U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel on Tuesday morning at the start of a Middle East tour aimed at shoring up the Gaza ceasefire.
Blinken is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the region since President Joe Biden assumed office in January of this year. His arrival came just days after the end of the 11-day war between Israel and terror factions in Gaza.
Upon his arrival, Blinken was greeted by Foreign Minister Gaby Ashkenazi and Israel's Ambassador to the U.S. Gilad Erdan.
"It is an honor to greet you on your first official visit," Ashkenazi said. "I would like to thank you for the strong stand of the United States in support of Israel's right to defend itself," he said.
The secretary is also set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and President Reuven Rivlin, as well as other senior officials.
He is also scheduled to travel to Ramallah for a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and other senior officials to discuss U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority, including the resumption of financial aid.
A senior State Department official said ahead of the visit that Blinken is will focus on coordinating reconstruction of the Gaza Strip without engaging with the enclave's militant Hamas rulers, who are considered terrorists by Israel and Western countries.
"We do not speak to Hamas therefore any aid must come through the Palestinian Authority. The policy of the United States is to diminish Hamas's standing," the official said.
During his trip, Blinken will also visit neighboring Egypt and Jordan, which have acted as mediators in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Egypt succeeded in brokering the Gaza truce after the Biden administration pressed Israel to wind down its offensive.
Biden announced the visit earlier this week, saying Blinken would work with regional partners on a “coordinated international effort to ensure immediate assistance reaches Gaza.”
The administration had been roundly criticized for its perceived hands-off initial response to the deadly violence, including from progressive Democrats who demanded it take a tougher line on Israel. Biden repeatedly affirmed what he said was Israel’s right to defend itself from rocket attacks from Gaza.
The administration has defended its response by saying it engaged in intense, but quiet, high-level diplomacy to support a cease-fire.