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Blinken in Mideast Renews Appeal for Israel-Palestinian Calm

Blinken in Mideast Renews Appeal for Israel-Palestinian Calm

Tuesday, 31 January, 2023 - 08:30
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, left, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas shake hands following their meeting in the West Bank town of Ramallah, Tuesday, Jan. 31, 2023. (AP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrapped up a two-day visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank on Tuesday with renewed appeals for Israeli-Palestinian calm amid an alarming spike of violence.

Blinken met Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah on Tuesday, a day after seeing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Standing alongside the Israeli leader, Blinken stressed the importance the Biden administration places on resolving the long-running conflict with a two-state solution.

However, beyond urging a de-escalation of tensions, Blinken offered no new US initiative to do so. There were few signs that Blinken was making progress on even the modest goal of halting the latest wave of violence, much less of addressing the broader issues surrounding peace talks.

Speaking to reporters in Jerusalem, Blinken said leaders on both sides had voiced concerns about the current violence during his meetings. He said he instructed two top aides — Barbara Leaf, the top US diplomat for the Middle East, and Hady Amr, the US envoy to the Palestinians — to remain in the region to work to defuse tensions.

Blinken also said the US would oppose "anything" that undermines the two-state vision, including new settlement construction, legalizing settlement outposts, demolitions of Palestinian homes and incitement to violence.

"Restoring calm is our immediate task. But over the longer term, we have to do more than just lower tensions," he said. "The United States is committed to working toward our enduring goal of ensuring that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, justice and dignity."

In Ramallah, Abbas placed all blame for the spike in violence on Israel and berated the international community for not doing more to pressure Israel.

"We affirm that the Israeli government is responsible for what is happening today," he said, adding: "Israel is being overlooked, without deterrence or accountability, as it continues its unilateral operations."

He called for the "complete cessation" of those operations.

Netanyahu’s far-right government is dominated by hard-liners who oppose Palestinian statehood and are unlikely to make even minimal concessions.

Blinken’s visit comes amid one of the deadliest periods of fighting in years in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem. The violence has further complicated the administration's already difficult attempts to find common ground with Netanyahu's government.

In Ramallah, Blinken was expected to discuss the Palestinian Authority's decision to halt security coordination with Israel. The security ties, which in the past are believed to have helped contain violence, are deeply unpopular among everyday Palestinians.

Before heading to the West Bank, Blinken met with Israel's opposition leader, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

"The secretary conveyed his concern over the deteriorating security situation in the West Bank and the need for urgent action to prevent greater loss of life. Secretary Blinken reiterated that Israelis and Palestinians deserve to have equal measures of security, prosperity and freedom," his office said.

Following a meeting with Blinken on Monday, Netanyahu made only passing reference to the Palestinians and focused instead on Iran, which he believes is his most urgent security priority.

Netanyahu's coalition partners also gave a cool reception to Blinken's comments.

National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, leader of the ultranationalist Jewish Power party, vowed to push forward with punitive measures against the Palestinians in response to a pair of shootings in east Jerusalem over the weekend. Ben-Gvir has pledged to demolish Palestinian homes and hand out more weapons to Israeli civilians.

Cabinet Minister Orit Strock, another ultranationalist, objected to comments by Blinken that were seen as criticizing the Israeli government's plan to overhaul the country's judicial system and weaken the Supreme Court.

During his appearance with Netanyahu, Blinken voiced "support for core democratic principles and institutions," including "the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law." Critics say Netanyahu's plan will weaken the country's judicial system and destroy its democratic system of checks and balances.

Strok accused Blinken of meddling in internal Israeli affairs.

"We’re not the 51st or 52nd state of the US, and he didn’t need to interfere in internal disputes in the state of Israel," she told the Kan public broadcaster. "It’s not his job."

Before leaving Jerusalem for Ramallah, Blinken met with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who repeated the prime minister's concern about Iran.

"Your visit comes at a critical time," Gallant said. "It sends a clear message to the region: The United States and Israel are united facing Iran or anyone threatening peace and stability in the region."

Blinken agreed about the need for unity when confronting Iran and preventing it from acquiring nuclear weapons. He said the US commitment to Israel's security remains "ironclad" but suggested there was more on his agenda. "We have a lot on our hands in this moment and so I couldn’t see you at a better time," he said.

January has been the deadliest month in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in years. Some 35 Palestinians have been killed in fighting, including 10 killed in an Israeli military raid in the flashpoint town of Jenin on Thursday.

On Friday, a Palestinian gunman killed seven people outside a synagogue in an east Jerusalem settlement. The next morning, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy shot and wounded two Israelis elsewhere in east Jerusalem.

Israel’s options may be limited. Both shooters are believed to have acted individually and were not part of organized militant groups, and punitive steps against the broader population could risk triggering even more violence. Israel has also pledged to "strengthen" West Bank settlements.

The US, like most of the international community, considers Israeli settlements on lands claimed by the Palestinians for their state as obstacles to peace. However, the Biden administration has yet to restore a decades-old legal opinion that the settlements are "illegitimate" that had been rescinded under former President Donald Trump.

Nor has it made any progress on its stated intent to re-open the US Consulate in Jerusalem, which had been the main conduit for engagement with the Palestinians before Trump closed it. The closure was part of his decision to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem, a step that infuriated the Palestinians.

The violence comes after months of Israeli arrest raids in the West Bank, which were launched after a wave of Palestinian attacks against Israelis in the spring of 2022 that killed 19 people.

But it has spiked this month during the first weeks of Netanyahu’s new far-right government.

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