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Efforts to secure hostage deal and pause in Gaza fighting step up as Biden dispatches CIA chief for crucial talks in Europe

by Chanel Rowe
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Originally Published: 26 JAN 24 10:57 ET

By Kevin Liptak and Alex Marquardt, CNN

(CNN) — Efforts to secure the release of hostages held in Gaza and broker a prolonged pause in fighting are at an important juncture as President Joe Biden deploys his point person on hostage talks to Europe for multiparty talks on the contours of a possible agreement.

CIA Director Bill Burns’ meetings over the coming days with the Israeli and Egyptian intelligence chiefs and the Qatari prime minister are a sign of ongoing progress as the White House presses for a deal.

Whether they prove decisive in striking an agreement remains to be seen, and officials voiced caution that discussions so far have been volatile, and that hurdles remain in coming to a deal that all sides can agree on.

The talks are the latest in a spate of recent diplomatic efforts to free the more than 100 remaining hostages while moving toward a more prolonged cessation of hostilities.  The flurry of activity amounts to the most intensive effort in months to strike an agreement that could significantly alter the trajectory of the war in Gaza.

Brett McGurk, a top aide to Biden, engaged in “serious and sober” talks over the past week with officials in Egypt and Qatar about a potential hostage deal that would be paired with a break in fighting. Officials described the meetings as productive but the White House said the talks stopped short of “negotiations.”

Burns’s meetings with Mossad director David Barnea, Egyptian intelligence director Abbas Kamel and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani are expected to occur over the coming days. The CIA declined to comment on his travel.

Burns and Barnea were central to a November agreement that resulted in a week-long pause in fighting in exchange for the release of more than 100 hostages.

US officials are now hopeful for a much longer cessation in the fighting, believing it could provide space for more humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza as well as continued discussions about the future of Israel’s campaign against Hamas and the future of Gaza.

Qatar, Egypt and the US have been working toward trying to find common ground in proposals that were put forward several weeks ago by both Hamas and Israel, according to an official familiar with the ongoing discussions. In the past week, Qatar sent back ideas to each of them, including a time frame of a two-month ceasefire that would see hostages released in phases.

First to be released would be the remaining women, children and the elderly, followed by another phase that would include Israeli soldiers and the bodies of dead hostages.

Obstacles remain

The major sticking point for Hamas has been Israel’s refusal to discuss an end to the war past a temporary ceasefire. Israel’s focus, the official said, has been to try to discuss one phase at a time – with accompanying pauses and prisoner releases – while Hamas has pushed for a comprehensive plan that would include Israel agreeing to end the war against Hamas.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his defense minister, Yoav Gallant, have said the war may continue for the rest of the year, if not into 2025. And Netanyahu has been increasingly public in his rejections of a Palestinian state, a priority item for Biden and the US.

The Biden administration has been openly pressuring Israel to transition to a lower-intensity phase of operations, including in telephone calls between Biden and Netanyahu.

Aside from the Biden administration’s own interest in seeing a half dozen Israeli-American hostages released, US officials see a ceasefire deal and hostage release as the key to getting to a significant pause in the fighting that will help the flow of humanitarian aid and allow Palestinians to return to their homes, many of which have been destroyed.

But with two key parties who have their own priorities, in addition to at least three main mediators, there is a complex array of ideas, proposals and initiatives being put forward.

“These things are very fluid, they change every single minute,” the official said.

Whether all parties can reach an agreement remains to be seen, and the talks will occur against the backdrop of renewed tensions between Israel and Qatar, sparked by leaked recording purported to be Netanyahu criticizing the Gulf state.

Burns and McGurk’s discussions with regional players come amid tensions between Israel and Qatar over a leaked recording said to be of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu criticizing Qatar.

On the recording, which aired on Israeli television, a voice purportedly Netanyahu’s describes Qatar as “problematic.” The speaker also says he is “very mad at the Americans” for renewing a lease on their military base in Qatar without extracting a concession on hostages from the country. CNN cannot verify that the voice on the leaked recording belongs to Benjamin Netanyahu.

Responding to the tape, Qatar said Netanyahu was undermining mediation efforts in the Israel-Hamas war.

The White House on Thursday reiterated its gratitude for Qatar — which has acted as a key mediator in hostage talks — in response to the leaked recording.

“Qatar is a key partner in the region. We’re grateful for their support of our continued efforts to try to get hostages out of Gaza and reunited with their families,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said in a statement Thursday evening.

CNN’s Katie Bo Lillis contributed reporting.

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Bill Burns

**This image is for use with this specific article only** CIA Director Bill Burns is traveling to Europe for key talks on a possible hostage deal between Israel and Hamas.

Tom Williams/Pool/AP

26 Jan 24

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