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Examining the obstacles to securing a cease-fire in Gaza and hostage exchange


U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spent most of yesterday meeting with Israeli leaders on his seventh visit to the Middle East since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel and the counteroffensive in Gaza began. Blinken is also pressing Hamas to accept the latest proposal for a cease-fire, which includes a proposal to exchange hostages in Gaza for detainees in Israel. Mediators in Egypt and Qatar are working against the clock because Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says, with or without an agreement, Israel will go ahead with an incursion into Rafah in southern Gaza. That's where more than a million people have been hoping for safety, including hundreds of thousands of people who have fled from fighting in the north.

We wanted to get some insight into how Hamas and Israel are approaching these critical negotiations, so we called Mickey Bergman. He is the CEO and founder of Global Reach. That's a nonprofit that helps negotiate the release of Americans who are held as political prisoners abroad. He is also a former officer with Israel's Defense Forces. Mickey Bergman, thank you so much for being here.

MICKEY BERGMAN: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So here's what we know. Israel wants Hamas to release 33 Israeli hostages in exchange for a temporary 40-day cease-fire. Hamas wants a permanent end to the fighting. From where you sit, are these the real sticking points, or is there something else?

BERGMAN: I think there's many more details than that, Michel. But the key to understand the dynamic is to understand the mismatch in understanding of negotiations between Israel and Hamas.

MARTIN: Explain. Please explain.

BERGMAN: Yeah, what do I mean by that? For Israel and the West, we're used to negotiation as a transaction. We're focused on the transaction - what it is that we pay in order to get back something, the give and take. Hamas has approached negotiations - they're stating from the beginning what is a certain outcome or a picture, a status picture by the time the deal is done. And the further we get from that outcome, the longer the list of demands appears to be. What do I mean with this? When Hamas - earlier in this war, Hamas' list of demand looked shorter. But from Hamas' perspective, it wasn't a list of demands. It was what we expect to be the status when hostages are returned. And that was - there was Palestinian prisoners that needed to be back. There was a withdrawal of Israeli forces from the early parts that Israel incurred in - went into Gaza and a freedom of movement.

Now, the more Israel got into Gaza, the more the situation gotten worse, there was more steps to take to get in - back into that status quo, into that certain outcome that Hamas demanded be the situation. From the Israeli point of view, that looks like they're just increasing their list of demands. And that is a dynamic, especially when it plays out in public, that makes it extremely difficult to get to an end, an agreement of a deal.

MARTIN: So is there anything that would intervene in this dynamic? Do you see any evidence that any of the negotiators here - the U.S., Egypt, Qatar - that anything is intervening in this dynamic 'cause it seems like this is sort of an ongoing cycle?

BERGMAN: Yeah. I think - first, it's a great question. I think there is. There's a few elements that are very important. First of all, these are - forgive me for the analogy of it. These are like two people, two sides haggling over a price of a glass of milk while the milk sours. There is a time - ticking time on the lives of the hostages. And we've already seen that number go down between December when this deal was initially proposed and now in the end of April, early May when we have less hostages to actually save in this. So that's one.

And second, the videos that we saw last week - it's not a coincidence that two of the three hostages in these videos are American citizens. Hamas understand the pivotal role that the U.S. is playing on this and the leverage that they might and need to apply in order to get this deal done. From a U.S. perspective, at least from the stated U.S. policy, it is a win-win for them. They want the hostages back. They want a deal. And they want the violence to stop so they can start building up. So that's the first one.

The second one is the Rafah operations. Again, Bibi Netanyahu - Prime Minister Netanyahu - from his perspective, threatening these operations is - he thinks it's leverage. It's going to decrease the price of the deal. But from Hamas' perspective, these operations are actually going to increase the price because the leverage won't work. And Hamas released those videos because they want to make sure that everybody sees these hostages are alive.


BERGMAN: They want a deal done.

MARTIN: Briefly, is there any scenario in which this killing stops anytime soon - I mean, on both sides?

BERGMAN: I - if we get into the stage one of this deal with the pressure of the U.S., I believe it will be the end of the war.

MARTIN: Well, we will look forward to that. That is Mickey Bergman. He's the CEO of Global Reach. Mr. Bergman, thank you so much for sharing these insights with us.

BERGMAN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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