Blinken pushes hopes for hostage deal in meetings with Gantz, Lapid

Ending 5-day sprint across region, US secretary of state meets centrists on freeing captives day after Netanyahu rejected Hamas demands and vowed military gains would get job done

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), accompanied by deputy chief of staff Tom Sullivan (3rd-L), meets with National Unity party No. 2 Gadi Eisenkot (R) and party leader Minister Benny Gantz (2nd-R), in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L), accompanied by deputy chief of staff Tom Sullivan (3rd-L), meets with National Unity party No. 2 Gadi Eisenkot (R) and party leader Minister Benny Gantz (2nd-R), in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein/AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday sought to advance a deal to free Israeli hostages held by terror groups in Gaza during talks with ex-military chiefs in Israel’s war cabinet as he closed a Middle East tour without securing an elusive commitment for a pause in fighting.

US officials had tempered expectations that Blinken would achieve a breakthrough during his latest visit to the region since the October 7 attack on Israel by Palestinian terror group Hamas, and few expected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree immediately to Hamas’s counterproposal to an initial Qatari-mediated offer. Hamas demanded a phased Israeli withdrawal from the Strip with the terror group still in charge and the release of some 1,500 Palestinian prisoners in exchange for the freedom of Israelis abducted during a murderous Hamas onslaught on southern Israel.

Blinken remained upbeat despite Netanyahu’s vocal rejection Wednesday of Hamas’s demands and his vows to keep pressing the four-month offensive in Gaza, hours after they met.

The top US diplomat held talks in Tel Aviv with National Unity party leader Benny Gantz and MK Gabi Eisenkot, two former heads of the Israel Defense Forces who joined a unity war cabinet after October 7. Gantz is in the three-member war cabinet overseeing the battle with Hamas, along with Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Eisenkot is an observer on the forum.

Blinken said he spoke to them about “the hostages and the strong desire that we both have to see them returned to their families, the work that’s being done to that end.”

He also was to meet privately with families of hostages seized by Hamas on October 7, many of whom have publicly pleaded for a compromise to return the captives.

“The most urgent issue is of course to find ways to bring back the hostages,” Gantz told Blinken.

“That being done, many things can be achieved,” Gantz said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a meeting with National Unity leader Minister Benny Gantz (not in frame), in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein /AFP)

War erupted on October 7 when thousands of Hamas-led terrorists burst into Israel from the Gaza Strip, massacring 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and abducting 253 people of all ages. Some were freed as part of a negotiated lull in November, and Israel believes about a fifth of the 132 remaining captives are dead, many of them killed in October 7.

Blinken has shuttled around the Middle East on his fifth tour since the war between Israel and Hamas began, and brought to Israel a response via Qatar from Hamas to a hostage deal.

The US secretary of state said Wednesday he still saw space for negotiations to improve on the deal and secure the hostages’ release, with Egypt and Qatar holding a new round of talks Thursday in Cairo with Hamas.

Blinken also met Thursday with Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.

“It’s good to see how committed this group is to the hostages, to solving the situation, to figure out ways to promote peace,” the centrist former prime minister said, referring to efforts by Blinken and US officials.

Lapid has recently become more critical of how the war is being run by Netanyahu, who has resisted pressure from hostages’ families to prioritize their release and instead vowed a relentless military campaign.

“The whole Israeli society is determined to bring back the hostages and to eradicate Hamas. Those are not conflicting goals and we will not give up either,” Lapid wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (2nd-L), accompanied by deputy chief of staff Tom Sullivan (3rd-L) and US Ambassador to Israel Jacob Lew (L), meets with Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid (3rd-R), in Tel Aviv on February 8, 2024. (Mark Schiefelbein / AFP)

Gantz, in a separate X post, said he had spoken to Blinken about bringing in an “international actor” that can deliver aid into Gaza without it being diverted to Hamas.

“The continued delivery of humanitarian aid cynically intercepted by Hamas enables them to continue governing, harms the civilians of Gaza, and only prolongs the suffering and fighting,” Gantz wrote.

Blinken has pressed Israel to let more assistance into Gaza, where the United Nations has voiced fears of famine and most buildings lie in rubble, but Israel has cited security concerns as necessitating strict limits on entry into the blockaded territory. Israel says Hamas plunders humanitarian aid and basic supplies for its own fighters, depriving the Gazan civilian population of resources.

In a plea at a news conference on Wednesday, Blinken said Israel should not “dehumanize” Palestinians in the way Hamas did to Israelis on October 7.

“The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of October 7, and the families in Gaza whose survival depends on deliveries of aid from Israel are just like our families,” Blinken said.

More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, as Israel has battled to dismantle Hamas in the wake of the Gaza-ruling terror group’s slaughter on October 7.

The Hamas figures cannot be independently verified, are believed to include fatalities caused by failed rocket fire by Gaza terror groups, and do not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed over 10,000 Hamas gunmen in Gaza, and 1,000 more terrorists inside Israeli territory on October 7. Two hundred and twenty-seven IDF soldiers have been killed in Gaza.

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