newsIsrael at War

Herzog, Qatari PM discuss hostage talks in secret meeting

The Israeli president called the Friday encounter at the Munich Security Conference a "good discussion."

Family members of current and former Israeli hostages accompanied Israeli President Isaac Herzog to the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.
Family members of current and former Israeli hostages accompanied Israeli President Isaac Herzog to the Munich Security Conference, Feb. 17, 2024. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog secretly met with Qatar’s prime minister on the sidelines of the Munich Security Conference on Friday. First reported by Axios, the meeting was later confirmed by the president’s spokesperson.

Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who also serves as the Arab Gulf state’s foreign minister, discussed with Herzog the multilateral negotiations to release the remaining Israeli 134 hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

“I met with the Prime Minister of Qatar yesterday. It was a good discussion and I think he’s [undertaking] major efforts and devoting an enormous focus on this issue,” Herzog said on Saturday.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog is interviewed by Washington Post journalist David Ignatius at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 17, 2024. Photo by Haim Zach/GPO.

“It’s complicated, it’s difficult. One has to make sure that we know whether there is anybody who takes decisions on the other side. After all, you’re dealing with people who are being hidden and scattered all around Gaza, mostly in the tunnels, and we have to know their whereabouts, we are worried about the medication that came in and according to our data and information … hasn’t been received yet, or [only] by some of them, but most of them we don’t know,” said Herzog.

“So I think the most important thing, too, for everybody, is to understand if one wants to move on and find a horizon and this dire situation, which was initiated by Hamas in cruelty of unprecedented record, the worst atrocity against Jews since World War Two, with rape and butchering and chopping and burning, and of course abducting, one has to resolve the issue of the hostages and bring them back home safely and as soon as possible,” he added.

The meeting came at the end of a week of talks in Cairo that started with a one-day summit on Tuesday that involved high-ranking officials from Egypt, Israel, Qatar and the United States, including Al Thani, and continued into the rest of the week with lower-level officials.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Saturday re-emphasized his belief that strong military pressure on Hamas was the best way to secure the release of the remaining hostages in Gaza.

“The [hostage] negotiations require a strong stand. I must tell you, citizens of Israel, that up to this very moment, Hamas’s demands have been delusional and signify only one thing: The defeat of Israel,” said the premier.

“Clearly, we will not agree to them. But when Hamas drops these delusional demands we will be able to move forward. I want to tell you and the hostages’ families: Not for a moment have we forgotten our obligation to return all of the hostages,” he added.

Hostages’ family members accompanied Herzog to Munich for the 60th edition of the annual event. Freed captives Raz Ben Ami, Adi Shoham, and Aviva Segal were also with the Israeli president.

According to Herzog’s Saturday statement, the Israeli president held several meetings with world leaders aimed at increasing the pressure on Hamas to free the hostages still in its hands. During its Oct. 7 invasion of the northwestern Negev, Hamas murdered 1,200 people, wounded thousands more and kidnapped 253.

Security must come first

In a meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Saturday, Herzog responded to comments made before their exchange by the top American diplomat about “genuine opportunities” for Israel.

Blinken also said during a panel discussion on Saturday that there is “an extraordinary opportunity” in the coming months for Israel to normalize relations with more Arab states, not just the Saudis.

“Virtually every Arab country now genuinely wants to integrate Israel into the region to normalize relations … to provide security commitments and assurances so that Israel can feel safer,” Blinken said, adding that it is “more urgent than ever” to establish a Palestinian state.

However, Herzog noted that for Israel, security must come first.

“I heard your remarks today, and I think that I find them very interesting. I think there are opportunities; they need to be studied in depth. However, first and foremost, Israel’s security must be preserved, and for this, we have to complete the work of undermining and eradicating the basic infrastructure of Hamas,” Herzog said at the meeting with Blinken.

Herzog also met with U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris on Friday, with the hostage situation being discussed among other issues, according to the White House.

U.S. President Joe Biden has demanded a temporary ceasefire to secure the release of hostages in Gaza, claiming that the deal “has to” go through before Israel launches a military operation in the southern city of Rafah in the Gaza Strip.

Speaking at a quickly scheduled press conference on Friday about the death of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, Biden was asked if Israel had provided him with a plan to address the more than 1 million civilians sheltering in the southern Gaza city of Rafah ahead of an expected operation to clear out Hamas.

“There has to be a temporary ceasefire to get the prisoners out—to get the hostages out,” Biden said. “I’m hoping that the Israelis will not make any massive land invasion in the meantime. It’s my expectation that’s not going to happen. There has to be a ceasefire temporarily to get those hostages.”

The president added that he had had multiple, nearly hour-long conversations with Netanyahu conveying that message in recent days. He also noted that U.S. citizens remain among the hostages whom Hamas terrorists kidnapped on Oct. 7.

“My hope and expectation is that we’ll get this hostage deal,” he said. “We’ll bring the Americans home and the deal is being negotiated now.”

During Herzog’s interview on Saturday evening with Washington Post journalist David Ignatius on the main stage, he presented further evidence of the Nazi-influenced antisemitic ideology of Hamas, with a book found in Gaza titled The End of the Jews, authored by Mahmoud al-Zahar, co-founder of Hamas and former foreign minister of the Palestinian Authority. 

“This book, first of all, says we should not recognize the fact that there are Jews and Jewish people, but most predominantly it hails the Holocaust. It hails what the Nazis have done, and calls for nations to follow what the Nazis have done,” said Herzog.

“Now we’re in Munich. On the outskirts of Munich, there’s the Dachau Concentration Camp. Tens of thousands of our nation of Jews were slaughtered in Dachau. And that’s the problem, meaning, we have to have a coalition of all the moderate forces in the world, fighting this ideology, and the moderate forces in the world include many Sunni countries because they will be attacked by the same jihadists as well,” he continued.

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