The arrival of the holy Muslim month of Ramadan this year carries with it much wider implications, well beyond the Muslim world, than usual. This is because of the way the Gaza disaster now enters a decisive phase and the way Ramadan as from March 10 is universally regarded as pivotal; embattled Israeli PM Netanyuhu has declared that unless international diplomacy (US, Israel, Qatar, Egypt) has landed before that date an agreement on release of hostages, a ceasefire (of sorts) and the launch of a massive humanitarian relief operation has been arrived at, then Israeli IDF will, in accordance with its stated war aims to eliminate Hamas, launch a ground operation into the Rafah area in southernmost Gaza where at least a million Palestinian evacuees from the north have added to the already crowded Rafah area population.

I.e., the very ultimate definition of a humanitarian disaster, still nonetheless deemed necessary by the Netanyahu government if Hamas is to be effectively and durably defeated. Even though the US has recommended against it, unless Israel/IDF can guarantee the safety of affected civilians by means of a credible (but unlikely) evacuation plan.

Meanwhile, hard bargaining takes place on a daily basis, most recently a declaration of intent by the US to start airdropping aid, and a declaration by Israel that it will implement a pause in attacks in the Rafah area some hours daily as from soon.


Some modest hopes, not least in the US where the Biden administration is finding its hitherto policy of unconditional support for Israel increasingly untenable, domestically as well as internationally, were pinned on the looming Ramadan deadline disaster being avoidable, or at least postponeable, if a long-negotiated agreement hostage release combined with a “humanitarian ceasefire” of some relevant length and massive humanitarian relief operations could be achieved, sufficient for the most acute needs and, at best, as a step to further deliberations on some kind of peaceful resolution the broader crisis. In view of enormous security stakes, this off-ramp is still feasible, with the parties stepping back from the brink to the abyss, but at the time of writing prospects seemed less than promising in view of the devastating impact of the Gaza city calamity of February 29, with more than a hundred hungry Palestinians being killed, under still unclarified circumstances.

And the arrival of Ramadan is significant not only because of Netanyahu’s ultimatum (whether a negotiating ultimatum or a real threat), the relevance and significance also stems from analytical estimates as to the danger of violence in the Ramadan environment and likely spread risks, including sensitivities over Jerusalem and the Al Aqsa mosque and the collision of interest here between ultra-conservative elements in the Netanyahu’s government and Palestinians of the West Bank demanding unhindered Ramadan access.

In view of all this, the next few days will be crucial, representing a huge dilemma for the Biden administration: to be or not to be in continued (unconditional) solidarity with the current regime in Israel, even in this exposed phase of the drama that began on October 7 last year with the terrorist Hamas surprise attack, traumatizing all Israelis in its brutality, but the massive retaliatory Israeli response to which has now lasted five incredibly costly months, resulting in some 30 000 Palestinian deaths and some 75 000 wounded, mostly civilians and of these mostly women and children, plus a flood of other indicators of an unprecedented humanitarian disaster, real famine included – causing international outrage and condemnation, as well as costly strains in the US presidential election campaign.

Ceasefire – the core of the US dilemma

The key issue here, at the core of the US dilemma, has long been (and still remains) the desperately needed ceasefire, a (or the) necessary condition for all other issues pertaining to a peaceful resolution, the humanitarian crisis first and foremost. Amidst the universal, increasingly insistent, call for a ceasefire to allow for the dramatically needed humanitarian assistance, the problem with the ceasefire has all along been the link between it and the complex mutual conditionalities reflecting the opposite interests involved: Israel’s reluctance had to limit its war-fighting goals of getting rid of Hamas versus Hamas´ desire to survive the IDF onslaught versus the issue of hostage rescue and the pressure from friends and families of the hostages, versus the humanitarian imperatives of a ceasefire. Negotiating these, between mortal enemies and thus dependent on third-party mediation, seeking compromise on related issues, including numbers and names of Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the hostages, has meant uniquely complicated negotiations in a thorny setting, with the clock ticking and Gazan suffering increasing by the day. And Ramadan approaching fast.

