Blinken: US knows Israel wants hostages back from Hamas, but ‘Gaza needs hope’

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says main focus now is to stabilize the Gaza ceasefire, no sense in trying to restart peace talks now.

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Blinken said Thursday at the end of his first visit to the Middle East that while America understands the need to return Israeli hostages held by Hamas, the stabilization of the ceasefire in Gaza was the highest priority.

“There are urgent needs in Gaza and we need to give them hope – this is the only way to prevent a new war,” Blinken said in a telephone interview with Walla! News from his plane. Israel had been insisting that the ceasefire conditions include a return of two Israeli civilians and the remains of two IDF soldiers being held hostage by the Iran-backed Hamas terror group in Gaza.

While in Jerusalem earlier this week, Blinken told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli government officials that the evacuation of Arab families from Jewish owned homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem or further tension on the Temple Mount could lead to a renewed violent flare-up and even war.

Blinken said that his main conclusion from his first visit to the region as Secretary of State is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still relevant and needs to be addressed. However, he clarified that the Biden administration at this stage does not believe that the conditions are ripe for significant progress in the peace process, mainly due to the political crisis in Israel and the internal situation in the Palestinian Authority where elections were canceled and the Palestinians remain politically split.

“In an atmosphere of elections and election periods, this is not the time to move forward on the core issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” Blinken said. “So in the absence of more positive conditions, I think it is difficult to see the point in pushing a new initiative out of the box.”

The secretary also clarified that despite the Biden administration decision to reopen the U.S. Consulate in the eastern side of Jerusalem that was closed during President Trump’s term, the U.S. still recognizes Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

“Opening the consulate is also in Israel’s interest because that way we can promote issues that are important to Israel,” Blinken said.

Blinken admitted that despite an initial low emphasis by the Biden administration on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Washington had to be more involved.

“I think my main conclusion from the last few weeks is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains an issue that needs to be addressed and it is not going to go away miraculously,” he said.
“I think all relevant parties need to recognize this reality.”

The U.S. sees the most pressing issue to address is the stabilization of the ceasefire in Gaza and the construction of infrastructure to reduce tensions, while not taking any unilateral steps “such as evacuating Palestinians from the homes they have lived in for decades” – a reference to the eviction notices given to Arabs who are refusing to obey a court eviction order in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of Jerusalem.

Blinken emphasized that “another important thing is not to take steps that may unintentionally or intentionally ignite another round of violence. We have raised with Israel our concern about actions that could ignite tensions, conflicts or war, and further undermine the two-state solution” including “anything related to the Temple Mount situation.”

Arabs on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem’s Old City started rioting at the beginning of May, prompting an Israeli police intervention. Agitators then accused Israel of “storming” the Muslim holy site and used that to justify expanding the riots.

Seeing an opportunity to exploit the situation, Hamas decided to fire a volley of rockets at Jerusalem, sparking the 11-day conflict that triggered Blinken’s visit to the region.

Blinken stressed that Gaza reconstruction should be carried out in concert with the UN, the Palestinian Authority and Egypt in a way that would help Gazans, but keep the $1.3 billion in aid money promised so far out of Hamas hands.