US 'confident' Qatar is pressing Hamas as much as possible

CIA chief returns to region to push hostage deal as Israel vows not to budge further

Hamas demands proposal make clear that deal will lead to end of war; US says ‘we just need to get a ceasefire’ and that terror group’s postwar role in Gaza can be ironed out later

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

People walk past a large mural reading "Now" at  Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. June 2, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
People walk past a large mural reading "Now" at Hostage Square in Tel Aviv. June 2, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

CIA director William Burns and White House Mideast czar Brett McGurk departed to the Middle East on Tuesday for meetings in Doha and Cairo aimed at advancing the Israeli hostage deal proposal submitted last week, two US officials confirmed to The Times of Israel.

Egyptian state TV subsequently reported that an Egyptian security delegation was set to meet with Qatari and US counterparts in Doha on Wednesday.

Burns and McGurk may add a stop in Israel to their trip after their meetings in Qatar and Egypt, whose governments are mediating the talks between Israel and Hamas along with the US, one of the US officials said.

Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson confirmed separately Tuesday that Doha had delivered to Hamas the Israeli ceasefire proposal, adding that it accurately reflects the deal laid out by US President Joe Biden last week. The US said Hamas received the Israeli proposal from Qatar last Thursday.

Majed Al-Ansari said that Doha has yet to receive “concrete approvals” from either side, but that the distance between them appears to have shrunk.

The foreign ministry spokesperson stressed the need for clear positions from both parties, with some members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet threatening to bring down the government over the proposal.

Qatar’s foreign ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari addresses the Doha forum on December 6, 2018. (Screen capture/YouTube)

“We are waiting for a clear Israeli position that represents the entire government in response to the US’s Gaza proposal,” Al-Ansari said at a press briefing.

“We have already seen statements coming from Israeli ministers which don’t give us a lot of confidence of there being a unified position in Israel over this current proposal on the table,” he added. However, “we can see also that there is a positive momentum building up on both sides.”

The US delegation’s departure marked the latest effort by the Biden administration to advance the proposal that aims to bring about an end to the Israel-Hamas war through the phased release of all the hostages seized by the terror group on October 7.

Calling on Hamas to accept it, Biden laid out a number of the Israeli offer’s key elements in a high-stakes speech last Friday. This triggered shockwaves in Jerusalem, where Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners threatened to bring down the government if the premier advanced the proposal.

The deal would see the remaining living female, elderly and sick hostages abducted during the Hamas-led October 7 onslaught released during a six-week first phase. The second phase of the deal would see a permanent end to the war; and Biden said Hamas would not remain in power in Gaza, but did not detail how that would come about.

Hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners would also be released by Israel in the first phase, during which the sides would negotiate on an agreed-upon number for how many would be released in the second.

Also during the first phase, Israel and Hamas would hold negotiations regarding the terms of the permanent ceasefire and the release of the remaining living hostages in the second phase. The third phase would see the release of the bodies of hostages and the commencement of an internationally backed reconstruction plan for Gaza.

CIA Director William Burns testifies during a US Senate hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington, March 11, 2024. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

An unnamed senior Israeli official told Channel 12 on Tuesday night that “there will not be a better offer” than the one Jerusalem submitted last week.

“We went as far as possible,” the official added.

Hamas has yet to formally respond to the Israeli proposal, which Hamas official Osama Hamdan on Tuesday indicated the terror group has issues with, as it doesn’t explicitly say the deal will lead to a permanent ceasefire.

“We asked the mediators to get a clear Israeli position to commit to a permanent ceasefire and a complete withdrawal from Gaza,” Hamdan told a press conference in Beirut.

Leaked passages of the deal are indeed vague on this point, perhaps intentionally so, in order for both sides to feel comfortable signing on.

Senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan speaks during a rally organized by Lebanon’s Hezbollah terror group to express solidarity with the Palestinian people, in the southern suburb of Beirut, May 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)

Israeli officials on Monday accused Netanyahu of complicating those efforts to maintain ambiguity that Israel will not end the war until it has eliminated Hamas.

“No later than day 16 [of phase one], the commencement of indirect negotiations between the two sides to agree on the conditions for implementing stage two of this agreement, including those relating to the keys for the exchange of hostages and prisoners (soldiers and remaining men), and this should be concluded and agreed upon before the end of week five of this [first] stage,” reads Clause 8 of the Israeli proposal leaked to the press.

