By Nike Ching and William Gallo
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken warned Israel against reoccupying Gaza, even while acknowledging a “transition period” may be necessary following Israel’s war against Hamas militants in the Palestinian enclave.
At a press conference Wednesday on the sidelines of a Group of Seven summit in Tokyo, Blinken reasserted U.S. support for Israel’s efforts to oust Hamas, which killed 1,400 people and abducted over 200 others in an attack last month in Israel.
But Blinken also said “it is clear that Israel cannot occupy Gaza.”
“Now, the reality is that there may be a need for some transition period at the end of the conflict. But it is imperative that the Palestinian people be central to governance in Gaza and the West Bank, as well,” he added.
In an interview Tuesday with ABC News, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu suggested his country will play a security role in Gaza for an “indefinite period” once the conflict ends.
Over 10,000 Palestinians have been killed, including over 4,000 children, according to Palestinian officials, as Israel intensifies its ground operation and airstrikes in Gaza.
Netanyahu has insisted there will be no cease-fire until the hostages taken by Hamas are released. But he suggested Tuesday that “tactical little pauses – an hour there, an hour there” are possible.
In a joint statement issued Wednesday, G7 foreign ministers called for “humanitarian pauses and corridors” to allow for the delivery of humanitarian aid and the release of hostages.
The G7 statement also vowed to support Ukraine’s defense against Russia “for as long as it takes,” condemned alleged Russian-North Korean weapons transactions, and criticized a wide range of Chinese actions.
But the meeting was dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian crisis, amid growing international calls for a cease-fire.
Last week, a large majority of countries in the United Nations General Assembly voted for a resolution calling for an immediate and sustained “humanitarian truce” in Gaza.
The United States voted against the proposal, warning that a cease-fire would allow Hamas to regroup and conduct more attacks.
France, another G7 member, supported the resolution, underscoring differences on the Mideast conflict even among wealthy, developed countries.
G7 host Japan has also not been as outspokenly pro-Israel as other U.S. allies, said Jeffrey J. Hall, a professor at the Kanda University of International Studies.
“Japan is faced with either angering Washington, or angering the Arab states that supply it with oil,” Hall said.
“It’s not really possible for the G7 to come out with a very strong united position on this,” he added.
At his press conference, Blinken played down any suggestion of friction, saying “G7 unity is stronger and more important than ever.”
Pressing global concerns
In the joint statement that followed two days of meetings, G7 foreign ministers addressed a wide range of other global issues.
On Ukraine, the G7 leaders vowed that their governments’ “steadfast commitment” to Ukraine’s defense “will never waver.”
“We commit to standing by Ukraine for as long as it takes,” the statement said.
Some analysts have expressed concern that the Israel-Gaza conflict may shift international focus away from the Ukraine-Russia war.
Such concerns are valid, according to Sebastian Maslow, who teaches international relations at Sendai Shirayuri Women’s College in Japan.
“We are living in an attention economy now,” Maslow said. But, he said, G7 governments know that if they soften their support of Ukraine, “this will send a strong signal towards Russia – and China, for that matter – that the G7 has no ability to resolve a fundamental regional crisis.”
Focus on Asia
In Tokyo, Blinken also stressed it is important for the United States to continue to focus on Asia, even while it deals with urgent issues in Europe and the Mideast.
“We are determined, and we are, as we would say, running and chewing gum at the same time,” Blinken said. “The Indo-Pacific is the critical region for our future.”
His comments come ahead of an expected meeting next week in California between U.S. President Joe Biden and China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.
Blinken said he could not comment on specific topics that Biden and Xi will discuss, but that both sides “have acknowledged the importance of leader level channels in managing the relationship.”
Analysts do not expect any breakthroughs at the Xi-Biden meeting but say such meetings may help prevent U.S.-China tensions from spiraling out of control.
Wednesday’s G7 statement repeated many longstanding concerns that the United States and many of its allies have about China.
The statement expressed opposition to “unilateral attempts to change the status quo by force or coercion” in the East and South China seas.
The statement also linked the peace and stability of the Taiwan Strait to the “security and prosperity” of the international community.
China has increased its military threats against self-ruled Taiwan and refuses to rule out taking the island by force. Beijing views the issue as a domestic, not international, concern, and routinely criticizes other countries’ comments on the matter.
In addition, the G7 statement expressed concern about the human rights situation in China, including in Xinjiang and Tibet.
But G7 leaders added: “We stand prepared to build constructive and stable relations with China, recognizing the importance of engaging candidly and expressing our concerns directly to China.”
Blinken to Seoul
Following the G7 meetings, Blinken departed for Seoul, where he will meet with senior South Korean leaders. Military cooperation between North Korea and Russia will be high on the agenda, according to U.S. officials.
Washington and Seoul have vowed to enhance joint deterrence against growing threats from Pyongyang as North Korea continues its nuclear and ballistic missile programs and prepares for what would be a third attempt to launch a spy satellite.
The G7 statement strongly condemned recent North Korean weapons tests, as well as alleged arms transfers from North Korea to Russia, which it said directly violate U.N. Security Council resolutions.