Blinken begins latest Middle East tour, set to meet Arab leaders in Cairo

US secretary of state is expected to discuss a truce deal, the exchange of hostages and prisoners, among other topics.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia [Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters]

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has begun a tour of the Middle East by holding talks in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday, hoping to secure a ceasefire in Israel’s war on Gaza.

Blinken is set to meet Arab foreign ministers and a senior Palestinian official in Cairo on Thursday, according to an Egyptian foreign ministry note, as he pushes for a truce between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip, where hunger is spreading amid growing warnings of a looming famine.

The note did not give details on the subject of the meeting, but Egyptian security sources cited by the Reuters news agency said Arab nations would present plans for a political solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Such plans had been put on hold as mediators from Qatar, Egypt and the United States sought to secure a deal for a ceasefire in Gaza and the release of Israeli hostages and Palestinian prisoners.

After arriving in Saudi Arabia, Blinken met Prince Faisal bin Farhan, the Saudi foreign minister, and was expected to hold talks with ruling Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The two top diplomats “discussed the urgent need to protect all civilians in Gaza and immediately increase humanitarian assistance to those in need”, the US State Department said in a statement.

Blinken is on his sixth trip to the Middle East since Israel’s war on Gaza began on October 7. He has said he would pursue conversations on arrangements for the governance, security and redevelopment of post-conflict Gaza, and for lasting regional peace during his tour.

Talks for a ceasefire deal continued in Qatar this week following failed attempts to secure an agreement before the start of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

Qatari officials said they were “cautiously optimistic” after talks with Israel’s intelligence chief in Doha, although Qatari Foreign Ministry spokesperson Majed al-Ansari said on Tuesday that an Israeli ground operation in Rafah in southern Gaza would set back any talks.

There are currently approximately 1.5 million internally displaced Palestinians sheltering in Rafah, where camps are severely overcrowded and diseases are rampant amid a lack of basic supplies, food, and medicine.

Looming Rafah invasion

The US Department of State announced that Blinken will cap his tour by visiting Israel.

“In Israel, Secretary Blinken will discuss with the leadership of the government of Israel the ongoing negotiations to secure the release of all hostages,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said.

“He will discuss the need to ensure the defeat of Hamas, including in Rafah, in a way that protects the civilian population, does not hinder the delivery of humanitarian assistance, and advances Israel’s overall security.”

Tensions between the US and Israel over the prosecution of the Gaza assault have been mounting for months over rising civilian casualties. More than 31,000 Palestinians have been killed in Gaza, many of them women and children, according to Palestinian health officials. A United Nations food agency warned that “famine is imminent” in northern Gaza.

Meanwhile, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has repeatedly said he will ignore President Joe Biden’s warnings not to start a large-scale ground operation in Rafah without credible plans to protect innocent Palestinians. He said preparations are under way, but an operation “will take some time”.

Biden, facing a tough re-election campaign before November’s presidential election, is under growing domestic pressure to rein in Israel’s military response to the October 7 Hamas attacks in Israel. Opposition to the war in the United States, Arab nations and much of the rest of the world has shaped the evolution of Blinken’s frequent trips to the region since October.

In a phone call with Biden on Monday, their first in more than a month, Netanyahu agreed to send a high-level delegation to Washington to discuss plans for the proposed Rafah operation, and the Pentagon said Tuesday that Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant would visit the US capital next week.

On Wednesday, Netanyahu spoke to US Republican senators via video link, days after Democratic Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer rebuked the Israeli prime minister as an obstacle to peace and called for new elections in Israel.

Biden later described Schumer’s remarks as a “good speech” that expressed concerns shared by many Americans.

Republican lawmakers said after the Wednesday meeting that Netanyahu told them that Israel will push on with its efforts to defeat Hamas in Gaza.

“He’s going to do what he said he’s going to do. He’s going to finish it,” said Senator Jim Risch.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies