US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the response from Hamas on a deal to free the remaining hostages and reach a sustained pause in fighting in Gaza “creates space for agreement to be reached,” despite containing what he called “some clear nonstarters.”
“We will work at that relentlessly until we get there,” Blinken said at a news conference in Tel Aviv Wednesday following a day of meetings with top Israeli officials.
The top US diplomat suggested that negotiations toward an agreement would continue, despite Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismissing the counterproposal from Hamas as “delusional” just hours earlier.
“There is not a commitment – there has to be a negotiation. It’s a process, and at the moment, from what I see from Hamas, it’s not happening,” Netanyahu said at a news conference just hours after meeting with Blinken.
“I told Antony Blinken we are nearly there with complete victory,” he said, adding that Israel will “not do less than that.”
Blinken, asked about Netanyahu’s remarks, said he believed that the prime minister was referencing the “absolute non-starters.”
The full Hamas response proposes three phases, each lasting 45 days, including the withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, a massive humanitarian effort and freedom of movement for people throughout Gaza, according to a copy obtained by CNN.
“These things are always negotiations,” Blinken said. “It’s not flipping a light switch. It’s not yes or no. There’s invariably back and forth.”
“As I said, we see the space for that. And given the imperative, given the importance that we all attach to bringing the hostages home, we’re intent on pursuing it,” he said.
Still, Netanyahu’s sharp rejection of an end to the fighting is likely to present a challenge to the efforts to reach an agreement. It also suggests that Blinken’s attempts to pressure the Israeli government toward a “humanitarian pause” have yielded little success.
Officials see such a cessation in fighting as central to the objectives they are pushing for both the short- and longer-term in Gaza, particularly as international and domestic US pressure to end the conflict in Gaza continues to mount and amid the massive humanitarian toll of the conflict.
The Israeli offensive, launched after the Hamas attack exactly four months ago, has taken an immense humanitarian toll on the strip, with tens of thousands dead and the population of Gaza on the brink of famine. The offensive sparked a barrage of regional attacks by Iranian-backed proxy groups, including by Houthis against vessels in the Red Sea as well as a deluge of strikes by militias against US troops in Iraq and Syria – one of which took the lives of three US service members. The Biden administration is facing outrage from some groups at home over its handling of the situation in Gaza which could cause political damage to President Joe Biden in an election year.
Civilian toll ‘remains too high’
Blinken said that even after four months of pressing the Israeli government “on all of (his) previous visits and pretty much every day on concrete ways to strengthen civilian protection, to get more assistance to those who need it,” the civilian toll “remains too high.”
“Nearly 2 million people have been displaced from their homes. Hundreds of thousands are experiencing acute hunger. Most have lost someone that they love. And day after day, more people are killed,” Blinken said.
“As I said to the prime minister and to other Israeli officials today, the daily toll that its military operations continue to take on innocent civilians remains too high,” he said.
Although Blinken acknowledged that Israel had taken some important actions, he outlined in his meetings Wednesday additional “key steps” that he said the government must take to mitigate civilian suffering.
“Israel should open Erez so that assistance can flow to Northern Gaza, where, as I said, hundreds of thousands of people are struggling to survive under dire conditions,” he said.
“It should expedite the flow of humanitarian assistance from Jordan,” Blinken continued. “It should strengthen deconfliction and improve coordination with the humanitarian providers.”
“And Israel must ensure that the delivery of life-saving assistance to Gaza is not blocked for any reason, by anyone,” the top US diplomat said, appearing to reference ongoing protests that have blocked the entrance of aid.
Behind closed doors, Blinken expressed concerns about the potential toll of a military operation in Rafah, where more than a million people have fled. He was briefed about the plans for that operation in a meeting with Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Herzi Halevi and Mossad Chief David Barnea, according to two Israeli officials.
With the potential of Israel’s military operation lasting months longer, Blinken also publicly appealed to Israel to not “lose sight of our common humanity.”
“The overwhelming majority of people in Gaza had nothing to do with the attacks of October 7,” said Blinken, “and the families in Gaza whose survival depends on deliveries of aid from Israel are just like our families.”
Blinken said that Israelis were “dehumanized in the most horrific way on October 7” and that “the hostages have been dehumanized every day since,” but “that cannot be a license to dehumanize others.”
The top US diplomat intends to meet on Thursday, as he has many times in the past, with the families of the hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.
“The hostages are foremost on our minds and in our hearts,” Blinken said earlier in the day in a meeting with Israeli President Isaac Herzog.
Plans for the ‘day after’ in Gaza
Blinken arrived in Israel Tuesday night after stops in Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Qatar, where the meetings “focused on ensuring … that we can use any pause to continue to build out plans for the day after in Gaza – the security, humanitarian, reconstruction, governance.”
On Wednesday, the top US diplomat also traveled to the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas. Blinken pressed Abbas on the need to take steps to “ref orm and revitalize” the PA, “chief among them improving governance, increasing accountability to the Palestinian people – reforms that the Palestinian Authority has committed to make in a recently announced reform package and that we urge it to implement swiftly.”
US officials have suggested that a “revitalized” PA could lead a unified Gaza and West Bank. In November, Blinken outlined a series of principles for Gaza after the conflict ends – no reoccupation by Israeli forces and no reduction in territory among them.
However, Netanyahu has publicly dismissed many of these key tenets, as recently as Wednesday after meeting with Blinken.
“I told Blinken today that after we destroy Hamas, we will secure that Gaza is a safe area forever. History has proven that only one force can prove can achieve this – Israel, the IDF and our security forces,” he said at a news conference. “Israel will be acting in Gaza whenever necessary in order for the terror not to come back.”
Netanyahu has rejected the notion of a Palestinian state or a role for the Palestinian Authority in post-war governance of Gaza. There are also signs that he intends to establish a buffer zone within Gaza, in opposition to US demands that Gaza’s territory not be reduced.
On both this and his last trip to the region, Blinken has stressed that the Israeli government must make “difficult” decisions and move toward a two-state solution if it wants to achieve normalization with Saudi Arabia and if it wants the support of its Arab neighbors for security and reconstruction in Gaza.
The top US diplomat, who met with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Monday, said that Saudi Arabia still has a “strong interest” in normalizing relations with Israel, but the Crown Prince made clear that the war in Gaza must end and there must be “a clear, credible, timebound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”
At his news conference in Doha Tuesday, Blinken again noted that “in terms of dealing with some of the most profound security challenges that Israel has faced for years, it will be in a much stronger position as part of an integrated region to deal with them.”
“But again, these are decision that will have to be made. None of them are easy. And we’ll continue the effort to prepare all the diplomatic steps necessary to be able to move down that path if that’s the path that everyone chooses,” Blinken said.
This story and headline have been updated with additional information.
CNN’s Michael Conte and Jeremy Diamond contributed to this report.
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