Biden’s positive comments on negotiations discounted by Israel, Hamas, others involved

JERUSALEM — President Biden says Israel has agreed to pause fighting in Gaza during the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan, which begins in two weeks, but Israel and Hamas both sought Tuesday to downplay any progress toward a deal.

Biden, who in recent weeks has dispatched top officials to the Middle East and Europe to push for a cease-fire, said Monday that he hoped such a pause could start as soon as next week. In a surprise appearance on late-night television, however, Biden appeared to preempt Israeli officials on the timeline.

“There’s been an agreement by the Israelis that they would not engage in activities during Ramadan … in order to give us time to get all the hostages out,” Biden said on the talk show “Late Night With Seth Meyers.” A spokesman for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office declined to comment on Biden’s remarks.

Biden says temporary cease-fire in Gaza could come next week

Biden’s tight embrace of Israel has politically hurt him among young voters, progressives, people of color and Arab Americans — and on the eve of the primary in Michigan, where Arab American, Muslim and progressive groups are urging Democrats to vote “uncommitted” in place of Biden.

In recent days, Israel has signaled a willingness to engage more seriously on efforts led by the United States, Egypt and Qatar to reach a weeks-long cease-fire in the Gaza Strip in exchange for the release of many of the more than 100 remaining hostages being held in the enclave. An Israeli delegation arrived in Doha, Qatar, on Monday for “lower-level technical talks,” a Western diplomat told The Washington Post.

Netanyahu said Monday that “we’re there” on the terms of a deal but that Hamas continues to make “outlandish demands.”

“Obviously, we want this deal if we can have it,” he told “Fox & Friends.” “It depends on Hamas — it’s really now their decision. I think the ground has been laid, but they have to enter the ballpark.”

Israeli officials have made clear that any deal that emerges from the ongoing talks will not end the war.

Netanyahu said Tuesday that his “diplomatic campaign to block pressure designed to end the war prematurely and to secure strong support for Israel” enjoyed “considerable success.”

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He noted a Harvard Center for Political Studies-Harris poll this week that showed that 82 percent of Americans supported Israel in the conflict more than Hamas.

“This will help us continue the campaign until total victory.”

The sides are discussing a proposal for a weeks-long pause in fighting that would allow the release of 35 to 40 Israeli hostages, an Israeli official told The Post. In exchange, according to a former Egyptian official with knowledge of the negotiations, Israel would release about 400 Palestinian prisoners, or roughly 10 prisoners for each hostage. Both spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss delicate talks.

Hamas and allied fighters streamed out of Gaza on Oct. 7 to kill around 1,200 people in Israel, Israeli authorities say, and take 253 more hostage. Israel responded with a military campaign that commanders say is aimed at eradicating Hamas. It has killed more than 29,000 people in the enclave, the Gaza Health Ministry said.

Israel wants female soldiers to be among the 35-40 hostages to be released, but Hamas plans to hold on to them as bargaining chips for a subsequent deal, the former Egyptian official said. Hamas has asked for Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and the United Nations to guarantee any agreement so that Israel does not resume attacks as soon as the hostages are handed over.

Hamas is pushing for the release of a number of high-profile Palestinian prisoners, including Marwan Barghouti, Ahmad Saadat and Abdullah Barghouti. But if Israel agrees, the former Egyptian official said, it wants to send these leaders into exile rather than back to the West Bank.

Despite the gaps that remain between the two sides, the former official said, Egypt is optimistic that a breakthrough can be reached by early next week.

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The Israeli official, though, was more circumspect.

“If the conditions that Israel requested were accepted, the deal would have happened today,” the official said. “But right now there is no deal, and the deadline is not Monday or Tuesday. I don’t believe we’re as close to a deal.”

Talks collapsed this month after Netanyahu accused Hamas of making “delusional demands” in a three-stage cease-fire proposal, which included the full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza. Netanyahu has faced pressure from far-right politicians — key allies holding together his government — who oppose a deal.

