Blinken to enter Gaza diplomatic fray as Biden calls for ‘pause’ to get hostages out

Secretary of state will reiterate US support for Israel in its campaign against Hamas, but message expected to be complicated by regional and international anger over conflict

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the State Department, in Washington, October 30, 2023. (Alex Brandon/AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks at the State Department, in Washington, October 30, 2023. (Alex Brandon/AP)

Just weeks after a frenzied trip to the Middle East, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is returning to the region with a somewhat more nuanced message than he offered in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’s bloody October 7 massacre of 1,400 people in Israel and Israel’s military response.

As he did last month, Blinken will stress US support for Israel and try to prevent a wider Mideast war as he visits Israel and Jordan starting on Friday. But Blinken’s agenda this time is more crowded and more complex as the conflict intensifies and the Biden administration grapples with competing domestic and international interests and anger.

He’ll push for the evacuation of more foreigners from Gaza and more humanitarian aid for the territory. He’ll press Israel to rein in violence against Palestinians in the West Bank committed by Jewish settlers. And, he’ll stress the importance of protecting civilians. The administration has refrained, however, from offering any criticism of Israel for strikes that Hamas, in unverified claims, says have killed thousands of civilians in Gaza.

So, while calling for brief pauses in airstrikes and fighting for humanitarian purposes, he will continue to oppose growing calls for a broader ceasefire. On Wednesday, US President Joe Biden said he thought there should be a humanitarian “pause” in the Israel-Hamas war to get “prisoners” out.

Blinken will also be introducing a new element to the US list of priorities: the need for Israel and its neighbors to begin to consider what a post-conflict Gaza will look like, who will govern it, how it can be made secure and how to establish an independent Palestinian state.

US officials, including Biden and Blinken, have said repeatedly that they do not believe an Israeli re-occupation of Gaza is feasible, and Israel agrees. But what comes next has been little explored beyond brief comments Blinken made Tuesday in congressional testimony when he talked about the possibility of a revitalized Palestinian Authority and perhaps Arab states and international organizations playing a significant role in post-conflict Gaza.

Palestinians try to pull a girl out of the rubble of a building that was destroyed by Israeli airstrikes in Jabaliya refugee camp, northern Gaza Strip, November 1, 2023. (Abed Khaled/AP)

Blinken will speak about “the US commitment to working with partners to set the conditions for a durable and sustainable peace in the Middle East to include the establishment of a Palestinian state that reflects the aspirations of the Palestinian people in Gaza and in the West Bank,” US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

The change in messaging reflects a shift in the international view of the war, of which Blinken has heard plenty since his last trip to the region, when he traveled to Israel and six Arab states — several of them multiple times — in a frenetic shuttle diplomacy mission that required numerous last-minute schedule changes.

His itinerary after Jordan remains uncertain, although he will attend a Group of Seven foreign ministers meeting in Japan next week before traveling on to South Korea and India for much broader discussions, including on Russia’s war in Ukraine and China.

The war was sparked on October 7, when some 3,000 terrorists led by Hamas burst across the border into Israel from the Gaza Strip by land, air and sea, killing some 1,400 people under the cover of a deluge of thousands of rockets fired at Israeli towns and cities.

The vast majority of those killed as terrorists seized border communities were civilians — including babies, children and the elderly. Entire families were executed in their homes, and over 260 people were slaughtered at an outdoor festival, many amid horrific acts of brutality by the terrorists. In addition, more than 240 people of all ages were abducted and taken back to Gaza as captives.

Israel says its offensive is aimed at destroying Hamas’s military infrastructure, and has vowed to eliminate the entire terror group, which rules the Strip. It says it is targeting all areas where Hamas operates, while seeking to minimize civilian casualties.

In the weeks since the massacre, Hamas and other terror group have continued to rain rockets on Israel, including from Lebanon in the north, causing further deaths and injuries. Over 200,000 Israelis have been displaced due to the rocket fire and over a million have frequently been forced into bomb shelters for safety.

