How Joe Biden and a ‘secret cell’ of aides worked to arrange a Gaza ceasefire

President Biden’s brief sojourn in Tel Aviv marked the start of what has been a high-stakes game of shuttle diplomacy that resulted in a hostage deal, Andrew Feinberg reports

Wednesday 22 November 2023 21:31 GMT
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President Joe Biden speaks after the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework family photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez)
President Joe Biden speaks after the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework family photo at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023, in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Godofredo A. Vásquez) (AP)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas

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Ten days after Hamas massacred more than 1,000 Israelis during the terror attacks some have described as the worst attack on the Jewish people since the Holocaust, it looked like President Joe Biden’s — and America’s — influence in the Middle East was at a nadir.

Mr Biden appeared to have been snubbed by Arab leaders whom he’d been set to meet during a planned visit to Israel and Egypt, in critics’ telling because of his vociferous support for Israel’s military campaign to eradicate Hamas from the Gaza Strip following the 7 October attacks.

But Biden administration officials now say the president’s brief sojourn in Tel Aviv marked the start of what has been a high-stakes game of shuttle diplomacy that will soon result in the release of at least 50 women and children from captivity by Hamas in the coming days, with even more hostages possibly seeing freedom after that In exchange for Israel extending a pause in offensive operations and releasing some Palestinian prisoners.

The under-the-radar negotiations began shortly after the initial attacks, when the Qatari government approached the US and Israeli governments to discuss the potential for talks with the aim of inducing Hamas to release the hostages they’d taken.

Though Qatar, a US ally that hosts a major American military base on its soil, also serves as a home base for several top Hamas officials, the White House maintains that the Qatari government “made clear from the beginning” that the militant group’s hostage-taking was “outrageous” and stated that the hostages needed “to be released unconditionally”.

But a Biden administration official said the Qataris were more pragmatic behind the scenes, admitting in private discussions that dealing with Hamas to secure the release of the hostages would be “a difficult process”.

President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv.
President Joe Biden is greeted by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu after arriving at Ben Gurion International Airport, Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2023, in Tel Aviv. (Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

In response, officials say Mr Biden, through National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, ordered the standing-up of a small “cell” to work with the Qataris and Israelis “very secretly” and “very carefully” with an eye towards negotiations.

Mr Sullivan delegated this delicate task to Brett McGurk, a veteran diplomat and Middle East expert who has served in various roles under the last four presidents, and Joshua Geltzer, a counterterrorism expert who currently serves as legal adviser to the National Security Council.

“Qatar and Israel demanded really extreme discretion and sensitivity on this, but the cell — over time — established processes that proved to be effective,” the official said.

Mr McGurk and Mr Geltzer’s outreach to the Qataris and Israelis was the beginning of what the White House now says were “daily, sometimes hourly” engagements with officials from both countries on matters related to the hostages, as well as work by American operatives working “on the ground” to independently corroborate information obtained from other parties.

A senior Biden administration official said the president himself also dove into this delicate work, with Mr Biden becoming “directly and personally engaged to in this process throughout almost hour by hour,” continuing as recently as Tuesday evening, when he received a briefing from Mr McGurk not long before he departed the White House for his family’s annual Thanksgiving visit to Nantucket.

Israeli officials, including Mr Netanyahu, have acknowledged Mr Biden’s involvement, with the Israeli leader praising the US president’s work during the hostage crisis.

President Joe Biden speaks from the Oval Office of the White House Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, in Washington, about the war in Israel and Ukraine.
President Joe Biden speaks from the Oval Office of the White House Thursday, Oct. 19, 2023, in Washington, about the war in Israel and Ukraine. (AP)

But the extent to which pressure from Mr Biden forced the Israelis to accept an agreement has gone unreported until now, largely due to the intense secrecy surrounding the negotiations.

That pressure, delivered personally by the president over the 13 calls he has shared with Mr Netanyahu since the Hamas attacks, came as Mr Biden faced unrelenting criticism from the left wing of his party over his full-on embrace of Israel’s campaign against Hamas, including repeated calls for a ceasefire from Democrats in Congress.

Aides to Mr Biden say the president’s engagement with Mr Netanyahu included making “very clear” that Israel had to drop its opposition to allowing humanitarian aid into Gaza, which Israeli government officials had initially described as part of a “total siege” on the Hamas-controlled territory.

His early engagement with the Israeli leader — as well as corresponding talks with Egyptian President Fattah al-Sisi — resulted in a landmark deal to open the Rafah border crossing to trucks carrying needed aid, and later on to allow dual nationals to exit Rafah into Egypt.

At the same time, talks undertaken by the “secret cell” continued, eventually leading Hamas to release a mother-daughter pair of US nationals on 23 October.

