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Blinken casts doubt on cease-fire prospects after Hamas responds

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken gives a joint press conference with his Qatari counterpart in Doha on June 12, 2024.    (Ibraheem Al-Omari/Getty Images of North America/TNS)
By Iain Marlow Bloomberg News

Secretary of State Antony Blinken cast fresh doubt on the prospects that Israel and Hamas would agree to a cease-fire proposal put forward by the U.S., saying some of the militant group’s latest demands were unacceptable.

Blinken offered the downbeat assessment after meeting senior leaders in Qatar, who along with Egyptian officials have mediated indirect talks between the two sides in a bid to end the war, which began when Hamas stormed into Israel on Oct. 7.

Hamas had responded to a proposal backed by President Joe Biden on Tuesday, though it didn’t say publicly what changes it wants and Blinken declined to provide details.

“I’m not going to obviously characterize or describe what they’re looking for,” Blinken said. “All I can tell you, having gone over this with our colleagues, is that we believe that some of the requested changes are workable, and some are not.”

Blinken declined to say whether the U.S. would put any pressure on Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after being asked repeatedly whether Israel should show more flexibility over a permanent cease-fire that Hamas has demanded. He made clear the blame lies with Hamas, which is labeled a terrorist group by the U.S. and the European Union.

“Israel accepted the proposal as it was, as it is — Hamas didn’t,” Blinken told reporters in Doha on Wednesday alongside Qatar’s leader, Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani. “The longer this goes on, the more people will suffer and it’s time for the haggling to stop and the cease-fire to start — it’s as simple as that.”

The U.S. has been unable to explain why Israel, which has said it won’t stop until Hamas is destroyed, would agree to a proposal that lets the group survive. Hamas, meanwhile, has made clear it wants Israel to withdraw from Gaza for good, something Netanyahu’s government has said is off the table.

The latest impasse underscored the challenges of Biden’s approach. He laid out a three-phase peace plan on May 31 that he said was backed by Israel, even though Israeli leaders themselves have been noncommittal about whether they approve all or part of it.

Calls to end the fighting have grown amid the scale of destruction in Gaza, including more than 37,000 deaths, according to the Hamas-run health ministry, as Israel seeks to crush the militant group, which killed 1,200 and abducted 250 others in the October attack.

The first phase of the Biden-presented proposal calls for a cease-fire and withdrawal of Israeli forces from populated areas of Gaza, while the second stage includes a permanent end to hostilities. Some of the remaining hostages taken by Hamas during the Oct. 7 attack would be released in the initial phase, and the rest in phase two.

One person familiar with the talks said earlier that Hamas wants assurances that an automatic transition will take place from one phase of the agreement to another. The New York Times reported earlier Wednesday that Hamas wants firm timetables for a short-term truce and a permanent one, as well as a full withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

“This is an issue we’ve been struggling with for a very long time,” Sheikh Mohammed said. “How to ensure that we bridge the gap between those two fundamental differences, between what Hamas wants — as a permanent ceasefire — and what Israel wants — the hostages returned.”

When Blinken first heard that Hamas had submitted a response on Tuesday while in Amman, Jordan, he dispatched Counselor Derek Chollet and Assistant Secretary Barbara Leaf to meet with a senior Egyptian intelligence official, Abbas Kamel, who was also in the Jordanian capital, according to a senior State Department official who spoke to reporters traveling with Blinken in the Middle East.

They got the response, spoke about it with Kamel, and then brought it back to Blinken at his hotel, with all three of them discussing it until late in the evening, the official said.