CIA Chief William Burns Heads to Qatar as Efforts to Contain Israel-Hamas Conflict and Release Hostages Continue

CIA Director William Burns will be in Doha, Qatar, on Thursday as part of a multi-country visit to the region, according to a diplomatic source and a U.S. official familiar with the trip. The career diplomat turned spy chief is expected to meet with intelligence counterparts and other officials for discussions on the Gaza conflict, including preventing its spread, and to facilitate hostage negotiations that appear to have stalled in recent weeks.

An official with knowledge of the visit told CBS that Burns joined Mossad Director David Barnea in Doha for trilateral talks with the Qataris to work through the details of a potential humanitarian pause that would see the release of hostages and more aid entering Gaza. The official said the talks have been progressing well toward a deal in the past few days.  

There is hope that Burns can help jumpstart diplomatic efforts, including rekindling the hostage diplomacy that faltered at the end of October. Israel publicly claims that Hamas is not serious about a hostage release, but U.S., Israeli and Qatari officials have been continuing to work behind the scenes with a special focus on dual national civilians. 

The CIA declined to comment on the director’s travels as a matter of policy. 

Burns is one of several senior officials the Biden administration has deployed overseas in an effort to forestall a regionalization of the conflict, support ongoing efforts to boost humanitarian aid into Gaza and secure the release of Hamas-held hostages. 

Senators Receive Briefing On Situation In Ukraine From Defense Officials
CIA Director William Burns arrives for a briefing at the U.S. Capitol on September 20, 2023.KEVIN DIETSCH / GETTY IMAGES

The U.S. estimates there are around 200 hostages, and has been focused on securing the release of roughly 50 civilians. Steve Gillen, the deputy special envoy for hostage affairs, has been in Israel for weeks along with other State Department officials working on the issue, along with other U.S. agency officials.

Since early October, there have been multiple false starts to the hostage release diplomacy. CBS News had been told of a near-imminent release expected to take place the week of October 23. Plans were being put in place for a humanitarian release of roughly 50 civilian hostages that would coincide with a short pause in fighting to allow for the release to safely happen while humanitarian aid, including fuel, would also be permitted to enter Gaza. It is unclear why the deal fell apart at the 11th hour. 

On October 27, Israel expanded its ground offensive into Gaza. The escalation impacted the hostage diplomacy, but contact continued between the Qatari government and Israeli intelligence. Mossad chief David Barnea visited Doha that Saturday, the day after the ground invasion began.

Since that time, the White House and Pentagon have acknowledged that President Biden authorized the use of unarmed drones to help locate American hostages in Gaza. The majority of those held are Israeli citizens.

On Wednesday, a source familiar with the hostage-focused talks told CBS News there is hope of diplomatic progress. However, a U.S. official informed CBS News the situation remains binary and dismissed speculation about momentum by saying the only way to measure progress is for the hostages to be released. 

The White House continues to tout the recent release of the Chicago-based Raanan family as a “test case” that proves its diplomacy can work. Given the high number of hostages held by Hamas, Islamic Jihad and potentially other groups, coordinating a release would require any pause in fighting to last longer than a few hours. Multiple U.S. officials told CBS News the release of the Raanan mother and daughter was “‘proof of concept” that showed Qatar could negotiate with Hamas and that the neutral entity of the International Committee of the Red Cross could facilitate the release once a deal is brokered. A senior administration official described that process on Friday as working “like clockwork” to get the hostages out.

On Sunday, Israel’s ambassador to the U.S., Michael Herzog, told “Face the Nation” that Hamas is simply “playing for time, because Hamas is trying to stop our military efforts.” He went on to argue that the bombing and ground invasion would aid hostage efforts by putting more pressure on Hamas.

Speaking from Tokyo on Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken reiterated U.S. support for humanitarian pauses in Israel’s military operations in Gaza to address “urgent needs” on the ground. Last week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected Blinken’s push for a pause in the fighting, saying Hamas must agree to release the hostages as part of it.

A senior Israeli official told CBS News and other reporters on Tuesday that Israel is ready for a pause in fighting if it concretely assesses Hamas is serious about releasing hostages. 

Ten Americans, including one lawful permanent resident, remain unaccounted for since the October 7 attack by Hamas on border communities in southern Israel. More than 1,400 people, including 36 U.S. citizens, were killed and more than 5,400 wounded in the assault. 

Israel’s retaliatory strikes in Gaza have since killed more than 10,000, including more than 4,000 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry.

This picture taken from a position along the border with the Gaza Strip in southern Israel on November 8, 2023 shows a view of buildings destroyed in the north of the Palestinian enclave following Israeli bombardment amid the ongoing battles between Israel and the Palestinian group Hamas.JACK GUEZ/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES

Burns, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Jordan from 1998 to 2001, is conversant in Arabic and is one of the few members of the Biden administration who had been publicly sounding the alarm that the Middle East was ripe for a conflagration sparked by the dire Palestinian situation and tumultuous state of Israeli politics. He arrived in Israel on Sunday and was expected to make stops in Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates and other Gulf nations on his trip.

Burns has been dispatched previously by Mr. Biden in moments of heightened geopolitical tension. He traveled to Moscow in November 2021 to warn Russian President Vladimir Putin against invading Ukraine. In August of that year, as the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan loomed, Burns also traveled to Kabul to meet with the Taliban’s then-de facto leader, Abdul Ghani Baradar. In May he traveled in secret to Beijing to establish ties with his intelligence counterpart there.

Source : CBS News

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