JERUSALEM – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken wrapped up a two-day Mideast mission on Wednesday, winning valuable diplomatic support and hundreds of millions of dollars of pledges from Arab allies as he moved to shore up the cease-fire that ended an 11-day war between Israel and the Gaza Strip's militant Hamas rulers.
But the mission made little headway in resolving the deeper issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including the tensions in the contested holy city of Jerusalem that played a key role in the latest war.
After two days of talks with Israeli, Palestinian and Arab allies, Blinken acknowledged that any resumption of peace talks remained far off. In the meantime, he said he had made progress toward the more modest goals of cementing the cease-fire and rebuilding hard-hit Gaza.
“We see the ceasefire, not as an end, but as a beginning, something to build on,” Blinken told reporters in the Jordanian capital of Amman, where he met King Abdullah II.
He said the first priority was to meet the immediate needs of Gaza's 2 million people and then aim to “create better conditions in which we can try to move forward.”
Earlier, he was in Egypt for talks with President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi. The visits came a day after intensive talks with Israeli and Palestinian leaders.
Blinken has vowed to “rally international support” to rebuild hard-hit Gaza while promising to make sure that none of the aid reaches Hamas. He also is trying to bolster Hamas' rival, the internationally recognized Palestinian Authority.
In a boost to those efforts, the energy-rich Gulf country of Qatar pledged $500 million to postwar reconstruction in Gaza. Qatar often serves as a mediator between Israel and Hamas and it has contributed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to support past cease-fires.
In Cairo, Blinken met with el-Sissi for nearly two hours. Meeting with American diplomatic staff afterwards, he described Egypt as a “real and effective partner” that helped end the Gaza war.
El-Sissi spoke to President Joe Biden last week before and after the ceasefire was announced, and his government has also pledged $500 milllion in assistance to Gaza.
“I think we both believe strongly that Palestinians and Israelis deserve equally to, to live in safety and security to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and dignity. And we’re working on that together,” Blinken said.
El-Sissi said the latest round of violence showed the urgency of resuming direct negotiations. In a statement, he called for “active American engagement” to bring Israel and the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
Jordan's king echoed that call, noting “the pivotal role of the United States in pushing for the re-launch of series and effective negotiations.” Abdullah, who serves as custodian of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, also warned against “provocative Israeli violations” in the holy city.
Both Egypt and Jordan are key U.S. allies that have peace agreements with Israel and frequently serve as mediators between Israel and the Palestinians. Egypt maintains ties with Hamas, but also enforces a tight blockade on Gaza, along with Israel, with a shared goal of preventing the Islamic group from arming.
The stop in Cairo, along with Biden’s phone talks with el-Sissi, signal a closer relationship between the countries after a cooler beginning, when the U.S. expressed concern over el-Sissi’s human rights record.
The Gaza reconstruction effort will be an important test. The 11-day war killed more than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, and caused heavy destruction in the impoverished coastal territory. Preliminary estimates have put the damage in the hundreds of millions of dollars.
One of the U.S. goals is to ensure that any assistance be kept out of the hands of Hamas, which opposes Israel’s right to exist and which Israel and the U.S. consider a terrorist group.
In Gaza, Hamas leader Yehiyeh Sinwar told journalists Wednesday that the group welcomed reconstruction aid, as long as it did not come from Israel, and had no objections to international oversight.
"I emphasize our commitment in Hamas that we will not take a single penny earmarked for rebuilding or humanitarian issues,” he said.
Sinwar, who has close ties with the group's armed wing, said Hamas receives ample military assistance from outside sources — led by Israel's archenemy, Iran. “When I said we do not take money destined for aid, this is because we have comfortable sources of funds covering our activities,” he said.
He also lashed out at Blinken for trying to strengthen the Palestinian Authority at Hamas' expense. “They are trying to add more fuel to the fire of Palestinian division,” Sinwar said.
Blinken said Tuesday the U.S. is trying to bolster the rival government of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose forces were ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007.
Abbas’ Palestinian Authority now administers autonomous areas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Abbas has been largely sidelined by recent events, is deeply unpopular at home and has little influence in Gaza.
Abbas hopes to establish an independent state in all of the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war. The Biden administration, along with most of the international community, supports a “two-state solution” as the best way for resolving the conflict.
In a gesture to the Palestinians, Blinken on Tuesday announced plans to reopen a diplomatic office in Jerusalem that oversees outreach to the Palestinians. He also pledged nearly $40 million in additional aid to the Palestinians.
In all, the Biden administration has pledged some $360 million to the Palestinians, restoring badly needed aid that the Trump administration had cut off.
The truce that ended the Gaza war on Friday has so far held, but it did not address any of the deeper issues plaguing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Those challenges include a hawkish Israeli leadership that seems unwilling to make major concessions, Palestinian divisions, years of mistrust and deeply rooted tensions surrounding Jerusalem and its holy sites.
The war was triggered by weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque, built on a hilltop compound revered by Jews and Muslims that has seen several outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence over the years. The protests were directed at Israel’s policing of the area during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers.
The truce remains tenuous since tensions are still high in Jerusalem and the fate of the Palestinian families is not yet resolved.
In his remarks after his meeting with Blinken on Tuesday, Netanyahu hardly mentioned the Palestinians, warning of a “very powerful” response if Hamas breaks the cease-fire while expressing support for economic development in the West Bank.
As he closed his trip, Blinken said repairing Gaza would take cooperation from all of the key players.
“It's really incumbent on on all sides to, again, avoid taking steps that could potentially reignite this cycle of violence,” he said.
Federman reported from Jerusalem.
Federman reported from Jerusalem.