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US launches lobbying blitz to sell Gaza cease-fire plan to Hamas through Arab and Muslim nations

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WASHINGTON (AP) — The Biden administration has launched an intense drive to persuade Hamas and Israel to accept a new cease-fire proposal in the nearly eight-month-old war in Gaza while it also presses Arab nations to get the militant group to go along with the terms.

It comes as President Joe Biden suggested in a Time magazine interview published Tuesday that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may be prolonging the war against Hamas to ensure his political survival. Biden, who gave that interview a week ago, seemed to dial back his criticism in a brief exchange with reporters following an immigration speech at the White House.

In response to a question about whether Netanyahu is playing politics with the war, Biden said: “I don’t think so. He’s trying to work out the serious problem he has.”

Netanyahu faces a far-right coalition that has threatened to break up his government if the prime minister agrees to a new cease-fire proposal, which Biden announced Friday as an Israeli plan. Since then, Biden and his top aides have not only pressed for Israel and Hamas to approve the deal but also have been working the phones with Arab and Muslim nations.

Biden, Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security adviser Jake Sullivan have all made calls, and Brett McGurk, the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa, will be heading to region this week to further make the case for the deal. The plan would aim to free remaining Israeli hostages held by Hamas and lead to the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza in phases.

Since Friday, Blinken has spoken with the foreign ministers of Turkey, Egypt, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the United Arab Emirates, Morocco and Algeria, according to the State Department. Blinken also spoke over the weekend with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Benny Gantz, another member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet.

Biden spoke Monday with the emir of Qatar — whose country, along with Egypt, has played a major role in trying to negotiate a truce and persuade Hamas to accept one.

That was followed quickly by a joint statement from the leaders of the Group of Seven advanced democracies calling “on Hamas to accept this deal, that Israel is ready to move forward with, and we urge countries with influence over Hamas to help ensure that it does so.” The G7 includes Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the U.S.

Also Monday, Sullivan spoke with his Turkish counterpart about the “urgent need for Hamas to accept Israel’s proposal.”

A Biden administration official said Tuesday that McGurk, who has been shuttling between Washington and Middle East capitals throughout the war for talks with key regional stakeholders, would be returning to the region this week. The official requested anonymity to discuss the yet to be publicly announced travels for McGurk.

U.S. officials say Hamas has yet to respond to the proposal that was sent to them Thursday and have bristled at suggestions that Netanyahu is not fully on board. They have stressed repeatedly that the Israelis signed off on sending the proposal to Hamas last week.

But two leading members of Netanyahu’s far-right governing coalition — National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — have threatened to leave Netanyahu’s government if he signs off on the proposal. That would cause the coalition to collapse.

Netanyahu has said there are certain “gaps” in how Biden laid out the proposal and Israel would not agree to a permanent cease-fire until “the destruction of Hamas’ military and governing capabilities, the freeing of all hostages and ensuring that Gaza no longer poses a threat to Israel.”

In the Time interview conducted May 28, three days before he announced the cease-fire proposal, Biden was asked about critics in Israel suggesting that Netanyahu was extending the war for political preservation. Biden initially said he wasn’t going to comment then noted that “there is every reason for people to draw that conclusion.”

White House national security spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday that the president’s comments in Time were “referencing what many critics have said. For our part, though, he and Prime Minister Netanyahu do not agree on everything.”

But Kirby said the U.S. would keep working with its ally to combat Hamas and get the cease-fire plan approved.

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AP reporter Seung Min Kim contributed from Washington.

By MATTHEW LEE and AAMER MADHANI
Associated Press

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