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Blinken to travel to Saudi Arabia amid renewed push for a hostage deal

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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken will travel to Saudi Arabia this week for meetings with regional partners, including Palestinian, Egyptian and Qatari leaders, to discuss efforts for securing the release of Israeli hostages and a cease-fire in Gaza, the State Department said in a statement. After participating in meetings of the World Economic Forum and Gulf Cooperation Council in Riyadh, he will continue on to Jordan and Israel later in the week.

The foreign ministers of Britain, Germany and France are also expected at the WEF meeting, alongside the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, WEF President Borge Brende said at a news conference. “There is some new momentum now in the talks around the hostages and also for a possible way out of the impasse that we are faced in Gaza,” he said.

Blinken traveled to the country in March to discuss a U.S. plan to normalize relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, but leaders in Riyadh have said any such deal would require a pathway to a Palestinian state — a scenario rejected by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

On this visit, National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said, “pushing for this temporary cease-fire” would be “right at the top of the list for Secretary Blinken.” Kirby told ABC’s “This Week” on Sunday that Blinken will “also be talking to the Israelis about their intentions and their thinking on Rafah military operations and where they are in the planning stages for that.” U.S. officials have repeatedly voiced opposition to a major military operation in Rafah, in southern Gaza, which Israel says is home to Hamas’s last intact battalions but is also a refuge for more than a million displaced civilians.

Egyptian officials, who visited Israel on Friday for talks on a proposed cease-fire deal, are optimistic about the prospects of a truce being reached, according to a former Egyptian official with knowledge of the talks who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject. The former official said Israeli cabinet members accepted “for the first time” the idea of a long-lasting halt to the fighting and expressed willingness to hold off on attacking Rafah if a deal can be reached. The proposal is now with Hamas, he said.

On Sunday, President Biden reaffirmed the United States’ “ironclad commitment to Israel’s security” in a call with Netanyahu. In a statement, Biden demanded that Hamas release its remaining hostages to “secure a ceasefire and relief for the people of Gaza.” The two leaders also discussed “increases in the delivery of humanitarian assistance into Gaza including through preparations to open new northern crossings starting this week.”

In Israel, concern is increasing about the possibility of arrest warrants being issued by the International Criminal Court against Netanyahu and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant for alleged war crimes in Gaza, Israeli media reported.

Netanyahu appeared to address the reports Friday, writing on social media that “Israel will never accept any attempt by the ICC to undermine its inherent right of self-defense.” Israel and the United States do not accept the jurisdiction of the ICC, but member states would be obliged to carry out arrests of anyone in their jurisdiction who faced a warrant. On Sunday, Foreign Minister Israel Katz instructed all Israeli embassies worldwide “to prepare immediately for a wave of severe antisemitism,” should the ICC issue warrants for senior Israeli officials.

Here’s what else to know

Blinken’s visit comes amid a renewed push for a deal with Hamas, which released videos of three hostages last week, including two Israeli Americans. The latest video, released Saturday, shows U.S.-born Keith Siegel, 64, and Omri Miran, 47, who were taken hostage on Oct. 7. The footage has added to pressure on Israel to negotiate a deal for their release.

Aid group World Central Kitchen said Sunday it would resume its operations in Gaza, following the deaths of seven staff members this month by an Israeli military strike. The D.C.-based nonprofit led by celebrity chef José Andrés said in a statement that a Palestinian team would begin delivering food Monday, including in the north of the enclave, where the hunger crisis is most acute. The group said it had 276 trucks with the equivalent of almost 8 million meals ready to enter through the Rafah crossing and will also send trucks into Gaza from Jordan.

Pro-Palestinian protests unfolded outside the White House correspondents’ dinner on Saturday night, with demonstrators posing as slain Gazan journalists outside the Washington Hilton. They laid out press vests to honor media workers who have been killed in the enclave and unfurled a Palestinian flag out of a window at the venue.

France’s foreign minister arrived in Lebanon on Sunday, in a bid to “pursue the objective of peace and stability in the region,” Stéphane Séjourné tweeted. Séjourné praised the United Nations’ peacekeeping force in southern Lebanon as he inspected troops. Reuters has reported that France is trying to ease tensions between Israel and Hezbollah, which have escalated their tit-for-tat border attacks in recent weeks.

At least 34,454 people have been killed and 77,575 injured in Gaza since the war began, according to the Gaza Health Ministry, which does not distinguish between civilians and combatants but says the majority of the dead are women and children. Israel estimates that about 1,200 people were killed in Hamas’s Oct. 7 attack, including more than 300 soldiers, and says 261 soldiers have been killed since the launch of its military operation in Gaza.

Claire Parker, Lior Soroka, Hannah Allam and Steve Hendrix contributed to this report.

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