Blinken Promises More Aid for Palestinians and Backs Netanyahu

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken offered a show of support for Palestinian leaders after years of a cold shoulder from the Trump administration, pledging to help reconstruction efforts while also underscoring that the American alliance with Israel remains strong.

Following a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday, Blinken said the U.S. would provide $75 million in new aid this year, in addition to $5.5 million in immediate disaster assistance after the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas militants in the Gaza strip and $32 million to a United Nations refugee agency that helps Palestinians.

Reflecting that the conflict was between Israel and Hamas -- not the Palestinian Authority, which governs parts of the West Bank -- Blinken said “we will work to ensure that Hamas doesn’t benefit from these reconstruction efforts.”

“Our goal is to give the Palestinian people, including those in Gaza, a renewed sense of confidence, of optimism, of real opportunity,” Blinken told reporters. He also said that the U.S. would reopen a consulate in Jerusalem that served as the de facto liaison office for the Palestinians.

Blinken’s trip, with a stop in Ramallah to meet Abbas and civil society leaders, stood in marked contrast from the last time the top American diplomat visited Jerusalem. In November, weeks after Joe Biden won the presidency, then-Secretary of State Michael Pompeo infuriated Palestinians with a visit to Israeli settlements.

Blinken Promises More Aid for Palestinians and Backs Netanyahu

Blinken’s approach -- with the decision to get aid flowing to the Palestinians -- marked a reversion to a more traditional approach and away from former President Donald Trump’s move to put the U.S. entirely in Israel’s camp. Still there are many Trump-era actions that the new administration won’t change, such as the decision to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv and American support for the diplomatic agreements with other Middle East nations known as the Abraham Accords.

Earlier in the day, Blinken stood beside Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem and vouched for his nation’s commitment to Israel’s right of self-defense. He reiterated a promise Biden made last week: that the U.S. would replenish Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile defense system, which intercepted many rockets from Gaza that would have otherwise struck civilian targets.

Yet there was distance between the allies over the Biden administration’s intention to revive the deal that ended most economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for curbs on its nuclear program.

Netanyahu is vehemently opposed to resuscitating the accord with Iran, which it regards as its biggest national security threat, and had backed Trump when he pulled out of the agreement.

The 2015 nuclear deal with Iran “paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons with international legitimacy,” Netanyahu said. Blinken said the U.S. would consult “closely with Israel” about the discussions in Vienna to rejoin the nuclear agreement while continuing “to work together to counter Iran’s destabilizing actions in the region,” Blinken said.

Netanyahu offered warm remarks, but he wasn’t nearly as effusive as when Pompeo visited. At the time, Netanyahu thanked Pompeo “for your tremendous friendship and for your invaluable contribution to our alliance.”

Blinken’s Middle East trip will take him to Cairo and Amman on Wednesday to meet with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Al Sisi and Jordan’s Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi before heading back to Washington.

Israel and Hamas agreed last week to an Egyptian-brokered cease-fire that ended a conflict that killed more than 250 people in the Palestinian territory and 13 in Israel. The Israelis pummeled civilian infrastructure in Gaza including hospitals and residential buildings with airstrikes, saying Hamas was hiding among civilians as it attacked Israel.

Complicated Reconstruction

Reconstruction is always complicated in Gaza because Israel and donor countries don’t want money or materials to fall into the hands of Hamas, which is labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S., other nations as well as the European Union. The U.S. is looking for ways to have the Palestinian Authority, in concert with the United Nations, lead the reconstruction efforts, a State Department official told reporters on Monday.

In his comments with Netanyahu and before the trip, Blinken had underscored how limited the U.S. vision is for the Israel-Palestinian conflict. Instead he made clear that the American goal is to make the cease-fire stick, get aid to the Palestinians and try to restore some semblance of calm.

And as much as he sought to escape the shadow of the Trump administration, Blinken couldn’t quite do so: According to a person familiar with Pompeo’s plans, the former secretary, who has been scathingly critical of the Biden administration’s policy toward Israel, was set to be in the country this week, too, for the retirement party for Yossi Cohen, the departing head of Israel’s Mossad intelligence agency.

©2021 Bloomberg L.P.

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