Nov 23, 2023 - Politics & Policy

Inside Biden's push for the Israel-Hamas hostage deal

President Biden hugs an Israeli woman in a striped shirt, kissing her on the head.

President Biden hugs Rachel Edri, a survivor of Hamas' attack, during his visit to Tel Aviv on Oct. 18. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden's persistent pressure on Middle East leaders was a key factor in sealing the deal between Israel and Hamas for the release of 50 hostages who were captured during Hamas' terrorist attack on Israel, U.S., Israeli and Qatari officials say.

Why it matters: Interviews with the officials reveal how Biden's team shaped the agreement during six weeks of often-tense negotiations, how he was driven by "gut-wrenching" meetings with hostages' family members, and his aggressive push to seal the deal.

Zoom in: Biden's involvement began hours after Hamas' attack, when the White House learned that several Americans were among roughly 240 hostages being held in Gaza.

  • Israeli officials say Hamas has been holding about 180 hostages — including some Israeli and Israeli-American soldiers — while the Palestinian Islamic Jihad is holding another 40 or so. A few more are being held by local gangs in the southern Gaza Strip.

Under the agreement, 50 women and children will be released in several groups over a four-day pause in the fighting in Gaza. That would leave about 190 hostages still in captivity. U.S. officials hope the deal will lead to additional releases.

  • It's unclear exactly who will be released. Nine Americans are believed to be held hostage in Gaza, including two women and a young girl, Abigail Edan, who was kidnapped after Hamas killed her parents on Oct. 7. Abigail turns 4 on Friday.

Behind the scenes: Shortly after the Oct. 7 attack, a senior U.S. official said, Qatar approached the White House with sensitive information regarding the hostages — and word that a deal for their release was possible.

  • National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan directed Biden's top Middle East adviser, Brett McGurk, and another top adviser, Josh Geltzer, to establish a secret working group on the hostage issue.
  • A senior U.S. official said the group's work was not read into the interagency process because Qatar and Israel — which quietly created similar working groups — demanded extreme secrecy.
  • Only a few people in the Biden administration knew the details of the group's work. Biden was briefed daily on the group's progress.

"Gut-wrenching" meeting

Six days after the Hamas attack, Biden met virtually with the families of Americans who were then unaccounted for in Israel. Some were later designated as hostages in Gaza. A few others were found dead in Israel.

  • Biden spent more than 90 minutes talking with the families. A U.S. official who was on the Zoom call described it as "one of the most gut-wrenching things I have experienced."
  • Several days later, on Oct. 18, Biden was in Israel for an unprecedented wartime visit. He spent more than an hour with a group of Israelis who were survivors of the Oct. 7 attack or had family members taken hostage.
  • Two Israelis who attended the meeting said the Secret Service and Biden's aides told him several times he needed to move to his next appointment. But he put them off and kept talking with the survivors.

Later that day, Biden met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel's war Cabinet in Tel Aviv and had a lengthy discussion on what it might take to secure the hostages' release, U.S. and Israeli officials said.

  • At the time, Israel had cut fuel and water to Gaza and was bombing the enclave. Israeli officials were refusing to allow humanitarian aid into Gaza unless hostages were released.
  • A senior U.S. official said Biden made clear to Netanyahu and his ministers that humanitarian assistance had to reach Palestinians in Gaza regardless of any future hostage deal. Reluctantly, they agreed.

A breakthrough

The first breakthrough on hostages came on Oct. 23. Qatari mediators persuaded Hamas to release Judith Raanan, 59, and her 17-year-old daughter Natalie — two Americans from Chicago who'd been swept up in Hamas' attack.

  • For hours, White House officials followed their movements out of Gaza in real time until the charge d'affaires of the U.S. embassy in Israel, Stephanie Hallett, met the Raanans at the Israel-Gaza border. Several hours later, Biden spoke with them by phone.
  • The episode showed the White House that Qatar could deliver hostage releases — and gave U.S. officials hope that a larger hostage deal was possible.

Between the lines: The White House — under increasing pressure to push for a pause in Israel's attacks on Gaza — realized that the only realistic path to such a pause would be a deal for the release of a large number of hostages, U.S. officials say.

  • Biden's team decided to get CIA Director William Burns more involved in the hostage talks. Since then, Burns has been a key player in the negotiations, Israeli and U.S. officials said.
  • Mossad director David Barnea has been negotiating for Israel.

Hamas comes to the table

On Oct. 24 — as the Israeli bombing of Gaza continued and a ground invasion appeared imminent — Hamas signaled it was ready to seek a deal to release a large number of women and children in return for a pause in the fighting.

