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Inside Joe Biden’s ‘excruciating’ effort to secure Israeli hostage release


US President Joe Biden was leaving a White House event on the climate crisis on November 14 when he turned to answer a question about the state of talks to free hostages being held in Gaza.

“I’ve been talking with the people involved every single day,” Biden told reporters. His message to the families? “Hang in there, we’re coming.”

This week, on the eve of the Thanksgiving holiday in the US, Biden was able to keep his word — at least partially — after helping to broker an agreement between Israel and Hamas to stop the war for four days to allow the release of some hostages.

Under the agreement, Hamas will in batches release 50 women and children held hostage since the Islamist militant group’s attack on southern Israel on October 7. In exchange, Israel will release 150 Palestinians in prison and allow humanitarian aid to pour into the stricken enclave.

While the deal has a brief duration and limited scope and could fall apart in its implementation, it represents an important accomplishment for Biden, who has faced pressure at home and abroad to mediate the conflict after nearly six weeks of devastating fighting.

Biden spent a large amount of diplomatic and political capital in recent weeks to broker the agreement, which one senior US administration official described as an “extremely excruciating” process.

If the deal holds, it will mark a turning point in Washington’s push to stabilise and contain the war. If it fails, it will risk fuelling more criticism in the US and internationally of Biden’s approach to the conflict.

“He can’t limit it to this one hostage deal,” said David Gergen, founding director of the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard University’s Kennedy School and an adviser to Republican and Democratic presidents over the past five decades. “It’s going to take multiple steps by President Biden to straighten things out.”

In the account of one senior Biden administration official, the president launched efforts to free the hostages after a video call from the Oval Office on October 13 with family members of US citizens who had been kidnapped during the Hamas raid on Israel six days earlier.

“It was one of the most gut-wrenching things I think I’ve ever experienced in that office,” the official said.

Within the White House, the negotiations were led by Jake Sullivan and Brett McGurk of the National Security Council, along with Bill Burns, the CIA director, and Antony Blinken, the secretary of state. Aside from top Israeli officials, their main counterparts were senior Egyptian and Qatari officials who were in direct contact with Hamas.

On Tuesday, Biden thanked the leaders of Qatar and Egypt for their “critical leadership and partnership” in reaching the agreement.

“Today’s deal should bring home additional American hostages, and I will not stop until they are all released,” he added.

Biden was personally involved “as extremely difficult talks and proposals were traded back and forth”, the senior US administration official said.

The main sticking points spanned “corridors, to surveillance, to timeframes, and total numbers” as well as the list of hostages and their “identifying information”.

Although Hamas had said it was willing to release 50 hostages in the first phase of the deal, it only produced precise details for 10, which the US deemed to be insufficient.

On November 12, Biden called the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, to make it “very clear that where we were was not enough”, according to the senior Biden administration official. In response, he received assurances from the ruler of the Gulf state that “he was going to do everything he possibly could to get this done”.

A critical breakthrough came shortly thereafter from Hamas, which produced the necessary information for the release of the first 50 women and children. By November 14, the day of Biden’s public pledge to family members of US hostages, Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu agreed to the deal in general terms during a call with the US president, reversing his weeks-long resistance to pausing military operations.

While Biden was in San Francisco last week for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, communication with Hamas went dark and the deal seemed in jeopardy. But talks resumed on November 17 and the final details were hammered early this week.

The senior US administration official said the White House now hoped the deal could be extended to include the release of additional hostages — and a longer pause in hostilities.

“We do anticipate it’ll be more than 50 but I just don’t want to put a number on it,” the official said. “The way the deal is structured, it very much incentivises the release of everybody.”

For Biden, securing the initial agreement was not only a diplomatic milestone but also an important domestic political achievement.

Suffering low approval ratings and anticipating a tough re-election campaign in the year ahead, the president’s staunch support for Israel in the wake of the Hamas attack has triggered a backlash from the left flank of the Democratic party and younger voters — potentially a crucial constituency in his political coalition.

Some progressive lawmakers have called for a full Israeli ceasefire, while others have demanded that the US impose stricter conditions on aid to Netanyahu’s government in response to mounting Palestinian civilian deaths.

Mainstream Democrats now have reason to feel confident that Biden’s approach is bearing fruit. Dina Titus, a Nevada Democrat and a member of the House foreign affairs committee, said she was “happy” to see the deal.

“The United States is capable of supporting Israel’s defence while also urging the protection of innocent Palestinians,” she said. “These actions are not mutually exclusive, and we must continue to do both.”

But it remains to be seen whether the deal — if it holds — will help lift Biden’s sagging polling numbers. An NBC poll released on Sunday showed the share of registered US voters who approve of Biden’s foreign policy fell from 41 per cent in September to 33 per cent in November.

The president’s backing of a traditional US ally is also failing to pay dividends in a highly polarised political landscape, according to Cameron Easley, lead US politics analyst at Morning Consult.

“The notion of rallying around the flag, it almost feels like it’s gone in modern politics,” said Easley.

Gergen said Biden needed to “give people a sense that the world is holding together, and he has a steady hand on the tiller,” because it was “unclear who is running this war”.

“It was a mistake for President Biden to give Netanyahu a blank cheque,” Gergen said.



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