News Blinken arrives in Israel for talks as UN prepares to vote on a ceasefire resolution

CAIRO: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Thursday a major Israeli ground assault on the southern Gaza town of Rafah would be “a mistake” and unnecessary to defeating Hamas, underscoring the further souring of relations between the United States and Israel.
Blinken, on his sixth urgent Mideast mission since the war began, spoke after huddling with top Arab diplomats in Cairo for discussions over efforts for a ceasefire and over ideas for Gaza’s post-conflict future. He said an “immediate, sustained ceasefire” with the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas was urgently needed and that gaps were narrowing in indirect negotiations that US, Egypt and Qatar have spent weeks mediating.

Arab ministers, along with a Palestinian official, in Cairo briefed Blinken on their vision on the current situation in Gaza and the necessity of a ceasefire followed by a political settlement via the implementation of a two-state solution, a statement from the Egyptian Foreign ministry said.

The Cairo talks gathered Blinken with the foreign ministers of Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, as well as a top official from the Palestine Liberation Organization, the internationally recognized body representing the Palestinian people. 

In a joint statement after a meeting earlier in the day, the Arab ministers called for “a comprehensive and immediate ceasefire” and the “opening of all crossings between Israel and the Gaza Strip.”

Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal bin Farhan participated in a series of consultative ministerial meetings on the evolving situation in the Palestinian territories, Saudi Press Agency reported.  

Ahead of visiting Israel on Friday, Blinken said he agreed with the ministers to gather experts in the coming days “to identify the urgent, practical and concrete steps that can and should be taken to increase the flow of assistance.”
“Israel needs to do more” on humanitarian aid, Blinken added. 
Blinken will meet Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet in Friday. The growing disagreements between Netanyahu and President Joe Biden over the prosecution of the war will likely overshadow the talks — particularly over Netanyahu’s determination to launch a ground assault on Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians have sought refuge from devastating Israeli ground and air strikes further north.
Netanyahu has said that without an invasion of Rafah, Israel can’t achieve its goal of destroying Hamas after its deadly Oct. 7 attack and taking of hostages that triggered Israel’s bombardment and offensive in Gaza.
“A major military operation in Rafah would be a mistake, something we don’t support. And, it’s also not necessary to deal with Hamas, which is necessary,” Blinken told a news conference in Cairo. A major offensive would mean more civilian deaths and worsen Gaza’s humanitarian crisis, he said, adding that his talks on Rafah in Israel on Friday and next week in Washington will be to share alternative action.
Gaza’s Health Ministry raised the territory’s death toll on Thursday to nearly 32,000 Palestinians since the war began on its soil. Also, UN officials stepped up warnings that famine is “imminent” in northern Gaza.
In an earlier meeting with Blinken, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi stressed the need for an immediate ceasefire and warned against the “dangerous repercussions” of any Israeli offensive in Rafah, according to a statement issued by El-Sisi’s spokesperson.
Both parties had renewed their rejection of the forced displacement of Gazans and agreed on the importance of taking all necessary measures to ensure the arrival of humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip, the statement said.
Blinken said “gaps are narrowing” in talks over a ceasefire. A day earlier at his tour’s first stop in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, Blinken told the Saudi Al-Hadath network that the mediators had worked with Israel to put a “strong proposal” on the table. He said Hamas rejected it, but came back with other demands that the mediators are working on.
Netanyahu’s office said Thursday that the head of the Mossad spy agency will return to Qatar on Friday to meet with the head of the CIA and other key mediators in the talks. The office said Thursday that Qatar’s prime minister and Egypt’s intelligence chief would also join the talks.
The United States is seeking a swift vote on a newly revised and tougher UN resolution demanding “an immediate and sustained ceasefire” to protect civilians and enable humanitarian aid to be delivered. The US deputy ambassador to the UN, Robert Wood, said he hoped a vote could take place by the end of the week.

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