Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken is returning to the Middle East this week with the goals of getting Israel to curtail attacks that are killing thousands of Palestinian civilians and preventing the war from spreading across the region.
But previously unreported details of a clash between Mr. Blinken and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel point to the challenges ahead.
During a private meeting in November, Mr. Blinken told Mr. Netanyahu that the Israelis would have to agree to a series of pauses in the fighting in Gaza to let more aid flow into the war zone and to allow civilians to leave areas under attack.
Mr. Netanyahu refused, U.S. officials said on the condition of anonymity to describe the private conversation in Jerusalem. Mr. Blinken then said he would announce the Biden administration’s demand in a news conference, which prompted Mr. Netanyahu to scramble to pre-empt him by issuing a defiant statement by video. “‘I told him, ‘We swore and I swore to eliminate Hamas,’” Mr. Netanyahu said. “Nothing will stop us.”
That standoff on Nov. 3 brings into sharp relief the evolving relationship between the United States and its most important partner in the Middle East, a relationship that President Biden has charged Mr. Blinken with shepherding during a spiraling crisis.
Since the Hamas terrorist attacks in Israel on Oct. 7, Mr. Biden has strongly supported Israel’s war in Gaza, in which the Israeli military, armed with American weapons, has killed more than 22,000 Palestinians, most of them civilians, according to the Gaza health ministry.
But as Mr. Blinken flies into the Middle East for the fourth time since October, Mr. Biden and his aides are increasingly struggling with their Israeli counterparts over a range of critical issues, including the need to lessen civilian casualties, the risks of a wider regional war and the shape of a post-conflict Gaza.
Those disagreements are likely to continue when Mr. Blinken arrives in Israel amid a marathon of stops over a week: Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia and Egypt. He also plans to visit the West Bank headquarters of the Palestinian Authority. Mr. Blinken landed in Istanbul on Friday night and is scheduled to meet with senior officials there on Saturday.
“We don’t expect every conversation on this trip to be easy,” the State Department spokesman, Matthew Miller, told reporters on Thursday. “There are obviously tough issues facing the region and difficult choices ahead.”
For Mr. Blinken, it is a New Year’s return to intensive Middle East shuttle diplomacy that began last fall, after two years of overwhelming focus on Russia’s war in Ukraine and on China. By some measures it is the most challenging assignment of his tenure as secretary of state.
In contrast to the Biden administration’s almost unequivocal support for Ukraine, Mr. Blinken has been trying to balance support for Israel’s war against Hamas with efforts to limit Palestinian suffering. That has created tensions with some U.S. allies abroad, and political pressure at home — even at Mr. Blinken’s Virginia residence, where on Thursday protesters near the driveway splashed fake blood on his government S.U.V. and held signs branding him a “war criminal.”
Within the State Department, employees have sent Mr. Blinken at least three dissent cables since October objecting to the administration’s policy on the war.
Mr. Miller said that Mr. Blinken’s priorities in Israel would include discussing “immediate measures to increase substantially humanitarian assistance to Gaza” and plans for Israel’s military to “transition to the next phase of operations” and new steps to protect civilians and allow them to return to their homes.
Mr. Blinken will also speak with officials across the region about freeing the 129 hostages, including about eight Americans, who Israel says are still being held in Gaza. And he intends to tackle the thorny topics of plans for governing Gaza and prospects for reaching a political solution between Israel and the Palestinians once this conflict is over.
“It’s going to be a lot of hard conversations,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute, a think tank in Washington, D.C.
Mr. Elgindy was skeptical that Mr. Blinken could make much progress in winning more protections for Gaza’s civilians, or shaping Israel’s post-conflict plans. “I don’t know how well that’s going to go because they’ve been having the same conversation for three months and not made much headway,” he said.
The subject of what follows the war in Gaza could be the most difficult of all. Mr. Biden and Mr. Blinken have renewed their calls for a long-term political settlement in which Israel agrees to the creation of a Palestinian state. But Mr. Netanyahu told reporters last month that he is “proud” to have blocked a Palestinian state during his multiple turns as prime minister since the 1990s. “They’re just on different planets,” Mr. Elgindy said.
One major issue is the pressure Mr. Netanyahu faces from his governing coalition’s right-wing members, with whom the Biden administration is growing openly frustrated. On Tuesday the State Department sharply rebuked two Israeli ministers, Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben-Gvir, after they advocated the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza.
Calling their remarks “inflammatory and irresponsible,” a statement under Mr. Miller’s name said that the United States had been “clear, consistent, and unequivocal that Gaza is Palestinian land and will remain Palestinian land, with Hamas no longer in control of its future and with no terror groups able to threaten Israel.”
In a sign of the obstacles Mr. Blinken faces, Mr. Ben-Gvir, Israel’s national security minister, retorted on social media that while he admires the United States, “with all due respect, we are not another star in the American flag.”
The Biden administration is also concerned that conflict could erupt more widely across the region. Preventing that was an urgent priority for Mr. Blinken’s first trip there, just days after the Hamas rampage in southern Israel.
The risk seemed to ebb for several weeks but has risen again, with a recent bombing in Lebanon attributed to Israel that killed Saleh al-Arouri, deputy political leader of Hamas; increasingly lethal exchanges of fire between the Houthi militia in Yemen and the U.S. military; and persistent attacks on American troops based in Iraq and Syria by militias there.
Those groups are all supported by Iran, which U.S. intelligence officials assess does not want a wider war. But regional violence could spiral if Hezbollah, a powerful Lebanese militia and a Hamas ally, decides to retaliate for the strike against Mr. al-Arouri, which it has threatened to do.
And separately, Israel has warned the Biden administration that it might attack Hezbollah with greater force if U.S. officials do not persuade Hezbollah to stop striking northern Israel and to back away from the border.
But even as Mr. Blinken is expected to have tough talks with Mr. Netanyahu, he has continued to approve large weapons shipments to Israel without conditions. He is executing a White House policy that Mr. Biden has overseen because of what aides call the president’s decades-long emotional attachment to Israel.
On Dec. 29, the State Department approved sending $147.5 million of 155 millimeter artillery shells and related equipment to Israel, invoking an emergency provision to bypass a congressional review process. That move by Mr. Blinken angered some Democratic lawmakers, who have criticized the Biden administration for its unconditional support of Israel’s military operations in Gaza.
Mr. Blinken first invoked an emergency declaration over the Israel-Gaza war on Dec. 8 to bypass Congress in expediting to Israel 13,000 rounds of tank ammunition valued at more than $106 million.
As of mid-December, the U.S. government had approved shipments of about 20,000 air-to-ground munitions since the war began on Oct. 7, according to internal U.S. government reports described by American officials. In many strikes in densely populated Gaza, Israel has dropped 2,000-pound bombs, the largest that militaries generally use.
But the State Department has yet to approve Israel’s orders for 24,000 assault rifles valued at $34 million. The New York Times reported in early November that although the department’s bureau overseeing arms transfers supported the sale, some congressional officials and U.S. diplomats were worried that the rifles would end up in the hands of civilian militias trying to force Palestinians off land in the West Bank. Settler violence against Palestinians had been increasing even before the war and has sharply accelerated since Oct. 7.
Mr. Biden has implored Israel’s government to rein in the violence, even as far-right cabinet officials, notably Mr. Smotrich and Mr. Ben-Gvir, encourage the expansion of West Bank settlements. Mr. Blinken is expected to raise the issue again during his visit.
Edward Wong reported from Washington and from aboard the U.S. secretary of state’s airplane to the Middle East, and Michael Crowley reported from Washington.