US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has arrived in Egypt at the start of a three-day Middle East visit with Israeli-Palestinian tensions escalating and Russia’s war in Ukraine and Iran’s nuclear programme high on his agenda.
After a stop in Cairo, Blinken will travel on Monday and Tuesday to Jerusalem and Ramallah, where he will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, respectively.
Blinken’s trip had been planned with Netanyahu’s new right-wing government being the focal point, as concerns over the future of Israel’s direction and stalled peace talks with the Palestinians loomed large.
But the visit took on new urgency on Thursday after Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians and after a Palestinian carried out a retaliatory gun attack in occupied East Jerusalem that killed seven Israelis outside a synagogue a day later.
Another attack followed on Saturday. Fears have spiked that already spiralling violence will further escalate.
‘Trip is the message’
In talks with the new Israeli administration, which includes ultra-nationalist parties that want to ramp up settlement construction in the occupied territories, Blinken will repeat United States calls for calm and emphasise Washington’s support for a two-state solution.
Blinken will also travel to Ramallah to meet Abbas, other Palestinian officials, and members of civil society. With both leaders, Blinken will call “broadly for steps to be taken to de-escalate tensions”, US State Department spokesman Vedant Patel told reporters.
Analysts 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, said he 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.
Netanyahu’s government has proposed a sweeping overhaul of the Israeli judiciary that would strengthen political control over the appointment of judges, while weakening the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn legislation or rule against government action.
The proposals have triggered large street demonstrations against what protesters see as the potential undermining of judicial independence.
The US State Department said Blinken would also call for the preservation of the status quo at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, where Jews are not permitted to pray.
Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician who is Netanyahu’s security minister, in early January defiantly visited the site, setting off fears of violence and calls by Jordan, the custodian of Muslim and Christian sites in the Holy Land, to maintain the status quo.
Pope Francis called on both sides to refrain from escalation. “The death spiral that increases day by day only closes the few glimmers of trust that exist between the two peoples,” the Catholic pontiff said on Sunday.
The violence in Palestine is also likely to figure in talks between Blinken and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, whose country’s traditional role as a Middle East mediator has helped him remain a key US partner, despite US President Joe Biden’s criticism of his human rights record.
In Egypt, Blinken is also expected to discuss regional issues such as conflicts in Libya and Sudan, the State Department said.
Egypt remains one of the top recipients of US military assistance, but the cooperation faces scrutiny from parts of Biden’s Democratic Party because of el-Sisi’s rights record.
Authorities released hundreds of political prisoners last year, but rights groups estimate some 60,000 remain in detention, many facing harsh conditions and living in overcrowded cells.
Ukraine war and Iran
Russia’s 11-month-old war in Ukraine will also be on the agenda. Ukraine, which has received military equipment from the US and Europe, has asked Israel to provide missile systems to shoot down drones, including those supplied by Israel’s regional adversary Iran.
Israel has rebuffed those requests. While it has condemned the Russian invasion, Israel has limited its assistance to humanitarian aid and protective gear, citing a desire for continued cooperation with Moscow over its war-ravaged neighbour Syria and a commitment to ensuring the wellbeing of Russia’s Jews.
The diplomats will also discuss Iran’s nuclear programme, with the Biden administration’s efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal stalled and with no Plan B to prevent Iran from developing a weapon.