Hamas: Blinken 'biased' toward Israel, an obstacle to peace

In Egypt, Blinken urges regional leaders to ‘press Hamas to say yes’ to Gaza deal

Report says US may separately negotiate release of 5 American hostages if talks fail; US diplomat lands in Israel ahead of talks with Netanyahu, Gallant

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken disembarks from a plane in Tel Aviv, October 16, 2023 (Jacquelyn Martin, Pool/AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken disembarks from a plane in Tel Aviv, October 16, 2023 (Jacquelyn Martin, Pool/AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to the Middle East on Monday at a critical time as Washington seeks to increase pressure on Hamas and Israel to reach a ceasefire in Gaza and ensure the war does not expand into Lebanon.

In his eighth visit to the region since Hamas terrorists attacked Israel on October 7, sparking the ongoing war, the top US diplomat made his first stop in Cairo before heading to Israel. He is also set to travel to Jordan and Qatar this week.

With no firm response yet from Hamas to the proposal received 10 days ago, Blinken started his visit by meeting with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi of Egypt, a key mediator with Hamas.

Blinken once again called on Hamas to accept the plan, which he said has wide international support and has been accepted by Israel. “My message to governments throughout the region… if you want a ceasefire, press Hamas to say ‘yes,'” he told reporters before leaving Cairo.

He said the plan on the table is the “single best way” to get to a ceasefire, release the remaining hostages held in Gaza and improve regional security.

“I believe strongly… that the overwhelming majority of people, whether they’re in Israel, the West Bank, in Gaza… actually want to believe in a future where Israelis and Palestinians would live in peace and security,” he said.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (3rd-L) meets with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, on June 10, 2024 (Amr Nabil / POOL / AFP)

Hamas denounced Blinken’s comments.

“Blinken’s speech during his visit to Egypt is an example of bias to Israel and it offers an American cover to the holocaust conducted by the occupation in Gaza,” senior Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

In Egypt, Blinken also “discussed the importance of reopening the Rafah Border Crossing” during his meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, according to a US readout.

A US official and an Israeli official told The Times of Israel last week that talks between Israel, Egypt and the United States aimed at reopening Rafah remained at an impasse over Israel’s refusal to accept any involvement from the Palestinian Authority in the management of the border terminal.

The sides also discussed the latest Israeli hostage deal proposal, “post-conflict governance” in Gaza, “which the ceasefire proposal would advance,” the State Department readout said.

Blinken “reaffirmed the United States’ rejection of any forced displacement of Palestinians from Gaza” — a line that the US regularly includes in US readouts on meetings with Egyptian officials due to Cairo’s sensitivity to the possibility that Israeli military operations in Gaza will lead to the mass migration of Palestinians into the Sinai.

Blinken landed in Israel on Monday afternoon ahead of evening meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant in Tel Aviv.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, speaks to reporters after his meeting with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, at Cairo airport, Egypt, Monday, June 10, 2024. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, Pool)

On Monday, NBC News reported that Washington officials have weighed holding independent negotiations with Hamas for the release of five US citizens among the hostages if the latest diplomacy efforts fail.

The report, which cited two current and two former senior US officials, said Israel would be cut out of the talks, which would be held via Qatar as a mediator.

The five hostages who are still thought to be alive — among a total of eight taken who hold dual US-Israeli citizenship — are Hersh Goldberg-Polin, Edan Alexander, Sagui Dekel-Chen, Keith Siegel, and Omer Neutra. Officials are also hoping to recover the bodies of the three Americans who were killed that day, NBC reported.

While the deal would likely further strain ties between the Biden administration and Netanyahu, it would also put additional domestic political pressure on the prime minister who would be seen as failing to secure the release of Israeli hostages while the US was managing to free the American ones.

The White House declined to comment on the report and Israel’s Kan public broadcaster cited a government source as saying Jerusalem is unaware of any such plan.

The Prime Minister’s Office told The Times of Israel in response to the report that “Israel welcomes any attempt to free our hostages.”

An official in the PMO added that Netanyahu will raise the matter during his meeting with Blinken on Thursday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives at Ben Gurion airport near Tel Aviv, on June 10, 2024. (Photo by JACK GUEZ / POOL / AFP)

A US official familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that the NBC report was exaggerated and that the administration is not currently focused on alternatives to the current hostage deal on the table.

Blinken was asked about the NBC report during a press conference in Cairo and gave a similar dismissal.

“Ay number one priority as secretary of state is to ensure the well-being of Americans who are in harm’s way anywhere in the world, including those who are being unjustly detained or being held hostage. The most effective way to get everyone home, including the American hostages, is through [the Israeli] proposal, is through the ceasefire deal that’s on the table right now. That’s what we’re focused on,” Blinken said.

Blinken’s trip comes after US President Joe Biden on May 31 outlined a three-phase ceasefire proposal from Israel that envisions an eventual permanent end to hostilities, the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian security prisoners, and the reconstruction of Gaza.

On October 7 Hamas led 3,000 terrorists in a cross-border attack that killed 1,200 people and took 251 hostage to the Gaza Strip. In response, Israel launched an assault to destroy Hamas, topple its regime in Gaza, and free the hostages, of whom 120 still remain in captivity.

