May 5, 2024 - World

Wide gaps put Israel-Hamas hostage deal talks at risk of collapse

Relatives of hostages and their supporters take part in a protest calling on the government to sign a ceasefire agreement with Hamas

Relatives of hostages and their supporters take part in a protest on May 4, 2024 in Tel Aviv calling on the Israeli government to sign a ceasefire agreement with Hamas. Photo:Ilia Yefimovich/picture alliance via Getty Images

Egypt, Qatar and the U.S. are working to prevent the indirect talks between Israel and Hamas on a hostage deal that will lead to a ceasefire in Gaza from collapsing, two Israeli officials and a source with knowledge of the talks told Axios.

Why it matters: A collapse of the talks would risk another serious escalation in the six-month war, including an imminent Israeli invasion of the city of Rafah in southern Gaza where more than one million displaced Palestinians have been taking shelter.

  • "The mediators and the U.S. have a huge interest that the talks don't explode and they are making a lot of efforts," one Israeli official said. 

Driving the news: A Hamas delegation has been conducting talks with Egyptian and Qatari mediators in Cairo since Friday.

  • CIA director Bill Burns also arrived in Cairo on Friday to join the talks. He didn't meet with Hamas officials but held talks with Egyptian and Qatari mediators.
  • Two Israeli officials said Burns wanted Israel to send its negotiators to Cairo, but at a meeting on Saturday Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior officials decided not to send a delegation before Hamas gives its response to the latest hostage deal proposal.

The Hamas delegation left Cairo on Sunday evening local time and traveled back to Doha to consult with the group's leadership.

  • Hamas said in a statement that it has given its response to the Qatari and Egyptian mediators but didn't provide details. 
  • Burns also travelled from Cairo to Doha on Sunday and met with the Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed Bin Abdul Rahman al-Thani to discuss the negotiations, two sources with knowledge of the meeting said. 

Friction point: One senior Israeli official said the main sticking point in the negotiations is the question of whether a hostage deal would lead to the end of the war.

  • Hamas wants a clear commitment that the implementation of the entire hostage deal would end the war, but Netanyahu has refused to agree to that condition.
  • The Israeli official said the mediators are focused on trying to find a formula both sides can agree to, but there hasn't been a breakthrough.
  • "It doesn't look good. There is no such formula for now and it doesn't seem we are getting any closer," the official said.

Between the lines: Over the weekend, Netanyahu issued three separate statements about the negotiations. Two were attributed to an "Israeli political official" and, in an unusual move, the statements were issued on the Sabbath.

  • The prime minister's message in all the statements was he won't agree to ending the war and that an operation in Rafah will happen with or without a hostage deal.
  • Many Israeli officials, including those who are involved in the negotiations, saw Netanyahu's statements as an attempt to provoke Hamas and sabotage the talks.

Between the lines: A deal could create a serious political problem for Netanyahu because two of his main coalition partners, the ultranationalist ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir threatened to leave the government if the deal is approved.

  • Without them, Netanyahu would be politically exposed, his coalition would collapse, and early elections would likely be called.
  • According to recent polls, Netanyahu would likely be defeated if elections were held today.

What to watch: Burns is expected to continue talks in Doha on Monday before traveling to Israel later this week to meet Netanyahu and other officials to discuss the negotiations, a source with knowledge of the talks said.

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