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Blinken returns to Mideast as Israel politics scramble push for truce

CAIRO, Egypt — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken was heading back to the Middle East on Monday to push a ceasefire plan, but Israeli politics and silence from Hamas raised further questions on whether he can succeed.

The top US diplomat, paying his eighth visit to the region since war broke out, was set to start the trip in Egypt and head later Monday to Israel.

Blinken is scheduled to hold closed-door talks first in Cairo with President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, a key US partner in peace efforts, and later in Jerusalem with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Blinken planned the visit to push forward a proposal announced on May 31 by President Joe Biden, who has stepped up efforts to end a war that has taken a mounting toll on civilians and alienated parts of his base ahead of November elections.

But Hamas, which opened the war with a massive October 7 attack on Israel that triggered a relentless retaliatory campaign, has not formally responded.

And while Biden has described his plan as coming from Israel, the resignation on Sunday of a key centrist, Benny Gantz, from Netanyahu's war cabinet throws a new wild card on US diplomatic efforts.

Gantz, a former general who leads in polls to replace Netanyahu if new elections are called, protested that the prime minister had not made the hard decisions to enable "real victory", including by thinking out a post-war plan for Gaza.

Gantz has cast himself as a smoother partner for the United States than Netanyahu, a veteran of political squabbles with Israel's vital ally. Biden in recent weeks suspended a shipment of weapons to Israel and accused Netanyahu of prolonging the war to stay in power, an assertion on which he backtracked.

Gantz defied Netanyahu by visiting Washington on his own in March and has regularly met in Israel with Blinken, although a meeting on the latest trip was not immediately announced.

The short-term effect of Gantz leaving the war cabinet could be removing a counter-balance to Netanyahu's far-right allies, who abhor any compromise and have threatened to quit if Israel accepts the ceasefire plan.

Israel also showed Saturday it has more tools than diplomacy to free hostages -- its key priority --