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Blinken starts Mideast tour as Israel-Palestinian conflict flares

Blinken, seen here at the American University in Cairo, is expected on his trip to reiterate US support for a Palestinian state
— Cairo (AFP)

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived Sunday in Egypt at the start of a Middle East trip on which he will look to notch down Israeli-Palestinian tensions after an eruption of violence.

Blinken, who will travel Monday and Tuesday to Jerusalem and Ramallah after his stop in Cairo, had long planned the visit to see Israel's new right-wing government, but the trip takes on a new urgency after some of the worst violence in years.

A Palestinian gunman on Friday killed seven people outside a synagogue in a settler neighbourhood of east Jerusalem, and another attack followed on Saturday.

Palestinian demonstrators hurl rocks toward Israeli troops during confrontations with them in the West Bank town of Al-Ram on January 27

Ten people were killed in an Israeli army raid Thursday on the Jenin refugee camp in the occupied West Bank, in one of the deadliest such operations in a long time.

Israel said it was targeting Islamic Jihad militants and later hit sites in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire.

Blinken will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas and call "broadly for steps to be taken to de-escalate tensions", State Department spokesman Vedant Patel said as he condemned the "horrific" synagogue attack.

"The most important thing in the near term is to try to get some calm," Blinken told an interview Sunday with Saudi-owned news outlet Al Arabiya, according to a State Department transcript.

Aharon Natan, the father of 14-year-old Asher Natan, a victim of a shooting attack in east Jerusalem on January 27, 2023, mourns at the cemetery

The violence is also likely to figure in talks Monday between Blinken and Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, whose country's traditional role as a Middle East mediator has helped him remain a key US partner despite President Joe Biden's criticism of his human rights record.

- 'Intense flurry' -

The United States, with its close relationship to Israel, has historically taken a lead on Middle East diplomacy.

The Dome of the Rock shrine at the Al-Aqsa mosque compound in Jerusalem's Old City

But experts questioned whether Blinken could achieve any breakthroughs.

"The absolute best they can do is to keep things stable to avoid another May 2021," said Aaron David Miller, a veteran US negotiator, referring to 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas that ended with an Egypt-brokered ceasefire.

Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian official now at The Washington Institute, expected Blinken to repeat traditional US positions rather than break new ground.

"The trip itself is the message," he said.

"Blinken will ask Abbas to do more but it is not clear what they can do," he said, referring to the Palestinians.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem

Blinken's visit is part of the Biden administration's efforts to engage quickly with Netanyahu, who returned to office in late December leading the most right-wing government in Israel's history.

Israel's longest-serving prime minister had a fraught relationship with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, as Netanyahu openly sided with his Republican adversaries against US diplomacy with Iran.

Biden's national security advisor, Jake Sullivan, visited this month to discuss Iran after efforts to restore a 2015 nuclear accord -- despised by Netanyahu -- all but died.

"I've never seen such an intense flurry of high-level contacts under any administration as you're watching right now," said Miller, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

- 'Flooding the zone' -

The Biden team is looking "to avoid confrontation with Netanyahu", Miller said, noting strong support for the Israeli leader among Republicans who now control the House of Representatives.

Mourners carry the body of Palestinian youth Yusef Muhaisen, killed by Israeli fire amid clashes, during his funeral in the West Bank town of Al-Ram on January 27

David Makovsky, also at the Washington Institute, said he also understood that CIA Director Bill Burns has been visiting the region.

"It looks a little like flooding the zone," he said.

Netanyahu has hailed as a key achievement the 2020 normalisation of relations with the United Arab Emirates, which has moved full speed ahead on developing ties despite public concerns over the new government's moves.

Blinken is expected on his trip to reiterate US support for a Palestinian state, a prospect few expect to advance under the new Israeli government.

Palestinians celebrate in Gaza City following a shooting attack by a Palestinian gunman outside an east Jerusalem synagogue

The State Department said Blinken would call for the preservation of the status quo at the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound, which is holy both to Jews and Muslims.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, a far-right ideologue who holds a security post in Netanyahu's government, in early January defiantly visited the site, which Jews call the Temple Mount.

In Egypt, Blinken is also expected to discuss regional issues such as Libya and Sudan, the State Department said.

Blinken told Al Arabiya that elections in Libya were a "the most critical next step" for the conflict-torn country.

Egypt remains one of the top recipients of US military assistance, but the cooperation faces scrutiny from parts of Biden's Democratic Party over Sisi's rights record.

Authorities released hundreds of political prisoners last year, but rights groups estimate some 60,000 remain in detention.