US reaches out to Arab leaders on Israel and Gaza fighting

US secretary of state Antony Blinken
US secretary of state Antony Blinken (AP)
15:53pm, Tue 18 May 2021
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US secretary of state Antony Blinken and his envoy have reached out to Palestinian and regional Arab leaders as attacks between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas rulers raged on.

Mr Blinken is maintaining what the administration of US President Joe Biden is calling its quiet diplomacy while still declining to press for an immediate ceasefire.

Speaking during an unrelated trip focusing on Russia and Nordic countries, Mr Blinken also defended the US decision to block what would have been a unanimous UN Security Council statement on the fighting and its civilian toll, and the overall US approach to the worst Israeli-Palestinian fighting since 2014.

Mr Biden, speaking to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday, expressed general support for a ceasefire but stopped short of joining dozens of Democratic members of Congress in demanding one.

US President Joe Biden (AP)

“Our goal remains to bring the current cycle of violence to an end” and then return to a process in which a lasting peace can be forged, the US diplomat said.

Mr Blinken said he had spoken to the foreign ministers of Morocco and Bahrain, two Arab countries that have recently moved to normalise relations with Israel, while US envoy Hady Amr in Israel spoke with Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The ongoing US outreach – reflecting an administration that has emphasised working with allies, and has refrained from publicly criticising ally Israel – came as new Hamas rockets and Israeli air strikes continued for a ninth day. At least 213 Palestinians and 12 people in Israel have died. Efforts by Egypt and others to mediate a truce have stalled.

Mr Biden’s carefully worded statement expressing general support for a ceasefire, from a White House account of his second known call to Mr Netanyahu in three days as the attacks pounded on, came with the administration under pressure to respond more forcefully despite its reluctance to challenge Israel’s actions in its part of the fighting.

An Israeli artillery unit fires toward targets in the Gaza Strip (AP)

The administration has also expressed its determination to steer the main US foreign policy focus away from Middle East hotspots and Afghanistan.

Mr Biden’s comments on a ceasefire were open-ended and similar to previous administration statements of support in principle for a ceasefire.

Mr Biden also “encouraged Israel to make every effort to ensure the protection of innocent civilians,” the White House said.

An administration official said the decision to express support and not explicitly demand a ceasefire was intentional. While Mr Biden and top aides are concerned about the mounting bloodshed and loss of innocent life, the decision not to demand an immediate halt to hostilities reflects White House determination to support Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas, the official said.

Mr Netanyahu told Israeli security officials that Israel would “continue to strike terror targets” in Gaza “as long as necessary in order to return calm and security to all Israeli citizens”.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (AP)

Separately, the United States, Israel’s top ally, blocked for a third time what would have been a unanimous statement by the 15-nation UN Security Council expressing “grave concern” over the intensifying Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the loss of civilian lives. The final US rejection killed the Security Council statement, at least for now.

Mr Blinken said the US was “not standing in the way of diplomacy” and that the UN statement would not have advanced the goal of ending the violence.

“If we thought and if we think that there is something, including at the United Nations that could advance the situation, we would be for it,” Mr Blinken said.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki and national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the United States was focusing instead on “quiet, intensive diplomacy”.

Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer on Monday joined dozens of Democratic members of Congress – and one Republican and independent senator Bernie Sanders – in calling for the ceasefire by both sides. A prominent Democrat, representative Adam Schiff, the House intelligence committee chairman, pressed the US over the weekend to get more involved.

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