Team led by heads of Mossad, Shin Bet lands in Doha

Hostage talks resume in Qatar amid cautious optimism, though wide gaps remain

US official says significant progress was made in meetings already held in Cairo, but source and Israeli officials note much work still needed before deal can be reached

Children of hostages held in Gaza are seen caged in a display outside the Knesset in Jerusalem as part of a campaign for their release, July 10, 2024. (Reuters)

Significant progress was made during Tuesday’s hostage negotiations held in Cairo by Israeli, Egyptian and American officials, a United States official told The Times of Israel, as talks resumed Wednesday in the Qatari capital of Doha.

The US official said the talks had focused on issues regarding the implementation of the first phase of the potential hostage-ceasefire deal between Israel and the Hamas terror group, and clarified that there was still a long road ahead before an agreement can be reached.

Egyptian, Qatari and American mediators have been striving to hammer out a deal between Israel and Hamas for the release of over 100 hostages that the Palestinian terror group abducted from Israel during its devastating October 7 assault and who are still held captive. The onslaught, in which some 1,200 were killed and 251 were kidnapped in total, caused an ongoing war in which Israel has vowed to destroy Hamas’s military and governance capabilities in the Gaza Strip.

In a more cautious assessment, a senior Israeli source was quoted by Channel 12 news Tuesday night as saying that “Egyptian reports of progress are premature,” and cautioning that “difficult and complex negotiations are expected.”

The unnamed source also noted that “there are still unresolved issues to deal with that are not simple.”

Nonetheless, the source said, “an immense effort will be made to achieve a breakthrough,” and “there is a genuine opportunity to reach a deal. The goal is to produce the best deal possible within a few weeks.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) meets with Mossad chief David Barnea, April 18, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

A senior unnamed Israeli official told Haaretz that “there is a feeling that the sides want to reach a deal, but there are significant gaps.”

The official warned that media reports of progress are likely to create a false sense of hope among the families of hostages that a deal is imminent, the report said.

A foreign diplomat, not named in the report, said the key point of contention was over the question of ending the war.

“It is doubtful if it will be possible to achieve the release of the hostages when the two sides are entrenching their positions on the matter,” he said.

The renewed negotiations in both Egypt and Qatar come after Hamas said on Saturday that it was ready to discuss a hostage deal and an end to the war in Gaza without an upfront commitment by Israel to a “complete and permanent ceasefire.” That statement constituted a shift in the position Hamas has held in all previous negotiations since November, though Hamas officials also reportedly said the terror group is instead demanding guarantees from mediators that Israel will end the war.

The Israeli delegation that landed in Doha Wednesday ahead of the talks is led by Mossad chief David Barnea, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, and the IDF’s chief negotiator Nitzan Alon. CIA head Bill Burns is expected to attend, as are Egypt’s intelligence chief Abbas Kamel and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani.

CIA chief William Burns, Egyptian intel chief Abbas Kamel, Mossad chief David Barnea and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani. (Collage/AP/AFP)

According to the Channel 12 report, the talks will focus on the latest Israeli proposal, parts of which were detailed by US President Joe Biden at the end of May, which was followed by an initial Hamas rejection and more recent reported Hamas flexibility.

The report said the sides are broadly agreed on a three-stage deal, with a 42-day halt to the war in the first stage, and on the “categories” of Israeli hostages to be released — with the designated “humanitarian” hostages to be freed in stage one to include women, the elderly and the sick. It said there was also agreement, crucially, that there would be no upfront Israeli commitment to end the war. Without Hamas’s consent to this, it said, the talks would not be going ahead.

Among the areas yet to be finalized, it added, are the question of how many Palestinian security prisoners will be freed for each hostage, and the identity of those prisoners; whether Israel will have a veto on specific prisoners; and the procedures surrounding the halt in fighting in the first phase and specifics of troop withdrawal.

Most importantly, the sides do not agree on core aspects of the transition from the halt in fighting in the first stage to a potential permanent ceasefire. Israel is demanding “an exit point” between the two stages, in line with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s insistence that the war will not end until Hamas is destroyed. Hamas, by contrast, wants the initial ceasefire maintained for as long as is needed until negotiations are finalized on a permanent ceasefire and end to the war, which Jerusalem says could enable Hamas to drag out the talks indefinitely.

The report also said that there was “a certain amount of progress” in Tuesday’s talks in Cairo, which focused on the Rafah border crossing and the Philadelphi Route along the Gaza-Egypt border, both of which are now under Israel control having been captured by the advancing army.

“Israel will have a hard time agreeing to withdraw from the Philadelphi Route,” an unnamed senior Israeli official was quoted as saying by Channel 13 news.

A woman and her children walk past a wall with photographs of hostages who were kidnapped during the October 7, 2023, Hamas cross-border attack in Israel, seen in Jerusalem, February 26, 2024. (Leo Correa/AP)

An additional complication is the potential political fallout in Israel from the proposal. According to the Haaretz report, Israeli officials have assessed that if the framework advances with the existing key terms, it will cause the collapse of the government, with far-right parties bolting the coalition over any agreement to end the war.

A political source told Haaretz that if the hostage proposal advances toward an agreement, Netanyahu will “have to make a political decision and not just a diplomatic one, and it is not clear how he will act.”

Both Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, who leads the Religious Zionism party, and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who heads the ultranationalist Otzma Yehudit party, have repeatedly threatened to bolt the coalition in recent months in an effort to prevent Jerusalem from agreeing to a ceasefire in Gaza.

They have painted any deal that would end the war before the elimination of Hamas as a failure and a defeat.

Earlier this week, ahead of the talks in Cairo and Doha, Netanyahu issued a list of four nonnegotiable Israeli demands, including a guarantee that Israel could resume fighting, which would need to be met in any hostage release and ceasefire deal with Hamas.

Netanyahu’s statement, at a crucial phase ahead of the resumption of talks, sparked anger in Israel and among mediators, with some accusing him of attempting to sabotage hard-won progress.

The other three demands were to end weapons smuggling to Hamas across the Gaza-Egypt border, that thousands of “armed terrorists” not be permitted to return to northern Gaza, and that Israel would seek the release of the maximum number of still living hostages.

Minister of Finance and head of the Religious Zionist Party Bezalel Smotrich holds up a picture of a victorious Gaza Hamas leader Yahya Siwar, at a faction meeting at the Knesset, on July 8, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

War erupted on October 7 when Hamas led thousands of Gaza terrorists in a cross-border attack on southern Israel that killed 1,200 people, mostly civilians. The 3,000 terrorists who burst into the country also abducted 251 people of all ages who were taken as hostages to Gaza.

Israel responded with a military offensive to destroy Hamas, topple its Gaza regime, and free the hostages.

It is believed that 116 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. Seven hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 19 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military.

The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 42 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 ahs also been holding two Israeli civilians who entered the Strip in 2014 and 2015, as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers who were killed in 2014.

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