As Biden presses hostage deal, Israel may skip latest talks: US officials

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As the United States tries to push Israel and Hamas toward an agreement that would lead to the release of all remaining hostages in Gaza in exchange for an extended truce, American officials say CIA Director William Burns will travel to Egypt for negotiations — but his Israeli counterparts have been They have not yet committed to participating in the talks.

The trip will be Burns’s fourth known trip abroad for direct negotiations on the matter, but will be his first where none of the major players are directly represented.

A US official familiar with the matter said that Burns would move forward with the agenda regardless of Israel’s participation in the talks and would meet with intelligence officials from Qatar and Egypt, two countries that served as effective mediators with Hamas during the conflict.

Photo: CIA Director William Burns testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing "global threats," March 10, 2022.

CIA Director William Burns testifies during a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing on “Global Threats” on March 10, 2022.

Bill Clark/CQ-Roll Call via Getty Images

In a press conference at the White House with the Jordanian king on Monday, President Joe Biden said he was continuing to press for an agreement.

He added: “There are still gaps, but I encouraged Israeli leaders to continue working to achieve the agreement. The United States will do everything in its power to achieve this.”

Photo: President Joe Biden shakes hands with King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein of Jordan after delivering remarks at the White House, February 12, 2024.

President Joe Biden shakes hands with King Abdullah II bin Al Hussein of Jordan after delivering remarks at the White House, February 12, 2024.

Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

Even if Israel ultimately participates in this latest round of negotiations, its apparent reluctance to participate in the discussions could be a bad omen overall for the prospects of reaching an agreement.

Israeli authorities say nearly 100 hostages may still be alive inside Gaza. US officials say this number includes up to six Americans.

Photo: Israeli-Argentine hostage Luis Haar is reunited with his family at Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Israel, February 12, 2024.

Israeli-Argentine hostage Luis Haar is reunited with his family at Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Israel, February 12, 2024.

Israel Defense Forces/AFP via Getty Images

Photo: Israeli-Argentine hostage Fernando Simón Marman is reunited with his family at Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Israel, February 12, 2024.

Israeli-Argentine hostage Fernando Simon Marman is reunited with his family at Tel Hashomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, on the outskirts of Tel Aviv, Israel, February 12, 2024.

Israel Defense Forces via Reuters

Israeli forces conducted a successful rescue operation in Rafah early Monday, recovering two Israeli men, Fernando Simon Marman, 60, and Louis Haar, 70, who were kidnapped by Hamas during its attack on Israel on October 7.

But while Israel may undertake similar missions in the coming days with the aim of releasing some detainees, a US official says the vast majority of them can only be recovered through a diplomatic agreement.

The official also said that although high-level U.S. and Israeli officials regularly engage in discussions on a range of topics, the Biden administration did not have a clear idea of ​​the red lines Israel was drawing in a potential deal — highlighting yet another disconnect between the U.S. And Israel. Its closest ally is in the Middle East.

After Israel signed a hostage exchange framework in January, officials from Qatar and the United States expressed optimism that a deal was within reach.

But last week, Hamas responded with a counterproposal laden with untenable conditions for Israel, including demanding the release of hundreds of Palestinian prisoners convicted of serious crimes and the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly rejected Hamas’ offer, describing it as “fake.” Secretary of State Antony Blinken admitted there were “clear weaknesses” in the group’s proposal, but stressed that there was still “room to reach an agreement.”

The apparent division between the United States and Israel over hostage negotiations is not the only area of ​​tension affecting the relationship.

After the State Department said the United States saw “no evidence of serious planning” for an Israeli incursion into Rafah, a city in Gaza where more than a million Palestinians live after Israel directed them there, Netanyahu ordered his army to prepare for an attack. Possible mass evacuation of civilians while at the same time intensifying strikes in the region.

On Monday, ministry spokesman Matthew Miller downplayed the importance of the latest round of military operations in Rafah.

He added: “It is not our assessment that this air strike amounts to the launch of a large-scale attack.”

But when it comes to military strategy, Israel has maintained a wall of separation with the United States, and Miller acknowledged that the administration currently has little knowledge of Israel’s plans to avoid a new humanitarian catastrophe as it conducts a potential incursion into Rafah.

“We look forward to being informed about that,” he said.

In the White House, the Jordanian king, who stands by Biden, was frank.

He said sadly, “We cannot bear an Israeli attack on Rafah. It will certainly lead to another humanitarian disaster.” “The situation is already unbearable for more than a million people, who have been pushed into Rafah since the war began. We cannot stand idly by and let this continue. We need a permanent ceasefire now. This war must end.”

This article originally appeared on abcnews.go.com

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