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TEL AVIV — Israeli officials are becoming guardedly optimistic that a hostage deal with Hamas can be reached, but any agreement is likely to be interim and limited.
A deal is likely to involve just a few dozen captive Israeli children and elderly, among them some dual nationals, including Americans, according to two Israeli officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss the sensitive topic of hostages.
The formalizing of humanitarian pauses in northern Gaza has helped progress the talks via the Qataris and Egyptians, the two officials acknowledged. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week agreed to put in place four-hour daily humanitarian pauses in its bombings in Gaza after almost two weeks of pressure from the Biden administration.
But the two officials cautioned that there are still several outstanding issues that could easily derail a deal, including the Hamas militants withholding a complete list of the hostages being held in the Gaza Strip. The Hamas military leadership is also demanding a cease-fire, or a longer humanitarian pause of as much as a week, the Israeli officials said.
David Meidan, a former Mossad intelligence officer, who served for a time as Benjamin Netanyahu’s coordinator on hostage issues, believes that “something is moving under the surface” regarding the hostages. The humanitarian pauses that Netanyahu has agreed to “might lead to some positive steps,” Meidan said in an exclusive interview with POLITICO.
More than a decade ago, Meidan negotiated the deal to secure the release of Gilad Shalit, a young Israeli soldier captured by Hamas in 2006, in exchange for 1,027 Palestinian prisoners. Meidan, who has been counseling the families of the Israeli hostages, has been consulted by U.S. diplomats and Netanyahu’s newly appointed hostage envoy, Gal Hirsch.
Meidan advised Hirsch and the Americans not to waste time juggling different channels of communication and to focus their efforts on identifying mediators able to reach the key decision-makers — namely the Hamas military leaders in Gaza. He said he told them that “the political leaders outside Gaza in Qatar are not so relevant.” They can serve just as go-betweens for messages to the Hamas military leaders, Meidan explained.
The key players
“When I led negotiations 12 years ago, I did not understand in the beginning exactly who the key players were. Finally, I understood that the key person at the time was Ahmed Jabari,” Meidan said.
Jabari in 2006 was commander of the military wing of Hamas, the Izz ad-Din al-Qassam Brigades. He was killed subsequently in 2012 in a targeted Israeli airstrike. Now Meidan says Yehya Sinwar, Hamas’ leader in the Gaza Strip and one of the founders of the organization’s military wing, is the key player — along with Mohammed Deif, who planned the October 7 terror attack on southern Israel, and Marwan Issa, who is the deputy chief of Hamas’ military wing. “It is those three,” he said.
“The Americans are deeply involved. I have the impression that on the American side there’s a very high level of engagement and it is coming straight from the top,” Meidan said. But the American role can only be limited, and Washington is not best placed to be a negotiator. “What it can do is pressure the Egyptians and Qataris and instill a sense of urgency,” he says. Last week, Mossad chief David Barnea and CIA Director William Burns were in Qatar to discuss ways to win the release of the hostages in Gaza with the Qatari prime minister, according to media reports.
Meidan said the negotiations this time round will be more difficult than what he encountered a dozen years ago. First, he was bartering for just one soldier, not for around 240 captives, mostly civilian; and he wasn’t negotiating against the backdrop of an all-out war.
And though he couldn’t sit opposite Jabari because of Israeli laws, he and the Hamas leader were in adjacent rooms in Cairo during the final stages with the Egyptians ferrying messages back and forth as they bargained. Meidan knew a deal was near when Jabari started to accept that it would be impossible for Israel to release some of the Palestinians that Hamas wanted freed. “That was when I knew he was turning pragmatic,” he said.
Egyptian generals were crucial in pulling off the Shalit deal, according to Meidan. He thinks they will be key again — including one general who led the Egyptian team in 2006.
“Now it is even more complex,” Meidan said. No one is in adjacent rooms, and it is much more laborious and time-consuming.
“What you have now is the Israelis and the Americans talking with the Qataris, who are then passing messages to the Hamas political leaders in Doha, who then communicate with Gaza. And you have Egyptians talking with Hamas leaders in Gaza. The Israelis draft proposals and the Americans tweak them. The Qataris and the Egyptians make suggestions. The final version is sent to Gaza via the Hamas leaders in Doha,” he added.
Hamas has different ways of communicating between the political and military leaders, including using cell phones, which are easily monitored. “Each round of bargaining takes two to three days” slowing the process and drawing out the bargaining, says Meidan. “It takes a lot of time but, alas, time is of the essence,” he said.
Meidan had wanted Israel to prioritize hostage negotiations much sooner — and before Israel started to pummel Gaza and launch military ground operations.
“Now we are in a different situation,” he said. He faults Netanyahu for dragging his feet. “I listened carefully to the statements of the Hamas leaders, and I got the impression they were taken aback at the international outrage after the terrible October 7 attack and were trying to argue that the worst of what happened wasn’t carried out by their fighters,” Meidan said.
Meidan said the best way to engineer a deal now is to use the humanitarian pauses to push a humanitarian line on Hamas and argue they should reciprocate by freeing captive babies, children, the elderly and the infirm. “But it is very difficult,” he said.
‘Rollercoaster of emotions’
The families of the hostages are getting ever more impatient and desperate, he said. Most are holding off calling for a cease-fire, leaving it to the government to determine the best ways of getting their relatives back, Meidan said. Most are arguing that Netanyahu should release all and any Palestinians held in Israeli jails that Hamas wants freed.
But that could change soon. “They are going through a rollercoaster of emotions and can say different things from day to day — you have to remember there are many relatives involved and they don’t all agree,” Meidan said. But with each passing day, more are saying to me that there should be a cease-fire to save as many hostages as possible,” he said.
If the hostage families as a group begin to call for a cease-fire, it could shift domestic Israeli politics dramatically, presenting Netanyahu with a potentially explosive political moment, say opposition politicians. The war aims to wreck Hamas’ military capabilities, defang the organization to prevent any repetition of October 7 has enormous public backing, but if Israel is faced with a stark choice of choosing between the hostages and the military campaign, then Israelis will prioritize getting the captives released, say some opposition politicians.
“Basically, if you ask me, the hostages have to come first, we should get them home,” Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid party and leader of the opposition, told POLITICO. Although he said he thought in practical terms Israel won’t be faced with such a black-and-white dilemma. But if it is, “we will have our chance to kill whoever we need to kill afterwards. If we are faced with a choice, then we must go with the hostages because that is the basic contract the country has with the families,” he added.
Former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert agrees that there doesn’t have to be a clear-cut choice. “I am not sure it will come to an either-or. I don’t think that if Israel stops now, then we’ll get the hostages. And I don’t think that if we don’t stop, we will lose the hostages,” he said.
“When we negotiated the release of Gilad Shalit, we were still confronting Hamas and killing terrorists and they never harmed him because they understood he was an asset and a bargaining chip which they didn’t want to lose. They protect the assets,” he said. But he and other politicians acknowledge say that if the families of the hostages call en masse for a cease-fire, it will roil Israel’s domestic politics.