Blinken and Sisi agree on push to defuse Palestinian-Israeli tension

US Secretary of State held talks with Egyptian leader ahead of visits to Jerusalem and Ramallah

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Cairo and Washington have said they will work together to defuse Palestinian-Israeli tension, following talks between Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El Sisi and US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

Mr Blinken arrived in Egypt on Sunday at the start of a Middle East tour overshadowed by an outbreak of deadly Palestinian-Israeli violence.

He leaves Egypt later on Monday en route to Jerusalem and the West Bank in an effort to end the violence.

"There is no question that this is a very difficult moment. We've seen the horrific terrorist attacks in recent days. We've seen over many months rising violence that is affecting so many," Mr Blinken said after talks with Sameh Shoukry, his Egyptian counterpart.

"We'll be ... encouraging the parties to take steps to calm things down, to de-escalate tensions," he said.

"We, like Egypt, continue to stand behind the importance of working toward a two-state solution ... And I would just note that throughout all of this, Egypt has played a very important role. As I mentioned, Cairo's efforts last year and the year before to help diffuse two crises, was instrumental in successfully diffusing them."

Egypt, which shares a border with both Israel and the Gaza Strip, has long acted as mediator between the Israelis and Palestinians during times of crisis. It has in the past mediated truces to halt hostilities between Israel and the militant Palestinian Hamas group that rules Gaza.

That role is aided by Egypt’s close links to Palestinian factions, its security and counterterrorism co-operation with Israel, with which it signed a peace treaty in 1979, and its ties to the US.

"Washington is relying on close co-ordination with Egypt to restore stability, achieve calm and contain the situation between the Palestinian and Israeli sides," the Egyptian presidency said, quoting Mr Blinken.

It said Mr El Sisi and the Mr Blinken reviewed the latest developments in the Palestinian territories and continued Egyptian efforts to contain the "rising tensions" there.

"The president emphasised that the latest events point to the importance of acting immediately on the security and political tracks to bring about calm and limit unilateral actions," it said.

Mr El Sisi and Mr Blinken also discussed Washington’s strategic partnership with Egypt, according to the Egyptian presidential statement.

They also discussed the dispute between Egypt and Ethiopia over a massive hydroelectric dam the Horn of Africa nation is almost done building on the Blue Nile.

Egypt says the project could reduce its vital share of the Nile waters.

Cairo has repeatedly asked the US to mediate in the decade-long dispute after its talks with Ethiopia broke down in 2021.

On Monday, Mr El Sisi told Mr Blinken that Cairo insisted on a legally binding deal on the operation of the dam, the Egyptian presidency said.

Ethiopia maintains that recommendations should suffice and insists that Egypt and fellow downstream Sudan would not be harmed by the dam.

Mr Blinken, addressing a joint news conference with Mr Shoukry, said Washington wanted to see a quick end to the dam dispute, saying his government will support any resolution that safeguards the livelihoods of people in Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia.

Egyptian officials said Washington had been conducting behind-the-scenes consultations to bridge the gap between Egypt and fellow downstream nation Sudan on one side and the Ethiopians on the other.

They said the talks included countries that had either directly aided the construction of the dam or are major investors in Ethiopia.

Mr Blinken’s visit comes after CIA director William Burns paid a short visit to Egypt last week for talks with Mr El Sisi.

CIA director William Burns visited Egypt for talks last week. AP

Egypt and the US have been bound by close relations dating to the late 1970s. Cairo has since received hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of military and economic assistance, chiefly as a reward for making peace with Israel after decades of hostilities.

The US has unsuccessfully sought for years to mediate a settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Peace talks between the Palestinians and Israel have been stalled for years, with tension frequently flaring into violence.

Mr Blinken will visit Jerusalem and Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due to meet Antony Blinken in Jerusalem. EPA

In Jerusalem, he is scheduled to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and other senior leaders to discuss enduring US support for Israel’s security, particularly against threats from Iran, the State Department said.

“The secretary will also discuss Israel’s deepening integration into the region, Israeli-Palestinian relations and the importance of a two-state solution, and a range of other global and regional issues,” it said.

Mr Blinken had long planned the visit to see Israel's new right-wing government led by Mr Netanyahu, but this week’s trip takes on a new urgency after some of the worst violence in years.

A Palestinian gunman killed seven people outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem on Friday. It was followed by another attack on Saturday.

On Thursday, nine people were killed when Israeli troops raided the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank in one of the deadliest such operations in years.

Israel said it was seeking militants belonging to Islamic Jihad, a Palestinian terrorist group. The Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip was hit by air strikes in response to rocket fire.

In his meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah, Mr Blinken will seek to use US influence to de-escalate tension, State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said.

In Ramallah, he is expected to repeat Washington’s support for a Palestinian state to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a prospect that few expect to advance under the new Israeli government.

The State Department said Mr Blinken would also call for the preservation of the status quo at the flashpoint Al Aqsa Mosque compound.

In early January, Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right politician who holds the post of National Security Minister in Mr Netanyahu's government, defiantly visited the site.

Updated: January 30, 2023, 1:05 PM