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Blinken’s Middle East Visit Kicks Off in Jerusalem

United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday arrived in Israel for an urgent Middle East tour, following nearly two weeks of heavy fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.

“Intense behind-the-scenes diplomacy led by President [Joe] Biden, working very closely with the prime minister, helped produce last week’s cease-fire,” Blinken said during a joint press briefing following an hourlong meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

“Now we believe we must build on it. That starts with the recognition that losses on both sides were profound,” he said.

Washington’s top diplomat later met with Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and lawmaker Yair Lapid, who currently holds the mandate to form a government following Israel’s March elections.

“President Biden asked me to come here today … to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to Israel’s security, to start to work toward greater stability and reduce tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem, to support urgent humanitarian reconstruction assistance for Gaza … and to continue to rebuild our relationship with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority,” Blinken explained.

Hostilities flared earlier this month near Israel’s southern border after Hamas, the Islamist group which controls the Gaza Strip, launched rockets at Jerusalem and other Israeli cities and town.

According to the Hamas-run Palestinian Health Ministry in Gaza, approximately 280 Gaza residents were killed in Israeli airstrikes which began on May 10, over 100 of them women and children. Israel, on the other hand, insists that at least 225 of the dead were Hamas combatants directly involved in firing rockets.

In Israel, 11 civilians and one soldier were killed as a result of nearly 4,400 missiles launched from Gaza at southern towns and cities.

After reiterating the White House’s “full support for Israel’s right to defend itself” and promising to help replenish the Iron Dome missile defense system, which intercepted thousands of rockets during the 11 days of fighting, Blinken also touched on the ongoing nuclear negotiations with Iran.

The US will continue to consult “closely with Israel, as we did today” on the nuclear talks being conducted in Vienna, he promised.

Demonstrating just how great the differences are between the two sides on the issue, Netanyahu insisted the potential deal “paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons” and expressed hope that “the US will not go back to the old Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action,” as the original nuclear deal was called.

It was the only instance throughout the joint press conference during which the two men expressly sounded opposing views.

“Whatever happens, Israel will always reserve the right to defend itself against the regime committed to our destruction,” Netanyahu warned, after thanking Biden for “firmly supporting Israel” during the Gaza conflict.

On Monday, Washington’s special envoy for Iran, Robert Malley, departed for the fifth round of indirect negotiations with Tehran being held in the Austrian capital.

The talks were “constructive and saw meaningful progress,” Malley said, “but much work still needs to be done. [W]e hope we can further advance toward a mutual return to compliance.”

During a lengthy private conversion on Israeli-Palestinian relations on Tuesday, Blinken stressed to the Israeli premier the steps needed to be taken “by leaders on both sides.”

“We believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely; to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and democracy; to be treated with dignity,” he said at the joint press conference, before thanking the prime minister for his statements condemning the recent intercommunal violence between Israeli Arabs and Jews, “regardless of whom they targeted.”

After touching down in Tel Aviv Tuesday morning, Blinken was welcomed on the tarmac by Ashkenazi and Israeli ambassador to the US and to the United Nations, Gilad Erdan.

During a later meeting, the foreign minister thanked Blinken “for the US’ unwavering support of Israel, and stressed that the two allies must work together to ensure the Hamas terror organization does not rearm itself and pose a threat to Israeli citizens,” the foreign ministry said in a statement to The Media Line.

Whatever happens, Israel will always reserve the right to defend itself against the regime committed to our destruction

As for the Palestinian arena, Ashkenazi and Blinken agreed on the formation of a task force that will carry out civilian projects in the West Bank aimed at bolstering Palestinian infrastructure and economy, in return for a halt by Ramallah of all petitions made to international bodies.

The diplomats also discussed rebuilding Gaza, the importance of the normalization agreements signed last year between Israel and Arab nations and other regional issues, “chief among them the Iranian nuclear threat,” the ministry said.

Erdan, who participated in Blinken’s sit-down with Netanyahu, noted the visit “comes at a critical time for Israel and Jews worldwide.”

“We emphasized that Israel will do everything to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. We also discussed how to ensure aid money to Gaza will not allow Hamas terrorists to rearm,” the ambassador said in a statement sent to The Media Line.

“America is our closest strategic ally and I look forward to holding productive discussions with [Blinken] in the coming days,” Erdan also said in the statement

After meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas later Tuesday, the secretary will travel on Wednesday to Cairo and then Amman, to discuss with the Egyptian president and Jordanian king ways to further stabilize the region.