US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is traveling to the Middle East on President Joe Biden's orders to press the Israelis, Palestinians and regional players to build on last week's Gaza cease-fire.
Biden announced Blinken would depart on Monday for a short visit to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt for what will be the Biden administration's highest-level in-person meetings on the crisis that erupted earlier this month.
Blinken's primary goal will be to shore up the cease-fire in the hope that it will hold, discuss an urgent infusion of humanitarian assistance into Gaza, stress the need for an end to intra-communal violence within Israeli cities and lay the preliminary groundwork for a return to peace talks, according to a senior State Department official.
In a statement, Biden said Blinken will work with regional partners to ensure "the coordinated international effort to ensure immediate assistance reaches Gaza."
While Blinken will meet with the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan, he will not see anyone from the militant Hamas movement that runs Gaza. Hamas is a US-designated "foreign terrorist organization," and contacts between American officials and the group are banned. That means the U.S. must rely on third countries like Egypt and Qatar to pass messages to Hamas.
The Biden administration had been roundly criticized for its perceived hands-off initial response to the deadly violence, including from Democratic allies in Congress who were demanding it take a tougher line on Israel and its response to rocket attacks from Palestinian militant groups in Gaza.
The administration has defended its response by saying it engaged in intense, but quiet, high-level diplomacy to support a cease-fire, which was ultimately arranged last week after Egyptian mediation.
Blinken said Sunday that the behind-the-scenes effort led by Biden paid off, securing a truce after 11 days.
"President Biden leading this effort made the judgment that we could be most effective in doing that. And ultimately, after this intensive effort across the government, we got to where everyone wanted to be, which was to end the violence," he said in an interview with CNN.
"But now, as the president said, I think it's incumbent upon all of us to try to make the turn to start to build something more positive, and what that means at heart is that Palestinians and Israelis alike have to know in their day in and day out lives equal measures of opportunity, of security, of dignity," Blinken said.
He said the time is not right for an immediate resumption in negotiations between the two sides but that steps could be taken — mainly humanitarian initiatives -- to repair damage from Israeli air strikes in Gaza, which caused significant damage to civilian infrastructure and deaths.
"I don't think we're in a place where getting to some kind of a negotiation for what ultimately, I think, has to be the result, which is a two-state solution, is the first order of business," he said. "We have to start building back in concrete ways and offering some genuine hope, prospects, opportunity in the lives of people."
By Matthew Lee/AP