CAIRO, Jan 29 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the Middle East on Sunday, starting a three-day visit as violence flares between Israel and the Palestinians, and with Iran and the war in Ukraine high on the agenda.
After a stop in Cairo, Blinken will head to Jerusalem on Monday, where the new right-wing government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has sparked concern at home and abroad about the future of Israel’s secular values, fractured ethnic relations and stalled peace talks. with the Palestinians.
Deadly violence has also occurred in recent days, heightening fears of an escalation in the already escalating violence.
A Palestinian gunman killed seven people in an attack outside a synagogue in Jerusalem on Friday. That attack was the worst attack on Israelis in the Jerusalem area since 2008 and followed a deadly Israeli raid in the West Bank city of Jenin, the deadliest in recent years.
In talks with the new Israeli administration, which includes ultra-nationalist parties that want to expand West Bank settlements, Blinken will repeat US calls for calm and emphasize Washington’s support for a two-state solution, although n -US officials admit that peace talks are longer term. unlikely in the near future.
Blinken will also travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, other Palestinian officials, and members of civil society.
Netanyahu’s government has proposed an overhaul of the judiciary that would strengthen political control over judicial appointments and weaken the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn legislation or rule against government action. The proposals have prompted street demonstrations against what protesters say could undermine judicial independence.
“It’s obviously a measure of the vitality of democracy that this is being contested so clearly up and down across parts of Israeli society,” said Barbara Leaf, the State Department’s top Middle East official, who briefed reporters before the trip . Blinken will hear from people inside and outside government about the reforms, she said.
Leaf said the visit would also build on earlier efforts to restore relations between Israel and Arab nations. The process, known as the Negev Forum, excludes Palestinians and involves officials from regional nations, including Egypt, discussing areas such as economic cooperation and tourism.
Ukraine, Iran on the agenda
Russia’s 11-month-old war in Ukraine will also be on the agenda. Ukraine, which has received large amounts of military equipment from the United States and Europe, has asked Israel to provide systems to launch drones, including those provided by Israel’s regional enemy Iran.
Those requests have been rebuffed by Israel. Although it has condemned the Russian invasion, Israel has limited its aid to humanitarian aid and defense equipment, citing a desire for continued cooperation with Moscow on war-torn neighboring Syria and to ensure the well-being of Russian Jews.
The diplomats will also discuss Iran’s nuclear program, with the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the stalled 2015 nuclear deal and no Plan B to prevent Iran from developing a weapon.
In Cairo, Blinken will meet with President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to strengthen Washington’s “strategic partnership” with Egypt and boost cooperation on regional issues such as Sudan’s transition and elections in Libya, he said. Leaf.
Blinken will also be under pressure to raise human rights concerns.
The Biden administration has withheld millions of dollars in military aid to Egypt because of its failure to meet human rights conditions, although advocacy groups have pushed it to withhold more, alleging widespread abuses. including torture and disappearances.
Most of the $1.3 billion in foreign military aid that Washington sends to Egypt each year remains intact and the United States has made progress in granting political detention to Sisi’s government.
Sissi, who became president in 2014, has said that Egypt has no political prisoners, and insists that security is paramount and that the government is promoting human rights by working towards basic needs such as providing jobs and housing.