Feb 14, 2024 - World

Bibi declines to send Israeli delegation to Egypt for more hostage talks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 16, 2023. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on March 16, 2023. Photo: Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not approve sending an Israeli delegation to Cairo on Thursday for follow-up talks over a possible hostage deal, two Israeli officials said.

Why it matters: Proposing follow-up talks appears to be an attempt by Egyptian and Qatari mediators to make progress on issues unrelated to the main sticking point in the talks — the number of prisoners Hamas wants to be released — in order to create continuity and momentum for the negotiations.

  • The two Israeli officials said Netanyahu made the decision not to send the delegation because he believes that only a very tough Israeli position could lead to a deal.

Behind the scenes: Egyptian and the Qatari mediators proposed holding follow-up talks on Thursday at a lower level to discuss the humanitarian elements of a possible hostage deal, including the scope of aid that would be allowed to enter Gaza and the possibility of Palestinians returning to their homes in the northern part of the Strip, the two officials said.

  • The heads of the Israeli negotiating team informed Netanyahu upon their return from Cairo Tuesday night and presented him with the proposal for further talks.
  • Mossad director David Barnea and Shin Bet head Ronen Bar tried to convince Netanyahu to send the delegation for the follow-up talks and said they believe progress can be made, but he rejected their recommendation, one Israeli official said.
  • That's largely because Netanyahu believes there is no point in further talks until Hamas agrees to soften its position on the number of prisoners it demands to be released as part of a deal, the two Israeli officials said.
  • "During the talks in Cairo, Israel wasn't given any new proposal by Hamas for the release of the hostages," the Israeli Prime Minister's Office said in a statement. "Netanyahu is adamant that Israel won't give in to Hamas' delusional demands. A change in Hamas' position will allow moving forward in the negotiations."

What they're saying: "We believe there can be a deal, there should be a deal and that everyone should keep working hard to get that deal," White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said when asked by a reporter about Netanyahu's decision in a briefing on Wednesday.

  • "[T]he direction of travel has got to be everybody's doing everything they can, including the government of Israel, to try to reach a deal," he added.

State of play: Tuesday's meeting included CIA director Bill Burns, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, Mossad's Barnea and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel.

  • 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.

Between the lines: The Israeli delegation on Tuesday was only in Cairo to listen, per Netanyahu's orders.

  • The Israeli prime minister agreed to send a delegation for Tuesday's talks after President Biden asked him to do so over the weekend.

What to watch: Israeli negotiators hinted during the talks in Cairo that a continued impasse in the hostage talks could lead to an Israeli operation in Rafah, according to an Israeli official.

  • "The Israeli negotiations team made clear to the Egyptian and Qatari mediators that the next stage of the war is Rafah," an Israeli official said.
  • There's been growing concerns globally about a possible Israeli ground operation in Rafah, where more than 1.2 million Palestinians are sheltering from the fighting.

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 Jake Sullivan's and the Israeli Prime Minister's Office's comments..

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