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Blinken Returns To Middle East For Tough Gaza Talks

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Turkey on Friday to start his fourth Middle East crisis tour since the start of the Israel-Hamas war three months ago.

The top American diplomat will visit Israel, the Palestinian Authority base in the West Bank and five Arab countries — Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the State Department said.

Blinken will hold talks in Istanbul on Saturday with his Turkish counterpart Hakan Fidan and President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, one of the Muslim world’s harshest critics of US support for Israel in the war.

We don’t expect every conversation on this trip to be easy. There are obviously tough issues facing the region and difficult choices ahead, State Department spokesman Matthew Miller told reporters.

But the secretary believes it is the responsibility of the United States of America to lead diplomatic efforts to tackle those challenges head on, he said.

Blinken has used previous trips to try to stop the war from spreading. But he returns to a region that has seen attacks in or from Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, Syria and Iran.

A strike inside Lebanon widely assumed to have been carried out by Israel killed a top Hamas leader on Tuesday. Iran-backed Huthi rebels have been firing on ships in the Red Sea in avowed solidarity with Gaza.

Iran was in turn hit Wednesday by one of the deadliest attacks since its 1979 Islamic revolution, with twin blasts killing at least 84 people gathered to commemorate a slain Revolutionary Guards general.

Tehran initially blamed Israel and the United States, although the Islamic State group later claimed responsibility.

President Joe Biden’s administration has provided crucial support for Israel since the October 7 attack, when Hamas fighters streamed across the border and killed about 1,140 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on Israeli figures.

The United States has twice exercised its veto at the UN Security Council against ceasefire calls, drawing outrage in the Arab world, and just days ago Blinken for the second time bypassed Congress to rush weapons to Israel.

But Biden has also voiced exasperation at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he pursues a relentless retaliatory offensive in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, much of which has been reduced to rubble.

More than 22,600 people in Gaza have died, mostly civilians, according to the Hamas-run health ministry. The vast majority of residents of the impoverished and blockaded territory have been forced from their homes.

The Biden administration has taken credit for coaxing Israel on several aid issues, including allowing limited gas and commercial trucks to enter.

Another US concern has been calls by far-right members of Netanyahu’s cabinet for Palestinians to be encouraged to leave the Gaza Strip.

Blinken is also likely to press Israel to stop blocking the transfer of tax revenue to the Palestinian Authority, a longstanding arrangement that is opposed by Israel’s far-right finance minister, Bezalel Smotrich.

Washington sees a future in the Gaza Strip for the Palestinian Authority, whose ruling Fatah faction is a rival of Hamas. But Netanyahu has long sought to weaken the semi-autonomous body and opposes the eventual creation of a Palestinian state.

Turkey-Greece Balance 

Blinken will pay a brief visit Saturday to Greece, which is jittery about an expected US sale of advanced F-16 fighter jets to Turkey, its historic adversary.

The Biden administration is expected to offer the jets once Turkey gives a long-delayed approval to NATO membership for Sweden. The Scandinavian nation sought to enter the Western military alliance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

NATO requires unanimity and Erdogan had used his leverage to press for concessions, including action by Sweden against Kurdish militants opposed to Ankara.

Turkey’s parliament is moving ahead on ratification. Turkey last year allowed the entry into NATO of Finland, which had launched a joint membership bid with Sweden.


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