Amman, Jordan (News21USA) — Arab leaders who have condemned the deaths of thousands of Palestinian civilians in the war between Israel and Hamas pushed on Saturday for an immediate ceasefire, even as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned that such a move would be counterproductive and could encourage more violence by the militant group.
After an afternoon of talks with Egyptian, Jordanian, Saudi, Qatari and Emirati diplomats and a senior Palestinian official, Blinken stood next to a row of podiums with his counterparts from Jordan and Egypt to discuss what he said was their shared desire to protect . civilians in Gaza and improve aid flows to the besieged territory.
The dissonance in the messages was evident. However, the joint press conference between ministers from the Arab world and the top diplomat of Israel’s closest ally and the numerous photo opportunities contrasted with Blinken’s stay in Tel Aviv on Friday, when Blinken met alone with the journalists after closed-door talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. .
Arab ministers repeatedly called for the fighting to stop now and condemned Israel’s war tactics.
“We cannot accept the justification as a right to self-defense and collective punishment” of Palestinians in Gaza, said Egyptian Sameh Shoukry. “This cannot be self-defense at all.”
Blinken stood firm on the US position that a ceasefire would harm Israel’s right and obligation to defend its citizens following Hamas’ surprise attack on October 7 across southern Israel. He said the Biden administration’s commitment to Israel’s right to self-defense remains unwavering.
“Our view now is that a ceasefire would simply leave Hamas in place, able to regroup and repeat what it did,” Blinken said.
He said the United States supports “humanitarian pauses” in Israel’s operations to allow for better aid flows (a call Netanyahu flatly rejected the previous day) and increased transit of foreign nationals from Gaza to Egypt. Blinken’s colleagues from Jordan and Egypt didn’t think that went far enough.
President Joe Biden, in a brief exchange with reporters as he left St. Edmond Roman Catholic Church in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, suggested Saturday that there has been some progress in U.S. efforts to persuade Israel to agree to a humanitarian pause. When asked if there was progress, he replied: “Yes.”
In another direct contrast, Arab officials said it was too early to discuss one of the top items on Blinken’s agenda: the postwar future of Gaza. Stopping the killings and restoring humanitarian aid are immediate measures that must be addressed first, they said.
“What happens next? How can we even consider what will happen next? said Ayman al-Safadi of Jordan. “We don’t have all the variables to even start thinking about that.” And he added: “We need to clarify our priorities.”
But when they appeared before news cameras and journalists, the three men gave at least a semblance of solidarity. Blinken acknowledged Arab concerns about civilian casualties in Gaza and underscored the risk the war poses to Israel’s standing in neighboring countries with which it has had diplomatic relations for decades.
Shoukry and al-Safadi said they agreed to continue working with Blinken and others toward the ultimate goal of ending the war, restoring some sense of normalcy to Gaza and giving the Palestinian people reason to hope for an eventual independent state of their own.
From Beirut, Osama Hamdan, a senior Hamas official, told reporters that Blinken “should stop the aggression and should not propose ideas that cannot be implemented.” Hamdan said the future of Gaza will be decided by the Palestinians and that Arab foreign ministers should tell the American diplomat that “he cannot build an Arab coalition that is against the Palestinian people.”
Blinken’s first meeting in Jordan was with Lebanon’s interim prime minister, Najib Mikati, whose economically and politically devastated country is home to Hezbollah, a force backed by Iran and hostile to Israel. The United States has serious concerns that Hezbollah, which has stepped up cross-border and rocket attacks on northern Israel, will take a more active role in the war between Israel and Hamas.
Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah on Friday gave his first major speech since the Hamas attacks but did not predict further involvement by his group, even as he professed that Hezbollah was unfazed by U.S. attempts to deter it.
Blinken thanked Mikati for his leadership “in preventing Lebanon from being dragged into a war that the Lebanese people do not want,” the US State Department said.
Blinken then met with the foreign minister of Qatar, whose country has become the most influential interlocutor with Hamas. Qatar has been key in negotiating the limited release of hostages held by Hamas, as well as persuading Hamas to allow foreign nationals to leave Gaza and cross into Egypt.
Blinken also held talks with the head of the UN agency tasked with helping Palestinian refugees and thanked Phillipe Lazzarini for his group’s “extraordinary work every day as a lifeline for Palestinians in Gaza and at great, great cost.” So far, the agency has seen about 70 employees die in the war and is critically running out of necessary supplies such as food, medicine and fuel.
While in Amman, Blinken will meet with King Abdullah II of Jordan, whose country recalled its ambassador to Israel and told him not to return to Jordan until the Gaza crisis was over. On Sunday, Blinken will travel to Turkey to meet with President Recep Tayyep Erdogan and other senior officials on Monday, the State Department said. On Saturday, Turkey followed Jordan’s lead and announced that it had recalled its ambassador to Israel.
Arab states resist American suggestions that they play a larger role in the Middle East crisis, expressing outrage at the civilian cost of Israeli military operations but believing that Gaza is a problem largely of Israel’s own making.
But U.S. officials believe that Arab backing, however modest, will be critical to efforts to alleviate worsening conditions in Gaza and lay the foundation for what would replace Hamas as the territory’s governing authority, provided Israel succeeds eradicate the group.
Still, ideas about the future governance of Gaza are few and far between. Blinken and other US officials offer a vague outline that could include a combination of a revitalized Palestinian Authority, which has not been a factor in Gaza since 2007, with international organizations and potentially a peacekeeping force. U.S. officials acknowledge that these ideas have been met with a distinct lack of enthusiasm.