Blinken to return to Israel this week after meetings with Arab leaders

The US State Department announced Secretary Blinken's plan to travel Monday to Israel

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken waves before boarding his plane as he leaves Cairo. AP
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will return to Israel this week after completing a frantic six-country rush through Arab nations aimed at preventing the Israel-Gaza war from igniting a broader regional conflict.

The US State Department announced Mr Blinken's plan to travel Monday to Israel – his second visit in five days – as America's top diplomat arrived in Cairo for talks Sunday with Egypt's president, Abdel Fattah El Sisi.

It was the last of Mr Blinken's meetings with Arab leaders amid increasing fears that an impending Israeli ground offensive into Gaza could spark a wider war with devastating humanitarian consequences.

During his meeting with Mr Blinken, President Sisi said Israel’s Gaza operation has exceeded “the right of self-defence” and turned into “a collective punishment,” Egypt’s state-run media said.

It was the strongest public pushback that Mr Blinken has heard from the seven Arab leaders with whom he has met on the trip.

Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters travelling with Mr Blinken that the secretary was returning to Tel Aviv “for further consultations with Israeli officials.”

Mr Miller did not elaborate.

Before landing in Egypt, Mr Blinken met on Sunday morning with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh.

That meeting followed talks over the previous three days with the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Qatar, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

As plans for Israel’s military action to eradicate Hamas have taken shape with heavy air strikes and warnings for more than a million Palestinians to evacuate the northern Gaza Strip, concerns for a broader conflict have intensified.

In his talks with Arab leaders Blinken has stressed the importance of not allowing that to happen.

In Washington, Mr Biden’s national security adviser said the US was not “making requests or demands of Israel with respect to its military operations.”

Basic principles

Jake Sullivan, making the rounds of the Sunday TV news shows, said the Biden administration was “simply stating our basic principles – the principles upon which this country is based and all democracies, including Israel, are based. It’s what makes us different from the terrorists, that in fact we respect civilian life.”

He said the US was not “not interfering in their military planning or trying to give them instructions or requests specific.”

Mr Sullivan said the US is conveying the message in public and in private that “all military operations should be conducted consistent with law of war, that civilians should be protected, that civilians should have a real opportunity to get to safety” and have access to food, water, medicine and shelter.

Those remarks marked a shift in the US administration's comments in recent days as officials have heard concerns from Arab leaders about the consequences of what a humanitarian catastrophe resulting from an Israeli ground offensive would do not only to Palestinians but also in inflaming public opinions in Arab nations and potentially destabilising relatively friendly countries.

Mr Sullivan also said the US has been unable so far to get American citizens out of Gaza through Egypt's Rafah crossing with Gaza.

“It has been difficult to execute that operation to facilitate their passage out. … It’s a high priority,” acknowledging that “I’m not aware of anyone else being able to get out at this time.”

The crossing was closed because of air strikes early in the war. There are an estimated 500 Americans living in Gaza, but that number is imprecise, officials have said.

US officials have said the Arab reaction to Mr Blinken’s message has been generally positive – acknowledging Israel has a right to respond to the Hamas attacks but expressing deep concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza and unable to stay silent about the Palestinian civilian casualties that result.

The Arab leaders have also said the current situation cannot be resolved without an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal that gives the Palestinians an independent state.

In his roughly hour-long meeting with Prince Mohammed at the de facto Saudi leader’s private farm outside Riyadh, Mr Blinken “highlighted the United States’ unwavering focus on halting terrorist attacks by Hamas, securing the release of all hostages, and preventing the conflict from spreading,” the State Department said.

“The two affirmed their shared commitment to protecting civilians and to advancing stability across the Middle East and beyond,” a department statement said.

The Saudi description of the meeting focused primarily on Palestinian civilians, echoing the sentiments that the other Arab leaders with whom Mr Blinken has met.

It said Saudi Arabia would object to the targeting of “civilians in any way or disrupt(ing) infrastructure and vital interests that affect their daily lives.”

The prince “stressed the need to work to discuss ways to stop the military operations that claimed the lives of innocent people,” the Saudi Press Agency said in a report about the meeting.

Updated: October 15, 2023, 5:17 PM