Dec 22, 2023 - World

Exclusive: Bipartisan senators ask Biden to press Qatar on new Gaza hostage deal

Hostages' family members and others protest last week outside the home of UN Secretary-General António Guterres in New York. Photo: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images

Republican Sen. Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Democratic Sen. Jacky Rosen (Nev.) sent a letter to President Biden on Thursday asking him to put pressure on Qatar to strong-arm Hamas back to the negotiating table on a new hostage deal, according to a copy of the letter shared with Axios.

Driving the news: Qatar is a key U.S. ally in the Middle East, especially when it comes to efforts to release hostages.

Yes, but: Since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, Qatar has been under growing scrutiny by Congress over its relationship with the group.

  • The Biden administration has also signaled it will press Qatar on this issue after the war.

State of play: CIA director Bill Burns met on Monday with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani and David Barnea, the head of Israel's Mossad spy agency, in Warsaw to discuss a potential deal.

  • Israel has presented a new proposal to relaunch talks, but Hamas has said publicly it won't go back to the table unless Israel ends the war first.
  • President Biden said on Wednesday he doesn't expect a new hostage deal between Israel and Hamas to come soon but stressed that the U.S. is "pushing" for one.

What they're saying: Ernst and Rosen wrote to Biden that Qatar's close ties with Hamas, which is considered a terrorist group by the U.S., Israel and many other nations, gives the Gulf country "outsized access and influence" with the group, including during hostage negotiations.

  • "We appreciate Qatar's efforts so far to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas and their commitment to continue coordinating efforts to release all remaining hostages. However, we are concerned that Qatar is not fully utilizing its leverage to seek further concessions from Hamas," the senators wrote.
  • The two senators asked Biden to make clear to Qatar that if it fails to secure a new hostage release, this could "significantly impact bilateral relations" with the United States.
  • "Time is of the essence to free the hostages — and every diplomatic option must be on the table to secure their release. Given Qatar's unique ability to influence Hamas, it is imperative that Doha understands our expectation that negotiations result in the release of all remaining hostages," they stressed.

White House deputy National Security Council spokesperson Kate Waters said the "Biden administration has no higher priority than securing the release" of the hostages.

  • "This was the subject of national security adviser Jake Sullivan's intensive diplomacy in the region last week and the team remains in constant contact with our Qatari counterparts about a return to negotiations," Waters added.

A Qatari source who has knowledge of the negotiations said that the "letter implies that Qatar could do more to help with hostage releases, but chooses not to. Very unfortunately, the tone of the letter is threatening."

  • "All our negotiating partners, and especially the U.S. and Israel, understand that Qatar is a mediator. We do not control Hamas," the source said. "They also know that Qatar has been, and continues to be, fully committed to getting all the hostages out. The results so far speak for themselves."
  • "There is more to be done. This requires serious people working constructively. Letters like this are not constructive, and not helpful to the hostages."

The big picture: The Kibbutz Nir Oz community said on Friday that American Israeli Gad Haggai, who had been taken hostage, had been killed by Hamas.

  • "We are filled with great sorrow by the murder of Gad Haggai, an American-Israeli citizen. He was a father of four, a grandfather of seven, and a member of his beloved kibbutz — Kibbutz Nir Oz," Haggai's family said in a statement.
  • "We mourn the loss of our father and grandfather, and we continue to hope and pray that his body will be returned to us and that Judi is still alive and we will be reunited soon," it added, referring to Haggai's wife who is believed to be among the hostages Hamas is still holding.
  • "We continue to urge our leaders to do everything they can to bring our parents home to us. This latest news of Gad's death only reaffirms the urgency with which we need to bring all of the hostages home."

Editor's note: This story has been updated with the NSC comment.

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