White House national security communications adviser John Kirby speaks during a news conference with White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House on May 6, 2024 in Washington, DC. (Andrew Harnik/Getty Images)

(WASHINGTON) — An unexpected announcement from Hamas claiming it had accepted the terms of a cease-fire deal temporarily raised hopes for an extended truce in Gaza and the release of scores of hostages still held in the enclave, but U.S. and Israeli officials say an agreement has not yet been reached — leaving negotiations in a precarious position.

“We are at a critical stage right now,” White House spokesperson John Kirby told reporters on Monday. “I don’t know that it gets any more sensitive than right now.”

A spokesperson for Hamas’ political arm first sparked confusion and widespread speculation by asserting the group had informed Qatari and Egyptian officials mediating the negotiations that it had accepted a proposal from the two countries without providing any additional details.

U.S. and Israeli officials were surprised by Hamas’ public declaration, which came on the heels of what officials described as a frustrating weekend of negotiations that almost saw the talks fall apart entirely.

The highest levels of both countries’ governments immediately began to analyze Hamas’ full response. Israel convened an urgent meeting of its war cabinet, and President Joe Biden was promptly briefed on the latest developments, according to the White House.

Optimism for an agreement waned again when Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office signaled that Hamas had not accepted anything that resembles the framework that has been on the table for weeks — one that Secretary of State Antony Blinken has called “extraordinarily generous” on Israel’s part — but instead terms it described in a statement as “far from Israel’s necessary requirements.”

However, the prime minister’s office also said that Israel, which has so far stayed on the sidelines during the latest round of negotiations, would now send a delegation to the talks in order to “exhaust the possibility of reaching an agreement under conditions acceptable to Israel.”

U.S. officials have not yet given any assessment of Hamas’ position, but one described Israel’s intention to ramp up its participation as a positive sign.

CIA Director William Burns, who has played a prominent role in the negotiations, arrived in Cairo on Friday and is expected to remain in the region as he works to push a deal over the finish line.

“Director Burns is still talking to partners about this,” Kirby said. “And the director traveled to see if we can’t bring this thing home.”

The Biden administration has been under pressure to lock up an agreement for months to free the hostages, which include American citizens, as well as to stave off a looming Israeli incursion into Rafah that U.S. officials warn would have dire implications for Gaza’s civilian population.

But Israel’s war cabinet said in a statement on Monday that it unanimously voted to continue operations in Gaza’s southernmost city, where more than a million displaced Palestinians are sheltering, to “exert military pressure on Hamas in order to promote the release of our hostages and the other goals of the war.”

The U.S. has consistently urged Israel against carrying out an invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza, but two administration officials say the administration has softened its public condemnation of Israel’s rhetoric surrounding a potential operation –seeing it as a potentially effective means of pushing Hamas to accept a deal.

But the officials also said the U.S. doesn’t assess that Israel is bluffing, and that Israel won’t agree to any diplomatic resolution to the conflict that allows Hamas battalions to remain inside Rafah.

Before news of Hamas’ potential agreement to a cease-fire deal broke on Monday, Biden and Netanyahu spoke over the phone on other pressing matters tied to the conflict, including Israel’s military objectives in Rafah and protections for civilians.

“I think we just have to see what transpires,” Kirby said. “The president was very direct and consistent that we don’t want to see major ground operations in Rafah that put these people at greater risk.”

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