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Israeli officials express optimism over cease-fire talks with Hamas

Israel's Foreign Minister Israel Katz speaks to reporters during his summons to Brazil's Ambassador in Israel (not pictured) at the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial museum in Jerusalem on Feb. 19, 2024. Brazil's President Luiz Inacio Lula Da Silva is not welcome in Israel until he apologizes for comparing its ongoing war against Hamas to the Holocaust, the country's foreign minister said on February 19.   (Ahmad Gharabli/Getty Images of North America/TNS)
By Ethan Bronner Bloomberg News

Senior Israeli officials said progress has been made in negotiations for a cease-fire in Gaza that would include the release of hostages and Palestinian prisoners, a move that drew criticism from far-right ministers who threatened to bring down the government.

“We’ve reached a critical point,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio on Monday. “If matters work out, a large number of hostages will return home and then, in stages, everyone. But remember that we are dealing with Hamas and there is not a lot of time. I am more optimistic than I was.”

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told military recruits that progress in the war has allowed Israel “to make difficult decisions to return the hostages. I think we are at an appropriate point.” A session of the security cabinet, which generally meets on Thursday evening, has been called for Tuesday, television channels reported.

The comments were the most positive in months from top officials on the talks between Israel and Hamas, which have been mediated by the U.S., Egypt and Qatar. Just last week, Israeli officials said large gaps remained between the two sides, with the Iran-backed militant group demanding a complete withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza before any hostages would be freed.

Yet international pressure has intensified on the Israelis since a missile strike killed seven aid workers delivering food to displaced Palestinians a week ago, with President Joe Biden telling Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that ongoing U.S. support depends on improved steps to protect civilians.

On Sunday, Netanyahu announced a withdrawal of combat troops from the city of Khan Younis after four months of fighting, the first significant scaling back of ground forces since a week-long cease-fire that ended in early December. Some have interpreted the move as a signal to Hamas a deal is on the table.

Israeli assets rallied on Monday, in part because of optimism a truce is nearer. The main stock index gained 1.5% as of 12:30 p.m. in Tel Aviv, while the shekel strengthened 1.3% against the dollar to head for its second-best daily performance of the year.

The scaling back of ground forces — alongside the ministers’ comments — angered Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners who want the war to continue until Hamas is destroyed. They threatened to bring down the government if there’s a permanent cease-fire, or the prime minister decides against an offensive on the Gazan city of Rafah — seen as the last bastion of Hamas and its leaders.

Rafah invasion

Gallant said the soldiers were being withdrawn from Khan Younis so they could prepare for an eventual invasion of Rafah. Yet it’s still raised the idea that the long-promised attack may not happen, something which is alarming some of the far-right coalition partners Netanyahu relies on to keep his government intact.

“If the prime minister decides to end the war without an extensive attack on Rafah in order to defeat Hamas, he will not have a mandate to continue serving as Prime Minister,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, posted on X.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich, from the Religious Zionism party, called on Netanyahu to convene an urgent meeting of the extended cabinet to discuss the developments in the war.

“I have been warning for weeks that instead of taking our foot off the gas we should increase the pressure on Hamas in Gaza, and this is the only way we can return the abductees and destroy Hamas,” he said.

Israeli public broadcaster Kan said Smotrich is sending a message to Netanyahu that his party won’t go along with a permanent cease-fire nor a hostage deal that goes too far.

U.S. pressure

For its part, Hamas, designated a terrorist organization by the U.S. and European Union, said on Monday there’d been no progress in the talks.

Israeli officials say U.S. negotiators in Cairo are pressing both Israel and Hamas hard to reach an agreement. The U.S. wants Gaza to receive far more humanitarian aid to combat disease and hunger, alongside a long pause in fighting and the freeing of hostages. From there, the U.S. hopes to extend the truce and start rebuilding the decimated Gaza Strip.

Netanyahu has said that unless Israel defeats Hamas entirely, it will not have won the war. But he’s also under intense domestic pressure to bring back as many as possible of the more than 100 hostages still held in Gaza.

The war started on Oct. 7 when thousands of Hamas operatives broke into Israel from Gaza, killing about 1,200 people and abducting 250. Israel attacked by air, sea and land, and has killed some 33,000 Palestinians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry.