Negotiators Close In on Hostage Deal That Would Halt Fighting in Gaza for Weeks


American-led negotiators are edging closer to an agreement in which Israel would suspend its war in Gaza for about two months in exchange for the release of more than 100 hostages still held by Hamas, a deal that could be sealed in the next two weeks and would transform the conflict consuming the region.

Negotiators have developed a written draft agreement merging proposals offered by Israel and Hamas in the last 10 days into a basic framework that will be the subject of talks in Paris on Sunday. While there are still important disagreements to be worked out, negotiators are cautiously optimistic that a final accord is within reach, according to U.S. officials who insisted on anonymity to discuss sensitive talks.

President Biden spoke by phone separately Friday with the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, who have served as intermediaries with Hamas, to narrow the remaining differences. He is also sending his C.I.A. director, William J. Burns, to Paris for Sunday’s talks with Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari officials. If Mr. Burns makes enough progress, Mr. Biden may then send his Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, who just returned to Washington, back to the region to help finalize the agreement.

“Both leaders affirmed that a hostage deal is central to establishing a prolonged humanitarian pause in the fighting and ensure additional lifesaving humanitarian assistance reaches civilians in need throughout Gaza,” the White House said in a statement Friday night summarizing the president’s conversation with Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani, Qatar’s prime minister. “They underscored the urgency of the situation and welcomed the close cooperation among their teams to advance recent discussions.”

In a statement in Israel on Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed his commitment to securing the release of those hostages who were not freed as part of a more limited agreement in November. “As of today, we have returned 110 of our hostages and we are committed to returning all of them home,” he said. “We are dealing with this and we are doing so around the clock, including now.”

The hostages have been in captivity since Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen stormed into Israel and killed an estimated 1,200 people and seized about 240 more in the worst terrorist attack in the country’s history. Israel’s military retaliation since then has killed more than 25,000 people, most of them women and children, according to Gaza’s health ministry. It is not clear how many of those killed in Gaza were Hamas combatants.

The short-lived truce in November, brokered by Mr. Biden along with Qatar and Egypt, resulted in a seven-day pause in the fighting in exchange for the release of more than 100 hostages by Hamas and about 240 Palestinian prisoners and detainees held by Israel. About 136 people seized on Oct. 7 remain unaccounted for, including six American citizens, although about two dozen of those are presumed to be dead.

The deal now coming together would be more expansive in scope than the previous one, officials say. In the first phase, fighting would stop for about 30 days while women, elderly and wounded hostages were released by Hamas. During that period, the two sides would work out details of a second phase that would suspend military operations for roughly another 30 days in exchange for Israeli soldiers and male civilians being held. The ratio of Palestinians to be released from Israeli prisons is still to be negotiated but that is viewed as a solvable issue. The deal would also allow for more humanitarian aid into Gaza.

While the agreement would not be the permanent cease-fire that Hamas has demanded for the release of all hostages, officials close to the talks believe that if Israel halts the war for two months, it would likely not resume it in the same way that it has waged it until now. The truce would provide a window for further diplomacy that could lead to a broader resolution of the conflict.

Such a deal would provide welcome breathing space for Mr. Biden, who has taken a great deal of heat from the left wing of his own party for supporting Israel’s response to the Oct. 7 attack. Mr. Netanyahu too has come under considerable pressure to secure the hostages’ release, even as he has vowed to press the military operation to destroy Hamas.

But he also has resisted American and international pressure to ease the military campaign against Hamas and repeated his resolve in his statement on Saturday. “We are determined to finish the task, to eliminate Hamas,” he said. “And if it takes time, we will not relent in the mission.”

Not only might a new deal ease some of the tension for Mr. Biden at home, it could de-escalate the volatile situation in the broader Middle East. During the seven-day pause in November, other Iranian proxy groups like the Houthis and Hezbollah also held back on the low-level attacks they had been mounting against American, Israeli and other targets.

After the November pause collapsed, Hamas and Israel effectively stopped communicating through their intermediaries. But the ice was broken by a more limited deal announced on Jan. 16 to allow medicine to be delivered to Israeli hostages in return for more medicine and aid to Palestinian civilians in Gaza. That became what some called a proof of concept.

From that point, both Israel and Hamas provided proposals on paper for a wider agreement and American intermediaries knitted them together into a single draft agreement. Mr. Biden spoke by phone with Mr. Netanyahu on Jan. 19, their first talk in nearly a month, and the two discussed how to proceed with the hostages.

Two days later, the president sent Mr. McGurk to the region, where he met with Gen. Abbas Kamel, the chief of Egypt’s General Intelligence Service and the nation’s second most powerful official, as well as Sheikh Mohammed of Qatar. The talks were complicated when Israeli media played a tape apparently of Mr. Netanyahu privately calling Qatar’s role as mediator “problematic” because of its relationship to Hamas, prompting Qatar to call the remarks “irresponsible and destructive.”

Mr. McGurk returned to Washington on Friday and met with Mr. Biden in the Oval Office along with Mr. Burns and Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who has also been traveling in the region. With his advisers next to him, Mr. Biden then separately called President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt and Sheikh Mohammed.

“They affirmed that all efforts must now be made to conclude a deal that would result in the release of all hostages together with a prolonged humanitarian pause in the fighting,” the White House said in its summary of the call with Mr. Sisi.

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