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Escalating violence clouds Blinken visit to Israel, West Bank

Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s first visit to Israel since the election of a new right-wing government comes as the region braces for more unrest following a deadly raid in the West Bank and a shooting near a Jerusalem synagogue.

WASHINGTON — When he arrives in Israel and the West Bank next week, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will find an already volatile region on heightened alert, days after the Israeli military mounted its deadliest West Bank raid in two decades and a shooting near a Jerusalem synagogue left seven dead. 

Late Friday, Israeli police said a suspected terrorist killed seven people and injured at least 10 others in the Jerusalem neighborhood of Neve Yaakov. The gunman was shot and killed by security forces.  

The attack came the same day Israeli jets struck Gaza in response to several rockets that were fired from the territory by Palestinian militants. A day earlier, Palestinian health officials said at least nine Palestinians, including a 61-year-old woman and a male civilian, died in what Israel said was a counterterrorism operation in the flashpoint city of Jenin. 

The raid on the Jenin refugee camp drew threats of retaliation from Palestinian militants and renewed fears of cross-border violence. The Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the territory, announced Thursday it would be halting security cooperation with Israel and filing a complaint with the United Nations. 

In a phone briefing with reporters, Assistant Secretary of State for Near East Affairs Barbara Leaf told Al-Monitor that Washington is “urging de-escalation” between the two sides and is concerned by the possibility that the security situation could worsen. The civilian casualties from the raid were “quite regrettable,” Leaf said, adding the administration believed the PA’s cutting security ties with Israel was a mistake. 

Blinken’s Jan. 29-31 trip to the region comes on heels of US national security adviser Jake Sullivan’s visit to Israel and a reported visit this week by CIA Director Bill Burns to Tel Aviv. There is also speculation that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will visit the White House in early 2023. 

The Biden administration moved quickly to step up its high-level engagement with Israel as concerns grow that its newly installed government — the country’s most right-wing and religious in history — will further inflame tensions with the Palestinians.  

The tense security situation will likely take precedence in Blinken’s meetings that were meant to set the tone with Netanyahu’s new government, which includes far-right ministers who have vowed a harsh stance on the Palestinians. The most notorious among them, hard-line National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, recently fueled tensions by visiting Jerusalem’s holiest site and later ordering the police to take down Palestinian flags. 

Aaron David Miller, a former State Department negotiator and now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Al-Monitor the Biden administration “clearly understands that with this new government, 1,000 fires can be lit very easily — and the best they're going to be able to do is put those fires out.”

“They need to hew closely to their own talking points, which is to help create an environment between Israelis and Palestinians that is more conducive to building trust,” Miller said. “To do that, they need to set up rules of the road.”  

During meetings with Netanyahu and his top aides, Blinken is expected to seek assurances that the new Israeli government won’t alter the delicate status quo arrangement at Jerusalem’s holy sites, expand settlement building in the West Bank or take other unilateral actions that would undermine a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. 

Of particular concern for the Biden administration are efforts to legalize unauthorized settler outposts built on privately owned Palestinian land in the West Bank, a move critics say amounts to de facto annexation. 

The State Department said in a statement that following his visit to Jerusalem, Blinken will meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah to discuss “Israeli-Palestinian relations and the importance of a two-state solution, political reforms, and further strengthening the U.S. relationship with the Palestinian people and leadership.”

Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute and former adviser to the Palestinian leadership on negotiations, said the planned Blinken-Abbas meeting amounts to a courtesy call from an administration that has invested little political capital into resolving the decades-old conflict. 

“There is no containing this issue through absence,” Elgindy said. “Maybe this latest escalation will hammer that point home, but I'm not convinced that it will.”

When the pair met in Ramallah in March 2022, Blinken repeated to Abbas the administration’s commitment to reopening the US consulate in Jerusalem, which had long served as a de facto American embassy for the Palestinians until it was shuttered under the Trump administration. Despite a campaign pledge, analysts say the Biden administration appears uninterested in picking a fight with the Israeli government over the consulate’s reopening.  

Before his arrival to Israel and the West Bank, Blinken will first make a stop in Cairo for meetings with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi. The talks will touch on the US-Egypt strategic partnership and regional issues, including stalled elections in Libya and Sudan's political process, the State Department said. Also sure to be on the agenda is Egypt’s role as a longtime mediator between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. 

Blinken is headed to the region as questions remain over Netanyahu’s ability to keep his far-right members in check. For some, Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Galant’s recent order to demolish an illegal West Bank outpost over Ben-Gvir’s objections was a sign that Netanyahu has his hands on the wheel.  

David Makovsky, a distinguished fellow at the Washington Institute who served as a US adviser for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations from 2013- 2014, said one of Blinken’s aims next week will be determining how much control Netanyahu exerts over his coalition. 

“Does [Netanyahu] manage the coalition or does the coalition manage him? It's not enough to have your hands on the wheel; you have to steer the car,” Makovsky said. 

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