Blinken urges calm, supports Palestinian state in meeting with Israel’s Netanyahu
Arriving in Israel at what he called a “pivotal moment,” Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Monday called on Israelis and Palestinians alike to step back from the brink of all-out conflict, condemning terrorism and vengeance killings that target innocent civilians.
Blinken flew into the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv after a day in Cairo, and on Tuesday he will head to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian officials. At each stop, security has taken on an urgency after a spate of some of the deadliest violence in Israel and the West Bank in recent memory.
Blinken also held several hours of consultations in one-on-one meetings with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Isaac Herzog and Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, who has been on the job just under a month as part of Netanyahu’s new far-right government.
At the airport, Blinken took the unusual step of reading a formal statement on the tarmac to the assembled press in which he fiercely criticized the killing last Friday during Shabbat of seven Jewish Israelis by a Palestinian gunman. He called it a “heinous crime” made all the more shocking because it killed worshipers, and Blinken also chastised those who would celebrate such violence, as some Palestinians were reported to have done.
But, he added: “Calls for vengeance against more innocent victims are not the answer, and acts of retaliatory violence against civilians are never justified.
“It’s the responsibility of everyone to take steps to calm tensions rather than inflame them,” Blinken said.
Though couched in diplomatic parlance, Blinken touched on tough topics in Jerusalem and during his earlier stop in Cairo. He publicly repeated to his Israeli hosts the need for “our shared values” to preserve and strengthen democracy at a time when many Israelis believe democracy is being threatened by the new government’s policies to weaken courts and inject ultraconservative religion into education and public life.
At a joint reading of statements to the press with Netanyahu, Blinken suggested that their discussion of protecting democracy was “frank” but respectful. He reminded Netanyahu that a democracy must allow people’s voices to be heard and build consensus for new proposals. He was alluding to waves of demonstrations against the Netanyahu government’s most controversial plans and widespread fear of the erosion of Israel’s democracy.
“That conversation will continue, including with other members of Israel’s government and civil society, as part of a perpetual process to defend and bolster the pillars of our democracy, which we are both committed to,” Blinken said.
Blinken also repeated the Biden administration’s position that a permanent and enduring peace must include establishment of an independent Palestinian state, which many members of Netanyahu’s Cabinet oppose.
In Cairo, Blinken stood side-by-side with Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry in a news conference and spoke about human rights in Egypt, an enormously sensitive topic, and revealed that he had met privately with Egyptian human rights defenders.
Egypt has an abysmal human rights record. Under President Abdel Fattah Sisi, thousands of people have been arrested and often held without charges, including dissidents, activists, journalists and critics of the government. Human rights groups have documented cases of torture and death in custody.
Blinken, who also met with Sisi behind closed doors for a little over an hour, said that while Egypt had made strides in religious freedom and other areas, “The concerns that we have remain.” He urged Egypt to release prisoners, reform pretrial detention, protect members of civil society and allow freedom of expression.
“Making tangible and lasting improvements on human rights is essential to strengthening even more our bilateral relationship,” Blinken said.
In Jerusalem with Netanyahu, Blinken praised the “normalization” agreements between Israel and a handful of Arab countries led by the Gulf states, which recognized Israel for the first time. Both Blinken and Netanyahu said they wanted to expand the process to bring in more countries.
But Blinken cautioned that normalization cannot be a substitute for resolving the fundamental conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.
“As we advance Israel’s integration, we can do so in ways that improve the daily lives of Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza,” Blinken said.
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