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Biden and Netanyahu discuss hostage release at length during call Sunday, but gaps remain

President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu discussed a deal to secure the release of hostages in Gaza at length on Sunday, according to a senior administration official, who cautioned that while a framework is in place, gaps remain.

In their first call since January 19, Biden and Netanyahu discussed Israel’s ongoing campaign in Gaza, the return of hostages held by Hamas, and Israel’s anticipated ground assault on the city of Rafah, which has drawn concern from the US and from others in the region.

“The President reaffirmed our shared goal to see Hamas defeated and to ensure the long-term security of Israel and its people. The President and the Prime Minister discussed ongoing efforts to secure the release of all remaining hostages held by Hamas,” a statement from the White House said.

Over the last several months, the US has attempted to put more pressure on the Israeli government to support a “humanitarian pause” in its war against Hamas. But those efforts have yielded little success.

Last week, Netanyahu called Hamas’ recent proposals for a ceasefire and hostage deal in Gaza “delusional.”

The full Hamas response proposes three phases, each lasting 45 days, including the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, a massive humanitarian effort, and freedom of movement for people throughout Gaza, according to a copy obtained by CNN.

“There is not a commitment – there has to be a negotiation, it’s a process, and at the moment, from what I see from Hamas, it’s not happening,” Netanyahu said.

There are 136 hostages being held in Gaza, including 132 who were captured during Hamas’ October 7 attack. Twenty-nine of the hostages are dead, according to the Israeli prime minister’s office. Secretary of State Antony Blinken previously said negotiations toward an agreement would continue despite the Israeli prime minister’s comments, which Blinken said were referencing the “absolute non-starters” in the proposal.

The call between Biden and Netanyahu lasted about 45 minutes, and two-thirds of the call was focused on the release of hostages, according to the senior Biden administration official.

“There are certainly gaps that need to be closed. Some of them are significant, but there has been real progress over the last few weeks, and we are now seeking to do all we possibly can to capitalize on it,” the official said.

Biden on Sunday “reaffirmed his view that a military operation in Rafah should not proceed without a credible and executable plan for ensuring the safety of and support for the more than one million people sheltering there,” the White House said.

Netanyahu last week said the Israel Defense Forces would “soon go into Rafah, Hamas’ last bastion.” More than 1.3 million people are believed to be in the southern city, the majority of whom were displaced from other parts of Gaza, according to the United Nations.

Netanyahu called for the people in Rafah to evacuate ahead of the ground assault, but it is unclear where they could go; the city borders Egypt to the south, but the border has been closed for months. The US has said it would not support an Israeli military operation in Rafah “without serious planning” given the risks.

“We have made very clear that an operation under current conditions is not something that we could envision,” the senior administration official said.

Biden’s phone call with Netanyahu comes a few days after the president offered one of his sharpest rebukes to date of Israel’s military conduct in Gaza, saying the operation to go after Hamas had been “over the top.”

“I’m of the view, as you know, that the conduct of the response in Gaza – in the Gaza Strip – has been over the top,” Biden told reporters at the White House on Thursday, describing his own efforts to open up Gaza so more humanitarian aid could flow in.

Biden and Netanyahu didn’t specifically address the president’s comment, the senior administration official said.

Last week, Blinken told Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials that the civilian toll in Gaza “remains too high” as violence continues in the region.

“Nearly 2 million people have been displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands are experiencing acute hunger. Most have lost someone that they love. And day after day, more people are killed,” Blinken said at a news conference after meeting with top Israeli officials.

The Israeli offensive, launched after the Hamas attack just over four months ago, has taken an immense humanitarian toll on the strip, with tens of thousands dead and the population of Gaza on the brink of famine. Officials see a cessation in fighting as central to both their short- and longer-term objectives for Gaza as international and domestic US pressure to end the conflict mounts.

Earlier Sunday, Biden also spoke with Blinken, CIA Director Bill Burns, Vice President Kamala Harris, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and his senior White House team.

This story and headline have been updated with additional developments.

CNN’s Jennifer Hansler, Amir Tal, Mick Krever, Abeer Salman, Eve Brennan and Hamdi Alkhshali contributed to this report.

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