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Monday Briefing: U.S. Pushes for New Hostage Talks

President Biden’s Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, will travel to Egypt and Qatar to meet with top leaders about a deal for the release of hostages held by Hamas in exchange for a temporary pause in fighting.

Here’s the latest.

Egypt and Qatar helped broker a cease-fire in November during which Hamas released more than 100 people from captivity. The hope is that another such deal can be arranged. But American officials have said that a new hostage release has been complicated by Hamas’s evident desire for a permanent cease-fire.

McGurk’s trip comes as Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, once again said that he would not meet Hamas’s demands of a withdrawal of Israeli forces in return for the release of hostages. “Let it be clear: I utterly reject the Hamas monsters’ capitulation terms,” Netanyahu said yesterday.

Netanyahu again rejected the idea of the creation of a Palestinian state, just a day after President Biden floated the possibility of a disarmed Palestinian nation. Biden has argued that some kind of two-state solution is the only viable resolution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a position held by most U.S. and European leaders in recent history.

On Jan. 5, North Korea fired hundreds of artillery shells in waters near South Korean border islands. Last week, it said the South was a “hostile state” it would subjugate through a nuclear war. On Friday, it said it had tested an underwater nuclear drone to help repel U.S. Navy fleets. There’s stark disagreement over the meaning of this latest drumbeat of threats.

Several analysts say it’s a clue that Kim Jong-un, the North’s leader, has become disillusioned with diplomatic engagement with the West, and a few are raising the possibility that the country could be planning an assault on the South.

Others are more skeptical. Park Won-gon, a North Korea expert at Ewha Womans University in Seoul, believes it’s more likely that Kim wants to convince the North’s enemies that he could start a war, “because that could lead to engagement and possible concessions, like the easing of sanctions.”

China, which is bound by a treaty to provide assistance if the North were to be attacked, may also be a target of Kim’s tactics. By raising tensions, said John Delury, a professor of Chinese studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, Kim can get an idea of what Xi Jinping “is willing to do to placate him.”

With China asserting its claim to Taiwan with greater force, the island nation is a bundle of contradictions and doubts.

As Taiwan’s people watch the U.S. deadlock on military aid for Ukraine and Israel — and try to imagine what it would actually do for them in a crisis — their faith in America is plummeting. In recent polling, only 34 percent of respondents saw the U.S. as trustworthy, down from 45 percent in 2021, and studies of online discussions show deepening concern that the world’s oldest democracy will lack the strength or the will to help.

But that distrust could make it easier for the island to be swallowed up.

The New New World: For Chinese people visiting Taiwan, seeing the island’s recent election up close inspired both envy and tears.

A year ago, European botanists traveling to Borneo, the third largest island in the world, “discovered” a species of palm that flowers underground, an extremely rare quirk.

But while the plant might have been new to them, it wasn’t to the Indigenous groups who live there. And it isn’t hard to find: The plant, pinanga subterranea, grows everywhere on the island.

Lives lived: Robert Whitman, a pioneer of performance and multimedia art, died on Friday at 88.

Until recently, no one had ever heard of Mirra Andreeva; now, she’s all anyone is talking about. At 16 years old, she is pulling off a miracle every other day as she takes over the Australian Open.

She recently blitzed past Ons Jabeur, a three-time Grand Slam finalist for Tunisia and Andreeva’s female tennis idol, and on Friday she somehow managed to climb out of a 5-1 hole to defeat Diane Parry of France in the deciding-set tiebreaker.

Andreeva hails from a small city in Siberia — not known as a bastion of the sport she loves. But her mother’s fascination with tennis and a move to Cannes opened the sport to her. As she juggles court stardom with her third year of online high school, she says this life suits her just fine.

“I like being here,” she said. “I like to travel all over the world. I’m OK with what’s happening.”

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Nathan is an experienced journalist. He's covered a broad spectrum of topics, including politics, culture, and human interest stories, always aiming to engage and inform his audience. Nathan has a degree in Journalism and upholds the highest standards of integrity and accuracy in his work.

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