'It is important that we arrive with significant flexibility'

Israeli delegation heads to Doha for hostage talks Monday after security cabinet okay

Negotiating team led by Mossad’s David Barnea to resume indirect talks in Qatar for temporary truce in Gaza, release of abductees taken on Oct. 7

File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a meeting of the war cabinet in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2024 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
File - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu convenes a meeting of the war cabinet in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2024 (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israel’s negotiating team was expected in Doha on Monday after the security cabinet is said to have approved on Sunday night the dispatch of the delegation to Qatar for indirect talks about a temporary truce in Gaza and a hostage release.

The delegation, led by Mossad director David Barnea, received a “general mandate” to conduct negotiations via Qatari and Egyptian mediators, Walla reported Sunday night, citing a senior Israeli official. Some of the issues related to the negotiations will need to be weighed and approved separately by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, the report said.

Ynet reported that the negotiating team asked for “a significant amount of time to conduct the negotiations so that it would be possible to improve the deal, and to deliver an outline that we can stand behind.”

An Israeli official cited by Ynet said: “We need to change the deal, it is important that we arrive with significant flexibility.”

A source told Reuters that the Qatar discussions will cover the remaining gaps between Israel and Hamas, including the number of Palestinian prisoners who could potentially be released in exchange for the remaining Israeli hostages, as well as humanitarian aid to Gaza.

The expected talks on Monday would mark the first time both Israeli officials and Hamas leaders join the indirect negotiations since the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan last week. Mediators had hoped to secure a six-week truce before then, but Hamas refused any deal that wouldn’t lead to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, a demand Israel flatly rejects.

File: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) speaks with Mossad chief David Barnea at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv on October 15, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Over the past week, however, both sides have made moves aimed at getting the talks, which never fully broke off, back on track.

Hamas late last week gave mediators a new proposal for a three-stage plan that would end the fighting, according to two Egyptian officials, one who is involved in the talks and a second who was briefed on them.

The first stage would be a six-week temporary ceasefire that would include the release of 35 hostages — women, those who are ill and older people — being held by terrorists in Gaza in exchange for 350 Palestinian prisoners being held by Israel. Hamas would also release at least five female soldiers in exchange for 50 prisoners, including some serving long sentences on terror charges, for each soldier. Israeli forces would withdraw from two main roads in Gaza, let displaced Palestinians return to north Gaza and allow the free flow of aid to the area, the Egyptian officials said.

In the second phase, the two sides would declare a permanent ceasefire and Hamas would free the remaining living hostages in exchange for more prisoners, the officials said. In the third phase, Hamas would hand over the bodies it’s holding in exchange for Israel lifting the blockade of Gaza and allowing reconstruction to start, the officials said.

Israel has adamantly ruled out a permanent ceasefire, and insists it will resume its declared goal of destroying Hamas once any hostage-truce deal is carried out.

Palestinian girls walk on a sand dune at a camp for displaced people in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip on March 17, 2024. (MOHAMMED ABED / AFP)

Israel has also signaled its intent to launch an offensive in the southernmost city of Rafah, Hamas’s last stronghold in Gaza. The expected operation has strained ties with the US amid concerns over the safety of noncombatants who could be caught in the warzone. Israel has promised to evacuate Rafah of civilians before launching an operation in the city.

A temporary truce would bring a welcome pause to the devastating war in Gaza against Hamas, sparked by the terror group’s October 7 murderous rampage across southern Israel, when thousands of terrorists killed some 1,200 people and took 253 hostages.

A weeklong ceasefire brokered by Qatar and Egypt in late November secured the release of 105 hostages, mostly women and children. Some 130 hostages are believed to remain in Gaza — not all of them alive. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 33 of them, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

Four hostages were released prior to the November agreement. 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. One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Efforts to ink a second hostages deal have been ongoing, amid significant obstacles.

Demonstrators block the Ayalon Highway in Tel Aviv during a protest calling for the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip, and against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. March 16, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The Israeli delegation had been said to be ready to travel to Doha for further talks on Saturday, but the two forums needed to approve Israel’s position in the negotiations — the three-member war cabinet and the broader security cabinet — had yet to convene to discuss the matter.

Both cabinets met on Sunday night amid protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv demanding a hostage deal.

The government has faced increasing pressure at home by families of hostages and their supporters who have urged reaching a deal to release the hostages as soon as possible, fearing that dragging out their captivity, already in its sixth month, presents a mounting daily danger to their lives.

An Israeli official told Channel 12 earlier during the meetings that the delegation needed “flexibility from the political leadership” to reach agreements. “The goal is to bring a good deal that can be acceptable to the Israeli public. It is possible,” the official said.

A source at the security cabinet meeting told Ynet that the “discussion was difficult, but completely matter-of-fact” and that “the situation is not simple.”

Other sources cited by the publication said the meeting included “a good and serious discussion.”

“It is hard to say that we are optimistic. We are entering the negotiations, we can only hope that it will be successful,” the sources said.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said earlier Sunday that Israel must try every possible avenue to bring home the hostages, including a proposal that is in the midst of negotiations.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant at a memorial ceremony for Israel’s fallen soldiers whose final resting place is unknown, at Mount Herzl Military Cemetery in Jerusalem on March 17, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

“This commitment, to leave no one behind, is true for the war we are fighting today and will be true for all of Israel’s wars,” Gallant said at a memorial ceremony for Israel’s fallen soldiers whose final resting place is unknown.

US officials are also expected in Doha Monday for the talks.

Earlier Sunday, Netanyahu denied reports that he had sought to push off deciding on the negotiating team’s mandate for the Doha talks, and had refused to hold a meeting on Saturday on the matter, thereby apparently delaying the departure of the team.

Over the weekend, Hebrew media reports said the process of releasing the delegation was held up because the war cabinet wrapped up a Friday meeting early in order to finish before Shabbat started at sunset.

Also, the Kan public broadcaster reported that MK Aryeh Deri, leader of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, opposed the team traveling on Shabbat, asserting that the talks were not a matter of immediate life and death. Deri denied the report, which had prompted criticism from opposition lawmakers.

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