Netanyahu gives Shin Bet, Mossad chiefs go-ahead to resume hostage talks

After negotiations in Qatar apparently collapsed earlier in the week, premier tells Ronen Bar and David Barnea their teams have ‘room to operate’ in Doha and Cairo

File: Ronen Bar, head of the Shin Bet security services, left, and Mossad chief David Barnea at the annual IDF Armored Corps memorial ceremony, marking the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, in Yad La-Shiryon, on September 27, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)
File: Ronen Bar, head of the Shin Bet security services, left, and Mossad chief David Barnea at the annual IDF Armored Corps memorial ceremony, marking the 50th anniversary of the Yom Kippur War, in Yad La-Shiryon, on September 27, 2023. (Jonathan Shaul/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave an Israeli delegation approval on Friday to resume indirect negotiations with Hamas in the coming days for a truce and hostage deal.

Israel will send Shin Bet and Mossad officials to conduct the negotiations in Cairo, an Israeli official said, clarifying that Mossad chief David Barnea and Shin Bet head Ronen Bar are not expected to attend the talks, but may join subsequent consultations in Doha later on, an Israeli official said.

According to a statement from his office announcing the decision, Netanyahu gave the security chiefs “room to operate” in their negotiations.

Haaretz on Saturday quoted an unnamed Israeli source saying 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. Israel has rejected both these demands out of hand.

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

Several news outlets reported that a small Mossad team remained in Qatar to continue talks.

Hamas said on Monday night 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.

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)

On Wednesday, 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.

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 is preparing to invade Rafah.

Another cabinet meeting on the matter was supposed to take place Friday, but ministers received word of Netanyahu’s decision via the media, where the premier was quoted as saying during a Thursday meeting with hostage families: “We’re preparing for Rafah, and I am handling the negotiations myself.”

The premier’s office issued a statement Friday night denying reports that he was in the minority in opposing the Mossad-Shin Bet-led negotiating team’s proposal to allow the unvetted return of Palestinians to northern Gaza.

Relatedly, the Axios news site reported that several hostage relatives at the Thursday meeting castigated Netanyahu for his treatment of them, asserting that US President Joe Biden has shown the abductees’ families more respect than he has.

A relative of one of the dual US-Israeli national hostages told Netanyahu that the White House both embraces the hostage families, but more critically, keeps them informed regarding the status of negotiations — things the premier has largely failed to do, Axios said.

The relative reportedly implored Netanyahu not to further damage ties with the US, arguing that they are critical for securing a hostage deal.

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 Hamas’s military and governance capabilities will resume once any hostage-truce deal is implemented.

The compromise proposal Israel accepted on Sunday reportedly would’ve 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.

According to a Channel 12 report, Israel is now willing to release as many as 800 prisoners, including 100 inmates convicted of murder. Other Hebrew media reports suggested Israel was prepared to release 700 security prisoners in return for the 40.

Some 130 hostages — not all of them alive — 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 freed by Israel.

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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