Working to strengthen Israel-Hamas ceasefire, Blinken arrives in Egypt

Before leaving Israel, US secretary of state invites President Rivlin to meet Biden in coming weeks; in Cairo, US envoy to meet Egyptian leader, spy chief

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he leaves Israel from Ben Gurion Airport following his visit to Israel and Palestinian territories,seen at his depature on May 26, 2021 . (Alex Brandon / AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves as he leaves Israel from Ben Gurion Airport following his visit to Israel and Palestinian territories,seen at his depature on May 26, 2021 . (Alex Brandon / AFP)

CAIRO — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Egypt on Wednesday on the next leg of a diplomatic mission aimed at shoring up a ceasefire that ended an 11-day military clash between Israel and Hamas.

Blinken wrapped up extensive talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders and is scheduled to travel to Amman, Jordan, late Wednesday to meet with the Jordanian king and other officials.

He has vowed to “rally international support” to rebuild the destruction in hard-hit Gaza, while also promising to make sure that none of the aid destined for the territory reaches Hamas.

Ahead of his departure, Blinken extended US President Joe Biden’s invitation to President Reuven Rivlin to visit the United States in the coming weeks. Rivlin accepted, according to a statement from his office.

US Seretary of State Anthony Blinken, left, and President Reuven Rivlin, right, during their meeting at the President’s House on May 26, 2021. (Mark Neyman (GPO)

Blinken described Egypt and Jordan as central players in trying to bring calm to the region. Both countries are key US allies that have peace agreements with Israel and frequently serve as mediators between Israel and the Palestinians.

“Egypt played a critical role in helping to broker the ceasefire and Jordan has long been a voice for peace and stability in the region,” he told reporters late Tuesday.

In Egypt, which borders both Israel and Gaza, Blinken was scheduled to hold talks with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi, Foreign Minister Sameh Shukry and the country’s chief spy, Abbas Kamel. Biden spoke with Sissi during the conflict to help broker the ceasefire.

Blinken has set modest goals for the trip, his first official visit to the Middle East as secretary of state. During talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Tuesday, he made clear that the US has no immediate plans to pursue peace talks between the sides, perhaps because previous efforts by past administrations have all failed.

Instead, he expressed hope for creating a “better environment” that might lead to peace talks.

That could begin with the Gaza reconstruction effort.

The latest military confrontation with Hamas, which ended in a ceasefire early Friday, left over 240 dead in Gaza and 13 dead in Israel. Israel asserts the vast majority of the dead in the Strip were combatants. The fighting also caused heavy destruction in the impoverished coastal territory. Preliminary estimates have put the damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

One of the US goals is to ensure that any assistance be kept out of the hands of Hamas, which opposes Israel’s right to exist and which Israel and the US consider a terrorist group.

Instead, it is trying to bolster the rival government of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007. Abbas’s Palestinian Authority now administers autonomous areas in the Israeli-controlled West Bank. Abbas. He has been largely sidelined by recent events, is deeply unpopular at home, and has little influence in Gaza.

Abbas hopes to establish an independent state in all of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Six Day War.

In a gesture to the Palestinians, Blinken on Tuesday announced plans to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem — an office that historically handled diplomatic outreach to the Palestinians.

Former US president Donald Trump downgraded the consulate and placed its operations under his ambassador to Israel when he moved the American Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2018. The Jerusalem move infuriated the Palestinians, who claim East Jerusalem as their capital and prompted them to sever most ties with the US.

Blinken also announced nearly $40 million in additional aid to the Palestinians. In all, the Biden administration has pledged some $360 million to the Palestinians, restoring badly needed aid that the Trump administration had cut off.

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

At a meeting with Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Blinken made clear on Tuesday that Biden will pursue a more evenhanded approach than Trump, who sided overwhelmingly with Israel in its dealings with the Palestinians.

Blinken said the US was committed to “rebuilding the relationship with the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of security, freedom opportunity and dignity.”

The truce that ended the Gaza violence has so far held, but it did not address any of the deeper issues plaguing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, something Blinken acknowledged after meeting Tuesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

“We know that to prevent a return to violence, we have to use the space created to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges,” he said.

Those challenges include a hawkish Israeli leadership that seems unwilling to make major concessions, Palestinian divisions, years of mistrust and deeply rooted tensions surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites.

The military conflict was triggered when Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem amid weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built in the Temple Mount compound, which is revered by Jews and Muslims and has seen several outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence over the years. The protests were directed at Israel’s policing of the area during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem.

The truce remains tenuous since tensions are still high in Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian families is not yet resolved.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, meets US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in his office in Jerusalem, May 25, 2021. (Haim Zach / GPO)

In his remarks after his meeting with Blinken, Netanyahu hardly mentioned the Palestinians, warning of a “very powerful” response if Hamas breaks the ceasefire.

Netanyahu spoke of “building economic growth” in the West Bank but said there will be no peace until the Palestinians recognize Israel as a “Jewish state.” The Palestinians have long objected to that demand, saying it undermines the rights of Israel’s own Palestinian minority.

Blinken repeatedly affirmed what he said was Israel’s right to defend itself and said the US would assist Israel in replenishing its Iron Dome rocket-interception system.

But he also called on leaders of all sides to chart a “better course” in hopes of laying the groundwork for peace talks aimed at establishing an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel. The Biden administration, like most of the international community, believes a two-state solution is the only way to resolve the conflict.

Blinken expressed hope that a successful international approach in Gaza would be an important first step and could “undermine” Hamas’s grip on power.

“Hamas thrives, unfortunately, on despair, on misery, on desperation, on a lack of opportunity,” he said. If there is successful cooperation in Gaza between Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the international community, he said, “then Hamas’ foothold in Gaza will slip. And we know that. And I think that Hamas knows that.”

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