Blinken returns to Mideast as Israel politics scramble push for truce

AFP , Monday 10 Jun 2024

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was heading back to the Middle East on Monday to push a ceasefire plan, but politics in Israel and an Israeli massacre in Gaza have raised further questions on whether he can succeed.

File photo: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken disembarks from a plane in Tel Aviv from Jordan. AP


The top US diplomat, paying his eighth visit to the region since war broke out, was set to start the trip in Egypt and head later Monday to Israel.

Blinken is scheduled to hold closed-door talks first in Cairo with President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi, a key US partner in peace efforts, and later in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Blinken planned the visit to push forward a proposal announced on May 31 by President Joe Biden, who has stepped up efforts to end a war that has taken a mounting toll on Palestinian civilians in Gaza and alienated parts of his base ahead of November elections.

But an Israeli massacre that killed more than 270 Palestinians in Gaza's Nuseriat refugee camp has seriously derailed talks between Israel and Hamas with the latter asserting that its demands for an immediate end to the war have not changed.

And while Biden has described his plan as coming from Israel, the resignation on Sunday of a key centrist, Benny Gantz, from Netanyahu's war cabinet throws a new wild card on US diplomatic efforts.

Gantz, a former general who leads in polls to replace Netanyahu if new elections are called, protested that the prime minister had not made the hard decisions to enable "real victory", including by thinking out a post-war plan for Gaza.

Gantz has cast himself as a smoother partner for the United States than Netanyahu, a veteran of political squabbles with Israel's vital ally. Biden in recent weeks suspended a shipment of weapons to Israel and accused Netanyahu of prolonging the war to stay in power, an assertion on which he backtracked.

Gantz defied Netanyahu by visiting Washington on his own in March and has regularly met in Israel with Blinken, although a meeting on the latest trip was not immediately announced.

Border crossing dilemma

The short-term effect of Gantz leaving the war cabinet could be removing a counter-balance to Netanyahu's far-right allies, who abhor any compromise and have threatened to quit if Israel accepts the ceasefire plan.

Overall Israel's war on Gaza has killed at least 37,084 Palestinians and wounded 83,530 others, mostly women and children, according to the health ministry.

Under the plan laid out by Biden, Israel would withdraw from Gaza population centres and Hamas would release captives. The ceasefire would last an initial six weeks, with the ceasefire extended as negotiators seek a permanent end to hostilities.

Jake Sullivan, Biden's national security advisor, said Sunday it was difficult to say how Israel's Nuseriat raid would affect negotiations on a ceasefire.

"If Hamas came and said yes to the deal on the table, there would be an end to the need for these kinds of operations, because the hostages would be coming out peacefully and not through military actions," Sullivan told ABC News.

In Egypt, Blinken is also expected to speak to Sisi about solutions to open the key crossing into Gaza at Rafah, which Israel forcefully occupied weeks ago.

The month-long closure has worsened the humanitarian disaster in Gaza, sending prices of scarce goods skyrocketing and worsening fears voiced by the United Nations of famine in the blockaded territory.

Egypt, the first Arab state to make peace with Israel, has said that drivers feel unsafe going through what is now an Israeli checkpoint.

Blinken was heading to the region from France, where he joined Biden on a state visit that marked the 80th anniversary of Allied troops' D-Day landing in German-occupied Normandy.

Blinken will also visit two more key Arab partners, Jordan and Qatar, before returning Wednesday to join Biden at the Group of Seven summit in Italy.


*This story was edited by Ahram Online

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