The US, Egypt and Qatar are pushing Israel and Hamas to join a phased diplomatic process that would start with a release of hostages and, eventually, lead to a withdrawal of Israeli forces and an end to the war in Gaza, diplomats involved in the talks say.

Taher Al-Nono, a media adviser to Hamas, said there was no real progress. After The Wall Street Journal’s report, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that he rejected Hamas’s demands because they included an end to the war.

“If we agree to this, then our warriors fell in vain. If we agree to this, we won’t be able to ensure the security of our citizens,” Mr Netanyahu said.

But people briefed on the talks said Israel and Hamas at least were again willing to engage in discussions after weeks of stalled talks following the end of the last ceasefire on November 30.

Negotiations were set to continue in Cairo in coming days, the sources said. The two parties’ “willingness to discuss the framework was a positive step”. “Mediators are now working to bridge the gap,” one of the people briefed on the talks said.

The new proposal, backed by Washington, Cairo and Doha, represents a new approach to defusing the conflict – aiming to make the release of Israeli hostages kidnapped by Hamas part of a comprehensive deal that could lead to an end to hostilities.

In November, a pause in fighting lasted a week and was accompanied by an exchange of 100 Israeli hostages in Gaza for more than 300 Palestinians imprisoned by Israel.

Israeli negotiators have continued to push for a two-week halt to fighting to allow for hostage-prisoner exchanges and have been reluctant to discuss plans that envision a permanent ceasefire, Egyptian officials said.

Hamas, on the other hand, is seeking to gain maximum advantage from the captives it holds, and only wants to trade them for thousands of Palestinian prisoners and a permanent ceasefire. Gaza leader Yahya Sinwar believes that the Israelis will prioritise hostages over the battlefield and that Hamas needs to hold out as long as possible to exhaust Israel and keep international pressure on it, the officials said. Sinwar is willing to release hostages but wants a longer ceasefire and better terms than last time.

In his remarks on Sunday, Mr Netanyahu said he rejected Hamas’s demands, which he said included ending the war, pulling Israel’s troops out of Gaza, releasing Hamas militants involved in the October 7 attacks on Israel, and leaving Hamas intact.

Mr Netanyahu said he told US President Joe Biden in the phone call on Friday that Israel would accept nothing but “total victory” in Gaza.

“I greatly appreciate US support for Israel, and I said this to Biden. But I also stand firmly by our vital interest,” he said.

Hamas took more than 200 hostages in a surprise assault on Israel on October 7 that Israel says also left about 1200 people dead.

The US, Egypt and Qatar see another hostage deal as the key to bringing a prolonged halt to the fighting. Egyptian officials say that while Israeli leaders publicly take an uncompromising stance, there are divisions within the cabinet, with some calling for prioritisation of hostages. In a rare interview with Israeli television, Gadi Eisenkot, a former general who is now a non-voting member of Israel’s war cabinet, said: “We should say bravely that it is impossible to return the hostages alive in the near future without an agreement.”

Other senior Israeli leaders disagree, saying that only continued military pressure on Hamas will compel the group to return captives.

The mediators have proposed a 90-day plan that would first pause fighting for an unspecified number of days for Hamas to first release all Israeli civilian hostages, while Israel would release hundreds of Palestinians that Israel has imprisoned, withdraw forces from Gaza’s towns and cities, allow freedom of movement in the Gaza Strip, end drone surveillance and double the amount of aid going into the enclave.

In the second phase, Hamas would free female Israeli soldiers and turn over bodies while Israel would release more Palestinians.

A third phase would involve the release of Israeli soldiers and fighting-age men Hamas considers soldiers, while Israel would redeploy some of its forces outside the borders of the Gaza Strip.

The plan then envisions talks for a permanent ceasefire, normalisation of relations between Israel and Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the relaunching of a process to create a Palestinian state, Egyptian officials said.

Gulf countries have ruled out funding a reconstruction of Gaza – as the Israelis have called for – without a clear and irreversible path to a Palestinian state.

The Wall Street Journal