Blinken departs on Mideast trip to solidify ceasefire
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken left Monday for a Middle East trip aimed at consolidating the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas, a modest objective as Washington expresses a commitment to advancing a two-state solution.
Blinken heads first to Jerusalem, less than a week after both sides agreed to halt 11 days of bombardment that killed over 200 Palestinians in the ongoing conflict's worst escalation in years.
"Secretary Blinken will meet with Israeli leaders about our ironclad commitment to Israel's security," US President Joe Biden said in a statement.
"He will continue our administration's efforts to rebuild ties to, and support for, the Palestinian people and leaders, after years of neglect."
Blinken's trip, in addition to meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas, will take him to Cairo for consultations with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and then to Amman to speak with Jordan's King Abdullah II.
White House and State Department statements on Monday announcing details of the visit made no mention of the two-state solution, a cornerstone of decades of international diplomacy that envisions a sovereign Palestinian state alongside Israel with Jerusalem as their shared capital.
But Biden and Blinken both affirmed US support in recent days for dual states, while American policy under Donald Trump was criticized as being blatantly pro-Israel and ignoring the Palestinians.
"We're really focused primarily on ensuring that the ceasefire sticks, and taking tangible steps to advance the quality of people's lives, advance their freedom, advance their security and advance their prosperity," a senior State Department official told journalists.
"We believe that, in the immediate term, that's what's feasible, and that's what's important," the official added.
In a tweet, Blinken said the trip would aim to support "efforts to solidify a ceasefire".
"The United States has engaged in intensive diplomacy to bring an end to the hostilities and reduce tensions," he added.
Focus on reconstruction
Biden had never expressed an aim to get involved in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but was pulled in as a close ally of the Jewish state.
Biden came under criticism from many within his own Democratic party for not pushing Israel more publicly for a ceasefire, but he touted his administration's "quiet, relentless diplomacy" in the push to halt the fighting.
Israeli strikes on Gaza this month killed 248 Palestinians, including 66 children, and have wounded more than 1,900 people, the Gaza health ministry says.
Rockets and other fire from Gaza claimed 12 lives in Israel, including one child and an Arab-Israeli teenager, an Israeli soldier, one Indian, and two Thai nationals, medics say. Some 357 people in Israel have been wounded.
The United Nations says more than half of those killed, the overwhelming majority in Israeli air strikes, were civilians.
It was the latest such bombardment to hit the crowded coastal strip of some two million people, after three previous wars with Israel since 2008.
Washington has spoken up on helping Palestinians recover, to the extent possible, following the fighting.
Biden, in his statement, said part of Blinken's trip would involve working on "the coordinated international effort to ensure immediate assistance reaches Gaza in a way that benefits the people there and not Hamas, and on reducing the risk of further conflict in the coming months."
Philippe Lazzarini, head of the UN Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA, said Sunday the reconstruction needed to go hand in hand with efforts to create "a different political environment."
"We need to have a genuine focus on human development," on proper access to education, jobs and livelihoods, he said.