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The Guardian view on the Israel-Gaza war: politicians must be clear that a ceasefire is needed | Editorial

As western leaders wake up to the need for a ceasefire in Gaza, nearly 30,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s military campaign. More than two-thirds of the dead in the coastal enclave are thought to be women and children. Thousands more are believed to be buried under the rubble. The reputation of the west as a champion of universal values and upholding a rules-based order is unlikely to recover anytime soon from the bloody events in Gaza.

International politics is not a morality play. Probably several Arab countries were not averse to the idea that Israel could deliver a coup de grâce to Hamas. But the state of the fighting in Gaza suggested that this was a remote possibility. In January, it was estimated that Israel has killed or captured only around one-third of Hamas’s fighting force. To finish the job would only be achievable at an indefensibly high cost to Palestinian – and hostage – lives.

What is needed is an end to the war in Gaza, the release of the remaining hostages and a lasting Israeli-Palestinian peace based on two states. But none of this seems possible with the current Israeli government. Its prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, last week withdrew his delegation from talks in Cairo about a potential deal for a truce and prisoner release, infuriating the families of hostages at home and troubling Israel’s allies abroad. Mr Netanyahu had caved to threats by extremists in his cabinet to topple him if he reached a “reckless” deal with Hamas. This is the consequence of the ultranationalist tail wagging the rightwing dog. Once seen as marginal politicians, ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir – religious fanatics who both live in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank – speak their minds with impunity. Whether it is their plans to resettle Gaza, their rebuke of the US for sanctioning violent settlers, or their claim that Donald Trump would be better for Israel than Joe Biden, the pair fear no repercussions, knowing that they remain popular with their voting base while Mr Netanyahu does not.

US presidential diplomacy was once to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” By contrast, in Gaza, Mr Biden speaks loudly and carries a little stick. The US wants a temporary ceasefire linked to the release of all hostages and increasing the flow of aid. If the use of the word “temporary” is an attempt to assuage Mr Smotrich and Mr Ben-Gvir, then it is likely to fail. Israel’s government this weekend rejected “international dictates”.

At the UN, the US vetoed an Israel-Hamas immediate ceasefire resolution, which had been backed by Arab nations, offering a “side by side” alternative to disarm opposition. This tactic is also being used by Sir Keir Starmer ahead of Wednesday’s parliamentary vote, with a ceasefire in which Israel stops fighting if Hamas discontinues its violence. Domestic politics is as important as the foreign arena to both leaders. Mr Biden faces a presidential primary in Michigan, which is home to a large Arab-American community, next week. Later this month, Sir Keir faces a byelection in Rochdale where a third of voters are Muslim.

It is a matter of shame that politicians and officials in the west lifted the constraints and endorsed Israel’s disproportionate actions as self-defence and an inevitable consequence of Hamas’s horrific 7 October massacre. Israel had every right to seek retribution against those who had murdered its citizens, but not to slaughter innocent civilians on an unimaginable scale.

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