Blinken heads to region to bolster ceasefire, block Gaza aid from reaching Hamas

US secretary to meet with leaders of Israel, PA, Jordan and Egypt; US says first Mideast visit not about restarting peace talks, but rather how to improve life for both sides

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at a news conference at the State Department in Washington, May 12, 2021. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)

Antony Blinken was heading to Israel Monday for his first trip to the region as US secretary of state, days after Washington helped broker a ceasefire that brought an end to the most significant escalation of violence between Israel and Hamas in seven years.

The goals of the three-day trip — which will also include stops in Ramallah, Cairo and Amman — will be to ensure that the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza terror groups holds while also pushing steps that will improve the quality of life for both sides in the absence of immediate peace talks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a senior State Department official told reporters in a phone briefing ahead of Blinken’s takeoff.

The secretary will also work with the parties to help kickstart efforts to rehabilitate Gaza, while preventing international aid from reaching the enclave’s ruling Hamas terror group, the official added.

In Israel, Blinken will meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, and other senior Israeli officials, discussing the Biden administration’s “ironclad commitment to Israel’s security,” the White House said in a statement. In Ramallah, he will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, and other senior PA officials. Blinken will then travel to Cairo where he’ll meet with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. The secretary will conclude his trip with a stop in Amman, where he’ll meet Jordan’s King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi.

Members of the Izz-Al Din Al-Qassam Brigades, the armed wing of the Hamas terror group, march in Gaza City on May 22, 2021. (Emmanuel Dunand/AFP)

Blinken will “continue [American] efforts to rebuild ties to, and support for, the Palestinian people and leaders, after years of neglect,” the White House added, in a knock at the previous administration’s policies, which alienated the Palestinians and led Ramallah to sever ties with Washington less than a year after former president Donald Trump took office.

US President Joe Biden, in Monday’s White House statement, said Blinken would engage with US partners to coordinate “international effort to ensure immediate assistance reaches Gaza in a way that benefits the people there and not Hamas, and on reducing the risk of further conflict in the coming months.”

Pressed on how the US planned on ensuring aid to Gaza doesn’t reach the Strip’s rulers, the senior State Department official acknowledged it would be a “significant challenge” and that there would be “no guarantees.”

The official said the US has been working with the United Nations — which is leading rehabilitation efforts — and the PA to “create a partnership… to channel through the reconstruction assistance” to Gaza, adding that Egypt — which played the leading role in brokering the ceasefire that ended the 11-day Gaza war on Thursday — would also be involved.

“By doing so, it will get us on the pathway eventually to reintegration to some extent of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, which we hope in turn can help create the conditions to move us forward to a more stable situation,” the official added, referring to another unreached goal of previous American administrations since Hamas violently ousted the PA from the Strip in 2007.

A Palestinian policeman walks on the rubble of Arafat City, Gaza’s Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City on May 22, 2021 (Emmanuel DUNAND / AFP)

Asked whether the US is concerned about donor fatigue from members of the international community that have been called on repeatedly over the last decade and a half to pitch in on Gaza rehabilitation efforts, the senior State Department official said the US “is in close communication with our partners in the Gulf,” along with other countries, and that there is still widespread desire to help Palestinians in the coastal enclave.

The official emphasized that the trip was not meant to kickstart peace negotiations between the Israelis and Palestinians, noting that neither side was ready for such high-stakes talks.

“We’re focused primarily on… taking the steps to advance the quality of people’s lives: advance their freedom, advance their security, and advance their prosperity. We believe that in the immediate term, that’s what’s feasible and that’s what’s important,” he said, adding that the eventual goal remained reaching a two-state solution to the conflict.

The Biden administration was criticized by progressive Democrats and some allies abroad for its perceived hands-off initial response to the deadly violence.

US President Joe Biden speaks during a joint news conference with South Korean President Moon Jae-in, in the East Room of the White House on May 21, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

The administration has defended its response by saying it engaged in intense, but quiet, high-level diplomacy to support a ceasefire, which was ultimately arranged last week after Egyptian mediation.

“President Biden leading this effort made the judgment that we could be most effective in doing that,” Blinken told CNN on Sunday. “Ultimately, after this intensive effort across the government, we got to where everyone wanted to be, which was to end the violence.

“But now, as the president said, I think it’s incumbent upon all of us to try to make the turn to start to build something more positive, and what that means at heart is that Palestinians and Israelis alike have to know in their day in and day out lives equal measures of opportunity, of security, of dignity,” Blinken added.

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