Blinken kicks off regional tour in Egypt as Israeli-Palestinian violence soars

US secretary of state aiming to get to know new right-wing Israeli government, with recent deadly terror attacks and clashes adding urgency to trip

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, January 4, 2023. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the State Department in Washington, January 4, 2023. (Manuel Balce Ceneta/AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived Sunday in Egypt at the start of a Middle East trip during which he will look to notch down Israeli-Palestinian tensions after an eruption of violence.

Blinken, who will travel Monday and Tuesday to Jerusalem and Ramallah after his stop in Cairo, had planned the visit to see Israel’s new right-wing government, but the trip takes on a new urgency after some of the worst violence in years.

A Palestinian gunman on Friday killed seven people outside a synagogue in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Yaakov, and another attack followed on Saturday that seriously injured two.

On Thursday, nine people were killed in an Israeli army raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in one of the deadliest such operations in years. The IDF said Thursday’s operation was necessary to foil imminent attack plans by a local Islamic Jihad terror cell. The group had primed explosives and firearms, according to the IDF.

Later Thursday, rocket fire from Hamas-run Gaza sparked a mini-escalation of cross-border fire.

Blinken will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and call “broadly for steps to be taken to de-escalate tensions,” US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters as he condemned the “horrific” synagogue attack.

The scene of a terror attack in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem, January 27, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The violence is also likely to figure in talks between Blinken and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi, whose country’s traditional role as a Middle East mediator has helped him remain a key US partner despite US President Joe Biden’s criticism of his human rights record.

The United States, which has a close relationship with Israel, has historically taken a lead in Middle East diplomacy.

But experts questioned whether Blinken could achieve any breakthroughs.

“The absolute best they can do is to keep things stable to avoid another May 2021,” said Aaron David Miller, a veteran US negotiator, referring to 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas that ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.

Ghaith Al-Omari, a former Palestinian official now at the Washington Institute, expected Blinken to repeat traditional US positions rather than break new ground.

“The trip itself is the message,” he said.

“Blinken will ask Abbas to do more but it is not clear what they can do,” he said, referring to the Palestinians.

Police at the scene of a terror shooting attack near Jerusalem’s Old City, on January 28, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

‘Flooding the zone’ with Netanyahu

Blinken’s visit is part of an effort by the Biden administration to engage quickly with Netanyahu, who returned to office in late December leading the most right-wing government in Israel’s history.

Israel’s longest-serving prime minister had a fraught relationship with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, as Netanyahu openly sided with his Republican adversaries against US diplomacy with Iran.

Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, visited earlier in January to discuss Iran after Biden’s efforts to restore a 2015 nuclear accord — strongly opposed by Netanyahu — effectively died.

“I’ve never seen such an intense flurry of high-level contacts under any administration as you’re watching right now,” said Miller, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Biden team is looking “to avoid confrontation with Netanyahu,” Miller said, noting the strong support for the Israeli leader among Republicans who now control the House of Representatives.

David Makovsky, also at the Washington Institute, said he also understood that CIA Director Bill Burns has been visiting the region.

“It looks a little like flooding the zone,” he said.

Netanyahu has hailed as a key achievement the normalization of relations in 2020 with the United Arab Emirates, which has moved full speed ahead on developing ties despite public concerns over the new government’s moves.

Blinken is expected on his trip to reiterate US support for a Palestinian state, a prospect that few expect to advance under the new Israeli government.

The State Department said Blinken would also call for the preservation of the status quo at the flashpoint Temple Mount compound, which is holy both to Jews and Muslims.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir visit the scene of a deadly terror shooting in Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov neighborhood, January 27, 2023. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Itamar Ben Gvir, a far-right ideologue who holds a key security post in Netanyahu’s government, in early January defiantly visited the site. Last week he vowed to continue visiting, defying objections from Jordan.

A US official told The Times of Israel earlier this month that the high-level meetings in quick succession of Sullivan and then Blinken are aimed at gaining an understanding of the Israeli government’s plans vis-à-vis the West Bank, while making clear the administration’s red lines on issues relating to the Palestinians, including the importance of maintaining calm at the Temple Mount.

Iran’s nuclear program will also likely be a top agenda item in meetings with Israeli officials. Biden officials have said combating the Iran nuclear threat is a top priority in their talks with Israeli counterparts and Netanyahu has indicated that the issue will be a top foreign policy priority for him.

In Egypt, Blinken is expected to discuss regional issues such as Libya and Sudan, the State Department said.

Egypt remains one of the top recipients of US military assistance, but the cooperation faces scrutiny from parts of Biden’s Democratic Party due to Sissi’s rights record.

Authorities released hundreds of political prisoners last year, but rights groups estimate some 60,000 remain in detention, many facing harsh conditions and overcrowded cells.

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