Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken began a Middle East trip on Monday that is meant to prevent a broader war in the region, and to rally allies around a proposal to release hostages held in Gaza. The visit comes as the Biden administration pursues retaliatory strikes against Iran-backed militias that have targeted U.S. troops.
Mr. Blinken landed in Saudi Arabia in his fifth trip to the region since the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. U.S. officials said he hopes to advance talks on the proposal and will hold meetings with leaders in Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank — all key players in negotiations over a potential pause in the fighting in Gaza.
The Biden administration and its Arab allies are still awaiting a response from Hamas to a framework for a deal that would involve the exchange of more than 100 Israeli hostages held in Gaza for a pause in fighting and the release of Palestinians detained in Israeli jails.
A U.S. official, speaking on the condition of anonymity to detail the diplomatic efforts, said Mr. Blinken will tell American allies in the region that the Biden administration’s recent strikes against Iran-backed militias should not be interpreted as an escalation of fighting in the Middle East.
The U.S. has conducted dozens of military strikes in recent days on targets in Iraq and Syria, in retaliation for the killing of three U.S. service members at a base near the Syrian border in Jordan. And American and British warplanes, with support from allies, have carried out a new round of airstrikes against the Iranian-backed Houthi militia in Yemen in an effort to deter the group from attacking ships in the Red Sea.
The strikes in Iraq and Syria prompted Russia to call for an “urgent” meeting of the United Nations Security Council, which was scheduled to convene on Monday afternoon. Maria Zakharova, a spokeswoman for Russia’s Foreign Ministry, accused the United States on Saturday of further escalating conflict in the Middle East, saying the strikes demonstrated the “aggressive nature of U.S. policy” in the region.
In Israel, Mr. Biden’s top diplomat will convey American concerns about the rising number of civilian deaths in Gaza. More than 27,000 Palestinians have been killed since Oct. 7, according to the Gazan health ministry, and nearly two million people have been displaced by the fighting.
“We’ve been equally clear that we have to look out for and respond to the immense and terrible suffering of the Palestinian people,” Mr. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said on Sunday. “And that means pressing Israel on issues related to the humanitarian assistance that we have helped unlock and get into the Gaza Strip, and there needs to be much more of it.”
Mr. Blinken will also discuss what diplomats call the “day-after” plans for administering Gaza after the fighting ends, including a possible role for the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
The Biden administration is also hoping to make progress toward getting Saudi Arabia to establish diplomatic relations with Israel, a long-term objective that the United States sees as important to stabilizing the Middle East. Under a proposed deal, the United States would offer Saudi Arabia a defense treaty, help with a civilian nuclear program and increase arms sales, while the Saudis and Americans would, in theory, get Israel to accept conditions for concrete steps toward the creation of a Palestinian state in return for Saudi recognition.
— Zolan Kanno-Youngs reporting from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia