Blinken says US determined to get Israel-Hamas deal 'now'

US Secretary of State arrives in Tel Aviv after Saudi Arabia and Jordan on his seventh round of shuttle diplomacy

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv on Wednesday. EPA
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told the Israeli leadership on Wednesday the US is determined to reach a ceasefire in Gaza “now”.

“Even in these very difficult times we are determined to get a ceasefire that brings the hostages home – and to get it now,” Mr Blinken said, as he met Israeli President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv. “And the only reason that that wouldn't be achieved is because of Hamas.”

Mr Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv on Tuesday after stops in Saudi Arabia and Jordan, capping off his seventh round of shuttle diplomacy in the region since Israel launched its war in Gaza in response to Hamas’ October 7 attack.

He also held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who reportedly told Mr Blinken that Israel would not accept a deal that would include ending the war, Israeli journalist Barak Ravid said.

Mr Netanyahu pledged on Tuesday to launch an incursion into the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than one million Palestinians now live after almost seven months of war, just as ceasefire negotiations appeared to be gaining steam.

Mr Blinken reaffirmed Washington's opposition to the Rafah invasion, according to a readout of his meeting with Mr Netanyahu issued by the State Department.

Mr Blinken is in Israel to advance the continuing truce talks, which appear to be one of the most serious rounds of mediated negotiations between Israel and Hamas since the war began.

Speaking in Jordan before flying to Israel, Mr Blinken said the “focus” right now is on improving the humanitarian situation and reaching a ceasefire deal that brings Israeli hostages home.

He said Israel had offered a “strong proposal” and called on Hamas to respond.

“No more delays. No more excuses. The time to act is now,” he said. “We want to see in the coming days this agreement coming together.”

Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri dismissed Mr Blinken's comments, saying they were an attempt to exert pressure on the group. Hamas is still studying the latest ceasefire proposal, he told Reuters.

The deal is meant to free hostages seized by Hamas on October 7, bring some relief to Gaza's population and avert an Israeli offensive into Rafah and the potential harm to civilians there.

In a meeting with the families of American-Israeli hostages, Mr Blinken “conveyed cautious optimism” about the prospect of a deal.

“We express our sincere gratitude to Secretary Blinken and the Biden administration for their unwavering support and assistance throughout this agonising ordeal,” a forum that represents the families said in a statement after the meeting.

'Keep strong', Blinken tells families of Israeli hostages

'Keep strong', Blinken tells families of Israeli hostages

The current deal being discussed, brokered by the US, Egypt and Qatar, would see the release of dozens of hostages in exchange for a six-week halt in fighting as part of an initial phase, according to several diplomatic sources. Hundreds of Palestinian prisoners held by Israel would also be released, including some serving long sentences.

“Everyone is waiting for Hamas' response today to the Egyptian proposal. Unlike previous times, it seems that people in Gaza, although they are looking forward to a ceasefire and feel exhausted, are afraid of disappointment, so they stopped expecting an end to the war,” a Palestinian political source told The National.

“Everyone longs for a truce that will bring people closer to the end of the war and a return to completing their lives by rebuilding their homes, but they are also longing for a solution that puts them on the path to achieving their rights to freedom and independence,” the source said. “Until that distant goal is achieved, the fight in the ring remains ongoing to score points without the ability to strike a fatal blow.”

Mr Netanyahu said Israel would enter Rafah, which Israel says is Hamas' last stronghold, regardless of whether a truce-for-hostages deal is struck. His comments appeared to be meant to appease his nationalist governing partners but it was not clear whether they would have any bearing on any emerging deal with Hamas.

Far-right members of Mr Netanyahu's coalition doubled down on their insistence that Israel prioritises the continuation of the Gaza war and an operation in Rafah over a hostage deal.

Netanyahu under pressure

Settlements minister Orit Strock said the current deal being discussed in Egypt is “terrible”.

“Soldiers … left everything behind and went out to fight for goals that the government defined, and we throw it in the bin to save 22 people or 33 or I don’t know how many,” she told an Israeli radio station.

Her comments mirror similar ones made by other far-right politicians in recent days, who have said that Mr Netanyahu's government has no right to exist if war aims are betrayed.

However, Mr Netanyahu is under pressure from the more centrist elements of his coalition to prioritise the return of the hostages.

Mr Blinken discussed the latest efforts to achieve a deal with the prime minister's former rival, cabinet minister Benny Gantz, during his trip.

Mr Netanyahu is also battling the looming possibility of the International Criminal Court issuing arrest warrants against Israeli officials for war crimes.

As media reports mounted that the warrants were imminent, Mr Netanyahu released a video on X on Wednesday in which he said such a move would be “an outrage of historic proportions”.

“[The ICC] is trying to put us in the dock as we defend ourselves against genocidal terrorists and regimes – Iran, of course – that openly works to destroy the one and only Jewish state,” he said.

“Israel expects the leaders of the free world to stand firmly against the ICC's outrageous assault on Israel’s inherent right of self-defence.”

Reports suggest the warrants would be issued for the Prime Minister himself, Defence Minister Yoav Gallant and Israeli military chief of staff Herzi Halevi.

Updated: May 02, 2024, 5:04 AM