State Department 'deeply concerned by cycle of violence'

US ‘working the phones’ as Israel-Palestinian ties take hit ahead of Blinken trip

Top official urges sides to deepen security ties after Ramallah says it will halt them in response to Jenin raid; Blinken to talk judicial overhaul plans with Israelis

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department, January 17, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a news conference at the State Department, January 17, 2023, in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

The Biden administration was working Thursday to deescalate tensions between Israel and the Palestinians after a deadly IDF raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin risked upending the agenda of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to the region early next week.

“A number of us have been working the phones since early this morning to get an understanding of what’s developing and to urge deescalation and coordination between Israeli and Palestinian security forces,” US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf said in a phone briefing with reporters previewing Blinken’s trip to Cairo, Jerusalem and Ramallah that will span from Sunday to Tuesday.

Nine Palestinians were killed in the Jenin raid, including at least one civilian. The remaining fatalities were members of various terror groups, according to Palestinian media. The IDF said the operation was necessary to thwart an imminent terror threat and to arrest suspects who have already been involved in attacks against Israel.

But the offensive led to an announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s office that it was halting security ties with Israel — coordination that the IDF has long credited for maintaining stability and preventing terror in the West Bank.

Leaf said, “we don’t think this is the right step to take at this moment. Far from stepping back on security coordination, we believe it’s quite important that the parties retain, and if anything, deepen security coordination.”

She also expressed her concern over civilian casualties but acknowledged the Israeli assertion that the Jenin raid was necessary due to a “ticking time bomb of a terrorist threat.”

File: Palestinians throw stones at an Israeli military vehicle during a raid in the West Bank city of Jenin, September 28, 2022. (AP Photo/ Majdi Mohammed)

While working to maintain ties between Israeli and PA leaders was already on the agenda for Blinken’s trip, Thursday’s deadly violence will likely add increased urgency to the matter.

In a statement, the State Department said it was “deeply concerned by the cycle of violence in the West Bank,” but acknowledged “the very real security challenges facing Israel and the Palestinian Authority.”

Relations between Jerusalem and Ramallah were already strained by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to the premiership one month ago, bringing with him the most right-wing and religious government in Israeli history. One of the first steps taken by his cabinet was to slap a series of sanctions against the PA, withholding tens of millions of dollars in tax revenues that Jerusalem collects on Ramallah’s behalf in response to the successful Palestinian effort at the UN compelling the International Court of Justice to weigh in on Israel’s conduct in the territories.

The US condemned the Israeli sanctions as well as the Palestinian initiative at the UN as both being unhelpful steps that bring the sides further away from peace.

Blinken will arrive in Israel on Monday, less than two weeks after a similar visit by White House National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. That trip too saw its agenda slightly upended days before the senior Biden aide’s arrival amid widespread protests against the Netanyahu government’s announced effort to significantly restrict the power of the country’s judiciary.

While the US initially did not plan to weigh in on the matter, its stance has slowly shifted as public outcry has grown and Sullivan ended up asking Netanyahu about his coalition’s proposals during their one-on-one meeting, a US official told The Times of Israel.

Leaf told reporters Thursday that Blinken would be discussing the matter on his trip as well. “It’s clear that this issue of the judicial legislation packages is one that sparked intense debate within Israeli society… so [Blinken is] going to be interested to hear people’s views on this… both in and outside of government.”

Palestinians clash with Israeli forces following an army raid in the West Bank city of Jenin, January 26, 2023. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

The State Department readout on Blinken’s travel said the secretary would discuss the standard US issues of concern in his meetings with Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and other senior Israeli officials. Those topics included the threats posed by Iran, deepening Israel’s integration in the region, Israeli-Palestinian relations and the importance of a two-state solution.

He will travel to Ramallah on Tuesday where he’ll meet with Abbas and his senior aides to discuss many of the same issues as well as boosting US-Palestinian ties.

“With both Israeli and Palestinian leaders, the Secretary will underscore the urgent need for the parties to take steps to deescalate tensions in order to put an end to the cycle of violence that has claimed too many innocent lives. He also will discuss the importance of upholding the historic status quo of the Haram al-Sharif/Temple Mount in Jerusalem, in words and in actions,” the State Department said. “The Secretary will engage with civil society throughout the trip to underscore our commitment to human rights, support for civil society, and the enduring importance of people-to-people ties.”

Blinken will spend Sunday in Cairo for meetings with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry and senior Egyptian officials to discuss bilateral ties, the Negev Forum, rehabilitating the Gaza Strip and other regional issues, the State Department said.

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