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News Brief: Blinken Mideast Trip, Belarus Airspace, George Floyd Anniversary

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Here is one thing that Secretary of State Antony Blinken is definitely not doing in a visit to Jerusalem. It's hard to see a way that Antony Blinken or any diplomat could significantly change the broad situation in the Middle East. Israelis and Palestinians have fought several wars, and a two-state solution is nowhere near. What Blinken is doing is addressing more immediate problems. NPR's Jackie Northam is in Jerusalem. Hey there, Jackie.

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: Morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: What did Blinken say after meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister?

NORTHAM: Well, Blinken and Netanyahu said they both had good and extensive talks, which also included Iran. Netanyahu said he hoped the U.S. would not revive the nuclear agreement. But like you indicated, much of the conversation was about the recent battle between Israel and Hamas. Blinken reiterated what President Biden had said, that the U.S. believes Israel has a right to defend itself against attacks. But he also talked about the urgent need for humanitarian aid in Gaza and just finding a path forward to prevent another outbreak of fighting. And here's Blinken now.

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ANTONY BLINKEN: There's a lot of hard work ahead to restore hope, respect and some trust across communities. But we've seen the alternative. And I think that should cause all of us to redouble our efforts to preserve the peace and improve the lives of Israelis and Palestinians alike.

NORTHAM: Now, Steve, Netanyahu also talked about the need for peace, but he warned that if Hamas starts firing rockets again, Israel's response would be, quote, "very powerful."

INSKEEP: I feel the need to remind people of the basics when it comes to Palestinians. The Israeli war was against Hamas, which controls Gaza, but there are other Palestinians elsewhere and, of course, the Palestinian Authority, led by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Blinken is not going to meet with Hamas, but he's meeting with Abbas. What are Palestinians looking for there?

NORTHAM: You're right. I mean, he's heading out to Ramallah today to meet with President Abbas. And many Palestinians are looking for re-engagement with the U.S. You know, the Trump administration moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. He made deep cuts in aid to Palestinians, among other things, so there's feeling of being cut off. I spoke with Ghassan Khatib. He's a political scientist at Birzeit University in the West Bank. And he told me that the Biden administration has talked about helping the Palestinians improve their living conditions and support their aspirations for an independent state. And here's what he had to say.

GHASSAN KHATIB: Still, they don't have a strategy to the conflict, and we're not sure yet whether they are going to invest the needed political capital for a solution or at least for reviving a political process.

NORTHAM: So you can see, you know, there's some interest in the new language used by the Biden administration. But there's still a lot of skepticism among Palestinians about the follow through.

INSKEEP: What does this trip by Blinken do, if anything, for Benjamin Netanyahu?

NORTHAM: Well, Netanyahu had a very close relationship with former President Donald Trump, and it's different with President Biden, who increasingly put pressure on Netanyahu to call for a cease-fire during this recent conflict. And, you know, there are a lot of Israelis who think Netanyahu should have kept up the airstrikes on Gaza. Netanyahu is trying to stay in office after four deadlocked elections, and he's facing corruption charges as well. But this gives him a chance to show that he still has good ties with the U.S. and President Biden.

INSKEEP: Ultimately, what does the president and his administration want?

NORTHAM: Well, I mean, their goals are modest here. You know, they're trying to make sure the cease-fire holds. They're trying to help get reconstruction efforts underway in Gaza. But the peace talks, those are all going to take a backseat during this visit. You know, State Department officials say there's too much to do in such a short period of time and that it's going to be an intense couple days.

INSKEEP: NPR's Jackie Northam, thanks.

NORTHAM: Thanks so much, Steve.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

OK. The government in the country of Belarus is facing consequences after forcing a commercial flight to land so that they could catch an opposition journalist and activist.

INSKEEP: Roman Protasevich is his name. He was headed to Lithuania, where he was living, and his flight was traveling over Belarus over the weekend when one of Belarus' Russian-made fighter jets appeared and directed it downward. The European Union has called on EU-based airlines to avoid flying over Belarus at all now, and the EU is considering more sanctions against the president of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko. Here's the prime minister of Lithuania, Ingrida Simonyte, speaking on Sky News.

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PRIME MINISTER INGRIDA SIMONYTE: It's outrageous to see that Lukashenko's regime can use whatever measures just to get a person he doesn't like.

MARTIN: NPR's Rob Schmitz is following the story and joins us from Berlin. Hi, Rob.

