Feb 13, 2024 - World

Biden tells Bibi Israel may have to release more Palestinian prisoners than in last deal

President Biden sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023. Photo: Miriam Alster/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden sits with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the start of the Israeli war cabinet meeting in Tel Aviv on Oct. 18, 2023. Photo: Miriam Alster/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday that in any new hostage deal, Israel may have to release more Palestinian prisoners for each freed hostage than it did in the previous pause in Gaza fighting, two U.S. and Israeli officials said.

Why it matters: The number of Palestinian prisoners Hamas is demanding Israel release as part of a new hostage deal is the main sticking point in the indirect talks between Hamas and Israel.

  • While U.S. officials say Biden agrees with Netanyahu that Hamas' demand to release thousands of prisoners, including many convicted of murdering Israelis, is "over the top," the U.S. president also believes Israel could show more flexibility on the issue.
  • That's in part because at least five of the roughly 40 women, children, elderly and wounded hostages that could be released are female soldiers.

Driving the news: Netanyahu told Biden during their phone call on Sunday that "unlike some reports in the Israeli press," he does want to get a new hostage deal. But he stressed it needs to be a deal that can pass in the Israeli cabinet, U.S. and Israeli officials said.

  • Netanyahu said the proposal that the U.S., Israel, Qatar and Egypt agreed to in Paris two weeks ago was "very generous" because Israel agreed to more than 10 times the number of days for a pause in fighting than it did in the initial part of the previous hostage deal. The Paris proposal includes a six-week pause in fighting in return for the release of roughly 40 hostages as part of the first phase of the deal.
  • Netanyahu said Israel is ready to release three Palestinians for every Israeli hostage freed — the same ratio used in the previous deal, U.S. and Israeli officials said.
  • The officials said Biden agreed with Netanyahu that Hamas' demand is too much, but said that because this is a negotiation, Israel might have to release more Palestinian prisoners at a higher ratio than in the previous deal.

What they're saying: A U.S. official familiar said the "ratio remains an outstanding issue."

  • "There were no fixed positions discussed on the call by either leader other than possible pathways," the official added. "They agreed that some of Hamas's demands are total non-starters."
  • The Israeli Prime Minister's Office declined to comment.

State of play: CIA director Bill Burns met in Cairo on Tuesday with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani, Mossad director David Barnea and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel to discuss the hostage deal.

  • The meeting ended without a breakthrough, but progress was made in understanding the gaps that must be closed in order to enter into negotiations that could lead to a deal, an Israeli source who was briefed of the details of the meeting told Axios.
  • "It was a good meeting and all the parties that participated are making a significant effort to try to bring about a breakthrough," the source said.
  • "There was an in-depth discussion of the various remaining gaps, including the issue of the prisoners. All parties left with homework after which it will be possible to see if the conditions for effective negotiations are met," the source added.

Behind the scenes: Netanyahu only on Monday made the final decision to send the Israeli delegation. The decision came after Biden asked the Israeli leader in their phone call on Sunday to send a delegation to Cairo.

Yes, but: Israeli officials were only there to listen, according to Israeli officials.

  • Maj. Gen. Nitzan Alon, the Israel Defense Forces point person for the hostages issue, decided not to join the delegation after Netanyahu refused to give the negotiating team a mandate to present new ideas, according to three sources familiar with the matter.
  • The sources said that during the preparatory discussions for the trip to Cairo, Alon proposed a certain course of action for the talks, but Netanyahu rejected the ideas and instructed the delegation to just listen. "To only listen, two ears are enough, you don't need 12," a senior Israeli official told Axios. Alon sent his deputy instead.

What to watch: The Israeli source briefed on Tuesday's meeting said that the Egyptian and Qatari mediators are expected to hold talks with Hamas in the coming days in an attempt to understand whether the group's demands regarding the prisoners were only opening positions that could be softened in order to enter into more serious negotiations.

  • "Without a significant decrease in the number of prisoners that Hamas demands, there will be no progress," said the Israeli source.

Go deeper: Biden says U.S. will do "everything possible" to get new Gaza hostage deal

Editor's note: This story has been updated with additional details about Tuesday's meeting in Cairo.

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