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Biden and Netanyahu Discuss Possible Cease-Fire and Hostage Deal

President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday to discuss prospects for a possible ceasefire deal to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas, while reiterating his warnings of another attack Israeli attack on the town of Rafah in southern Gaza. , officials said.

The call was intended to clear the way for Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, who left Washington hours earlier Sunday for his latest trip to the Middle East aimed at reducing the war in Gaza. Mr. Blinken traveled to Saudi Arabia, where he will meet with Egyptian and Qatari officials who served as intermediaries with Hamas in ceasefire and hostage talks, which remain deadlocked .

The State Department announced Sunday, while Mr. Blinken was in flight, that after attending a World Economic Forum meeting in Riyadh, he would also make stops in Jordan and Israel. The secretary of state played a critical role in the Biden administration’s efforts to negotiate an end to the war, increase humanitarian aid and secure the release of more than 100 hostages believed to remain in Gaza since the attack terrorist attack carried out by Hamas on October 7.

“It’s going to be at the top of Secretary Blinken’s list to continue to push for this temporary ceasefire,” White House national security spokesman John F. Kirby said. on ABC’s “This Week.” “We want it to last about six weeks. This will allow all these hostages to come out and, of course, facilitate access for aid to certain places in Gaza, particularly in the north.

He also led discussions about what would happen after the war ended. While in Saudi Arabia, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity, Blinken expects to meet with Arab and European officials as a group to discuss plans for rebuilding Gaza. , even if Israel continues to do so. its war there and failed to achieve its elusive – and perhaps impossible – goal of completely eradicating Hamas.

An administration official said about three-quarters of Mr. Biden’s nearly hour-long call to Mr. Netanyahu focused on a possible ceasefire and hostage deal. U.S. officials said Israel agreed to the U.S.-developed plan and blamed Hamas for the failure to reach an agreement, which they described as not being constructive. During the call, the president agreed that it was Hamas’ responsibility to accept the latest proposal, the official said.

The two leaders also discussed hostage videos released by Hamas last week, including those showing two American hostages. American officials question why Hamas would release the videos more than six months after the hostages were captured, although it is possible that the goal was to increase Israeli public pressure on Mr. Netanyahu to do so. more concessions in order to reach an agreement so that he can get the hostages home.

The president’s call to Mr. Netanyahu came three weeks after Mr. Biden told the prime minister he would rethink his support for Israel’s war unless the country did more to facilitate the delivery of food and other supplies to Gaza and to limit civilian casualties. Since then, humanitarian aid to Gaza has increased significantly, and Biden advisers credit Israel for responding to the president’s demands, although they acknowledge that more is needed.

Israel has withdrawn some of its forces from southern Gaza but says it is still planning a major attack on Rafah, where around a million Palestinians have sought refuge. Biden administration officials have expressed concerns about a possible operation, and Israeli officials said they would take those comments into account and consult further with their U.S. counterparts.

In a statement after the call, the White House said Biden “reiterated his clear position” on any operation in Rafah and reviewed with the prime minister “ongoing talks to secure the release of the hostages as well as an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.” .”

“The President and Prime Minister also discussed increasing the delivery of humanitarian aid to Gaza, particularly through preparations for the opening of new crossing points in the north starting this week,” it said. the press release. “The President stressed the need to maintain and strengthen this progress in full coordination with humanitarian organizations. »

As protests rock U.S. college campuses, some critics of the Netanyahu government stressed on Sunday that changes since Mr. Biden’s threat had not gone far enough.

“Right now, what Netanyahu’s right-wing, extremist, racist government is doing is unprecedented in modern war history,” said Sen. Bernie Sanders, a Democratic socialist from Vermont who talks with Democrats , on the “State of the Union.” CNN. “Over the past six and a half months, they have killed 33,000 Palestinians and injured 77,000, two-thirds of whom are women and children. »

The White House statement made only a passing reference to the recent clash between Israel and Iran, saying only that Mr. Biden “reaffirmed his unwavering commitment to Israel’s security following the successful defense against the attack.” unprecedented number of missiles and drones from Iran earlier this month.

Israeli and American forces, with the help of their European and Arab allies, shot down almost all of the more than 300 missiles and drones fired by Iran at Israel earlier this month in retaliation for Israel’s killing of officers Iranian superiors. Israel, responding to Mr. Biden’s calls for restraint, responded with only a symbolic counterattack, and both sides indicated they wanted to avoid further escalation.

As the immediate threat of a broader war appears to fade, Mr. Biden and his team may shift their attention to Gaza. Under the U.S.-sponsored ceasefire proposal, Israel would cease hostilities for six weeks and release hundreds of Palestinians held in its prisons in exchange for the release of 40 hostages held by Hamas, mostly women, elderly men and people with health problems. Subsequent stages of the deal would then extend the ceasefire and result in the release of more hostages.

US officials said a deal was blocked by Yahya Sinwar, the Hamas leader living in hiding in Gaza. Israel put a new counter-proposal on the table on Friday, raising the prospect of a more lasting end to hostilities. Hamas, which has demanded a permanent end to the war as part of any deal, said Saturday it had received the proposal and was studying it.

Mr Kirby expressed cautious optimism that progress was still possible.

“Hamas has not completely rejected it. They are looking at this proposal on the table,” he said. “If we can put this together, it will give you six weeks of peace. That gives you no fighting for six weeks, and that includes no fighting in Rafah, and what we’re hoping is that after six weeks of temporary ceasefire, maybe we can put something together more durable.

Edward Wong contributed reporting from Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken’s plane.

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