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Blinken starts new mideast trip in Saudi Arabia to talk about Gaza

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JEDDAH, Saudi Arabia — Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Wednesday began his sixth trip to the Middle East since the eruption of conflict between Israel and Hamas, his latest bid to compel Israel to ease its assault on the battered territory and identify a post-conflict plan that could lead to a Palestinian state.

State Department officials do not expect the brief visit — a day in Saudi Arabia, a day in Egypt and just a few hours in Israel — to yield major breakthroughs, but they hope to advance discussions that have consumed much of Blinken’s focus for months. U.S. leaders, including President Biden, have grown sharply critical of the war’s harsh toll on Gazan civilians as the White House faces domestic blowback from its management of the United States’ relationship with Israel.

In Saudi Arabia, Blinken is expected to meet with the country’s de facto ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, to discuss a plan that would normalize relations between Riyadh and Israel as part of a pathway toward a two-state solution. In Cairo, Blinken will meet Arab foreign ministers to negotiate how to administer Gaza after the fighting stops. And there will also be conversations about a possible cease-fire in parallel to negotiations taking place in Qatar.

Leaders will be “discussing what is the right architecture for lasting regional peace,” Blinken told reporters Tuesday in Manila, part of a swing through Asia before his Mideast visit. “We’ve also impressed upon Israel the imperative of having a plan for Gaza for when the conflict ends.”

Blinken has been working with Arab leaders since January to hammer out such a plan, which he can then present to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in an effort to win Israeli backing for steps the Biden administration hopes can lessen the chances of a similar Hamas attack from happening again.

Even before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack on Israel, the Biden administration was trying to broker a deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, a move that would be a major step toward ending Israel’s isolation in the region. Saudi leaders are hoping for U.S. assistance for their civilian nuclear program in return.

U.S. diplomats now hope that the lure of Saudi normalization could be sufficiently strong for Netanyahu that it could be used as a bargaining chip to win his willingness to talk about a Palestinian state, about which he has long been skeptical.

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