Seeking to Restore Palestinian Links, Blinken Risks New Frictions With Israel

RAMALLAH, West Bank — America’s top diplomat came to the seat of the Palestinian government on Tuesday with promises of additional aid, a reopened consulate in Jerusalem and a broad sympathetic pledge to rebuild ties that had been severed by the previous administration in favor of Israel.

With the raw emotion of deaths and wreckage from an 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants still fresh in the minds of both Israelis and Palestinians, the actions by Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken represented, in tone at least, an attempted revival of America’s former role as a more neutral mediator in the Middle East’s most protracted conflict.

It amounted to a sharp turnabout from the policies of former President Donald J. Trump, who had made no secret of siding with Israel by closing a political channel with the Palestinian Authority and cutting off humanitarian assistance to millions of Palestinians.

But it also carries big risks. The Biden administration says it will help finance an enormous reconstruction effort in the Gaza Strip, which is controlled by Hamas, a militant group considered a terrorist organization by the United States, Israel and many other countries.

Rebuilding ties with the Palestinians also risks angering Israel, the most reliable U.S. ally in the Middle East, whose leaders are already anxious about the Biden administration’s attempts to rejoin a nuclear agreement with Iran. Israel has long opposed and worked to undermine a deal.

At nearly every stop on a daylong series of meetings in Jerusalem and Ramallah, Mr. Blinken emphasized the tragic deaths of civilians — including children — in the cross-border hostilities between Hamas and Israel that ended in a fragile cease-fire late last week.

“The aspirations of the Palestinian people are like those of people everywhere,” Mr. Blinken said after meeting the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, at his presidential office in the occupied West Bank. The United States is committed, he said, “to working with the Palestinian people to realize these aspirations.”

He then announced that the State Department would reopen a U.S. consulate in Jerusalem to handle Palestinian affairs that had been shut by the Trump administration in 2019, and send an additional $112 million in aid and development funding to the West Bank and Gaza. He said that brings to more than $360 million the amount of aid that President Biden has provided since last month, annulling Trump administration cuts.

Mr. Abbas thanked Mr. Blinken for the more active role the United States had taken to calm recent disputes, particularly in Jerusalem, that has in some cases put it at odds with Israel. “We hope that the future will be rife with diplomatic and political effort,” Mr. Abbas said.

While pushing for calm, the Biden administration has also been careful not to rupture relations with Israel. The United States was the lone holdout at the United Nations Security Council, where it blocked any attempt to blame Israel in its recent war with Hamas. Mr. Biden had also publicly supported Israel’s right to self-defense in the conflict.

In fact, only a few hours before meeting with Mr. Abbas — a short drive but seemingly a world away — Mr. Blinken met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, who also thanked the Biden administration for its backing in the fight against Hamas.

But Mr. Netanyahu bluntly reminded Mr. Blinken of Israel’s support for policies that had been pushed by Mr. Trump: terminating the Iran nuclear deal and warming diplomatic relations with four Arab governments that had been historically hostile to Israel.

With American and Iranian diplomats separately meeting with world powers in Vienna, officials have in recent days noted progress in negotiations to bring both sides back into compliance with the 2015 nuclear deal.

That has unnerved Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders who want the United States to hold out for stricter limits on Iran’s nuclear, missile and military programs before signing any new agreement.

The original deal “paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons,” Mr. Netanyahu said, adding: “Whatever happens, Israel will always reserve the right to defend itself against a regime committed to our destruction.”

While agreeing that Tehran must be prevented from building a nuclear weapon, Mr. Blinken did not rise to Mr. Netanyahu’s bait, mildly noting that the Biden administration would continue to consult with Israel about returning to the Iran nuclear agreement.

And though the overarching focus of Mr. Blinken’s visit — his first to the Middle East as secretary of state — was to secure a lasting cease-fire in a short but deadly war, Mr. Netanyahu made clear that Israel was ready to launch a “very powerful” response to any new attacks by Hamas.

Across Gaza, at least 77,000 people were forced from their homes during the nearly two weeks of Israeli airstrikes that sought to punish Hamas for firing long-range rockets able to reach Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Hundreds of thousands of people in Gaza have been cut off from electricity and clean water.

Mr. Blinken described “urgent, humanitarian reconstruction assistance for Gaza” and called for international support to prevent further suffering. He proposed working with the Palestinian Authority — which does not have widespread influence in Gaza — on rebuilding efforts as a way to undermine Hamas and to help ensure it does not benefit from an aid infusion.

But Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are bitter political rivals, and it is far from assured that the militants will cede any of their grip over Gaza.

“Hamas does not want the P.A. in charge of this process,” said Ghassan Khatib, a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank.

An Israeli foreign affairs ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity to share delicate discussions, said Mr. Blinken had suggested that Israel develop an aid package to assist the Palestinian Authority and, as a side benefit, strengthen its security coordination.

But Israel resisted the proposal, the official said, unless the Palestinian Authority stopped cooperating with an International Criminal Court investigation of war crimes in territories occupied by Israel since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Mr. Blinken’s emphasis on helping the Palestinians also raised the question of whether American policy on the Middle East could veer yet again if Mr. Trump or another Republican won the presidency in three years.

As if to underscore the contrast, Mr. Blinken’s predecessor in the Trump administration, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, was visiting Israel this week as a private citizen to attend a retirement event for Yossi Cohen, the director of the Mossad, the clandestine Israeli intelligence service. Mr. Pompeo, an outspoken critic of Mr. Biden’s foreign policy, is widely considered a future presidential candidate.

On Wednesday, Mr. Blinken will travel to Egypt, which prodded Hamas to agree to last week’s cease-fire, and then on to Jordan, the custodian of the Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam.

He would not comment Tuesday on whether he had secured specific commitments from Israel to ease security around the Aqsa Mosque or to halt the eviction of Palestinian residents of Sheikh Jarrah, a neighborhood in East Jerusalem. Tensions in both places helped trigger the escalated hostilities that ended in military conflict this month.

He did warn, however, against deliberate confrontation — including new settlement activity or evictions by Israel, or funding of terrorist groups by the Palestinians — that would threaten any hope for a long-term peace plan acceptable to both sides.

Yet Mr. Blinken left little doubt of the Biden administration’s attempts to rebuild Gaza and, ultimately, bring Palestinians back into the diplomatic fold with the United States “to address some of the underlying causes that could, if not addressed, spark another cycle of violence.”

“We found in working on this — intensely, quietly but resolutely — that America’s words matter,” Mr. Blinken, back in Jerusalem at the end of a long day, told journalists. “America’s actions matter, and America’s engagement matters.”

Lara Jakes reported from Ramallah and Jerusalem, and Isabel Kershner from Jerusalem. Ronen Bergman contributed reporting from Tel Aviv.

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