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Blinken ends latest Mideast mission after Israel snubs proposed Gaza ceasefire plan

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Tel Aviv, Feb 8: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken left the Middle East on Thursday with public divisions between the United States and Israel at perhaps their worst level since Israel’s war against Hamas in Gaza began in October.
Wrapping up a four-nation Mideast trip – his fifth to the region since the conflict erupted – Blinken was returning to Washington after getting a virtual slap in the face from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who said the war would continue until Israel is completely victorious and appeared to reject outright a response from Hamas to a proposed cease-fire plan.
Relations between Israel and its main international ally, the United States, have been tense for months, but Netanyahu’s public dismissal of a plan the US says has merit, at least as a starting point for further negotiation, highlighted the divide.
Yet Blinken and other US officials said they remained optimistic that progress could be made on their main goals of improving humanitarian conditions for Palestinians civilians, securing the release of hostages held by Hamas, preparing for a post-conflict Gaza and preventing the war from spreading.
Officials said Blinken’s optimism was based on his first four post-Oct 7 trips to the Middle East. None of those visits resulted in immediate visible successes, but they brought limited but significant improvements in the delivery of humanitarian aid and a weeklong cease-fire in November in which scores of hostages were released.
“Clearly there are things that Hamas sent back that are absolute non-starters,” Blinken said of the response the militant group delivered Tuesday to a cease-fire and hostage release proposal that was endorsed last month by Egypt, Qatar, the US and Israel itself.
“But, at the same time, we see space to continue to pursue an agreement,” Blinken said late Wednesday. “And these things are always negotiations. It’s not flipping a light switch. It’s not yes’ or no.’ There’s invariably back and forth.” Shortly before Blinken spoke, though, Netanyahu took direct aim at the Hamas response, calling it “delusional” and vowing that Israel would fight on to achieve “absolute victory” over the militant group, no matter what.
Compounding Blinken’s dilemma, Netanyahu also appeared to dismiss concerns from the US and others about expanding Israel’s military operations in southern Gaza, particularly in Rafah, the area on the Egyptian border to which over a million Palestinians have fled. Netanyahu also called for the dismantlement of UNRWA, the UN agency for Palestinian refugees. (AP)

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