Blinken Hopes to Solidify Hamas and Israel’s Cease-Fire

The secretary of state will also use his trip to the region this week to work on humanitarian aid for Gaza but has no plans to pursue full-fledged peace talks.

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WASHINGTON — Wading into the intractable conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza Strip, Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken will travel to the Middle East this week to try to bolster a tenuous cease-fire — but he intends to steer well clear of longer-term peace talks that currently have almost zero chance of success.

When he lands in Israel on Tuesday, Mr. Blinken will also be faced with a humanitarian crisis in Gaza that will require international support for a massive reconstruction effort, as well as simmering violence among Arab and Jewish residents of Israel.

“We have to deal with making this turn from the violence — we got the cease-fire — and now deal with the humanitarian situation, deal with reconstruction, and deepen our existing engagement with Palestinians and with Israelis alike,” Mr. Blinken said on Sunday on the ABC News show “This Week”

But he said he would not use two days of talks — in Jerusalem, Ramallah, Cairo and Amman — as an opening to restart years-dormant peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank but not Gaza.

“That, I don’t think, is something necessarily for today,” Mr. Blinken said, given that any attempt at “shuttle diplomacy” between the two sides would be unlikely to yield anything positive.

Nonetheless, the visit will kick-start a new phase of American-Palestinian diplomacy after years of disconnect under the Trump administration. Experts said the delegation could identify steps to move forward, such as revamping an American aid program and a plan to reopen a consulate in Jerusalem that had been Washington’s main point of contact with the Palestinians.

But more immediately, Mr. Blinken will focus on cementing the pause in cross-border hostilities with Gaza, which experts described as a task that will be difficult in its own right.

“This is still very explosive,” said Martin S. Indyk, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel and a former special envoy for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Mr. Indyk said Mr. Blinken would do well to try to stabilize the cease-fire, which American and Egyptian diplomats helped broker between Israel and Hamas late last week after 11 days of violence. At least 242 Palestinians were killed, including scores of Hamas militants, mostly in Israeli military assaults on Gaza. Rockets launched by Hamas into Israel, including some with the range to strike Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, killed at least 12 people.

Tensions remain high. Clashes and protests continued over the weekend against Israeli security forces in Jerusalem, including in the Palestinian neighborhood Sheikh Jarrah, and police officials warned of fresh violence in Lod, mixed Arab-Jewish city in Israel.

Israel was targeted by more than 4,000 rockets fired from Gaza over the last two weeks. And pockets of Gaza were decimated by Israeli airstrikes, felling high-rise buildings, schools, hospitals and mosques, and cutting off electricity and clean water for hundreds of thousands of Palestinians. The United Nations estimates at least 77,000 people in Gaza have been forced from their homes.

President Biden last week pledged to work with the United Nations to rebuild Gaza through international donations; similar efforts after the 2014 war between Hamas and Israel fell far short. Mr. Biden said the new reconstruction campaign would be in “full partnership with the Palestinian Authority” — circumventing Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza.

The United States considers Hamas a terrorist organization and does not deal directly with the group, and in the past few weeks relied on Egypt and to a lesser extent Jordan, Qatar and Turkey to act as intermediaries.

In a statement on Monday, Mr. Biden said Mr. Blinken would seek to advance “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.”

In a veiled swipe at the Trump administration — and a nod to Democrats who have been increasingly critical of reflexive American support for Israel and sympathetic to the plight of the Palestinians — Mr. Biden said Mr. Blinken would “continue our administration’s efforts to rebuild ties to, and support for, the Palestinian people and leaders, after years of neglect.”

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A coffee shop worker clearing damage from Israeli bombing in Gaza City last week.Credit…Samar Abu Elouf for The New York Times

Analysts said Israel was looking to prevent Hamas from siphoning off cash and reconstruction materials for rebuilding its own military infrastructure and rearmament.

Mr. Indyk noted that Hamas and the Palestinian Authority, which is based in Ramallah, in the West Bank, are fierce political rivals. He questioned how the Biden administration expected to empower reconstruction efforts in Gaza, the Palestinian coastal territory that was under an indefinite blockade by Israel and Egypt even before the latest conflict.

