US Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin is expected to arrive in Israel from Cairo on Thursday amid concerns about spiraling West Bank violence and Iran’s 84% enrichment of uranium.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi called for “intensive international efforts so as to achieve calm in the Palestinian territories and halt unilateral measures and escalation” during his meeting with Austin on Wednesday, according to his office.
Austin also visited Jordan and Iraq this week. Last week, Gen. Mark Milley, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, visited Israel.
National Security Adviser Tzachi Hanegbi and Strategic Affairs Minister Ron Dermer were in Washington this week for talks with the Biden administration.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who along with Defense Minister Yoav Gallant is expected to meet with Austin on Thursday, has his eyes on Europe. Later on Thursday, he is expected to leave for Italy, where he will meet with Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni before returning to Israel on Sunday morning.
Netanyahu at odds with Biden over judicial reform, West Bank violence
Netanyahu has pushed to create a united front with the US and Europe against Iran, a move that has been made easier in light of Tehran’s growing military alliance with Moscow.
But he has found himself increasingly at odds with the European Union and the Biden administration on issues relating to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and his government’s judicial reform plan.
Italy earlier this month signed a statement with five other European countries denouncing a settler vigilante attack against the Palestinian town of Huwara, during which a Palestinian man was killed and dozens of homes and vehicles were torched.
On Wednesday, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell’s office issued a statement of concern about the “increasing violence and extremism in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory, which are leading to appalling numbers of Israeli and Palestinian victims, including children.”
The EU called on the Palestinians to halt terrorist attacks, which have claimed 14 lives this year. It also called on Israel to stop settlement activity, prevent settler violence and to ensure that the perpetrators of that violence are punished.
Israeli “military operations must be proportionate and in line with international humanitarian law,” the EU said in a statement.
It also called on Israel to respect “the status quo of the Holy Sites” in Jerusalem, referring to the Temple Mount, known to Muslims as al-Haram al-Sharif.
There is a need to relaunch a peace process, the EU said, citing Borrell’s efforts to revive and build on the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that called for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines. Borrell met three weeks ago with the Saudi foreign minister and the Arab League secretary-general to discuss the initiative.
US State Department spokesman Ned Price on Wednesday said: “We remain deeply concerned by the sharp rise in violence in the West Bank, and we continue to urge the parties to take immediate steps to prevent the further loss of life.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had passed that same message to Hanegbi and Dermer when he met with them in Washington on Monday, he added.
The Biden administration, however, backed Israel’s right to conduct West Bank military operations after an IDF raid in Jenin on Tuesday killed six Palestinians, including a Hamas gunman believed to have fatally shot the two Israeli brothers in Huwara last week.
“We understand the IDF was pursuing a terrorist who murdered two Israeli civilians in what can only be described as a horrific attack last month,” Price said Tuesday.
The Palestinian Authority had called on the Biden administration to pressure Israel to halt its military raids into its cities, such as the one that took place on Tuesday. The IDF has said these operations are necessary to root out terrorist cells.
“The crime committed by the occupation forces reaffirms the Israeli government’s intention to thwart all regional and international efforts aimed at stopping all unilateral actions, which the Israeli side insists on continuing,” PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s spokesman, Nabil Abu Rudeineh, said in a statement published by the Palestinian news agency WAFA.
Price, however, spoke in support of the Jewish state.
“Israel has the legitimate right to defend its people and its territory against all forms of aggression, including those from terrorist groups,” he said. “We have seen far too many vivid illustrations of the terrorist threat that Israel faces, including in recent days.”
Price also took issue with settler vigilante attacks against Huwara. He denounced as “disgusting” the attack against Huwara on February 26 and condemned the additional settler violence in Huwara this week.
“We are aware of reports of another attack on Huwara by settlers yesterday, and that comes just one week after the completely unacceptable attacks and torching of property in the same village,” Price said.
“We are extremely concerned by these events and the continuing violence in Israel and the West Bank,” he said.
“Accountability and justice should be pursued with equal rigor in all cases of extremist violence and equal resources dedicated to preventing such attacks and to bring those responsible for them to justice,” Price said.