US reaches out to Arab leaders on Israel, Gaza fighting

Palestinians sit among the rubble of their home that was destroyed during Israeli air strikes in Gaza City. — AFP
Palestinians sit among the rubble of their home that was destroyed during Israeli air strikes in Gaza City. — AFP

Washington - US Secretary of State speaks to foreign ministers of Morocco and Bahrain as envoy Hady Amr discusses the situation with Mahmoud Abbas


Published: Tue 18 May 2021, 7:32 PM

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his envoy reached out to Palestinian and regional Arab leaders on Tuesday as attacks between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers raged on, maintaining what the Biden administration is calling its quiet diplomacy while still declining to press for an immediate ceasefire.

Blinken, speaking during an unrelated trip focusing on Russia and Nordic countries, also defended the US decision to block what would have been a unanimous UN Security Council statement on the fighting and its civilian toll, and the overall US approach to the worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting since 2014. President Joe Biden, speaking to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, expressed general support for a ceasefire but stopped short of joining dozens of Democratic lawmakers in demanding one.

“Our goal remains to bring the current cycle of violence to an end” and then return to a process in which a lasting peace can be forged, the US diplomat said.

Blinken said he had spoken to the foreign ministers of Morocco and Bahrain, two Arab countries that recently have moved to normalise relations with Israel, while US envoy Hady Amr in Israel spoke with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The ongoing US outreach — reflecting an administration that has emphasized working with allies, and has refrained from publicly criticising ally Israel — came as new Hamas rockets and Israeli airstrikes continued for a ninth day. At least 213 Palestinians and 12 people in Israel have died. Efforts by Egypt and others to mediate a truce have stalled.

Biden’s carefully worded statement expressing general support for a ceasefire, in a White House readout on Monday of his second known call to Netanyahu in three days as the attacks pounded on, came with the administration under pressure to respond more forcefully despite its reluctance to challenge Israel’s actions in its part of the fighting. The administration also has expressed its determination to wrench the main US foreign policy focus away from Middle East hotspots and Afghanistan.

Biden’s comments on a ceasefire were open-ended and similar to previous administration statements of support in principle for a ceasefire.

Biden also “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians,” the White House said in its readout.

An administration official said the decision to express support and not explicitly demand a ceasefire was intentional. While Biden and top aides are concerned about the mounting bloodshed and loss of innocent life, the decision not to demand an immediate halt to hostilities reflects White House determination to support Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas, the official said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the private deliberations.

Meanwhile, European Union foreign ministers were meeting on Tuesday to discuss how to use the 27-nation bloc’s political clout to help diplomatic efforts to end the fighting between the Israeli armed forces and Palestinian militants. The EU has been united in its calls for a ceasefire and the need for a political solution to end the latest conflict, but the nations are divided over how best to help.

Netanyahu told Israeli security officials late on Monday that Israel would “continue to strike terror targets” in Gaza “as long as necessary in order to return calm and security to all Israeli citizens”.

Separately, the US, Israel’s top ally, blocked for a third time on Monday what would have been a unanimous statement by the 15-nation UN Security Council expressing “grave concern” over the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the loss of civilian lives. The final US rejection killed the Security Council statement, at least for now.

Blinken said the US was “not standing in the way of diplomacy” and that the UN statement would not have advanced the goal of ending the violence.

“If we thought and if we think that there is something, including at the United Nations that could advance the situation, we would be for it,” Blinken said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki and national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States was focusing instead on “quiet, intensive diplomacy”.

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