Blinken to extend Middle East tour, return to Israel on Monday

By Humeyra Pamuk

CAIRO (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will return to Israel on Monday, a senior State Department official said, extending his Middle East shuttle diplomacy by a day as Israel prepares for a ground offensive in the Gaza Strip and the United States works to stop the conflict from spreading.

Israel has vowed to annihilate the militant group Hamas in retaliation for a rampage by its fighters in Israeli towns eight days ago in which its militants shot men, women and children and seized hostages in the worst attack on civilians in the country’s history.

The top U.S. diplomat arrived in Israel on Thursday and has since visited six Arab countries. He is currently in Egypt and is expected to meet with President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi.

Washington has grown increasingly worried about the fighting spreading across the region and has warned Iran to stay out of it. Blinken has sought the cooperation of Arab allies, as well as China, a country with influence on Tehran, to contain the conflict.

But late on Saturday, Iran warned of “far-reaching consequences” if Israel’s bombardment was not stopped.

Before departing for Cairo, Blinken held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, one of the most powerful leaders of the region, a meeting the top U.S. diplomat described as “very productive.”

In the meeting, the Saudi crown prince stressed the need to find ways to stop the conflict, and respect international law, including by lifting the Israeli blockade on Gaza, Saudi state news agency SPA reported.

“(The crown prince stressed the need to find) a peace path to ensure that the Palestinian people obtain their legitimate rights and achieve just and lasting peace,” SPA said.

A U.S. official said the meeting lasted for just under an hour and took place at the crown prince’s private farm residence.

“The Secretary highlighted the United States’ unwavering focus on halting terrorist attacks by Hamas, securing the release of all hostages, and preventing the conflict from spreading,” State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller said in a statement.

“The two affirmed their shared commitment to protecting civilians and to advancing stability across the Middle East and beyond,” Miller added.

Blinken on Saturday met Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Faisal Bin Farhan in Riyadh. Before their meeting, Blinken said protecting civilians on both sides of the conflict was vital.

“And we’re working together to do exactly that, in particular working on establishing safe areas in Gaza, working on establishing corridors so that humanitarian assistance can reach people who need it.”

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Aziz El Yaakoubi; Editing by William Mallard, David Evans, Emelia Sithole-Matarise and Bill Berkrot)