Biden to deploy CIA’s William Burns to help broker major Gaza deal

President Biden plans to dispatch CIA Director William J. Burns in the coming days to help broker an ambitious deal between Hamas and Israel that would involve the release of all remaining hostages held in Gaza and the longest cessation of hostilities since the war began last year, according to officials familiar with the matter.

Burns is expected to travel to Europe for the talks and meet with the Israeli and Egyptian intelligence chiefs, David Barnea and Abbas Kamel, and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, these people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive negotiations. The planned gathering has not been previously reported.

Egypt and Qatar have been key interlocutors between Israel and Hamas, the militant group whose deadly cross-border attack on Oct. 7 set off the war in Gaza. The two countries helped secure an initial pause in hostilities and hostage release in November. But tensions between the Israelis and Qataris are on a razor’s edge after leaked audio of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu captured the Israeli leader disparaging Qatar in a conversation with Israeli hostage families.

Here are the hostages released by Hamas and those remaining in Gaza

Burns’s discussions in Europe are expected to build on his phone conversations with counterparts, as well as the work of the White House’s top Middle East official, Brett McGurk, who this week has held related meetings in Qatar’s capital, Doha, and in Cairo.

Israel’s latest proposal includes a 60-day pause in fighting in exchange for the phased release of the more than 100 captives, beginning with civilian women and children and followed by civilian men, military women and men, and the remains of those who have died since their abduction. Such a pause would allow Israel to continue fighting after the two-month lull in line with Netanyahu’s vow to achieve “total victory” by destroying Hamas.

The CIA declined to comment.

The Israelis also have proposed that senior Hamas leaders agree to leave Gaza, but one official familiar with the negotiations said the idea was a nonstarter for the group and its military leaders, who are prepared to die as martyrs in the Palestinian enclave. Hamas also rebuffed Israel’s 60-day pause proposal, saying the next hostage release should involve a permanent cease-fire, the official said.

But multiple officials said negotiations on those key points remain active.

Samir Farag, a former Egyptian general and defense official, said both Hamas and Israel have shown a willingness to return to the negotiating table.

“Everybody wants peace — the Palestinians, Hamas and the Israelis. But everybody wants to win in the negotiations,” he said. “We are trying to reach a middle ground.”

Hamas’s possession of the hostages puts the group “in a very strong position,” Farag said.

“I think Netanyahu is under pressure, because the street in Israel, everybody wants to release the hostages,” he added. “So he has to do something, otherwise he’s in big trouble — especially because he lost a lot of soldiers in the war over there.” Some of the terms of the negotiations were reported by Axios and CNN.

The planned meeting between the spy chiefs and the Qatari prime minister reflects how far talks between Israel and Hamas have advanced in recent days, according to another U.S. official. “I do think that there have been enough exchanges of ideas and proposals that we are nearing the serious phase of negotiations,” the official said.

Strong disagreements remain about whether a pause in fighting could evolve into a lasting cease-fire, but the U.S. official said it could be achieved. “One can have cautious optimism that if you can get this thing to stop for two months, maybe you can get this thing to stop,” he said.

The discussions come as Israel’s forces encircle the southern Gazan city of Khan Younis, where they believe top Hamas commanders are located. The United Nations accused Israel of shelling a U.N. compound housing 30,000 displaced people on Wednesday, which sparked rare condemnation from the United States. Israel denied it was responsible for any “aerial or artillery strike” on the area.

Humanitarian organizations have reported that thousands of civilians are trapped in the city, many in hospitals. Across Gaza, more than 25,700 people, most of them civilians, have died since the fighting began, according to Palestinian health officials.

The violence has coincided with anger from Qatar over Netanyahu’s leaked remarks accusing Doha of failing to pressure Hamas into releasing hostages. He also said the Persian Gulf state was worse than the United Nations and the Red Cross, institutions Israel routinely accuses of anti-Israel bias.

“You haven’t seen me thank Qatar, have you noticed? I haven’t thanked Qatar. Why? Because Qatar, to me, is no different in essence from the U.N., from the Red Cross, and in a way it’s even more problematic,” said Netanyahu, according to audio obtained by Israel’s Channel 12.

Qatar said on X that it was “appalled” by the remarks, which spokesman Majed Al-Ansari called “irresponsible and destructive,” but “not surprising.” If Netanyahu’s comments were “found to be true,” Ansari said, “the Israeli [prime minister] would only be obstructing and undermining the mediation process, for reasons that appear to serve his political career instead of prioritizing saving innocent lives.”

An Israeli official did not immediately respond to a question on the leaked audio.

A U.S. official said the spat, though unwelcome, would not derail negotiations.

Despite U.S. pressure on Israel, casualty count in Gaza remains high

The spy chiefs and Qatari prime minister also met shortly before the conclusion of November’s deal, which involved the release of more than 100 captives in exchange for more than 200 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons. The pause also allowed critical flows of humanitarian aid to northern Gaza, where inhabitants are approaching near-famine conditions. Burns and McGurk both played a role in securing that deal.

After a flurry of diplomacy this month, both parties appear to be close to an agreement, Farag said. But Hamas “asked for a guarantee, because sometimes they deliver the hostages and after that [Israel] will attack them again.”

The United States is the only actor positioned to offer such a guarantee, Farag said. Even if Netanyahu has paid little heed to American entreaties on Israel’s conduct of the war and the entry of humanitarian aid to Gaza in recent months, he said, Egypt believes the United States retains crucial leverage by virtue of its military assistance to Israel. He referenced a famous quote by the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, who took part in talks brokered by President Jimmy Carter that led to the 1978 Camp David Accords and a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt the following year.

“We do believe that as President Sadat said, 99 percent of the solutions in every place in the world come from the United States,” Farag said.

He added: “The Americans, they are very powerful, believe me. They can do whatever they want. The Israelis, now they are facing a lot of problems — economic, because all the people that are working now in the army. But who is supporting Israel? The United States. Who gave them all of the munitions? … If the Americans said no, then it would stop.”

But Biden has appeared unwilling so far to put that kind of serious pressure on Netanyahu’s government, he said.

Michael Milshtein, a senior fellow at Reichman University and former head of Palestinian affairs for Israeli military intelligence, said he believes a deal could be reached in the coming weeks. “In Israel, there are more and more voices that really want to promote such a deal, and I think that Hamas also understands that the next stages of the conflict can cause this organization severe damages,” he said. “Both sides want to consider this idea.”

Parker reported from Cairo. Susannah George in Doha and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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