Feb 22, 2024 - World

Scoop: U.S. urges Israel to send officials for Paris hostage talks, says progress made

Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza rally in Tel Aviv on Feb. 8. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

Relatives and supporters of Israeli hostages held in Gaza rally in Tel Aviv on Feb. 8. Photo: Ahmad Gharabli/AFP via Getty Images

President Biden's top Middle East adviser Brett McGurk urged Israel to send a delegation to the upcoming hostage talks in Paris, telling Israeli officials there has been progress in the negotiations between Egyptian and Qatari mediators and Hamas, three sources with knowledge of the issue told Axios.

Why it matters: Biden administration officials say they want to try and get a deal before the start of Ramadan in less than three weeks to ensure there is a temporary ceasefire in place during the Muslim holy month. But major gaps between Israel and Hamas remain.

  • Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has recently taken a tough line in the negotiations. He didn't allow Israeli negotiators to present any new positions and "only listen" during negotiations with U.S., Egyptian and Qatari officials earlier this month. Netanyahu last week refused to send a team for follow up talks in Egypt.

Catch up quick: The hostage deal the Biden administration is currently pushing for would lead to at least a six-week pause in fighting.

  • The main sticking point between Israel and Hamas centers on differences over the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released and how the list will be determined for the first stage of what could be a three-phase deal.

Driving the news: CIA director Bill Burns is expected to travel to Paris on Friday to hold talks about the efforts to reach a new hostage deal.

  • A senior Israeli official said Netanyahu still hasn't signed off on sending an Israeli delegation to Paris for the Friday meeting. Even if he does send a delegation, it's unclear whether Netanyahu will allow the Israeli officials to negotiate.
  • The Israeli war cabinet is set to convene later on Thursday to make a decision.

Behind the scenes: McGurk, who is in Israel, met with Netanyahu, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and other senior officials involved in the hostage negotiations on Thursday.

  • McGurk's message was that the talks between Hamas and Egypt and Qatar have made some progress and that the group has been willing to show some movement in its demands, according to the three sources briefed on the issue.
  • McGurk told Israeli officials that the Biden administration believes there is an urgent need to get a deal because of the terrible conditions the hostages are being held in and because Ramadan is three weeks away, the sources said.
  • McGurk also said that in order to make progress towards a deal, Israel needs to send a delegation to the talks in Paris and start actively negotiating.
  • The White House did not immediately respond a request for comment.

Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant told McGurk during their meeting that the Israeli war cabinet "will expand the authority given to our hostage negotiators. At the same time, the IDF is preparing the continuation of intense ground operations," according to a statement from his office.

The big picture: Thirteen Jewish House Democrats sent a letter to Biden on Thursday urging him to a "exhaust every effort to facilitate a mutual, temporary ceasefire agreement" that includes the release of all hostages.

  • The letter, which was led by Reps. Dan Goldman (D-N.Y.) and Jamie Raskin (D-Md.), stressed that a temporary ceasefire would allow a massive surge in humanitarian aid into Gaza.
  • Raskin told Axios that he has been in constant touch with the White House and is pushing to get the hostage and ceasefire issues to the top of the priority list.
  • "I just want to make sure they know that Congress is avid for a ceasefire and total hostage release," he said.
  • "We've got to keep the heat on for a comprehensive hostage release and ceasefire negotiations. We cannot let that go. This is part of the effort to keep the pressure on, to keep the administration moving in that direction," he stressed.

A possible operation in Rafah adds to the sense of urgency, Raskin said.

  • "The hostage families I've spoken to believe that a massive military action that affects civilian life will be an interference with the ability to negotiate a hostage release and ceasefire. So I believe that we avert a further catastrophe of loss of civilian life," he added.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with details from House Democrats.

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