Blinken arrives in Israel at start of Middle East tour

Blinken was also due to visit the occupied West Bank, Cairo and Amman, with the United States harbouring “every hope and expectation” the ceasefire would continue to hold, a senior State Department official said.
Tuesday 25/05/2021
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is welcomed by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Jonathan Shrier at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on May 25, 2021. (AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is welcomed by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and US Embassy Chargé d’Affaires Jonathan Shrier at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, on May 25, 2021. (AFP)

JERUSALEM - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel at the start of a Middle East tour, Tuesday, seeking to bolster the ceasefire in Gaza and help speed humanitarian aid to the devastated Palestinian enclave.

In tandem with Blinken’s mission, Israeli authorities said they were allowing fuel, medicine and food earmarked for Gaza’s private sector to enter the territory for the first time since 11 days of cross-border hostilities ended on May 10.

Blinken was also due to visit Ramallah in the occupied West Bank, Cairo and Amman, with the United States harbouring “every hope and expectation” the ceasefire would continue to hold, a senior State Department official said.

“Our primary focus is on maintaining the ceasefire, getting the assistance to the people who need it,” said the official, who spoke on Monday on the condition of anonymity. Egypt brokered the truce, in coordination with the United States.

Blinken, due to remain in the region until Thursday, planned to meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah later on Tuesday. He will later visit Jordan and Egypt.

Blinken is seen as facing the same obstacles that have stifled a wider peace process for more than a decade, including a hawkish Israeli leadership, Palestinian divisions and deeply-rooted tensions surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites.

The 11-day Gaza war killed more than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, and caused widespread destruction in the impoverished coastal territory. Blinken is expected to focus on coordinating reconstruction without engaging with Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers, who are labelled “terrorists” by Israel and Western countries.

The truce that came into effect Friday has so far held, but it did not address any of the underlying issues.

Blinken, who landed at Ben Gurion International Airport early Tuesday, is the highest-ranking US official to visit the region since President Joe Biden assumed office. He was welcomed on the tarmac by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and other officials.

The administration had hoped to extricate the US from the region’s intractable conflicts and focus on competition with China and climate change. But like so many of its predecessors, it was pulled back into the Middle East by another outbreak of violence.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life after a fourth inconclusive election in two years. He faces mounting criticism from Israelis who say he ended the offensive “prematurely”, without forcibly halting Palestinian rocket attacks or dealing a heavier blow to the Hamas military infrastructure.

The war was triggered by weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, a flashpoint holy site. The protests were directed at Israel’s crackdown on Palestinian protesters during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and threats to evict dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.

The evictions were put on hold just before the Gaza fighting erupted, but the legal process is set to resume in the coming weeks.

Adding to the tensions, an Israeli soldier and a civilian were stabbed and wounded in east Jerusalem on Monday before police shot and killed the assailant.

Blinken will not be meeting the other party to the war, the Islamic militant group Hamas, considered a terrorist organisation.

Instead, he will head to the occupied West Bank to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who has no power in Gaza and was largely sidelined by recent events.

Abbas, who called off the first Palestinian elections in 15 years last month when it appeared his fractured Fatah movement would suffer an embarrassing defeat, is perceived by many Palestinians as having lost much of its legitimacy.

But Abbas is still seen internationally as the representative of the Palestinian people and a key partner in the long-defunct peace process.

Blinken will also visit neighbouring Egypt and Jordan, which both made peace with Israel decades ago and have acted as mediators in the conflict. Egypt succeeded in brokering the Gaza truce after the Biden administration pressed Israel to wind down its offensive.

Biden announced the visit, saying Blinken would work with regional partners on a “coordinated international effort to ensure immediate assistance reaches Gaza.”

The administration had been roundly criticised for its perceived hands-off initial response to the deadly violence, including from Democratic allies in Congress 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 explained its response by saying it engaged in intense, but quiet, high-level diplomacy to support a cease-fire.

In an interview with CNN over the weekend, Blinken said the administration is now focused on trying to “build something more positive,” saying Palestinians and Israelis deserve “equal measures of opportunity, of security, of dignity.”

He said the time is not right for an immediate resumption in negotiations, but that steps could be taken to repair the damage from Israeli airstrikes, which destroyed hundreds of homes and damaged infrastructure in Gaza.

The narrow coastal territory, home to more than two million Palestinians, has been under a crippling Israeli-Egyptian blockade since Hamas seized power from Abbas’ forces in 2007. Israel says the blockade is needed to keep Hamas from importing arms, while the Palestinians and human rights groups view it as a form of collective punishment.

Blinken’s discussions with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi and Jordanian King Abdullah II will focus on shoring up the cease-fire, sending urgent aid to Gaza, ending intra-communal violence in Israeli cities and laying the preliminary groundwork for a return to peace talks, according to a senior State Department official.