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Blinken Heading To Jerusalem After Israeli-Hamas Cease-Fire


Secretary of State Antony Blinken has set off for the Middle East. President Biden asked him to go but only after a ceasefire was in place, ending the latest military conflict between Israel and the Palestinian militant group Hamas. NPR's Michele Kelemen reports.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Secretary Blinken has been cautious about jumping into Middle East diplomacy. He started quietly with phone calls while he was on a trip to the Arctic. Plans for a visit came together only after Israel and Hamas agreed to stop fighting. And White House press secretary Jen Psaki is making clear that Blinken has narrow goals for this trip to Israel, the West Bank, Egypt and Jordan.


JEN PSAKI: Ensuring that we are creating conditions with our partners in the region for a sustained ceasefire and also discussing the path forward on rebuilding Gaza, something that there's a great deal of interest and support in the international community on. And there are great needs on the ground.

KELEMEN: This was the fourth military conflict like this between Israel and Hamas since Hamas took control of the Gaza Strip about 15 years ago.

ELIZABETH CAMPBELL: This last episode has taken Gaza back several years.

KELEMEN: That's Elizabeth Campbell, who runs the Washington office for UNRRA, the U.N. agency that runs clinics and schools for Palestinians.

CAMPBELL: Of the 66 children that were killed, 19 of them went to our schools. This is very traumatic for the families, for the teachers, for their fellow students. And it is increasingly difficult to keep, you know, rebuilding.

KELEMEN: During the last outbreak of violence in 2014, then-Secretary of State John Kerry rushed to Egypt, hoping to do some shuttle diplomacy. He stayed in Cairo all week with little to show as both sides made demands of him and airstrikes and rocket fire continued. This secretary was far more hesitant, says Khaled Elgindy, a former adviser to Palestinian negotiators.

KHALED ELGINDY: Risk-averse is probably an understatement.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken says Israel has the right to defend itself against rocket fire from Gaza, but he also says he wants to make sure Israelis and Palestinians have equal measures of security, peace and dignity. Elgindy says all those things are lacking for Palestinians.

ELGINDY: That just seems so detached from where things are. And so I'm not sure they fully appreciate how far away that is and what a difficult political lift it will entail to make any progress on those.

KELEMEN: Elgindy, who's now with the Washington-based Middle East Institute, points out that Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival. And the latest conflict again highlighted the dysfunction of the Palestinian Authority.

ELGINDY: And because you have this dual dysfunction inside Israeli and Palestinian politics, that makes the American role all that more important because that's when you need a responsible third-party actor that can help the parties change their political calculations.

KELEMEN: Secretary Blinken is defending his decision not to rush to the region, though. He told ABC's "This Week With George Stephanopoulos" that Biden's quiet approach worked.


ANTONY BLINKEN: We got to the result thanks to President Biden's relentless focus on this quiet but, I think, effective diplomacy in getting to a ceasefire and stopping the violence in 11 days. If you go back and look at previous crises, they've lasted a lot longer.

KELEMEN: Blinken's challenge now is to try to move the ball forward in a way that will break the cycle. He's not raising expectations of any quick resumption of talks on Palestinian statehood.

Michele Kelemen, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.
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