'We'll remain focused on a deal to free remaining hostages'

Hamas hostage deal rebuff preceded UNSC vote, US says, accusing PM of playing politics

Top Biden administration official says Netanyahu’s claim that resolution led to hardened Hamas stance inaccurate, unfair to hostages; insinuates premier is neglecting them

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

Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group lead a Purim parade in Jerusalem, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)
Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip by the Hamas terror group lead a Purim parade in Jerusalem, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Ohad Zwigenberg)

WASHINGTON — Hamas’s rejection of the latest hostage deal offer was issued before the United Nations Security Council resolution calling for a ceasefire and hostage deal that Washington allowed to pass, a senior Biden administration official told The Times of Israel on Tuesday, blasting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for claiming the UN vote led the terror group to harden its stance in the talks.

Netanyahu’s office said in an earlier statement that Hamas’s decision to reject a US-brokered compromise was “a sad testament to the damage caused by the UN Security Council resolution.”

A senior Biden administration official speaking on condition of anonymity hit back at Netanyahu’s claim, saying, “This statement is inaccurate in almost every respect and unfair to the hostages and their families.”

“The description of the Hamas response reflects news reports and not the actual substance of that response, which was prepared before the UN vote even took place,” the official said.

“We will not play politics with this most important and difficult issue, and we will remain focused on a deal to free the remaining hostages,” the official added in a scathing critique of Netanyahu, appearing to accuse him of neglecting the 134 hostages still held in Gaza.

The comments were repeated in similar terms on the record by US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller later Tuesday. “That statement, which I believe said that Hamas pulled out of the hostage talks or Hamas rejected the most recent proposal because of the United Nations Security Council resolution, that statement is inaccurate in almost every respect and it is unfair to the hostages and their families,” said Miller. “The description of Hamas’s response that has been aired in the public is all from news reports – it’s not the actual substance of the response – and I can tell you that that response was prepared before the UN Security Council vote, not after it.”

The back-and-forth came a day after the White House accused the premier of manufacturing a crisis in US-Israel ties. Netanyahu canceled plans to send a delegation of his top aides to Washington to discuss a potential IDF offensive in the southern Gaza city of Rafah in response to the US abstaining on the Security Council resolution and allowing it to pass.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu marks the Jewish holiday of Purim with officers from the Military Police’s Erez Battalion, March 24, 2024. (Haim Zach/GPO)

Several hours after the vote, Hamas issued a statement announcing that it had informed mediators of ongoing hostage talks in Doha that it would stick to its already rejected original position on demanding a permanent ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, a return of displaced Palestinians and a “real” exchange of “prisoners.”

However, the senior administration official maintained that Hamas had already delivered its response before the vote.

Indeed, senior Hamas official Osama Hamdan issued a statement hours before the Security Council meeting, rejecting the US’s involvement in the talks along with Qatar and Egypt and maintaining that the mediators were overly focused on the number of Palestinian security prisoners to be released in the deal, rather than issues more important to Hamas such as ending the Israeli “aggression” in Gaza, scaling up humanitarian aid, allowing Palestinians to return to the northern Strip and advancing a plan for the enclave’s reconstruction.

Netanyahu’s office on Tuesday accused Hamas of retreating to its “extreme demands,” including a complete end to the war and full IDF withdrawal from Gaza.

Foreign Minister Israel Katz said in a radio interview Tuesday morning that the US decision to withhold a veto on the Security Council resolution would hurt Israel in talks to free its hostages.

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer told Bloomberg TV on Tuesday that the US decision gave Hamas reason to believe “they’re going to get a ceasefire without giving up the hostages.”

Netanyahu’s office said Monday that the US abstention marked a divergence from Washington’s policy linking a ceasefire to Hamas releasing the hostages it abducted on October 7, but US officials asserted that this wasn’t their interpretation of the resolution and that their position in favor of that conditionality has not changed.

White House National Security Council adviser John Kirby answers questions about Israel during a press briefing, March 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

“It seems like the Prime Minister’s Office is choosing to create a perception of daylight here when they don’t need to do that,” White House National Security Council John Kirby said in a press briefing.

“We’re kind of perplexed by this. It’s a non-binding resolution, so there’s no impact at all on Israel’s ability to continue to go after Hamas,” Kirby said.

A second US official briefing a small group of reporters said that the US worked to ensure that the resolution’s demands for a ceasefire and hostage release would be part of the same paragraph after they initially were separated, to dispel the notion that the two aren’t linked with each other. However, the text still does not explicitly condition the ceasefire demand on the release of the hostages.

The official added that the Biden administration was perplexed by what it views as a major overreaction by Netanyahu, but speculated that the premier is motivated by domestic Israeli politics.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report. 

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