Blinken visits Israel amid heightened tensions with Palestinians

(JERUSALEM) — Secretary of State Antony Blinken began a potentially high stakes visit to Israel on Monday as the Biden administration seeks to deepen collaboration with the nation’s new hard-line government on security concerns in the Middle East — while preventing resurgent tensions between Israelis and Palestinians from erupting into full-scale fighting.

Blinken met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose conservative coalition narrowly won back power in late 2022. Although concerns that Netanyahu’s far-right coalition will weaken Israel’s democracy and counter the Biden administration’s agenda have persisted since he regained power, both officials praised each other during public remarks following closed-door talks, with the secretary describing their conversation as “very productive” and “very candid.”

Following their meeting, the secretary said that he had stressed directly to Netanyahu that as the U.S. and Israel work to better its relations with the country’s neighboring Arab countries, the Biden administration expects to simultaneously “improve the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza” while moving toward a two-state solution that would ultimately see the creation of independent homelands for both Palestinians and Israelis.

“As I said to the prime minister, anything that moves us away from that vision is — in our judgment — detrimental to Israel’s long-term security, and its long-term identity as a Jewish and democratic state. That’s why I’m urging all sides now to take first steps to restore calm, to de-escalate,” Blinken said.

Although the secretary’s trip to Israel was previously scheduled, it comes at a particularly tumultuous time for the country, where recent days have been marked by violent clashes between Israelis and Palestinians, including a terrorist attack on a synagogue Friday in Jerusalem that left seven dead.

In an unusual move for the secretary, Blinken addressed cameras from a tarmac in Tel Aviv as soon as he touched down in Israel, voicing his condolences to the families and friends of the victims.

“To take an innocent life in an act of terrorism is always a heinous crime. But to target people outside their place of worship is especially shocking,” he said. “Friday’s attack was more than an attack on individuals. It was also an attack on the universal act of practicing one’s faith.”

Blinken also called for an end to the cycle of retribution.

“Calls for vengeance against more innocent victims are not the answer, and acts of retaliatory violence against civilians are never justified,” he said.

The shooting came just a day after a raid in the West Bank carried out by the Israeli military killed nine Palestinians — the deadliest operation in the territory in over two decades. The incident prompted the Palestinian Authority to suspend its security coordination with Israel, a development the administration decried.

Blinken’s agenda for his visit extends far beyond the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among the most pressing issues facing both countries is the ever-growing threat posed by Iran and its expanding nuclear program, now unhindered by any diplomatic agreement or even the hope that a pact can be restored.

“It’s a time where many of the international community, I would say most of the international community have seen the true face of Iran. They’ve seen the barbarism this machine against its own people. They’ve seen how it exports aggression beyond its borders, and beyond the Middle East. And I think there’s a common consensus that this regime does not acquire nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said.

The secretary concurred, adding that the two officials had discussed “deepening cooperation to confront and counter Iran’s destabilizing activities in the region and beyond” during their face to face.

This comes in the wake of a drone attack on an Iranian military facility which was allegedly carried out by Israel, according to media reports. Blinken was asked about the strike during a press availability in Egypt, where he stopped before visiting Israel, but declined to comment.

The Pentagon denied any participation by the American military but did not provide a further assessment of the event.

Iran’s reported contributions to Russia’s war effort in Ukraine were also top of mind for Blinken as he began his engagement with Netanyahu.

According to two U.S. officials, Blinken planned to urge Israel’s government to send additional military support to Ukrainian forces, including the potential transfer of HAWK air defense missiles.

However, the odds of immediate progress on that front remain low, the officials advise. Israel has so far ignored most requests to supply advanced weaponry to Ukraine as it has strived to maintain a cooperative relationship with Russia due to its security interests in Syria and Moscow’s potential ability to restrict its operations in the country.

Blinken’s public remarks on the subject were limited, but he said that he conveyed “the importance of providing support for Ukraine’s needs humanitarian, economic and security, as it bravely defends his people and its very right to exist” to the Israeli prime minister.

Copyright © 2023, ABC Audio. All rights reserved.