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Nearly 7 months into the Israel-Hamas war, how do things look for a cease-fire?

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

From the war in Ukraine, we now turn to the war in Gaza, where there is some hope about cease-fire talks. A report from Egyptian state media says senior Hamas officials have left Egypt after a brief round of negotiations. Here's Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Saudi Arabia yesterday.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: Hamas has before it a proposal that is extraordinarily generous on the part of Israel. And in this moment, the only thing standing between the people of Gaza and a cease-fire is Hamas. They have to decide, and they have to decide quickly.

FADEL: As you heard there, the U.S. is pushing for a response, but there appears to be no timetable on that answer from the Hamas delegation. For more on the latest proposals and prospects, we're joined by Brian Katulis. He's a senior fellow with the Middle East Institute, a nonpartisan think tank. Brian, welcome back to the program.

BRIAN KATULIS: Hi, Leila.

FADEL: So it feels like we've been here before multiple times, furious negotiations to reach a cease-fire and a hostage exchange deal of some sort. Seven months into this war, is this time any different?

KATULIS: It feels like it could be. It's been five months since the last cease-fire, and these talks have been...

FADEL: Right.

KATULIS: ...On again, off again. And essentially, the reason why this is so tough is it's not just about negotiating the fate of a few hundred people...

FADEL: Right.

KATULIS: ...The hundred or so hostages held by Hamas in Gaza and the expected hundreds of Palestinian prisoners that would be released. It's really negotiating about a possible pathway to end this war, to end the conflict. And that's why it makes it so complicated because the two main parties to this war, Hamas and Israel, all have their own competing visions of how this might end, and they have different demands that they throw into the negotiations over all of this.

FADEL: Let me ask you about that. I mean, I think there's a perception that both Hamas and embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu benefit from this war. Netanyahu stays in power as a war president, despite the questions around the security failure that led to October 7, while Hamas is regaining popularity the longer this war goes on and as Palestinian suffering increases. So do either of these actors really want a deal?

KATULIS: That's a really good question, and I think, frankly, Netanyahu is facing extreme divisions within his own government. He has members of his cabinet, some who say, you need to do a deal now, and others who say, if you do this deal, we'll leave your government and collapse it. On the Hamas side, frankly, Hamas has been decimated by this conflict, but its leadership still remains in Rafah, where Israel is threatening to conduct a military operation there, so all of these are interlinked.

And the question, you know, they're posed with is whether or not they're able to come up with some sort of formula that allows them to survive in some sort of way, which is what their objective is. And these things seem to be at odds, but I think because of a number of reasons, including the length and the cost of this war, there may be more pressure to create pathways to end this soon.

FADEL: Now, we talked about an eventual solution to this conflict, but the stakes in this moment are high, right, Brian? Israelis really pressuring their government for a deal to get the hostages back more than seven months into this war - at least the families of the hostages - Palestinian civilians continuing to be killed at an alarming rate in Gaza, people on the brink of famine and, of course, this possible ground assault on the city of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians are sheltering. All of these really urgent factors - do they make an agreement more likely?

KATULIS: It complicates it, but I think it's unclear whether it's more likely. I think you add to it Hamas taking actions like they did yesterday, firing rockets from Lebanon...

FADEL: Right.

KATULIS: ...Also releasing hostage videos to try to pressure the society inside of Israel but also to shape perceptions here in the United States and other places to try to put pressure on negotiators. But ultimately, it comes down to whether or not the leaders of Hamas and Israel right now want to agree to it. It doesn't matter what people say in protests around this country or other places. What matters is what these leaders decide to do.

FADEL: And very quickly, how much influence does the U.S. have here to get this deal done?

KATULIS: I think the U.S. has some leverage, but it's often overstated in our own debate. Ultimately, it comes down to leaders trying to defend their own interests, as they define it, and defend their own people.

FADEL: Brian Katulis of the Middle East Institute. Thank you, as always, Brian.

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

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