Blinken returns to Mideast after rescue of Israeli hostages

June 10, 2024 in International

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken returned to the Middle East on Monday as a proposed Israel-Hamas cease-fire deal hangs in the balance after the dramatic rescue of four Israeli hostages held in Gaza in a major military raid and turmoil in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

With no firm response yet from Hamas to the proposal received 10 days ago, Blinken started his eighth visit to the region since the conflict began in October. He met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, but neither made public remarks. Blinken will also travel to Israel, Jordan and Qatar.

While President Joe Biden, Blinken and other US officials have praised the hostage rescue, the operation resulted in the deaths of a large number of Palestinian civilians and may complicate the cease-fire push by emboldening Israel and hardening Hamas’ resolve to carry on fighting in the war it initiated with its October 7 attack into Israel.

“It’s hard to say how Hamas will process this particular operation and what it will do to its determination about whether it will say yes or not,” Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said Sunday. “We have not gotten a formal answer from Hamas at this time.”

In his talks with el-Sissi and Qatari leaders, whose countries are the main mediators with Hamas in the cease-fire negotiations, Blinken will stress the importance of persuading the militants to accept the three-phase proposal on the table. The plan calls for the release of more hostages and a temporary pause in hostilities that could lead to the complete withdrawal of Israeli forces from Gaza.

“We are hopeful that with enough of a chorus, the international community all speaking with one voice, Hamas will get to the right answer,” Sullivan told ABC’s “This Week.”

But Hamas may not be the only obstacle.

Although the deal has been described as an Israeli initiative and thousands of Israelis have demonstrated in support of it, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has expressed skepticism, saying what has been presented publicly is not accurate and that Israel is still committed to destroying Hamas.

Netanyahu’s far-right allies have threatened to collapse his government if he implements the plan, and Benny Gantz, a popular centrist, resigned on Sunday from the three-member War Cabinet after saying he would if the prime minister did not formulate a new plan for postwar Gaza. In the aftermath of the hostage rescue, Netanyahu had urged him not to step down.

Blinken has met with Netanyahu, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, Gantz and Israeli opposition leader Yair Lapid on nearly all his previous trips to Israel. Officials said Blinken is expected to meet with Gantz again on Tuesday.

US State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said Friday that Blinken would use the trip to “discuss how the cease-fire proposal would benefit both Israelis and Palestinians.”

Miller said the deal would not only alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza but also set the stage for a reduction in tension along the Israel-Lebanon border and create conditions for broader Israeli integration with its Arab neighbors, strengthening Israel’s long-term security.

Despite Blinken’s roughly once-a-month visits to the region since the war began, the conflict has ground on with more than 36,700 Palestinians killed, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not differentiate between civilians and combatants in its counts. Hamas and other militants killed some 1,200 people in the October 7 attack, mostly civilians, and took around 250 people hostage.

The war has severely hindered the flow of food, medicine and other supplies to Palestinians, who are facing widespread hunger. UN agencies say more than 1 million people in Gaza could experience the highest level of starvation by mid-July.

In Jordan, Blinken will participate in an emergency international conference on improving the flow of aid to Gaza.