U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads to Egypt and Jordan on Wednesday as he presses ahead with a diplomatic mission aimed at shoring up a ceasefire that ended an 11-day war between Israel and the Hamas militant group.
Blinken was wrapping up talks in Israel early Wednesday before departing to Cairo. He has vowed to "rally international support" to rebuild the destruction in hard-hit Gaza, while also promising to make sure that none of the aid destined for the territory reaches Hamas.
Ahead of his departure, Blinken described Egypt and Jordan as central players in trying to bring calm to the region. Both countries are key U.S. allies that have peace agreements with Israel and frequently serve as mediators between Israel and the Palestinians.
"Egypt played a critical role in helping to broker the ceasefire and Jordan has long been a voice for peace and stability in the region," he told reporters late Tuesday.
In Egypt, which borders both Israel and Gaza, he was scheduled to meet with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and other top officials. President Joe Biden spoke twice with el-Sissi during the war to help broker the ceasefire.
Blinken has set modest goals for the trip, his first official visit to the Middle East as secretary of state. During talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Tuesday, he made clear that the U.S. has no immediate plans to pursue peace talks between the sides, perhaps because previous efforts by past administrations have all failed. Instead, he expressed hope for creating a "better environment" that might lead to peace talks.
That could begin with the Gaza reconstruction effort. The 11-day war killed more than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, and caused heavy destruction in the impoverished coastal territory. Preliminary estimates have put the damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
One of the U.S. goals is to ensure that any assistance be kept out of the hands of Hamas, which opposes Israel's right to exist and which Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist group.
Instead, it is trying to bolster the rival government of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007. Abbas's Palestinian Authority now administers autonomous areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Abbas. He has been largely sidelined by recent events, is deeply unpopular at home and has little influence in Gaza.
Abbas hopes to establish an independent state in all of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem â€” areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war.
In a gesture to the Palestinians, Blinken on Tuesday announced plans to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, an office that historically handled diplomatic outreach to the Palestinians.
President Donald Trump downgraded the consulate and placed its operations under his ambassador to Israel when he moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2018. The Jerusalem move infuriated the Palestinians, who claim Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital, and prompted them to sever most ties with the U.S.
Blinken also announced nearly $40 million in additional aid to the Palestinians. In all, the Biden administration has pledged some $360 million to the Palestinians, restoring badly needed aid that the Trump administration had cut off.
At a meeting with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Blinken made clear on Tuesday that Biden will pursue a more even-handed approach than Trump, who sided overwhelmingly with Israel in its dealings with the Palestinians.
Blinken said the U.S. was committed to "rebuilding the relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of security, freedom opportunity and dignity."
The truce that ended the Gaza war on Friday has so far held, but it did not address any of the deeper issues plaguing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something Blinken acknowledged after meeting Tuesday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
"We know that to prevent a return to violence, we have to use the space created to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges," he said.
Those challenges include a hawkish Israeli leadership that seems unwilling to make major concessions, Palestinian divisions, years of mistrust and deeply rooted tensions surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites.
The war was triggered by weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims that has seen several outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence over the years. The protests were directed at Israel's policing of the area during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.
The truce remains tenuous since tensions are still high in Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian families is not yet resolved.
In his remarks after his meeting with Blinken, Netanyahu hardly mentioned the Palestinians, warning of a "very powerful" response if Hamas breaks the ceasefire.
Netanyahu spoke of " building economic growth" in the occupied West Bank but said there will be no peace until the Palestinians recognize Israel as a "Jewish state." The Palestinians have long objected to that demand, saying it undermines the rights of Israel's own Palestinian minority.
Blinken repeatedly affirmed what he said was Israel's right to defend itself and said the U.S. would assist Israel in replenishing its Iron Dome rocket-interception system.
But he also called on leaders of all sides to chart a "better course" in hopes of laying the groundwork for peace talks aimed at establishing an " is the only way to resolve the conflict.
Blinken expressed hope that a successful international approach in Gaza would be an important first step and could "undermine" Hamas' grip on power.
"Hamas thrives, unfortunately, on despair, on misery, on desperation, on a lack of opportunity," he said. If there is successful cooperation in Gaza between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the international community, he said, "then Hamas' foothold in Gaza will slip. And we know that. And I think the Hamas knows that." he said.
First published: 10:38, 05.26.21