July 19, 2024

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel on Wednesday, his latest stop on a Middle East tour as President Biden tries to stop Israel from invading Rafah, the city in southern Gaza where Palestinians have sought shelter during the war.

Mr. Blinken and other top Biden administration aides are also calling for Hamas to agree to a deal to free some hostages taken in the Oct. 7 attacks in exchange for a six-week cease-fire and the release of some Palestinian prisoners. U.S. officials say they hope a temporary cease-fire would lead to a permanent one.

On Tuesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that he plans a major assault on Rafah “with or without” a deal.

The cease-fire talks have been stalled for months, and Israeli officials said Monday that they had agreed to lower their demands. They are now asking Hamas to free 33 civilians — women, older people and those who need urgent medical care — rather than 40. In November, Hamas freed more than 100 hostages during a seven-day cease-fire.

Mr. Blinken discussed the deal on the table in his nearly three-hour meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, according to a summary from the State Department. He also spoke about efforts to increase humanitarian aid in Gaza and the U.S. government’s “clear position” on Rafah, the summary added.

Mr. Blinken, on the third stop of his trip, also met with President Isaac Herzog of Israel earlier on Wednesday morning at a hotel in Tel Aviv as supporters of the hostages had gathered outside.

“There is a proposal on the table, and as we’ve said, no delays, no excuses,” Mr. Blinken told the president and reporters before the meeting got underway. He later met with a few family members of American hostages held in Gaza and then got into a motorcade to head to Jerusalem, where he entered the private meeting with Mr. Netanyahu.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the opposition in the Israeli Parliament, also spoke with Mr. Blinken. Afterward, Mr. Lapid said on social media that Mr. Netanyahu had “no political excuse” not to make a deal to declare a cease-fire and free the hostages, adding that “every hour is critical.”

Mr. Blinken and other U.S. officials say Hamas has a narrow window to take the deal since Mr. Netanyahu is pressing for the offensive in Rafah, which the Biden administration has warned could be catastrophic for civilians. U.S. officials say they would prefer that Israel carry out targeted operations against Hamas leaders and fighters in Rafah, where Israeli officials say Hamas still has four battalions.

U.S. officials have expressed mounting concern over the Palestinian civilian casualties in the war. More than 34,000 people have been killed, according to the Gazan health ministry.

When asked about Mr. Netanyahu’s statements on Rafah, Mr. Blinken said that U.S. efforts were focused on a hostage and cease-fire deal.

The issue of humanitarian aid for Gaza has also been high on Mr. Blinken’s agenda in the Middle East. After meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Blinken began a long drive to southern Israel, where he planned to visit the port of Ashdod, which has been processing aid shipments destined for Gaza.

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