US Secretary of State Antony Blinken Begins Middle East Trip Amid Escalating Israel-Palestinian Conflict

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Blinken, who will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday and Tuesday after his stopover in Cairo, 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 acts of violence in years.

A Palestinian gunman killed seven people outside a synagogue in a settler neighborhood in east Jerusalem on Friday, followed by another attack on Saturday.

Ten people were killed in an Israeli army raid on Thursday in the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, in one of the deadliest operations in a long time.

Israel said it was targeting Islamic Jihad militants and then attacked sites in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire.

Blinken will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and will call “in general for measures to be taken to reduce tensions,” State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said, condemning the “horrible” attack on the synagogue.

“The most important thing in the short term is to try to calm down,” Blinken said in an interview Sunday with the Saudi-owned news outlet Al Arabiya, according to a State Department transcript.

Violence is also likely to figure in talks Monday between Blinken and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose country’s traditional role as a mediator in the Middle East has helped it remain a key US partner despite President Joe Biden’s criticism of his human rights record. – ‘Intense barrage’ – The United States, with its close relationship with Israel, has historically taken the lead in Middle East diplomacy.

But experts questioned whether Blinken could make any progress.

“The best they can do is 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 Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. .

Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian official who now works at the Washington Institute, expected Blinken to repeat traditional American positions rather than break new ground.

“The journey 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 quickly engage with Netanyahu, who returned to office in late December as head of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister had a strained relationship with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, when Netanyahu openly sided with his Republican adversaries against US diplomacy with Iran.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, visited this month to talk about Iran after efforts to restore a 2015 nuclear deal, scorned by Netanyahu, all but died.

“I’ve never seen such an intense flurry of high-level contact under any administration as you’re seeing now,” said Miller, now with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. – ‘Flooding the area’ – Biden’s team seeks to “avoid confrontation with Netanyahu,” Miller said, noting strong support for the Israeli leader among Republicans who now control the House of Representatives.

David Makovsky, also of the Washington Institute, said he also knew that CIA Director Bill Burns had been visiting the region.

“It seems to kind of flood the area,” he said.

Netanyahu has hailed as a key achievement the normalization of relations with the United Arab Emirates in 2020, which has moved full speed ahead in developing ties despite public concerns about the new government’s moves.

Blinken on his trip is expected to reiterate US support for a Palestinian state, a prospect few expect to advance under the new Israeli government.

The State Department said Blinken would call for the preservation of the status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque complex, a hotspot, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right ideologue who holds a security post in Netanyahu’s government, defiantly visited the site, which Jews call the Temple Mount, in early January.

In Egypt, Blinken is also expected to discuss regional issues such as Libya and Sudan, the State Department said.

Blinken told Al Arabiya that the elections in Libya were “the most critical next step” for the conflict-torn country.

Egypt remains a major recipient of US military assistance, but the cooperation faces scrutiny from parts of Biden’s Democratic Party over Sisi’s rights record.

Authorities released hundreds of political prisoners last year, but human rights groups estimate some 60,000 remain in detention.

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