U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel on Tuesday to begin a Middle East tour aimed at bolstering the Gaza cease-fire.
The diplomat will encounter the same obstacles that have complicated a broader peace process for more than a decade, including a combative Israeli government, divisions among Palestinians and deep-seated tensions over Jerusalem and its places of worship.
More than 250 people, mostly Palestinians, were killed in the 11-day war in Gaza, which left widespread destruction in the impoverished coastal territory. Blinken was expected to focus on coordinating reconstruction without dealing directly with Gaza’s rulers, the Hamas group, considered terrorists by Israel and Western countries.
The truce that went into effect Friday has held for now, but did not address any of the causes of the conflict.
Blinken, who landed Tuesday morning at Ben Gurion International Airport, is the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the region since Joe Biden took office as U.S. president. He was met at the airport by Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi and other officials.
The administration had hoped to distance the U.S. from complex conflicts in the region and focus on competition with China and climate change. But like many of his predecessors, Biden was drawn back to the Middle East by another outbreak of violence.
Blinken was beginning his visit in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is struggling with his political future after the fourth inconclusive election in two years. Netanyahu faces growing criticism from Israelis who say he ended the offensive too soon, without forcing a halt to Palestinian rocket attacks or dealing a major blow to Hamas.
The war was triggered by weeks of clashes in Jerusalem between Israeli police and Palestinian protesters in and around the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. The protests were in response to aggressive Israeli police tactics in the disputed compound during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, as well as the threat of evictions of dozens of Palestinian families at the behest of Jewish settlers.
The evictions were halted just before the fighting broke out in Gaza, but the legal process will resume in the coming weeks. Police briefly clashed with protesters at Al-Aqsa on Friday, hours after the cease-fire went into effect. The site is sacred to Jews and Muslims, and has seen several outbreaks of violence between Israelis and Palestinians over the years.
Netanyahu is unlikely to make public concessions on Al-Aqsa or evictions, because it would be interpreted as giving in to Hamas’ demands.