Israeli soldiers remove bodies of Israeli civilians killed by Hamas terrorists in Kibbutz Kfar Aza, near the Israeli-Gaza border, in southern Israel, October 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

According to the Hamas-run health ministry, more than 8,700 Palestinians have been killed in the war, and more than 22,000 people have been wounded. The figure, which cannot be confirmed, would be without precedent in decades of Israeli-Palestinian violence. Hamas has been accused of artificially inflating the death toll, and does not distinguish between civilians and terror operatives. Some of the dead are believed to be victims of Palestinian terrorists’ own misfired rockets.

In light of the heavy human toll in Gaza, the shift in public opinion has been palpable. After receiving a wave of global sympathy after the October 7 attacks, Israel now faces widespread criticism for its massive military response, something that many believe is fueling a worldwide spike in antisemitic violence as well as incidents targeting Muslims.

As the situation in Gaza deteriorates, US officials are keenly aware that they risk severe damage in ties with the Arab world and beyond if the US fails to use its influence with its close ally Israel to keep what’s already a humanitarian disaster from getting even worse.

Underscoring those concerns, Blinken will be flying into a diplomatic maelstrom between Israel and Jordan, which on Wednesday recalled its ambassador to Israel and told Israel’s envoy not to return to Amman. Jordan’s foreign minister said the decision would not be reconsidered until after the Gaza operation is stopped.

Miller said the US shares Jordan’s concerns about “the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza” and that Blinken will make that a priority on his trip.

“But ultimately,” he said, “we believe that increased diplomacy is important and steps to reduce diplomatic channels are not productive to our shared goals of promoting a long-term solution to this crisis.”

Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, along with Gulf Arab nations, are on tenterhooks as anger grows throughout the region at Israel’s operations despite the horrific nature of the October 7 attacks by Hamas and will be watching the visit closely.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, right, meets with Saudi Arabia’s Minister of Defense Khalid bin Salman, at the State Department in Washington, November 1, 2023. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Before leaving Washington, Blinken met on Wednesday with the Saudi defense minister, whose country has effectively suspended US-mediated normalization talks with Israel. But neither man spoke as they posed for photos for roughly 10 seconds at the State Department.

And, although there was some progress in securing the evacuation of foreigners from Gaza, including a small number of Americans, into Egypt on Wednesday, thousands more want to leave. Yet, even resolving that situation will still leave more than 200 Israelis and others held captive by Hamas.

“I personally spent a lot of time speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and the President Sissi of Egypt and others, to make sure that we could open this access for people to get out,” Biden said Wednesday. “I want to thank our partners, in particular Qatar, who worked so closely with us to support negotiations to facilitate the departure of these citizens.”

Biden added that much work needs to be done to “significantly step up the flow of critical humanitarian assistance into Gaza.”

When responding to a heckler at a Minnesota campaign event, Biden said there should be a humanitarian “pause.”

The 80-year-old Democrat was delivering remarks to some 200 supporters in the northern US state when a member of the audience shouted out to him. The Jewish Voice for Peace anti-Israel activism group identified the woman as Rabbi Jessica Rosenberg.

“If you care about Jewish people, as a rabbi, I need you to call for a ceasefire right now,” she said, referring to the deadly conflict. In a video of the incident, other members of the audience can be heard hushing Rosenberg with one telling her to “get out.”

The president responded: “I think we need a pause. A pause means giving time to get the prisoners out.”

Asked about his remarks, the White House later clarified that by “prisoners” the president was referring to hostages held by Hamas.

Biden engaged further with the woman, referring to Netanyahu by the nickname Bibi.

“I’m the guy that convinced Bibi to call for a ceasefire to let the prisoners out. I’m the guy that talked to [Egyptian President] Sissi to convince him to open the door” along Gaza’s border with Egypt to allow freed hostages to leave, he said.

Biden indicated that he was discussing the recent release of two US hostages who were held by Hamas. Two elderly Israelis have also been released and one Israeli soldier was rescued by the IDF.

The White House has previously called for “humanitarian pauses” to allow aid to be delivered into Gaza or to carry out evacuations, but has so far refused to discuss a ceasefire, believing it would exclusively play into the hands of Hamas.

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