CIA director headed abroad for Gaza hostage talks: US officials

(WASHINGTON) — CIA Director Bill Burns will soon travel to Europe to meet with Middle Eastern officials as part of an ambitious push to lock down an agreement that would free all of the hostages kidnapped during Hamas’ Oct. 7 attack on Israel that are still being held inside of Gaza in exchange for a prolonged cessation of hostilities, according to U.S. officials familiar with the plans.

The officials said Burns will speak with counterparts from Israel as well as Qatar and Egypt — two countries that have worked as intermediaries between Hamas and other nations since the conflict began. The United States has designated Hamas as a terrorist group.

Various proposals have been discussed during recent weeks, and while officials declined to share specific contours of any deal currently under consideration, they expressed confidence that the release of all detainees in Gaza could be secured by a single diplomatic agreement.

While negotiators still face significant hurdles, the officials’ view that such a deal could be achieved is significant because it was previously believed that some of the hostages in Gaza were held by other groups outside of Hamas’ control and that the terrorist organization may be unwilling to relinquish captured Israeli soldiers.

Roughly 130 hostages are still imprisoned in Gaza, including as many as six Americans, according to the Israeli and U.S. governments.

The conflict, now the deadliest between the warring sides since Israel’s founding in 1948, shows no signs of letting up soon and the brief cease-fire in November that allowed for over 100 hostages to be freed from Gaza remains a distant memory.

The negotiations will also include securing the return of remains of the dozens of dead hostages the Israeli government says are being held in Gaza, according to the officials. The FBI is investigating the deaths of at least two Americans whose bodies are also believed to be inside the enclave.

Burns, who has emerged as the de-facto leader of the Biden administration’s part in the hostage negotiations, has journeyed for face-to-face talks with Israel and other mediators at least two times before.

Before he took 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 said to capture Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slamming Qatar’s role in the negotiations and calling its ties to Hamas problematic.

Qatar responded by saying it was “appalled” by the comments. The Israeli government has neither confirmed nor denied the tape’s authenticity.

U.S. officials have downplayed the impact the spat between the countries may play in negotiations and maintain that Qatar continues to serve as a crucial partner in the process.

Any deal would likely allow for the hostages to be released in waves similar to the stipulations of a previous agreement reached in late November, which ultimately saw 105 hostages freed over the course of a weeklong pause in hostilities.

The staggered release allows nongovernmental groups to more safely manage the exodus of captives from Gaza and permits Hamas to maintain a sense of leverage through the agreed-upon duration of the truce, but it also amplifies the risk that an agreement in principle will fall apart when it’s put into practice.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken and other high-level U.S. officials tried to extend the previous ceasefire, but after a seven-day stretch of hostage releases, Hamas fired on Israel again.

Netanyahu swiftly ordered combat operations restarted at full throttle and accused Hamas of reneging on its promise to release all captive women and children.

U.S. officials acknowledge that a new agreement would likely require a substantially longer window in order to play out, increasing the possibility that any deal could go awry.

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