Blinken meets Israel’s war leadership as US concerns grow

Biden dispatches secretary of state to verify reduction in intensity of fighting in Gaza, stave off war between Israel and Hezbollah

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the Kirya military headquarters in Tel Aviv, January 9, 2024. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

With the US becoming increasingly apprehensive over the fighting in the Gaza Strip and on Israel’s northern border, senior Israeli leaders met with visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday.

In Israel for his fifth visit since the October 7 Hamas attacks, Blinken met in Tel Aviv with President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister Israel Katz, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

He was also slated to sit with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, war cabinet minister Benny Gantz, the heads of Israel’s intelligence agencies, the full war cabinet, and families of the hostages taken by Hamas.

On Wednesday morning, Blinken will meet with Opposition Leader Yair Lapid.

Standing next to Herzog, Blinken spoke about Washington’s “relentless efforts” to bring the hostages home from Hamas captivity. He added that he will share what he heard from regional allies with Herzog and Netanyahu.

Herzog underscored that Israel is doing its “utmost under extremely complicated circumstances on the ground, to make sure that there will be no unintended consequences and no civilian casualties.”

President Isaac Herzog, right, meets with United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv on January 9, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“We are alerting, we are calling, we are showing, we are sending leaflets, we are using all the means that international law enables us in order to move out people, so that we can unravel this huge city of terror underneath, in people’s homes, living rooms and bedrooms, mosques and shops and schools,” Herzog said.

Some families of Gaza hostages rallied outside the meeting, urging US President Joe Biden’s administration to do more to release the abductees.

An Israeli official told The Times of Israel that Herzog’s private conversation with Blinken focused on the region, including a briefing from Blinken on his conversations with Turkish and Arab leaders in recent days.

They also discussed this week’s upcoming hearing at the International Court of Justice in The Hague on South Africa’s genocide allegations against Israel in its war against Hamas.

Israelis protest calling for the release of hostages held by Hamas terrorists in Gaza, outside a meeting between President Isaac Herzog and United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Tel Aviv on January 9, 2024. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

The two also discussed hostages, and held a “tangible” discussion on the question of what Gaza will look like after Hamas has been toppled, said the official.

In his meeting, Katz stressed that bringing the hostages home, returning displaced Israelis to their communities in the south, and restoring a sense of security is only possible if Hamas is defeated and Hezbollah withdraws from the border area in Lebanon.

“I know of your own efforts, over many years, to build much greater connectivity and integration in the Middle East, and I think there are actually real opportunities there,” responded Blinken.

“But we have to get through this very challenging moment and ensure that October 7 can never happen again and work to build a much different and much better future.”

Profound tension

As fighting continues to escalate between Israel and Hezbollah in Lebanon, US officials have sounded the alarm over the potential for the war in Gaza to spread. “This is a moment of profound tension in the region. This is a conflict that could easily metastasize, causing even more insecurity and even more suffering,” said Blinken in Qatar on Sunday.

The White House has also sent other senior officials to try to find a diplomatic means of heading off a war between Israel and Hezbollah. Biden dispatched special envoy Amos Hochstein to the region, as Washington intensified its diplomatic engagement in a bid to lower roiling tensions between Israel and Iran’s Lebanese proxy.

Cross-border attacks from Lebanon have persisted since the outbreak of war between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip on October 7, when thousands of terrorists burst into Israel from Gaza, killing some 1,200 people and kidnapping over 240, mostly civilians.

In this undated picture released by Hezbollah Military Media, senior Hezbollah commander Wissam al-Tawil, center, who was killed in Kherbet Selem village, southern Lebanon, on January 8, 2024, stands next to top Hezbollah military commander Imad Mughniyeh, right, who was assassinated in Syria in February 2008. (Hezbollah Military Media, via AP)

The Biden administration is also eager to see fighting in the Gaza Strip wind down, and the humanitarian situation improve significantly.

With Biden trailing likely GOP challenger Donald Trump in polling ahead of this year’s presidential election, the need to move past the scenes of destruction in Gaza takes on additional urgency in Washington. To win in November, Biden will need to shore up support among progressives, who have been vocal in their criticism of his firm support for Israel in its efforts to topple Hamas.

