Negotiators move closer to a hostage deal that would bring

Negotiators move closer to a hostage deal that would bring Gaza to a standstill for weeks – The New York Times

U.S.-led negotiators are nearing a deal that would see Israel suspend its war in Gaza for about two months in return for the release of more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas. That deal, which could be sealed in the next two weeks, would transform the conflict engulfing the region.

Negotiators have drawn up a written draft agreement that consolidates proposals put forward by Israel and Hamas over the past 10 days into a basic framework that will be the subject of talks in Paris on Sunday. While key disagreements remain to be resolved, negotiators are cautiously optimistic that a final agreement is within reach, according to U.S. officials who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive talks.

President Biden spoke separately by telephone Friday with the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, who acted as Hamas's mediators, to iron out remaining differences. He is also sending his CIA director, William J. Burns, to Paris for talks on Sunday with Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials. If Mr. Burns makes enough progress, Mr. Biden could send his Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk, who has just returned to Washington, back to the region to help finalize the deal.

“Both leaders reiterated that a hostage agreement is central to bringing about an extended humanitarian pause in the fighting and ensuring that additional life-saving humanitarian assistance reaches civilians in need across the Gaza Strip,” the White House said in a statement on Friday evening , which summarized the president's conversation with Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar's prime minister. “They underlined the urgency of the situation and welcomed the close collaboration between their teams to advance recent discussions.”

In a statement in Israel on Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reiterated his commitment to the release of the hostages who were not released as part of a more limited agreement in November. “To date we have returned 110 of our hostages and we are committed to bringing them all home,” he said. “We are dealing with this, around the clock, even now.”

The hostages have been held captive since Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen stormed Israel, killing an estimated 1,200 people and arresting about 240 others in the worst terror attack in the country's history. According to Gaza's Health Ministry, Israel's military retaliation has since killed more than 25,000 people, most of them women and children. It is not clear how many of those killed in Gaza were Hamas fighters.

The short-lived ceasefire in November, which Mr. Biden brokered along with Qatar and Egypt, led to a seven-day pause in fighting in return for the release of more than 100 hostages by Hamas and about 240 Palestinian prisoners and detainees held by Israel. About 136 people arrested on October 7 remain missing, including six American citizens, although about two dozen of them are presumed dead.

The new deal would be broader in scope than the previous one, officials say. In the first phase, fighting paused for about 30 days while women, the elderly and wounded hostages were released by Hamas. During that time, both sides would work out details of a second phase that would suspend military operations for about another 30 days in exchange for holding Israeli soldiers and male civilians. The proportion of Palestinians released from Israeli prisons remains to be negotiated, but this is seen as a solvable problem. The agreement would also allow more humanitarian aid to the Gaza Strip.

Although the agreement would not include the permanent ceasefire that Hamas has demanded for the release of all hostages, officials close to the talks believe Israel would likely not restart the war in the same way if it were to do so It took two months to stop until now. The ceasefire would provide a window for further diplomacy that could lead to a broader resolution of the conflict.

Such a deal would provide welcome respite for Mr. Biden, who has faced much criticism from the left wing of his own party for supporting Israel's response to the Oct. 7 attack. Mr. Netanyahu was also under considerable pressure to secure the release of the hostages, despite promising to press ahead with the military operation to destroy Hamas.

But he has also resisted American and international pressure to ease military action against Hamas, reiterating his resolve in his statement on Saturday. “We are determined to complete the task and eliminate Hamas,” he said. “And if it takes time, we will not back down on the mission.”

A new deal could not only ease some tensions for Mr. Biden at home, but also de-escalate the volatile situation in the Middle East overall. During the seven-day standoff in November, other Iranian proxy groups such as the Houthis and Hezbollah also held off low-level attacks against American, Israeli and other targets.

After the November break collapsed, Hamas and Israel effectively stopped communicating through their intermediaries. However, the ice was broken by a more limited agreement announced on January 16 that allowed the delivery of medicines to Israeli hostages in return for more medicines and aid to Palestinian civilians in Gaza. This became what some called a proof of concept.

From that point on, both Israel and Hamas submitted written proposals for a more comprehensive agreement, and American mediators merged them into a single draft treaty. Mr. Biden spoke by phone with Mr. Netanyahu on Jan. 19, their first conversation in nearly a month, and the two discussed what to do with the hostages.

Two days later, the president sent Mr. McGurk to the region, where he met with General Abbas Kamel, the head of Egypt's intelligence service and the country's second most powerful official, and Sheikh Mohammed of Qatar. The talks were complicated when Israeli media played an audio tape in which Netanyahu appeared to privately describe Qatar's role as mediator as “problematic” due to its relationship with Hamas, prompting Qatar to call the comments “irresponsible and destructive.”

Mr. McGurk returned to Washington on Friday and met with Mr. Biden in the Oval Office, along with Mr. Burns and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who was also traveling in the region. With his advisers at his side, Mr. Biden then separately called Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Sheikh Mohammed.

“They reiterated that every effort must now be made to reach an agreement that would lead to the release of all hostages and a prolonged humanitarian pause in the fighting,” the White House said in its summary of the call with Mr. Sisi.