Blinken: Deal possible, but 'very hard' issues remain

PM, top officials meet with visiting CIA director amid hostage talks

Netanyahu demands to know if hostages received promised medicines; Lebanese media reports 35-day truce proposed by Israel, after PM refused to send officials to Thursday’s talks

File: US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns speaks at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, July 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)
File: US Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns speaks at the Central Intelligence Agency headquarters in Langley, Virginia, July 8, 2022. (AP Photo/Susan Walsh)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Thursday with CIA director William Burns, along with Mossad head David Barnea, Shin Bet director Ronen Bar, National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, and Military Secretary Avi Gil in Tel Aviv to discuss ongoing talks for the release of hostages held by Hamas.

Netanyahu refused to send a delegation to Cairo Thursday to meet with Burns and senior officials from Egypt in Qatar in an attempt to craft a hostage deal with Hamas until the terror group softened its demands, which the prime minister has called “delusional.”

According to an Israeli official, Netanyahu told Burns Israel demands to know whether the hostages received the medicines that were delivered to Gaza last month in a deal that involved France, Qatar, and the US.

Israel had received assurances that the medicines would reach the hostages but never received confirmation. Two hostages rescued from Gaza this week in a commando raid said they never received drugs intended for them.

The official repeated that only “strong military pressure and firm pressure in negotiations” will force Hamas to change its demands for a hostage deal.

Later in the evening, Israel’s war cabinet was set to convene, followed by the security cabinet.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday he believed an agreement on a truce deal and the release of hostages was still “possible,” but that “very hard” issues still needed to be resolved.

“We’re very focused on it and I believe it’s possible,” he told a joint press conference with Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama in Tirana, as negotiations between mediators continued in Cairo.

Blinken said there were “some very, very hard issues that have to be resolved. But we’re committed to do everything we can to move forward and to see if we can reach an agreement.”

People walk by photographs of civilians held hostage by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 14, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Hamas terror group’s demands for an agreement include moves toward a permanent ceasefire, a withdrawal of troops from Gaza, reconstruction of the enclave and the release of some 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, among them numerous convicted killers and terror masterminds, in exchange for the remaining hostages taken on October 7.

Israel has said such demands are non-starters.

An Israeli delegation was in Cairo as talks were held Tuesday. Jerusalem denied that it presented a counter-offer, with officials in the Prime Minister’s Office saying the Israeli team, led by Barnea and Bar, was merely “there to listen.”

The round of talks ended without a breakthrough.

Al Mayadeen, a Hezbollah-affiliated Lebanese news website, published Wednesday what it claimed were the details of an Israeli truce offer for the Gaza Strip.

According to the article, which cited Hamas sources, the Israeli proposal would include three stages. The first would last 35 days, with an optional one-week extension, and would see an IDF withdrawal from “densely populated” areas inside the Strip — but not from all inhabited areas — and a “rehabilitation” of hospitals under Israeli supervision, but not their reconstruction.

IAF warplanes and surveillance aircraft would refrain from flying over Gaza for six hours a day, and 500 aid trucks would enter the Strip daily. Fifty wounded Palestinians above the age of 50 would be allowed to leave Gaza each day for treatment.

In the first phase, Israel would release three Palestinian prisoners, including some serving long sentences, in exchange for each of an unspecified number of Israeli hostages, chosen from among civilians and female soldiers.

The second stage, according to the Hamas sources quoted by Al Mayadeen, would last 30 days and would see an exchange of an undetermined number of Palestinian detainees in return for more hostages. Israeli forces would not withdraw from Gaza at this stage, but Israel would be willing to “consider” the return of displaced civilians to their place of residence, according to the Lebanese outlet.

No details were reported on the time frame or the terms for the third stage. The guarantors of the agreement proposed by Israel, according to Al Mayadeen, would be the US, Egypt and Qatar, but not Turkey and Russia, which had been requested by Hamas.

Also on Wednesday, senior Hamas official Muhammad Nazzal accused Netanyahu of thwarting the Cairo talks in an interview with Al Jazeera, and of trying to achieve the release of hostages without paying a price. He argued, however, that negotiations were not at a dead end.

File: This handout picture provided by the Iranian foreign ministry on December 20, 2023, shows Qatar-based Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh speaking to journalists as he welcomes the Iranian foreign minister (not in the picture), in Doha. (Iranian Foreign Ministry/AFP)

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh said in a statement Thursday that any agreement between Israel and Hamas should secure a ceasefire and an Israeli military withdrawal from Gaza, in addition to achieving a serious prisoner swap deal.

Meanwhile, the Hostages and Missing Families Forum said it would up its pressure campaign, stating that the government’s conduct in negotiations amounted to “burying the hostages.”

The group scheduled a press conference for Thursday evening to give a message to heads of the Mossad and Shin Bet and vowed to intensify its campaign, with plans to block the entrance to the Defense Ministry headquarters in Tel Aviv where the security and war cabinet were set to meet.

Amid Israel’s planned absence, a delegation from Hamas headed to Cairo to meet with Egyptian and Qatari officials for the talks Thursday.

Mediators in Egypt are said to be racing to secure a ceasefire before Israel proceeds with a planned wide-scale ground operation in Rafah, where 1.4 million displaced Palestinians have fled to seek shelter from fighting elsewhere.

Quoting US and Israeli officials, the Axios news site reported late Tuesday that the key sticking point in the negotiations is the release of Palestinian prisoners, with US President Joe Biden telling Netanyahu on Sunday that while Hamas’s demands went too far, Israel could demonstrate more flexibility, and will likely have to free more Palestinians per hostage than a previous deal in November that saw 105 civilians released by the terror group.

“[The] ratio remains an outstanding issue,” a US official said.

That deal saw three Palestinians freed for every hostage.

The report also said Netanyahu told Biden that he wants a hostage deal but it must be backed by the cabinet, which includes far-right allies who are resistant to a truce.

File: Hostage families call for the release of their loved ones at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 10, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel has made destroying Hamas’s governing and military capabilities and freeing the hostages the main goals of the war, which began when thousands of Hamas terrorists rampaged through southern Israel on October 7, killing 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 253 others captive, including women and children. Tens of thousands of Israelis were displaced from destroyed communities.

It is believed that 130 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, and four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 29 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015 respectively.

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