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Politics

Blinken Calls for Israel-Palestinian Calm Seem to Fall Flat

January 31, 2023

JERUSALEM — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrapped up a two-day visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank Tuesday with little to show for his renewed appeals for Israeli-Palestinian calm amid an alarming spike of violence.

Blinken met Tuesday with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank town of Ramallah, a day after seeing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Afterwards, he said the recent surge in violence was deeply concerning and that it is the responsibility of both sides to take steps to de-escalate the situation.

But neither Abbas nor Netanyahu offered any public pledge on such steps. Blinken said he was leaving two senior aides behind to explore ideas on how to lower the tensions but he declined to say what those are.

Beyond urging a reduction in tension, Blinken offered no new U.S. initiative to do so. And, there were few signs that Blinken was making progress on even the modest short-term goal of halting the latest wave of violence, much less of addressing the broader issues surrounding peace talks.

“The rising tide of violence has resulted in the loss of many innocent lives on both sides,” he told reporters in Jerusalem before departing for Washington. “All sides must take steps to prevent further escalation of violence.

Blinken said he had instructed Barbara Leaf, the top U.S. diplomat for the Middle East, and Hady Amr, the U.S. envoy to the Palestinians, to remain in the region to work to defuse tensions. But it was not clear how long they would stay or what their work might consist of.

Blinken also said the U.S. would oppose “anything” that undermines the 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 came 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, who accuse Abbas of acting as a subcontractor for the Israeli military.

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.

Before heading to the West Bank on Tuesday, Blinken met with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who repeated the prime minister’s concern about Iran, as well as Israeli opposition leader, former Prime Minister Yair Lapid.

“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 U.S. 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.

Netanyahu’s coalition partners 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 and again on Tuesday, 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.

Strock accused Blinken of meddling in internal Israeli affairs.

“We’re not the 51st or 52nd state of the U.S., 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.”

January has been the deadliest month in the West Bank and east Jerusalem in years. Some 35 Palestinians have been killed, 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 U.S., 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 U.S. 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 U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem, a step that infuriated the Palestinians.

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