Blinken huddles on Gaza with Arab diplomats in Cairo as US-Israel relations sour

CAIRO (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken huddled Thursday with top Arab diplomats in Cairo to discuss post-conflict plans for Gaza as relations between the United States and Israel soured further over Israel’s war against Hamas, notably its intent to mount a major military operation against the southern city of Rafah.

Amid what Blinken said were hopeful signs that a deal for a cease-fire in exchange for the release of Hamas-held hostages could be reached, he met the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates to go over ideas for Gaza’s future. A top official from the Palestine Liberation Organization, the internationally recognized body representing the Palestinian people, also attended.

US HAS SUBMITTED NEW DRAFT RESOLUTION TO UN CALLING FOR IMMEDIATE CEASE-FIRE BETWEEN ISRAEL AND HAMAS IN GAZA

In addition to Gaza’s future, the ministers were expected to discuss the cease-fire talks and increase urgent humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza by land, air and sea.

The outcome of the meeting was not immediately clear, although Blinken and Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry were expected to address and take questions from reporters after nightfall, when daylight fasting for Muslims observing the holy month of Ramadan ends.

In an earlier meeting with Blinken, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi stressed the need for an immediate cease-fire and warned against the “dangerous repercussions” of any Israeli offensive in Rafah, according to a statement issued by el-Sissi’s spokesperson.

Both parties had renewed their rejection of the forced displacement of Gazans and agreed on the importance of taking all necessary measures to ensure the arrival of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, the statement said.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, center, walks to meet with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in Cairo, Egypt, Thursday, March 21, 2024. (Evelyn Hockstein/Pool Photo via AP)

As Blinken and the Arab ministers met, Gaza’s Health Ministry raised the territory’s death toll to nearly 32,000 Palestinians since the war began in October when Israel responded to deadly Hamas attacks on its soil. Also, U.N. officials stepped up warnings that famine is “imminent” in northern Gaza.

In Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the first stop on his sixth urgent Mideast mission since the war began, Blinken said Wednesday that the “gaps are narrowing” in indirect negotiations between Israel and Hamas over another cease-fire and hostage release that the U.S., Egypt and Qatar have spent weeks trying to broker.

In an interview Wednesday with the Al-Hadath network in Saudi Arabia, Blinken said the mediators worked with Israel to put a “strong proposal” on the table. He said Hamas rejected it, but came back with other demands that the mediators are working on.

“The gaps are narrowing, and I think an agreement is very much possible,” said Blinken, who will travel to Israel on Friday for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet.

Netanyahu’s office said Thursday that the head of the Mossad spy agency will return to Qatar on Friday to meet with the head of the CIA and other key mediators as part of ongoing cease-fire talks. The office said Thursday that Qatar’s prime minister and Egypt’s intelligence chief would also join the talks.

Yet, growing disagreements between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden over the prosecution of the war will likely overshadow Blinken’s meetings in Israel. Most notably, they are at odds over Israel’s determination to launch a major military operation in Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge from devastating Israeli ground and air strikes further north.

The United States is seeking a swift vote on a newly revised and tougher U.N. resolution demanding “an immediate and sustained cease-fire” to protect civilians and enable humanitarian aid to be delivered. The U.S. deputy ambassador to the U.N., Robert Wood, said he hoped a vote could take place by the end of the week.

Netanyahu, on a roughly 45-minute call with GOP senators on Wednesday, pledged to ignore warnings about a Rafah operation. He also took aim at Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s condemnation last week of the civilian death toll in Gaza and his call for new elections in Israel in a speech that Biden later said was “good.”

Netanyahu stressed that Israel would move ahead in Rafah, according to senators who participated in the meeting. Sen. John Kennedy, a Louisiana Republican, said Netanyahu “made it very clear that he and the people of Israel intend to prosecute the war to the full extent of their power and that he would not be dictated to by Senator Schumer or President Biden.”

Netanyahu’s vow to go into Rafah has alarmed the U.S. and others, who say it will result in an even larger humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza without a credible plan in place to get civilians out. U.S. officials have said they have yet to see such a plan and are prepared to offer alternatives to an all-out assault on the city.

Netanyahu has also rejected the Biden administration’s repeated remonstrations that Israel’s long-term security cannot be assured without the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

A clear path and deadline for the formation of a Palestinian state are key requirements for Saudi Arabia and other Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel, something Netanyahu is keen to achieve. Blinken spent much of his time in Jeddah with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman discussing the normalization process, which would also include U.S.-Saudi agreements.

With tensions running high after not speaking for a month, Biden and Netanyahu held a phone call on Monday during which Netanyahu agreed to send a team of experts to Washington to discuss the Rafah plans. Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant will also visit Washington separately next week.

The war began after Palestinian militants killed some 1,200 people in the surprise Oct. 7 attack out of Gaza that triggered the war, and abducted another 250 people. Hamas is still believed to be holding some 100 people hostage, as well as the remains of 30 others.

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