Talks expected to resume in Cairo this week

US, Egypt, Qatar said pushing plan to end war, free hostages, form Palestinian state

WSJ says plan would see gradual release of all hostages in return for Palestinian security prisoners, and full normalization for Israel and its neighbors; PMO refuses to comment

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

IDF troops operating in the Gaza Strip in pictures cleared for publication on January 21, 2024. (IDF)
IDF troops operating in the Gaza Strip in pictures cleared for publication on January 21, 2024. (IDF)

The US, Egypt and Qatar are pushing Israel and Hamas to accept a comprehensive plan that would end the war, see the release of hostages held in Gaza, and ultimately lead to full normalization for Israel with its neighbors and talks for the establishment of a Palestinian state, The Wall Street Journal reported on Sunday.

The plan, whose complete implementation would take 90 days, would reportedly bring all fighting to an extended halt, during which time the Palestinian terror group, in the first stage, would free all civilians.

Israel would simultaneously release hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners, pull out of Gaza’s cities, allow freedom of movement in the Strip, cease drone surveillance over Gaza, and double the amount of aid entering the Hamas-controlled territory.

The next stage would see Hamas release female IDF soldiers and bodies of kidnapped Israelis, as Israel releases more Palestinian prisoners.

The third phase would have Israel pull back troops to the Gaza border, while Hamas frees the last hostages — soldiers and fighting-age men it considers soldiers.

Egyptian officials told WSJ that there would then be talks about a permanent ceasefire, normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia in addition to other Arab countries, and a new process leading to a Palestinian state — something the current Israeli government is vocally opposed to.

Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, prime minister and minister of foreign affairs of the state of Qatar, attends the Annual Meeting of World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Tuesday, Jan. 16, 2024. (AP/Markus Schreiber)

Egyptian officials added that Israeli officials are pushing for a two-week ceasefire instead, and are avoiding talks about a permanent ceasefire.

Negotiations on a ceasefire are set to begin in Cairo in the coming days, according to the report.

The Prime Minister’s Office declined to comment.

Though the WSJ report did not indicate what would happen to Hamas in such an agreement, it did note that Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar — the mastermind of the October 7 massacres — and its Doha-based politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh have not spoken in a month, and are at odds over the potential demilitarization of the Strip.

Emir Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani (R), ruler of Qatar since 2013, in a meeting with Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh in Doha, December 16, 2019 (from the Facebook page of Al Jazeera Palestine)

War erupted after Hamas-led terrorists invaded southern Israeli communities, massacring some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253 others. Israel then launched a massive military operation aimed at vanquishing Hamas and freeing the hostages.

It is believed that 132 hostages abducted by Hamas on October 7 remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November, another was rescued alive and bodies of others were extricated.

Axios also reported Sunday that White House Middle East envoy Brett McGurk would be in Egypt and Qatar this week to talk about the war and hostage release negotiations.

He was in Doha earlier this month.

There have been other reports of US attempts to wind down the fighting. According to a separate WSJ report Sunday, US President Joe Biden’s administration has begun to lower its expectations from the conflict, with Hamas being removed as a security threat seen as a more achievable goal than the destruction of the terror group — Israel’s stated aim.

Washington has increasingly pressured Israel to quickly pare back its military campaign and shift away from high-intensity warfare after more than three months of a punishing air and ground campaign, amid growing international outcry over the reported death toll in Gaza and a massive humanitarian crisis.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said that bringing the Israel-Hamas war to an end “as quickly as possible” is a top priority for the Biden administration in the year ahead.

In December, Biden discussed scaling back Israel’s offensive in Gaza with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but did not request a halt to the fighting.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, meets with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, second left, during his week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, in Al Ula, Saudi Arabia, Monday, Jan. 8, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

Israel says it will keep fighting until Hamas has lost its military and governing capabilities. It has also vowed to continue fighting until all remaining hostages are released from captivity.

Meanwhile, The New York Times reported on Saturday that senior Israel Defense Force commanders believe that Israel’s two stated goals of destroying Hamas and freeing the Israeli hostages it holds are “not compatible.”

The US and Israel have also been at odds over Gaza’s postwar future, with Biden seeking a revitalized Palestinian Authority to take charge, with an eventual path to a two-state solution, while Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition is opposed to such an outcome and is yet to make clear what it would like the Strip to look like following the war.

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