Israel, Hamas still distant on hostage deal as U.S. envoy heads to region

The top Middle East mediator for the United States is heading to Qatar with a stop in Egypt as discussions heat up over the release of Hamas-held hostages, but U.S. officials emphasize that so far there is little progress to report.

The trip by Brett McGurk, the top National Security Council official on the Middle East, comes amid renewed speculation over a possible breakthrough in hostage negotiations and a pause in the fighting, which has been especially fierce in the past days as Israeli forces encircle the southern Gaza city of Khan Younis, where top Hamas commanders are believed to be located.

“Certainly, one of the things he’s in the region talking about is the potential for another hostage deal, which would require a humanitarian pause of some length to get that done,” NSC spokesman John Kirby told reporters Tuesday. “I wouldn’t even classify them as ‘negotiations’ quite at this point, but ‘ongoing discussions with counterparts’ about what’s in the realm of the possible here.”

Israeli hostage families have ‘nothing left to lose’ in push for new deal

McGurk will also discuss humanitarian assistance and assess the Israel Defense Forces’ operations and the protection of civilian life, Kirby said.

Israel has offered a two-month pause in the fighting in exchange for a phased release of the remaining hostages, according to an Israeli familiar with the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue. The deal was first reported by news website Axios.

“There’s a long way to go before reaching any agreements,” said a text between Israeli officials that was shown to The Post. “Israel is offering various terms for the return of the hostages, with a pause in fighting seen as a given … but in no way will Israel give up on destroying Hamas, the return of the hostages.”

The phases would begin with remaining civilian women and children, followed by civilian men, then Israeli military women and military men, then the remaining dead bodies. There are more than 100 living hostages still held in Gaza.

Those phases were first discussed in late November, when a week-long pause in the fighting led to the release of more than 100 women, children and foreign hostages. The U.S. expectation at the time was that the pause would be continued through the phased release of all the hostages seized by Hamas on Oct. 7, originally believed to number more than 240.

Kirby said that conversations surrounding another potential hostage deal “are very sober and serious,” adding that “hopefully they will bear fruit.”

What they missed: Freed Israeli hostages return to tragedy and joys

While Israel has not commented publicly on the reports, on Wednesday the hard-right members of the cabinet — a key support base to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition — have expressed misgivings over talk of a deal.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich called for an immediate emergency cabinet meeting. “Stopping the war at such sensitive timing could endanger the entire operation and bring about huge costs in the Gaza Strip and other fronts. Such a deal raises several dangerous questions. At this point, we cannot support stopping the war for a long time.”

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir meanwhile tweeted that while he supports bringing home the hostages, he opposed a “bad deal.”

In the past, Hamas has said that it would not release further hostages if its conditions for an end to hostilities were not met. Israel has said there will be no withdrawal and permanent end to the fighting until Hamas’s leadership and military infrastructure are destroyed.

The Foreign Ministry spokesman of Qatar, which has been a key mediator between Israel and Hamas, said it had “presented ideas to both sides, we are getting a constant stream of replies from both sides, and that in its own right is a cause for optimism.”

Majed al-Ansari, the spokesman, added that some recent public statements had been “harmful” to the process.

“When one side says they don’t accept the two state solution, that they would not stop this war eventually, talking about the displacement of the Palestinians, that obviously leads to a harder mediation process,” he said. Netanyahu has repeatedly trumpeted his rejection of a future Palestinian state.

Israel is under increasing pressure from hostage families to make a deal to bring the captives home. A large majority of countries in the world have called for a humanitarian cease-fire — rather than a temporary pause — and demanded that Israel facilitate increased assistance to civilians in Gaza.

What’s the difference between a humanitarian pause and a cease-fire?

While the United States has repeatedly said that it does not currently support a general cease-fire, Kirby said Tuesday that Washington would back a humanitarian pause lasting a month or even longer.

“If that would give us the opportunity to get hostages out and get more aid in, we would absolutely support a humanitarian pause of a longer length than the week that we were able to accomplish,” he said.

Kelly Kasulis Cho in Seoul, Susannah George in Doha, Qatar, and Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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