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US, Egypt, Qatar Said to Be Pushing Phased Diplomatic Process To Free Hostages

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rejection of any peace deal with Hamas came after the Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S., Egypt and Qatar are pushing Israel and Hamas to join a phased diplomatic process that would start with a release of hostages and, eventually, lead to a withdrawal of Israeli forces and an end to the war in Gaza. Sources briefed on the talks said Israel and Hamas at least were again willing to engage in discussions after weeks of stalled talks following the end of the last cease-fire on Nov. 30. Negotiations were set to continue in Cairo in coming days, they said. The two parties’ “willingness to discuss the framework was a positive step. Mediators are now working to bridge the gap,” one of the sources added.

On the one side, Israeli negotiators have continued to push for a two-week halt to fighting to allow for hostage-prisoner exchanges and have been reluctant to discuss plans that envision a permanent cease-fire, Egyptian officials said. Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar, on the other hand, believes that the Israelis will prioritize hostages over the battlefield and that Hamas needs to hold out as long as possible to exhaust Israel and keep international pressure on it, the officials said. Sinwar is willing to release hostages but wants a longer cease-fire and better terms than last time, the officials said.

At the same time, Axios reported that White House Middle East advisor Brett McGurk is on his way to Egypt and Qatar this week for talks aimed at making progress in the hostage negotiations. The trip, Axios says, is part of a renewed push by the Biden administration to get a hostage deal. U.S. officials acknowledge that reaching such an agreement might be the only path that could lead to a ceasefire in Gaza.

McGurk is expected to meet with Egyptian Minister of Intelligence Abbas Kamel in Cairo and Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani in Doha later in the week.