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Blinken is back in the Middle East as U.S. responds to attack

SACHA PFEIFFER, HOST:

America's top diplomat is back in the Middle East, trying to reassure everyone that the U.S. does not want a war with Iran. That's even as the U.S. military is launching airstrikes on militias across the region that are backed by Iran. Today Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, and NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with him. Hi, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi there, Sacha.

PFEIFFER: Michele, what is Blinken trying to do on this trip?

KELEMEN: Well, de-escalation seems to be the main buzzword. He, you know, wants to remind people in the region that the U.S. is going to respond to militia attacks, especially if Americans are killed. But U.S. officials say the response will be proportionate, and the goal is not to escalate this into a regional war. But they're also saying that this could continue, and they won't rule out even more strikes while Blinken is in the region. The other big issue, of course, is Gaza. This is Blinken's fifth trip to the Middle East since that war broke out. And each time he comes, he's been pushing Israel to agree to get more aid into Gaza and to do more to safeguard Palestinian civilians.

PFEIFFER: But, Michele, today Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is again saying that the goal is, quote, "total victory over Hamas." And he's saying that Israel can't finish the war before then, even if that takes months and not years. That doesn't seem promising for any breakthroughs for Blinken.

KELEMEN: Yeah. I mean, U.S. officials were already downplaying the idea of any breakthroughs on this trip. But they think that Israel does have an interest in reaching a new deal with Hamas to get hostages out of Gaza and a pause in fighting, a pause that is longer than the deal that they had last year. There are two other countries involved in that diplomacy, Egypt and Qatar. And Secretary Blinken does plan to visit both of those countries on Tuesday before he goes to Israel to meet with Netanyahu and other top Israeli officials. He's also planning to meet with the Palestinian Authority leaders in the occupied West Bank. He wants to make sure that if there's a new hostage deal - and, again, we don't know if this will come any time soon - that all sides will be ready to start thinking about the long term, about a future for Gaza where a reformed Palestinian Authority and not Hamas would be in control. But the problem, Sacha, is that we have to get a hostage deal first. And the ball is in Hamas' court. At least that's what U.S. officials are saying.

PFEIFFER: We mentioned at the top that you are in Saudi Arabia. What role is Saudi Arabia playing in this?

KELEMEN: It's interesting. You know, before the war broke out, the Biden administration was negotiating with Saudi Arabia on a normalization deal with Israel. And Blinken still sees that as a viable option once the war in Gaza ends. But the Saudis want some things from the U.S. in return, so they're talking about that. Again, this all seems pretty far off given where things are now with the war raging in Gaza. But those are just some of the things that Blinken's here talking about. There's also this medium-term problem of who runs Gaza and who provides security once Israel says it's achieved its goals. So he's begun talking to Arab leaders about some of those practical things.

PFEIFFER: You have reported, Michele, on some of the criticism that Blinken and the Biden administration have faced at home and around the world. The latest was an open letter from more than 800 civil servants in the U.S. and Europe calling on the U.S. to use its leverage with Israel to end the war. Is that making a difference?

KELEMEN: Well, he's heard the criticism. There are protesters outside his house. But at this point, his aides don't think that the time is right to put pressure on Israel - not now, when there's a new hostage deal on the table, one the U.S. wants Hamas to accept. So they want the pressure to be focused there.

PFEIFFER: That's NPR's Michele Kelemen. Thank you.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen
Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.