Israeli negotiators return from Cairo hostage talks as they await Hamas response

Netanyahu’s office praises Egyptian mediation in oblique swipe at Qatar; source indicates there is reason for optimism that a deal can be reached

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Mossad chief David Barnea at a pre-Passover toast April 4, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Illustrative: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and Mossad chief David Barnea at a pre-Passover toast April 4, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Israel’s negotiating team headed home from Cairo on Tuesday, as Jerusalem continues its efforts to find terms for a deal that would see Hamas free hostages from Gaza.

“During the negotiations, with the effective mediation of Egypt, the mediators put together an updated proposal for Hamas to address,” the Prime Minister’s Office announced on behalf of the Mossad, which is leading the talks.

“Israel expects the mediators to act more forcefully against Hamas to move the negotiations forward toward a deal,” said the PMO.

The wording of the message, which praised Egypt and hinted that Qatar needs to do more, reflects frustration expressed to The Times of Israel by Israeli officials over Qatar’s unwillingness to press Hamas to move toward a compromise.

The mid-level negotiating team was made up of Mossad, Shin Bet and IDF officials.

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that recent reports that there was no progress in Cairo were “bullshit.”

The latest rounds of talk began on Sunday, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday gave the Israeli delegation approval to resume indirect negotiations.

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

As tens of thousands of protesters outside accused him of abandoning the hostages on Sunday night, Netanyahu in a press conference said he understands “the despair and the desire to do everything to get back [the hostages],” adding that he is “a full partner to that desire.”

“As Israel’s prime minister, I am doing everything and will do everything to bring our loved ones home,” he said.

With talks stuck, Netanyahu asserted that Israel was showing flexibility in the negotiations while Hamas was hardening its position. For example, said the prime minister, Hamas is demanding the unchecked return of Gazans to the northern Strip, “including Hamas terrorists.”

Palestinians move towards the Nahal Oz border crossing with Israel, east of Gaza City, on October 7, 2023. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

He said Hamas’s demands would have security implications, but that he could not go into them publicly.

“If we give in to another demand every two days, will this bring about a deal?” Netanyahu asked rhetorically. “This is the opposite of the truth.”

He said such an approach would only make it harder to get the hostages home.

Haaretz on Saturday quoted an unnamed Israeli source who reiterated that the talks have been deadlocked because Hamas has refused to show any flexibility on its demand for all northern Gazans to be allowed to return and its conditioning of any further hostage releases on an Israeli commitment to ending the war and withdrawing all IDF forces from Gaza.

Israel has rejected both of these demands outright.

Last week, Hamas rejected compromises hammered out between Israel, Egypt, Qatar and the United States in Doha, prompting Jerusalem to recall most of its negotiating team.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heads the weekly cabinet meeting at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (Ronen Zvulun/Pool/AFP)

Mossad chief David Barnea and Shin Bet head Ronen Bar were not at the talks, but are expected to join subsequent consultations in which Hamas sends back a positive response.

According to a statement from his office announcing that the delegation was heading to Cairo, Netanyahu gave the security chiefs “room to operate” in their negotiations.

Hamas announced last week that it had informed mediators that it has returned to its original demands for a permanent ceasefire, the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, a return of displaced Palestinians and a “real” exchange of “prisoners” — demands Israel has repeatedly rejected as delusional.

Barnea reportedly informed the war cabinet that a hostage deal was still possible if Israel would be willing to be more lenient regarding the return of Gazans to their home in the northern part of the Strip. Israel has largely rejected the idea, as it seeks to prevent a resurgence of Hamas activity in areas that it has already cleared of the terror group.

Besides Barnea, war cabinet minister Benny Gantz and war cabinet observers Gadi Eisenkot and Ron Dermer supported the Mossad chief’s stance, according to Channel 12.

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)

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi opposed Barnea’s approach, saying that now is not the time to be lenient in negotiations. Instead, the pair argued that the IDF should prepare for an invasion of Rafah, but do so quietly to afford the US an opportunity to broker a deal.

Netanyahu also rejected Barnea’s proposal and supported publicly declaring that the IDF was preparing to invade Rafah.

Relatives, friends and supporters of 49-year-old Ohad Yahalomi and his 13-year-old son Eitan, held hostage in Gaza since the October 7 attack by Hamas militants in southern Israel, take part in a protest asking for the release of Israeli hostages in Tel Aviv on November 25, 2023. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

While Hamas has conditioned any further hostage releases on an Israeli commitment to end the war, Israel has insisted that its military campaign to destroy the terror group’s military and governance capabilities will resume once any hostage-truce deal is implemented.

The compromise proposal Israel accepted last week reportedly would have seen Jerusalem release twice as many Palestinian security prisoners as it had initially offered in exchange for 40 hostages — women, children, the sick and elderly — in the first phase of a 6-week truce deal.

Some 130 hostages are believed to remain in Gaza since Hamas’s October 7 massacre, which saw terrorists kill some 1,200 people and abduct another 253, mostly civilians. Dozens of hostages were released under a previous truce deal in November, and some others were rescued by Israel.

The IDF has confirmed that at least 34 of the hostages are no longer alive.

Egypt, Qatar and the US have been trying to narrow differences between Israel and Hamas over what a ceasefire could look like, as the UN warns of a deepening humanitarian crisis, particularly in northern Gaza, where the roughly 300,000 people still living there could be facing imminent famine.

Jacob Magid contributed reporting.

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