Why Biden’s Gaza Gambit Is Likely to Fail

Woody Allen once quipped that 80 percent of success in life is just showing up. From a negotiator’s perspective, he was only half right; success more often than not depends on showing up at the right time. Anyone trying to make sense of U.S. President Joe Biden’s tortured attempt to sell Israel’s peace plan needs to take a hard look at time and timing and how each of the three major players calculate it.

In essence, we have three separate clocks ticking at different relative rates. Two of those clocks belong to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar; they are set for delay and obfuscation. The third rests on the fireplace mantle in the Oval Office; it runs fast, gears meshed with urgent political exigencies.

Right now—and perhaps for the foreseeable future—these three clocks are out of sync. And the prospects for coordinating them are dim. Indeed, for Netanyahu and Sinwar, time is an ally. For Biden, time is an enemy ticking down against an Israel-Hamas war that he’s desperate to end and has little immediate prospect of doing so. Even if the two sides manage to commit to some version of the comprehensive plan put forth by Biden and Netanyahu, it’s more than likely that they’ll only be able to implement the first phase. With less than zero mutual trust, even that would be nothing short of a small miracle.

Based on our experience, Middle East negotiations tend to have two speeds—slow and slower. And these are not traditional negotiations. The principal Palestinian decision-maker is entombed somewhere in Gaza, or possibly Egypt; neither of the two leaders has any confidence that the other will comply with an agreement, no matter how limited; and the negotiations are being carried out indirectly by parties—the United States, Israel, Qatar and Egypt—whose goals are not always strictly aligned.