Blinken calls for calm on Jerusalem visit amid days of Israeli-Palestinian violence

Bethan McKernan &  Julian Borger

The Guardian  /  January 30, 2023

US secretary of state meets Israel’s prime minister and reaffirms US support for two-state solution.

The US secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has called for calm after days of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, as he visited Jerusalem for talks with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.

A Palestinian man died on Monday after an altercation with Israeli troops, as violence in the region continued to spiral.

Nassim Nayef Salman Abu Fouda, 26, was shot in the head at a checkpoint in the restive city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank, the Palestinian health ministry said. The Israeli army said Abu Fouda had driven his car into a soldier, and crashed it after shots were fired and he attempted to drive off.

Such incidents – and contrasting narratives – occur regularly in the Palestinian territories. In the aftermath of Friday’s shooting outside a Jerusalem synagogue, which killed seven people in the worst attack in years, and the killing of 10 people in the single deadliest Israeli army raid in the West Bank in decades, every violent episode has the potential to spark a wider conflagration.

At least 22 people have been killed in the past week, with dozens of copycat and “price tag” or retaliatory attacks targeting Israelis and Palestinians over the last few days, including shootings and the burning of cars and property.

In a news conference after his meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken repeated calls for calm, and reaffirmed that the US believes that the dormant peace process aimed at a two-state solution is the “only path forward”.

“It is important that the people of Israel know America’s commitment to their security remains ironclad,” he said, while adding that “anything that moves us away from a two-state solution is detrimental to Israel’s longterm security”. The “US continues to support upholding the status quo at Jerusalem’s holy places”, he said.

Blinken also urged Israel’s new far-right government to ensure it has broad public support for its wide-reaching agenda, which includes overhauling the country’s judicial system – a move that has been met with major demonstrations in Israeli cities.

Reiterating support for “core democratic principles”, Blinken said that “building consensus for new proposals is the most effective way to ensure they’re embraced and that they endure”. He also echoed Netanyahu’s determination to ensure that Iran should never acquire nuclear weapons.

Efforts to calm the tense security situation have, however, dominated the secretary of state’s long-planned three-day Middle East trip. Blinken arrived in Cairo on Monday morning for talks with the Egyptian president, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi, who remains a key US partner despite a grim human rights record.

Developments in Egypt’s neighbours – Libya, Sudan, and Israel and the Palestinian territories – were discussed, the state department said.

On Monday afternoon, Blinken travelled to Jerusalem, where he met Netanyahu and Israeli president, Isaac Herzog. He is scheduled to visit Ramallah on Tuesday to hold talks with the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas.

Blinken’s visit comes days after a visit from the CIA director, William Burns, and the US national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, amid an unprecedented level of attention on the region from the Biden administration, which is increasingly concerned that the upsurge of Middle East violence and democratic backsliding in Israel will complicate its two global priorities, to defeat Russia in Ukraine and contain China in the Indo-Pacific.

Provocative actions from Israel’s hard-right government will be a significant diplomatic liability at a time when the US is trying to isolate Russia further on the world stage.

“Much of the rest of the world says ‘Look how you behave on Palestine’,” said Daniel Levy, the president of the US/Middle East Project. “In one place, you back the aggressor, the occupying annexing power, and then the other you stand up against annexation and occupation. So don’t preach to us, don’t claim any moral high ground.”

With the stalling of talks to revive the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, and Tehran’s supply of arms to Russia, there has been a convergence of US and Israeli government positions on Iran, but Washington is also wary of Israeli military operations, like the reported drone strike on an Iranian missile facility on Saturday.

“The Gulf is nervous about an escalation with Iran,” Levy said. “Russia may well look at what its out-of-theatre options are, and something in the Middle East may look attractive.”

Other items on the agenda in Jerusalem include US-Israeli security cooperation and the possibility of more Israeli help for Ukraine’s defences against Russia. Both the previous government and Netanyahu’s new administration have relied on Moscow to facilitate Israeli military operations in Syria, and have tried to balance relations with the west and Vladimir Putin.

Netanyahu returned to office last month at the helm of a coalition of conservative and religious parties that make up the most rightwing government in the country’s history. Elements of the new administration are vehemently opposed to Palestinian statehood, and have pledged to expand Jewish settlement-building in the West Bank, which is illegal under international law and negates the possibility of a two-state solution to the conflict.

The US president, Joe Biden, has repeatedly reiterated support for the two-state solution, but acknowledged on a trip to the region last summer that a return to peace talks – which stalled in 2014 – was not likely in the near future.

Blinken’s trip is not expected to produce any diplomatic breakthroughs. His visit is part of the administration’s push to quickly re-engage with Netanyahu, with whom the US president has a lengthy – and sometimes fraught – relationship.

Bethan McKernan is Jerusalem correspondent for The Guardian

Julian Borger is The Guardian’s world affairs editor