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As conditions in Gaza worsen, more are asking what Biden will do for a ceasefire

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The Israel-Hamas war reached a grim milestone today. The Gaza Health Ministry announced the death toll in the territory has now surpassed 30,000 people. This comes as the U.S. and others push for a cease-fire, while President Biden also faces criticism that he should be doing more to bring about a truce. For a closer look, we are joined by two NPR correspondents who have been in the Mideast recently. Michele Kelemen covers diplomacy and Greg Myre national security. Good to have you both here.

GREG MYRE, BYLINE: Hi, Ari.

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MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: Michele, let's start with you. What exactly is President Biden's position on a cease-fire?

KELEMEN: Well, he supports a temporary one and one that would have to be part of a deal that would also include the release of some of the hostages that Hamas has been holding since the militants attacked Israel on October 7. You know, there was a weeklong deal last year that saw more than a hundred Israeli hostages freed, but Hamas is still holding more than 130, and that includes, Ari, six Americans.

So the new deal that's being negotiated would start with a six-week pause in fighting - so a lot longer. Hamas would release about 40 hostages in exchange for many more Palestinians who are held in Israeli prisons. And, you know, the hope is, is that this gives some time to get desperately needed aid in. The U.S. wants to, you know, turn this into something more permanent, but they still need to get to the - the deal started, and the negotiations really haven't been easy.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Biden recently expressed hope that there would be a deal reached by Monday, and now he's backing away from that. What's the latest?

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KELEMEN: Yeah, he says, hope springs eternal, but he says, likely not on Monday. And he says a deadly incident today in Gaza could complicate it further. You know, more than a hundred Palestinians were reportedly killed while trying to reach aid trucks in Gaza. U.N. officials say that that kind of chaotic scene that we saw is exactly why a cease-fire is needed now. State Department Spokesman Matthew Miller says Secretary Blinken and President Biden did talk about all this with their counterparts in Egypt and Qatar in phone calls today.

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MATTHEW MILLER: Every leader on those calls agreed that this terrible event underscores the urgency in bringing the hostage talks to a close. We continue to believe a deal is possible.

KELEMEN: And they're hoping that this doesn't complicate things further.

SHAPIRO: Let's turn to Greg Myre here in the studio. How does the position of the Biden administration align or not with the position of Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu?

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MYRE: Well, Ari, they're not perfectly aligned. Now, Netanyahu says, as he's been saying since the beginning of the war, he wants to destroy Hamas. He says that Israel is making substantial military progress. Hamas fighters are largely limited to southern Gaza at this point. He's also making it increasingly clear he expects Israel to have an extended security presence in Gaza. So even if the fighting stops, Israel is likely to keep a military force in the territory.

Now, that said, he faces domestic pressure to get back more of the hostages. And this had universal support in Israel when the hostages were released three months ago and would again. So Israel is open to another limited cease-fire, but don't expect more than that. That's what I heard when I spoke to Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S.

MICHAEL OREN: I think Israel would go for a temporary cease-fire. I heard they're talking about six weeks, but Hamas may want six months. And that's a very, very big difference. I don't know if Israel would be willing to go two months with a cease-fire.

SHAPIRO: Michele, back to you. The Biden administration is under pressure for the president to push a unilateral cease-fire. Does Biden have that kind of leverage to pressure Netanyahu?

KELEMEN: Well, the U.S. has leverage because of its massive military aid to Israel, but how much Biden feels like he can really pressure Netanyahu is a different story. You know, the Biden team doesn't seem to think that it helps to have a big public dispute with Netanyahu. So what you've been seeing throughout this is some pointed criticism of specific issues, like settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank or the U.S., you know, pushing Israel to do more to protect civilians, get more aid in, to investigate some of the deadliest strikes. But I'm not seeing much of an appetite to withhold aid or press them to just stop the fighting.

Instead, the Biden administration kind of seems to be trying to encourage Netanyahu to think about the long term. And from the U.S. perspective, that means not just an end to the war in Gaza, but a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Israel normalizing ties with more Arab states like Saudi Arabia, for instance. That's the vision that the Biden administration is trying to promote, but that first step, really, is just getting to this new hostage deal.

SHAPIRO: Greg, we've talked about what the U.S. wants, what Israel wants. What about Hamas? What terms would they need to see to agree to a cease-fire?

MYRE: Yeah, Hamas really wants a cease-fire. And for the longest possible time - and right now, as we've noted, the talks seem to be focusing on a possible initial six-week truce. But Hamas wants one that could be extended, eventually becoming permanent and then leading to the withdrawal of Israeli troops. But Hamas doesn't want a cease-fire at any cost. It's also engaged in very tough bargaining here. We're hearing that Hamas wants anywhere from several hundred to several thousand Palestinian prisoners released.

And we should stress that Hamas is very much fighting back. It puts out daily statements about its attacks in Gaza, and Israel suffers troop casualties almost daily. Hamas leaders have been saying they will continue to fight if they don't get what they consider a satisfactory deal in negotiations. And they're saying this deadly episode today in northern Gaza that Michele made reference to could also jeopardize the cease-fire talks.

SHAPIRO: And apart from that episode, can you bring us up to speed more broadly on the fighting in Gaza, where things stand on the battlefield?

MYRE: Yeah. The Israeli forces do have control of most of Gaza. We're still seeing some fighting around the southern city of Khan Younis and sporadic clashes elsewhere. The big question is whether Israel will launch an offensive in Rafah, on the southern border with Egypt. Now, Netanyahu is giving every impression, day after day, that the military is going ahead with planning for a possible Rafah operation, where more than a million Palestinians are in a tent city. And we're hearing a lot of talk that if Israeli hostages aren't released, the military will go into Rafah at the start of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month expected to start around March 10.

But I think it's unrealistic that all of the Israeli hostages, particularly the soldiers, will be released. I think it's more accurate to suggest that Ramadan, about 10 days from now, is a target for a temporary cease-fire but not a permanent cease-fire.

SHAPIRO: That's NPR's Greg Myre and Michele Kelemen. Thank you both.

MYRE: Sure thing, Ari.

KELEMEN: Thank you.

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Michele Kelemen
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.