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Blinken says progress made on Middle East trip despite few tangible results

Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday asserted he made progress on the goals he set for a whirlwind Middle East trip as he departed with few tangible results to show for a flurry of meetings with leaders about the Israel-Hamas war.

The situation on the ground had shifted in the weeks since Blinken’s last trip to region, where he traveled just days after the deadly October 7 Hamas attack on Israel. But the stakes for this trip were just as high as Israel is poised to launch a new phase of its offensive in Gaza, a senior administration official said Friday. Global condemnation of that offensive has continued to grow – sparking anti-American sentiment and threatening to create rifts among the US and its partners. Meanwhile, the civilian death toll in the war-torn Gaza Strip is mounting, and concerns about regional conflagration loom large.

Throughout his meetings in Israel, Jordan, the West Bank, Iraq and Turkey, Blinken’s priorities were focused on the need to protect civilians and increase humanitarian assistance getting into Gaza, pressing for the release of the hostages held by Hamas and preventing the conflict from expanding to the wider region. He also repeatedly advocated for the idea of a “humanitarian pause” rather than a ceasefire.

As he departed Ankara for Tokyo on Monday, the top US diplomat stressed that “all of this is a work in progress.”

“I think in each of these areas, we’ve made progress, and I come back to the proposition that what I heard in every single place, in a variety of ways, on all these different issues is the indispensability of American leadership, of American diplomacy, of America engagement,” Blinken said in response to a question from CNN.

He teased one particular point of progress on humanitarian assistance, saying, “I think you’ll see in the days ahead that that assistance can expand in significant ways so that more gets into people who need it and gets to the people who need it, as well as making sure that people can continue to come out of Gaza.”

Still, many of Blinken’s messages, particularly in Israel, seem to have been disregarded. Despite his forceful public missive that “civilians should not suffer the consequences for (Hamas’) inhumanity and its brutality,” Israeli forces continued to strike civilian sites in the wake of the top US diplomat’s visit. The forces claimed that the sites were being used by Hamas.

There have been no further releases of any hostages held by Hamas since Israel escalated its offensive in Gaza.

Qatari Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Majed Al-Ansari said that the negotiations to free the hostages are still ongoing, and Qatar – which has served as a key broker in the discussions with Hamas – is committed to the mediation. Al-Ansari told CNN that any hostage release has to be connected to a period of calm.

“When it comes to humanitarian pauses, we’re engaged with the Israelis on the particular practicalities of that. One critical aspect, though, is seeing progress on hostages. That’s something we’re intensely focused on. But we also believe that a pause could help advance that proposition as well,” Blinken said Monday.

But just hours after meeting with Blinken on Friday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu publicly rejected any stop to the fighting – be it a pause or a ceasefire – until Hamas releases the hostages.

On Monday, President Joe Biden and Netanyahu “discussed the possibility of tactical pauses to provide civilians with opportunities to safely depart from areas of ongoing fighting, to ensure assistance is reaching civilians in need, and to enable potential hostage releases,” according to a White House readout.

A senior State Department official said that behind the scenes, the hostages are the key issue that is preventing Israel from agreeing to a humanitarian pause, because the Israeli government absolutely does not want to signal any kind of relief in exchange for hostages. Many of the families of the hostages have also said they do not want a ceasefire until their loved ones are released.

On the work to prevent the conflict from expanding, the top US diplomat said Monday, “We’ve had important conversations – and more than conversations, we’re making sure that the different influence and relationships that countries in the region have, including the countries that I visited or spoke to, that they’re using that to make sure that this conflict and crisis doesn’t spread.”

“Sometimes the absence of something bad happening may not be the most obvious evidence of progress, but it is,” he added.

The top US diplomat noted that “countries are looking for us to do things, and we don’t, obviously, agree on everything. But there are common views on some of the imperatives of the moment that we’re working on together, and in other areas we’re making sure that we’re communicating clearly and understanding where each other’s coming from.”

Those disagreements were on public display at many of the stops of the trip.

The US’ opposition to a ceasefire, which Blinken argued would allow Hamas time to regroup and potentially reattack Israel, has put Washington in stark contrast with its Arab partners.

Behind the scenes at a summit in Amman Saturday with Blinken and his counterparts from Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Saudi Arabia – as well as the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization – the conversations were not contentious, according to a source familiar with the summit.

Standing alongside Blinken at a news conference after the summit, however, Jordan and Egypt’s foreign ministers again offered forceful condemnations of Israel’s actions in Gaza.

Throughout the trip, Blinken repeatedly spoke of the need to discuss the “day of” but also the “day after” for the region and Gaza. He has floated the idea that the Palestinian Authority could play a role in the strip’s future governance if Hamas is eliminated – which Israel says is its aim.

However, in a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, the topic of Gaza’s future governance “was very much not the focus of the conversation,” according to another senior State Department official. The meeting, which the official described as “productive and constructive,” was instead focused on Gaza’s present situation and the situation in the West Bank.

Future control of Gaza was also not really discussed in private at the summit in Amman, but the US did not expect it to be a key topic, according to the source familiar with the summit.

The foreign ministers at that summit also publicly refused to engage on a question about “the day after.”

“What happens next? How can we even entertain what will happen in Gaza when we do not know what kind of Gaza will be left after this war is done? Are we going to be talking about a wasteland? Are we going to be talking about a whole population reduced to refugees? Simply we do not know – we do not have all the variables to even start thinking about that,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said.

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