Changes in Israel bring Gaza ceasefire talks to a head, again

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JERUSALEM – For Gazans and Israelis longing for a ceasefire and a deal to free the hostages, feelings of cautious optimism have faded so many times that any optimism now seems reckless.

Attention has once again focused on talks in Cairo amid reports that a deal may be possible. Once again, leaks from the parties are contradictory and difficult to interpret, with hopeful signs quickly mixed with gloomy assessments.

Egyptian officials have suggested that the basics of a deal are almost resolved. Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz said Monday that negotiations have reached a “critical point.” Hamas dismissed the terms on the table as “nothing new,” but the Palestinian militant group also said it would “review the proposals.”

What seemed different this time, experts said, were the new pressures at play, particularly on Israel, with Washington’s impatience with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu approaching a breaking point just as internal anger in Israel is rising.

On March 25, the United States stepped aside to allow the UN Security Council approve your first resolution calling for a ceasefire in Gaza. A week later, Israeli forces delicate seven World Central Kitchen aid workers, prompting another wave of condemnation. Israel’s military said the attack was a mistake and fired two of the agents involved.

In Israel, frustrations with the prime minister from both the hostage families and Israel’s democracy movement have converged into massive anti-government protests. Opposition leader Benny Gantz, who sits in the emergency war cabinet and has emerged as a popular alternative to Netanyahu, last week called for elections in November.

The mounting pressure has changed thinking within Netanyahu’s office, according to an Israeli familiar with the deliberations. Among the changes is the recognition that the prime minister’s confrontation with president biden during the course of the war and the delivery of humanitarian aid may have proven counterproductive, and that internal fury over the fate of the more than 100 remaining hostages can no longer be kept at bay.

“The difference now is that all elements are pushing for a deal,” said the Israeli familiar with the deliberations, who spoke on condition of anonymity to describe the confidential discussions. Netanyahu “really needs to achieve a significant achievement with a deal.”

Netanyahu’s circle hopes that a deal now could revive the chances of a diplomatic rapprochement with Saudi Arabia, which Washington had been trying to negotiate before the summit. gaza war – and reverse the prime minister’s political free fall.

Changes have also been evident on the ground in Gaza. Israel promised last week to open an additional crossing to receive aid to the north. Gaza Stripand Sunday he took most of his troops out of the south. The stated reason was to rest the units for future actions, including a attack on rafah — The last stronghold of Hamas, where more than a million civilians take refuge. But the withdrawal, which left only a few thousand troops along an east-west corridor dividing the enclave, was widely seen here as a concession ahead of negotiations.

“The return of the Palestinians to the north is a sticking point,” said Michael Horowitz of Le Beck International, a security firm. “This is a pretty big commitment.”

Last week, Israeli negotiators were given their broadest mandate yet to reach a deal, according to local media reports. And top officials have been unusually optimistic about the prospects for a breakthrough.

Katz, the foreign minister, suggested it was the closest the sides had been “since the first agreement.” reached in Novemberwhich involved the release by Hamas of 105 Israeli hostages and foreign citizens in exchange for 240 Palestinian prisoners in Israeli jails.

“If things go well, a large number of hostages will return home and, little by little, all of them,” Katz told Israel Army Radio.

An unnamed Israeli negotiator described “significant progress” in Cairo on Monday night, according to Israel’s Channel 13, with negotiators potentially willing to negotiate the withdrawal of more troops and allowing civilians to return to the north.

“We are willing to make difficult decisions to recover the hostages,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Monday in a speech to troops at a military base. “I think we’re in a good place to reach an agreement.”

But the forces opposing an agreement are also strong. Netanyahu’s far-right allies have made clear that a ceasefire could fracture his coalition, jeopardizing his fragile hold on power. Minister of National Security, Itamar Ben Gvir saying On Monday X that stopping the war without a final push in Rafah would erase Netanyahu’s “mandate to serve as Prime Minister.”

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The United States is trying to pressure both sides to overcome barriers to reaching an agreement. Military analysts said the withdrawal of Israel’s 98th Commando Division from Khan Younis could allow Qatar and Egypt to pressure Hamas into making concessions.

The reduction is “linked to the feeling that the United States is putting much more pressure on the mediators to, in turn, pressure Hamas to accept a deal,” Horowitz said.

The Biden administration has attempted to revive talks stalled for months. CIA Director William J. Burns has oscillated between Paris, Cairo, Qatar and Tel Aviv. Mediators, technical teams and negotiators have met almost a dozen times this year.

Gershon Baskin, who helped negotiate the release of captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit from Hamas captivity in 2011, said the deal reached in November was easier because it focused on the release of women and children on both sides.

“The first round was the low hanging fruit. It was a no-brainer,” she said.

The current round is more complex because Hamas considers most of the remaining hostages to be combatants and has demanded greater concessions. The demands, according to diplomats familiar with the talks, include a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops, the return of displaced Gazans to their homes in the north and the restoration of food deliveries to pre-war levels of about 500 trucks per day.

In Shalit’s case, Baskin said the basic terms were established quickly but it took five years for the two sides to agree on the details.

“What does take time is the logistics,” Baskin said, which in this case will include the mechanics and tracking of hostage transfers. “In these talks we haven’t even addressed the logistical issues yet.”

The latest proposal under discussion would see the exchange of 40 Israeli hostages for 900 Palestinians in Israeli prisons, 100 of whom are serving sentences for terrorism, according to a former Egyptian official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the talks. Disagreements remain over which prisoners would be released; It is also unclear how many of the hostages are still alive.

According to the former official, there has been a burst of activity on the US side in recent weeks. Biden contacted Egyptian President Abdel Fatah El-Sisi and the emir of Qatar, urging Arab countries to put more pressure on Hamas to reach a deal.

“We are trying to put a lot of pressure on Hamas. The problem is that Sinwar is in Gaza and the other [Hamas leaders] “I live in Qatar,” the former Egyptian official said, referring to Hamas leader Yehiya Sinwar, who is widely believed to be hiding in tunnels beneath Gaza and to have the final say on any deal. “The decision comes from Sinwar.”

U.S. officials characterized the Cairo talks, led by Burns, as “serious.”

“A proposal was presented to Hamas, and now it will be up to Hamas to approve it,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Monday.

George reported from Dubai and Parker from Cairo. Loveday Morris in Berlin and Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.

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