Amid escalation, CIA chief said visiting Israel, West Bank

While trip was pre-planned, Bill Burns’ talks with government and intelligence heads likely to focus on easing tensions and restoring security coordination between Israel and PA

CIA Director William Burns listens during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 14, 2021. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP, File)
CIA Director William Burns listens during a Senate Select Committee on Intelligence hearing, on Capitol Hill in Washington, April 14, 2021. (Graeme Jennings/Pool via AP, File)

CIA director Bill Burns is visiting Israel and the West Bank, where he will hold meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and intelligence chiefs in a bid to help de-escalate tensions between the sides, the Walla news site reported Friday.

Burns arrived in Tel Aviv on Thursday, the report said, citing two US sources. His arrival coincides with a major flare-up in violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

The CIA declined to comment on Burn’s visit which comes after a trip to Egypt.

The report said that while Burns’s visit was pre-planned and part of a larger US diplomatic effort that includes US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to the region early next week, he would likely take a major role in working to calm the situation.

Nine Palestinians were killed in an IDF raid into Jenin in the West Bank on Thursday morning, including at least one civilian. The remaining fatalities were members of various terror groups, according to Palestinian media. The IDF said the operation was necessary to thwart an imminent terror threat and to arrest suspects who have already been involved in attacks against Israel.

Overnight Palestinian terror groups in Gaza fired several rockets toward southern Israel and Israeli Air Force warplanes carried out sorties in the Strip. There were no injuries reported on either side and a tense calm held on Friday morning.

Fire and smoke rise above buildings in Gaza City as Israel launched air strikes on the Palestinian enclave following rocket fire early on January 27, 2023. (Mahmud Hams / AFP)

In the wake of the raid Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s office announced that it was halting security ties with Israel — coordination that the IDF has long credited for maintaining stability and preventing terror in the West Bank.

The CIA maintains close ties with PA security and Burns was likely to push for the resumption of coordination with Israel the report said, adding to the ongoing efforts of the Biden administration, which said Thursday that it was working to restore calm.

“A number of us have been working the phones since early this morning to get an understanding of what’s developing and to urge de-escalation and coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said in a phone briefing with reporters, previewing Blinken’s trip to Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah that will span from Sunday to Tuesday.

Laef also focused on restoring security coordination as a priority.

Leaf said, “We don’t think this is the right step to take at this moment. Far from stepping back on security coordination, we believe it’s quite important that the parties retain, and if anything, deepen security coordination.”

She also expressed her concern over civilian casualties but acknowledged the Israeli assertion that the Jenin raid was necessary due to a “ticking time bomb of a terrorist threat.”

Palestinians carry the bodies of four of the 9 reported victims killed during an Israeli raid on the West Bank’s Jenin refugee camp, during their funeral procession in Jenin, January 26, 2023. (Jaafar Ashtiyeh/AFP)

While working to maintain ties between Israeli and PA leaders was already on the agenda for Blinken’s trip, Thursday’s deadly violence will likely add increased urgency to the matter.

In a statement, the State Department said it was “deeply concerned by the cycle of violence in the West Bank,” but acknowledged “the very real security challenges facing Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Relations between Jerusalem and Ramallah were already strained by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to the premiership one month ago, bringing with him the most right-wing and religious government in Israeli history. One of the first steps taken by his cabinet was to slap a series of sanctions against the PA, withholding tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues that Jerusalem collects on Ramallah’s behalf in response to the successful Palestinian effort at the UN, compelling the International Court of Justice to weigh in on Israel’s conduct in the territories.

The US condemned the Israeli sanctions as well as the Palestinian initiative at the UN as both being unhelpful steps that take the sides further away from peace.

Blinken will arrive in Israel on Monday, less than two weeks after a similar visit by White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan.

Left to right: IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi, US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, at a meeting at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem on January 19, 2023. (Miri Shimonovich/GPO)

The State Department readout on Blinken’s travel said the secretary would discuss the standard US issues of concern in his meetings with Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and other senior Israeli officials. Those topics included the threats posed by Iran, deepening Israel’s integration in the region, Israeli-Palestinian relations and the importance of a two-state solution.

Blinken will travel to Ramallah on Tuesday where he’ll meet with Abbas and his senior aides to discuss many of the same issues as well as boost US-Palestinian ties.

“With both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Secretary will underscore the urgent need for the parties to take steps to de-escalate tensions in order to put an end to the cycle of violence that has claimed too many innocent lives. He will also discuss the importance of upholding the historic status quo of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in words and in actions,” the State Department said. “The Secretary will engage with civil society throughout the trip to underscore our commitment to human rights, support for civil society, and the enduring importance of people-to-people ties.”

Blinken will spend Sunday in Cairo, meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and senior Egyptian officials to discuss bilateral ties, the Negev Forum, rehabilitating the Gaza Strip and other regional issues, the State Department said.

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