US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Thursday sought to advance a deal to free Gaza hostages in talks with Israeli moderates as he closed a Middle East tour without securing a pause in fighting.
US officials had tempered expectations that Blinken would achieve a breakthrough during his latest visit to the region since the October 7 attack on Israel, and few expected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to agree immediately to a Qatari-mediated offer.
Blinken remained upbeat despite Netanyahu's vocal rejection Wednesday of Hamas's demands and his vows to expand the four-month offensive in Gaza, hours after they met.
The top US diplomat held talks in Tel Aviv with Benny Gantz and Gabi Eisenkot, two former military chiefs who joined a unity war cabinet after October 7.
Blinken said he spoke to them about "the hostages and the strong desire that we both have to see them returned to their families, the work that's being done to that end".
He also was to meet privately with families of hostages seized by Hamas on October 7, many of whom have publicly pleaded for a compromise to return the captives.
"The most urgent issue is of course to find ways to bring back the hostages," Gantz told Blinken.
"That being done, many things can be achieved," Gantz said.
Blinken has shuttled around the Middle East on his fifth tour since the war between Israel and Hamas began, and brought to Israel a response via Qatar from Hamas to a hostage deal.
The US secretary of state said he still saw space for negotiations to improve on the deal and secure the hostages' release, with Egypt and Qatar holding a new round of talks Thursday in Cairo with Hamas.
Blinken also met Thursday with Israel's main opposition leader, Yair Lapid.
"It's good to see how committed this group is to the hostages, to solving the situation, to figure out ways to promote peace," the centrist former prime minister said, referring to efforts by Blinken and US officials.
Lapid drew an implicit contrast with Netanyahu who has resisted pressure from hostages' families to prioritise their release and instead vowed a relentless military campaign.
"The whole Israeli society is determined to bring back the hostages and to eradicate Hamas. Those are not conflicting goals and we will not give up either," Lapid wrote on X, formerly known as Twitter.
Gantz, in a separate X post, said he spoke to Blinken about bringing in an "international actor" that can deliver aid into Gaza away without diversion to Hamas.
"The continued delivery of humanitarian aid cynically intercepted by Hamas enables them to continue governing, harms the civilians of Gaza and only prolongs the suffering and fighting," Gantz wrote.
Blinken has pressed Israel to let more assistance to Gaza, where the United Nations has voiced fears of famine and most buildings lie in rubble, but Israel has cited security concerns for strict limits on entry into the blockaded territory.
In a plea at a news conference on Wednesday, Blinken said Israel should not "dehumanise" Palestinians in the way Hamas did to Israelis on October 7.
"The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of October 7, and the families in Gaza whose survival depends on deliveries of aid from Israel are just like our families," Blinken said.
Hamas militants on October 7 killed about 1,160 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on official Israeli figures.
Israel's military response has killed at least 27,840 people in Gaza, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry in the Hamas-run territory.
Militants also seized around 250 hostages on October 7. Israel says 132 remain in Gaza, of whom 29 are believed to have died.