Landing in Israel to begin two-day visit, Blinken warns against continued violence

US secretary of state condemns synagogue attack, focuses on Israeli-Palestinian tensions, but Israel shows desire to shift conversation to Iran

Lazar Berman is The Times of Israel's diplomatic reporter

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers a statement upon arrival at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, on January 30, 2023. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / POOL / AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken delivers a statement upon arrival at Israel's Ben Gurion Airport, on January 30, 2023. (Photo by RONALDO SCHEMIDT / POOL / AFP)

Landing in Tel Aviv on Monday afternoon, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on Israelis and Palestinians to avoid raising tensions further amid one of the deadliest recent surges of violence.

“It’s the responsibility of everyone to take steps to calm tensions rather than inflame them,” the top US diplomat said after stepping off his plane at the start of a two-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “That is the only way to halt the rising tide of violence that has taken too many lives, too many Israelis, too many Palestinians.”

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, and one died days later. 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 is scheduled to 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.

Security and rescue forces at the scene of a deadly terror shooting attack in Neve Yaakov, Jerusalem, January 27, 2023. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

At Ben Gurion Airport, Blinken said of the synagogue attack: “To take an innocent life in an act of terrorism is always a heinous crime, but to target people outside their place of worship is especially shocking.”

“We condemn it in the strongest terms,” he added. “We condemn all those who celebrate these and any other acts of terrorism that take civilian lives no matter who the victim is or what they believe.

“Calls for vengeance against more innocent victims are not the answer,” he continued in a possible warning to Israel. “And acts of retaliatory violence against civilians are never justified.”

Greeting Blinken at the airport, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen stressed the importance of working together to stop Iran’s nuclear program, and having the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps be designated by allies as a terrorist organization, the Foreign Ministry said.

“I thank the secretary of state for America’s commitment to regional stability,” said Cohen in a statement, “for the unequivocal message against terrorism that he offered immediately after landing in Israel, on the willingness to work to expand the Abraham Accords… and the continued determined front against Iran.”

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (R) is greeted by Foreign Minister Eli Cohen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv, January 30, 2023. (Sivan Shahor/GPO)

Blinken then headed directly to Jerusalem for his meeting with Netanyahu.

Blinken comes to Israel after meeting 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.

Public statements from Blinken’s meetings with Sissi and Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry centered on a de-escalation of violence between Israel and the Palestinians.

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.

Iran or Palestinians?

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.

Despite Blinken’s focus on the Palestinian attacks, some experts cautioned Israel against letting terrorism dominate meetings with the secretary of state.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat hold a video conference with European Leaders in order to discuss challenges and cooperation between the countries in dealing with the coronavirus COVID-19, at the Foreign Ministry in Jerusalem, on March 9, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“It would be a mistake to allow the Palestinian issue to take over the agenda of the visit,” former national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat told The Times of Israel on Sunday. “Israel’s approach must be to portray the Palestinians issue as secondary during Blinken’s visit.”

“The main threat for Israel and the region is Iran,” Netanyahu’s former aide continued,  “and America is extremely relevant here, it is the key player.”

Israel and the US should focus on reaching an agreement on a road map against Iran, he said.

With talks between Tehran and the P5+1 on a return to the 2015 nuclear deal long stalled, Ben-Shabbat urged Israel to seek a declaration by the US and European powers that the deal is dead and that they would be referring the Iran nuclear issue to the UN Security Council in keeping with the JCPOA’s “snapback” mechanism.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, center, attends a Christmas midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, December 25, 2022. (Ahmad Gharabli/Pool Photo via AP)

Other experts questioned whether Blinken could achieve any breakthroughs on Israeli-Palestinian violence.

“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.

Jacob Magid and AFP contributed to this report. 

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