Blinken arrived in Egypt after violence in Jerusalem, the West Bank

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Egypt on Sunday at the start of his trip to the Middle East in which he will seek to de-escalate the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after the outbreak of violence.

Blinken, who will travel to Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday and Tuesday after a stop in Cairo, had planned a long visit to see Israel’s new right-wing government, but the trip took a new turn at some of the most violent incidents in years.

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

It came in retaliation for an Israeli operation on Thursday that killed nine people in an Israeli army attack on a refugee camp in Jenin in the West Bank, in one of the deadliest such operations for years.

Israel also launched airstrikes on the besieged Gaza Strip, allegedly targeting Hamas members. Israeli forces claimed they carried out the missile attack following rocket launches from the coastal enclave, while no group in Gaza claimed responsibility.

“The Israeli government seems intent on weakening the PA to the point of collapse.”

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Blinken will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and president of the Palestinian Authority 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, whose country’s traditional role as a Middle East mediator has helped him remain a key US partner despite President Joe Biden’s criticism of his human rights record.

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 heavy Israeli bombardment of the Gaza Strip and retaliatory rocket fire from Hamas and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad 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.

Netanyahu has hailed as a key achievement the normalization of relations in 2020 with the United Arab Emirates, which has moved full speed ahead on developing ties despite public concerns over the new government’s moves.

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, the third holiest site in Islam.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right ideologue who holds a security post in Netanyahu’s government, in early January defiantly visited the site, which Jews call the Temple Mount.

In Egypt, Blinken is also expected to discuss regional issues such as 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 due to 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 overcrowded cells.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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