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Blinken meets with Netanyahu in Israel as diplomatic efforts ramp up

Originally Published: 22 MAR 24 00:00 ET

Updated: 22 MAR 24 06:53 ET

By Jennifer Hansler, CNN

(CNN) — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv on Friday morning as part of an intensive diplomatic push to reach a “sustained and immediate ceasefire” in Gaza and deter an Israeli offensive into Rafah.

The stop in Tel Aviv caps Blinken’s sixth round of shuttle diplomacy in the region since the October 7 Hamas attack on Israel. He arrived in the country just before 10 a.m. local time. Following his meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken met with the Israeli war cabinet.

Blinken’s visit coincides with the resumption of talks in Doha aimed at securing a deal for a ceasefire tied to the release of the hostages held by Hamas as well as a vote at the UN on a US-sponsored Security Council resolution calling for an “immediate ceasefire” in the Gaza conflict.

Relations between the Biden administration and the Netanyahu government have frayed in recent weeks, and domestic US frustrations about the war continue to mount. Partisan divides have grown on Capitol Hill, exemplified by Democratic Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer’s call last week for an election in Israel and Republican House Speaker Mike Johnson on Thursday stating his intention to invite Netanyahu to address Congress.

Blinken’s meetings were expected to be tense, with Netanyahu vowing to carry out an Israeli military incursion into Rafah, where more than a million Gazans have been forced to flee, despite US and international criticism of such a plan.

“Our position, which is very clear, is that a major military operation in Rafah would be a mistake, something we don’t support,” Blinken reiterated at a press conference Thursday. “There is no place for the many civilians who are massed … in Rafah … to go to get out of harm’s way. And for those that would inevitably remain, it would be a humanitarian disaster.”

The matter was expected to be discussed in Blinken’s meetings in Tel Aviv, and Israeli officials will travel to Washington next week to hear the US “views on how to deal with the problem differently,” he noted Wednesday.

With ceasefire talks resuming in Doha, CIA Director Bill Burns is expected to travel to the Qatari capital to meet with counterparts from Israel, Qatar and Egypt. In recent days, Blinken voiced cautious optimism that an agreement can be reached but conceded “there’s still real challenges.”

Along with the work in the region, the US will put forward a United Nations Security Council resolution Friday “that will unequivocally support ongoing diplomatic efforts aimed at securing an immediate ceasefire in Gaza as part of a hostage deal, which would get hostages released and help enable a surge in humanitarian aid,” said Nate Evans, the spokesperson for the US Mission to the UN.

“This Resolution is an opportunity for the Council to speak with one voice to support the diplomacy happening on the ground and pressure Hamas to accept the deal on the table,” Evans said.

All of these diplomatic efforts are set against the backdrop of a humanitarian crisis in Gaza, where “100% of the population … is experiencing severe levels of acute food insecurity,” Blinken said.

The top US diplomat is again expected to press Israel on the urgent need for more humanitarian assistance to reach people in the war-torn strip.

“Israel needs to do more,” he said Thursday.

“We’ve seen some improvement over the last couple of weeks in getting humanitarian assistance to Palestinians, but it’s not enough,” Blinken noted.

In an interview Wednesday, Blinken called on Israel “to open up more access points to Gaza” as administration officials and international aid workers repeatedly stress the need for a “flood” of aid.

The most effective way to get assistance to those in need is via overland crossings, but sustained pressure from the US has failed to push the Israeli government to act beyond opening one additional crossing. Amid the ongoing Israeli government resistance earlier this month, the US announced it was turning to air drops and the US military construction of a maritime pier.

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