U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin will travel to Israel this week and urge Israeli officials to shift their focus away from their ground and air assault in Gaza, officials told The New York Times, as multiple countries press the war-torn nation to agree to a ceasefire.
Austin, who will be the first senior Biden administration official to visit Israel since the war erupted on May 10, will meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant during his trip, seeking out steps Israel could take to reel back its assault and transition to targeted campaigns against Hamas leaders.
The visit, which is expected to take place on Thursday, comes as the U.S. faces growing pressure from its allies and the international community to play a more active and assertive role in the crisis, and to use its leverage and influence to persuade Israel to end the violence and to resume the peace talks with the Palestinians.
The visit also comes after the French foreign ministry said a ministry worker died in Rafah on Saturday after a Wednesday attack by Israeli forces on a residential building.
The worker, identified as Zineb Redouane, was a 54-year-old French citizen of Algerian origin, who worked as a security guard at the French cultural center in Gaza.
She was killed by shrapnel from an Israeli airstrike that hit her apartment building, where she lived with her daughter and grandson, according to her relatives and colleagues.
She was one of the more than 18,000 Palestinians who have been killed by Israeli fire in Gaza, including more than 10,000 children, according to the health ministry in Gaza.
The French foreign ministry condemned the attack and called for an investigation into the incident, and for the protection of civilians and humanitarian workers in Gaza.
The ministry also expressed its “deep concern” over the escalation of violence and the humanitarian situation in Gaza, and called for an “immediate and unconditional” ceasefire.
The U.S., which has publicly backed Israel’s right to self-defense, has also privately urged Netanyahu to agree to a ceasefire and to de-escalate the situation, according to U.S. officials.
President Joe Biden, who has spoken with Netanyahu four times since the start of the war, has expressed his concern over the rising civilian casualties and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, and has reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
However, Netanyahu has shown no signs of backing down, telling Biden that he was “determined to continue this operation until its objective is achieved: to restore quiet and security to the citizens of Israel”.
Netanyahu has also dismissed Biden’s proposal for a two-state solution, saying that it was “unrealistic and dangerous” and that it would “reward Hamas for its terrorism and aggression”.
Netanyahu has vowed to continue the war until he achieves his goals of restoring calm and deterrence, and of destroying Hamas’s military capabilities, including its tunnels, rockets, and commanders.
However, analysts say that Netanyahu’s strategy is short-sighted and counterproductive, as it only deepens the cycle of violence and hatred, and strengthens Hamas’s popularity and legitimacy among the Palestinians, while weakening the moderate and pragmatic forces that seek a peaceful resolution to the conflict.
They also warn that Netanyahu’s defiance of Biden’s calls for a ceasefire and a two-state solution could damage the long-standing alliance between the U.S. and Israel, and erode the bipartisan support that Israel enjoys in the U.S. Congress and among the American public.
They urge Netanyahu to heed Biden’s advice and to seize the opportunity to end the war and to resume the dialogue with the Palestinians, with the help of the U.S. and other regional and international partners, in order to achieve a just and lasting peace that serves the interests and values of both sides.
Austin, who is a former commander of the U.S. Central Command, which oversees the Middle East, is expected to convey Biden’s message to Netanyahu and Gallant, and to discuss ways to enhance the security and the cooperation between the U.S. and Israel.
Austin’s visit to Israel is part of a broader trip to the Middle East, which will also include stops in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, where he will meet with his counterparts and other senior officials to discuss the regional security and stability, and the U.S.’s strategic interests and priorities in the area.