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As Gaza Talks Falter, Negotiators Look for a Deal or a Scapegoat

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To understand what is happening now in the Middle East, it may be helpful to remember the dead cat.

That was a favorite metaphor for Secretary of State James A. Baker III as he shuttled around the region in 1991 trying to negotiate a complicated deal. With each recalcitrant player, Mr. Baker would threaten to “leave the dead cat” at their door — in other words, to make sure they were the ones blamed if the whole thing fell apart.

The question three decades later is whether today’s players are at that stage of the U.S.-brokered effort to negotiate a cease-fire in Gaza. Much of what the world is seeing at the moment is aimed at least in part at gaining advantage at the bargaining table, outmaneuvering other players and deflecting responsibility if no consensus is reached, leaving the brutal seven-month war to rage on.

Hamas released videos of hostages, presumably to remind the world of the stakes of the talks and raise the temperature on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who is already under enormous public pressure to secure their release. Mr. Netanyahu in recent days mounted airstrikes and sent tanks into Rafah in a saber-rattling move to make clear he is serious about invading the southern Gaza city. President Biden froze a shipment of American bombs to demonstrate that he is equally serious about curbing Israel’s arms supply if it does attack.

“Much of it is performative between Israel and Hamas, drawing a page from Baker’s dead-cat diplomacy,” said Aaron David Miller, who was part of Mr. Baker’s team at the time. “Part of the motivation is less to reach a deal and more to blame the other guy if it fails. The only party that’s really in a hurry is Biden.”

“And sure, he’s worried about Palestinian deaths if Bibi goes big in Rafah,” Mr. Miller added, using Mr. Netanyahu’s nickname. “But he also knows it will make any negotiation” at that point “all but impossible.”

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