U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel on Wednesday to meet with Israeli leaders and discuss the prospects of a cease-fire and a hostage exchange deal with Hamas, as the war in Gaza entered its fifth month with no end in sight.
Blinken meets Netanyahu and Gantz in Tel Aviv
Blinken, who is on his fifth visit to the region since the war broke out, held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, where he reiterated the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and the need for a lasting solution to the conflict.
The U.S., along with Qatar and Egypt, has proposed a cease-fire of several weeks in return for a phased release of some 250 Israeli hostages, who were abducted by Hamas militants in a surprise attack on Oct 7, 2023. The attack, which breached Israel’s vaunted defenses and killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians, has shaken the country and sparked a fierce retaliation that has killed over 27,000 Palestinians and displaced most of Gaza’s population.
Blinken said he had discussed the cease-fire proposal with Netanyahu and other officials, and that he believed an agreement on the hostages was possible. He also said he had raised the issue of humanitarian aid to Gaza, which has been under a crippling blockade by Israel and Egypt since Hamas seized power in 2007.
“We have a real opportunity here to make tangible progress on the issues that matter most to both sides, and to move toward a more peaceful and prosperous future for both Israelis and Palestinians,” Blinken said at a joint press conference with Netanyahu.
Netanyahu rejects humanitarian pause and demands total victory
Netanyahu, however, rejected the idea of a humanitarian pause in the fighting, which Blinken had suggested earlier in the day, and said Israel would not accept any cease-fire that did not include the release of all the remaining hostages. He also said Israel would continue to pursue its military objectives until it achieved “total victory” over Hamas and its allies, which include Iran-backed militant groups across the region.
“We are not interested in a temporary cease-fire that does not address the root causes of the conflict and does not prevent Hamas from rearming and launching new attacks in the future,” Netanyahu said. “We are determined to restore peace and security to our citizens and to bring back our boys home.”
Netanyahu also thanked the U.S. for its unwavering support and praised Blinken for his efforts to advance a broader regional peace initiative, which would involve Saudi Arabia normalizing relations with Israel in exchange for a “clear, credible, time-bound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
But Netanyahu, who is facing a corruption trial and a possible end to his 12-year rule, is opposed to Palestinian statehood and has shown little interest in resuming negotiations with the Palestinian Authority, which has been sidelined by the war and has little influence over Gaza.
Hamas signals openness to cease-fire and hostage deal
Meanwhile, Hamas, which controls Gaza and is considered a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Israel, signaled its openness to the cease-fire and hostage deal, but reiterated its core demands for an end to the Israeli offensive and the blockade, and the release of thousands of Palestinian prisoners.
In a statement late Tuesday, Hamas said it had received the U.S.-led proposal and responded in a “positive spirit” while stressing the need for “guarantees and mechanisms” to implement it. It also said it was ready to engage in “serious and constructive” talks with all parties to achieve a “comprehensive and lasting” solution to the conflict.
Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh also spoke by phone with Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al Thani, who has been mediating between the two sides, and thanked him for his efforts to end the bloodshed and ease the suffering of the people of Gaza.
Qatar, a wealthy Gulf state that has close ties with Hamas and hosts its political leadership, has been playing a key role in the diplomacy, along with Egypt, which shares a border with Gaza and has a peace treaty with Israel. Blinken met with both countries’ leaders on Tuesday in Doha, where he praised their contributions and urged them to keep up the pressure on Hamas to accept the cease-fire.
War continues to rage amid diplomatic efforts
Despite the diplomatic efforts, the war showed no signs of abating, as Israel and Hamas exchanged airstrikes and rocket fire on Wednesday, causing more casualties and damage on both sides. Israel said it targeted Hamas’ military infrastructure, including tunnels, rocket launchers, and command centers, while Hamas said it fired dozens of rockets at Israeli cities, including Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, and Beersheba.
The war, which is the deadliest and longest in the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has also sparked a wave of violence and unrest in the occupied West Bank, East Jerusalem, and inside Israel, where Arab and Jewish citizens have clashed in several towns. It has also drawn the involvement of other regional actors, such as Iran, Syria, Lebanon, and Yemen, which have launched or threatened to launch attacks on Israel in solidarity with the Palestinians.
The international community, including the United Nations, the European Union, and the Arab League, has called for an immediate and unconditional cease-fire and a resumption of the peace process, which has been stalled for years. They have also expressed concern about the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where more than 2 million people are living in dire conditions, with limited access to food, water, electricity, and health care.
Blinken, who is expected to leave Israel on Thursday, said the U.S. was committed to providing $360 million in humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians, including $38 million to Gaza, and to working with its partners to rebuild the devastated enclave. He also said the U.S. would support the UN-led efforts to investigate the alleged human rights violations and war crimes committed by both sides during the war.
“We have a responsibility to prevent this tragedy from happening again, and to address the underlying causes of the conflict,” Blinken said. “We cannot afford to lose this window of opportunity. We have to seize it and make the most of it.”