Blinken heads back to Middle East to support Israel but seek restraint

AFP , Thursday 2 Nov 2023

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken heads Thursday on his second trip to the Middle East as he renews support for Israel but also seeks subtly to encourage the US ally to limit civilian deaths that have outraged much of the world.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks to reporters prior boarding his aircraft to depart Wash
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken talks to reporters prior to boarding his aircraft to depart Washington on travel to the Middle East and Asia at Andrews Air Force Base. Md., Thursday, Nov. 2, 2023. AP


Blinken will spend the day Friday in Israel -- his fourth visit since the 7 October Al-Aqsa Flood Operation, including a trip to accompany President Joe Biden -- and also head to Jordan and potentially other stops before a previously scheduled trip to Asia.

The United States is the foremost supporter of Israel and has promised to ramp up military assistance as Israel wages a retaliatory war against Gaza, even as a rising number of US allies accuse it of a disproportionate response.

Biden on Wednesday said he supported a humanitarian "pause" in the Gaza conflict, but the United States remains opposed to calls for a ceasefire, saying that Hamas has no intention of holding fire.

In a step long awaited by the Biden administration, the first US citizens were able to leave Gaza on Wednesday after painstaking diplomacy -- including a visit by Blinken to Qatar, which has relations with Hamas -- to open the Rafah crossing from Gaza into Egypt.

Speaking at the top of a speech Wednesday in Minnesota devoted to domestic issues, Biden said his administration is "working nonstop to get Americans out of Gaza as soon as safely as possible."

"I want to thank our partners in the region and particularly Qatar who've worked so closely with us to support negotiations to facilitate the departure of these citizens," Biden said.

Blinken previously said 400 US citizens and 600 of their family members were seeking to leave the Gaza Strip.

The State Department has faced lawsuits from Palestinian-Americans claiming double standards after prompt US evacuations from Israel, but US officials contend that Gaza is far more complicated due to the active combat.

Next steps with Netanyahu 

Blinken is expected to meet Friday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had rocky relations with Biden before the war over his hard-right policies.

While publicly supporting Israel, the Biden administration has been openly critical of the lack of action in the West Bank against Israeli settlers who have attacked Palestinians.

State Department spokesman Matthew Miller called the violence "incredibly destabilizing."

"We have sent a very clear message to them that it's unacceptable, it needs to stop and those responsible for it need to be held accountable," Miller said Wednesday of US contact with the Israeli government.

The talks in Israel are also expected to start discussions on what comes next after the war.

Testifying before Congress earlier this week, Blinken said that the Palestinian Authority should eventually take over in the Gaza Strip after an elimination of Hamas.

"Whether you can get there in one step is a big question that we have to look at. And if you can't, then there are other temporary arrangements that may involve a number of other countries in the region," he said.

"It may involve international agencies that would help provide for both security and governance."

The Palestinian health ministry in the Gaza Strip says that more than 9,100 people have died since then in Israel's war on Gaza, including 3,760 children.

Jordan, which was the second Arab nation to make peace with Israel, has withdrawn its ambassador to protest the "unprecedented humanitarian catastrophe" caused by the "ongoing Israeli war."

Asked about Jordan's move ahead of Blinken's visit, Miller spoke of the United States' shared concerns on the "dire humanitarian situation in Gaza" but added that "steps to reduce diplomatic channels aren't productive to our long-term shared goals" in resolving the crisis.

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