May 3, 2024 - World

CIA director in Cairo as talks for Israel-Hamas deal reach critical point

William Burns, nominee for Central Intelligence Agency director, listens to opening statements during his Senate Select Intelligence Committee confirmation hearing in Russell Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, February 24, 2021.

CIA director Bill Burns on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., on Feb. 24, 2021. Photo: Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images/Pool

CIA director Bill Burns arrived in Cairo on Friday to join Egyptian mediators in their efforts to reach a hostage and ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, three sources with knowledge of the issue told Axios.

Why it matters: Burns' trip reflects the pressure the Biden administration is under to get a deal as soon as possible and signals that it sees the current moment as a critical point in the negotiations.

  • The president's senior advisers say the deal on the table right now is the only conceivable path to a ceasefire in Gaza and to possibly ending a war that has drawn sharp criticism of Biden among some of his key supporters ahead of the presidential election.
  • President Biden has been personally involved in intense efforts to reach a hostage and ceasefire deal between Israel and Hamas, which he sees as a crucial element of a much wider strategy at home and abroad, U.S. officials say.

Driving the news: A Hamas delegation is expected to arrive in Cairo on Saturday to deliver an official response on behalf of the group regarding the latest Egyptian proposal for a deal.

  • The head of Hamas' political bureau, Ismail Haniyeh, spoke on Thursday with the head of Egyptian intelligence, Abbas Kamel, and told him the group is studying the proposal "with positive spirit."
  • "We are going to Cairo in the same spirit to reach an agreement," Hamas said in a statement.
  • Senior Israeli officials say they are waiting to see the official response from Hamas, but noted there are early indications that the group will agree to carry out the first phase of the deal — the humanitarian release of hostages — without an official commitment from Israel to end the war.
  • At the same time, they added, Hamas is expected to set stricter requirements that could lower the number of hostages it will agree to release on humanitarian grounds and increase the number of Palestinian prisoners to be released in return.

Catch up quick: 132 people who were taken hostage during Hamas' Oct. 7 attack on Israel are still being held in Gaza, including six American citizens whom Biden says he is committed to getting home.

  • The most recent proposal from Israel includes a willingness to discuss the "restoration of sustainable calm" in Gaza after an initial release of hostages on humanitarian grounds. It's the first indication from Israel since Oct. 7 that it might agree to end the war.
  • The proposal includes the release of roughly 33 hostages on humanitarian grounds — women, female soldiers, men over the age of 50 and male hostages in poor medical condition — in return for roughly 40 days of ceasefire and the release of about 900 Palestinian prisoners.
  • In the proposal, Israel agrees to the full return of displaced Palestinians to their homes in northern Gaza and the withdrawal of the Israel Defense Forces from the corridor that divides the enclave and prevents freedom of movement.

Zoom in: A senior Israeli official said Hamas' response is expected to be "yes, but" — with the "but" being accompanied by stricter conditions.

  • One possibility is Hamas sticks to its position that only about 20 hostages fit the humanitarian criteria in order to be released in the first phase of the deal — and not 33 people, as Israel says.
  • "They are ready to reach a deal that will be on terms that are close to their demands with very little room for flexibility," the Israeli official said.
  • He stressed there are indications Hamas is ready to take the risk and enter into the implementation of the humanitarian phase of the deal even without an Israeli commitment in advance to end the war, with the assessment that continued implementation of the agreement would lead to that result.

What they're saying: "The main question was and remains whether Prime Minister Netanyahu wants to reach an agreement for the release of hostages for the prices involved," the Israeli official said.

Editor's note: This story has been updated with Hamas' statement.

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