Senior Likud minister: We are only ‘at start of journey’ on hostage deal talks

As US push continues, minister tells ToI no specific deal has been brought to cabinet, and that it has not agreed to a long-term ceasefire or release of large number of terrorists

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd left) heads the weekly cabinet meeting alongside Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs (3rd left) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (1st left) at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd left) heads the weekly cabinet meeting alongside Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs (3rd left) and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich (1st left) at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 7, 2024. (RONEN ZVULUN / POOL / AFP)

There was no specific hostage deal on the table for discussion at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting, a senior Likud minister told The Times of Israel.

“There is a lot of excitement because there are discussions again, but we are at the start of the journey,” said the minister on Monday.

Likud ministers at the weekly meeting of the government ministers insisted that any further decisions on a hostage deal with Hamas be brought to them for debate and approval. They objected to decisions being made in the war cabinet and being brought to the full cabinet as a fait accompli.

Among their demands was that there be a discussion in the full cabinet before any further meetings abroad by Mossad chief David Barnea with international intermediaries.

Justice Minister Yariv Levin, Education Minister Yoav Kisch, Energy Minister Eli Cohen, Transportation Minister Miri Regev, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, and Diaspora Minister Amichai Chikli all supported that demand, according to an official in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The minister who briefed The Times of Israel, who asked not to be named, said that there was opposition from the Likud ministers to a long ceasefire and the release of a large number of terrorists from Israeli prisons, as has been floated in media reports.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg at the State Department in Washington, DC, on January 29, 2024. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP)

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan also tempered expectations around a deal between Israel and Hamas, saying on Sunday that an agreement is not “right around the corner.”

“Ultimately, these kinds of negotiations unfold somewhat slowly until they unfold very quickly. And so it’s difficult to put a precise timetable on when something might come together or, frankly, if something might come together,” Sullivan told ABC’s “This Week.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken headed to the Middle East for another crisis tour on Monday in a bid to secure the truce.

On his fifth trip to the region since Hamas’s October 7 attack started the ongoing war in Gaza, Blinken is slated to visit Saudi Arabia, Israel, Egypt, and Qatar.

He is expected to discuss a proposed truce hammered out in a Paris meeting on January 28 of top US, Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials.

The proposed truce would pause fighting for an initial six weeks as Hamas frees hostages in exchange for Palestinian prisoners held by Israel, according to a Hamas source. Hamas has said no agreement has yet been reached, while some Israeli officials have expressed opposition to concessions. Numerous conflicting accounts have been published of the proposed terms, with no official confirmation.

Israelis rally to demand securing the release of hostages held by terrorists in the Gaza Strip, in Tel Aviv, February 3, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The diplomatic push has become more urgent with the surge in attacks across the region by Iran-backed groups in solidarity with Hamas, triggering counterattacks by the United States.

The war was sparked by Hamas’s unprecedented October 7 attack on Israel, during which thousands of Hamas-led terrorists stormed southern Israel and killed nearly 1,200 people, mainly civilians, and took  253 hostages, while committing numerous atrocities and weaponizing sexual violence on a mass scale.

Vowing to eliminate Hamas, Israel launched a massive military offensive that has killed at least 27,365 people in Gaza, according to the Hamas-ruled territory’s health ministry. The figure cannot be independently verified, and does not distinguish between civilians and combatants. Israel says it has killed over 10,000 Hamas operatives in Gaza.

Gazans have faced dire humanitarian conditions, and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said on X that “there is very limited access to clean water and sanitation amid relentless bombardment.”

AFP and Jacob Magid contributed to this report. 

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