Blinken to Netanyahu: Israel must ‘avoid further expansion’ of war

The prime minister reiterates that a "permanent ceasefire" will not happen before Hamas is destroyed in Gaza


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli leaders on Wednesday as part of his Middle East tour to Israel, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, his seventh trip to the Jewish state since the current Hamas war broke out on October 7.

The American met with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, where they “discussed ongoing efforts to reach an immediate ceasefire in Gaza as part of a hostage deal and emphasized that it is Hamas that is standing in the way of a ceasefire,” according to a press release from the US State Department.

“Secretary Blinken reaffirmed the US commitment to Israel’s security,” the release continued. “He also discussed the need to avoid further expansion of the conflict and updated the prime minister on ongoing efforts to ensure a lasting, sustainable peace in the region.”

Without delving into details, the statement also read that Blinken “reiterated the United States’ clear position on Rafah.”

Netanyahu, according to reports in the Hebrew media, pushed back on this, reiterating what he said in previous days, that a Rafah operation will move forward, and that a "permanent ceasefire" will not happen before Hamas is destroyed in Gaza.

The Israel Defense Forces plans to establish a humanitarian safe zone in the central Gaza Strip as part of preparations for the evacuation of noncombatants from the southernmost city of Rafah.

It will be located south of Wadi Gaza and north of the central camps—Nuseirat and Bureij—near the east-west Netzarim Corridor the IDF recently created to split the Strip into two parts, Army Radio reported on Wednesday.

The evacuation preparations come ahead of an expected IDF offensive in Rafah, Hamas’s last terror bastion where four of its last six battalions are entrenched, consisting of several thousand fighters. Jerusalem says that conquering the city on the Egyptian border is essential to winning the war.

However, there is intense international opposition to a full-scale offensive, including from the United States, with Blinken saying in Riyadh on Monday that “we have not yet seen a plan that gives us confidence that civilians can be effectively protected.”

Earlier on Wednesday, Blinken met with President Isaac Herzog in Tel Aviv. The two men discussed the ongoing negotiations to bring about the release of the Israeli hostages still held in Gaza in exchange for a pause in fighting and the release of Palestinian terrorists held in Israeli prisons.

“Even in these very difficult times we are determined to get a ceasefire that brings the hostages home—and to get it now,” said Blinken.

“And the only reason that wouldn’t be achieved is because of Hamas,” he added.

Herzog told the American diplomat, “I want to thank you for the strong support and the more clarity in what you've said regarding the initiation of this terrible situation, the war that was waged upon us, the atrocities, as well as the plight of the hostages.

“I think there should be a unanimous decision of the international community that freeing the hostages is the utmost priority,” the president continued.

Israel’s Settlements and National Missions Minister Orit Strook on Wednesday harshly criticized the terms of a hostage deal being negotiated with Hamas in Cairo, calling the Israeli proposal “trash” and saying that a government that approves such an agreement “has no right to exist.”

Strook, a member of Netanyahu’s coalition from the Religious Zionist Party, spoke during an interview with Army Radio.

“Soldiers left everything behind and went out to fight for goals that the government defined, and we are throwing it in the trash now to save 22 people, or 33 people, or I don’t know how many,” she said.

“The government went to war with a clear decision on the goals of the war, which were determined by it and are … in a written document: dismantling and destroying all the capabilities of Hamas in Gaza—military, governmental and economic; creating conditions for the return of the abducted; and the removal of any threat from Gaza towards Israel over time. This deal turns its back on all three of these goals, including the goal of creating conditions for the return of the abductees,” Strook continued.

In return for the release of a “small number” of hostages, she said, under the deal Israel will be giving up all its leverage to free the rest.

As for the rest, “These people will be left behind, and we will have nothing to pay for them,” she said.

Herzog, in his meeting with Blinken, also highlighted reports that the ICC will soon issue arrest warrants for Israeli leaders such as Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, saying, “Trying to use the International Criminal Court against Israel, which is fighting terror, is a clear and present danger to democracies and to free peace-loving nations who pursue the norms of international law, and I call upon all our allies and friends to object and reject any such efforts.”

Netanyahu said on Tuesday that if the International Criminal Court in The Hague issues arrest warrants for Israeli political and military leaders over the war against Hamas in the Gaza Strip, it would constitute an “unprecedented antisemitic hate crime.

“The possibility that they will issue arrest warrants for war crimes against IDF commanders and government leaders is a scandal of historical magnitude,” he said.

“Eighty years after the Holocaust, the international bodies established with the goal of preventing another Holocaust are considering denying the Jewish state its right to defend itself,” he continued.

Netanyahu noted that this marks the first time that a democratic country committed to international law is defending itself from accusations of war crimes while at the same time facing existential threats.

“If this does happen, it will be an indelible stain on humanity. It would be an unprecedented antisemitic hate crime that would add fuel to the antisemitic incitement that is already raging in the world,” he said.

“Israel expects the leaders of the free world to come out strongly against this scandalous step, a step that will harm the self-defense not only of the State of Israel, but of all democracies,” Netanyahu said.

Blinken also met with opposition leader Yair Lapid, the latter tweeting afterwards that they “discussed the international efforts to promote a hostage deal.”

Notably, Lapid reiterated his willingness to join a government coalition to ensure a hostage agreement is approved if Netanyahu’s current partners threaten to dissolve the government over a deal. “If necessary I will make sure he has a majority in the government,” Lapid wrote.

The secretary of state was also set to meet with War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz later on Wednesday at Kibbutz Yad Mordechai, 1 km. north of northern Gaza, followed by a trip to Ashdod Port to inspect aid deliveries destined for Palestinian civilians in the Strip.

He was also scheduled to hold a sit-down meeting in Tel Aviv with families of American-Israeli hostages and visit Kibbutz Be’eri, which was one of the hardest hit Israeli communities during Hamas’s October 7 attack.

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