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Israel rebuffs Blinken concerns over Gaza war as U.N. cease-fire call fails

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TEL AVIV — Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli leaders confronted each other on Friday about the future of the war in Gaza, as the top U.S. diplomat urged Israel not to invade a city packed with civilians, and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defiantly declared that “we’ll do it by ourselves.”

The tense back-and-forth — on the same day that Israel’s far-right finance minister announced the seizure of three square miles of Palestinian territory in the West Bank — marked the latest show of Israeli defiance in the face of U.S. demands that it reduce civilian suffering in Gaza and move toward a two-state solution.

The exchange came at the end of Blinken’s trip to the region and appeared to signal that Israeli leaders have little interest in moderating their actions in Gaza, despite increasingly sharp criticism from their main military backer and ally.

According to the Gaza Health Ministry, more than 31,000 Palestinians have been killed during Israel’s five-month military campaign, which was launched in response to the Hamas-led Oct. 7 attacks in which militants killed some 1,200 people in southern Israel and took more than 250 hostage.

While the Health Ministry does not distinguish between civilians and combatants in its published death toll, Palestinian officials say that most of the dead are women and children. Many across the besieged enclave are now fighting for survival: On Monday, a U.N.-backed report said that famine may already have reached the northern region and that more than half of Gaza’s 2.2 million residents face catastrophic levels of hunger.

Before his arrival Friday, Blinken spent days meeting with Arab leaders to try to finalize a plan for post-conflict Gaza that would eventually lead to Palestinian statehood. The West Bank land seizure would directly undermine that effort.

A major military ground operation in Rafah “risks killing more civilians; it risks wreaking greater havoc with the provision of humanitarian assistance,” Blinken told reporters in Tel Aviv after his day of meetings with Israeli leaders. “It risks further isolating Israel around the world and jeopardizing its long-term security and standing.”

The Biden administration has provided strong support to Israel throughout the conflict, approving more than 100 weapons sales to the country since Oct. 7 and providing diplomatic cover at the U.N. Security Council, where it has vetoed a number of resolutions calling for an immediate cease-fire.

But as American frustrations over Israel’s conduct in the war increase, the Biden administration’s rhetoric, at least, has grown tougher, and on Friday, U.S. representatives at the U.N. Security Council sponsored a resolution calling for a pause in the fighting. It was vetoed by Russia and China.

While Biden has summoned senior Israeli officials to Washington next week to outline U.S. concerns about a Rafah invasion and to suggest tactics that might target Hamas without major loss of civilian life, Netanyahu showed little sign Friday that he was about to relent.

“I told him we acknowledge the need to evacuate civilians from war zones and of course take care of humanitarian needs, and we are making sure this happens,” Netanyahu said in a video statement following his meeting with Blinken. “But I also told him there’s no way to defeat Hamas without entering Rafah and eliminating the rest of Hamas’s battalions. I told him we hope we can do it with the support of the U.S., but if needed, we’ll do it by ourselves.”

Tensions also flared Friday at the U.N. Security Council as Russia and China vetoed the U.S.-led resolution that urged agreement on a sustained cease-fire in the Gaza Strip, tied to the release of Hamas hostages.

In appealing for support, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, said the resolution reflected an effort to overcome council divisions. It marked the first time the United States has directly called for an “immediate” cease-fire. It also condemned Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack on Israel.

But calling the measure a “hypocritical initiative” that played into U.S. and Israeli hands, Russian Ambassador Vasily Nebenzya told members: “If you do this, you will cover yourselves in disgrace.”

Russia and China have called for an immediate cease-fire without conditions. Nebenzya charged that the U.S. wording of the resolution — which joined its cease-fire call with support for U.S. efforts to negotiate a temporary pause in fighting while hostages are released and humanitarian aid is increased — an effort to “sell a product.”

“The American product is exceedingly politicized,” he said, “the sole purpose of which is to help play to the [U.S.] voters, to throw them a bone in the form of some kind of a mention of a cease-fire.”

Responding to the vote on the resolution, which Algeria also opposed, Thomas-Greenfield said that it could impede the cease-fire and hostage-release negotiations. “Russia, which has carried out an unprovoked war on its neighbor, has the audacity and the hypocrisy to throw stones when it lives in a glass house,” she said, referring to the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

U.S. officials say they are nearing an agreement with Arab nations to present Israel with a package deal to resolve the Gaza situation with an eventual goal of establishing a Palestinian state.

The package would include a plan for how to administer Gaza and rebuild the bombarded territory, and Arab states would offer guarantees for Israel’s security. Saudi Arabia would normalize relations with Israel, a major step in Israel’s ties with the region. In return, Israeli leaders would have to agree to a two-state solution and to other steps that would boost the legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority, which Netanyahu has long derided.

The plan, in effect, is a shoot-the-moon effort to try to end the Israel-Palestinian conflict once and for all — and U.S. officials acknowledge it is a long shot with the current Israeli government. But they say that, having created the vision, they hope it will be attractive enough to Israelis that they decide to pursue it.

U.S. officials hope to be able to present the plan during a cease-fire and hostage release — which Blinken said continue to be negotiated in Qatar between Israel and Hamas, with Qatari, Egyptian and U.S. teams as interlocutors.

“We have teams in Doha, and as I said, we’ve gotten it down to a few remaining gaps, but the closer you get to the goal line, the harder that last yard is, so there are some hard issues to work through,” Blinken said.

DeYoung reported from Washington and Loveluck from London. Alon Rom in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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