Blinken Pushes Israel to Ease Fighting, Consider Postwar Vision for Gaza

REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/Pool
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken answers questions during a press conference, during his week-long trip aimed at calming tensions across the Middle East, in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 9, 2024.

TEL AVIV – Disagreements between the United States and Israel over the Jewish state’s treatment of Palestinians emerged during Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s visit to Israel on Tuesday as leaders aired opposing views over when Palestinians can return to northern Gaza and receive tax revenue collected by Israel.

“These are their revenues,” Blinken told reporters here. “They should have them.” Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich, has vowed not to transfer any tax money to Gaza as long as he remains in that job.

Blinken traveled to Israel on Monday to present a plan for Gaza’s future based on his discussions with Arab and Turkish leaders during a tour of the region. But he received little public response from Israeli officials.

In meetings Tuesday with Israel’s president, prime minister, defense minister and emergency war cabinet, Blinken pressed Israel to reduce civilian casualties in its war on Hamas, already one of the century’s most destructive conflicts. About 23,000 people have been killed in Gaza over the past three months, health officials there say.

But the gaps between Israeli and Arab leaders remain wide. Far-right members of the Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are calling for the mass removal of civilians from Gaza. Israeli officials have dismissed U.S. calls for a “revamped and revitalized” Palestinian Authority play a role in a postwar, Hamas-free Gaza.

Blinken is pushing regional leaders to seize the crisis as an opportunity in the decades-long Arab-Israeli conflict. He told Israeli officials Monday that ending the war would allow the country to improve relations with its Arab neighbors. Those ties were notably warming until Hamas launched a lethal attack on Israeli communities in October and Israel responded with its campaign to eradicate the militant group. Blinken has said postwar rebuilding with non-Hamas Palestinians at the center could be a pathway to eventual statehood.

But Blinken has not offered details on how the United States would overcome the obstacles that have bedeviled every previous U.S. administration that has tried to clear the way for a Palestinian state.

Blinken’s two-day diplomatic blitz here, capping his fourth Middle East swing since Hamas killed about 1,200 people in Israel on Oct. 7, comes amid mixed signals from Israeli leaders about plans to ease the fight in Gaza.

Blinken and his Israeli counterparts did agree on at least one point: The United Nations should assess conditions in northern Gaza, where Israeli bombardment has flattened homes and civilian infrastructure, to determine when residents might return. But when that can happen remains a sticking point.

Blinken told reporters that Gazans should be able to return as soon as they can safely do so. But Israeli officials told Israeli media that they will not allow for the return of Palestinians to northern Gaza until Hamas releases Israeli hostages. The Biden administration opposes that condition as a form of collective punishment.

Israeli military officials have announced troop drawdowns in northern Gaza. They’ve said that they will now turn to more precisely targeted raids there.

“Operations will continue in the north, but with a different scale,” Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari told reporters late Monday. “The war will continue in 2024 but in a different way. Reservists will be released. We will act in different ways according to the needs of the operational space.”

A senior U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive military matters, confirmed that Israel had withdrawn several thousand troops in “a significant drawdown” in the north. Residents in the north said the level of intense fighting has dropped.

“We hear booms, shootings and some airstrikes,” Gaza City resident Ramadan Amriti, 56, told The Washington Post. “It’s not completely safe or calm but better than before, with no doubt.”

Fighting continues to rage in southern and central Gaza. Netanyahu and other officials have said there will be no end to hostilities for months.

Almost 250 Gazans were killed in the 24 hours before Blinken’s arrival, health authorities there said. Israeli attacks Monday forced refugees to flee the last functioning hospital in central Gaza, a region packed with tens of thousands of displaced civilians.

Israelis have told Washington that they intend to scale back operations significantly in the next phase of the military campaign in Gaza, U.S. officials said, and will rely on fewer troops and reduce the massive air bombardments that have felled high-rises and leveled city blocks. Instead, the Israelis say they will deploy special forces to eliminate Hamas leaders and destroy the group’s tunnels and military infrastructure.

U.S. officials conceded that previous such assurances did not materialize. Their hope is that the first troop reductions since ground operations began signal that Israeli officials are finally bending to U.S. lobbying, in addition to the economic strain of diverting tens of thousands of reservists from the workforce.

