US walks tightrope as hostage deal nears, Israel eyes southern Gaza

U.S. officials are walking a delicate yet contorted tightrope when it comes to addressing Israel’s offensive in Gaza as it stares down a potential deal to release dozens of hostages from Hamas’s grip, while emphasizing “real concern” for an Israeli operation eyed in the coastal enclave’s southern tip.

Deputy national security adviser Jonathan Finer was tasked Sunday with tackling the aftermath of a report that broke late Saturday indicating that a deal was close to being reached for a five-day pause in fighting in exchange for the release of some of the 239 hostages in Gaza who were captured on Oct. 7.

Reporting by The Washington Post indicated that a U.S.-brokered deal as a result of talks in Doha that involved Israel and Hamas via Qatari mediators would free dozens of women and children as well as allow an increase in much-needed humanitarian assistance for civilians, including fuel.

Finer, as well as Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Michael Herzog, expressed hope a hostage agreement could be reached in the coming days, but they were careful to remain cautious that the deal is not yet done.

“[W]e are closer than we have been to reaching a final agreement, but that on an issue as sensitive as this and as challenging is this, the mantra that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed really does apply. And we do not yet have an agreement in place,” Finer told CBS’s Margaret Brennan on “Face the Nation.”

On ABC’s “This Week” with Martha Raddatz, Finer responded to a notion expressed by Qatar’s prime minister that mostly “very minor” logistical and practical issues remain before the hostages could be released.

“[S]ome of the gaps have now narrowed. Some of the issues that were at odds have now been closed out. But we are not finished — there is not yet a deal in place. And I think it would be premature to conclude that this is inevitable given how close we have come in the past,” Finer said, adding that he would not detail negotiations in public.

“They’re making some progress, and we hope that that will be concluded soon so that these people can finally come home,” he added.

Herzog also on ABC’s “This Week” described the status of the negotiations as “hopeful,” and he said he hoped that they could soon come to fruition.

“We are hopeful that we can get a significant number of hostages freed in the coming days. I don’t want to go into the details of these talks. They are obviously very sensitive. The less we’re going to the details, the better the chances of such a deal. But they are very serious efforts, and I’m hopeful that we can have the deal in the coming days,” he said.

Herzog was also cautious, however, to emphasize that a brief pause did not indicate support for a cease-fire, which U.S. and Israeli officials firmly maintain would only help Hamas regroup.

“We’re talking about a pause in the fighting for a few days, so we can get the hostages out,” Herzog said. “It’s not — it’s not a cease-fire because we will continue to push against Hamas to dismantle their military infrastructure and their terror infrastructure. We are not going to stop that, but we are willing to go for a pause, for a significant number of hostages, if we have [a] deal.”

Simultaneously, Israel has been eyeing an offensive in Gaza’s south, where thousands of civilians have fled in recent weeks after heeding evacuation orders by Israel to do so.

Finer on CBS was asked how much the U.S. would apply any legal restrictions to military equipment it sends Israel on a “human rights basis” after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told the network last week that Israel was “not successful” in minimizing civilian casualties.

The national security adviser responded with a sustained notion by the Biden administration that Israel had the right to defend itself, but he added there were concerns about where they would target next.

“In the event that we believe that Israel is likely to to embark on combat operations, including in the south, we believe both that they have the right to do that, but that there is a real concern, because hundreds of thousands of residents of Gaza have fled now from the north to the south at Israel’s request,” Finer said. “And we think that their operations should not go forward until those people — those additional civilians have been accounted for in their military planning.

Thomas White, the director of  the U.N. Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees, told ABC that the situation in Gaza remained “very desperate,” describing a recent report that one of its schools were hit as “horrific.”

“This is the reality of this conflict, is that people in Gaza have got nowhere to go. It’s unlike other conflicts where, you know, there’s fighting in one city and you move to another city,” White said. “You know, the reality is, the Gazans have got nowhere to go for safety. And they are all exposed to the threat of fighting, and particularly airstrikes.”

The Biden administration has come under increased pressure over the last month as the Palestinian death toll climbs to the tens of thousands, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

It has shifted its tone on the war since its start, at first offering unequivocal support to Israel before it began lacing its messaging with warnings to its strongest Middle East ally that it must abide by international law and do what it can to limit civilian casualties while allowing for humanitarian aid to enter.

But that shift hasn’t resonated with Democrats, whose support of Biden on the matter of foreign policy continues to erode, as evidenced by an NBC poll released Sunday.

That survey found just 34 percent of voters approve of how Biden is handling the Israel-Hamas war, with 51 percent of Democrats approving of Biden’s handling of the conflict.

A growing contingent of Democratic lawmakers are also increasing calls for a cease-fire, a move that neither the administration nor Israel support. Meanwhile, demonstrations by protestors who support a cease-fire have turned violent at the doorstep of Democratic Party headquarters both in Washington and California in recent days.

For his part, Biden made his most recent case on the matter in an op-ed published by The Washington Post in which he acknowledged brutal attacks by Hamas on Israelis and the deaths of thousands of civilians in Gaza while offering again the only foreign policy solution he sees fit in the region.

“A two-state solution — two peoples living side by side with equal measures of freedom, opportunity and dignity — is where the road to peace must lead. Reaching it will take commitments from Israelis and Palestinians, as well as from the United States and our allies and partners. That work must start now,” Biden wrote.

When asked about House and Senate Democrats who are increasingly pushing for conditions on aid in relation to what some call indiscriminate bombing, Finer said no U.S. assistance to another country was unconditional but that the situation at hand came with its own set of unique complications.

“All of the requirements associated with international humanitarian law are applicable here. The last thing I will say on this, though, and it’s important to bear in mind, is that Israel is fighting an adversary that not only does not hold itself to these same standards, it openly boasts about flouting them and about its violations, flagrant violations of international law,” Finer told CNN’s Jake Tapper on “State of the Union.”

“That does not diminish Israel’s obligations, but it is a facet of this conflict that makes the challenge extremely daunting.”

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