Antony Blinken meets Israeli leaders amid fears of further regional escalation

US Secretary of State on his fourth visit to Israel since the war in Gaza began on October 7

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arriving in Tel Aviv on Tuesday, during his week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East. AFP
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is visiting Israel, where he is expected to pressure officials to de-escalate tensions in Gaza and southern Lebanon, as fears mount in Washington that the Middle East is on the brink of a wider regional war.

Mr Blinken will focus discussions on Israeli plans to shift to a lower-intensity phase in the war against Hamas, Palestinian and Arab officials told The National.

Israel said last week it was moving to the "third phase" of the war in Gaza, which has killed more than 23,000 Palestinians. The war began on October 7 with the worst attack in Israel's history, carried out by the Gaza-based militant group Hamas.

Fallout is gradually spreading to Lebanon, Yemen, Syria and Iraq, all of which host armed groups connected to Iran, Israel's arch enemy.

The Secretary of State is due to meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, various Israeli Cabinet ministers and opposition leader Yair Lapid. It is Mr Blinken's fifth visit to Israel since the war began.

Israeli President Isaac Herzog thanked Mr Blinken at the beginning of his trip for supporting Israel with “humanity and with the values of the free world”.

Mr Blinken also held a meeting with his Israeli counterpart, Israel Katz, about the need to build closer ties with Arab states and the “real opportunities” such efforts would yield.

“But we have to get through this very challenging moment and ensure that October 7 can never happen again and work to build a much different and much better future,” Mr Blinken added.

Former Israeli deputy national security adviser Chuck Freilich described the transition to lower-intensity fighting in Gaza as a sign that “Israel is moving towards the American position,” despite the US wanting it to happen earlier.

Israel's Herzog brands International Court of Justice case as 'atrocious and preposterous'

Israel's Herzog brands International Court of Justice case as 'atrocious and preposterous'

A steady stream of senior US officials has travelled to Israel in the past four months to offer support and press the government to introduce a longer-term strategy that brings peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Mr Freilich expected the Secretary of State to press the Israelis to outline an “endgame” in Gaza.

“I know that work has been done on this in the [Israeli] government, but the cabinet hasn’t made a decision yet,” he said.

“Netanyahu has political difficulties in moving to phase three [of the Gaza War] because the right wing in his coalition doesn’t want to acknowledge the transition, but he seems to be managing that,” he added.

After arriving in Tel Aviv on Monday, Mr Blinken posted on X, formerly Twitter, that the US had a “vision for a regional approach that delivers lasting security for Israel and a state for the Palestinian people”.

President Joe Biden's administration has nonetheless come under intense criticism at home and abroad over its continued support of Israel despite the massive humanitarian toll it is inflicting on Gaza's population.

US Vice President Kamala Harris spoke to Mr Herzog on Monday to reaffirm “steadfast support” for Israel, discuss joint efforts to stop the war spreading in the region and the need to reduce the intensity of fighting in Gaza.

Despite reports that rifts are growing between Israel and the US, Mr Freilich said there is still “broad strategic agreement on what this war is about: Hamas cannot be tolerated and should be destroyed”.

“Cutting off military aid [to Israel] is not on the cards,” he added.

“Could there be a slowdown of deliveries? That would still be a very extreme step.”

“The US has a variety of ways of expressing its displeasure. There could also be another Security Council resolution that it doesn’t block if it’s not viewed as a particularly bad one,” he said.

“The US always finds ways of conveying messages to Israel without leaping to what I would call the nuclear option of cutting off military aid.”

In the US, a small group of protesters calling for a ceasefire in Gaza interrupted what had been billed as a key campaign speech by Mr Biden.

His address at a South Carolina church that suffered a racist mass shooting in which nine people were killed in 2015 was aimed at gathering support from the black community.

“If you really care about the lives lost here, you should honour the lives lost and call for a ceasefire in Palestine,” yelled a woman, while several others shouted, “ceasefire now”.

Mr Blinken also faces criticism from the Israeli far right. National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir tweeted on Tuesday: "Mr Secretary Blinken, it’s not the time to speak softly with Hamas, it’s time to use that big stick."

Before arriving in Israel, Mr Blinken met President Sheikh Mohamed in Abu Dhabi on Monday.

During their meeting, Sheikh Mohamed emphasised the need to work towards a ceasefire and ensure humanitarian relief is delivered to the residents of Gaza while preventing their displacement, Wam reported.

UAE President Sheikh Mohamed meets Antony Blinken

UAE President Sheikh Mohamed meets Antony Blinken

His latest Middle East tour comes as Israel said it was shifting the focus of its war in Gaza.

The “third phase” of Israel's offensive appears to be aimed at carefully navigating between achieving its military objectives and external political pressure.

Although Israel will maintain the freedom to strike anywhere and at any time, it is moving towards more specialised operations and assassinations.

Last week, Israel assassinated Saleh Al Arouri in a missile strike in Beirut, a move that was widely interpreted as a severe escalation in retaliatory fighting between Israel and Lebanon-based militant group and Hamas ally Hezbollah.

Another Israeli strike on southern Lebanon on Monday killed a senior commander in Hezbollah's elite Radwan force.

Updated: January 09, 2024, 2:53 PM