CIA Director William J. Burns arrived in Qatar on Tuesday for secret meetings with Israel’s spy chief and Qatar’s prime minister aimed at brokering an expansive deal between Israel and Hamas, said three people familiar with the visit.
Burns is pushing for Hamas and Israel to broaden the focus of their ongoing hostage negotiations, thus far limited to women and children, to encompass the release of men and military personnel, too.
He is also seeking a longer multiday pause in fighting while taking into account the Israeli demand that Hamas release at least 10 people for every day there is a break in the war, those familiar with the matter said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail sensitive discussions.
Crucially, Burns is pushing for the immediate release of American hostages held by Hamas. U.S. officials put the number of those hostages at eight or nine.
The CIA declined to comment on the director’s travel, which is kept classified. A U.S. official said, “Director Burns traveled to Doha for meetings about the Israel-Hamas conflict including continued discussion on hostages.”
Burns has emerged as the main U.S. negotiator in the hostage crisis, valued by President Biden for his broad array of contacts across the Middle East and, in particular, within Israel’s Mossad intelligence service.
“They listen to him and highly respect him,” said a person familiar with the negotiations.
Burns, a veteran diplomat and former U.S. ambassador to Moscow, is often tapped by Biden to handle the administration’s most vexing challenges, from warning Russia not to use nuclear weapons in Ukraine to negotiating with the Taliban amid the U.S. evacuation crisis in Afghanistan.
His role in the Israel-Gaza war is particularly prominent given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reliance on Mossad chief David Barnea.
“Barnea is the key Israeli person for these negotiations,” said Natan Sachs, an Israel scholar at the Brookings Institution, a think tank. “He’s the one authorized to speak on behalf of the prime minister.”
Far outside of Netanyahu’s circle of trust is Israel’s intelligence minister, Gila Gamliel, and foreign minister, Eli Cohen, observers say, making Burns’s meetings with his counterpart a focal point for dealmaking. “Secretary of State Antony Blinken would be the counterpart if the Israeli foreign minister held any sway in the cabinet, but he does not,” Sachs said.
The channel between Burns and Barnea was put to use earlier this month when the two met in Qatar to discuss a pause in fighting and the outlines of a hostage release with Qatar’s prime minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, on Nov. 9.
Hours after the meeting concluded, the White House announced that Israel would begin four-hour pauses in northern Gaza to allow Palestinians to flee hostilities – a welcome step in the eyes of the White House but one that fell short of U.S. requests for multiday pauses.
Qatar, a gas-rich peninsula in the Persian Gulf, has mediated talks between Israel and Hamas since the start of the conflict.
U.S. officials are pushing for a longer string of days without fighting to release hostages and allow humanitarian aid into the enclave. Israeli officials have told counterparts that the maximum number of extra days they are willing to allow is 10 before they seek to resume military operations, said people familiar with the matter. Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas, and officials are uncertain whether Israel can be persuaded to back off its 10-day limit amid the push to release as many hostages as possible.
Netanyahu, speaking over the weekend, vowed to continue fighting after the current phase of hostage negotiations. “We will return with full force to achieve our goals: the elimination of Hamas; ensuring that Gaza does not return to what it was,” he said.
Israel remains open to proposals to include men and military personnel in the hostage releases, but is insisting that all remaining children and civilian women be released before any additional deals are made, said an Israeli official familiar with the negotiations.
“It is very important for us to stress … that all remaining women and children in Gaza will be released before we move on to any follow-on agreement,” the official said.
The latest round of releases Tuesday brought the number of Israeli hostages freed to 61, including dual nationals, plus 20 foreign nationals from Thailand and the Philippines, while Israel has released 180 imprisoned Palestinian women and teenagers.
The truce agreed to last week was the first pause in hostilities since the conflict began Oct. 7, when Hamas gunmen launched a brutal cross-border attack that killed 1,200 people and took more than 240 hostages.
Israel responded with a massive bombing campaign and ground offensive that has killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, many of them children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which cautions that its toll is incomplete. Huge sections of the densely populated enclave have been leveled by Israeli bombs and artillery, and Israeli restrictions on food, fuel and drinking water have created a humanitarian catastrophe.
While fighting has been paused as a part of the hostage release deal, aid agencies have raced to boost deliveries to Gaza.
U.S. officials are concerned that if Hamas and Israel fail to negotiate a continuation, aid deliveries will again falter. One objective Burns has in Qatar is to explore what kind of format or mechanism can be established to secure the flow of aid outside the hostage negotiations framework, said people familiar with the matter.
There is agreement among all sides that the flow of aid into Gaza is not sufficient, but U.S. officials say the main challenge is security and logistical issues that don’t allow for more than 200 trucks per day. One potential solution is to enhance capacity at the Rafah border crossing, which separates Gaza and Egypt, by replacing outdated security equipment.
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