“I think there is a desire here to respond to pressure from the Americans, who demand to reduce the harm of innocents in Gaza,” said Michael Milshtein, a former head of the Palestinian department in Israeli military intelligence. “But the needs of the Israeli economy cannot be ignored, as well, and perhaps also the northern front,” referring to Hezbollah troops massing along Israel’s border with Lebanon.

Blinken was pushing his Israeli counterparts to reduce the intensity of the fighting in Gaza as quickly as possible, U.S. officials said, while he also urged caution in its response to the presence of Hezbollah forces.

Hezbollah and Israeli troops have exchanged fire almost daily over the last three months, forcing thousands of civilians on both sides to evacuate the frontier. A drone strike last week that U.S. officials say was launched by Israel killed a Hamas leader in his Beirut office, sparking fears that the conflagration would spread. A Hezbollah commander was also killed on Monday.

“It’s clearly not in the interest of anyone – Israel, Lebanon, Hezbollah for that matter – to see this escalate,” Blinken said Monday.

Israeli leaders have expressed a preference for a peaceful resolution on the border with Lebanon – but they’ve also warned that they won’t tolerate the tit-for-tat violence on the border indefinitely. “We prefer the path of an agreed-upon diplomatic settlement,” Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant said Friday. “But we are getting close to the point where the hourglass will turn over.”

Israeli summaries of meetings with Blinken emphasized that Israel’s military campaign against Hamas and Hezbollah would not ease anytime soon. Gallant said that Israeli forces “will intensify” military operations in southern Gaza. Netanyahu rival Benny Gantz, seen as a moderating force in the government, told Blinken that Israel is committed to “change reality in northern Israel to enable the safe return home of its citizens” – a possible reference to military escalation against Hezbollah forces on the border.

During his visits with Arab leaders, Blinken claimed progress in coordinating a plan for Gaza’s reconstruction and governance. Arab leaders have been reluctant to discuss their involvement publicly as scenes of the carnage emerge from the enclave daily and there’s no guarantee that investments in rebuilding wouldn’t be quickly undone by another war.

The Biden administration considers financial support for reconstruction from Saudi Arabia and other energy-rich Gulf countries as essential to any long-term solution in Gaza. Blinken, before leaving Saudi Arabia, said he’s seen a willingness on the part of Gulf partners to contribute, but a nonnegotiable condition was that the West Bank and Gaza “should be united under Palestinian-led governance.”

Israeli officials have objected to such a prospect. They have also shown little indication that they’re close to wrapping up the war on Hamas.

Neither Israel nor the Biden administration supports a general cease-fire; they say it would give Hamas time to regroup and launch additional attacks inside Israel. Officials have said Hamas must release the more than 100 remaining Israeli hostages held in Gaza before Israel will pull back.

CIA Director William J. Burns has been trying to broker a new release for the 107 hostages, some of them U.S. citizens, who are believed to be in Gaza.

Blinken met Tuesday with family members of hostages. Their advocates camped in front of his hotel and called for the administration to push for the release of more hostages.

“BIDEN ONLY YOU CAN SAVE THEM!” read one demonstrator’s sign.

The meeting was at times contentious, according to a person familiar with the discussion.

The families insisted that the United States, “as the most powerful country in the world,” should be doing more to free their relatives, said the person, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the matter publicly.

Before Blinken’s visit, Gallant, the defense minister, presented his own proposal for postwar Gaza to the war cabinet. This first public outline by a top official included elements favored by the Biden administration, such as the expectation that Palestinians will continue to live in the enclave. But it also includes nonstarters for U.S. officials, such as the exclusion of any role for the Palestinian Authority, which runs parts of the West Bank.

Restoring order in Gaza is a top concern among U.S. and Israeli officials. In private discussions, Israeli officials have proposed relying on local leaders to provide security and distribute humanitarian aid.

Amid food shortages, U.N. aid trucks in the enclave have been pillaged. Residents in northern Gaza have largely been denied access to aid since fighting resumed after a pause more than a month ago.

U.N. officials described the problem to Blinken when he visited a World Food Program warehouse in Jordan. He said expanding access to aid was a priority of his visit.

In his meeting Tuesday with Netanyahu and Israel’s war cabinet, Blinken advocated for the United Nations’ work and praised the appointment of a U.N. coordinator for reconstruction in Gaza, his spokesman said.