US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Jerusalem and Ramallah next week has gained new urgency after a wave of deadly violence in Israel and the West Bank.
His trip, which also includes a stop in Egypt, was already expected to be complicated, as it will be the top US diplomat’s first visit to Israel since the new Israeli government, which includes ultra-nationalists and ultra-religious parties, took power.
Now, Blinken is poised to face a rapidly escalating crisis that shows no signs of de-escalation.
At least seven people were killed in a mass shooting at a synagogue in Jerusalem Friday that is being described as a terrorist attack. Israeli police said the gunman, who was killed by police, was a 21-year-old resident of East Jerusalem who appeared to have acted alone.
On Thursday, Israeli forces killed nine Palestinians and wounded several others in a raid on a refugee camp in the West Bank city of Jenin. Another Palestinian man was shot dead by Israeli troops later that day in the town of al-Ram, adding to the death toll on what was the deadliest day for Palestinians in the West Bank in over a year, according to CNN records. Then overnight on Friday Israel launched air strikes on Gaza after rockets were fired towards Israel.
The Palestinian Authority responded to the Jenin raid by announcing that it will cease security coordination with Israel starting immediately.
While US officials have indicated that the days of violence will not upend the top diplomat’s trip, the White House on Friday condemned the “heinous terror attack” on the synagogue and State Department officials on Thursday expressed concern about the security situation following the Jenin raid.
“There is the potential for things to worsen in security terms, in terms of protests or any other kind of kinetic action,” Barbara Leaf, the top State Department official for the region, told reporters on Thursday ahead of the synagogue shooting, adding that the department is in close touch with diplomatic and security personnel on the ground. She also urged the two sides to retain and deepen security coordination.
The Biden administration has been careful in its language and sought to publicly avoid criticizing the new government in Israel, which is led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and includes controversial far-right government ministers. Over the past few weeks, US officials have held numerous engagements with the new government – Blinken’s trip follows visits by national security adviser Jake Sullivan and CIA Director Bill Burns. Israel is one of the US’s staunchest allies and the importance of the relationship was underlined earlier this week as the two nations launched their largest joint military exercise ever on Monday.
Aaron David Miller, who served for two decades at the State Department as an analyst, negotiator and adviser on Middle East issues, told CNN that he has “never seen an administration engage with a new Israeli Government as frequently and as early and at as senior level as this one.”
“I think their strategy was basically to say, ‘OK, you formed this government, your hands are on the wheel. You told us you’re in charge, and we’re now going to engage with you directly and intensely. Because if things head south, you’re the one who’s going to have to be responsible with respect to controlling your own ministers,’” he said. Miller said he predicts the relationship between the two administrations will be publicly non-confrontational, especially as Biden looks to ensure he is seen as pro-Israel ahead of a potential US reelection campaign.
The far-right elements of the new Israeli government, meanwhile, have already exacerbated tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.
The new national security minister Itamar Ben Gvir has previously been convicted for supporting terrorism and inciting anti-Arab racism. Earlier this year, after being named minister, he visited the Jerusalem compound known as Temple Mount by Jews and the Haram al-Sharif or Noble Sanctuary by Muslims, in a move that drew international condemnation.
Although he visited during open hours for non-Muslims, his visit was seen as controversial because Ben Gvir has publicly called for changes to the delicate status quo agreement that governs the compound.
State Department spokesman Ned Price responded at the time by saying that the US believed the visit has “the potential to exacerbate tensions and to provoke violence.”
Although the Biden administration has advocated for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there has been very little movement and seemingly few active efforts toward that goal. It is something that Blinken will address during his meetings with Israelis and Palestinians, said Leaf, the State Department official.
Miller said he does not expect any progress to be made on this issue during Blinken’s visit, which will instead be more of an “extended condolence call” due to the synagogue attack in Jerusalem Friday.
Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of the advocacy group J-Street, which pushes for a two-state solution, said that he believes Blinken’s trip is well-timed, and sends an important message about American involvement.
He said the administration should try to articulate both privately to the new Israeli government as well as publicly the things that the US would find unacceptable, such as “plans for what amounts to de facto annexation of territory on the West Bank.”