Secretary discusses Gaza aid with Saudi counterpart, MBS

‘Gaps closing’ in hostage talks, Blinken says as he begins 6th wartime trip to region

While in Jeddah before stops in Cairo and Tel Aviv, top US diplomat blames Hamas for not accepting earlier offer and coming back with new demands

Demonstrators calling for the release of Israeli hostages held by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip, outside the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Demonstrators calling for the release of Israeli hostages held by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip, outside the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, March 18, 2024. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Wednesday that the “gaps are narrowing” between Israel and Hamas on an extended truce and hostage deal as the top American diplomat made the first of three stops on his sixth Mideast tour since October 7.

“The gaps are narrowing, and I think an agreement is very much possible,” Blinken told the Saudi al-Hadath channel while in Jeddah.

The US had hoped to secure a six-week ceasefire and hostage deal by the start of Ramadan on March 10 but successive rounds of talks have yet to bear fruit, with Washington largely blaming Hamas for the standoff.

“We worked very hard with Qatar, Egypt and Israel to put a strong proposal on the table… Hamas wouldn’t accept it. They came back with other demands. The negotiators are working on that right now, but I believe it’s very much doable, and it’s very much necessary,” Blinken said.

“If Hamas cares at all about the people it purports to represent, then it would reach an agreement because that would have the immediate effect of a ceasefire, alleviating the tremendous suffering of people, bringing more humanitarian assistance in and then giving us the possibility of having something more lasting,” he added.

Qatari foreign ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said Monday it was too early to say the sides were nearing a deal, as negotiators got down to brass tacks in hopes of reaching an elusive agreement to pause fighting for at least six weeks and secure the release of at least 40 hostages held captive in Gaza.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken walks as he arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein, Pool Photo via AP)

Mossad chief David Barnea spent several hours in Doha for talks on Monday before quickly returning to Israel to update the cabinet on their progress. Little progress had seemed to develop since.

Barnea arrived with the Israeli team in Doha on Monday for talks with the Qatari premier and Egyptian officials, as what were expected to be two weeks of indirect negotiations in the Qatari capital kicked off.

The new truce push follows the latest proposal from Hamas for a six-week ceasefire, vastly more aid entering Gaza and the initial release of about 40 female, elderly and wounded hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel.

Osama Hamdan, a senior Lebanon-based Hamas official said Wednesday that Israel’s response to Hamas’s response was “generally negative.”

Hamdan told a news conference in Beirut that mediators had conveyed the Israeli position a day earlier, but it was “generally negative and does not respond to the aspirations of our people.”

He said the Israeli response “constitutes a step backwards” compared to previously communicated positions and “is likely to hamper negotiations, and could lead to an impasse.”

The talks have grown increasingly urgent as UN officials warn that the Strip is on the brink of famine, leading to intensifying calls for more aid to enter the enclave.

Blinken was in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday before he was slated to stop in Egypt on Thursday and Israel on Friday.

While in Jeddah, Blinken also discussed with his Saudi counterpart Prince Faisal bin Farhan “the urgent need” to protect civilians and deliver humanitarian aid in war-battered Gaza, the State Department said. He later met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia on March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

In Jeddah and Cairo, Blinken would discuss a post-war “political path for the Palestinian people with security assurances for Israel and an architecture for lasting peace and security in the region,” the State Department added.

In announcing the addition of an Israel stop on Blinken’s regional tour earlier Wednesday, US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said the secretary will discuss the need to ensure Hamas’s defeat, “including in Rafah,” when he arrives in Tel Aviv.

The US came out against Israel’s plan to launch a major ground invasion in Rafah this week and is instead pushing for a more limited operation in the city and other parts of Gaza targeting Hamas’s military leaders. Washington also seeks to secure the Egypt-Gaza border to prevent continued smuggling, a surge of humanitarian aid through new access points into the enclave, and the promotion of a viable Palestinian Authority-linked alternative to Hamas rule, US officials told The Times of Israel on Tuesday.

The US aims to discuss these alternative plans with two of Netanyahu’s top aides, Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi, on Sunday in Washington, but the issues will ostensibly be on Blinken’s agenda when he arrives in Tel Aviv on Friday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Saudi Arabia’s Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan Al-Saud in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Wednesday, March 20, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

Hamas-led terrorists started the war in Gaza when they breached the Israeli border by the thousands, storming towns in southern Israel to kill nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and take 253 hostages of all ages while committing numerous atrocities and weaponizing sexual violence on a mass scale.

Vowing to dismantle the Palestinian terror group, Israel launched an unprecedented ground and air offensive on the Strip, destroying about half its residences and displacing upward of a million people. Nearly the entire 2.2 million residents of the Strip face acute food insecurity.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 31,000 people in the Strip have been killed in the fighting so far, a figure that cannot be independently verified and includes some 13,000 Hamas fighters Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 gunmen inside Israel on October 7.

Around 100 hostages are thought to remain in Gaza, along with the bodies of over 30 people.

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