US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to visit Israel and the occupied West Bank, focusing on “de-escalation” after a deadly Israeli military raid in Jenin set off violent confrontations with Palestinians.
An alarming spike in Israeli military violence, and a sharp response from the Palestinian side, is testing the Biden administration as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken plunges into a cauldron of deepening mistrust and anger on visits to Israel and the occupied West Bank this week.
Blinken’s high-wire diplomatic act begins on Monday after he completes a brief visit to Egypt that has been almost entirely overshadowed by the deteriorating security situation in Israel and the occupied West Bank.
US officials say the main theme of Blinken’s conversations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas will be “de-escalation.”
Just hours before Blinken's arrival, Israeli forces have killed a Palestinian man in the city of Hebron in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinian Health Ministry identified the man as 26-year-old Nassim Abu Fouda. The Israeli military had no immediate comment.
Abu Fouda's death brings the toll of Palestinians killed this month to 35.
Blinken's visit also comes a day after Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet announced a series of punitive measures against Palestinians in response to a weekend of deadly shootings in which Palestinian attackers killed seven Israelis and wounded five others in Jerusalem.
The shootings followed a deadly Israeli military raid in the occupied West Bank on Thursday that killed 10 Palestinians.
The violence has made January one of the bloodiest months in the occupied West Bank and occupied east Jerusalem in several years.
While Blinken’s trip has been planned for several weeks and will follow visits by President Joe Biden’s national security adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director Willian Burns, it will be the highest-level US engagement with Netanyahu since he retook power last month and the first since the surge in violence.
Already contending with the new Israeli government’s far-right policies, US officials have yet to weigh in on Israel's measures that include sealing and demolishing the homes of Palestinian attackers, canceling social security benefits for their families and handing out more weapons to Israeli civilians.
Perhaps most alarming was Netanyahu's vague promise to “strengthen” Israel's Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal under international law.
Bezalel Smotrich, an ultranationalist Cabinet minister whom Netanyahu has placed in charge of settlement policy, said he would seek new construction in a strategic section of the occupied West Bank called E1.
The US has repeatedly blocked previous attempts by Israel to develop the area.
READ MORE: Israeli violence escalates over the weekend
Keeping peace talks on life support
US officials have, however, criticised Abbas’ decision to suspend Palestinian security co-operation with Israel in the wake of Israel's killings of Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
“We want to get the parties to not cease security co-operation but to really enhance the security coordination,” said Barbara Leaf, the top US diplomat for the Middle East. “We are urging de-escalation and a calming of the situation.”
The Palestinians and human rights groups believe that Israel's measures against the Palestinian population, including the demolition of homes of attackers' families, amounts to collective punishment, which is illegal under international law.
The turmoil has added yet another item to Blinken’s lengthy diplomatic agenda that was already set to include Russia’s war on Ukraine, tensions with Iran and crises in Lebanon and Syria; all of which weigh heavily in the US-Israel relationship.
Easing strains on those issues, or at least averting new ones, are central to Blinken’s mission despite Netanyahu's opposition to two of Biden’s main Mideast priorities: reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal and restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.
But, with both of those matters stalled and little hope of any resumption in negotiations, the administration is attempting just to keep the concepts on life support.
The US has remained silent on Netanyahu’s proposed sweeping changes to Israel’s judicial system, which would allow lawmakers to overrule decisions by the Supreme Court. Recent weeks have seen mass protests in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv over the proposals.
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