A Biden administration official described that limited hostage release as “kind of a pilot process” allowing the US to “track, kind of in real-time,” the hostages as they moved from Gaza into Egypt with the aid of the International Committee of the Red Cross.

That limited hostage release “proved the concept and gave us some confidence that Qatar really could deliver through the cell that we’d established,” said the official, who added that the release of that pair of Americans directly led to “a very intensified process” of negotiations towards the release of hostages that is set to commence at 3.00 am ET on Thursday.

It was around then that the circle of officials involved in the talks expanded to include David Barnea, the director of Mossad, and his US counterpart, Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns, with the two top US and Israeli spies beginning regular conversations “about the contours of a deal from the Israeli side” while continuing to coordinate their engagements with the White House “cell”.

Between Mr Burns, National Security Adviser Sullivan, and Mr Biden himself, the negotiations over the next several weeks expanded to the point where US officials were holding “multiple calls a day” with Israeli, Qatari and Egyptian officials “at key moments,” all of which “proved critical to getting the traction and the process” set up for the hostage release, the official said.

Officials said Mr Biden’s engagement with Mr Netanyahu was particularly important during a “critical” six-day period in which they spoke on 20 October, 22 October, 23 October and 25 October.

“The President, of course, recognised … that there was now a possibility to secure the release of a large number of hostages and … that the hostage deal was really the only realistic path to securing a multi-day humanitarian pause in the fighting,” the official said.

Things began to move faster starting on 9 November, when Mr Burns travelled to the Qatari capital, Doha, for a meeting with the Emir of Qatar and Mr Barnea.

At the time, a sticking point in the talks was Hamas’ refusal to provide identifying information for the first 50 hostages — women and children all — who were to be released under the agreement. Mr Biden stepped in, calling the Emir personally and telling him that Hamas needed to provide what an official involved in the talks said was “clear identifying information for who would be in this group of 50, including “ages, gender [and] nationalities”.

“Without that, it was just very hard … to move ahead … it was a very important and a very intense call about where we stood,” the official said, adding later that the Emir told Mr Biden that he would “do everything he possibly could to get this done”.

Eventually, Hamas agreed, and on 14 November, Mr Netanyahu told Mr Biden during a phone call that he could accept an offer to release women and children in exchange for some Palestinian prisoners and a pause in the fighting, but talks sputtered amid Israeli forces’ move on the Al-Shifa Hospital in Gaza, which the Israelis have contended houses a Hamas command facility.

Hamas began demanding that the Israelis withdraw from the hospital, with the Israelis refusing to do so. The lines of communication went dead for several days until Mr Biden stepped in again on 17 November.

The US president was in San Francisco for the US-hosted Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation conference, but the official said Mr Biden took time out of his schedule to call the Emir once more and emphasise that “this was the time that the deal had to close”.

“The onus really at this moment was on Hamas, and we had a few very key demands that Hamas had to meet,” the official said.

On 18 November, top Biden aides — including Mr Burns — met with the Emir in Doha to review a six-page draft agreement.

“The meeting basically identified some of the remaining gaps in what by now was a pretty detailed five to six page text, with details on implementation steps from both sides so that nothing here is being left to chance at all,” an official said. “The deal is now structured for women and children in the first phase, but with an expectation for further releases … the clear aim is to bring all hostages home to their families”.

It’s possible that Israel and Hamas could have reached a similar deal long ago, had it not been for the Netanyahu government’s insistence on starting its’ ground offensive into Gaza.

Moti Cristal, a former member of the Israeli government who has been a negotiator during previous crises, told The Independent”a deal along the same lines had been in the offing before the invasion began.

But the retired Israeli Defence Force officer said the US “played a critical and instrumental role” in the negotiations during the Israeli ground campaign, which also had the effect of convincing Hamas that Israel was “serious” about making military progress against the organisation.

And after weeks of work by Mr Biden, his aides, and the Israeli, Egyptian and Qatari governments, it all came to fruition late Tuesday when Mr Netanyahu’s cabinet voted to approve the deal, just as Mr Biden was leaving for his five-day Thanksgiving vacation.

The Israeli government said the agreement will initially result in a four-day pause in hostilities, the longest break in the fighting since the Israeli Defence Force began attacking Gaza following the 7 October attacks.

In a statement, the president said he would continue his engagement with leaders in the region “to ensure this deal is carried through in its entirety” and stressed the importance of “all aspects of this deal” being “fully implemented”.

“As president, I have no higher priority than ensuring the safety of Americans held hostage around the world,” he said. “Today’s deal should bring home additional American hostages, and I will not stop until they are all released”.

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