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U.S. Secretary of State Blinken Visits Israel to Push for Long-Term Gaza Cease-Fire

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is set to return to the Middle East in an effort to extend a cease-fire in Gaza and facilitate the release of hostages, the State Department announced Monday. This will mark Blinken’s third visit to the region since the onset of Israel’s conflict with Hamas last month.

Blinken will first attend Ukraine-focused meetings in Brussels and Skopje before traveling to Israel and the West Bank. His visit comes at a crucial time as Israel has agreed to temporary halts in its military operations in exchange for the gradual release of hostages taken by Hamas. Although the agreement, set to expire Monday, was extended for an additional two days, Blinken’s arrival in Israel coincides with its impending expiration.

The U.S. is hopeful that the cease-fire will be further extended, contingent on Hamas’s continued release of hostages, according to White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby.

During his time in Israel and the West Bank, Blinken will address several key issues including Israel’s right to defend itself, efforts to secure the release of remaining hostages, protection of civilian life during Israel’s operations in Gaza, and the acceleration of humanitarian assistance to civilians in Gaza, as stated by State Department spokesman Matthew Miller.

Blinken will also discuss the principles for a post-conflict Gaza, the need to establish an independent Palestinian state, and the prevention of the conflict from escalating further.

In the occupied West Bank, Blinken is expected to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to emphasize the significant role the U.S. believes the Palestinian Authority should play in governing post-conflict Gaza.

Following his visit to Israel and the West Bank, Blinken will travel to the United Arab Emirates for discussions with regional leaders attending the COP28 climate summit in Dubai.

Blinken has been actively engaging in diplomacy to prevent the escalation of the Gaza conflict, increase the provision of humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians, secure hostages’ release, and facilitate the safe passage of foreigners and dual nationals out of Gaza through Egypt.

On his previous visits, Blinken also traveled to Israel and Jordan multiple times and made stops in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the UAE.

Upon arriving in Israel, Blinken will have just participated in a meeting with foreign ministers at the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s potential attendance at the OSCE meeting could set the stage for a U.S.-Russia confrontation over Ukraine.

In Brussels, Blinken is set to attend a two-day NATO gathering, including the inaugural foreign minister-level meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, aimed at enhancing cooperation and coordination and preparing Kyiv for eventual NATO membership.

Jim O’Brien, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe, stated that allies will continue to support Ukraine’s self-defense until Russia ceases its aggression.

The NATO meeting will also address tensions in the Western Balkans, where there are calls for NATO to bolster its military presence in response to concerns of potential conflict between Serbia and Kosovo. This comes amidst fears that Russia could incite trouble in the region to divert attention from the Ukrainian war.

Albania’s prime minister recently urged NATO to further strengthen its military forces in Kosovo and secure the country’s borders with Serbia, warning of the possibility of a wider Balkan conflict due to ethnic violence. NATO has already increased its military presence in Kosovo with about 1,000 additional troops and heavier weaponry.

Blinken will reaffirm U.S. and NATO’s support for democracy and stability in the region and their commitment to back all countries’ aspirations to join the European Union.

It’s worth noting that Serbia does not recognize Kosovo’s formal declaration of independence in 2008. Both countries aspire to join the European Union, and Brussels has cautioned that their refusal to compromise could jeopardize their chances of joining the bloc.

The NATO ministers will also deliberate on plans for the alliance’s 75th anniversary summit scheduled for Washington in July 2024.

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