Official downplays hostage deal prospects: Israel, mediators ‘talking to ourselves’

Second official says main disagreement is ‘end of fighting, IDF leaving Gaza,’ as negotiating team joins Qatar talks for potential temporary truce, agreement to free captives

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Protesters demonstrate for the release of hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 24, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Protesters demonstrate for the release of hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza at Hostages Square in Tel Aviv, February 24, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

An Israeli official sought to temper expectations on Monday as negotiators flew to Qatar to continue working on a potential hostage deal, telling The Times of Israel that there is not necessarily cause for optimism.

“We need to be careful,” said the official. “We’re still talking to ourselves.”

A mid-level Israeli delegation is in Doha to continue working on the details of a potential agreement with Hamas that would see dozens of hostages released from Gaza in exchange for an extended truce in the war in the coastal Strip.

The delegation consists of experts who have been involved in the talks throughout, a second Israeli official told The Times of Israel. The official added that in-person talks aren’t the only forum for progress to be made.

“There are telephone calls all the time,” said the official.

They are following up on an outline formulated at a US-Israel-Egypt-Qatar forum in Paris over the weekend, which reportedly involves Hamas releasing 40 hostages including, women, children, female soldiers, and elderly and ill abductees in exchange for a six-week pause in fighting and Israel releasing hundreds of Palestinian terror convicts.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks before representatives of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, on February 18, 2024. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Hamas is not involved in the talks, and the organization’s leadership still would have to agree to any framework hammered out in Qatar and Paris.

Shas leader Aryeh Deri, an observer on the war cabinet, made similar comments on Sunday, telling the ultra-Orthodox news outlet Kikar HaShabbat that there was a “good chance of a deal” happening but that “we are still far from it.”

“It’s not a simple deal,” he continued, “we don’t have feedback from Hamas yet, everything we do is via mediators.”

Shas chair Aryeh Deri arrives at the office of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on June 14, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The main gap, the second Israeli official told The Times of Israel, is “the end of fighting, the IDF leaving the Gaza Strip.”

“All the rest, we can figure out,” said the official.

Israel is willing to agree to an extended cessation of hostilities, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials have said in no uncertain terms that the war will continue even after a long pause. Israel has set the toppling of the Hamas regime as one of its war goals, alongside freeing the hostages.

Hamas, on the other hand, wants to guarantee its survival in Gaza by forcing Israel to withdraw in order to recover its hostages.

Another point of contention has been which hostages will be released. The first official said that Israel is insisting that female soldiers be included in the group of 40.

Families of Israelis held in Hamas captivity in Gaza call for the government to find a solution for the release of the hostages in a protest outside the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, February 22, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Anonymous senior Israeli sources have also alleged that Netanyahu was intentionally sabotaging the talks on a deal — “for political reasons,” to appease the far-right of his coalition — by setting stricter conditions and restricting the Israeli representatives’ ability to discuss most topics in Qatar.

According to a Channel 12 report, Netanyahu has set a new condition for the mooted deal, under which Palestinian terrorists convicted of “heavy” crimes who would be released from Israeli prisons would have to be expelled to Qatar.

Netanyahu reportedly raised the demand during discussions by the war cabinet on Saturday night when Israel’s delegation to the Paris summit briefed ministers on their progress.

Channel 12 also said that Netanyahu has limited the Israeli delegation to discussing only humanitarian issues such as the number of trucks carrying aid into the Gaza Strip and how much food would be allowed in, amid a spiraling humanitarian crisis in the enclave.

The Ynet news outlet reported that Netanyahu also said in Saturday night’s war cabinet telephone consultations that he was not prepared to advance on the parameters of a deal until Israel receives a list specifying which of the 130 hostages held in Gaza since October are still alive.

The war began on October 7 when Hamas launched an unprecedented attack on Israel in which thousands of terrorists rampaged through southern towns murdering some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, and kidnapping 253.

It is believed that 130 of the hostages remain in Gaza — not all of them alive — after 105 civilians were released from Hamas captivity during a weeklong truce in late November. Four hostages were released before that, and three were rescued by troops. The bodies of eight hostages have also been recovered and three hostages were mistakenly killed by the military. One more person has been listed as missing since October 7, and her fate is still unknown.

During the November truce, 105 hostages, mostly women and children, were released in daily groups of 15 or so over a week. For every group of at least 10 hostages released by Hamas, Israel held off fighting in the Gaza Strip and released three times as many female and minor Palestinian convicts from prison.

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