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The heads of the CIA and Mossad, Israel’s spy agency, are expected to hold talks Tuesday with senior Egyptian and Qatari officials in an attempt to restart negotiations on a deal to end the war between Israel and the Hamas and secure the release of hostages held in Gaza, people familiar with the process said.
The negotiations, expected to take place in Cairo, come a week after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissed Hamas’ demands for a deal as “delusional” and vowed to pursue “total victory” in war with the Palestinian militant group.
Despite Netanyahu’s stance, US President Joe Biden said on Monday he would do “everything possible” to negotiate a six-week ceasefire between Israel and Hamas and the release of the hostages.
He warned Israel that its forces should not launch an offensive in Rafah, a crowded town of more than a million people near the Gaza-Egypt border, “without a credible plan” to protect civilians.
Biden spoke after a White House meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, who warned that an Israeli offensive in Rafah would “produce another humanitarian catastrophe.”
“We cannot afford an Israeli attack on Rafah,” King Abdullah said. “The situation is already unbearable for more than a million people who have been pushed back to Rafah since the start of the war. We cannot stand by and let this continue. We need a lasting ceasefire now. »
The mediators hoped that Mossad chief David Barnea’s plan to visit Egypt was a sign that Israel was still open to talks about a possible deal, despite Netanyahu’s rhetoric.
“The discussions have been constructive and there is a willingness to compromise,” said a diplomat briefed on the discussions. “Barnea would not participate in the negotiations if he did not have the green light.”
“The key elements of the deal are on the table,” Biden said Monday. “There remain gaps,” he added, but he “encouraged Israeli leaders to continue working to reach the agreement.”
Last week, Hamas proposed a four-and-a-half-month ceasefire, during which it would gradually release the remaining hostages in exchange for Israel’s release of 1,500 Palestinian prisoners, 500 of whom were serving life sentences. The proposal follows a framework agreement negotiated by mediators in January.
Hamas also demanded that Israeli forces withdraw from major urban centers in Gaza during the first phase of the truce, and completely withdraw from the besieged strip during the second phase.
The talks, brokered by the United States, Qatar and Egypt, have been bogged down for weeks by Israel’s rejection of Hamas’s insistence that any hostage deal should end in a ceasefire. permanent.
Since launching its offensive on Gaza in response to the devastating Hamas attack on October 7, Israel has pledged to eradicate the Palestinian militant group and maintain overall security in the Strip.
The diplomat said the critical sticking points remained the question of a permanent ceasefire – which mediators would also like to include at the end of any hostage deal – and the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.
But the mediators hope to reach compromises.
After Netanyahu rejected Hamas’s proposals last week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that while some “obvious failures” had been put forward by the militant group, “we think this creates space to achieve an agreement and we will work on it.” this relentlessly until we get there.”
Barnea and CIA chief Bill Burns recently held talks with Qatari and Egyptian officials in Paris last month, during which they agreed to a framework agreement calling for a six-week pause in hostilities with a view to an exchange of hostages and prisoners. But this agreement did not guarantee a permanent ceasefire.
After Israeli forces freed two hostages in Gaza on Monday, Netanyahu said: “Only continued military pressure, until total victory, will result in the release of all our hostages.” »
Hamas is believed to be holding around 130 hostages, including the bodies of several deceased people. The group killed around 1,200 people and captured 250 during its October 7 attack.
The latest hostage negotiations come as international pressure mounts on Israel to end its war in Gaza, which has killed more than 28,000 people, according to Palestinian health officials.
Global concern over the Israeli offensive has intensified since Netanyahu ordered the army to prepare to evacuate civilians from Rafah.
Biden, who faces growing pressure to do more to address Palestinian suffering, last week called Israel’s military response in Gaza “overblown.” On Monday, he said “too many” of the more than 27,000 people who died in Gaza “were innocent civilians and children.”