CIA director in Egypt for high-stakes Israeli hostage, cease-fire talks

CIA Director William Burns arrived in Cairo, Egypt, Friday for the latest round of high-stakes negotiations over a hostage and cease-fire deal between Hamas and Israel, two U.S. officials and a source familiar with the matter told CBS News. 

The visit follows a stretch of technical talks and a fresh proposal from Israel that U.S. officials have described as “generous.”

House Intelligence Committee Hears Testimony On The 2024 Annual Threat Assessment
File: : Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns listens during a hearing with the House (Select) Intelligence Committee on March 12, 2024, in Washington, D.C.  Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images

Egyptian intelligence officials, alongside senior Qatari and American negotiators, have been for months facilitating the talks, which in recent weeks have taken on new urgency amid a looming Israeli ground invasion of Rafah, in southern Gaza, where more than 1.4 million Palestinians are sheltering.

Burns’ arrival signals negotiators may be nearing a critical window that could be decisive for a potential agreement. It was not immediately clear whether negotiators from Israel and Qatar were expected to join Burns in Cairo, as they did in previous rounds. 

A person familiar with the status of the talks said there had been “some progress,” but parties were still in a wait-and-see mode. 

The CIA declined to comment on Burns’ travel. The office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said it had “nothing to say.”  

American officials have publicly warned against an invasion of Rafah without a credible humanitarian plan. Earlier this week Netanyahu said Israel would invade the city whether or not a hostage deal was reached.

Speaking from Israel Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. position on Rafah was “clear” and would not change.

“We cannot, will not support a major military operation in Rafah, absent an effective plan to make sure that civilians are not harmed and no, we’ve not seen such a plan,” Blinken said.

He also urged Hamas to take the deal on the table: “There is no time for delay. There’s no time for further haggling. The deal is there. They should take it.”

Talks hit repeated snags in recent weeks over the number and type of hostages to be released and the length of the accompanying pause in hostilities. 

Hamas militants took more than 240 hostages and killed more than 1,200 Israelis during their deadly rampage into southern Israel on Oct. 7, 2023. The retaliatory military response by Israel, now in its sixth month, has resulted in the deaths of more than 34,000 Palestinian civilians, most of them women and children, according to local health officials.

There are believed to 133 hostages still being held in Gaza, and five of the unaccounted for are U.S. citizens. Last week Hamas released proof-of-life videos for two of the Americans, Hersh Goldberg Polin and Keith Siegel. In the propaganda videos, the two hostages are seen speaking on camera under duress. Siegel pressed the Israeli government to make a deal. 

The Israeli government has grown increasingly concerned in recent days that the International Criminal Court may issue arrest warrants for Israeli leaders, including Netanyahu, for possible war crimes in Gaza.

In an interview with CBS News’ Norah O’Donnell last month, Burns, a former diplomat and veteran negotiator, said the monthslong talks were like “pushing a very big rock up a very steep hill,” though he said the U.S. believed Hamas was “capable of releasing a number of hostages right now.”

“I think the region desperately needs that kind of a ceasefire,” Burns said.

Arden Farhi, Justine Redman and Camilla Schick contributed to this report.

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