In Israel, Blinken pushes for pause in Gaza war to allow for aid, regional integration

By Humeyra Pamuk

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday voiced hopes for a deal for the release of Israelis kidnapped by Hamas in return for an extended pause to the war in Gaza.

“There’s a lot of work to be done but we are very much focused on doing that work, and hopefully being able to resume releasing hostages that was interrupted,” Blinken told reporters at the start of his meeting in Jerusalem with Israeli President Isaac Herzog.

The top U.S. diplomat earlier met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and discussed a Hamas counter proposal to a ceasefire proposal drawn up by U.S. and Israeli spy chiefs and delivered to the militant group last week by Qatari and Egyptian mediators.

Other Israeli officials such as Defense Minister Yoav Gallant and Mossad Director David Barnea also attended the meeting, according to a video from the beginning of the meeting released by Netanyahu’s office.

The top U.S. diplomat has been conducting intense shuttle diplomacy, crisscrossing the Middle East on Tuesday in his fifth visit to the region since the deadly Hamas attack on Israel on Oct. 7, and meeting with the leaders of Egypt and Qatar, two countries mediating the hostage negotiations with Hamas.

Blinken and other senior U.S. officials see securing a deal to release the remaining hostages in exchange for an extended pause in the Israel-Hamas war as the best path forward for space for talks to obtain a wider integration of Israel into the region, including a normalisation of its ties with Saudi Arabia.

Talks on the structure of Gaza when the war ends, how the Palestinian Authority – which exercises limited self-rule in some areas of the occupied West Bank – needs to be reformed to potentially rule the densely populated enclave and identifying a pathway for a Palestinian state are all variables in the same equation, according to U.S. officials.

Ensuring more humanitarian aid reaches Gaza and is distributed to those in need also depends on an end to the fighting, officials say.

Blinken told Herzog he would share with him what he heard in his meeting with Saudi, Egyptian and Qatari officials on Israel’s wider integration into the region.

“I do believe that there’s a very positive, powerful future that is possible that genuinely integrates Israel into the region and addresses its most profound security needs to be able to live in peace and genuine security and also answers the aspirations of the Palestinian people,” Blinken said.

“You can see that equation very clearly, and it was only reinforced by my visits with our friends and partners in the region.”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk; Editing by Don Durfee and Deepa Babington)