Middle East

Blinken set for crucial meetings in Israel as efforts to free hostages and halt Gaza fighting intensify

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

CNN  — 

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Israel Wednesday for meetings with key government officials to press for a “humanitarian pause” as international and domestic US pressure to end the conflict in Gaza continues to mount.

The stakes for a crucial day of discussions in Tel Aviv were made even higher by news on Tuesday that Hamas has put forward a response to a proposal meant to secure the freedom of the remaining hostages held by the terrorist group and a sustained cessation of the fighting in Gaza. Blinken said Tuesday he would discuss the counterproposal with Israeli officials.

“There’s still a lot of work to be done, but we continue to believe that an agreement is possible and, indeed, essential. And we will continue to work relentlessly to achieve it,” Blinken said at a press conference in Doha Tuesday.

The Israeli offensive, launched after the Hamas attack exactly four months ago, has taken an immense humanitarian toll on the strip, with tens of thousands dead and the population of Gaza on the brink of famine. The offensive sparked a barrage of regional attacks by Iranian-backed proxy groups, including by Houthis against vessels in the Red Sea as well as a deluge of strikes by militias against US troops in Iraq and Syria – one of which took the lives of three US service members. The Biden administration is facing outrage from some groups at home over its handling of the situation in Gaza which could cause political damage to President Joe Biden in an election year.

Blinken is expected to meet, as he has on his past visits to Israel, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and key officials in the Israeli war cabinet.

In those meetings, Blinken is expected to focus on pushing Israel toward a “humanitarian pause,” as the Biden administration calls it, as such a suspension of the fighting is central to the objectives the US is pushing for both the short- and longer-term.

“We saw the results of the last pause – the initial pause: 105 hostages out, a significant increase in humanitarian assistance getting in, the repair of critical infrastructure in Gaza, and more broadly, reduced regional tensions at the same time,” Blinken said Tuesday.

A senior State Department official also noted that “whenever we go to Israel we have a long list in our ongoing conversation with Israel on humanitarian access and civilian casualties.”

Talks not expected to be easy

The conversations are not expected to be easy. Netanyahu on Monday again rejected the idea of a ceasefire, saying that the offensive would continue until Hamas’ leadership was killed. Throughout the course of the conflict, it has taken intense, sustained pressure from the United States to get Israeli officials to shift their positions on things like allowing aid into Gaza.

“We are in conversation with the Israelis every day on a number of different humanitarian pieces and make progress on them, but to get real breakthroughs on some of the big things, one of two things has to happen: the Secretary has to show up or the President has to get on the phone with the prime minister. So whenever we come to Israel, we come with a list of things that we’re trying to push,” a senior State Department official said earlier this week.

On matters like the civilian death toll, officials concede that there is still work to be done and that the number of people killed in the offensive is still too high. There are concerns from humanitarian organizations that the civilian toll will only grow as Israel moves its operations into Rafah, where thousands have fled.

Blinken arrived in Israel Tuesday night after stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar, where the meetings “focused on ensuring … that we can use any pause to continue to build out plans for the day after in Gaza – the security, humanitarian, reconstruction, governance.”

“We’re also determined to use any pause to continue to pave a diplomatic path forward to a just and lasting peace and security for the region,” the top US diplomat said Tuesday.

Netanyahu has publicly dismissed many of these key tenets that the US and its regional allies have put forward for the “day after” in Gaza. The Israeli Prime Minister has repeatedly dismissed the idea of a Palestinian state or a role for the Palestinian Authority in post-war governance. There are also signs that he intends to establish a buffer zone within Gaza, in opposition to US demands that Gaza’s territory not be reduced.

On both this and his last trip to the region, Blinken has stressed that the Israeli government must make “difficult” decisions and move toward a two-state solution if it wants to achieve normalization with Saudi Arabia and if it wants the support of its Arab neighbors for security and reconstruction in Gaza.

The top US diplomat, who met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Monday, said that Saudi Arabia still has a “strong interest” in normalizing relations with Israel, but the Crown Prince made clear that the war in Gaza must end and there must be “a clear, credible, timebound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

At his press conference in Doha Tuesday, Blinken again noted that “in terms of dealing with some of the most profound security challenges that Israel has faced for years, it will be in a much stronger position as part of an integrated region to deal with them.”

“But again, these are decision that will have to be made. None of them are easy. And we’ll continue the effort to prepare all the diplomatic steps necessary to be able to move down that path if that’s the path that everyone chooses,” Blinken said.

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