War cabinet votes to dispatch Israeli team to Paris for fresh try at hostage talks

High-level forum approves sending negotiators led by Mossad head to French capital on Friday; decision comes amid reports this week that Hamas has softened its demands

Families of Israelis held in Hamas captivity protest calling for the government to find a solution to have the hostages released, outside IDF military headquarters in Tel Aviv, February 20, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Families of Israelis held in Hamas captivity protest calling for the government to find a solution to have the hostages released, outside IDF military headquarters in Tel Aviv, February 20, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Israel’s war cabinet voted on Thursday to dispatch a delegation to Paris on Friday for high-stakes talks on a hostage deal and accompanying truce in the Israel-Hamas war in Gaza.

The unconfirmed but widely reported decision likely signals that Israel believes progress on a so-far elusive deal is still possible, amid reports that the Hamas terror group could be willing to soften demands rejected by Jerusalem.

According to Channel 12 news, the war cabinet unanimously approved sending a team led by the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence service to Paris for the talks over the weekend. Qatar, Egypt and the US are mediating a potential deal to free over 130 hostages Hamas is believed to be holding since its October 7 massacre in Israel.

The decision came after top White House official Brett McGurk held talks in Israel with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials centered around the negotiations.

White House national security spokesperson John Kirby described the discussions with the White House coordinator for the Middle East and North Africa as “constructive,” adding that Washington remains fully committed to doing everything to achieve a hostage deal in exchange for an extended pause.

The US has been pressing for an agreement, hoping to stave off a planned Israeli offensive into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where some 1 million displaced Gazans are huddling. Washington vetoed an Arab-backed United Nations Security Council resolution earlier this week demanding an immediate humanitarian ceasefire, saying such a move would interfere with the efforts to reach a truce.

“Though gaps remain, the key elements are on the table,” said US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield, adding that the deal remains the best opportunity to free the hostages and have a sustained pause that would enable lifesaving aid to get to Palestinian civilians.

US Ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield casts a veto vote during a UN Security Council meeting on the Israel-Hamas war, at UN Headquarters in New York City on February 20, 2024. (Angela Weiss/AFP)

The broad terms of the framework include at least a six-week halt to hostilities and a release of the 130-plus remaining hostages taken on October 7 and held by Hamas in Gaza since. At least 30 of them are believed by Israel to be dead.

Mediators have been trying for months to broker a pause in fighting and hostage release deal. Talks have been stuck since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected what he said were “delusional” demands from Hamas seeking the release of thousands of Palestinian security prisoners, including hundreds serving life sentences, an end to the war in exchange for freeing the hostages, and the withdrawal of all Israeli troops from Gaza.

This week, mediators have been making a new push to break the deadlock as Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh arrived in Cairo Tuesday for talks. A day later the Saudi Asharq Al-Awsat newspaper reported that “Hamas has softened its positions.”

IDF soldiers operate inside the Gaza Strip in an undated photo published on February 22, 2024. (Israel Defense Forces)

Speaking in a virtual briefing with reporters, Kirby, the White House spokesperson, did not confirm an Axios reporting that CIA Director Bill Burns was going to meet in Paris with Qatari, Egyptian and Israeli officials.

“I can’t confirm the specific reports about Paris but I can absolutely reassure you that discussions are ongoing,” Kirby said.

A previous round of talks in late January included Burns, Mossad chief David Barnea, Shin Bet head Ronen Bar, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

McGurk, who arrived from Egypt, also held talks with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv on Thursday.

This handout photo shows Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, right, meeting with US envoy Brett McGurk, February 22, 2024. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

The Defense Ministry said the discussion with McGurk covered returning hostages, “operational developments in Hamas strongholds in central and southern Gaza, and humanitarian aid efforts.”

Gallant also stressed the “importance of dismantling remaining Hamas battalions,” the ministry said.

Gallant told McGurk Israel would “expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators.”

“At the same time, the IDF is preparing the continuation of intense ground operations,” he added.

Israel has vowed to topple Hamas as the rulers of Gaza after thousands of terrorists led by the terror group went on a killing rampage across southern Israel on October 7, slaughtering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and taking 253 others hostage.

Activists wear masks depicting Israelis who are being held hostage in the Gaza Strip during a protest in Tel Aviv, Israel, Wednesday, Feb. 21, 2024. (AP/Oded Balilty)

It is believed that 134 hostages abducted by Hamas remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from captivity during a weeklong truce with Hamas in late November. Four hostages were released prior to that. Three hostages have been rescued by troops alive, and the bodies of 11 hostages have also been recovered, including three mistakenly killed by the military. The IDF has confirmed the deaths of 30 of those still held by Hamas, citing new intelligence and findings obtained by troops operating in Gaza.

One more person is listed as missing since October 7, and their fate is still unknown.

Hamas is also holding the bodies of fallen IDF soldiers Oron Shaul and Hadar Goldin since 2014, as well as two Israeli civilians, Avera Mengistu and Hisham al-Sayed, who are both thought to be alive after entering the Strip of their own accord in 2014 and 2015, respectively.

Striking an optimistic tone this week ahead of McGurk’s arrival, war cabinet member Benny Gantz said Wednesday that efforts to “promote a new plan for the return of the hostages” were showing “the first signs that indicate the possibility of progress.”

He warned, however, that if the sides fail to reach an agreement Israel will go ahead with its plans to invade the Rafah over the Muslim Ramadan holiday, which begins March 10.

He pledged to “leave no stone unturned” in the effort to free those abducted on October 7.

The government has been under growing pressure from families of hostages and their allies to reach a deal with the terror group, citing “hellish” conditions reported by those freed.

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