war of words

What’s a cease-fire? It depends who you ask

Some progressives are calling for a cease-fire, even when they’re demanding Hamas release all hostages before Israel ends the war

Celal Gunes/Anadolu via Getty Images

People hold banners as pro-Palestinian and migrant rights demonstrators gather to rally and march from Union station to Cannon House building to call for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza in Washington DC., United States on February 15, 2024.

“Cease-fire now!”

It’s become a ubiquitous slogan for the anti-Israel left in the United States since the Israel-Hamas war began, launched by the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on the Jewish state, found everywhere from bumper stickers stuck to buildings and street signs, to chants by protestors interrupting President Joe Biden’s speeches, to shouts by college students at America’s elite universities. 

Yet the phrase is increasingly taking on divergent meanings — used by so many people seeking so many different things that it is losing its salience as a definitive policy statement. 

For politicians seeking to win over a restive progressive constituency, employing the term “cease-fire,” even if it is implied to have a more limited or tempered meaning, can help appease frustrated activists. Such statements that call out Hamas and demand the release of hostages offer a more nuanced take than the ones coming from anti-Israel groups who place the blame for the crisis in the Middle East entirely on Israel. 

Meanwhile, for many anti-Israel college students and far-left activists who are chanting exterminationist slogans at cease-fire demonstrations, the phrase continues to have a more sinister subtext.

On the more tame end of the cease-fire spectrum, there’s the “negotiated bilateral cease-fire,” a term used by American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, a close White House ally, to describe her vision: the release of hostages, the provision of humanitarian aid to Gaza and the negotiation of a two-state solution. The AFL-CIO, another major labor union, offered a similar vision, calling for a “negotiated cease-fire” as well as a two-state solution. 

On the other end of the spectrum, there’s the “immediate cease-fire,” a call vaulted into the national spotlight in part by a group of hard-left House members, who released a cease-fire resolution, just a week after the Oct. 7 attacks, seen by many as a call for Israel to unilaterally abandon its campaign in Gaza. 

That resolution made no mention of the Israeli hostages in Gaza; nor did it mention Hamas, the terrorist group responsible for the atrocities. Along similar lines, 300,000 people signed a petition from the anti-Zionist group Jewish Voice for Peace that calls on Israel to end the war and for the U.S. to cease sending any military assistance to Israel. The Council of Bishops of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a major Christian clergy group, on Thursday went a step further — calling for “an immediate and permanent cease-fire” and an end to all U.S. support for Israel.

Israel’s strongest backers typically view any call for a “cease-fire” as problematic, and the use of the phrase has become something of a dividing line between those who back Israel’s fight against Hamas, and those who are calling for Israel to stop its stated quest of eradicating the terror group. 

In December, for instance, a group of more than 700 rabbis signed a letter saying that Jews who call for a cease-fire are “not representative” of the U.S. Jewish community, after hundreds of employees of Jewish organizations released their own letter demanding a cease-fire that includes the release of the hostages. 

Over the past few months, calls for a cease-fire have grown among progressive Democrats in Congress, well beyond Israel’s most prominent critics on the far left.

Looking closer, though, lawmakers’ calls for a cease-fire have diverging messages. Some have offered caveats or conditions. And many of the more than 70 congressional lawmakers who have so far called for a cease-fire don’t appear to agree with the far left’s calls for a unilateral Israeli stand-down.

More than 30 lawmakers supporting a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas have said that any deal to end the war must include the immediate release of the remaining 134 hostages from Gaza. A handful of others have said that a cease-fire must also come with a full surrender by Hamas and its removal from power in Gaza, whether as part of the cease-fire deal or in longer-term talks about the future of Gaza after the fighting is over.

But others have said the war must end before negotiations to free the remaining hostages can be successful.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-CA), an outspoken left-wing voice on foreign policy and one of the earliest supporters of a cease-fire in the House, said in December that calls for a “conditional cease-fire” are “not a ceasefire at all.” 

She was criticizing a position taken by her House colleague and Senate primary opponent Rep. Katie Porter (D-CA), who in December called for a cease-fire conditioned on the release of all hostages, security guarantees for Israel and an end to Hamas’ rule in Gaza.

Lee’s Senate campaign said that she views freeing the hostages and removing Hamas as infeasible without first ending the war.

The complicated political dynamics of a cease-fire were also highlighted on the Senate floor last week, as Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) — one of the Senate’s most outspoken critics of the Israeli campaign in Gaza who this week voted against additional aid — suggested that an unconditional cease-fire isn’t a sustainable solution.

“A cease-fire will not endure unless it includes a return of the hostages and an end to Hamas control in Gaza,” Merkley said, in a speech focused on the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. The goals Merkley outlined are, notably, consistent with what Israel and the Biden administration are seeking. In his initial statement calling for a cease-fire, Merkley had said that those goals must be accomplished through “the cease-fire and the negotiations that follow.”

Rep. Ritchie Torres (D-NY), one of the House’s most vocal Democratic supporters of Israel, also highlighted the ways in which rhetoric around a cease-fire has become unclear.

“The question is not whether one supports a ceasefire but which kind?” Torres said on X. “Most Americans support a ceasefire that removes Hamas from power rather than one that keeps Hamas in power. Most Americans support a ceasefire that releases the hostages rather than one that keeps them in captivity.”

Despite claims from some Israel critics in Congress that there’s widespread support for an immediate cease-fire in the conflict, which would leave Hamas in place, polling suggests that most Americans believe that Hamas must be removed from power in order to ensure peace and support continued military aid to Israel.

Particularly in the initial months after Oct. 7, lawmakers and the White House leaned into calls for “humanitarian pauses” in the fighting — a phrase that seemed to become a stand-in for a cease-fire, without the same toxic political associations, and which left open the possibility for Israel to continue its campaign against Hamas.

Now, as the White House seeks to help broker another hostage deal, new language has emerged. White House National Security Spokesperson John Kirby on Tuesday called for an “extended pause” in fighting. On Monday, after Biden met with Jordanian King Abdullah II, the president called for a hostage deal to “bring immediate and sustained period of calm” that could hopefully, Biden said, become “something more enduring.” Cognizant of the political ramifications of the term “cease-fire,” the White House has scrupulously avoided calling for one. 

On Wednesday a group of 25 Senate Democrats called for “a restored mutual ceasefire in Gaza” — referring to a new hostage deal that would halt the fighting, at least temporarily.

That language of a restored or resumed cease-fire — even though few referred to the hostage deal as such at the time — has been seeing increased use on Capitol Hill in recent weeks, indicating that the political winds around the term may, again, be shifting.

Marc Rod is Jewish Insider’s Capitol Hill reporter; Gabby Deutch is senior national correspondent.

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