World

Blinken steps up Mid East diplomacy with West Bank talks with Palestinian leader

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far rejected suggestions that Israel should implement rolling humanitarian suspensions to its air strikes and ground operations (Abir Sultan/Pool/AP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has so far rejected suggestions that Israel should implement rolling humanitarian suspensions to its air strikes and ground operations (Abir Sultan/Pool/AP)

Antony Blinken has taken his diplomatic push on the Israel-Hamas war to the occupied West Bank, trying to assure Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that the US is intensifying efforts to ease the plight of Gaza’s civilians and insisting that Palestinians must have a main say in the future of the territory.

The US secretary of state later flew to Baghdad for talks with Iraqi Prime Mohammed Shia al-Sudani as American forces in the region face a surge of attacks by Iranian-allied militias in Iraq and elsewhere.

US forces shot down another one-way attack drone on Sunday which was targeting American and coalition troops near their base in neighbouring Syria, a US official said.

President Joe Biden’s top diplomat travelled through the West Bank city of Ramallah in an armoured motorcade and under tight security.

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Antony Blinken meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AP)

It was his third day of shuttle diplomacy aimed at trying to limit the destabilising regional fallout from the war and overcome Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s refusal to consider a US proposal for intermittent pauses in its attack on Hamas long enough to get vital aid to Gaza’s civilians.

Mr Netanyahu had pushed back on Friday against US pressure to pause the fighting, saying there would be no temporary ceasefire until Hamas releases 240 foreign hostages.

“This is a process,” Mr Blinken told reporters on Sunday. “Israel has raised important questions about how humanitarian pauses would work. We’ve got to answer those questions,” including how pauses would affect Hamas hostages. “We’re working on exactly that.”

The Biden administration, while remaining the strongest backer of Israel’s military response to Hamas’s attacks on October 7, is increasingly seeking to use its influence with Israel to try to temper the effect of Israel’s weeks of complete siege and near round-the-clock air, ground and sea assaults in the Gaza Strip, home to 2.3 million civilians.

Mr Blinken’s meeting with Mr Abbas came as Israeli planes bombed two refugee camps in Gaza, killing at least 53 people, according to health officials in the territory.

As word spread of his arrival in Ramallah, Palestinians turned out to protest against US support for Israel’s war. Demonstrators held signs showing dripping blood and with messages that included “Blinken blood is on your hands”.

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Jordanian deputy prime minister and foreign minister Ayman Safadi with Antony Blinken at a press conference in Amman (Jonathan Ernst/Pool/AP)

The Palestinian Authority administers semi-autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank. It has not been a factor in the Gaza Strip since 2007, when Hamas seized control after winning in elections there a year earlier. Mr Abbas is unpopular among Palestinians.

Mr Blinken said in Baghdad that the Palestinian Authority “is playing a very important role right now in the West Bank in trying to keep stability there. That’s hugely important because no one wants another front in the West Bank or anywhere else, and they’re really stepping up under very difficult conditions to do the necessary work”.

He said that “what we all agree” is that in shaping a future for Gaza, the West Bank and “ultimately” for a Palestinian state, “Palestinian voices have to be at the centre of that. The Palestinian Authority is the representative of those voices so it’s important that it play a leading role”.

Mr Abbas said the Palestinian Authority would only assume power in Gaza as part of a “comprehensive political solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to the Palestinians’ official WAFA news agency.

He also condemned Israel’s bombardment of the Gaza Strip as a “genocidal war” and urged Mr Blinken “to immediately stop them from committing such crimes”, the new agency reported.

Mr Blinken met Mr Netanyahu on Friday before holding talks in Jordan with Arab ministers on Saturday. The Arab officials pushed for an immediate ceasefire, but Mr Blinken said that would be counter-productive and could encourage more violence by Hamas.

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Benjamin Netanyahu has rejected suggestions that Israel should implement rolling humanitarian pauses (Abir Sultan/Pool/AP)

US officials believe Mr Netanyahu may soften his opposition to a pause if he can be convinced it is in Israel’s strategic interests to ease the plight of Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

Arab states are resisting American suggestions that they play a larger role in resolving crisis, expressing outrage at the civilian toll of the Israeli military operations but believing Gaza to be a problem largely of Israel’s own making.

Among Arab leaders, Mr Blinken said it is clear that “everyone would welcome the humanitarian pause” which “could advance things that we’re all trying to accomplish”, including freeing hostages, bringing in aid and getting out foreign citizens.

In Baghdad, the talks touched on the security of US forces.

“I made very clear that the attacks, the threats coming from the militia that are aligned with Iran, are totally unacceptable and we will take every necessary step to protect” American personnel, Mr Blinken said.