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Blinken adds Israel stop to latest Mideast tour as tensions rise over Gaza war

The visit comes amid a flurry of calls, planned trips by U.S. and Israeli officials and public airings of severe disagreements over the state of the conflict — notably Israeli plans to mount a major military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah and what will happen to Gaza after the war ends.
JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia (AP) — U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Israel this week as part of his sixth urgent mission to the Middle East since the Israelis’ war with Hamas began in October, as relations between the two countries have soured dramatically in recent weeks.
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The State Department said the Israel stop would cap Blinken’s latest Mideast tour that started in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday and will continue in Egypt on Thursday. The top U.S. diplomat will be in Tel Aviv on Friday after talks with Arab leaders and foreign ministers in Jeddah and Cairo focused on the war in Gaza.
“In Israel, Secretary Blinken will discuss with the leadership of the government of Israel the ongoing negotiations to secure the release of all hostages,” State Department spokesman Matthew Miller said. “He will discuss the need to ensure the defeat of Hamas, including in Rafah, in a way that protects the civilian population, does not hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and advances Israel’s overall security.”
Tensions between the U.S. and Israel over the prosecution of the Gaza war have been mounting for months over rising civilian casualties. And they have intensified as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said he will ignore President Joe Biden’s warnings not to start a large-scale ground operation in Rafah without credible plans to protect innocent Palestinians who have sought refuge there.
Biden, facing a tough re-election campaign ahead of November’s presidential election, is under growing domestic pressure to rein in Israel’s military response to the Oct. 7 Hamas attacks in Israel. Opposition to the war in the United States, Arab nations and much of the rest of the world has shaped the evolution of Blinken’s frequent trips to the region since October.
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His first two visits were largely focused on re-affirming U.S. support for Israel in the immediate aftermath of the Hamas attacks, but as civilian Palestinian casualties began to multiply and humanitarian conditions in Gaza deteriorated, his emphasis shifted to boosting humanitarian assistance and protecting innocents.
Since late last year, Blinken has also used his visits to stress the importance of Arab support for “day after” plans for Gaza and trying to coax Israeli leaders into accepting a status for the Palestinians that could help ensure Israel’s long-term security.
As that shift has taken place, though, the situation in Gaza has gotten worse and relations between the U.S. and Israel have nosedived. Public disagreements between Biden and Netanyahu have become more frequent and more intense.
In a phone call with Biden on Monday, their first in more than a month, Netanyahu agreed to send a high-level delegation to Washington to discuss plans for the proposed Rafah operation, and the Pentagon said Tuesday that Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant would visit the U.S. capital next week.
In his talks in Jeddah, Cairo and Tel Aviv, Blinken is expected to focus on attempts to negotiate a cease-fire and hostage release deal, increase humanitarian aid deliveries to Gaza by land, air and sea and plan for the territory’s post-conflict future.
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In the Red Sea city of Jeddah, Blinken met with Saudi Arabia’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman and Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan. The prospect of normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel is seen as a potential point of leverage in pushing the Israelis on easing civilian suffering in Gaza.
Blinken and Prince Faisal “discussed the urgent need to protect all civilians in Gaza and immediately increase humanitarian assistance to those in need,” the State Department said, adding that “resolving the conflict” and “preparing for the post-conflict phase” remain a top priority.
Blinken also “emphasized the United States’ commitment to achieving sustained peace through the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with security guarantees for Israel,

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