JERUSALEM — America’s top diplomat urged restraint as he landed in Israel following a spate of attacks that have sowed fears of further escalation between Israelis and Palestinians.
Just hours before Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Jerusalem to press for calm, Israeli troops in the West Bank city of Hebron opened fire on a Palestinian who the military said drove his vehicle into an Israeli soldier before he was shot dead.
It marked the latest episode of violence in a region gripped with tension. On Friday night, a Palestinian gunman killed seven and injured several others outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem. The shooting rampage, which Israeli officials labeled an act of terrorism, was the most lethal attack on civilians in the city in 15 years.
The attack in Jerusalem came a day after the Israeli military carried out a counterterrorism raid in the flashpoint city of Jenin that left nine Palestinians dead, including an elderly woman. Militants in the Gaza Strip fired several rockets in retaliation, and the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, announced it was cutting security cooperation with Israel.
Blinken flew from Cairo to Jerusalem as part of a regional tour that will also take him to Ramallah for talks on Tuesday with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, where he is expected to reiterate US support for a two-state solution and call for improved governance from the PA.
While in the Egyptian capital earlier on Monday, Blinken said he discussed ways to reduce Palestinian-Israeli tensions and restore calm during his meetings with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry. Cairo has mediated between Israel and Palestinian militants, including during the 11-day conflict that erupted in May 2021.
In remarks to the press from the tarmac of Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, Blinken said he arrived at “a pivotal time” for Israel and it was “the responsibility of everyone to take steps to calm tensions.”
“To take an innocent life in an act of terrorism is always a heinous crime,” Blinken said, referring to the synagogue attack. “But to target people outside their place of worship is especially shocking.”
Blinken says he’s arrived in #Israel at a “pivotal time.” Condemns the Jerusalem synagogue attack that killed 7 as a “heinous crime.”— Elizabeth Hagedorn (@ElizHagedorn) January 30, 2023
“It’s the responsibility of everyone to take steps to calm tensions… that is the only way to halt the rising tide of violence.” pic.twitter.com/Vl04lZbCt8
Also on the agenda for Blinken’s talks in Jerusalem were the Abraham Accords, which under former President Donald Trump established diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan. Following his meeting with Blinken, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu touted the possibility of reaching additional “breakthrough” normalization agreements as a means of reducing tensions with the Palestinians.
“Expanding the circle of peace, working to close the file on the Arab-Israeli conflict, would achieve a workable solution with our Palestinian neighbors,” Netanyahu said alongside Blinken.
Netanyahu has made establishing ties with Saudi Arabia a legacy-defining priority for his administration, but many analysts say that remains a distant prospect as long as Saudi King Salman remains on the throne and figures in Israel’s new hard-line government continue their combative approach to the Palestinians.
In his remarks, Blinken said that continuing to “build bridges in the region and beyond” would help make Israel more secure. But he added, “Those efforts are not a substitute for progress between Israelis and Palestinians.”
Blinken’s meetings with Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen and President Isaac Herzog came a day after tens of thousands of Israelis took to the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and other cities for the fourth weekend in a row to protest the ruling coalition’s planned judicial overhaul.
The proposed reforms would limit the Supreme Court’s ability to overrule laws passed by the Knesset, which critics say would undermine the country’s delicate system of checks and balances.
Blinken made an oblique reference to the judicial shakeup plan and the protests when he described the two countries’ shared “core democratic principles and institutions,” including “respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, free press [and] a robust civil society.”
“The vibrancy of Israel’s civil society has been on full display of late,” he added.
Nimrod Novik, a fellow at the Israel Policy Forum and former foreign policy adviser to late Israeli President Shimon Peres, said he was pleasantly surprised by Blinken’s statement — the implied message of which was “don't undermine the foundation of our relationship.”
“The threats to Israeli democracy were addressed quite impressively by the secretary, but the threat to security and to regional stability was still confined to expressions of concern,” Novik said. “This is hardly adequate, given the nature of the emerging new Israel."