U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pressed ahead with a diplomatic tour of the Middle East on Tuesday, meeting Egyptian leaders as part of his efforts to secure a cease-fire in the Israel-Hamas war in exchange for the release of hostages.
Blinken's visit also comes amid growing concerns in Egypt about Israel's stated intentions to expand the combat in Gaza to areas on the Egyptian border that are crammed with displaced Palestinians.
Israel's defense minister has said Israel's offensive will eventually reach the town of Rafah, on the Egyptian border, where more than half of Gaza's 2.3 million people have sought refuge and are now living in increasingly miserable conditions.
U.N. humanitarian monitors said Tuesday that Israeli evacuation orders now cover two-thirds of Gaza's territory, driving thousands more people every day toward the border areas.
Egypt has warned that an Israeli deployment along the border would threaten the peace treaty the two countries signed over four decades ago. Egypt fears an expansion of combat to the Rafah area could push terrified Palestinian civilians across the border, a scenario Egypt has said it is determined to prevent.
Blinken, who was meeting Tuesday with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo, has said repeatedly that Palestinians must not be forced out of Gaza.
Blinken pushing for progress
During his latest trip, Blinken is seeking progress on a cease-fire deal, on potential normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and on preventing an escalation of regional fighting.
On all three fronts, Blinken faces major challenges. Hamas and Israel are publicly at odds over key elements of a potential truce. Israel has dismissed the United States’ calls for a path to a Palestinian state, and Iran’s militant allies in the region have shown little sign of being deterred by U.S. strikes.
Egypt — along with Qatar, where Blinken will be later Tuesday — have been trying to mediate an agreement between Israel and Hamas that would lead to the release of more hostages in return for a several-week-long pause in Israeli military operations. The outlines of such a deal were worked out by intelligence chiefs from the U.S., Egypt, Qatar and Israel late last month and have been presented to Hamas, which has not yet formally responded.
U.S. officials said Blinken is hoping to get an update on Hamas’ response to the proposal in both Cairo and Doha. Blinken will then travel to Israel to brief Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his War Cabinet on Wednesday about what he heard from the Arab leaders.
As on his previous four trips to the Mideast since the Gaza war began, Blinken’s other main goal is to prevent the conflict from spreading, a task made exponentially more difficult by stepped up attacks by Iran-backed militias in the region and increasingly severe U.S. military responses in Iraq, Syria, Yemen and the Red Sea that have intensified since last week.
Blinken met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday evening, shortly after arriving in the Saudi capital, Riyadh. Saudi officials have said the kingdom is still interested in normalizing relations with Israel in a potentially historic deal, but only if there is a credible plan to create a Palestinian state.
Blinken “underscored the importance of addressing humanitarian needs in Gaza and preventing further spread of the conflict,” and he and the crown prince discussed “the importance of building a more integrated and prosperous region,” the State Department said in a statement.
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