WASHINGTON: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was due Sunday in Egypt at the start of a Middle East trip on which he will look to use US influence to notch down Israeli-Palestinian tensions after an eruption of violence.
Blinken, who will travel Monday and Tuesday to Jerusalem and Ramallah, had long planned the visit to see Israel’s new right-wing government, but the trip takes on a new urgency after some of the worst violence in years.
A Palestinian gunman on Friday killed seven people outside a synagogue in a settler neighbourhood of east Jerusalem, and another attack followed on Saturday.
On Thursday, nine people were killed in an Israeli army raid on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in one of the deadliest such operations in years. Israel said it was targeting Islamic Jihad militants and also hit the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire.
Blinken will meet Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmud 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 more than two weeks 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, 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 zone’ with Netanyahu
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 sides 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, which is holy both to Jews and Muslims.
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.