Biden Administration has discussed potentially negotiating unilateral deal with Hamas to free U.S. hostages

WASHINGTON — Biden administration officials have discussed potentially negotiating a unilateral deal with Hamas to secure the release of five Americans being held hostage in Gaza if current cease-fire talks involving Israel fail, according to two current senior U.S. officials and two former senior U.S. officials. 

Such negotiations would not include Israel and would be conducted through Qatari interlocutors, as current talks have been, said the officials, all of whom have been briefed on the discussions.

White House officials declined to comment. 

The Biden administration has said it believes Hamas is holding five American hostages who were abducted during the Oct. 7 terrorist attack on Israel. U.S. officials are also hoping to recover the remains of three additional U.S. citizens who are believed to have been killed on that day by Hamas, which then took their bodies into Gaza. 

The officials did not know what the U.S. might give Hamas in exchange for the release of American hostages. But, the officials said, Hamas could have an incentive to cut a unilateral deal with the U.S. because doing so would likely further strain relations between the U.S. and Israel and put additional domestic political pressure on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. 

One of the former officials said the internal discussions have also taken place in the context of whether the possibility of the U.S. cutting a unilateral deal with Hamas might pressure Netanyahu to agree to a version of the current cease-fire proposal.

The Israeli leader is already under intensifying pressure from the family members of hostages to reach an agreement that would free their loved ones. Earlier this week, Israeli officials estimated that some 120 hostages are still being held by Hamas and that 43 of them have died in captivity. 

The five Americans believed to be held in Gaza are Edan Alexander, Sagui Dekel-Chen, Hersh Goldberg-Polin, Omer Neutra, and Keith Siegel.

Over the weekend, four Israeli hostages kidnapped from the Nova music festival were rescued in an operation conducted by the Israel Defense Forces. Gaza’s health ministry said that at least 274 Palestinians, including dozens of children, were killed during the Israeli raid.

On Monday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected to travel to the region to discuss the latest attempts to secure a ceasefire deal. A senior administration official told NBC News that the Israeli raid to free the four hostages on Saturday will likely make Blinken’s efforts to achieve an agreement and release the remaining hostages even more difficult. 

Rescuing the Israeli hostages has only strengthened Netanyahu’s determination to continue pursuing military operations in Gaza, rather than committing to a halt in the fighting, the senior administration official said. 

In some past efforts to free wrongfully detained Americans overseas, the U.S. has conducted prisoner swaps. It’s unclear if there are prisoners in U.S. custody whose release Hamas would want to secure and who the Biden administration would deem acceptable to free based on their criminal convictions crimes. 

The current senior U.S. official, though, said the idea of a trying to negotiate a deal between the Biden administration and Hamas remained a “very real option” if the current proposed ceasefire deal fails to advance.

White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said Sunday that the U.S. is still waiting on an “official” response from Hamas to the latest offer. Last week, CIA Director Bill Burns and White House Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk both traveled to the region to continue talks on the proposal. 

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