U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “held a long and in-depth meeting in private” at the latter’s Jerusalem office on Wednesday, the Prime Minister’s Office said.
The American diplomat arrived in Israel overnight Tuesday for his sixth visit since Hamas’s Oct. 7 massacre.
Following the private encounter, an extended meeting took place with the participation of IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, National Security Council head Tzachi Hanegbi, Israel Security Agency (Shin Bet) chief Ronen Bar, Mossad Director David Barnea and other senior officials.
The American side included Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, Special Envoy for Middle East Humanitarian Issues David Satterfield and Ambassador to Israel Jack Lew.
According to the State Department, Blinken was also scheduled to meet separately with Halevi and then Gallant, followed by a late afternoon meeting with President Isaac Herzog.
The one-on-one meeting with Halevi was nixed, however, amid reports that the Prime Minister’s Office was against a private meeting between a foreign diplomat and the military chief in the absence of elected officials.
The unusual request to meet privately with Halevi is being construed as an effort by Blinken to circumvent the political echelon and possibly receive a different perspective on the state of the war against Hamas.
It remains unknown whether Blinken will meet with War Cabinet Minister Benny Gantz or opposition leader Yair Lapid.
Blinken was in the country last month for a series of reportedly tense meetings with Netanyahu and other members of the War Cabinet, as he pressed Jerusalem to shift towards a less intensive third phase in its war against Hamas.
During his last visit, Blinken expressed support for “tangible steps” towards the creation of a Palestinian state in Judea, Samaria and the Gaza Strip, speaking during a meeting with Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.
Before arriving in Israel, Blinken visited Qatar, Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
The visit comes as Israel marks exactly four months since Hamas launched the war with its invasion and slaughter of some 1,200 people.
On Tuesday night, Hamas announced its long-awaited response to a proposed hostages-for-ceasefire deal with Israel, in what Jerusalem said amounted to a rejection of the outline.
Senior officials in Jerusalem said that while Hamas claimed it had agreed to the framework as negotiated by Doha and Cairo, the terror group was demanding “impossible conditions” from Israel.
“In any case, Israel will not stop the fighting. Hamas’s response amounts to a negative answer,” the officials said, adding that the Prime Minister’s Office was drafting an official response to mediators.
Blinken on Tuesday said the Biden administration was reviewing Hamas’s response and stressed it was “essential” to go ahead.
“There’s still a lot of work to be done. But we continue to believe that an agreement is possible and indeed essential, and we will continue to work relentlessly to achieve it,” he said.
Israel has repeatedly rejected proposals for a long-term or permanent ceasefire and maintains that it will continue in its goal to eradicate Hamas, return some 136 hostages still being held and ensure that Gaza can never again pose a threat to the Jewish state.