A senior State Department official, speaking to reporters before Mr. Blinken’s departure on Monday, signaled that the American diplomatic effort in the region would seek in part to reintegrate the Palestinian Authority into Gaza — which would require marginalizing Hamas’ grip there and would most likely fuel a power struggle between them. The official said the move sought to create the conditions for better stability in Gaza.

But in the wake of the violence, Mr. Indyk suggested Hamas was acting “emboldened.”

“The idea that they concede controlling Gaza on an issue like reconstruction to the Palestinian Authority — I just don’t see how that can happen,” he said.

The State Department official said that the animosity between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority “presents a significant challenge” in getting aid to people in Gaza. Working out a way to do that, coordinated through the United Nations, will be a key priority in coming days, said the official, who briefed journalists on the trip on condition of anonymity.

As the only regional power that maintains working relationships and a border with both Israel and Hamas, Egypt sent delegations of security officials to Gaza and Tel Aviv while its diplomats huddled with American and Jordanian envoys. Its helpfulness in ending the crisis was rewarded with a call from Mr. Biden to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi of Egypt, who said triumphantly on Twitter on Friday that he had “received, with great pleasure.”

As a candidate, Mr. Biden had said there would be “no more blank checks for Trump’s ‘favorite dictator'” — meaning Mr. el-Sisi, whose increasing authoritarianism has drawn widespread criticism. Though the Egyptian president was the first Arab leader to congratulate Mr. Biden after the election, Mr. Biden waited until last week to return the call.

But after that chilly start to their relationship, Egypt has sought to capitalize on the Gaza crisis to shore up its ties with the new administration. Mr. Blinken will meet Mr. el-Sisi in Cairo, providing the Egyptian leader an opportunity not only to reaffirm his nation’s the relationship with the United States but also to promote Egypt’s status as a regional power broker and leader among Arab countries.

Though that status has been fading for years as Egypt fell into domestic turmoil and wealthier Arab states asserted themselves in the region, Cairo enjoyed mostly smooth relations with Washington in recent years until the arrival of the Biden administration, which has put human rights at the center of its foreign policy strategy.

The administration, however, has not fundamentally changed the terms of the relationship with Cairo, which centers on the $1.3 billion in military aid Egypt receives each year from the United States, a historical byproduct of its agreement to make peace with Israel in 1979. The State Department approved a $197 million arms sale to Egypt in February, around the same time that Egypt arrested the cousins of an Egyptian-American dissident, Mohamed Soltan, in what Mr. Soltan said was a bid to pressure him to stop criticizing it.

The conflict also could serve to continue repairing the relationship between the United States and Jordan that had been largely shelved during the Trump administration. At least two million Palestinian refugees live in Jordan, and its Hashemite monarchy is the custodian of the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

Mr. Blinken’s visit comes at a fraught time in Israeli politics, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu heading a caretaker government that could be in its last days, after four inconclusive elections in two years, and with no clear picture of what lies ahead.

Experts in the region said Mr. Blinken would have to maneuver carefully between expressing his administration’s unwavering support for Israel and its security while not handing over any gifts that could be perceived as intervening in Mr. Netanyahu’s domestic predicament.

But the visit will most likely provide a boost for President Mahmoud Abbas of the Western-backed Palestinian Authority. His already shaky popular legitimacy was further diminished by his cancellation of a long-awaited Palestinian general election that had been scheduled for May 22, and then by its rival, Hamas, asserting itself as the leader of the resistance against Israel and the defender of Palestinian rights in Jerusalem.

Mr. Abbas is expected to use the visit to try to reassert his authority’s power and sphere of influence.

After Mr. Abbas spoke by phone with Mr. Blinken on Friday, his office said that he had urged the U.S. administration to pressure Israel to stop the kinds of actions in Jerusalem, and specifically at the Aqsa Mosque, that helped ignite the latest round of fighting.

Lara Jakes reported from Washington, Vivian Yee from Cairo and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem. Nada Rashwan contributed reporting from Cairo.

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