Israeli officials play down prospect of progress in talks

US sees signs of progress on deal to release hostages, temporarily pause Hamas war

CIA chief Bill Burns to summit in Paris with heads of Mossad, Shin Bet and Egyptian intelligence and Qatari PM to discuss 2-month lull for gradual prisoner release

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)

US negotiators are making progress on a potential agreement under which Israel would pause military operations against Hamas in Gaza for two months in exchange for the release of the more than 130 remaining hostages abducted in the Palestinian terror group’s devastating October 7 attack on Israel, according to two senior administration officials.

The officials, who requested anonymity to discuss the sensitive negotiations, told the Associated Press Saturday that emerging terms of the yet-to-be sealed deal would play out over two phases.

In the first phase, fighting would stop to allow for the remaining women, elderly, and wounded hostages to be released by Hamas.

Israel and Hamas would then aim to work out details during the first 30 days of the pause for a second phase in which Israeli soldiers and civilian men would be released. The emerging deal also calls for Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

While the proposed deal would not end the war, US officials are hopeful that such an agreement could lay the groundwork for a durable resolution to the conflict.

The New York Times first reported on Saturday that progress had been made toward an agreement for a pause in fighting in exchange for the remaining hostages.

Relatives and supporters hold placards bearing portraits of Israeli hostages held in Gaza since the October 7 attacks by Hamas in southern Israel, during a rally calling for their release, in Tel Aviv on January 27, 2024. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

CIA Director Bill Burns is expected to discuss the contours of the emerging agreement when he meets on Sunday in France with David Barnea, the head of the Mossad intelligence agency; Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani; and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel for talks centered on the hostage negotiations, according to three people familiar with the scheduled meeting who were not authorized to comment publicly.

However, Israeli officials, cited by Channel 12, have played down expectations, saying that Hamas is stubbornly clinging to demands that Israel completely end the war while leaving the terror group in power over Gaza.

The war erupted on October 7 when Hamas-led terrorists from the Gaza Strip carried out a massive attack on attack on Israel that killed some 1,200 people in the south of the country, most of them civilians. Marauding terrorists massacred people, gang-raped women, and tortured and mutilated their victims in border communities and at an outdoor music festival. Hamas and other terrorists also abducted 253 people of all ages, mostly civilians, as hostages in Gaza.

Israel responded with a military campaign, including a ground offensive, to destroy Hamas, remove it from power in Gaza, and release the hostages.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly vowed to continue the offensive until complete victory over Hamas is achieved.

Channel 12 reported that along with Barnea, the head of Israel’s Shin Ben security service Ronen Bar and IDF hostage envoy Nitzan Alon will also be at the Paris summit, which aims to make headway by finding creative solutions to the standoff.

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)

“We hope we will manage to reach a breakthrough, one that will jumpstart real negotiations with a will to reach an agreement,” an unnamed Israeli source told the network on Saturday. “Currently, the conditions do not enable that because there is no agreement on the general framework. That is the purpose of the summit. To break the stalemate and find creative formulas.”

Hamas is insisting not only that Israel completely stop fighting but also that it pull its forces out of Gaza, along with international guarantees that the terror group can remain in power in the coastal enclave, sources said, whereas Israel sees ending its offensive as a “red line.” Sources said Egypt and Qatar need to be “more creative” in resolving the issues rather than just acting as a conduit to pass information between the various parties.

Though Egypt has diplomatic relations with Israel, Qatar does not.

Netanyahu criticized the Gulf emirate during a televised press conference on Saturday night.

“Qatar hosts the heads of Hamas, it also funds Hamas and it has leverage over Hamas,” he said. “It promised to ensure that the medicines would reach… our hostages. And it said it could help to return [the hostages]. So it should place its pressure on [Hamas]. It placed itself as a mediator. Please, prove it and return our hostages. And in the meantime, transfer the medicines to them.”

On Wednesday, the Foreign Ministry in Doha said it was “appalled” by earlier remarks by Netanyahu, leaked to Israeli TV, in which he described himself as refraining from thanking Qatar for its mediation and deemed the gas-rich emirate “problematic.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv on January 18, 2024 (Tomer Appelbaum/POOL)

Netanyahu has faced increasing pressure from the families of many hostages, who are demanding a deal to win their loved ones’ release

Weekly rallies in Tel Aviv have called for a deal, including one held on Saturday night.

Around 100 hostages were freed under a weeklong ceasefire deal in November in exchange for the release of Palestinian security prisoners held by Israel. That deal was mediated by Egypt and Qatar. Around 130 remain captive, but a number have been confirmed dead.

US President Joe Biden on Friday spoke by phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Qatar’s ruling emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Calls with both leaders focused on the hostage situation.

“Both leaders affirmed that a hostage deal is central to establishing a prolonged humanitarian pause in the fighting and ensure additional life-saving humanitarian assistance reaches civilians in need throughout Gaza,” the White House said in a readout of Biden’s call with the Qatari leader. “They underscored the urgency of the situation, and welcomed the close cooperation among their teams to advance recent discussions.”

Palestinians displaced by the Israeli offensive against Hamas in the Gaza Strip walk through a makeshift tent camp in Rafah on Saturday, Jan. 27, 2024. (AP/Fatima Shbair)

Burns heads to France for the high-level talks after White House senior adviser Brett McGurk traveled to the Mideast this week for talks on the hostage situation.

If Burns sees progress in his talks in France, Biden may dispatch McGurk back to the Mideast quickly to try to complete an agreement. McGurk during his talks this week was also laying the groundwork for another trip to the region by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who next week could make his fifth trip to the Middle East since the start of the Israel-Hamas war in October.

The White House and CIA have yet to publicly confirm Burns’s meeting in France and administration officials have been guarded that a deal can quickly be brokered.

“We should not expect any imminent developments,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday.

Biden and his aides are keenly aware that the mounting Palestinian death toll, and widespread suffering in Gaza, is frustrating some in his Democratic base, who want to see him put more pressure on Israel to end the war.

The Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza, which does not differentiate between combatants and civilians, says the war has killed at least 26,000 Palestinians. The figures are unverified and are believed to include close to 10,000 Hamas operatives Israel said it has killed during fighting in the Strip. Over 200 Israeli soldiers have been killed in the Gaza fighting.

Democrats in Michigan have warned the White House that Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict could cost him enough support within the state’s sizable Arab American community to sway the outcome of the 2024 election in a state that could be key to whether he wins a second term.

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