Blinken is back in the Middle East this week. He has his work cut out for him

Riyadh, Saudi Arabia — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will begin his seventh diplomatic mission to the Middle East on Monday since the war between Israel and Hamas began more than six months ago. He has his work cut out for him.

The war has raged on since Hamas’s deadly October 7 attacks on Israel, with no end in sight: more than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed, hundreds of thousands of others displaced and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsening.

The conflict has sparked mass protests around the world that have spread to American college campuses. US support for Israel, especially arms transfers, has come under particular criticism, something the administration is well aware poses potential problems for President Joe Biden in an election year.

Just ahead of Blinken’s visit — which includes just over a day in Saudi Arabia before visiting Jordan and Israel on Tuesday and Wednesday — Biden spoke by phone with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday.

Blinken’s trip comes amid renewed concerns about the conflict spreading in the Middle East and with the once promising prospects for Israeli-Saudi rapprochement effectively on hold as Israel refuses to take into account one of the Saudis’ key conditions for normalized relations: the establishment of a Palestinian state. .

Here’s a look at the top issues Blinken will tackle:

The Biden administration has been working closely with Egypt and Qatar for months to negotiate an agreement between Israel and Hamas on the release of Israeli hostages kidnapped during the October 7 attacks that launched the war, in exchange for a temporary but renewable ceasefire in Gaza and the release of Palestinian prisoners imprisoned in Israel. Although these negotiations are still ongoing, they have yet to bear fruit.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration has warned Israel of a major military operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have fled to escape fighting further north. Israel has not yet launched such an offensive, but Netanyahu has repeatedly said one will take place, claiming it is the only way to root out Hamas.

Both topics were discussed during the phone call between Biden and Netanyahu on Sunday, according to White House and US officials.

Blinken will also speak about these issues during talks with Arab and European foreign ministers meeting in Riyadh for a meeting of the World Economic Forum. He will also discuss that he will not allow the conflict between Israel and Hamas to engulf the region. This will be the focus of a separate meeting he will have in Riyadh with his Gulf Cooperation Council colleagues.

The danger of fire was underscored this month when a suspected Israeli attack on an Iranian consular building in Syria prompted an unprecedented direct missile and drone response from Iran against Israel. An apparent retaliatory attack by Israel on Iran followed.

Although the tit-for-tat cycle appears to have ended for the time being, there remains significant concern that Iran or its allies in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria or Yemen could act in such a way as to provoke a greater response from Israel would be provoked, or that Israel might take action. action for which Iran believes it must retaliate.

The Biden administration has also pressured Israel to further expand the scope and scale of humanitarian aid convoys bringing food, medicine and water to the area.

In Jordan and Israel, Blinken will focus largely on such aid, meeting with various aid agencies and officials in both countries to underscore the urgent need for more aid. In Israel, these discussions will be accompanied by talks about Israel’s military plans, a State Department official said.

Blinken is expected to emphasize the importance of strongly boosting the flow of aid and sustaining the increase.

Although deliveries have increased, they are still not at the level needed to prevent, according to the UN, a looming famine in Gaza. The US is also building a pier near Gaza City through which aid shipped from Cyprus can be sent for distribution to Palestinian civilians.

Officials in the US and Cyprus say the pier is expected to be ready soon, but there are still major concerns about the safety of the facility and the emergency workers who will deliver supplies from the port to communities.

Dozens of aid workers have been killed since the conflict began, and a deadly Israeli attack on a World Central Kitchen aid convoy in Gaza this month has only highlighted the dangers and difficulties of protecting it. Israel has said the attack was a mistake and has disciplined officials involved.

World Central Kitchen says it will resume operations in Gaza on Monday after a four-week suspension.

In Saudi Arabia, a State Department official said Blinken would focus on plans for a post-conflict Gaza in separate meetings with the Arab and European foreign ministers.

The US has been working with a group of five Arab countries – the so-called “Quint” of Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates – on plans to rebuild and govern the area once the war ends. After initial reluctance in the early stages of the war to engage in such planning, the Arabs agreed to do so in January, although many of their specific contributions to the effort have not yet been fully identified and are unlikely to be this level will be determined. meeting, the official said.

Later, Blinken and those same Arab ministers, along with some from Europe, will meet jointly to discuss their ideas and tell the Europeans that they have a role – both financially and with specific expertise – in Gaza’s post-conflict future. to the official who spoke to reporters on condition of anonymity to get a preview of Blinken’s discussions.

He will hold separate meetings with Saudi officials, including the country’s de facto leader, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, on the US-Saudi part of a proposal for the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel and how that could ultimately be done. be merged with the broader plan for Gaza. Before Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks in Israel, U.S. officials believed they were close to an agreement.

After the start of the war, these relations became linked to Israel’s acceptance of an independent Palestinian state.

Netanyahu and his far-right government have refused to consider this, but that hasn’t stopped Blinken and other officials from repeating their argument that the future of Gaza, Palestinians in general, Israel’s long-term security and regional stability all depend on one thing.

Blinken will talk to the Saudis and other Arabs about achieving “lasting peace and security in the region, including through a path to an independent Palestinian state with security guarantees for Israel,” said State Department spokesman Matthew Miller. .