However, Biden’s framework appears snagged on the key point of whether the plan he promoted would bring an immediate and permanent end to the fighting. Hamas is insisting it must, whereas Israel has vowed to not stop until the job of eradicating the terror group is done.

On Saturday Israeli forces rescued four hostages held by Hamas since October in a raid in central Gaza.

Artist Zeev Engelmayer holds his painting depicting Noa Argamani, one of four hostages rescued by the Israeli army, as activists rally in Tel Aviv, on June 8, 2024. (Jack Guez / AFP)

In his talks with el-Sissi and Qatari leaders, whose countries are the main mediators with Hamas in the ceasefire negotiations, Blinken will stress the importance of persuading Hamas to accept the three-phase proposal on the table. The plan calls for the release of more hostages and a temporary pause in hostilities that could lead to the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

“We are hopeful that with enough of a chorus, the international community all speaking with one voice, Hamas will get to the right answer,” Sullivan told ABC’s “This Week.”

Blinken’s trip comes after Minister Benny Gantz announced his resignation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency government on Sunday, withdrawing the only centrist power in the embattled leader’s otherwise right-wing and far-right coalition during the war in Gaza.

The departure of Gantz’s centrist party will not pose an immediate threat to the government’s stability. But it could have a serious impact nonetheless, leaving Netanyahu reliant on hardliners, with no end in sight to the war and a possible escalation in fighting with the Lebanese terror group Hezbollah.

Blinken has previously met with Gantz on visits to Israel.

The conflict between Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah is dangerously poised after more than eight months of fighting triggered by the Gaza war to the south, with hostilities escalating and both sides signaling a readiness for a bigger confrontation. One day after the Hamas attack, Iran-backed Hezbollah began attacking along the northern frontier saying it was supporting Gaza, drawing strikes in response from the IDF.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Sheba Tel HaShomer Hospital in Ramat Gan, Israel, June 8, 2024. (Jack Guez/Pool Photo via AP)

Ceasefire talks have intensified since Biden’s speech and CIA director William Burns met senior officials from mediators Qatar and Egypt on Wednesday in Doha to discuss the plan.

Calling on Hamas to accept the ceasefire, Biden laid out a number of the Israeli offer’s key elements in a high-stakes speech on May 31. This triggered shockwaves in Jerusalem, where Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners threatened to bring down the government if the premier advanced the proposal.

According to Biden the deal would see the remaining living female, elderly, and sick hostages abducted during the Hamas-led October 7 onslaught released during a six-week first phase. The potential second phase of the deal would see a permanent end to the war; and Biden said Hamas would not remain in power in Gaza, but did not detail how that would come about.

Head of the National Unity party Benny Gantz holds a press conference in Ramat Gan, June 9, 2024. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Hundreds of Palestinian security prisoners would also be released by Israel in the first phase, during which the sides would negotiate on an agreed-upon number for how many would be released in the second.

Also during the first phase, Israel and Hamas would hold negotiations regarding the terms of the permanent ceasefire and the release of the remaining living hostages in the second phase. The third phase would see the return of the bodies of hostages and the commencement of an internationally backed reconstruction plan for Gaza.

Hamas officials have signaled they will reject the proposal, saying it does not guarantee an end to the fighting that assures the group’s continued existence. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Sunday, “We have not gotten a formal answer from Hamas at this time.”

Hamas leader in the Gaza Strip Yahya Sinwar speaks during a rally marking Al-Quds (Jerusalem) Day, in Gaza City, April 14, 2023. (Mohammed Abed/AFP)

US officials asserted to The Times of Israel last month that while the hostage deal it is advancing may allow Hamas to limp on in some form, the broader diplomatic initiative Washington is pushing would see the terror group marginalized in Gaza by alternative forces backed by America’s Arab allies.

Last week the Wall Street Journal quoted Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar as telling Arab mediators that the group would not budge from its demand for a permanent ceasefire, and would not agree to disarm as part of any deal.

But Hamas may not be the only obstacle.

Although the deal has been described as an Israeli initiative and thousands of Israelis have demonstrated in support of the deal, Netanyahu has expressed skepticism, saying what has been presented publicly is not accurate and rejecting calls for Israel to cease all fighting until Hamas is eradicated.

His war cabinet has signed off on a hostage deal proposal that would bring about an end to the war if fully implemented, though the premier contends in no uncertain terms that it would allow Israel to fulfill its war aims — including toppling Hamas — before that.

Far-right members of his coalition have threatened to bring down the government if it approves a hostage deal that stops the fighting before the war goals are reached.

Family and friends of the remaining hostages held in the Gaza Strip launch a blimp calling for their release in Tel Aviv, June 9, 2024. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Biden has repeatedly declared that ceasefires were close over the past several months, but there has been only one, a weeklong truce in November during which 105 hostages were released.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry says more than 37,000 people in the Strip have been killed or are presumed dead in the fighting so far. Of these, some 24,000 fatalities have been identified at hospitals or through self-reporting by families, with the rest of the figure based on Hamas “media sources.” The tolls, which cannot be verified, include some 15,000 terror operatives Israel says it has killed in battle. Israel also says it killed some 1,000 terrorists inside Israel on October 7.

On the Israeli side, 295 soldiers and one police officer have been killed during the ground offensive against Hamas and amid operations along the Gaza border. A civilian Defense Ministry contractor has also been killed in the Strip.

Lazar Berman contributed to this report.

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