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On Middle East trip, Blinken tries to contain Israel-Gaza conflict

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

As Israel prepares for its expected invasion of the Gaza Strip, U.S. Secretary of State Anthony Antony Blinken has had a series of meetings with leaders in the region in a diplomatic effort to contain the conflict. NPR's Michele Kelemen has been traveling with Blinken and joins us now from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Scott.

DETROW: Who has the secretary been talking to?

KELEMEN: Well, a lot of people. I mean, he's been crisscrossing this region. This is the fifth Arab state that he's visited on a trip that began Thursday in Israel. And he just has a lot on his plate. He's trying to get countries in the region to pressure Hamas to free Israeli hostages, including some Americans. He wants countries to send messages to others in the region, Hezbollah and Iran in particular, to stay out of this conflict. And then there are Palestinian Americans, as we just heard, trapped in Gaza. He's been trying to get Egypt to open up that border crossing, the Rafah crossing, to let those Americans and other foreign nationals leave.

DETROW: I mean, we just heard that a lot of these crossings are not open. NPR has been hearing from Palestinian Americans who were told to go to that border. Has the State Department given any indication on why it wasn't open today?

KELEMEN: Not really. I mean, they thought they had a deal. They've been negotiating for days with the Egyptians, the Israelis and with Qatar, which has kept communications with Hamas. But, you know, there are a lot of players and a lot of tricky diplomacy and, as you heard, a lot of people counting on some kind of solution soon. Egypt says that foreigners will be able to get out as long as aid can get in. U.S. officials are hoping things can start moving soon. Blinken is actually going to Egypt tomorrow.

DETROW: So we frame this as Blinken trying to contain the conflict, but is he trying to head off an Israeli ground offensive?

KELEMEN: No. I mean, he says that Hamas has to be put out of business. Those were his words. He said that this is a time for moral clarity, given the atrocities that Hamas has carried out. Of course, he's hearing a lot of concern from Arab leaders about the rising Palestinian death toll, and many in the region are calling for a de-escalation. But the U.S. position is that Israel has to respond to an unprecedented attack by Hamas. The U.S. says it's trying to arrange safe zones in Gaza away from Gaza City. But most aid groups - and as you heard in Leila's reporting, you know, everyone says there's really nowhere safe to go in Gaza.

DETROW: I mean, Michele, your reporting over time has shown that the secretary of state's job is certainly never pretty straightforward or easy. But I'm just thinking of all the things Blinken's trying to weigh and do here. This sounds like a very tough, if not impossible job at this current moment.

KELEMEN: Yeah, and it wasn't the trip that he had been expecting to take. I mean, the Biden administration's diplomatic focus before the Hamas attack was to promote normalization deals that started under the Trump administration, and they were really trying to get the Saudis and the Israelis to normalize ties. But, you know, all of that is going to have to wait now as this region is really on edge.

DETROW: That is NPR's Michele Kelemen in Saudi Arabia. Michele, thank you so much for joining us.

KELEMEN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michele Kelemen has been with NPR for two decades, starting as NPR's Moscow bureau chief and now covering the State Department and Washington's diplomatic corps. Her reports can be heard on all NPR News programs, including Morning Edition and All Things Considered.