U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken departed Thursday on a high-stakes trip to the Middle East, his second visit to the region in less than three months as fears grow over a wider conflict following Israel’s deadly strikes on Gaza last year.
Blinken will visit Israel, the West Bank, Egypt and Turkey over the next week for talks that will likely focus on deescalating tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, restoring relations with Turkey, and countering Iranian aggression in the region. His visit comes as the Biden administration rushes to prevent tensions from spiraling into a new war between Israel and Gaza’s militant Hamas rulers or Israel and the Iranian-backed Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Blinken’s trip follows an intense 11-day battle between Israel and Hamas in May 2023. The fighting killed 260 Palestinians, including 67 children, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Hamas fired over 4,000 rockets at Israeli cities, while Israeli warplanes struck over 1,000 targets in Gaza.
Since the ceasefire, Israel has eased some restrictions on Gaza to allow reconstruction efforts, but a full opening of the territory has been tied to progress on the release of two Israeli civilians held by Hamas and the remains of two Israeli soldiers killed in a 2014 war. Indirect negotiations on a prisoner exchange have broken down, with tensions rising following recent arrests in the West Bank.
Blinken’s visit also comes as worries grow over Iran’s nuclear program. Israel has vowed it will not allow Iran to obtain nuclear weapons, and neither will the United States.
Goals of Trip
Blinken’s trip has several key goals, according to the State Department:
- Discuss recovery efforts and situation in Gaza following May conflict
- Look for opportunities to strengthen governance and economic development in Gaza to benefit the Palestinian people
- Discuss potential paths to reducing tensions between Israelis and Palestinians
- Continue coordination with allies and partners to counter Iranian aggression in the region
- Explore chances to expand Arab-Israeli engagement and deepen Israel’s regional integration
- Discuss other regional security matters, including Turkey and Syria
Blinken will make stops in Egypt, Turkey, Jerusalem, Ramallah and Amman over 8 days from January 5-12.
Key meetings include:
- January 8: Meeting with Israeli PM in Jerusalem
- January 9: Meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah
- January 11: Meeting with Egyptian president Abdel Fattah El-Sisi in Cairo
- January 12: Meeting with Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu in Ankara
Preventing New Israel-Gaza War
A key focus for Blinken will be trying to shore up the Egypt-brokered ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in order to prevent another devastating war. Both sides have largely adhered to the truce, but tensions remain high amid violent incidents in the West Bank and restrictions on aid and goods into Gaza.
Restoring calm will require progress on reconstruction efforts, prisoner exchanges, easing Israeli restrictions on Gaza, and reducing violence in the West Bank. Blinken is likely to pressure Israel to ease the Gaza blockade in exchange for calm, while pushing the Palestinians to crackdown on militants. He’ll also advocate expanding governance and economy in Gaza to undermine Hamas.
Countering Iran’s aggression in the region and its nuclear program will be another top agenda item. Israel insists Iran is only months away from obtaining nuclear weapons capability, while Iran says its program is purely peaceful.
Blinken will discuss efforts with allies to restore the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which offered sanctions relief to Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program. Former President Trump withdrew from the pact in 2018. Israel stridently opposes the agreement.
If talks fail, the U.S. and Israel could turn to military options. Israel has repeatedly struck Iran-linked targets in Syria. Meanwhile Iran provides missiles and drones to proxies like Hamas and Hezbollah. An attack on Iran’s nuclear sites risks a wider war.
Normalizing Israel-Turkey Relations
Blinken’s stop in Turkey aims to continue efforts to normalize strained diplomatic ties between Ankara and Jerusalem after over a decade of tensions.
In recent months, Erdogan has softened his rhetoric toward Israel amid Turkey’s economic struggles and international isolation. Restoring ties could unlock lucrative gas deals and boost Erdogan ahead of tight elections this year.
But any reconciliation deal will require Turkey reining in anti-Israel rhetoric and Hamas activity in Istanbul. It remains unclear if Erdogan is willing to meet all of Israel’s demands. Blinken will explore chances for progress.
Quotes from Key Figures
“We fully expect that important components of [Blinken’s] discussions will relate to Israel’s security, to the ongoing efforts to expand normalization, enhance US-Israeli cooperation and other regional challenges,” – Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat
“We caution against the U.S. making decisions that can further escalate tensions. The U.S. needs to play a more constructive role in ending completely the Israeli blockade of Gaza,” – Hamas spokesman Abdelatif Al-Qanoua
All eyes will be on whether Blinken’s shuttle diplomacy can deliver any concrete progress on lowering tensions and preventing the outbreak of a new, more devastating war.
In the short term, the administration will likely seek gradual confidence building measures like easing restrictions on Gaza aid and reconstruction and reducing West Bank raids and settlement growth. But addressing core final status issues like prisoners, borders and sovereignty seems unlikely in the polarized environment.
Without political breakthroughs, the risk of renewed fighting remains high, with Hamas threatening to resume rocket attacks if Israel doesn’t continue easing the blockade. Hezbollah also vows retaliation for Israeli airstrikes in Syria targeting weapons shipments bound for Lebanon.
Blinken has his work cut out to make progress. But the alternative — spiraling toward regional conflagration — is unacceptable for all sides.
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