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The latest on the high-stakes negotiations happening in the Middle East

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

International pressure is building for Israel and the militant group Hamas to reach a cease-fire deal. In southern Gaza, Israel's military continues to say it plans to stage an offensive in Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have been displaced. Meanwhile, in Israel, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces a threat from his political right to reject any deal or risk the breakup of his government. Negotiations are taking place in Egypt, and NPR's Becky Sullivan joins us from Tel Aviv for an update. Hi, Becky.

BECKY SULLIVAN, BYLINE: Hello.

CHANG: So where exactly do you things stand right now with the negotiations?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. You know, the chatter over this has really picked up over the past few days. And there's been a variety of proposals that have gone back and forth. There's a lot of elements to them, such as how many and which of the hostages should be freed, how long each stage of a cease-fire, any cease-fire will be and whether the last stage would be permanent, whether displaced Palestinians will be able to return to their homes in northern Gaza, if they're taking shelter in southern Gaza, as you said, or whether Israel's military will control a central corridor that sort of divides Gaza from north and south.

And so both sides have been pretty entrenched, but there has been discussion. And Hamas has said today that they're studying the latest proposal. And U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is traveling in the region right now. And today he said that he's, quote, "hopeful about a deal." Meanwhile, on the other hand, Israel is still hitting Rafah hard. Airstrikes there over the past 72 hours have killed around 40 Palestinians, more than half of whom are women and children. That's according to the Palestinian Center for Human Rights in Rafah.

CHANG: And there's pressure on Netanyahu to turn down a deal, right?

SULLIVAN: Yeah. Exactly. So this pressure is coming most acutely from a far-right member of Netanyahu's war cabinet. His name is Bezalel Smotrich. He's a very conservative finance minister, and he had very strong words yesterday when he said a deal would be, quote, "humiliating surrender" and said if Netanyahu agrees, that his government would, quote, "have no right to exist," which essentially is a support - or a threat to pull his support for Netanyahu's government, which Netanyahu can't really afford to lose Smotrich and the other, like, sort of hard-right conservatives. If that happened, he'd have to try to make a new coalition with more moderate parties to keep the government afloat. And if he can't do that, then there could be elections.

CHANG: Well, who are the voices in Israel calling for a deal right now?

SULLIVAN: Well, in the political sphere, there are some more moderate voices like Benny Gantz, who is a political rival to Netanyahu, who issued his own ultimatum on Sunday saying that he would withdraw support for Netanyahu if he doesn't reach a deal. And then just in society at large, one of the most powerful voices calling for a cease-fire for months has been the families of the hostages. There are more than 130 hostages still remaining in Gaza who were kidnapped on October 7. Dozens of them are believed to be dead. But Hamas, in its own way of turning up heat on the negotiation, put out some videos over the past week. And tonight, the families of two of the hostage - featured in those videos held a press conference in Tel Aviv. I spoke to Lee Siegel (ph). He's the older brother of an American hostage, Keith Siegel, and here's what he had to say.

LEE SIEGEL: If our government and Hamas cannot come to a deal now, it's many, many, many steps backward, and no one can afford that - not Israel, not Hamas, not Gaza, not the Middle East, not the world. It needs to happen now.

CHANG: We've been speaking with NPR's Becky Sullivan in Tel Aviv. Thank you so much, Becky.

SULLIVAN: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Becky Sullivan has reported and produced for NPR since 2011 with a focus on hard news and breaking stories. She has been on the ground to cover natural disasters, disease outbreaks, elections and protests, delivering stories to both broadcast and digital platforms.
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