'There is the foundation for a good deal'

Netanyahu to speak with Biden as Israel studies Hamas response to hostage deal offer

PM will hold meeting with negotiators, security cabinet to formulate response amid some optimism from senior officials

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls US President Joe Biden from IDF's Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 14, 2024. (GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls US President Joe Biden from IDF's Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv on April 14, 2024. (GPO)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to speak by phone with US President Joe Biden on Thursday, an official in the Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel, after Hamas sent Israel a response to the latest proposal for a hostage and ceasefire deal.

In the evening, Netanyahu will also head a “preliminary deliberation” on Hamas’s response with his negotiating team, the official said.

The prime minister is then scheduled to convene his security cabinet to formulate a reaction to Hamas’s latest position.

More than six months of negotiations carried out by mediators including the US, Qatar and Egypt have time and again failed to advance toward a deal that would see the release of the 116 hostages kidnapped on October 7 who are believed to remain captive in Gaza, in exchange for a truce in fighting and the release of hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners.

The Israeli government must decide in the coming days whether to enter a new round of more detailed negotiations with the Qatari, Egyptian and American mediators.

If the government authorizes the Mossad-led negotiating team to enter such talks, the sides will still likely need another several weeks before a deal could be reached, the Axios news site reported, citing an unnamed senior Israeli official.

US President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to the DC Emergency Operations Center, Tuesday, July 2, 2024, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Hamas has withdrawn its demand for guarantees that Israel would end the war and withdraw entirely from Gaza in order for it to even agree to the first stage of the deal, a senior Israeli official told Channel 12 news.

“It is possible to bring back the soldiers, the women, the children, the injured, the sick, the elderly,” said the official. “And there is an off-ramp to return to the fighting if Hamas violates the terms of the agreement. There is the foundation for a good deal.”

The official brought up the possibility that Hamas would introduce roadblocks during the talks: “It won’t be easy. There is a long way ahead.”

Other senior officials expressed some optimism about the chances for a deal.  Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told hostage families that “we are closer to a deal than we’ve ever been,” the outlet reported.

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant meets with the families of hostages held in the Gaza Strip, on October 29, 2023. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

On Wednesday evening, Israel announced that it had received Hamas’s response to the latest truce-hostage deal outline and would evaluate the document before replying.

Hamas later confirmed that it had submitted its latest demands, issuing a statement that it is “eager to reach an agreement to stop the war, and our communication with the mediators continues.”

“We exchanged some ideas with the mediators with the goal of stopping the war and the full [Israeli] withdrawal from the Gaza Strip,” the terror group said, claiming that it is being flexible in its demands, while Israel is “trying to deceive and evade.”

Energy Minister Eli Cohen told the national-religious weekly paper B’sheva that “Israel cannot permit a deal that leads to the end of the war.”

Then-Foreign Minister Eli Cohen addresses the press at United Nations Headquarters, accompanied by family members of individuals kidnapped by Hamas, on October 24, 2023 in New York City. (David Dee Delgado/Getty Images/AFP)

“Freedom of action must be protected,” the security cabinet member continued, “and there will be no immunity for anyone from Hamas. [Hamas leader Yahya] Sinwar will not receive a guarantee on his life, and the question is only when Israel gets its hand on him and eliminates him.”

Cohen said the war would continue into 2025. “It is not up for debate.”

Key clauses

A senior Israeli official said on Wednesday the new response was positive enough to allow for the negotiations to move forward after several weeks of deadlock.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi meets with troops at a forward logistics base in southern Gaza’s Rafah, July 2, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

According to the Israeli official, the updated Hamas offer brought the sides closer to a resolution regarding Clauses 8 and 14 of the Israeli proposal. Clause 8 of the hostage-truce deal concerns the negotiations between Israel and Hamas that would be held during the six-week phase one of the deal. Clause 14 deals with the transition between stage one and stage two of the deal.

Israel has sought to keep the wording in these two clauses vague enough to allow it to resume fighting against Hamas in Gaza if it chooses, while Hamas has sought to ensure that Israel will not be able to resume fighting once the sides agree to the initial six-week phase of the deal.

The senior Israeli official clarified there were still significant gaps to bridge before an agreement could be reached, despite Hamas’s relatively positive response.

Hamas’s latest proposal includes “clear wording that does not allow for interpretation,” Hezbollah-linked newspaper Al-Akhbar reported on Thursday.

Demonstrators call for the release of Israeli hostages held in the Gaza Strip, outside Hakirya Base in Tel Aviv, July 3, 2024 (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Lebanese outlet said the plan includes proposals prepared by CIA chief William Burns, in coordination with Qatar, Egypt and Turkey.

According to the report, the potential agreement includes a clear statement that there will be a sustainable calm during the period of negotiations between the first and second stages of the deal.

Additionally, the plan reportedly says that Israel will withdraw troops from the Rafah Crossing area in agreement with Egypt, provided there is an understanding over the management of the border point, but without having to fully withdraw from the key Philadelphi Corridor.

People look for salvageable items following an Israeli raid in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, June 29, 2024. (Eyad Baba/AFP)

The current version of the deal in play is based on a proposal made public at the end of May in a speech by US President Joe Biden, built on a three-stage long-term Israeli outline. Yet more than a month later, the negotiations appear to have made little progress.

On June 11, Hamas submitted its first response to the Israeli proposal, which the US went on to slam for including dozens of amendments, including some that went back on clauses Hamas had already agreed to and others that were deemed beyond the pale. On June 12, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said some of those changes were “not workable.”

In the weeks that followed, mediators worked to bring Hamas down on some of its demands — even as the State Department last week for the first time said Hamas had “rejected the proposal on the table” — leading to the new response submitted Wednesday by the terror group.

Last month, two officials familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that the primary issue complicating negotiations is that Hamas is demanding an Israeli guarantee up front that it will agree to a permanent ceasefire.

A report in The New York Times on Monday that suggested that the IDF’s top generals believe a permanent ceasefire is the best way to free the remaining hostages was quickly shot down by Netanyahu, who blasted the “anonymous sources” who spoke to the US outlet.

IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi meets with the General Staff Forum at the IDF headquarters in Tel Aviv, December 1, 2023. (Israel Defense Forces)

“I don’t know who those unnamed parties are, but I’m here to make it unequivocally clear: it won’t happen,” said Netanyahu on Tuesday in a (Hebrew) video statement. “We will end the war only after we have achieved all of its goals, including the elimination of Hamas and the release of all our hostages.”

During its murderous October 7 onslaught, Hamas and other terrorist operatives kidnapped 251 people from Israel, including a number of dead bodies, dragging them into Gaza. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of at least 42 of the 116 believed to still be held in the Strip.

Over the past nine months, 109 hostages have been released, seven have been rescued by the IDF and the bodies of 19 have been recovered by the military from Gaza, including three who were mistakenly killed by troops.

The internal debate in Israel over whether to prioritize the return of the hostages or the continuation of fighting against Hamas has intensified in recent months, including increasingly fiery mass protests around the country demanding Netanyahu reach a deal.

Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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