(Bloomberg) -- Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Israel must stop undercutting Palestinian governance and rein in settler violence, some of his most direct criticism yet of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government since the start of the Hamas war.

“Israel must stop taking steps that undercut Palestinians’ ability to govern themselves effectively,” Blinken told a briefing in Tel Aviv after a day of meetings with Israeli officials. “Extremist settler violence carried out with impunity. Settlement expansion, demolitions, evictions — all make it harder, not easier, for Israel to achieve lasting peace and security.” 

The comments reflected rising frustration by the Biden administration toward Netanyahu’s government, which has largely ignored calls to scale back the intensity of its campaign in the Gaza Strip in the weeks since Hamas attacked southern Israel on Oct. 7.

Blinken heard just the opposite on Tuesday. Israeli leaders including Defense Minister Yoav Gallant vowed to intensify rather than slow down the assault on Gaza, and has pushed ahead with a campaign targeting Hamas and Hezbollah leaders in Lebanon.

In their meeting, Gallant “emphasized that operations in the region of Khan Younis will intensify and continue” until Hamas leadership is found and Israeli hostages return home safely, according to a readout.

Blinken voiced US support for Israel and its war against Hamas but reiterated that lasting peace wouldn’t be possible without a state for Palestinians and called on Israel to do more to protect innocent civilians in Gaza.

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He was also looking to tamp down the prospects of a wider conflict stretching from Israel’s northern border to the Red Sea, where a US coalition has threatened action against Iran-backed Houthi militants attacking commercial ships plying a crucial global trade route. 

UN Mission

Blinken also announced that Israel has agreed to allow the United Nations to carry out an assessment mission in the Gaza Strip to make sure displaced Palestinians can eventually return to the northern part of the besieged coastal enclave.

Blinken conceded that it was still going to be a huge task to allow people to return safely to north Gaza. Large swathes of the densely-populated urban area, which were the first to be targeted in the ongoing war, have been turned to rubble by Israeli airstrikes.

“This is not going to happen overnight,” Blinken said of the UN mission. “There are serious security, infrastructure and humanitarian challenges, but the mission will start a process that evalates these obstacles and how they can be overcome.”

In meetings with Netanyahu and other top officials, Blinken sought to paint a picture of a secure future for Israel, raising the prospect of US-backed regional integration for Israel and Arab nations, whose leaders he met on his fourth extended diplomatic tour of the Middle East since the war broke out in October.

“This is an incredibly challenging time,” Blinken told Foreign Minister Israel Katz on Tuesday. “I know your own efforts over many years to build much better connectivity and integration in the Middle East. And I think there actually are real opportunities there.”

‘Lasting Peace’

Later, in a meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken “reiterated the need to ensure lasting, sustainable peace for Israel and the region, including by the realization of a Palestinian state,” according to a readout of their meeting.  

That’s an outcome that many Arab states say must occur to win their involvement in post-conflict Gaza. The problem is that many officials in Netanyahu’s government reject the idea, particularly at a time when Israel has just suffered a national trauma and remains under pressure to free hostages seized by Hamas. 

Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv late on Monday after stops in Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, where he met with officials concerned about the rising number of Palestinian deaths and the chance that the violence in Gaza sparks a broader conflagration.

He got pushback from Qatari Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al Thani on the possibility of military strikes against the Houthis in Yemen. He warned it would only raise regional tensions and fuel an endless cycle of violence.

“We never see a military action as a resolution,” Al Thani said.

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