attempts Secure the release of the hostages A long pause in the fighting in Gaza has brokered a critical juncture Joe Biden He is holding his key figure in hostage talks with Europe for multilateral talks on the contours of a possible deal.
CIA Director Bill Burns' meetings in the coming days with Israeli and Egyptian intelligence chiefs and Qatar's prime minister are a sign of ongoing progress as the White House pushes for a deal.
It remains to be seen whether they will be decisive in striking a deal, and officials have voiced caution that discussions so far have been volatile and that there are obstacles to reaching an agreement acceptable to all parties.
Among the highlights: Israel is adamant that it cannot agree to a permanent ceasefire in Gaza, a key demand of Hamas. It's not clear how that big difference will be resolved.
However, there have been improvements in the parameters of the hostage deal, which occurs in three phases and includes the release of civilians, soldiers and the bodies of hostages who died while in captivity.
Burns' meetings with Mossad director David Barnia, Egyptian intelligence director Abbas Kamel and Qatari Prime Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani will take place over the weekend in France, according to two sources familiar with the matter. The CIA declined to comment on his trip.
Burns and Barnea were central to the November accord, which resulted in a week-long ceasefire in the fighting in exchange for the release of more than 100 hostages.
The talks are the latest in a series of diplomatic efforts to secure the release of more than 100 remaining hostages while moving toward a longer-term ceasefire. The flurry of activity is the most intense effort in months to reach an accord that could significantly change the course of the war in Gaza.
Speaking from the White House on Friday afternoon, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby described the ongoing negotiations as productive but not yet at the point of victory.
“We're optimistic about progress, but I don't expect — and we shouldn't expect — any immediate improvements,” Kirby said.
On Friday, Biden discussed ongoing hostage negotiations with Egypt's President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Qatar's Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, he said.
“We continue to do everything we can to facilitate another hostage deal like we did in November,” Kirby said.
A reading from the White House on Friday said Biden and Al Thani “affirmed that the hostage agreement is central to achieving a long-term humanitarian pause in the fighting and ensuring that additional life-saving humanitarian assistance is available to civilians in need across Gaza.”
The reading noted that the two leaders “underscored the urgency of the situation” in their conversation.
Kirby also said Brett McCurg, the White House coordinator for the Middle East, will return to Washington on Friday from meetings in the region.
He described the talks as “good discussions”.
“At every level, from the president on down, we are doing everything we can to bring these moms and dads, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters home to their families,” Kirby said. “Our thoughts are with them, and of course with their loved ones, and with the innocent Palestinians who continue to be caught up in this war.”
The Qatari prime minister is expected to visit Washington next week, a diplomatic source told CNN. Qatar acted as the main broker in the negotiations with Hamas.
U.S. officials now hope for a longer pause in the fighting, amid ongoing discussions about the future of Israel's campaign against Hamas and the future of Gaza, which they hope will make room for more humanitarian aid to flow into Gaza.
Qatar, Egypt and the United States are trying to find common ground on proposals put forward by both Hamas and Israel several weeks ago, an official familiar with the ongoing discussions said. In the past week, Qatar has sent back ideas to each, including a deadline for a two-month ceasefire in which the hostages will be released in phases.
The first to be released were the remaining women, children and the elderly, followed by another phase that included the bodies of Israeli soldiers and dead hostages.
In exchange, Palestinians in Israeli jails would be released in a three-for-one exchange, similar to a deal struck last year, a second source familiar with the matter said, adding that the process would take a month.
Each phase marks a pause in the fighting and offers aid to the northern and southern parts of Gaza.
There are obstacles
A key point for Hamas is Israel's refusal to discuss a cessation of hostilities past a temporary ceasefire. Israel's focus is on trying to negotiate a step-by-step process — with pauses and prisoner releases — as Hamas presents a comprehensive plan in which Israel agrees to end the war against Hamas.
As part of the plans currently being discussed, the end of the hostage-free process would come with a permanent ceasefire, a move Israel is unwilling to agree to.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Defense Minister Yoav Galant have said the war could continue through this year, if not into 2025. And Netanyahu has been increasingly outspoken in his rejection of a Palestinian state, a priority for Biden. and the US
The Biden administration has been openly pressuring Israel to switch to less extreme measures, including phone calls between Biden and Netanyahu.
Aside from the Biden administration's own interest in seeing the release of a half-dozen Israeli-American hostages, U.S. officials say the ceasefire agreement and the release of the hostages are key to a significant pause in the war that will help the flow of humanitarian aid and allow the Palestinians. To return to their homes, many of them have been destroyed.
But apart from at least three main mediators, the two main parties have their own priorities, resulting in a complex set of ideas, proposals and initiatives.
“These things are very fluid and they change every minute,” the official said.
It remains to be seen whether all sides can reach an agreement, and the talks will take place against a backdrop of renewed tensions between Israel and Qatar, fueled by leaked recordings of Netanyahu's alleged criticism of the Gulf state.
Burns and McGurk's discussions with regional players come amid tensions between Israel and Qatar over a leaked recording of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's alleged criticism of Qatar.
In the recording, broadcast on Israeli television, Netanyahu's voice described Qatar as “problematic”. The speaker says he is “very angry with the Americans” for renewing the lease on their military base in Qatar without getting concessions on hostages from the country. CNN has not verified that the voice in the leaked recording is that of Benjamin Netanyahu.
Reacting to the tape, Qatar said Netanyahu was undermining mediation efforts in the Israel-Hamas war.
The White House on Thursday reiterated its gratitude to Qatar – which acted as a key mediator in the hostage negotiations – in response to the leaked recording.
“Qatar is a key player in the region. “We are grateful for their support in our continued efforts to evacuate the hostages from Gaza and reunite them with their families,” Kirby said in a statement Thursday evening.
This story has been updated with additional reporting.
CNN's Betsy Klein and Katie Bo Lillis contributed reporting.