside Israel but that will certainly not save him from very angry calls for political and legal responsibility once the fighting stops. His arrogant politics that disregarded every voice of reason over the years put him in a situation where most politicians and generals will want his skin as soon as the guns fall silent.
Bibi has proven an embarrassment as an ally and a political liability even to his protectors. The world wants an Israeli leader who can be an honest broker, able to take hard decisions that would benefit all sides, not just a promoter of the hardest of hardliners at the expense of the rest of society.
I don’t know whether the “hostages-for-ceasefire” rumour will prove true. It might be brutally refuted in blood as soon as communications come back on in Gaza and we see what Israel’s expanded activity means.
But if it happens somehow, even after tonight, I will be convinced even before concrete proof is revealed, and in time it will be, that Biden chose a lull in the fighting over any other option. He needs every brownie point he can get before his 2024 re-election campaign and will be trying to walk that fine line between a diplomatic success and abject support for Netanyahu.
If it turns out that other regional actors, countries expected and unexpected, had a hand in reaching that deal, the Middle East will be a step closer to at least a lull.