CAIRO, Jan 29 (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in the Middle East on Sunday, beginning a three-day visit as violence flares between Israelis and Palestinians, and with Iran and the war in Ukraine high on the agenda.
After a stop in Cairo Blinken will head on Monday to Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing government has stirred concern at home and abroad over the future of Israel’s secular values, frayed ethnic relations and stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.
There has also been a spate of deadly violence in recent days, heightening fears that already spiralling violence will further escalate.
A Palestinian gunman killed seven people in an attack outside a Jerusalem synagogue on Friday. It was worst such attack on Israelis in the Jerusalem area since 2008 and followed a fatal Israeli raid in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin on Thursday, the deadliest there in years.
In talks with the new Israeli administration, which includes ultra-nationalist parties that want to expand West Bank settlements, Blinken will repeat U.S. calls for calm and emphasize Washington’s support for a two-state solution, although U.S. officials admit longer-term peace talks are not likely in the near future.
Blinken will also travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, other Palestinian officials, and members of civil society.
Netanyahu’s government has proposed a sweeping overhaul of the judiciary that would strengthen political control over the appointment of judges while weakening the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn legislation or rule against government action. The proposals have triggered big street demonstrations against what protesters see as the potential undermining of judicial independence.
“It’s clearly a measure of the vibrancy of the democracy that this has been contested so clearly up and down across segments of Israeli society,” said Barbara Leaf, the top State Department official for the Middle East, who briefed reporters ahead of the trip. Blinken will hear from people inside and outside of government on the reforms, she added.
Leaf said the visit would also build on earlier efforts to restore relations between Israel and Arab nations. The process known as the Negev Forum does not include Palestinians and involves officials from regional nations, including Egypt, discussing areas like economic cooperation and tourism.
Ukraine, Iran on agenda
Russia’s 11-month-old war in Ukraine will also be on the agenda. Ukraine, which has received great quantities of military equipment from the United States and Europe, has asked Israel to provide systems to shoot down drones, including those supplied by Israel’s regional adversary Iran.
Israel has rebuffed those requests. While it has condemned the Russian invasion, Israel has limited its assistance to humanitarian aid and protective gear, citing a desire for continued cooperation with Moscow over war-ravaged neighbor Syria and to ensure the wellbeing of Russia’s Jews.
The diplomats will also discuss Iran’s nuclear program, with the Biden administration’s efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal stalled and no Plan B to prevent Iran developing a weapon.
In Cairo, Blinken will meet President Abdel Fattah El-Sissi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to strengthen Washington’s “strategic partnership” with Egypt and boost cooperation on regional issues like Sudan’s transition and elections in Libya, Leaf said.
Blinken will also be under pressure to raise human rights concerns.
The Biden administration has withheld millions of dollars in military aid to Egypt over its failure to meet human rights conditions, although advocacy groups have pushed for more to be withheld, alleging widespread abuses including torture and enforced disappearances.
Most of the $1.3 billion in foreign military aid that Washington sends to Egypt each year remains intact and the United States has credited Sisi’s government with progress on political detentions.
Sissi, who became president in 2014, has said Egypt holds no political prisoners, and argues that security is paramount and that the government is promoting human rights by working to provide basic needs like jobs and housing.