“All procedures in this stage, including the temporary cessation of military operations by both sides, aid and shelter effort, withdrawal of forces, etc. will continue in stage two so long as the negotiations on the conditions for implementing stage two of this agreement are ongoing. The guarantors of this agreement shall make every effort to ensure that these indirect negotiations continue until both sides are able to reach agreement on the conditions for implementing stage 2 of this agreement,” reads Clause 14.

US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller was pressed during a Tuesday briefing to explain the discrepancy between the latest proposal, which would appear to potentially allow Hamas to exist after the war, and Israeli leaders’ repeated pledges to dismantle the terror organization.

Miller said many of these gaps will have to be filled during negotiations that would be held during the first phase of the deal, which are aimed at laying out the terms of the second phase, which in turn is meant to permanently end the war.

“The details of how you get to phase two are going to have to be negotiated, and that’s what we were prepared to do,” Miller said.

Pushed on whether the deal requires Hamas’s removal from power, Miller indicated the proposal itself does not explicitly make such a stipulation. “These are all details that have to be negotiated as we get from phase one to phase two, and as we implement phase three.”

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US President Joe Biden in Tel Aviv, October 18, 2023. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90)

Miller clarified, “We have made clear that Hamas cannot continue to govern Gaza [after the war]. We also don’t believe that you can eliminate Hamas just with a military campaign. A military campaign can kill fighters, can detain fighters, but those fighters in many cases will be replaced by other recruits. So we need a political path forward, and that’s what we want to try to negotiate.”

Asked why, then, Hamas would agree to a deal that would see to its destruction, an exasperated Miller responded, “We just need to get a ceasefire,” indicating that the US is first focused on getting to phase one of the deal and will work out subsequent developments thereafter.

Pressed again why Hamas would agree to a deal that would hasten its demise, Miller retorted, “Because they don’t want to see continued conflict, continued Palestinian people dying, continued war in Gaza and the reconstruction of Gaza.”

Miller acknowledged that Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar might decide “that he’s safe in a tunnel and that his interests have diverged from the people of Gaza,” leading him to reject the Israeli ceasefire proposal.

“But if you look at the deal that’s on the table, it is manifestly in the interest of the Palestinian people, it is manifestly in the interest of the Israeli people, it is manifestly in the interests of the world. That’s why we’ll continue to push for it,” he said. “If Hamas really does represent the interests of the Palestinian people — as they say over and over — without a doubt, they’ll take this deal.”

US officials asserted to The Times of Israel last month that while the hostage deal it is advancing may allow Hamas to limp on in some form, the broader diplomatic initiative Washington is pushing would see the terror group marginalized in Gaza by alternative forces backed by America’s Arab allies.

Read more: The US aims to wrap up Gaza war. How does that square with its goal of toppling Hamas?

FILE – US State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller during a news briefing at the State Department, July 18, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Nathan Howard, File)

Also during Miller’s briefing, he said the US was “confident” that Qatar was exerting as much pressure as possible on Hamas in the hostage negotiations.

“We greatly value the role Qatar has played, including in sending the appropriate level of messages to Hamas,” Miller said.

In his call with the emir of Qatar, Biden urged Doha “to use all appropriate measures to secure Hamas’ acceptance of the deal.”

It appeared to be one of the furthest-reaching public entreaties to date that the US has directed at Doha, which hosts many of Hamas’s political leaders. US Secretary of State Antony Blinken privately told Qatar’s Prime Minister Mohammed Al-Thani in April that Doha should expel Hamas’s leaders if they continue rejecting hostage deal proposals, a US official said.

Several weeks later, Qatar quietly ordered Hamas leaders to leave Doha, then allowed them to return when hostage negotiations picked up again in May, two officials told The Times of Israel.

Hamas officials have remained in Qatar since those negotiations fell apart, but a source familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that Doha is still prepared to formally and publicly oust Hamas’s leaders if an official request to do so is made by the Biden administration.

The US is weighing its desire to squeeze Hamas to agree to a hostage deal against its concern that the terror group could move to another country that is less swayed by Washington’s interests, the source said.

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