WASHINGTON - Significant changes in the U.S. stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could be coming as ceasefire negotiations are once again underway between Israel and Hamas.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday morning and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas as the leaders considered a deal proposed by Hamas.
Blinken is working to further the ceasefire negotiations, which so far would include a 135-day pause in the fighting — split into three stages — the exchange of hostages being held in Gaza for Palestinian prisoners serving sentences in Israeli jails, and would allow additional humanitarian aid into the Strip.
Hamas is also demanding a full withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza, something that was soundly rejected by Netanyahu, who vowed that Israel would see "total victory" when the war began.
Biden offered a lukewarm response to the possible truce, calling Hamas’ demands "a little over the top." Saudi Arabia, on the other hand, has remained decidedly tough on the matter, saying it will not continue diplomatic relations with Israel if it does not end all assaults on Gaza and recognize it as an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Despite years of stagnant discussions, the war has put renewed focus on the fraught two-state solution. While the Biden administration has promised unwavering support for Israel, in his meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken reiterated the U.S. supports the establishment of a Palestinian state "as the best way to ensure lasting peace and security for Israelis and Palestinians alike."
While there is some optimism with channels of communication open between Israel, its allies and Hamas leaders, Blinken added Wednesday that "there is a lot of work to be done" and it remains to be seen if a middle ground can be reached.
The tenuous discussions come as the U.S. is becoming increasingly involved in peripheral conflicts throughout the Middle East.
The U.S. carried out an attack in Iraq Wednesday as part of the continued response to an overnight drone strike in northeast Jordan that killed three American soldiers last week. According to the U.S. Command Center, a commander of the pro-Iran militant group Kataib Hezbollah responsible for the attack on U.S. forces was killed. The identity of the commander has not been released but there are indications that this may not be the last of the U.S. retaliation.
Biden promised a strong response following the deadly attack on U.S. forces that also left at least 30 others injured. Over the weekend, the U.S. conducted sweeping airstrikes over targets in Iraq and Syria linked to Iran's Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) and militias it backs, killing at least 40 people.
"The United States will continue to take necessary action to protect our people. We will not hesitate to hold responsible all those who threaten our forces’ safety," Central Command said.
Further south, attacks in the Red Sea continue. Two ships were targeted by ballistic missiles fired by Yemen’s Houthi rebels Tuesday — the latest in a series of attacks on cargo ships carried out by the Iranian-backed militant group in support of Palestinians.
In January, the U.S. and U.K. launched joint retaliatory strikes in Yemen, hitting more than a dozen sites used by the Houthis, including logistical hubs, air defense systems and weapons storage and launching locations.
Biden said the bombings were meant to demonstrate that the U.S. and its allies "will not tolerate" the group’s ceaseless attacks but the rebel strikes have continued since November as the Houthis demand an end to Israel’s bombardment of Gaza. Following Tuesday’s attack, the group released a statement saying they would "escalate more and more" until the "aggression" in Gaza ends.
Blinken left the Middle East Thursday, saying he still believes a deal can be reached to free the hostages and pause the fighting in Gaza.
"We will work at that relentlessly until we get there," Blinken said.
Back in the U.S., the House GOP failed to pass legislation to provide $17.6 billion in aid to Israel Tuesday. The stand-alone measure was developed after Republicans struck down a comprehensive $118 billion bipartisan bill, ostensibly at the behest of former President Donald Trump, that would have provided $14 billion in military aid to Israel as well as money for Ukraine, Taiwan and U.S. border security.
As support for Israel remains strong in Congress, they will have to start again as they look to provide funds to the U.S. ally.