Facing far-left protestors calling for a ceasefire on Monday, Biden said during a speech at a church in South Carolina that he has “been quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza.”

Israel believes that Blinken is expecting to come away from his meetings in Israel with tangible results, The Times of Israel has learned.

Specifically, the White House and other Western partners want a noticeable change in the humanitarian situation in the Gaza Strip and a major increase in the amount of aid reaching Gazan civilians.

A Palestinian man warms under his makeshift tent at a camp for displaced people in Rafah, in the southern Gaza Strip where most civilians have taken refuge amid the Israel-Hamas war, on December 13, 2023. (MAHMUD HAMS / AFP)

Blinken is also coming to verify that Israel is indeed moving to the third stage of the war, as the IDF spokesman and Gallant announced this week in foreign outlets.

IDF Spokesperson Daniel Hagari told The New York Times on Monday that the Israel Defense Forces had already begun a new, less intensive phase in the war against Hamas, with fewer ground troops and airstrikes.

A senior US official told CNN on Tuesday that Blinken expects to focus on Israel’s plan to shift to the third phase. The official added that Blinken and his team will push Israel’s war leadership for an “imminent” transition to the next phase, which would see a reduction in the intensity of fighting and a possible return of Gazans to their homes in the northern part of the Strip.

Israel also expects Blinken to focus on the “day after” — who will rule Gaza, who will be responsible for security, who will handle civil matters and where will funds come from.

Qatar’s Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman al-Thani (R) speaks next to US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during a press conference in Doha on January 7, 2024. (EVELYN HOCKSTEIN / AFP)

Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi have been working on answers to the questions in recent days to prepare for Blinken’s visit.

Blinken, in the region for a week of shuttle diplomacy,  told reporters in Saudi Arabia on Monday — before he arrived in the Jewish state in the evening — that he had found leaders in the Middle East determined to prevent the conflict between Israel and Hamas from spreading and that all of those he spoke to realized the extent of the challenges.

But “no one thinks that anything will happen overnight,” he added.

Blinken also said after meeting with the leaders of Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi that countries in the region are interested in pursuing normalization of relations with Israel, but that it would require a clear path toward a Palestinian state.

He noted that countries expressed willingness to help Gaza stabilize and revitalize, adding that Washington would work with them on what that would require and what countries are prepared to do.

While in Israel, Blinken said he “will press on the absolute imperative to do more to protect civilians and to do more to make sure that humanitarian assistance is getting into the hands of those who need it.”

He said he would also focus on efforts to bring back hostages.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi meet IDF officers during a visit to a military facility in southern Israel, December 13, 2023. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

On Sunday, Blinken met with Jordan’s King Abdullah in Amman, and assured Arab leaders that Washington opposes the forcible displacement of Palestinians from Gaza or the West Bank, as far-right Israeli ministers have increasingly called for the voluntary resettlement of Gazans.

Abdullah had raised his country’s concerns over displacement with Blinken during their meeting in Amman, according to a palace statement.

“Palestinian civilians must be able to return home as soon as conditions allow. They cannot, they must not, be pressed to leave Gaza,” Blinken said at a press conference following a separate meeting with top Qatari officials in Doha.

Washington wants Israel’s Arab neighbors to play a role in reconstruction, governance and security in Gaza, in the expectation that Israel’s offensive will remove Hamas, which has run the territory since 2007, officials have said.

War erupted in Gaza after Hamas’s October 7 massacres, which saw some 3,000 terrorists burst across the border into Israel, killing some 1,200 people and seizing over 240 hostages of all ages amid horrific acts of brutality.

In response, Israel vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, and launched a wide-scale offensive aimed at destroying Hamas’s military and governance capabilities. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

Nevertheless, Palestinian casualties have mounted.

According to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry, 23,000 Palestinians have been killed. The figures issued by the Hamas-run health ministry cannot be independently verified, and are believed to include both civilians and Hamas members killed in Gaza, including as a consequence of terror groups’ own rocket misfires. The IDF estimates it has killed some 8,500 terrorists in Gaza in addition to another 1,000 who were killed in Israel on October 7.

Emanuel Fabian and Jacob Magid contributed to this report.

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