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Blinken to travel to Israel, West Bank, Morocco, Algeria

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends a North Atlantic Council meeting during a NATO summit at NATO Headquarters in Brussels on March 24, 2022
— Washington (AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Israel, the West Bank, Morocco and Algeria over March 26-30 to discuss the Ukraine war, Israeli-Palestinian relations and Iran, the State Department announced Thursday.

Blinken will meet separately with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on the first stage of the trip, and while in Morocco he will meet the UAE's de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.

Discussions will include "the Russian government's war on Ukraine, Iran's destabilizing activities, the Abraham Accords and normalization agreements with Israel, Israeli-Palestinian relations, and preserving the possibility of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," State Department Spokesman Ned Price said.

- Iran nuclear deal -

The trip comes as the United States is close to reaching an agreement with Iran to restore the 2015 accord limiting Tehran's nuclear development program in return for removing sanctions on the country.

In February Bennett said he was "deeply troubled" by the prospect of a new nuclear deal, which Israel fears would not prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

The deal is still not set, however, and Washington has warned that it could move soon to a "Plan B" to deal with the Iranian nuclear challenge if Tehran does not give in on a few final and crucial points in the talks.

Blinken's visit also comes amid Israeli efforts to mediate a solution to Russia's month-old invasion of Ukraine which has left both sides with heavy losses and shows no signs of abating.

Stressing Israel's strong ties to Moscow and Kyiv, Bennett has held regular phone calls with Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelensky and Russian President Vladimir Putin, including a three-hour meeting with Putin at the Kremlin on March 5.

But nothing concrete appears to have come from Israel's mediation.

- West Bank -

It will be Blinken's second trip to the West Bank to meet the ageing Abbas.

In May 2021, he visited to help consolidate a ceasefire between Israeli forces and Gaza militants, and restore support for Palestinians that had been cut off by the previous Trump administration.

He also vowed to reopen a US consulate dedicated to Palestinians in Jerusalem, which Trump had closed.

But Palestinians say their struggle with Israel remains low among the priorities of President Joe Biden, despite his administration's declared committment to the possibility of creating an independent Palestinian state.

- UAE's growing influence -

The meeting in Morocco comes as the United Arab Emirates has displayed growing political influence around the region, showing an open door to Israel but also maintaining steady relations with Iran.

The UAE has also played a key role in the Saudi-led fight against the Iran-supported Huthi rebels in Yemen.

But it has strengthening relations with US rivals Russia and China, and has declined to condemn the invasion of Ukraine.

The Emirates have come under heavy pressure to increase oil ouput to pull down prices in the wake of the Ukraine war, but so far it has adhered to the production limits of the OPEC+ producer alliance, which includes Russia.

Washington was miffed last week when Moscow-supported Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, politically isolated since civil war erupted in his country in 2011, made a surprise visit to the UAE.

At the same time a proposed visit by Blinken to Dubai was scrapped, though US officials say the two issues were not linked.

Earlier this month Yousef al-Otaiba, the Emirati ambassador to the US, said the blateral relationship was "going through a stress test."

- Algerian gas -

In Morocco Blinken will meet with his counterpart Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita.

Rabat normalised ties with Israel in December 2020 as part of the groundbreaking Abraham Accords.

But it has also shied away from condemning Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

In Algeria, he will see President Abdelmadjid Tebboune and Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra for talks on regional security and commercial relations.

Algeria is a leading supplier of natural gas to Europe, playing a crucial role after Russia's invasion of Ukraine last month halted the opening of a new large natural gas pipeline from Russia to Germany.