US in first meeting with Israel's new FM amid Iran moves

AFP , Sunday 27 Jun 2021

Also critical is to "avoid provocations and incidents over the coming days, weeks and months that could reignite the violence and then to work to create a bit more confidence between the Israelis and Palestinians," Blinken said

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid at the first weekly cabinet meeting of the new government in Jerusalem last week.Reuters

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets Israel's new top diplomat Yair Lapid on Sunday, in the United States' first face-to-face meeting with the freshly installed government that seeks a less combative approach with its main ally Washington.

Lapid, a centrist who delayed his own plans to be prime minister as he masterminded a coalition to unseat veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu, is flying to Rome to see Blinken, who arrives in Italy on Sunday on a three-nation tour of Europe.

The meeting comes as President Joe Biden's administration moves ahead with fresh talks on reviving a 2015 accord with Iran -- strongly opposed by Israel -- in which Tehran drastically scaled back nuclear work in return for promises of sanctions relief.

Biden and Blinken are also eager to preserve a fragile ceasefire that took effect on May 21 between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, after the worst fighting since 2014.

The bloodshed triggered some of the strongest criticism of Israel in memory in the US Congress, with some members of Biden's Democratic Party accusing Netanyahu of excessive force and of triggering the crisis by backing far-right Jewish groups that want to change the delicate status quo in the holy city of Jerusalem.

Lapid, who took office on June 13 under Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, a nationalist, has accused Netanyahu of jeopardizing Israel's once rock-solid support in the United States by openly rallying behind former president Donald Trump's Republican Party.

The new coalition government still sees Iran as the major threat to Israel, and has launched its own strikes on the Gaza Strip but has pledged to put the alliance with Washington first and to try to keep differences private.

After one of Lapid's telephone conversations with Blinken, the Israeli foreign ministry said that the two agreed on no surprises in the relationship.

Netanyahu quickly pounced, posting a video in English on social media calling the new government "so dangerous" and speaking of how he as premier would sometimes not inform the United States of pending Israeli actions.

Modest goals on Middle East

With tensions still high after last month's violence, a motley coalition getting its bearings in Israel and political uncertainties lingering within the Palestinian Authority, the Biden administration has made clear it is not rushing to make any grand Middle East peace initiatives.

Blinken, speaking in Paris at a forum on the youth-oriented Brut network, said the immediate priority was finding ways to bring humanitarian and reconstruction aid into the densely populated and impoverished Gaza Strip.

Also critical is to "avoid provocations and incidents over the coming days, weeks and months that could reignite the violence and then to work to create a bit more confidence between the Israelis and Palestinians," Blinken said.

The hope is that "there can be conditions, which do not currently exist, to allow perhaps a relaunch of the peace process and the establishment of two states, Israel and Palestine," Blinken said.

"I don't think the conditions are there yet. We have to work on them and we will."

He reiterated that the Biden administration plans to let the Palestine Liberation Organization reopen its office in Washington, which was closed under former president Donald Trump in one of the first of many decisions welcomed by Netanyahu.

The Biden administration has hoped to be less involved in Middle East hotspots and to repair rifts created under Trump with European allies as part of a strategy to focus long-term attention on managing the rise of China.

In his three days in Italy, Blinken on Monday will see Pope Francis, the pontiff's first meeting with a high-ranking Biden administration official.

Blinken will also take part in meetings hosted by Italy of the Group of 20 major economies and of the coalition to defeat the Islamic State extremist group.

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