But the Biden administration dilemma has been and remains broader than that. The shuttling US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken has found out early that any resolution to the crisis now presupposes co-opting neighboring Arab states, but these (notably the key country Saudi Arabia) have made it clear that for them a necessary condition for their active involvement in the resolution process (including the reconstruction of Gaza) is that the efforts are credibly linked to a process of revitalization of the Oslo style “two state solution”, i.e. the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the Jewish state of Israel. A hard sell to Netanyahu’s Israel – or any Israel, or so it seems. In addition, the aim of US policy has also had to be to deter, by massive show of deterrence force, a dangerous process of conflict proliferation in the wider region, beginning in the Israeli-Lebanese border region and then deeper into the larger region. As regards the Israel-Hezbollah conflict – as well as regarding Houti activity at the Red Sea – the jury is still out when it comes to deterrence success, while in the case of Iran-supported militias in Syria and Iraq a threatening process of action-reaction seems to have been dampened by US efforts at “restoring deterrence”.

Still, a picture of a huge, unresolved US dilemma of deterrence – and of conflict resolution in view also of the fact that the Gaza war, and ongoing deliberations at the International Court of Justice in the Hague on whether Israel’s war of retaliation in Gaza represents a case of genocide (and other charges), has proliferated greatly and dangerously also ideologically, worldwide, pitting pro-Israeli against pro-Palestinian factions against each other in acrimonious in-fighting, inside and off parliaments.

And it is clear to each and anyone involved, or concerned, that for coping with all these challenges, a ceasefire, as early as possible and as lengthy as possible – given all the contradictory conditionalities – is a, or the, sine qua non, the dilemma, for the US and others, being that the more difficult the security environment the harder to handle the contradictory bones of negotiating contention, but at the same time the more urgently necessary a ceasefire (regardless of complexity and duration and construction).


So could there, now, be a rupture, a diplomatic/security break between Biden’s US and Netanyahu’s Israel as a result of the Ramadan looming threat and increasingly diverging interests and values, if so as a result of team Biden eventually finding the political costs of continued unconditional support for Israel as from Day 1, October 7 and Israel’s traumatic new Holocaust, untenable, perhaps unbearable? Indicated perhaps in an unequivocal US support for a UNSC resolution on an immediate ceasefire, regardless of the cobweb of conditionalities? Could the Biden administration dare the risk of adhering to such a resolution, only to find that the Netanyahu government would simply ignore and defy it? Could the Israeli war cabinet, indeed the set-up of the Netanyahu government, survive such a US move? How would Biden handle such a dramatic change of course, an implicit admittance of failure regarding the formerly chosen course, in domestic US pre-election politics?

After all, with or without such a rupture with all sorts of unforeseeable implications, both the US and the Israeli governments are facing tremendous difficulties.

In the case of Netanyahu, under pressure from popular lack of trust and pressure from ultra-conservative government partners and threatened by all sorts of post-war intelligence accountability scrutiny, the issue is truly one of political survival. A farewell to arms seems tantamount to a farewell to power, probably a farewell to freedom from imprisonment.

In the case of Biden, the issues are both domestic costs in the heated pre-election struggle (a “damned-if-you-do-and-damned-if-you-don´t” dilemma, of sorts) and high stakes in terms of international credibility and leadership. And for team Biden there is, after all, the challenges regarding “the day after” issues and proliferation risk management. And there is still the Ukraine challenge, and more. The burdens on US diplomacy are incredible. As is the fog of uncertainty pertaining to America´s political way ahead.

Ramadan approaching

At the time of writing (March 1) the threat of an approaching Ramadan, perhaps especially as regards developments on the West Bank, is looming large, as is the internationally acknowledged need for an immediate and lengthy ceasefire. The human suffering of civilians in Gaza is mind-boggling, and the proliferation risks (or, in some cases, realities) remain clear and present, as do the extraordinary complexities over governance in Israel.

But there is still time, a short time but still time, for the parties to step back from brink of the abyss. But for that best-scenario to happen, compromise on matters of an existential nature and potential explosiveness will have to be found, miraculously quickly. Ramadan is bound to add new dangers if the killing is allowed to continue unabated.

So good luck to US, Israeli, Qatari and Egyptian negotiators. The world needs you. But even if crisis awareness and self-interest (miraculously) were to bring about a sigh-of-relief last-minute ceasefire agreement, if ever so temporary and vaguely conceived, it would only be a small step in the process of stabilization in the Middle East – if indeed there is a process of stabilization, rather than the unfortunate opposite. Both the October 7 Israeli trauma and the subsequent killing spree in Gaza will no doubt impact the region – and the world – for generations, the Middle East version of 9/11.

The author is ambassador, holds a PhD and is a fellow of RSAWS.
The text has been previously published on Consilio International.