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CIA Director William Burns arrived in Qatar on Tuesday to hold secret meetings with the director of the Israeli intelligence service Mossad and the Qatari prime minister with the aim of brokering a comprehensive deal between Israel and Hamas, according to three people familiar with the visit.
Burns is pushing for Hamas and Israel to expand ongoing hostage negotiations, which have so far been limited to women and children, to also include the release of men and military personnel.
Burns is also seeking a longer-term ceasefire of several days while taking into account Israeli demands that Hamas release at least 10 people for every day the war is halted, the people familiar with the matter said on condition of anonymity for sensitive details of the discussions. .
Burns is pushing for the immediate release of American hostages held by Hamas. American officials estimate the number of these hostages between eight or nine.
The CIA refused to comment on its director's travel.
“Director Burns traveled to Doha to hold meetings on the conflict between Israel and Hamas, including the ongoing hostage discussion,” a US official said.
Burns emerged as the most important American negotiator in the hostage crisis, as President Biden included him in his extensive group of contacts throughout the Middle East, especially within the Israeli Mossad.
“They listen to him and respect him very much,” said a person familiar with the negotiations.
Burns, a veteran diplomat and former US ambassador to Moscow, is often called upon by Biden to deal with the administration's most pressing challenges, from warning Russia against the use of nuclear weapons in Ukraine to negotiating... With the Taliban amid the American evacuation crisis in Afghanistan.
Burns' role in the Israeli war on Gaza became particularly prominent given Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reliance on Mossad chief David Barnea.
“Barnia is the key Israeli person for these negotiations,” said Natan Sachs, director of the Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution.
Far outside Netanyahu's circle of trust lie Israel's Intelligence Minister, Gila Gamliel, and Foreign Minister, Eli Cohen, observers say, making Burns' meetings with his counterpart a focal point for deal-making. “U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken would be the counterpart if the Israeli foreign minister had any influence in the government, but he does not,” Sachs said.
The channel was used between Burns and Parnia earlier this month when the two met in Qatar to discuss a ceasefire and the contours of a hostage release with the Qatari Prime Minister, Mohammed bin Abdulrahman bin Jassim Al Thani, on November 9.
Hours after the meeting ended, the White House announced that Israel would begin a four-hour ceasefire in northern Gaza to allow Palestinians to escape hostilities — a welcome move in the eyes of the White House but falling short of US requests for a multi-day ceasefire.
Qatar, a gas-rich peninsula in the Persian Gulf, has been a mediator in talks between Israel and Hamas since the beginning of the conflict.
US officials are pushing for a longer period of days without fighting to release hostages and allow humanitarian aid into the enclave. Israeli officials have told their counterparts that the maximum number of additional days they are willing to allow is 10 before they seek to resume military operations, people familiar with the matter said. Netanyahu has vowed to destroy Hamas, and officials are skeptical about whether Israel can be persuaded to back down from its 10-day cap amid pressure to release as many hostages as possible.
Netanyahu, speaking at the weekend, vowed to keep fighting beyond the current round of hostage negotiations. “We will return with full force to achieve our goals: eliminating Hamas and ensuring that Gaza does not return to what it was,” he said.
The latest round of releases on Monday led to the release of 51 Israeli hostages, as well as 18 foreign nationals from countries such as Thailand and the Philippines, while Israel released 150 imprisoned Palestinian women and teenagers.
The truce agreed last week was the first cessation in hostilities since the conflict began on October 7, when Hamas militants launched a violent cross-border attack that killed 1,200 people and took more than 240 hostage.
Israel responded with a massive bombing campaign and ground offensive that has killed more than 13,300 Palestinians, many of them children, according to Gaza's Health Ministry, which warns its tally is incomplete. Large sections of the densely populated enclave have been leveled by Israeli bombs and artillery, and Israeli restrictions on food, fuel and drinking water have created a humanitarian catastrophe.
While fighting was halted as part of the truce, aid agencies rushed to boost deliveries to Gaza.
US officials worry that if Hamas and Israel fail to negotiate continuity, aid delivery will falter again. One of Burns' goals in Qatar is to explore what kind of formula or mechanism could be created to ensure the flow of aid outside of hostage negotiations, people familiar with the matter said.
There is agreement among all parties that the flow of aid into Gaza is insufficient, but US officials say the main challenge is security and logistical problems that do not allow for more than 200 trucks per day. One potential solution is to boost capacity at the Rafah border crossing, which separates Gaza from Egypt, by replacing outdated security equipment.