Israeli leaders to discuss Hamas response to ceasefire proposal

American and Israeli officials expressed renewed optimism Thursday about a ceasefire deal in the Gaza Strip, after Hamas reversed its position and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu later told President Biden he would send a new negotiating delegation to the stalled talks.

White House officials said they believed the new progress in the talks amounted to what has repeatedly been called a “breakthrough” in the months-long negotiations, though they said it would take time to work out the many steps involved in implementing the truce. Israeli and other officials involved in the talks agreed that there had been progress, but described it in more cautious terms.

The discussions are based on a three-phase framework agreement made public by President Biden in late May and endorsed by the United Nations. If implemented, the agreement would ultimately provide for an end to the war, a full Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, and the release by Hamas and its allies of the remaining 120 living and dead hostages in Gaza for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

A senior Biden administration official directly involved in the talks said there is now broad agreement on the steps needed to move from Phase One, a temporary ceasefire, to Phase Two, a permanent end to the fighting and the release of any hostages still alive.

The official, who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the negotiations, compared the current situation to the agreement that was finally reached in November, which led to a ceasefire lasting several weeks and the release of about 105 hostages. He said that “a framework is now in place” for a new truce, but that much more needs to be done to reach a final agreement.

The shift followed Hamas's announcement Wednesday that it had “exchanged some ideas” with mediators on the ceasefire deal after weeks of stalemate. An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive talks, said Wednesday evening that wide gaps remained between the sides, but that Hamas's revised position left potential for talks to move forward.

David Barnea, head of Israel's Mossad intelligence agency, will lead Israel's negotiating team in Qatar starting Friday, a second Israeli official and another official familiar with the talks said.

Many hurdles remain, including whether Mr. Netanyahu will jeopardize his right-wing coalition by agreeing to a ceasefire with Hamas. Two of his far-right coalition partners have insisted that the war against Hamas continue, potentially forcing Mr. Netanyahu to choose between a deal that ends the war and frees the hostages and the survival of his government.

Mr. Netanyahu’s office said the prime minister reiterated in his call with Mr. Biden on Thursday night that Israel would end the war “only after achieving its goals.” Israel’s stated goals include destroying Hamas’s military and governance capabilities in the Gaza Strip and ensuring that the Palestinian enclave can no longer pose a threat. Both goals could take a long time to achieve, if at all.

Ceasefire talks stalled in June. After Mr Biden announced the proposal, Hamas asked for amendments, prompting Israel to quickly declare that Hamas had rejected the deal. The Biden administration said some of Hamas's demands were unworkable.

The White House, in a statement Thursday, said Biden “welcomed the prime minister's decision to authorize his negotiators to engage with U.S., Qatari and Egyptian mediators in an effort to close the deal,” but made no mention of Israeli reservations.

The efforts to revive negotiations have come amid simmering tensions along Israel’s northern border, with the Lebanese armed group Hezbollah launching an unusually large rocket and drone attack toward Israel on Wednesday and an even larger one on Thursday, in retaliation for Israel’s killing of a Hezbollah commander on Wednesday. The rocket barrage killed an Israeli reserve officer and sparked forest fires along Israel’s northern border.

The main obstacles in the Gaza talks have been tied to a fundamental dispute: Hamas wants guarantees that the deal will lead to an end to the war and a complete withdrawal of Israeli forces, while Israeli leaders have vowed to continue fighting until Hamas is destroyed and to keep post-war security control of Gaza in Israeli hands.

According to two senior officials briefed on the talks, recent disagreements have largely centered on two paragraphs of the proposed agreement, both of which deal with negotiations for a permanent truce. Those negotiations would have taken place during the first phase of the agreement, a proposed six-week ceasefire, during which some hostages would have been exchanged for Palestinian prisoners.

According to the two senior officials, Hamas wanted to limit the talks to the number and identity of Palestinian prisoners to be released for each remaining hostage, while Israel wanted to leave them open, so that other topics could be added to the discussions.

Hamas feared that Israel could scuttle the talks by extending them to other effectively unsolvable issues, which would allow Israel to continue the war, the officials said. Qatari negotiators offered Hamas three possible alternatives last week, according to the two senior officials, although they did not provide further details.

The proposal also stipulates that if Israel and Hamas fail to reach an agreement on a permanent ceasefire before the six-week truce expires, negotiations will continue until they do. The two senior officials said Hamas wanted language that would ensure Israel could not unilaterally declare that the talks had failed and return to fighting.

Some influential members of Mr Netanyahu's coalition government have expressed their opposition to a possible deal with Hamas.

“This is not the time to stop, it is exactly the opposite: it is the time to bring in more forces and increase our military pressure,” Bezalel Smotrich, the country's far-right finance minister, said Tuesday. “It would be absurd if we stopped just a moment before the success, the end, the total victory over Hamas.”

The Biden administration hopes that a truce in Gaza will also allow Israel and Hezbollah, which has opened fire on Israel in solidarity with Hamas, to reach a diplomatic agreement.

On Thursday, Hezbollah launched one of the largest attacks on northern Israel since the war in Gaza began, setting off air raid sirens across the area for more than an hour and sending thousands of people fleeing to fortified shelters. About 200 rockets and mortars and 20 drones were fired into northern Israel, according to the Israeli military.

Since the Hamas-led attack on Israel on October 7, Hezbollah, the politically powerful Lebanese armed group, has repeatedly attacked northern Israel in solidarity with Hamas, prompting Israeli attacks in Lebanon. More than 150,000 people on both sides of the Israel-Lebanon border have fled, with little idea of ​​when they might return home.

Hezbollah said Thursday's bombing was partly a response to Israel's assassination of a senior Hezbollah military commander a day earlier in the southern Lebanese region of Tyre. But Hezbollah's munitions were fired mainly at border areas, avoiding a broader attack on Israel's heartland that would most likely have provoked a more severe response.

Hezbollah has said its forces will not stop their attacks until Israel ends its military campaign in Gaza. At the same time, Israeli officials have voiced increasingly bellicose threats of a potential invasion of Lebanon to push Hezbollah away from the border.

Ronen Bergmann contributed reporting from Tel Aviv, and John Reiss AND Myra Novec from Jerusalem.

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