WASHINGTON, Jan 31 ― US Secretary of State Antony Blinken called yesterday for “urgent steps” to calm spiralling violence in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after high-level talks in Jerusalem.
Blinken travelled to Jerusalem on the second leg of his Middle East tour, after meeting Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and foreign minister in Cairo.
Israel is reeling from an attack Friday that killed seven civilians outside a synagogue in annexed east Jerusalem, a day after the deadliest army raid in years in the occupied West Bank claimed 10 Palestinian lives.
Following talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blinken urged “all sides now to take urgent steps to restore calm, to deescalate”.
“We want to make sure that there’s an environment in which we can, I hope, at some point, create the conditions where we can start to restore a sense of security for Israelis and Palestinians alike,” he said.
In the latest bloodshed, Israeli troops yesterday killed a Palestinian driver in the West Bank, with the army saying the car had hit a soldier’s leg before speeding off.
Since the start of the year, the conflict has claimed the lives of 35 Palestinian adults and children — including attackers, militants and civilians.
Over the same period six Israeli civilians, including a child and one Ukrainian civilian have been killed. All were shot dead in the attack Friday outside the synagogue in an east Jerusalem settlement.
The United States has historically taken a lead on Middle East diplomacy, and Egypt, which has relations with Israel, has long served as a mediator in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
Following what Blinken described as “very candid” discussion with Netanyahu, the top US diplomat met Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and President Isaac Herzog.
Blinken, whose long-planned visit has taken on a new urgency amid the spiralling violence, will also travel to Ramallah in the West Bank for talks with Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas.
The fatal east Jerusalem shooting was preceded by the Israeli forces’ deadliest operation in the West Bank in years, killing 10 people Thursday in the densely populated Jenin refugee camp. Israel said its forces targeted Islamic Jihad operatives.
The military later hit sites in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire from the Palestinian enclave.
The Islamist group said Blinken’s visit “emphasises the absolute support and partnership with the (Israeli) occupation”.
Netanyahu’s cabinet has moved to punish “the families of terrorists that support terrorism” with home demolitions and other measures.
His government is also planning to rescind the rights to social security benefits of attackers’ relatives, and steps to make it easier for Israeli citizens to obtain permits to carry firearms.
The latest bloodshed has heightened international concern, with French President Emmanuel Macron warning of a “spiral of violence” and Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov calling for “maximum responsibility” on all sides.
Blinken commended Sisi for “Egypt’s important role in promoting stability in the region” and “discussed ongoing efforts to deescalate tensions between Israelis and Palestinians,” said the State Department.
The diplomats and intelligence services of Egypt ― a major recipient of US military aid ― are regularly called upon to intercede between Israelis and Palestinians.
Blinken’s Israel visit is part of the Biden administration’s efforts to engage quickly with Netanyahu, who had tense relations with the previous Democratic president Barack Obama.
The top US diplomat also discussed Iran’s nuclear programme with Netanyahu, an outspoken critic of negotiations with Tehran for curbs on its atomic activity.
“We agree that Iran must never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon,” Blinken said.
He also reiterated US support for a Palestinian state, a prospect few expect to advance under the new Israeli government.
Netanyahu, a veteran leader, returned to power late last year at the helm of the most right-wing government in Israeli history.
During Netanyahu’s previous tenure, Israel established ties with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, under deals brokered by former president Donald Trump.
Netanyahu said yesterday that expanding those deals and “working to close, finally, the file of the Arab-Israeli conflict, I think would also help us achieve a workable solution with our Palestinian neighbours”.
Blinken said he discussed with Netanyahu the preservation of the status quo at the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem’s Old City.
The compound is the holiest site to Jews, who refer to it as Temple Mount, and the third most sacred place in Islam. ― AFP