Blinken arrives in Egypt as Middle East violence erupts

US Secretary of State will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and call for steps to de-escalate tensions

By AFP

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday and Tuesday. — Reuters file
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday and Tuesday. — Reuters file

Published: Sun 29 Jan 2023, 4:50 PM

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived on Sunday in Egypt at the start of a Middle East trip on which he will look to notch down Israeli-Palestinian tensions after an eruption of violence.

Blinken, who will travel Monday and Tuesday to Jerusalem and Ramallah after his stop in Cairo, had long planned the visit to see Israel's new right-wing government, but the trip takes on a new urgency after some of the worst violence in years.


A Palestinian gunman on Friday killed seven people outside a synagogue in a settler neighbourhood of east Jerusalem, and another attack followed on Saturday.

On Thursday, nine people were killed in an Israeli army raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in one of the deadliest such operations in years.


Israel said it was targeting Islamic Jihad militants and later hit the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire.

Blinken will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and call "broadly for steps to be taken to de-escalate tensions," State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters as he condemned the "horrific" synagogue attack.

The violence is also likely to figure in talks between Blinken and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi.

The United States, with its close relationship to Israel, has historically taken a lead on Middle East diplomacy.

But experts questioned whether Blinken could achieve any breakthroughs.

"The absolute best they can do is to keep things stable to avoid another May 2021," said Aaron David Miller, a veteran US negotiator, referring to 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas that ended with an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire.

Ghaith Al Omari, a former Palestinian official now at The Washington Institute, expected Blinken to repeat traditional US positions rather than break new ground.

"The trip itself is the message," he said.

"Blinken will ask Abbas to do more but it is not clear what they can do," he said, referring to the Palestinians.

Blinken's visit is part of an effort by the Biden administration to engage quickly with Netanyahu, who returned to office in late December leading the most right-wing government in Israel's history.

Israel's longest-serving prime minister had a fraught relationship with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, as Netanyahu openly sided with his Republican adversaries against US diplomacy with Iran.

Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, visited earlier in January to discuss Iran after Biden's efforts to restore a 2015 nuclear accord -- despised by Netanyahu -- effectively died.

"I've never seen such an intense flurry of high-level contacts under any administration as you're watching right now," said Miller, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

The Biden team is looking "to avoid confrontation with Netanyahu", Miller said, noting the strong support for the Israeli leader among Republicans who now control the House of Representatives.

David Makovsky, also at the Washington Institute, said he also understood that CIA Director Bill Burns has been visiting the region.

"It looks a little like flooding the zone," he said.

Blinken is expected on his trip to reiterate US support for a Palestinian state, a prospect that few expect to advance under the new Israeli government.

The State Department said Blinken would also call for the preservation of the status quo at the flashpoint Al Aqsa mosque compound.



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