By Jennifer Hansler, CNN
(CNN) — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made clear to the Israeli government that Palestinians must be allowed to return to their homes in Gaza “as soon as conditions allow” and must not be displaced from the strip, the top US diplomat said Tuesday.
Blinken announced that the Israeli government had agreed to a plan to allow a United Nations assessment mission to northern Gaza as the Israeli offensive there shifts to a new phase.
“It will determine what needs to be done to allow displaced Palestinians to return safely to homes in the north,” Blinken said at a news conference in Tel Aviv.
In a day of talks with top Israeli officials, Blinken said he reaffirmed US support for Israel “ensuring that October 7 can never happen again,” while also calling on the government to do more to mitigate civilian casualties. He also discussed the efforts to secure the release of hostages who remain held by Hamas.
Blinken has made five visits to Israel since the October 7 Hamas attacks as the Biden administration sought to keep pressure on the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“It’s our unique bond and America’s enduring commitment to the people of Israel that allows, indeed demands, that we’re as forthright as possible in the moments when the stakes are highest, when the choices matter the most. This is one of those moments,” he Tuesday.
Indeed, the stakes of the secretary’s latest visit couldn’t be higher as concerns mount over the war spilling out into the wider region and the humanitarian toll continues to grow. Tens of thousands of people have been killed in the Israeli offensive, millions have been displaced, and the entire population in the war-torn strip faces the risk of famine, the UN has warned. US officials have publicly acknowledged that gaps remain between Israel’s “intentions” and “results” when it comes to the staggering toll on civilians.
‘Give the Israeli’s our best advice’
Following Tuesday’s meetings, Blinken said the US would continue to “give the Israelis our best advice about conducting this war in a manner that achieves the objective of making sure that October 7 can’t be repeated, does better by protecting civilians and making sure that people get the assistance that they need.”
The US “believes Israel has achieved significant progress” toward ensuring that the Hamas terrorist attack cannot happen again, the top US diplomat said.
In his meetings, Blinken discussed the next phase of Israel’s war in Gaza, which Israeli officials said would be more targeted and involve fewer troops inside Gaza.
Blinken’s comments after the meetings suggest that there had been more discussion of the future for Gaza than in his past four visits.
In announcing the UN assessment mission, Blinken noted that it was just the beginning of the process to make a land now deemed by a UN official as “uninhabitable” livable again.
“This is not going to happen overnight. There are serious security, infrastructure and humanitarian challenges,” he said.
Blinken said that Sigrid Kaag, the UN’s new senior humanitarian and reconstruction coordinator for Gaza, “must have” Israel’s full support.
Beyond that, the Netanyahu government – one of the most far-right in history – must move toward a two-state solution if they want the help of their Arab partners in the region with lasting security moving forward, the top US diplomat said.
Blinken, who traveled to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Qatar prior to his stop in Israel, told Netanyahu that “every partner that I met on this trip said that they’re ready to support a lasting solution that ends the long-running cycle of violence and ensures Israel’s security.”
“But they underscored that this can only come through a regional approach that includes a pathway to a Palestinian state,” Blinken said.
“If Israel wants its Arab neighbors to make the tough decisions necessary to help ensures lasting security, Israeli leaders will have to make hard decisions themselves,” he said.
Rein in the far-right
In some of his most direct comments on the matter, Blinken said Netanyahu must rein in the far-right tendencies of his government in order to achieve any progress in the future.
“Israel must stop taking steps that undercut Palestinians ability to govern themselves effectively. Extremist settler violence carried out with impunity, settlement expansion, demolitions, evictions all make it harder – not easier – for Israel to achieve lasting peace and security,” he said.
Blinken also said that the Palestinian Authority “has a responsibility to reform itself, to improve its governance.” Blinken will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank on Wednesday.
The top US diplomat again rebuked the comments of far-right members of the Israeli government who had called for Gazans to be relocated outside of the strip, and said that Netanyahu “reaffirmed to me today that this is not the policy of Israel’s government.”
On fears of escalation to the north, Blinken claimed that neither the US nor Israel wants to see that happen. He arrived just hours after news emerged that a senior Hezbollah commander had been killed in an Israeli strike in Lebanon – the second such strike by Israeli forces since the start of the year.
“As I told the war cabinet and other senior officials, the United States stands with Israel in ensuring its northern border is secure,” Blinken said Tuesday. “We’re fully committed to working with Israel to find a diplomatic solution that avoids escalation and allows families to return to their homes to live securely in northern Israel, and also in southern Lebanon.”
This story and headline have been updated with additional information.
™ & © 2024 Cable News Network, Inc., a Warner Bros. Discovery Company. All rights reserved.