May 17, 2024 - World

Hamas left hostage talks to pressure Israel, Sullivan tells ambassadors

Jake Sullivan speaks in front of a U.S. flag and a White House logo.

National security adviser Jake Sullivan speaks during a White House press briefing on April 9. Photo: Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/AFP via Getty Images

National security adviser Jake Sullivan told foreign ambassadors Wednesday the U.S. believes Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar withdrew from hostage talks last week in hopes of increasing pressure on Israel to end the war in Gaza, two sources at the meeting told Axios.

Why it matters: Indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas over a possible hostage deal that could lead to a temporary ceasefire in Gaza reached a deadlock last week after several days of talks in Cairo and Doha.

  • President Biden, CIA director Bill Burns, Sullivan and other senior U.S. officials have been personally involved in the efforts to reach a deal for the hostages Hamas took as it attacked Israel on Oct. 7.
  • The White House sees a hostage deal as the only viable path to a ceasefire in Gaza, and possibly ending a war that has become a political problem for Biden within his Democratic Party ahead of the presidential election.

Behind the scenes: Sullivan met on Wednesday with the ambassadors of 17 other countries that have citizens being held by Hamas.

  • Hamas has claimed it left the hostage talks last week because of the Israeli military's operation at the Rafah crossing. Hamas saw the operation as an escalation of the war as the talks were taking place in Cairo.
  • But Sullivan told the ambassadors that U.S. officials had concluded that Hamas actually left the talks because Sinwar — who calls the shots for the terror group in the negotiations — doesn't want a deal now, the two sources said.

Sullivan said the U.S. thinks Sinwar made the decision to withdraw from the talks hoping it would increase the international pressure on Israel to end the war.

  • He added that more pressure on Hamas is needed, but stressed that military pressure isn't enough, and he urged the ambassadors to apply more pressure on the group to get back to negotiations and accept a hostage deal, the sources said.
  • He asked that their countries send this message to Hamas either directly, via third parties or through public messages.

What to watch: President Biden's top Middle East adviser, Brett McGurk, secretly visited Doha on Wednesday and met with Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani to discuss resuming the hostage talks, according to two sources with knowledge of the meeting.

  • Sullivan will visit Israel on Sunday to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the hostage talks are expected to be among the key issues they'll discuss.
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