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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Political pressures on Biden helped drive ‘secret cell’ of aides in hostage talks


President Joe Biden is greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu upon his arriveal in Tel Aviv, Israel, on Oct. 18, 2023. Biden’s initial full-throated embrace of Israel’s right to defend itself after the Oct. 7 attacks has evolved into repeated calls for restraint.

By Michael D. Shear


Israel’s acceptance of the terms of a hostage deal with Hamas late Tuesday reflected the intense pressure brought by the Biden administration to reach an agreement that would free some of those held by the armed group and produce potential longer-term opportunities to de-escalate the conflict.


The initial approval of the deal by the Israeli Cabinet came after a “secret cell” of top aides to President Joe Biden worked furiously over the past several weeks on a web of negotiations involving Qatar, Egypt and Israel, an effort hampered by communications outages in the Gaza Strip and a series of last-minute disputes that derailed the talks.


White House officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the five weeks of sensitive negotiations that had led to a deal, said the agreement would include the release of three Americans: two women and a toddler. The officials said they would continue to push for the release of all U.S. hostages.


The deal came at a time when Democrats are increasingly divided over Biden’s embrace of Israel, particularly as the civilian toll in Gaza grows, and as polling shows the president receiving low marks on his handling of the crisis ahead of his reelection campaign.


But the arrangement was also the latest example of the widening breach between the White House and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s overwhelming response to the Hamas attacks, which has led to the deaths of about 12,000 people in Gaza. For weeks, Biden has publicly and privately tried to persuade the prime minister to pause the bombardment of Gaza to allow in humanitarian aid and to reduce civilian casualties.


Netanyahu has consistently refused to consider a wide-scale halt to Israel’s military operations in Gaza unless it would lead to the release of the hostages.


White House officials said that over the last several weeks, Biden had concluded that persuading Netanyahu to accept a dayslong suspension of the fighting — rather than more limited pauses for several hours at a time — would require linking the break to a deal to free hostages from captivity in the tunnels used by Hamas fighters.


Biden made that case with increasing urgency to Netanyahu during 13 calls since the Hamas attacks and a face-to-face meeting in Israel, officials said, underscoring the president’s willingness to ratchet up the pressure on his counterpart. Biden’s initial full-throated embrace of Israel’s right to defend itself in the hours after the Oct. 7 attacks has evolved into repeated calls for restraint by the Israeli forces in Gaza.


Aides said the president was also hopeful that the hostage release could be an early step toward a broader peace in the region once the immediate crisis ends. In an opinion article published in The Washington Post on Sunday, Biden described how far his ambitions stretch beyond the four-day pause in fighting agreed to Tuesday.


“Our goal should not be simply to stop the war for today,” he wrote. “It should be to end the war forever, break the cycle of unceasing violence, and build something stronger in Gaza and across the Middle East so that history does not keep repeating itself.”


Biden and his top aides have repeatedly said they do not tell Israel how to respond to the slaughter of 1,200 people inside their country, and Netanyahu made it clear Tuesday that he intended to resume military operations against Hamas as soon as the hostages were freed in accordance with the deal.


“The war will continue,” Netanyahu said.


But some senior American officials have signaled they would not be disappointed if the pause became a more permanent cease-fire. If the White House tries to use the hostage deal to press for a longer-term cease-fire and start moving toward the bigger questions about occupation and a two-state solution, that could put Biden on another collision course with Netanyahu when the fighting is scheduled to resume.


A top administration official, who briefed reporters Tuesday in the hours before the deal was finalized, said the pause in fighting was a step toward an eventual push for peace. But the official cautioned that such a possibility was a long way off. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a deal that had not yet been finalized.


In the short term, the president and his aides say they are focused on ensuring that Hamas lives up to the promises the militant group made during weeks of negotiations that often seemed destined to fail.


The first sign of progress came in late October, when U.S. officials received word through intermediaries in Qatar and Egypt that Hamas could accept a deal to release women and children. In return, they wanted Israel to free Palestinian prisoners, pause the fighting and delay a ground invasion.


With Israeli troops massing outside Gaza, officials in Israel and the United States debated whether to accept the deal. Israeli officials did not think Hamas was serious about the offer and refused to delay the ground offensive. Hamas refused to provide any proof of life about the hostages. Negotiations stalled.


At the White House, Biden and his foreign policy team kept pressing. On Nov. 14, hope swelled again after Netanyahu called the president to say he could accept the latest offer from Hamas. But just hours after the call, Israeli military forces stormed Shifa Hospital in Gaza, which they said served as a Hamas command center. Suddenly, communications between Hamas and the officials in Qatar and Egypt went silent. When Hamas resurfaced hours later, they made it clear: The deal was off.


For several days, the militant group demanded that Israeli troops withdraw from the hospital, which Israel refused. It took several days for the talks to resume, following a call from Biden to the emir of Qatar.


Administration officials continued pressing Israel and, through the intermediaries, Hamas. After Biden’s call, top aides, including the director of the CIA, met with the emir in Qatar to go over the latest draft — a six-page text with detailed steps for implementation on both sides.


Within a week, the diplomatic pressure paid off. On Tuesday evening, as the Israeli Cabinet took its final vote to approve the deal, Biden headed out of Washington for a five-day Thanksgiving vacation with his family on the island of Nantucket.


The Israeli decision, announced by Netanyahu’s office, would allow for a pause of at least four days in the fighting in Gaza. If it holds, it would be the longest halt in hostilities since Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks prompted Israel to begin its bombardment of Gaza.


In a statement Tuesday night, Biden pledged to work with regional leaders “to ensure this deal is carried through in its entirety. It is important that all aspects of this deal be fully implemented.”


But even with the deal in place, Biden faces challenges ahead. There are still Americans being held hostage in Gaza, and the tensions in the United States, and within his own party, show few signs of diminishing.


Officials said they were keenly aware that the horror for the families of those still in captivity in Gaza will not end until their loved ones are home.


For Biden, it could not happen soon enough.


“As president, I have no higher priority than ensuring the safety of Americans held hostage around the world,” Biden said in his statement, adding, “Today’s deal should bring home additional American hostages, and I will not stop until they are all released.”



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