Blinken to visit next week, with Russia, Iran, Abraham Accords on the agenda

In second trip to region, secretary of state looks to shore up Israeli support for Western effort to end Ukraine war and coordinate ahead of a possible Iran deal signing

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, on August 25, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (right) meets with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the Willard Hotel in Washington, DC, on August 25, 2021. (Olivier Douliery/Pool via AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will visit Israel and the West Bank next week as part of a broader tour of the region, the State Department announced on Thursday.

Blinken will use the trip to coordinate with US allies on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, “Iran’s destabilizing activities,” the Abraham Accords, and efforts to improve Israeli-Palestinian ties, the State Department said.

Blinken will meet with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and President Isaac Herzog in Israel and with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas along with representatives from Palestinian civil society in Ramallah.

Blinken will take off for the region on Saturday, with Israel and the West Bank being his first stops. He will then visit Morocco and Algeria before returning to the US on Wednesday, the State Department said. It will be Blinken’s second trip to Israel and the West Bank as secretary, and his first since the new Israeli government was sworn in last June.

The Biden administration has pushed its allies, including Israel and the Palestinians, to join the Western efforts in support of Ukraine. It has had limited success with Israel and the Palestinians, both of whom are wary of antagonizing Russia.

Jerusalem, whose geopolitical position is far stronger than Ramallah’s, has come off the fence to a certain extent, setting up a field hospital inside Ukrainian territory to treat those injured by Russian forces. Israel has also sent several shipments of humanitarian supplies to the war zone. However, seeking to mediate between Russia and Ukraine, it has refused repeated requests from Kyiv for weapons and has opted out of imposing sanctions against Russian oligarchs — a stance that has concerned the Biden administration.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on May 25, 2021. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, Pool)

Earlier this month, US Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland warned Israel during a Channel 12 interview, “You don’t want to become the last haven for dirty money that’s fueling Putin’s wars.”

Lapid subsequently announced that “Israel will not be a route to bypass sanctions imposed on Russia.” However, no further announcements have been made to indicate how the government plans to prevent the country from being used as a haven by Russian oligarchs.

Blinken’s visit will also take place as the US is hoping to wrap up negotiations with Iran on a joint return to compliance with the nuclear deal officially known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action. A sticking point has reportedly been an Iranian demand that the US delist the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, a branch of its military that was added to the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations in 2019.

The Israeli government launched a public campaign against the move, which would be largely symbolic as significant US economic sanctions against the IRGC would remain in place. Jerusalem points to the IRGC being behind numerous attacks on Israeli and American targets and argues that there is no justification for such a move, especially when the Revolutionary Guard has only intensified its activities in the region in recent years.

Israel opposes a revival of the JCPOA as well, but Bennett has sought to pick his battles with the US so as not to strain ties with his most important ally, unlike then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ahead of the signing of the original nuclear deal during the Obama administration.

Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan (R), Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi (C), and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet in Sharm el-Sheikh, on March 22, 2022. (Spokesman of the Egyptian Presidency)

The visit will also take place days after Bennett traveled to the Sinai resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh for the first-ever trilateral summit with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi and UAE Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan. It was the latest development in the Abraham Accords normalization agreements between Israel and its Arab neighbors, which the Biden administration has pledged to support.

The administration has largely focused on strengthening existing agreements and bringing Egypt and Jordan into the fold. Convincing new countries to join the accords will be a taller order, as those that were most interested have already done so, and those that have yet to do so may be holding out for incentives from Washington that the Biden administration is not prepared to give.

US officials have expressed unease about former US president Donald Trump’s decision to sell F-35 fighter jets to the UAE as part of its brokering of the normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Abu Dhabi. The same unease has been identified over Trump’s recognition of the disputed Western Sahara region as Moroccan territory as part of the latter’s normalization deal with Israel. Nonetheless, Biden has not reversed either of those steps, given the widespread support for the Abraham Accords.

On the Israeli-Palestinian file, Blinken will use the visit to push Israel to continue taking steps that preserve prospects for a two-state solution. These include expanding worker permits for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza as well as infrastructure projects in both territories. He’ll also caution both sides against taking unilateral steps that can inflame tensions, particularly ahead of a confluence of religious holidays next month, which has officials on all sides concerned about a major outbreak of violence.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) meets with Foreign Minister Yair Lapid in Riga, Latvia, on March 7, 2022. (Olivier Douliery/Pool/AFP)

Blinken will also raise the issue of the US Consulate in Jerusalem during his meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Acting Assistant Secretary for Near Eastern Affairs Yael Lempert told reporters later Thursday.

Blinken announced that the US would reopen the consulate during his last visit to the region in May. The consulate had served as the de facto mission to the Palestinians before it was shuttered by former president Donald Trump in 2019.

Since the announcement, though, no progress has been made, and several sources familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel in December that the plan had effectively been shelved amid Israeli opposition. This has not stopped US officials from insisting that the plan to reopen the mission remains when asked.

Lempert told reporters during a briefing that the issue would be raised but did not specify whether the US is still hoping to see through what had been a campaign promise of US President Joe Biden.

A flag of the United States flies outside the then-US consulate building in Jerusalem, on March 4, 2019. (Ariel Schalit/AP)

The PA has grown increasingly frustrated with the Biden administration, which on the one hand has renewed relations and aid to the Palestinians, but on the other has largely accepted the Israeli stance that the sides are not ready for a diplomatic initiative. Facing an ever-intensifying financial crisis, officials in Ramallah say they don’t have the luxury of waiting things out.

Abbas is also slated to host Jordan’s King Abdullah next week, raising speculation that Blinken’s stop in Ramallah may coincide with the Hashemite monarch’s.

While in Morocco, Blinken will meet with Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita as well as the UAE crown prince, in an apparent effort to improve strained relations with Abu Dhabi, which seethed over what it says was a lack of US support amid missile attacks by Houthi rebels from Yemen. The UAE has pressed the administration to re-designate the Iran-backed Houthis as a terror organization, a label Biden removed shortly after entering office.

In Algeria, Blinken will meet with Algerian President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra and also inaugurate the US as the “Country of Honor at the Algiers International Trade Fair, the largest trade show of its kind in Africa,” the State Department said.

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