Mediators 'close' on hostage deal to pause fighting in Gaza - report
US-led negotiators are making progress on a potential agreement under which Israel would pause military operations in Gaza for two months in exchange for the release of more than 100 captives, according to reports.
Negotiators developed a written draft agreement merging proposals offered by Israel and Hamas in the last 10 days into a basic framework that will be the subject of talks in Paris on Sunday, the New York Times reported.
While there are still important disagreements to be worked out, negotiators were cautiously optimistic that a final accord is within reach, according to US officials who spoke to the paper on condition of anonymity.
In the first phase, fighting would stop to allow for the remaining women, elderly and wounded hostages to be released by Hamas.
Israel and Hamas would then aim to work out details during the first 30 days of the pause for a second phase in which Israeli forces and civilian men would be released. The emerging deal also calls for Israel to allow more humanitarian aid into Gaza.
While the proposed deal would not end the war, US officials said they were hopeful that such an agreement could lay the groundwork for a durable resolution.
CIA director Bill Burns is expected to discuss the contours of the emerging agreement when he meets on Sunday in France with David Barnea, the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency, Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, and Egyptian intelligence chief Abbas Kamel for talks centred on the hostage negotiations, according to three people familiar with the scheduled meeting who were not authorised to comment publicly.
President Joe Biden on Friday spoke by phone with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi and Qatar’s emir, Sheikh Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani. Calls with both leaders focused on the hostage situation.
"Both leaders affirmed that a hostage deal is central to establishing a prolonged humanitarian pause in the fighting and ensure additional life-saving humanitarian assistance reaches civilians in need throughout Gaza," the White House said in a statement about Biden's call with the Qatari leader.
"They underscored the urgency of the situation, and welcomed the close cooperation among their teams to advance recent discussions."
Burns heads to France for the high-level talks after White House senior adviser Brett McGurk traveled to the Mideast this week for talks on the hostage situation.
If Burns sees progress in his talks in France, Biden is expected to dispatch McGurk back to the Mideast quickly to try to complete an agreement.
The White House and CIA have yet to publicly confirm Burns' meeting in France and administration officials have been guarded that a deal can quickly be brokered.
"We should not expect any imminent developments," National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told reporters on Friday.
Biden and his aides are aware that the mounting Palestinian death toll, and widespread suffering in Gaza, is frustrating some in his Democratic base, who want to see him put more pressure on Israel to end the war.
Democrats in Michigan have warned the White House that Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict could cost him enough support within the state's sizable Arab American community to sway the outcome of the 2024 election in a state that could be key to whether he wins a second term.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has faced increasing pressure from the families of many hostages who are demanding a deal to see the return of the captives.
Around 100 hostages were freed under a weeklong cease-fire deal in November in exchange for the release of Palestinians women and children who were held in Israeli jails.
Israel's onslaught on Gaza has killed over 26,422 Palestinians - 70 percent of whom were women and children, and wounded at least 65,000 others since 7 October.