By Simon Lewis
CAIRO -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken landed in Egypt on Sunday at the start of a three-day visit to the Middle East as violence flares between Israelis and Palestinians, and with Iran and Ukraine high on the agenda.
Blinken heads on Monday to Jerusalem, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new right-wing government has stirred concern at home and abroad over the future of Israel’s secular values, fraying relations with the Arab population and deadlock in peace talks with the Palestinians.
A Palestinian gunman killed seven people in an attack outside a Jerusalem synagogue on Friday, the worst attack on Israelis in the Jerusalem area since 2008. On Thursday, Israeli forces killed seven gunmen and two civilians in the occupied West Bank city of Jenin, the deadliest raid there in years.
In talks with the new Israeli administration, which includes ultra-nationalist parties that want to expand West Bank settlements, Blinken will repeat U.S. calls for calm and emphasize Washington’s support for a two-state solution, although U.S. officials admit peace talks are not likely soon.
Blinken will also travel to Ramallah to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Netanyahu’s government has proposed a sweeping overhaul of the judiciary that would strengthen political control over the appointment of judges while weakening the Supreme Court’s ability to overturn laws or strike down government action.
The proposals have triggered big demonstrations against what protesters see as the undermining of judicial independence.
“It’s clearly a measure of the vibrancy of the democracy that this has been contested so clearly up and down across segments of Israeli society,” said Barbara Leaf, the top State Department official for the Middle East, briefing reporters ahead of the trip. Blinken will hear from people inside and outside of government on the reforms, she added.
Leaf said the visit would also build on earlier efforts to restore relations between Israel and Arab nations through the Negev Forum, which takes in areas such as economic cooperation and tourism, but does not include the Palestinians.
Russia’s 11-month-old war in Ukraine will also be on the agenda. Ukraine, which has received great quantities of military equipment from the United States and Europe, has pressed Israel in vain to provide systems to shoot down drones, including those supplied by Israel’s regional adversary Iran.
While it has condemned the Russian invasion, Israel has limited its assistance to humanitarian aid and protective gear, citing a desire for continued cooperation with Moscow over Syria and to ensure the wellbeing of Russia’s Jews.
The diplomats will also discuss U.S. efforts to revive the stalled 2015 deal between big powers and Iran, opposed by Israel, that lifted international sanctions in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear program.
On Sunday, Blinken met with Egyptian youth leaders at the American University in Cairo, and told reporters he wanted to strengthen Washington’s “strategic partnership” with Egypt.
Blinken will meet President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry on Monday, and discuss issues such as Sudan’s stuttering transition to democracy and elections in Libya, the State Department said.
Blinken will also be under pressure to raise human rights concerns.
The Biden administration has withheld some military aid to Egypt over its failure to meet human rights conditions, although advocacy groups have pushed for more to be withheld, alleging widespread abuses including torture and enforced disappearances.
Most of the $1.3 billion in military aid that Washington sends to Egypt each year remains intact and the United States says Sisi’s government has made progress on reducing political detentions.
Sisi, who became president in 2014, has said Egypt holds no political prisoners, and argues that security is paramount and that the government is promoting human rights by working to provide basic needs such as jobs and housing.