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Ismail Haniyeh, head of Hamas’s political bureau, said Monday that the militant group is willing to negotiate and has shown “great seriousness and flexibility” but that Israel is “stalling.”

A Hamas official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive subject told The Post on Tuesday that Hamas had “received a paper, which is not a draft agreement, but rather ideas for discussion.”

Another Hamas representative, Ahmad Abdul Hadi in Lebanon, told Arab media outlet Al Mayadeen that the group “will not compromise on any of its demands as the proposal does not satisfy them.”

The Hamas leader in Gaza, Yehiya Sinwar, is very much part of the negotiations, according to the Israeli official. But one Western diplomat familiar with the process said it can take up to three days for messages to travel from negotiators in Doha to the tunnels beneath Gaza, where he is believed to be located.

Majed al-Ansari, a spokesman for the Qatari Foreign Ministry, downplayed the progress of the talks in Doha. “We are optimistic in light of the continuing talks between the parties, but there is no special development that can be announced,” he said in a news conference Tuesday. Efforts to reach a deal were “ongoing,” he said; disagreements remained over “numbers and ratios” of hostages to be traded for Palestinian prisoners.

Negotiators were trying to reach a final agreement before Ramadan on “a humanitarian pause that would ease the tensions and would allow us to bring more aid into Gaza,” he said.

The White House hopes to secure a pause in the fighting — and a desperately needed reprieve for Gaza’s civilians — before Ramadan, a time of fasting and celebration for Muslims around the world but historically a flash point in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Ramadan is expected to begin around March 10.

The start of the holy month has loomed as a de facto deadline for a cease-fire deal, particularly after Israeli opposition leader Benny Gantz, a member of Netanyahu’s war cabinet, said this month that “if by Ramadan our hostages are not home, the fighting will continue everywhere to include the Rafah area.”

More than 1.4 million Gaza residents are sheltering in Rafah, a small city along the border with Egypt. Many have moved several times since the start of the conflict to avoid fighting farther north; Israel has instructed people to seek refuge there. But as the Israel Defense Forces wrap up operations in the southern city of Khan Younis, commanders say they intend to turn the military’s focus to Rafah next.

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U.S. officials have said they would not support launching a ground offensive in Rafah without a “credible” plan for the safe evacuation of civilians there.

Netanyahu told “Fox & Friends” that an “evacuation and humanitarian assistance” plan for civilians in Rafah was presented at a meeting of his security cabinet on Sunday.

But aid organizations and analysts say such an evacuation would be impossible, given the number of people who would need to be relocated and the widespread devastation left by nearly five months of Israeli attacks across much of the Gaza Strip.

The warnings are a sign of growing international pressure on Israel to end or ratchet down its campaign in Gaza.

Hamas faces growing pressure from civilians in Gaza who are displaced and desperate as conditions push many toward starvation.

“We are determined to halt the war; there’s nothing else we desire at this moment,” said Nada al-Ramlawi, a 28-year-old mother who is sheltering with her son and other relatives in Rafah.

“Politicians, particularly Palestinian leaders, discuss truces and cease-fires as if we’re in a state of normalcy, oblivious to the ongoing loss of life,” she said. “What are they waiting for?”

Basil Rajab, 45, who fled with his family from Gaza City to Deir al-Balah in central Gaza, accused Hamas leaders in exile of failing civilians in the enclave.

“While they live comfortably in Qatar, Turkey and Lebanon, we endure hunger, destitution and death,” he said. “ Who advocates for us? Who protects us?”

“We’re trapped in a vicious cycle, navigating through uncertainty in search of sustenance and security. Our longing to return to our homes, to reclaim our former lives, is profound. Can this aspiration be realized? I cannot say, but it’s what we fervently desire.”

Sarah Dadouch in Amman, Jordan, Lior Soroka in Tel Aviv and Loveday Morris in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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