Diplomat: Israeli refusal to dispatch negotiators harmed talks

US knew of mediators’ altered proposal to Hamas, did not inform Israel — report

Axios reports Jerusalem newly disappointed, suspicious of the US administration, with a sense it ‘got played’; US official insists: ‘There have been no surprises’

CIA director William Burns speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to examine worldwide threats on Capitol Hill on March 8, 2023. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP)
CIA director William Burns speaks during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing to examine worldwide threats on Capitol Hill on March 8, 2023. (Amanda Andrade-Rhoades/AP)

Washington was aware of the new proposal presented to Hamas by Arab mediators in recent days but failed to inform Israel about it, triggering intense Israeli disappointment with the US administration and suspicion regarding its role as a mediator moving forward, according to a Tuesday report.

Citing Israeli officials, Axios reported that Jerusalem was caught by surprise when Hamas suddenly announced on Monday its acceptance of a ceasefire proposal from Egypt and Qatar.

The Hamas ceasefire proposal took Israel by “complete surprise,” an Israeli source told The Times of Israel on Tuesday. Israel was not made aware of the document nor did it see its contents until after Hamas made its announcement to the media.

The new offer was apparently presented to Hamas by Egyptian officials during talks in Cairo over the weekend. Neither Hamas nor the mediators specified Monday that the proposal agreed to was different from the one Israel had accepted days earlier, creating the impression that Hamas had greenlit an offer Israel had already signed off on.

But within hours, Israel, having reviewed the document, said it did not meet its key requirements, and announced it was moving forward with its planned operations in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, while continuing to engage with the mediators.

Israeli officials told Hebrew media they viewed the move as “a ruse” by Hamas to paint itself as willing to reach a deal and Israel as the obstinate party.

Soon after the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh announced it accepted the proposal, a senior Hamas official told AFP: “After Hamas agreed to the mediators’ proposal for a ceasefire, the ball is now in the court of Israeli occupation, whether it will agree to the ceasefire agreement or obstruct it.”

File: This handout picture provided by the Iranian foreign ministry on December 20, 2023, shows Qatar-based Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh speaking to journalists as he welcomes the Iranian foreign minister (not in the picture), in Doha. (Iranian Foreign Ministry / AFP)

The Israeli sources told Axios it had now become clear that Washington and CIA Director William Burns had known about the new document, which had “many new elements” and “looked like a whole new proposal,” but did not tell Israel about its existence.

They added that the US had also been aware Monday morning of finishing touches being put on the proposal in Doha, and did not inform Jerusalem.

Related: Specifics of a deal Hamas says it accepts, and that Israel says does not meet its terms

Two officials said there was a sense that Israel “got played” by Washington and Arab mediators.

This had now sparked anger and suspicion in Jerusalem, which fears mediators are attempting to manipulate it into accepting terms it has consistently refused.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset on March 13, 2024. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The main sticking point between the sides is Hamas’s insistence that any ceasefire must lead to an end to the war, according to an Israeli source. Israel has vowed it will not end the fighting as long as Hamas is still in power in Gaza.

Axios reported that Israel suspects the US and other mediators offered promises to Hamas that a ceasefire would see the war brought to an end. Khalil al-Hayya, a deputy to Hamas’s Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar, told Al Jazeera on Monday that under the terms Hamas had agreed to, Egypt was a guarantor of the deal and would not allow the war to resume.

“We think the Americans conveyed the message to Hamas that it will be okay when it comes to ending the war,” a top Israeli official told the outlet.

Axios also spoke to a senior US official, who insisted that “American diplomats have been engaged with Israeli counterparts. There have been no surprises.”

An Israeli army tank takes a position in southern Israel near the border with the Gaza Strip on May 6, 2024 (Menahem KAHANA / AFP)

The US official stressed that the negotiations were “an extremely difficult process” held through various intermediaries. He said Washington’s stated goal is to “ensure that an initial six-week ceasefire would be built into something more enduring. The agreement lays out three phases for this purpose and it would be our aim to see all three phases completed with all the hostages returned to their families.”

He did not comment on Israel’s stated war aim of ending Hamas rule over Gaza, which does not appear to be in line with that plan.

He denied Washington had offered any guarantees to Hamas regarding the war ending.

Israel said Monday night that while it is moving forward with operations in Rafah, it would send a team of negotiators to Cairo to continue talks over the proposed deal.

The Prime Minister’s Office said the war cabinet had decided unanimously to push ahead with an IDF operation in Rafah “in order to apply military pressure on Hamas, with the goal of making progress on freeing the hostages and the other war aims.”

The statement said Hamas’s latest offer was “far from [meeting] Israel’s essential requirements.” At the same time, the statement said, Israel would send working-level teams to hold talks with the mediators in order “to exhaust any possibility of achieving an agreement on terms that are acceptable to Israel.”

IDF troops on the Gazan side of the Rafah border crossing on May 7, 2024 (Israel Defense Forces)

Later on Tuesday, an Arab diplomat told The Times of Israel that Israel’s repeated refusal to send a negotiating team to meet with mediators has hampered efforts to secure a hostage deal.

The mediators had wanted Israel to dispatch a delegation to Cairo over the weekend when Burns was in town and the mediators were gearing up for Hamas’s official response to the latest proposal, the diplomat said, claiming Israel’s absence led it to be being out of the loop.

The Arab diplomat said this past weekend wasn’t the first time that Israel refused to send a negotiating team to meet with mediators in Cairo or Doha, which he says has slowed the negotiations.

While Israel has said it only sends negotiators when Hamas is showing genuine interest in reaching a compromise, the diplomat says Jerusalem’s policy has been “politically motivated.”

He declined to elaborate but doesn’t deny the suggestion that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has refused to dispatch negotiating teams due to pressure from far-right coalition partners who want him to take a tougher stance in the talks.

Other war cabinet ministers, including National Unity chairman Benny Gantz and his deputy Gadi Eisenkot, have argued that Israel should always show willingness to hold talks, while sticking to guiding principles once the negotiating team is in the room.

The war erupted after Hamas’s October 7 massacre, when thousands of terrorists murdered some 1,200 people and seized 252 hostages amid acts of brutality and sexual assault.

In response to the onslaught, Israel launched a wide-scale offensive aiming to eliminate the terror group’s military and governance capabilities in Gaza and free the hostages, 128 of whom remain in captivity.

More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in the conflict, according to unverifiable figures from Hamas health officials that do not distinguish between gunmen and civilians. Israel says it has killed 13,000 Hamas gunmen in Gaza as well as 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7. Two hundred and sixty-seven IDF soldiers have been killed in the fighting in Gaza.

Netanyahu has for months vowed that Israeli troops would carry out an operation to root out the final Hamas strongholds in the southern Gaza city of Rafah regardless of a hostage release deal.

Monday saw the IDF issue evacuation orders to Palestinian civilians in eastern Rafah. On Monday night intense airstrikes were conducted in the area, and some troops moved in. By Tuesday morning, Israel was in control of the Gazan side of the Rafah Crossing with Egypt.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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