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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Biden to confer with Netanyahu on a possible cease-fire and hostage deal

President Joe Biden disembarks from Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, on April 26, 2024. Biden was set to speak with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday, three weeks after telling him that he could rethink U.S. support for Israel’s war in Gaza. (Michael A. McCoy/The New York Times)

By Peter Baker

President Joe Biden spoke with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel on Sunday to discuss the prospects of a possible cease-fire deal to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas, while repeating his warnings about a new Israeli assault on the city of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, officials said.

The call came just hours after Secretary of State Antony Blinken left Washington for his latest trip to the Middle East aimed at scaling back the war in Gaza. Blinken will start in Saudi Arabia, where he will see Egyptian and Qatari officials who have served as intermediaries with Hamas in the cease-fire and hostage talks, which remain in a stalemate.

Blinken is expected to visit Israel while in the region this week, although the State Department has not announced an itinerary beyond his stop in Riyadh, where he will also attend a meeting of the World Economic Forum. The secretary has been a critical player in the Biden administration’s efforts to broker a cessation to the war, increase humanitarian aid and win the release of more than 100 hostages believed to still be in Gaza since the Oct. 7 Hamas-led terrorist attack.

The call also came three weeks after Biden told Netanyahu that he would rethink his support for Israel’s war unless the country did more to facilitate the delivery of food and other supplies to Gaza and limit civilian casualties. Since then, humanitarian aid to Gaza has increased substantially, and Biden advisers credit Israel with responding to the president’s demands, although U.S. officials acknowledge that the aid is still not as much as is needed.

Israel has withdrawn some of its forces from southern Gaza but says it is still planning a major assault on Rafah, where about 1 million Palestinians have taken refuge. Biden administration officials have expressed concerns about the possible operation, and Israeli officials have said they will take that feedback into consideration and consult further with U.S. counterparts.

In a statement after the call, the White House said Biden “reiterated his clear position” on any Rafah operation and reviewed with the prime minister the “ongoing talks to secure the release of hostages together with an immediate cease-fire in Gaza.”

“The president and the prime minister also discussed increases in the delivery of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, including through preparations to open new northern crossings starting this week,” the statement said. “The president stressed the need for this progress to be sustained and enhanced in full coordination with humanitarian organizations.”

The statement made just passing reference to the recent clash between Israel and Iran, saying only that Biden “reaffirmed his ironclad commitment to Israel’s security following the successful defense against Iran’s unprecedented missile and drone attack earlier this month.”

Israeli and U.S. forces, with the help of European and Arab allies, shot down nearly all of more than 300 missiles and drones fired by Iran at Israel this month in retaliation for Israel’s killing of senior Iranian officers. Israel, heeding pleas by Biden for restraint, fired back only a token counterattack, and both sides have indicated they want to avoid further escalation.

With the immediate threat of a wider war seemingly fading, Biden and his team could shift their attention back to Gaza. Under a U.S.-sponsored cease-fire proposal, Israel would halt hostilities for six weeks and release hundreds of Palestinians held in its prisons in exchange for the release of 40 hostages held by Hamas, mainly women, older men and those with health conditions. Later stages of the deal would then extend the cease-fire and result in more hostages being freed.

U.S. officials have said that Israel has accepted the plan and that it is being blocked by Hamas. Israel put a new counterproposal on the table Friday, raising the prospect of a more sustained end to hostilities. Hamas, which has demanded a permanent end to the war as part of any deal, said Saturday that it had received the proposal and was considering it.

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