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Blinken will return to the Middle East after NATO summit

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

President Biden has sent his CIA chief, William Burns, to Qatar, the country that's mediating a hostage deal between Israel and Hamas. America's top diplomat, Antony Blinken, is also planning to head to the Middle East this week after a stop in Brussels for a NATO summit.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

ANTONY BLINKEN: I am very pleased to see hostages returning home, coming back to be with their loved ones, and we're determined to continue that for as long as possible to bring as many people home as we possibly can.

KELLY: Well, NPR's Michele Kelemen is traveling with Secretary Blinken. She is on the line now from Brussels. Hey, Michele.

MICHELE KELEMEN, BYLINE: Hi, Mary Louise.

KELLY: OK, so let's start with the Middle East trip, which I gather is coming right up. Blinken is about to head back. What's he planning?

KELEMEN: Yeah, he's planning to go to Israel and the West Bank, and he'll also see some Arab leaders when he stops at the climate summit in Dubai at the end of the week. And while CIA Director Burns seems to be focused mostly on the hostage deal and much quieter, behind-the-scenes negotiations, Secretary Blinken has been kind of the more public figure on U.S. policy. He's pushing to get more aid into Gaza. He's trying to encourage Israel to do more to protect civilians in the south of Gaza if, as expected, the Israelis continue their offensive there, and he wants everyone to start really thinking about the day after.

KELLY: The day after - meaning what happens to Gaza in the long term?

KELEMEN: Yeah - I mean, what happens once Israel decides that it has met its military objectives against Hamas? Blinken has set out some basic principles. He says the U.S. wants to make sure that Palestinians are not forced out of Gaza, that Israel doesn't reoccupy it and that the Palestinian Authority - or a revitalized version of that, as Blinken's aides like to say - can re-establish itself there. Foreign ministers from Western nations who are meeting here at NATO headquarters have all welcomed the temporary pause that has led to the release of some hostages that Hamas has been holding, but many also say that the only way to resolve this is to have a Palestinian state. NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says that's what he heard from many of the allies today. He also said many, like him, are still worried that this could become a wider regional conflict, and no one here wants that.

KELLY: No. And meanwhile, the Middle East, as huge as it is, is not the only thing on NATO's plate. What else is on the agenda for the meetings you're there for?

KELEMEN: Yeah. Tensions in the Balkans and then, of course, Ukraine. The NATO secretary general said the alliance needs to keep up its support as Russia unleashes more attacks and Ukraine braces for another tough winter. Take a listen to Stoltenberg.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

JENS STOLTENBERG: We see intense fighting along the front line. And we have seen waves of drone attacks against Ukrainian cities, and we need to be prepared for more fighting and also more air and missile attacks against Ukrainian cities.

KELEMEN: So not a very good-looking picture. And there's been a lot of concern that the alliance won't be able to keep up the level of support that it has. U.S. aid is at risk in Congress, for instance, but most foreign ministers here say they are determined to keep supporting Ukraine to make sure Russia doesn't win.

KELLY: One more NATO question while you're there, Michele, which is Sweden - what happened to Sweden? Because U.S. officials had been hoping that Sweden would be a member of the NATO alliance by now.

KELEMEN: Yeah, the Turkish parliament still hasn't ratified Sweden's NATO membership, and both Blinken and the secretary general were sounding pretty frustrated with that. Blinken spoke to his Turkish counterpart about that today.

KELLY: NPR's Michele Kelemen in Brussels, traveling with Secretary of State Antony Blinken. Thanks, Michele.

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.