TEL AVIV – US Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Benjamin Netanyahu that on a personal level he “understood the poignant echoes that Hamas’ massacres have for Israeli Jews” and that Washington stood with Israel when he announced his journey to the Middle East began, also aimed at containing the conflict.
From a podium next to the Israeli prime minister at military headquarters in Tel Aviv, Blinken on Thursday urged Israel to show restraint in its retaliation, in his most direct plea yet, asking that it take all possible precautions to protect civilian lives.
Washington’s top diplomat embarked on a tour of the Middle East as Israel unleashes the most powerful bombing campaign in the 75-year history of its conflict with the Palestinians, vowing to destroy Hamas – which rules the Gaza Strip – in retaliation for the militants . weekend attacks.
Blinken will also seek to help broker the release of hostages kidnapped by Hamas, some believed to be Americans, and continue talks with Israelis and Egyptians on providing safe passage for Gaza civilians out of the enclave ahead of a possible Israeli ground invasion.
At least 25 Americans were killed in the Hamas attacks, he said.
‘Maybe you’re strong enough to defend yourself on your own. But as long as America exists, that will never be necessary. We will always be there by your side,” Blinken told Netanyahu.
He also offered an emotional, personal side note, telling how his grandfather fled the pogroms in Russia and his stepfather survived the Nazi concentration camps.
“I understand on a personal level the poignant echoes that Hamas’s massacres have for Israeli Jews, and indeed for Jews around the world,” he said.
After Israel, Blinken will go to Jordan to meet with King Abdullah and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. He will likely move on to other Arab countries, U.S. officials say, without specifying which ones.
Blinken’s trip is also intended to send a message of deterrence to Iran, which supports Hamas, not to become involved in the conflict.
Israel has vowed retaliation for the deadliest attack on Jewish civilians in its history, when hundreds of Hamas gunmen stormed the barrier fence and rampaged through Israeli towns on Saturday.
The escalation is the most serious in the region in years.
Blinken said Israel is obliged to defend itself in a way that ensures the cross-border attack can never happen again, and that he has spoken to Netanyahu about how it will do that.
“We democracies distinguish ourselves from terrorists by striving for a different standard, even when it is difficult,” he said. “That is why it is so important to take all possible precautions to prevent harm to civilians.”
Blinken also said that as Israel’s defense needs evolve, Washington will work with Congress to ensure they are met.
Israel has said there will be no humanitarian breach in the siege of the Gaza Strip until all hostages are released.
A senior State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Washington is working to advance talks on providing safe passage to civilians, including about 500 to 600 Palestinian Americans living in Gaza.
Managing the conflict is a top priority for Washington and Blinken has spoken to regional allies who speak to Iran and Iranian-backed groups, asking them to advise Tehran to stay out.
“We would very much like to demonstrate … that we are determined to keep other parties out of this conflict,” the official said.