May 6, 2024 - World

Israelis frustrated with U.S. handling of hostage talks

Families and supporters of hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip take part in a protest calling for a hostage deal on May 6, 2024 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Families and supporters of hostages held by Hamas in the Gaza Strip take part in a protest calling for a hostage deal on May 6, 2024 in Tel Aviv, Israel. Photo: Amir Levy/Getty Images

Israeli officials claim the Biden administration knew about the latest hostage and ceasefire deal proposal Egypt and Qatar negotiated with Hamas, but didn't brief Israel before Hamas announced it accepted it on Monday. A senior U.S. official pushed back saying "American diplomats have been engaged with Israeli counterparts. There have been no surprises."

Why it matters: The episode has created deep disappointment and suspicion among senior Israeli officials regarding the U.S. role in the hostage deal talks and could negatively influence the negotiations going forward.

  • The U.S. official said "this is an extremely difficult process with negotiations conducted through intermediaries in Doha and Cairo."
  • He added that the U.S. believes Israel has engaged in the talks in good faith and that Israel's late April proposal was "the most forward leaning proposal to date. To secure a ceasefire, Hamas simply needs to release hostages. It's all mapped out."
  • The official also said the Biden administration sees Hamas' response as a counter-proposal and not as a new proposal.

But it's the latest episode to deepen tensions between the Biden administration and Israeli leaders over the war in Gaza, where more than 34,700 Palestinians have been killed, according to local health officials.

Driving the news: Hamas announced on Monday that it accepted a ceasefire proposal given to it by Egypt and Qatar.

  • The announcement came after several days of talks between Hamas officials and Egyptian and Qatari mediators in Cairo over the weekend and on Monday in Doha.
  • CIA director Bill Burns was in Cairo and Doha when the talks were taking place and weighed in with the Egyptians and the Qataris, according to sources familiar with the talks.
  • The CIA declined to comment.

Behind the scenes: Three Israeli officials said the Hamas announcement on Monday surprised the Israeli government and that Israel didn't receive the text of the group's response from the mediators until an hour after Hamas released its statement.

  • When the Israelis read Hamas' response, they were surprised to see it contained "many new elements" that were not part of the previous proposal that Israel agreed on and that was presented to Hamas by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar ten days ago, the officials said.
  • "It looked like a whole new proposal," one official said.
  • Two senior Israeli officials said that when the Hamas delegation was in Cairo over the weekend, the Egyptians gave them a new proposal without coordinating with Israel.
  • A source with knowledge of the negotiations said the U.S. invited the Israelis to Cairo over the weekend but they chose not to send a team. One Israeli official admitted it was a mistake that led Israel to have less visibility into the talks.

The officials claimed CIA director Bill Burns and other Biden administration officials who are involved in the negotiations knew about the new proposal but didn't tell Israel.

  • The Israeli officials also said the last touches on the proposal were made on Monday morning in Doha with the Biden administration's knowledge.
  • On Monday morning, Burns spoke on the phone with Israeli Minister of Defense Yoav Gallant, a source with knowledge of the call said. But when Hamas released its statement the Israeli minister was also surprised.
  • Two Israeli officials said the feeling is that "Israel got played" by the U.S. and the mediators who drafted "a new deal" and weren't transparent about it.

Between the lines: Two Israeli officials said Israel is deeply suspicious that the Biden administration gave guarantees to Hamas through the Egyptian and Qatari mediators about its key demand that a hostage deal will lead to the end of the war.

  • Israel has said it will not commit to ending the war as part of a hostage deal and that once the deal is implemented it will resume the fighting in Gaza until Hamas is defeated.
  • Hamas chief negotiator Khalil al-Haia told Al Jazeera that Hamas received assurances from the Egyptian and Qatari mediators that President Biden is committed to ensure that any hostage deal is fully implemented.
  • "We think the Americans conveyed the message to Hamas that it will be okay when it comes to ending the war," one senior Israeli official said.

What they're saying: The U.S. official said the Biden administration's stated aim has been to "ensure that an initial six-week ceasefire would be built into something more enduring. The agreement lays out three phases for this purpose and it would be our aim to see all three phases completed with all the hostages returned to their families."

  • The official said the U.S., Qatar and Egypt serve as guarantors for the hostage negotiations process but added that the U.S. didn't give any guarantees to Hamas about ending the war.

State of play: Israeli officials say the message they received from the Biden administration on Monday is that the Hamas response is negotiable, but Israeli leaders have their doubts.

  • But the Israeli war cabinet said it will send a delegation to Cairo for talks with the Egyptians and Qatari mediators to discuss the new proposal.
  • Burns is expected to be in Cairo when the Israeli delegation arrives.
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