The United States and Egypt were engaged on Thursday in furious last-minute negotiations intended to salvage a United Nations Security Council resolution that would call for a pause in the war in the Gaza Strip and allow more direly needed aid to enter the territory.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the talks, said that since Thursday morning, high-level negotiators from Washington and Cairo were seeking common ground on how aid would be inspected for weapons and other contraband before entering Gaza.
The United Nations has this week repeatedly delayed a vote in the Security Council on the resolution amid concerns from the United States that allowing the U.N. to inspect aid into Gaza would leave Israel with no role in the process, making the system unworkable. Other members, hoping to avoid a veto by the United States, have gone back to renegotiate the parameters.
Egypt, which proposed the resolution with the United Arab Emirates, controls the main entry point for aid into Gaza. A vote on the measure was originally scheduled for Monday, but was held off several times as Security Council diplomats engaged in intense back-channel negotiations intended to win U.S. support.
The United States, one of five permanent members of the council with the ability to single-handedly derail the passage of legally binding resolutions, has often stood alone in siding with Israel, offering its close Middle East ally protection from the Council’s opprobrium.
The U.S. vetoed two previous cease-fire resolutions, arguing that Israel has the right to defend itself after Hamas’s deadly attack on Oct. 7. Stopping Israel’s offensive, the U.S. has said, would allow Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, to regroup and plan more attacks.
Robert A. Wood, a U.S. representative to the Security Council, said on Thursday that the United States was still in talks but was not yet ready to sign off on the resolution. Stéphane Dujarric, a spokesman for the U.N. secretary general, told reporters the Council was in “deep discussion.”
“Obviously, what we would want to see is something that would facilitate the immediate, safe and unhindered delivery of humanitarian aid,” Mr. Dujarric told reporters at the U.N. He added that “the most helpful thing for the delivery of humanitarian aid in a sustained high volume would be a humanitarian cease-fire immediately.”
The Biden administration has recently called on Israel to limit the number of civilian casualties in Gaza and scale back its assault amid international condemnation of the mounting death toll and the catastrophic humanitarian crisis in the territory.
A key sticking point for the United States has been the establishment of a system that would put the U.N. in charge of inspecting aid entering Gaza, according to diplomats who spoke on condition of anonymity given the sensitivity of the negotiations.
The United States has said Israel must be involved in checking cargo for weapons. The United Arab Emirates and Egypt argue that U.N. inspections would speed up the process, ensuring more food, water, medicine and other necessities reach desperate Palestinians in Gaza.
Supporters of the resolution say the U.N. monitors and delivers humanitarian aid in many other conflict zones around the world. For example, the Security Council, with the backing of the United States, passed a resolution to allow U.N. officials into northern Syria to inspect and deliver aid.
“The U.N. has done this kind of work before,” said Lana Nusseibeh, the U.A.E. ambassador to the U.N., who was helping to lead negotiations on the resolution. “It is now up to us to ensure that it has robust backing to respond to this catastrophe in Gaza. As we have done from the beginning of these negotiations, we will leave no stone unturned in pursuit of a successful adoption.”
But the Israelis are wary of handing over the inspections to or entrusting the U.N. with their security. The border between Egypt and Gaza has been a frequent site of weapons smuggling in the past. And a U.N. peacekeeping force along Israel’s border with Lebanon has failed to prevent frequent skirmishes between the Israeli military and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia.
The Israelis, who say Hamas rebuffed a recent proposal to pause the fighting to allow for the delivery of aid and the exchange of hostages, have previously said they would not stop their campaign unless a deal for the hostages was included.
The Security Council was trying to craft the resolution more than two months after Israel launched a military offensive to crush Hamas following the armed group’s Oct. 7 assault, in which 1,200 people, most of them civilians, were killed and about 240 were taken hostage, according to Israeli officials.
Health authorities in Gaza say that about 20,000 people, most of them women and children, have been killed in Israel’s campaign, and the U.N. has warned of a humanitarian disaster as the territory’s civic and health care infrastructure collapses.
U.N. officials earlier this month said that nearly 60 percent of people in Gaza were on the verge of starvation, and they issued a new warning on Thursday that there was a “risk of famine” in the territory within the next six months.
“The delivery of humanitarian aid in the strip continues to face nearly insurmountable challenges,” Tor Wennesland, the U.N. special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, told the Security Council on Tuesday. “Amid displacement at an unimaginable scale and active hostilities, the humanitarian response system is on the brink.”
The United Arab Emirates, the only Arab country currently serving on the 15-member Council, initially put forth a resolution that called for a “cessation of hostilities.” Later, the text was reworked to call for “urgent and extended humanitarian pauses and corridors throughout the Gaza Strip for a sufficient number of days to enable full, rapid, safe and unhindered humanitarian access.”
The draft resolution also called for the immediate release of all the hostages and the delivery of commercial goods into Gaza to supplement the limited aid entering the territory. It was not clear what language was in the latest draft the Council was considering. It was not made public as of midday Thursday.
As international demands for a cease-fire have grown, Israel has also come under heightened internal pressure to quickly reach a deal that could free the hostages still being held in Gaza, particularly after three of them were mistakenly shot by Israeli soldiers last week.
The three hostages, all Israelis, were unarmed and carrying a makeshift white flag, according to the Israeli military, which said that the shooting violated its rules of engagement. Israel says 129 hostages are still being held by Hamas.
Working through Egyptian and Qatari mediators, Israel and Hamas have been engaging in fragile negotiations over a possible truce and hostage deal.
But they have not reached any agreement since a weeklong truce collapsed on Dec. 1. During that temporary cease-fire, more than 100 people kidnapped during the Oct. 7 attack were freed in exchange for more than 200 Palestinians imprisoned or detained in Israel. The temporary truce also allowed more aid to flow into Gaza.
Since then, humanitarian aid has trickled through Rafah, a main border crossing between Egypt and Gaza, after a complicated screening system in which trucks have to first travel to Israel for inspection, then return to Egypt and cross into Gaza.
As the Council continued its internal debate, Israeli officials sent mixed signals on Thursday about their vision for the future of the Gaza Strip, suggesting that Israel might be amenable to a reformed Palestinian Authority governing the territory, but later saying that the government’s stance had been misinterpreted.
Questions surrounding the future governance of Gaza have fueled tensions between President Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. Mr. Biden has said that the Palestinian Authority, which governs part of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, should also govern Gaza after the war as a step toward a Palestinian state. Mr. Netanyahu has repeatedly ruled out allowing the authority to control Gaza and has said Israel must be responsible for security in Gaza for the foreseeable future.
Tzachi Hanegbi, Mr. Netanyahu’s national security adviser, appeared to soften that stance in a column published on Wednesday in Elaph, a Saudi-owned, Arabic-language news outlet.
“Israel acknowledges the international community’s and regional states’ desire to integrate the Palestinian Authority the day after Hamas,” he wrote. “We emphasize that this process will necessitate a fundamental reform of the Palestinian Authority.”
But in a briefing later in the day, a senior Israeli official said that the column had been misinterpreted, and that the government’s view had not changed.
“We are aware of the fact that everybody would really like the Palestinian Authority to be part of the solution of Gaza on the day after, but it’s not possible with the way it is now,” the senior official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. He said the authority cannot be a partner because it does not “participate in a vision of reconciliation.”
Roni Caryn Rabin contributed reporting.