Blinken begins Middle East trip with call for calm as Israeli-Palestinian violence flares | Israel
US secretary of state Antony Blinken has arrived in Egypt to begin a three-day visit to the Middle East where he will look to ease Israeli-Palestinian tensions after an eruption of violence.
The US secretary of state will travel to Jerusalem on Monday to meet with prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then on to Ramallah on Tuesday to hold talks with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.
Blinken had long planned the visit to see Israel’s new right-wing government, but the trip takes on a new urgency after some of the worst violence in years.
Ten people were killed in an Israeli army raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank on Thursday, in one of the deadliest such operations in decades.
Israel said it was targeting Islamic Jihad militants and later hit sites in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire.
On Friday, a Palestinian gunman killed seven people outside a synagogue in a settler neighbourhood of East Jerusalem, and another attack followed on Saturday.
Blinken will call “broadly for steps to be taken to de-escalate tensions”, state department spokesperson Vedant Patel said as he condemned the “horrific” synagogue attack.
“The most important thing in the near term is to try to get some calm,” Blinken told Saudi-owned news outlet Al Arabiya in an interview on Sunday, according to a state department transcript.
French president Emmanuel Macron has also called for restraint after the latest flare-up in violence.
In a telephone conversation with Netanyahu on Sunday, Macron “recalled the need for all to avoid measures likely to feed the spiral of violence”, his office said.
He also expressed his “readiness to contribute to the resumption of dialogue between the Palestinians and the Israelis”, the statement added.
The recent spate of violence is also likely to figure in talks on Monday between Blinken and Egyptian president Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose country’s traditional role as a Middle East mediator has helped him remain a key US partner despite president Joe Biden’s criticism of his human rights record.
The United States, with its close relationship to Israel, has historically taken a lead on Middle East diplomacy.
But experts questioned whether Blinken could achieve any breakthroughs.
“The absolute best they can do is to keep things stable to avoid another May 2021,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran US negotiator, referring to 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas that ended with an Egypt-brokered ceasefire.
Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian official now at The Washington Institute, expected Blinken to repeat traditional US positions rather than break new ground.
“The trip itself is the message,” he said.
“Blinken will ask Abbas to do more but it is not clear what they can do,” he said, referring to the Palestinians.
Blinken’s visit is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to engage quickly with Netanyahu, who returned to office in late December leading the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.
Israel’s longest-serving prime minister had a fraught relationship with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, as Netanyahu openly sided with his Republican adversaries against US diplomacy with Iran.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, visited this month to discuss Iran after efforts to restore a 2015 nuclear accord – despised by Netanyahu – all but died.
“I’ve never seen such an intense flurry of high-level contacts under any administration as you’re watching right now,” said Miller, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
The Biden team is looking “to avoid confrontation with Netanyahu”, Miller said, noting strong support for the Israeli leader among Republicans who now control the House of Representatives.
Barbara Leaf, the top state department official for the Middle East, briefing reporters ahead of the trip, said the visit would also build on earlier efforts to restore relations between Israel and Arab nations through the Negev Forum, which takes in areas such as economic cooperation and tourism, but does not include the Palestinians.
Netanyahu has hailed as a key achievement the 2020 normalisation of relations with the United Arab Emirates, which has moved full speed ahead on developing ties despite public concerns over the new government’s moves.
Blinken is expected on his trip to reiterate US support for a Palestinian state, a prospect few expect to advance under the new Israeli government.
The US state department said Blinken would call for the preservation of the status quo at the flashpoint al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is holy both to Jews and Muslims.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right ideologue who holds a security post in Netanyahu’s government, in early January defiantly visited the site, which Jews call the Temple Mount.
Reuters and Agence France-Presse contributed to this report.