Feb 16, 2024 - World

Scoop: Israeli president secretly meets with Qatari PM to discuss hostage talks

Israeli President Isaac Herzog

Israeli President Isaac Herzog. Photo: Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images

Israeli President Isaac Herzog secretly met with Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference Friday to discuss the negotiations aimed at securing the release of the hostages in Gaza, two sources with knowledge of the meeting told Axios.

Why it matters: The unusual meeting between the Israeli and Qatari political leaders takes place at a crucial point in the hostage negotiations, as mediators try to create momentum, despite significant gaps.

  • Most of the contacts between Qatar and Israel since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack have been headed by Mossad director David Barnea.
  • Herzog brought some of the hostages released in the previous deal and family members of those still held in Gaza with him to Munich, a source with knowledge told Axios.

State of play: Friday's meeting comes just days after the Qatari prime minister, CIA director Bill Burns, and the Egyptian and Israeli spy chiefs met in Cairo to discuss the latest proposal in the hostage talks.

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu declined to send an Israeli delegation for follow-up talks but Burns visited Israel on Thursday to discuss the current negotiations.
  • The biggest sticking point remains Hamas' demand that thousands of Palestinian prisoners be released as part of any deal.
  • An Israeli official told Axios there is a feeling that some progress has been made and that there might be a willingness by Hamas to soften its positions so that more serious talks can take place on a new deal.

Separately, President Biden said in a press conference later Friday that he told Netanyahu there needs to be a temporary ceasefire that will allow for the release of the hostages.

  • "I hope we will be able to do it," Biden said. "There are American hostages not only Israeli. My hope and expectation is that we can't get a deal that brings them home. There are negotiations, and we will see where it takes us."

The big picture: Herzog also met with Vice President Kamala Harris in Munich on Friday and discussed the hostage issue, the need for more humanitarian aid to get into Gaza, the importance of protecting civilians, and the plans for after the war, the White House said.

  • Harris also "reaffirmed the Biden-Harris Administration's position that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there," the White House added.
  • There are growing concerns that Israel will extend its ground operation to Rafah, where the vast majority of displaced Palestinians are sheltering from the fighting.

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

This is a developing story. Please check back for updates.

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