Antony Blinken outlines US policy on Gaza in press conference with PM Netanyahu

US diplomatic efforts face the challenge of ongoing government formation in Israel and division among Palestinian groups

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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has held a press conference with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv at the start of a Middle East tour on Tuesday, aimed at shoring up the Gaza ceasefire.

He described Washington's position of wanting to help reconstruction in Gaza, limit external support for Hamas and continue US military support for Israel.

"I hope to start to move things in a positive direction where we can make material progress in the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike. We have a lot of work to do, but we’re grateful to have close parties," he said, on meeting Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi.

Mr Blinken, who landed at Ben Gurion International Airport, is the highest-ranking US official to visit the region since President Joe Biden assumed office.

He was welcomed on the tarmac by Mr Ashkenazi and other officials.

Mr Blinken, who said earlier his trip would aim to support "efforts to solidify a ceasefire", will later meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

However, he will not meet Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

He will then travel to neighbouring Egypt and Jordan.

US President Joe Biden had previously said that Mr Blinken would meet "with Israeli leaders about our ironclad commitment to Israel's security," as well as seek to rebuild ties with the Palestinians.

"He will continue our administration's efforts to rebuild ties to, and support for, the Palestinian people and leaders, after years of neglect," Mr Biden said.

Mr Blinken on Sunday also reaffirmed US support for a two-state solution as the only way to provide hope to Israelis and Palestinians that they can live "with equal measures of security, of peace and dignity."

Israel commitments 

Standing next to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at Tuesday's press conference, Mr Blinken said he will specify an aid package to the Palestinians later on Tuesday. The US will ensure that Hamas — the militant group that governs Gaza that is also designated a terrorist group by the US, European Union and others — “does not benefit” from international efforts to rebuild the isolated enclave, Mr Blinken said.

Mr Blinken reiterated the US’s commitment to Israel’s right of self-defense, adding that he is working on replenishing Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, which intercepted many rockets from Gaza that would have otherwise struck civilian targets.

While the two allies appeared in sync about their approach to the Palestinians, there appeared to be some distance between them about the Biden administration’s intention to revive a deal that would end economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs to its nuclear program.

Divided administrations 

The visit comes as Mr Netanyahu faces mounting criticism from Israelis who say he ended the offensive prematurely, without halting all Palestinian rocket attacks or dealing a heavier blow to Hamas.

Amid these political tensions, Mr Blinken will face the same obstacles that have stifled a wider peace process for more than a decade.

These include a hawkish Israeli leadership, Palestinian divisions and deeply rooted tensions surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites.

The 11-day Gaza conflict killed more than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, and caused widespread destruction in the impoverished coastal territory.

When meeting with Mr Abbas, Mr Blinken is expected to focus on co-ordinating reconstruction efforts. But previous reconstruction in Gaza, following the devastating 2014 conflict, was hampered by strict import controls sanctioning material that the Israelis feared could be used for military operations, including cement for underground tunnels.

The blockade was blamed by critics of Israel for worsening suffering in the impoverished enclave where thousands depend on construction material for jobs.

The truce that came into effect Friday has so far held, but it did not address any of the underlying issues.