  • A U.S. official said that after Hamas refused to provide a list of the hostages in its custody, the Israelis determined it was not a serious offer and went ahead with its ground invasion on Oct. 27.
  • The Israelis told the White House that only more military pressure could make Hamas move, an Israeli official said.

The ground invasion stopped the hostage negotiations for a few days. But Hamas re-engaged and the talks got into more detail, Israeli officials said.

  • Israel and the U.S. continued to demand Hamas provide lists of the hostages it was holding, or at least give some identifying information.

Biden: "Enough is enough"

Biden insisted he speak directly with Qatar's prime minister, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani.

  • By phone, Sheikh Mohammed briefed Biden on Qatar's hostage talks with Hamas.
  • The White House decided not to make that call public — to avoid affecting the talks at a time when an agreement seemed close.

On Nov. 9, Burns traveled to Doha and met with Sheikh Mohammed and Barnea. The key hangup: Hamas still hadn't identified who it was holding, a U.S. official said.

  • Three days later, Biden called Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, the emir of Qatar. It was the first call between the two since the Israel-Hamas war had begun. A U.S. official said the call was difficult — and that Biden's message was: "Enough is enough."
  • The official said Biden told the emir the U.S. wanted the names or clear identifying information for the 50 women and children Hamas claimed it was ready to release. Without that, Biden said, a deal wasn't possible.
  • A Qatari official said the call wasn't difficult, and that Biden didn't press the emir.
  • Nevertheless, shortly after the call Hamas produced for the first time a list with identifying details for about 50 hostages it said it was willing to release in the first phase of the deal, U.S. officials said.

On Nov. 14, Biden spoke with Netanyahu again in what had become near-daily chats.

  • A U.S. official said Biden told Netanyahu that because Hamas had provided details on about 50 hostages and signaled it might be willing to release two dozen more later, he should take the deal.
  • In return, Israel would agree to release roughly 150 Palestinian women and minors who are being held in its prisons, accused of being involved in attacks against Israelis.
  • Israeli officials said Netanyahu didn't reject Biden's recommendation, but asked that he put more pressure on the Qatari emir to press Hamas on other parts of the emerging deal.

Heated meeting with Bibi

That day McGurk met with Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. The meeting got heated when McGurk told Netanyahu the U.S. wanted the Palestinian Authority to have a role in Gaza after the war. Netanyahu pushed back aggressively.

  • "Our soldiers are not fighting in Gaza in order to establish 'Fatahstan' that will later turn again into 'Hamastan,'" Netanyahu told McGurk, according to a report by Channel 12, Israel's most-watched TV network. Israeli and U.S. officials confirmed the quote.
  • But a U.S. official said that as McGurk was leaving, Netanyahu grabbed his arm and said: "We need this deal." The prime minister asked that Biden call the Qatari emir again to nail things down.

While the negotiations continued between Washington, Tel Aviv and Doha, so did the ground invasion in Gaza.

  • On Nov. 15 the Israeli Defense Forces entered al-Shifa hospital, where U.S. and Israeli intelligence had concluded Hamas had a military command center.
  • As IDF soldiers searched for weapons in the hospital, Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar suspended the negotiations and sent a message to the Qataris calling on the IDF to leave the hospital grounds immediately, a U.S. official said.
  • The Israelis refused, but said they would take steps to keep the hospital open.
  • Sinwar went dark. "Sinwar disappeared for two days," an Israeli official said.

Last chance for a deal

When the Hamas leader re-engaged with negotiators last Friday, Biden called the Qatari emir again. A U.S. official said Biden told him this was the last chance to get a deal that would temporarily stop the fighting.

  • A day later when they met in Doha, the Qatari prime minister told McGurk that Hamas had just come back with an answer. Burns and Barnea were updated, but after a few hours of talks there were still several unresolved issues.
  • Over the next few days, the talks continued. On Tuesday morning, Hamas informed Qatar that it approved of the latest text.
  • Israel's Cabinet convened several hours later. Netanyahu told the ministers about his request for Biden's help in sweetening the deal.
  • That led to an agreement on a four-day pause in fighting — less time than Hamas initially wanted — and an understanding that another round of hostage releases would be possible.
  • The deal "was improved," Netanyahu said: "President Biden helped and I thank him for that."
  • Shortly afterward, Israel's Cabinet approved the deal.

What's next: Netanyahu's aides hope the deal will be implemented — and the hostages released — as soon as Friday. By that time, the identities of those being released could be made public.

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