Blinken Meets With Israeli Officials Amid Gaza Ceasefire Push, Deliberations on Israeli Offensive in Rafah

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with officials in Israel to discuss the war in the Gaza Strip. Protesters in Tel Aviv called for the United States to pressure Israel and Hamas to reach a ceasefire deal to release the hostages.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog, and War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz, on Wednesday as the United States hopes to facilitate a temporary ceasefire in the ongoing Israel–Hamas war and advance other humanitarian considerations amid the conflict.

“The Secretary discussed ongoing efforts to reach an immediate ceasefire in Gaza as part of a hostage deal and emphasized that it is Hamas that is standing in the way of a ceasefire,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller announced after Mr. Blinken arrived in Israel for the talks.

Israeli negotiators recently submitted a proposal for a temporary ceasefire, allowing for a limited exchange of hostages taken by Hamas terrorists on Oct. 7, 2023. Speaking at a World Economic Forum conference in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh on Monday, Mr. Blinken described the Israeli ceasefire terms as “extraordinarily generous” and insisted Hamas accept the offer.

Part of the breakdown in the ceasefire talks has been over how long a pause in the fighting would last.

Mr. Netanyahu has said one major goal of the ongoing Israeli military operations is to bring about Hamas’s total defeat. The Israeli side has argued for a temporary pause in the fighting, while Hamas has been reluctant to relinquish its hostages without a permanent ceasefire and withdrawal of Israeli forces from the territory.

“We are determined to get a ceasefire that brings the hostages home and to get it now, and the only reason that that wouldn’t be achieved is because of Hamas,” Mr. Blinken said during a brief media appearance on Wednesday ahead of his meeting with Mr. Herzog. “There is a proposal on the table, and as we’ve said, no delays, no excuses. The time is now, and the time is now long past due to bring the hostages home to their families.”

Biden Admin Continues to Oppose Rafah Offensive

In addition to discussing the ceasefire terms, Mr. Blinken reportedly “reiterated the United States’ clear position on Rafah.”

For weeks, the Netanyahu government has been deliberating over whether to send ground troops into the southern Gazan city of Rafah. The Netanyahu government views the city as one of the remaining strongholds for Hamas terrorists, but President Joe Biden’s administration has raised concerns about the risks Israeli military operations could pose to the city’s civilian population.

“We’ve said clearly and for some time now on Rafah that in the absence of a plan to ensure that civilians will not be harmed, we can’t support a military—a major military operation in Rafah,” Mr. Blinken said during his visit to Riyadh on Monday. “And we have not yet seen a plan that gives us confidence that civilians can be effectively protected.”

Earlier on in the war, Israeli forces routinely advised residents in the northern parts of the Gaza Strip to evacuate southward to avoid being caught in the crossfire. More than a million people have since relocated to Rafah, which runs along the southern Gaza border with Egypt.

While the Biden administration has urged against a full-scale military offensive in Rafah, Mr. Netanyahu has signaled continued interest in the move.

On Saturday, Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz suggested the Israeli side might not pursue military operations in Rafah if a hostage deal could be reached with Hamas. But on Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu insisted Rafah remains a major military objective and Israeli forces would carry out an offensive eventually, even if a hostage deal is reached.

“The idea that we will stop the war before achieving all of its goals is out of the question,” Mr. Netanyahu said, according to a statement from his office. “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate Hamas’ battalions there—with or without a deal—to achieve the total victory.”

It was unclear if any minds had changed in the course of Mr. Blinken’s meeting with Mr. Netanyahu on Wednesday.

Humanitarian Efforts Improving, State Department Says

The Biden administration has pressured the Netanyahu government to improve the flow of humanitarian assistance into the Gaza Strip and to ensure such aid can be distributed once it reaches the territory.

President Biden spoke with Mr. Netanyahu about humanitarian concerns in early April after Israeli forces struck a humanitarian aid convoy operating in the Gaza Strip, killing seven aid workers. The Biden White House referred to the strikes on the aid workers as “unacceptable” and said the “U.S. policy with respect to Gaza will be determined by our assessment of Israel’s immediate action on these steps.”

According to the State Department’s readout from Mr. Blinken’s meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, the U.S. secretary of state told the Israeli head of state that humanitarian conditions had indeed improved in Gaza since the call. Mr. Miller said the secretary of state “reiterated the importance of accelerating and sustaining that improvement” during his Wednesday meeting with Mr. Netanyahu.

Speaking at a press engagement in Jordan on Tuesday, Mr. Blinken said new humanitarian aid corridors have opened, including from the southern Israeli kibbutz community of Erez into northern Gaza.

“We have other efforts that have been undertaken,” Mr. Blinken added, noting an ongoing U.S. military-led effort to establish a makeshift pier on Gaza’s Mediterranean coastline.

“We have our maritime corridor that we’ve been working on that I’d say about a week from now will be ready to go,” Mr. Blinken continued on Tuesday. “That will also significantly increase the assistance—not a substitute for these land access routes but an important complement to them.”

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