Biden and Netanyahu Discuss Possible Cease-Fire and Hostage Deal

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President 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 southern Gaza, officials said.

The call was meant to pave the way for Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who left Washington just a few hours earlier on Sunday for his latest trip to the Middle East aimed at scaling back the war in Gaza. Mr. Blinken headed to 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.

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The State Department announced while Mr. Blinken was in flight on Sunday that after attending a meeting of the World Economic Forum in Riyadh, he would also stop in Jordan and Israel. 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.

An administration official said that about three-quarters of the president’s nearly hourlong call to Mr. Netanyahu focused on the possible deal. American officials have said that Israel has accepted the U.S.-drafted plan, and they have placed blame for the failure to reach an agreement squarely on Hamas, which in their description has not been constructive. During the call, the president agreed that the onus remained on Hamas to accept the latest proposal, the official said.

The two leaders also discussed hostage videos released by Hamas last week, including those showing two hostages with American citizenship. American officials have been puzzling over why Hamas would release those videos more than six months after seizing the hostages, although it is possible the goal was to increase Israeli public pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to make more concessions to reach a deal so that he could bring hostages home.

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The president’s call to Mr. Netanyahu came three weeks after Mr. Biden told the prime minister 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 to 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 they acknowledge that more is still needed.

Israel has withdrawn some of its forces from southern Gaza but says it is still planning a major assault on Rafah, where about one 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 American counterparts

In a statement after the call, the White House said that Mr. 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.”

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“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 Mr. 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 earlier this month in retaliation for Israel’s killing of senior Iranian officers. Israel, heeding pleas by Mr. Biden for restraint, fired back only a token counterattack, and both sides have indicated they want to avoid further escalation.

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With the immediate threat of a wider war seemingly fading, Mr. Biden and his team could shift their attention back to Gaza. Under the 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.

American officials have said that an agreement has been blocked by Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader living in hiding in Gaza. Israel put a new counterproposal on the table on 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 on Saturday that it had received the proposal and was considering it.



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