U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will return this week to the Middle East to explore the possibility of further extensions of the cease-fire agreement in Gaza, a senior State Department official said Monday. It will be his third trip to the region since Israel's war with Hamas began last month.
Blinken will travel to Israel and the West Bank after attending Ukraine-focused meetings on Tuesday and Wednesday in Brussels and Skopje, where foreign ministers from NATO and the Organization for Peace and Security in Europe are gathering, the official said. The official spoke to reporters traveling with Blinken on condition of anonymity before a State Department announcement.
In Israel, Blinken will see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and members of his war Cabinet to discuss the current situation in Gaza and the potential for further extensions of the cease-fire under which Israel has agreed to pauses in its military operations in exchange for the gradual release of hostages taken by Hamas during its Oct. 7 attacks on Israel.
The first agreement had been due to expire on Monday but was extended for an additional two days, meaning the extension will be expiring just as Blinken is arriving in Israel.
The official said Blinken would "stress the need to sustain the increased flow of humanitarian assistance to Gaza, secure the release of all hostages, and improve protections for civilians in Gaza."
In addition, the official said Blinken would discuss the principles for a post-conflict Gaza if and when Israel succeeds in its campaign to eradicate Hamas, as well as underscore the need to establish an independent Palestinian state as the only long-term solution for peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians.
Blinken will also visit Ramallah in the occupied West Bank to see Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Blinken and other U.S. officials have said they believe the Palestinian Authority should play a significant role in governing post-conflict Gaza.
From Israel and the West Bank, Blinken will travel to the United Arab Emirates for discussions with regional leaders who will be in Dubai to attend the COP28 climate summit, the official said.
Blinken has been engaged in furious diplomacy to try to prevent the Gaza conflict from spreading, expand the provision of humanitarian aid to Palestinian civilians in the territory, secure the release of hostages and arrange for foreigners and dual nationals to leave Gaza overland to Egypt.
On each of his prior two trips, Blinken has traveled to Israel and Jordan multiple times. Between the two trips, he also made stops in Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the UAE.
Blinken will arrive in Israel having just participated in an Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe foreign ministers meeting in Skopje, North Macedonia. Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov has said he plans to attend the OSCE meeting, possibly setting the stage for a U.S.-Russia confrontation there over Ukraine.
In Brussels, Blinken will attend the two-day NATO gathering, which will include the first foreign minister-level meeting of the NATO-Ukraine Council, a body created by alliance leaders at their last summit to improve cooperation and coordination and help prepare Kyiv for eventual membership.
"Allies will continue to support Ukraine's self-defense until Russia stops its war of aggression," said Jim O'Brien, the top U.S. diplomat for Europe.
The NATO meeting will also address the tensions in the Western Balkans, where there are calls for NATO to increase its military presence in response to concerns that hostility between Serbia and Kosovo could escalate to outright conflict.
Violence between the two has broken out twice in recent months, and Western countries fear that Russia could try to foment trouble in the Balkans to avert attention from the war in Ukraine.
Last week, Albania's prime minister urged NATO to further boost its military forces in Kosovo and secure the country's borders with Serbia, warning that recent ethnic violence in Kosovo could potentially trigger a wider Balkan conflict. NATO has already strengthened its military presence in Kosovo — established after the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia — with about 1,000 additional troops and heavier weaponry, bringing its deployment there to about 4,500 troops.
Blinken will underscore U.S. and NATO support for democracy and stability in the region, including a commitment to back all countries' aspirations to join the European Union, O'Brien said.
Serbia doesn't recognize Kosovo's formal declaration of independence in 2008. Both countries want to join the European Union, which is mediating a dialogue between the former foes. Brussels has warned both that refusal to compromise jeopardizes their chances of joining the bloc.
The NATO ministers will also discuss plans for the alliance's 75th anniversary summit to be held in Washington in July 2024.
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