Washington (AFP) – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due to travel to Egypt on Sunday at the start of his Middle East tour, where he will use US influence to de-escalate Israeli-Palestinian tensions after an eruption of violence.
Blinken, who will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday and Tuesday, has long planned the visit to see Israel’s new right-wing government, but the trip takes on new urgency after the worst violence in years.
On Friday, a Palestinian gunman killed seven people outside a synagogue in a settler neighborhood in East Jerusalem, and another attack followed on Saturday.
On Thursday, nine people were killed when the Israeli army raided the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, in one of the bloodiest operations in years. Israel said it targeted Islamic Jihad militants and also hit the Hamas-run Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire.
Blinken will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas and call for “wide-scale action to de-escalate tensions”, Foreign Ministry spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters while condemning the “terrible” synagogue attack.
The violence is also likely to take place in talks between Blinken and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose traditional role as his country’s Middle East mediator has helped him remain a key US partner despite criticism of President Joe Biden’s human rights record.
The USA has historically taken the lead in Middle East diplomacy due to its close relationship with Israel.
But experts questioned whether Blinken could make any breakthroughs.
“The best thing they can do is keep things stable to avoid another May 2021,” said senior US negotiator Aaron David Miller, referring to more than two weeks of conflict between Israel and Hamas that resulted in an Egyptian-mediated ceasefire.
Ghaith Al-Omari, now a former Palestinian official 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.
‘flooding the region’ with Netanyahu
Blinken’s visit is part of the Biden administration’s effort to quickly engage with Netanyahu, who returned to office in late December by leading the most right-wing government in Israeli history.
While Netanyahu sided with openly Republican opponents of US diplomacy against Iran, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister had a strained relationship with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama.
Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, visited Iran in early January to discuss it after Biden’s efforts to restore the 2015 nuclear deal, which had been scorned by Netanyahu, had de facto come to an end.
“I have never seen such an intense flurry of high-level contacts under any management as you are watching now,” said Miller, who now works at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
Noting the strong support for the Israeli leader among Republicans who now control the House of Representatives, Miller said the Biden team was looking to “avoid a confrontation with Netanyahu.”
David Makovsky, also from the Washington Institute, said he understood that CIA Director Bill Burns had visited the region.
“It looks like the area has been flooded,” he said.
Netanyahu hailed the normalization of relations in 2020 with the United Arab Emirates, which has been advancing at full speed in developing ties despite public concerns about the new government’s moves, as a significant achievement.
Blinken’s trip is expected to reiterate US support for a Palestinian state; this is a possibility that few expect to move forward under the new Israeli government.
The State Department said Blinken would also call for the preservation of the status quo at the Al-Aqsa mosque campus, which is sacred to both Jews and Muslims.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right ideologue who holds a security post in the Netanyahu government, defiantly visited what Jews call the Temple Mount in early January.
The Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Blinken in Egypt is expected to also discuss regional issues such as Libya and Sudan.
Egypt remains one of the top recipients of US military aid, but the collaboration is coming under scrutiny by parts of Biden’s Democratic Party over Sisi’s rights record.
Authorities released hundreds of political prisoners last year, but human rights groups estimate that around 60,000 remain in detention, many of them facing harsh conditions and overcrowded cells.
© 2023 AFP