Â© U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken returns to his hotel after meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia October 15, 2023. Jacquelyn Martin/Pool via REUTERS
By Humeyra Pamuk
CAIRO () -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will return to Israel on Monday to talk “about the way forward” after several days of shuttle diplomacy between Arab states, which he said shared the U.S. determination to ensure Israel’s conflict with Palestinian militant group Hamas does not spillover elsewhere in the region.
The top U.S. diplomat arrived in Israel on Thursday – as it prepares a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip in retaliation for a deadly Hamas attack on civilians – and has also been to Qatar, Jordan, Bahrain, United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.
The conflict has raised international concern that it could spark a wider regional war as Iranian Foreign Minister Hossein Amirabdollahian warned on Sunday that “the hands of all parties in the region are on the trigger.”
“There’s a determination in every country I went to, to make sure that this conflict doesn’t spread,” Blinken told reporters as he prepared to leave Cairo. “They are using their own influence, their own relationships, to try to make sure that this doesn’t happen.”
Binken met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh Sunday and then Egytian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Cairo, where he received a blunt assessment from Sisi of Israel’s response to the Hamas attack that killed 1,300 people.
“The (Israeli) reaction went beyond the right to self-defence, turning into collective punishment for 2.3 million people in Gaza,” Sisi told Blinken in televised remarks.
Israel has vowed to annihilate Hamas – which controls the Gaza Strip – after its fighters stormed Israeli towns eight days ago, shooting men, women and children and seizing hostages in the worst attack on civilians in the country’s history.
Israeli jets and artillery have already subjected Gaza to the most intense bombardment it has ever seen, putting the enclave under total siege. Gaza authorities say more than 2,450 people have been killed.
US ACTS TO DETER
International diplomacy has been focused on preventing a spill over of the conflict – particularly into Lebanon. The United States has been specifically trying to deter Iran, which backs Hamas and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group. Hezbollah and Israel have already been exchanging border fire over the past week.
Blinken said the United States had made clear that state and non-state actors should not take advantage of the situation.
“We’ve backed up those words with concrete actions, including the deployment now of our two largest aircraft carrier battle groups to the region. That’s not meant as a provocation, it’s meant as a deterrent,” he said.
“No one should do anything that could add fuel to the fire in any other place,” Blinken added.
Before departing for Cairo, Blinken described his talks with the Saudi crown prince, one of the most powerful leaders of the region, as “very productive.” A U.S. official said the meeting lasted for just under an hour.
In the meeting, the crown prince stressed the need to find ways to stop the conflict, and respect international law, including by lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza, Saudi state news agency SPA reported.
Blinken said in Cairo that the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza would reopen.
“We are now very actively engaged with countries in the region, with the United Nations with Israel, to make sure to the best of our ability that people can get out of harm’s way and that the assistance they need, the food and water and medicine, can get in,” he said.