Blinken will enter diplomatic maelstrom over Gaza war on new Mideast trip


WASHINGTON (AP) — Just weeks after a frenzied trip to the Middle East, Secretary of State Antony Blinken is returning to the region with a somewhat more nuanced message than he offered in the immediate aftermath of Hamas’ bloody Oct. 7 attack on Israel and Israel’s military response.

As he did last month, Blinken will stress U.S. support for Israel and try to prevent a wider Mideast war as he visits Israel and Jordan starting on Friday. But Blinken’s agenda this time is more crowded and more complex as the conflict intensifies and the Biden administration grapples with competing domestic and international interests and anger.

He’ll push for the evacuation of more foreigners from Gaza and more humanitarian aid for the territory. He’ll press Israel to rein in violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank committed by Jewish settlers. And, he’ll stress the importance of protecting civilians — even though the administration has yet to offer any criticism of Israel for strikes that have killed thousands of civilians in Gaza.

So, while calling for brief pauses in airstrikes and fighting for humanitarian purposes he will continue to oppose growing calls for a broader cease-fire. President Joe Biden said Wednesday he thought there should be a humanitarian “pause” in the Israel-Hamas war in order to get “prisoners” out.

But, Blinken will also be introducing a new element to the U.S. list of priorities: the need for Israel and its neighbors to begin to consider what a post-conflict Gaza will look like, who will govern it, how it can be made secure and how to establish an independent Palestinian state.

U.S. officials, including Biden and Blinken, have said repeatedly that they do not believe an Israeli re-occupation of Gaza is feasible, and Israel agrees. But what comes next has been little explored beyond brief comments Blinken made Tuesday in congressional testimony when he talked about the possibility of a revitalized Palestinian Authority and perhaps Arab states and international organizations playing a significant role in post-conflict Gaza.

Blinken will speak about “the U.S. commitment to working with partners to set the conditions for a durable and sustainable peace in the Middle East to include the establishment of a Palestinian state that reflects the aspirations of the Palestinian people in Gaza and in the West Bank,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said.

The change in messaging reflects a shift in the international view of the war, of which Blinken has heard plenty since his last trip to the region when he traveled to Israel and six Arab states — several multiple times — in a frenetic shuttle diplomacy mission that required numerous last-minute schedule changes.

His itinerary after Jordan remains uncertain, although he will attend a Group of Seven foreign ministers meeting in Japan next week before traveling on to South Korea and India for much broader discussions, including on Russia’s war in Ukraine and China.

The shift in public opinion has been palpable. After receiving a wave of global sympathy after the Oct. 7 attacks, Israel now faces widespread criticism for its massive military response, something that many believe is fueling a worldwide spike in antisemitic violence as well as incidents targeting Muslims.

As the situation in Gaza deteriorates, U.S. officials are keenly aware that they risk severe damage in ties with the Arab world and beyond if the U.S. fails to use its influence with its close ally Israel to keep what’s already a humanitarian disaster from getting even worse.

Underscoring those concerns, Blinken will be flying into a diplomatic maelstrom between Israel and Jordan, which on Wednesday recalled its ambassador to Israel and told Israel’s envoy not to return to Amman. Jordan’s foreign minister said the decision would not be reconsidered until after the Gaza operation is stopped.

Miller said the U.S. shares Jordan’s concerns about “the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza” and that Blinken will make that a priority on his trip.

“But ultimately,” he said, “we believe that increased diplomacy is important and steps to reduce diplomatic channels are not productive to our shared goals of promoting a long-term solution to this crisis.”

Jordan, Egypt and Turkey, along with Gulf Arab nations, are on tenterhooks as anger grows throughout the region at Israel’s tactics despite the horrific nature of the Oct. 7 attacks by Hamas and will be watching the visit closely.

Before leaving Washington, Blinken met on Wednesday with the Saudi defense minister, whose country has effectively suspended U.S.-mediated normalization talks with Israel. But neither man spoke as they posed for photos for roughly 10 seconds at the State Department.

And, although there was some progress in securing the evacuation of foreigners from Gaza, including a small number of Americans, into Egypt on Wednesday, thousands more want to leave. Yet, even resolving that situation will still leave more than 200 Israelis and others held captive by Hamas.

“I personally spent a lot of time speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel and the President Sissi of Egypt and others, to make sure that we could open this access for people to get out,” Biden said Wednesday. “I want to thank our partners, in particular Qatar, who worked so closely with us to support negotiations to facilitate the departure of these citizens.”

Biden added that much work needs to be done to “significantly step up the flow of critical humanitarian assistance into Gaza.”

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