Middle East crisis: Israel shows willingness to release high-profile Palestinian prisoners, officials say

President Biden said Monday that he believed negotiators were getting closer to a deal that would halt Israel’s military operations in Gaza within a week in exchange for the release of at least some of the more than 100 hostages held by Hamas.

Speaking to reporters during a stop in New York, Biden offered the most hopeful assessment of the hostage talks by any major figure in as many days, suggesting the war could be near a major turning point.

“I hope it will be by the end of the weekend,” he said when asked by reporters when he expected the ceasefire to begin. “My national security advisor tells me we are close. We are close. We’re not done yet. My hope is that next Monday we will have a ceasefire.”

The president delivered the comments spontaneously in response to questions during a visit to an ice cream parlor after taping a segment on Seth Meyers’ late-night talk show. They came amid an active period of talks in the region, with Israel’s war cabinet over the weekend approving the broad terms of a deal that would involve a six-week truce for the release of about 40 hostages. An Israeli delegation is expected to meet in Qatar with intermediaries from the United States, Egypt and Qatar.

An agreement for a prolonged ceasefire would stop Israeli bombings in the Gaza Strip, which have killed thousands of Palestinians and created a humanitarian crisis. It could also provide an opportunity for increased humanitarian assistance to Gaza, where food, water, electricity and other basic items are in short supply.

A negotiated settlement would be a dramatic, and perhaps decisive, moment in the nearly five-month conflict in the Middle East and could lead to the release of the six remaining American hostages, who were among more than 200 captured and taken to Gaza when Hamas attacked Israel on October 7. About 1,200 people died in Israel.

In time, it could also mean freedom for dozens of other hostages still in captivity. Their families have been waging a pressure campaign in Israel and around the world to demand their release, even as Israel has responded to Hamas attacks with a ferocious ground and air attack.

Biden did not elaborate Monday on the specifics of a ceasefire or whether Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel had signed an agreement. But the president’s assessment that one could be reached within a week was the clearest sign of progress in several weeks.

For Biden, helping orchestrate a lasting deal to stop the fighting could be a significant step toward addressing a difficult political vulnerability as he seeks a second term in the White House.

For months, Palestinian activists in the United States have been attacking Biden for what they see as his failure to do more to prevent civilian deaths in Gaza. Protesters have chased the president at most of his public events in recent weeks, sometimes waving signs calling him “Genocide Joe.”

That anger is likely to be on display Tuesday, when Democratic voters in Michigan go to the polls to choose the party’s presidential nominee. Some activists in Michigan, where many Palestinian Americans live, have urged voters to protest Biden’s stance on Gaza by voting for the “uncommitted” in the primaries.

The timing of Biden’s response to a reporter’s spontaneous question could undermine that effort and help the president show strength in the primary.

Efforts have been underway to ensure an end to the fighting since the early days of the war, although the president and his aides have repeatedly defended Israel’s responsibility to respond to the worst terrorist attack in its history.

At the same time, the administration has been under increasing pressure to rein in Israel’s government in light of the rising death toll in Gaza, which Gaza health officials say now exceeds 29,000, most of them civilians. In November, the United States helped negotiate a brief pause in fighting that led to the release of about 100 hostages. Israel’s military attack continued after the pause was broken over disagreements with Hamas.

In recent weeks, negotiators have expressed optimism that talks between the sides have moved in the right direction. But the discussions took place against a backdrop of threats from Netanyahu that the country’s forces were ready for a major attack on Rafah, in the southern part of Gaza.

More than a million civilians, many of whom fled Israel’s bombing in northern Gaza, are gathered in Rafah, and humanitarian organizations have warned that a major Israeli strike there could kill thousands more.

Biden spoke with Netanyahu on February 15, and White House officials said in a summary of the call that the two men “discussed ongoing hostage negotiations” and that the president “reaffirmed his commitment to working tirelessly to support the release.” of all the hostages.”