CIA Director Bill Burns will soon travel to Europe to meet with officials from the Middle East as part of an ambitious campaign to reach an agreement that would release all hostages kidnapped during the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and who remain held inside Israel. Gaza in exchange for a long-term cessation of hostilities, according to US officials familiar with the plans.
The officials said Burns will speak with his counterparts from Israel as well as Qatar and Egypt, two countries that have acted as mediators between Hamas and other countries since the conflict began. The United States has classified Hamas as a terrorist group.
Various proposals have been discussed in recent weeks, and while officials declined to share the broad outlines of any deal currently under consideration, they expressed confidence that the release of all detainees in Gaza could be secured through a single diplomatic agreement.
While negotiators still face significant hurdles, officials’ view that such an agreement is achievable is important because it was previously believed that some hostages in Gaza were being held by other groups outside Hamas’ control and that the terrorist organization may not be willing. To hand over captured Israeli soldiers.
Nearly 130 hostages remain imprisoned in Gaza, including as many as six Americans, according to the Israeli and US governments.
The conflict, now the bloodiest between the warring sides since Israel’s founding in 1948, shows no signs of stopping soon, and a brief ceasefire in November that allowed the release of more than 100 hostages from Gaza remains a distant memory.
Negotiations will also include securing the return of the remains of dozens of dead hostages who the Israeli government says are being held in Gaza, according to the officials. The Federal Bureau of Investigation is investigating the killing of at least two Americans, whose bodies are believed to be inside the jeep.
Burns, who has emerged as the de facto leader of the Biden administration’s role in hostage negotiations, has traveled for direct talks with Israel and other mediators at least twice before.
Before taking the helm of the CIA, Burns spent decades working in foreign diplomacy, serving as ambassador to Jordan and Russia as well as assistant secretary of state overseeing the Middle East.
His latest engagement comes at a potentially sensitive time. This week, Israeli media broadcast an audio recording that was said to show Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticizing Qatar’s role in the negotiations and describing its relations with Hamas as problematic.
Qatar responded by saying it was “appalled” by these comments. The Israeli government has neither confirmed nor denied the authenticity of the tape.
American officials downplayed the impact that the dispute between the two countries might play in the negotiations and stressed that Qatar continues to act as a crucial partner in this process.
Any agreement would likely allow the hostages to be released in batches similar to the terms of the previous agreement reached in late November, which eventually saw the release of 105 hostages over a week-long cessation of hostilities.
The staggered prisoner release allows NGOs to manage the prisoner exodus from Gaza more safely, and allows Hamas to maintain its sense of influence during the agreed-upon duration of the truce, but it also increases the risk of the agreement collapsing in principle once it has been put into effect.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other high-ranking US officials tried to extend the previous ceasefire, but seven days after the hostages were released, Hamas fired on Israel again.
Netanyahu quickly ordered the resumption of combat operations as quickly as possible and accused Hamas of reneging on its promise to release all captured women and children.
US officials acknowledge that any new agreement would likely require a much longer period for implementation, increasing the possibility of failure of any agreement.
This article originally appeared on abcnews.go.com