In Israel, Blinken Pushes U.S. Support for Rebuilding Gaza
JERUSALEM — Israel will launch a “very powerful” response to any new attacks by Hamas militants, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu warned on Tuesday, thanking the United States for bolstering his country’s air defenses during a visit by the top American diplomat that sought to promote peace.
Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken, in his first trip to the Middle East during the Biden administration, was met by a country on edge following more than 10 days of war with Hamas that ended with a tenuous cease-fire late last week.
In brief but blunt comments after their private meeting, Mr. Netanyahu said he was grateful that the Biden administration consistently affirmed Israel’s right to defend itself after coming under rocket attack by militants in the Gaza Strip. He said he and Mr. Blinken had discussed how to curb Hamas, which controls Gaza, and how to help rebuild and otherwise improve the lives of the two million Palestinians who live there.
“If Hamas breaks the calm and attacks Israel, our response will be very powerful,” Mr. Netanyahu told reporters after the meeting, standing next to Mr. Blinken.
For his part, Mr. Blinken sought to keep the conversation focused on reducing tensions and meeting what he described as “urgent, humanitarian reconstruction assistance for Gaza.”
Cementing the cease-fire, he said, “starts with the recognition that losses on both sides were profound.”
Mr. Blinken was expected to push Mr. Netanyahu to keep some border crossings into Gaza open, to ensure that humanitarian aid can reach at least 77,000 people who were forced from their homes during the hostilities and are sheltering in schools maintained by the United Nations.
Hundreds of thousands of people have been cut off from electricity and clean water, and pockets of Gaza have been reduced to piles of rubble after nearly two weeks of Israeli airstrikes.
Mr. Blinken also made a point of the Biden administration’s plans to “rebuild our relationship” with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority. He was to meet later Tuesday in Ramallah with President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh of the Palestinian Authority.
In seeking to prop up the authority, the Biden administration aims to sideline Hamas, the militant group that controls Gaza, which the United States considers a terrorist organization. Hamas and the Palestinian Authority are bitter political rivals, and it is far from assured that the militants will cede any of their grip over Gaza.
In a series of discussions with Mr. Blinken throughout the afternoon, Mr. Netanyahu and other Israeli officials also homed in on what they described as another urgent threat to their stability: Iran.
With American and Iranian diplomats separately meeting with world powers in Vienna, officials have in recent days noted progress in negotiations to bring both sides back into compliance with a 2015 nuclear deal.
On Tuesday, Mr. Netanyahu said he hoped the United States would not simply return to the agreement that the Trump administration jettisoned in 2018, in hopes of imposing stricter limits on Iran’s nuclear, missile and military programs.
Mr. Netanyahu said the original deal “paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons.”
“We also remember that whatever happens, Israel will always reserve the right to defend itself against a regime committed to our destruction,” he said.
Mr. Blinken noted that the United States would continue to consult with Israel about negotiations “around the potential return to the Iran nuclear agreement.”
In discussing broader peace efforts, Mr. Netanyahu said Israel was seeking American help to expand its newly warming diplomatic relations with Arab or Muslim majority nations in the Middle East and North Africa. Those ties, brokered during the Trump administration, were tested during this month’s unrest between Israel and Palestinians, especially as riots erupted at Al Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem, one of the holiest sites in Islam.
“We believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely to enjoy equal measures of freedom opportunity, and democracy, to be treated with dignity,” Mr. Blinken said.
“Healing these wounds will take leadership at every level of society,” he said.