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Blinken resets ties with Palestinians in 1st Mideast trip

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Alex Brandon / POOL / AFP / Getty Images

(WASHINGTON) — After four years of President Donald Trump tilting U.S. policy toward Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken seems intent on a reset.

In his first swing through the Middle East, America’s new top diplomat tried to resume the United States’ historic role as powerbroker and peacemaker between the Israelis and Palestinians, even as he and President Joe Biden have been looking to pivot American attention away from the Mideast.

In meetings in Israel, the West Bank, Egypt and Jordan, Blinken sought to build on last week’s cease-fire to now rebuild Gaza, with destruction widespread after the 10-day conflict between Israeli forces and Hamas, and to now work toward a two-state solution.

While Trump and his team claim credit for the “Abraham Accords,” the historic agreements between the Israeli governments and those of four Arab neighbors, they slashed U.S. ties with the Palestinians — closing diplomatic facilities, halting U.S. assistance and withholding opposition to Israeli settlements.

But neither those deals nor Trump’s Mideast peace plan addressed the needs of the Palestinian people, which analysts argued has left the Palestinians worse off and more desperate.

“The ability of the United States to play a productive role in averting, easing and ending conflict is deeply compromised when we are disconnected from the Palestinian people,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of the liberal advocacy group J Street, blaming what he called “severe damage done to that relationship by President Trump.”

In contrast, Blinken announced Tuesday that the Biden administration will restore those diplomatic ties by reopening its consulate general in Jerusalem that long served as a liaison to the Palestinian people and leadership. That de facto embassy was shuttered by Trump in March 2019, folding it into the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, which the former president recognized as Israel’s capital.

More immediately, Blinken emphasized the need to rebuild Gaza, the Palestinian territory governed by the militant group Hamas that faced widespread destruction by Israeli airstrikes this month. The Biden administration will provide $5.5 million for Gaza to restore essential services like running water, sanitation and electricity, Blinken said, and another $32 million for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, or UNRWA, which operates in the territory and elsewhere.

That funding includes cash for families to purchase basic necessities and health assistance and psychosocial support, according to USAID, for some of the 100,000 Gazans displaced by the violence in recent weeks.

After meeting with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi Wednesday, Blinken also said Egypt will provide $500 million in reconstruction assistance, while Qatar’s government pledged $500 million as well, according to the state-run Qatar News Agency.

In addition to that urgent aid, Blinken said his department will request $75 million from Congress for longer-term economic and development assistance to the West Bank and Gaza — bringing total U.S. aid for this fiscal year to $360 million.

But while Hamas rules Gaza, Blinken argued that U.S. funding will not benefit the militant group and could also undermine its grip on power there by providing opportunities for ordinary Gazans.

“I’ve heard a shared recognition from all sides that steps need to be taken, work needs to be done to address the underlying conditions that helped fuel this latest conflict. The cease-fire creates space to begin to take those steps,” Blinken said Tuesday night after meeting Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

He added that reconstruction must provide “a renewed sense of confidence, of optimism, of real opportunity. … If we’re able to do that all together, then Hamas’ foothold in Gaza will slip.”

Abbas has little to no influence in Gaza, but remains in power after years of deep unpopularity, in part because the Palestinians have not held elections since 2006, when his party Fatah lost Gaza to Hamas. Elections slated for this month were postponed by Abbas last month, citing Israel’s refusal to allow them to proceed in Jerusalem.

Laila Barhoum, a policy and campaign officer with the aid group ‎Oxfam in Gaza, agreed that the U.S. needs to play a role, including promoting Palestinian elections and helping ensure reconstruction in Gaza is “happening with Palestinian ownership.”

“We cannot go back to square zero because there’s nothing to go back to. We have to move on reform — make sure that aid is not just addressing people’s basic need, it’s addressing their ability to live a dignified life,” she said Wednesday.

“We have a momentum now, and Gaza is on everyone’s mind,” she added. “But this is decreasing, and Gaza and Palestine is going to the back page.”

That was apparent even in Blinken’s press conference Wednesday night in Amman, Jordan, where reporters pressed him on whether he raised human rights issues with Sisi, the strongman president whose appalling record hasn’t stopped U.S. assistance or military sales.

But it’s unclear if the Biden administration is prepared to make a deeper engagement or invest in the issue, especially as it moves to prioritize climate change and China.

At least one note was different in Ramallah on Tuesday. Blinken talked with emotion as a father, mourning the loss of any child as “a universe of loss. … Whether you’re Israeli, Palestinian, American, you’re a human being. That’s what matters.”

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