U.S. President Joe Biden has dispatched one of his most trusted, and potentially influential, officials to the Middle East in the hopes of turning a tenuous truce between Israel and Hamas into something more.
A U.S. official confirmed to VOA that CIA Director William Burns traveled to Qatar Tuesday for the high-level talks, “including discussions on hostages.”
The official spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to discuss the sensitive talks. The CIA, which rarely talks about the director’s foreign travel, declined to comment on the trip, first reported by The Washington Post.
Israeli media, as well as other outlets, quoted diplomatic sources as saying that while in Doha Burns met with the head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency as well as with Qatari and Egyptian officials.
Top U.S. officials have backed Israel with both words and weapons in the aftermath of the Hamas terror attack on October 7 that killed about 1,200 people in Israel, the majority of whom were civilians.
But the White House has also pushed for the release of all of the approximately 240 people taken hostage by Hamas during the attack, praising the now five-day-old truce that has seen more than 70 of the hostages returned to their families in exchange for the release of 150 Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.
“The objective of the administration at the moment, clearly, is to try to extend the truce or cease fire as long as possible and get as many hostages released as much as possible,” said Paul Pillar, a former senior CIA officer who now teaches at Georgetown University.
And Pillar told VOA that Burns, a former diplomat turned spy chief, is well-positioned to help that happen.
“He is a highly accomplished and very much respected, both at home and abroad, diplomat,” Pillar said, further describing Burns as someone who is “perhaps just one step removed from what had been the main line of the Biden administration policy ever since the events of October 7th, which was, and this is the way it was seen by many, to go all in with Israel.”
Burns’ trip to Doha is his second to the Middle East in the past month.
His first trip, in early November, took him to multiple countries for talks with leaders and intelligence counterparts focused on kick-starting hostage negotiations and on preventing the Israel-Hamas conflict from spreading into a regional crisis, a U.S. official told VOA at the time.
But while an effort to extend the truce and free more hostages may dominate this round of talks; some former officials think the CIA director is also looking ahead.
“When we’re talking about the day after, when this all ends, what does [the] Gaza Strip look like?” said Marc Polymeropoulos, a former senior CIA operations officer who worked extensively in the Middle East. “What kind of international force would be present? How do we rebuild, collectively, the international community?”
And there may also be some discussion among the United States, Israel, Egypt and others about what comes next for Hamas, a U.S.-designated terror group.
“Hamas has gained incredible legitimacy amongst the Palestinian people in Gaza and the West Bank for being able to recover, in their view, Palestinian prisoners,” Polymeropoulos told VOA. “They are actually being treated now almost as a state actor. And I think that’s something that is concerning, not only for Israel, but the United States.”