Mar 3, 2024 - Politics & Policy

Biden to hostage-ceasefire negotiators: Get me a deal

A Palestinian child in the rubble of a mosque in central Gaza.

A Palestinian child in the rubble of a mosque in central Gaza, on Saturday, after an Israeli airstrike overnight amid continuing battles between Israel and Hamas militants. Photo: Majdi Fathi/NurPhoto via Getty Images

When President Biden called the emir of Qatar and the president of Egypt on Thursday, his message was direct: Get me a deal, two U.S. officials tell Axios.

Why it matters: Biden, under increasing pressure from progressive Democrats, desperately wants a temporary ceasefire in Gaza. He sees a deal for the hostages held by Hamas as the only way to get it while maintaining his unwavering support for Israel.

  • Biden wants the Qataris and the Egyptians — the key mediators in the hostage talks — to get the terror group to agree to a deal before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which starts March 10.

Driving the news: As part of the framework presented by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar in Paris on Feb. 23, Israel would release about 400 Palestinian prisoners — including 15 convicted of murdering Israelis.

  • In exchange, Hamas would free about 40 Israeli hostages, including women, female soldiers, men over 50 and men who are in serious medical conditions.
  • The framework also included a roughly six-week pause in the fighting in Gaza — one day for every living hostage released — as well as a readiness for an initial and gradual return of Palestinian citizens to the northern part of the Strip.
  • U.S. and Israeli officials say Hamas' response to the proposed deal didn't include a list of hostages who are alive, or how many Palestinian prisoners the group is demanding in return.
  • Hamas is believed to still be holding 134 people it took hostage during the attack on Israel that began Oct. 7; 32 of the hostages have been confirmed dead.

Behind the scenes: In his call with the Qatari Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, Biden told them how the U.S. is pressing Israel to agree to the deal, and urged them to push Hamas to do the same, two sources with direct knowledge of the calls said.

  • "All three leaders agreed the onus is currently on Hamas to close remaining gaps in the package," another U.S. source with direct knowledge of the calls said.
  • "The Egyptian and Qatari leaders described their efforts with Hamas and shared the sense of urgency to get this done."

Mossad director David Barnea, who is leading Israel's negotiations team, speaks each day with CIA director Bill Burns about the hostage talks, a senior Israeli official said.

The official put the chances of a deal at 50-50. "Biden's personal involvement and his calls with the leaders of Qatar and Egypt are very important," the official said.

The big picture: The deaths of dozens of Palestinians on Thursday amid chaos surrounding an aid convoy in Gaza increased Biden's urgency in seeking a hostage deal that would lead to a ceasefire, a U.S. official said.

  • Two U.S. officials said only a hostage deal and a ceasefire could dramatically improve the situation in Gaza by allowing significantly more food and medical supplies to reach people in need — and lower criminal gangs' incentive to loot the aid.

State of play: A Hamas delegation is in Cairo to meet with Egyptian intelligence officials, according to press reports there. Representatives of the CIA are also there to follow the talks.

  • There have been two main sticking points in the negotiations: the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released for every hostage released, and how many Palestinian civilians would be allowed to return to their homes in northern Gaza.
  • "The Israelis accepted the terms of the deal and if Hamas agrees, a six-week ceasefire can start immediately," a senior U.S. official said.
  • "We still hope we can get a deal by Ramadan. The ball is in Hamas' court."

What's next: Israeli minister Benny Gantz, a member of Israel's war cabinet, will arrive in Washington on Sunday. Gantz is pushing hard for a deal and has said the release of hostages is more important and urgent than destroying Hamas, which is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's goal.

  • Netanyahu didn't want Gantz to visit the U.S. and told him in a call on Friday that "there is only one prime minister in Israel," Netayahu's aides said.
  • Gantz will visit the White House on Monday and have separate meetings with Vice President Kamala Harris and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, a Biden administration official said.
  • Qatar's prime minister, Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani — a key player in the hostage-ceasefire negotiations — will visit Washington on Tuesday to discuss strategy with U.S. officials.
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