Mar 26, 2024 - World

Gaza hostage talks deadlock and spark U.S.-Israel blame game

 A man passes by a building covered with photos of hostages who have been released or are still being held in the Gaza Strip, on March 26, 2024 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

A man passes by a building covered with photos of Israeli hostages who have been released or are still being held in Gaza, on Mar. 26, 2024 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israel has called its negotiations team back from Qatar after 10 days of talks over a possible hostage deal reached a dead-end, sparking a blame game between the U.S. and Israel.

Why it matters: The fallout over the deadlock adds to already spiraling relations between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Biden administration.

  • U.S. officials, together with Qatari and Egyptian mediators, pushed hard in recent days for a deal, stressing it is the only way to reach a six-week ceasefire in Gaza, where more than 30,000 Palestinians have been killed.

What they're saying: Shortly after the Israeli negotiations team was called back from Doha, the Israeli prime minister's office issued a statement blaming Hamas for the deadlock.

  • Israel also said the Biden administration's decision not to veto the UN Security Council resolution on Monday calling for a ceasefire and the release of hostages led to Hamas hardening its position.
  • "Hamas's stance clearly demonstrates its utter disinterest in a negotiated deal and attests to the damage done by the UN Security Council's resolution," Netanyahu's office said. "Hamas rebuffed all U.S. offers for a compromise, while celebrating the Security Council's resolution."
  • The statement also said Israel will not address "Hamas's delusional demands" but will "pursue and achieve its just war objectives."

The Israeli statement angered the White House, which sees it as an attempt by Netanyahu to continue the fight that started the day before between the U.S. and Israel over the UN Security Council resolution, two senior U.S. official said.

  • "This statement is inaccurate in almost every respect and unfair to the hostages and their families," one official said.
  • "Hamas' response was prepared before the UN vote even took place. We will not play politics with this most important and difficult issue, and we will remain focused on a deal to free the remaining hostages," the U.S. official said.
  • A Netanyahu aide hit back at the U.S. official: "Hamas welcomed the UN Security Council resolution and the hostage talks got stuck — this tells you everything you need to know."

The latest: Israeli defense minister Yoav Gallant met Tuesday in Washington with U.S. Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin to try to cool tensions.

  • "The negotiation on the hostages issue and Hamas' positions require us to join hands in our military and diplomatic efforts," he said at the beginning of the meeting.
  • Gallant also met Tuesday with CIA director Bill Burns to discuss the hostage talks.

Driving the news: Over the weekend, Burns, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Mossad director David Barnea and senior Egyptian intelligence officials met in Doha to try to push the negotiations forward.

  • Israel agreed to release 700 Palestinian prisoners, including 100 who are serving life sentences for killing Israelis, in return for the release of 40 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza, two Israeli officials told Axios.
  • The new proposal is for almost twice the number of prisoners included in a U.S.-Qatari-Egyptian proposal that came out of talks in Paris in late February.
  • The Israelis also agreed to allow the gradual return of more than 2,000 Palestinian civilians per day to northern Gaza — one of the main sticking points in the talks and a priority for Hamas — after the release of hostages begins, the officials said.

Behind the scenes: Israeli officials said they were waiting for Hamas' response to their compromises and had hoped that even if the group didn't agree to the terms, it would make compromises from its side that would allow the negotiations to move forward.

  • On Monday night, Hamas issued a public statement saying it notified Qatari and Egyptian mediators it was firm about the terms of the response it gave two weeks ago to the deal proposed by U.S., Egyptian and Qatari mediators.
  • Hamas said the latest Israeli position doesn't meet its demands regarding a full ceasefire, withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza, the return of Palestinian civilians to northern Gaza and the release of Palestinian prisoners.
  • "The responsibility for the failure of the negotiations is on Netanyahu and his extremist government," Hamas said.

The other side: When Hamas issued the statement, Israel still hadn't received the group's official response from the mediators, Israeli officials said, adding it was received later Monday night.

  • "When the director of Mossad read Hamas' written response it was clear we are at a dead-end and that Hamas doesn't want to move forward regardless of the Israeli willingness to compromise. They just want to drag it out so that international pressure on Israel to end the war grows even stronger," a senior Israeli official said.
  • Shortly after, Barnea ordered the Israeli negotiations team to return to Israel.

State of play: The Biden administration, Qatar and Egypt see the current situation as a "pause" in the talks and expect the negotiations to resume in a few days, according to a source familiar with the issue.

  • "The Israelis went back to consult. Everybody still wants to keep talking, so we don't think it's over," the source said.

But the deadlock is much more serious, according to another senior Israeli official involved in the negotiations, who added that Netanyahu and the U.S., Qatari and Egyptian mediators miscalculated Hamas' position.

  • "A lot of people thought Hamas wasn't serious in its demands and that the mediators can squeeze them into a compromise. It didn't happen. It should have been clear from the start but some people didn't want to see it," the Israeli official said. He added that the mandate the Israeli negotiations team received from the prime minister's office wasn't wide enough to make real progress.
  • The official said Israel's military operations in Gaza and the mediators' diplomatic pressure didn't change Hamas' core positions, particularly allowing the full return of Palestinian civilians to northern Gaza.
  • "We are dramatically stuck. It's not for show. There is a substantial gap. We can engage in a blame game but it won't bring the hostages back. If we want a deal, we need to acknowledge reality", the Israeli official said.
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