Blinken is back in the Middle East this week

He has his work cut out for him
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gestures as he departs for Saudi Arabia in the latest Gaza diplomacy push, at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Saturday, April 28, 2024.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken gestures as he departs for Saudi Arabia in the latest Gaza diplomacy push, at Joint Base Andrews, Md., Saturday, April 28, 2024. AP Photo

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday begins his seventh diplomatic mission to the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war began more than six months ago. He has his work cut out for him.

The war has ground on since Hamas' deadly Oct. 7 attacks on Israel with little end in sight: more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, hundreds of thousands more are displaced and a humanitarian crisis in Gaza is worsening.

The conflict has fueled mass protests around the world that have spread to American college campuses. U.S. support for Israel, particularly arms transfers, has come under particular criticism, something the administration is keenly aware poses potential problems for President Joe Biden in an election year.

Just ahead of Blinken's visit — which includes a little more than a day in Saudi Arabia before stops in Jordan and Israel on Tuesday and Wednesday — Biden spoke by phone Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Blinken's trip comes amid renewed concerns about the conflict spreading in the Middle East and with once-promising prospects for Israeli-Saudi rapprochement effectively on hold as Israel refuses to consider one of the Saudis' main conditions for normalized relations: the creation of a Palestinian state.

Here is a look at the main issues Blinken will tackle:

CEASEFIRE TALKS AND PREVENTING WIDER CONFLICT

The Biden administration has been working closely with Egypt and Qatar for months to negotiate a deal between Israel and Hamas for the release of Israeli hostages abducted during the Oct. 7 attacks that launched the war in exchange for a temporary but extendable ceasefire in Gaza and the release of Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel. Those negotiations, while ongoing, have yet to bear fruit.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has been warning Israel against a major military operation on the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have fled to escape fighting further north. Israel has not yet launched such an offensive, but Netanyahu has repeatedly said that one will take place, asserting that it is the only way to wipe out Hamas.

Both topics were discussed during the Biden-Netanyahu phone call on Sunday, according to the White House and U.S. officials.

Blinken also will speak to those issues in talks with Arab and European foreign ministers gathered in Riyadh for a meeting of the World Economic Forum. He'll also discuss not allowing the Israel-Hamas conflict to engulf the region, which will be a focus of a separate meeting he will have in Riyadh with his counterparts from the Gulf Cooperation Council.

The danger of conflagration was underscored this month when a suspected Israeli attack on an Iranian consular building in Syria prompted an unprecedented direct missile and drone response by Iran against Israel. An apparent retaliatory Israeli strike on Iran followed.

Although the tit-for-tat cycle appears to have ended for now, deep concerns remain that Iran or its proxies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria or Yemen could act in such a way as to provoke a greater response from Israel or that Israel might take action that Iran feels it must retaliate for.

HUMANITARIAN AID FOR GAZA

The Biden administration also has been pushing Israel to further expand the scope and scale of humanitarian aid convoys bringing food, medicine, water into the territory.

In Jordan and Israel, Blinken will focus largely on such aid, meeting with various relief organizations as well as officials in both countries to underscore the urgent need for more assistance. In Israel, those discussions will be accompanied by talks on Israel’s military plans, a State Department official said.

Blinken is expected to emphasize the importance of sharply boosting the flow of assistance and sustaining the increase.

While deliveries have increased, they are still not at levels needed to avoid what the U.N. says is a looming famine in Gaza. The U.S. also is building a pier near Gaza City through which aid shipped from Cyprus can be sent for distribution to Palestinian civilians.

Officials in the U.S. and Cyprus say the pier is expected to be completed soon, but there are still big concerns about security for the facility and the aid workers who will be bringing supplies from the port to communities.

Scores of relief workers have been killed since the conflict began, and a deadly Israeli attack on a World Central Kitchen aid convoy in Gaza this month only highlighted the dangers and difficulties of protecting them. Israel has said the strike was a mistake and has disciplined officials involved.

World Central Kitchen says it would resume operations in Gaza on Monday after a four-week suspension.

GAZA’S FUTURE AND NORMALIZING ISRAEL-SAUDI TIES

In Saudi Arabia, a State Department official said Blinken would be focused primarily on plans for a post-conflict Gaza in separate meetings with Arab and European foreign ministers.

The U.S. has been working with a group of five Arab nations — the so-called “Quint” of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates — on planning for reconstruction and governance of the territory once the war ends. After initial reluctance in the early stages of the war to commit to participating in such planning, the Arabs in January agreed to do so, although many of their specific contributions to the effort have not been completely determined yet and will not likely be set at this meeting, the official said.

Later, Blinken and those same Arab ministers along with several from Europe will meet jointly to go over their ideas and tell the Europeans that there is a role for them — both financially and with specific expertise — to play in Gaza’s post-conflict future, according to the official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to preview Blinken’s discussions.

He will have separate meetings with Saudi officials, expected to include the country’s de facto leader Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, about the U.S.-Saudi portion of a proposal for the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and how that can be merged eventually with the broader plan for Gaza. Prior to Hamas’ Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, U.S. officials believed they were close to securing an agreement.

After the war began, those relations became tied to Israel’s acceptance of an independent Palestinian state.

Netanyahu and his far-right government have refused to consider it but that hasn’t stopped Blinken or other officials from repeating their argument that the futures of Gaza, Palestinians overall, Israel’s long-term security and regional stability all depend on one.

Blinken will speak with the Saudis and the other Arabs about reaching “lasting peace and security in the region, including through a pathway to an independent Palestinian state with security guarantees for Israel,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. (AP)

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