ROB SCHMITZ, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: So can you explain, Rob, what this journalist, Protasevich, was saying in his reporting that would provoke a response like this from the president of Belarus?

SCHMITZ: Yeah, Roman Protasevich is the editor of a news channel on the messaging app Telegram that's become a resource for the opposition to leader Alexander Lukashenko to coordinate and plan their actions. The content on this channel has also shed light on the corruption of Lukashenko and has given fuel to months of protests in Belarus over what many observers believe was a fraudulent election to keep Lukashenko, who is an ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin, in power.

MARTIN: So the EU is trying to keep its airliners out of Belarus' airspace. What other pressure are they planning against Belarus and the government?

SCHMITZ: The EU is also asking the European Council, the decision-making body of the EU, to ban Belarusian airlines from flying over EU airspace or landing in its airports. And that's a strong move because it effectively blocks the country's air connections to all of Western Europe. EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen justified this action last night. Here's what she said.

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SIMONYTE: The Air Navigation Service was misused to aid the state in taking control of an EU aircraft. And Belarus used its control of its airspace in order to perpetrate a state hijacking. Therefore, the safety and security of flights through Belarus airspace can no longer be trusted.

SCHMITZ: The EU is also looking into economic sanctions on businesses and entities that financially support the Lukashenko regime. And, of course, it's demanding the immediate release of Roman Protasevich and Sofia Sapega.

MARTIN: Meanwhile, there's this video of Roman Protasevich that's appeared on the internet. And tell us about that.

SCHMITZ: Yeah, this is a chilling video because it shows a staunch opponent to the Belarusian government confessing to organizing protests and almost praising how he's being treated. Here's what he said.

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ROMAN PROTASEVICH: (Non-English language spoken).

SCHMITZ: And, Rachel, he's saying here that police officers treat me properly and according to law. Also I now continue to cooperate with the investigation and give a confession of the fact of organizing mass protests in Minsk. And it should be noted here that Protasevich looked disheveled, and there were visible bruises on his face in this video.

MARTIN: So we should just acknowledge Belarus, the autocratic leader there, Lukashenko, enjoys strong support from Russia. Are further sanctions from Western countries likely to curb brazen action by Lukashenko, like this arrest?

SCHMITZ: Well, it's going to depend on how far these sanctions go. Last year, the EU imposed sanctions on individuals within the regime, and it wasn't enough for Lukashenko to prevent or ordering the landing of this EU passenger plane. Supporters of the opposition in Belarus say stronger sanctions on energy companies operating in the country could do more damage.

MARTIN: All right. NPR's Rob Schmitz reporting on all this from Berlin. Thank you, Rob.

SCHMITZ: Thank you.

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MARTIN: It happened one year ago today. A former Minneapolis police officer, a white man named Derek Chauvin, held his knee on the neck of a Black man named George Floyd. The knee stayed there for more than nine minutes until Floyd died.

INSKEEP: Today, vigils will be held around the country to mark Floyd's killing. The Floyd family will travel to the White House and meet privately with President Biden. The president had hoped to mark today with the passage of a major police reform bill named for Mr. Floyd, but that has not happened.

MARTIN: NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe is with us this morning. Hi, Ayesha.

AYESHA RASCOE, BYLINE: Good morning.

MARTIN: What more can you tell us about Biden's planned meeting with George Floyd's family?

RASCOE: He's meeting with Floyd's family at the White House today. It will be private. There's not supposed to be press there. He's interacted with them since the immediate aftermath of Floyd's death. People may remember he visited with them before the funeral when he was a candidate for president. Biden also called them after the guilty verdict in Floyd's murder. Press secretary Jen Psaki said yesterday that the meeting will be away from the cameras.

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JEN PSAKI: He wanted this meeting to be private in order to have a real conversation and preserve that with the family. He has a genuine relationship with them and the courage and grace of this family, and especially his daughter, Gianna, has really stuck with the president.

RASCOE: Biden's also promised this family that there would be action. Biden is supporting the George Floyd Justice and Policing Act that includes policing reforms. It has passed the House and now Biden is pushing to get it through the Senate.

MARTIN: I mean, police reform became a big part of Biden's campaign platform - right? - after George Floyd was murdered. So he's got a lot, I would imagine, riding on this bill.

RASCOE: He does. Biden has tried to respond to this moment that really rocked the country. But right now, he doesn't have much to point to in terms of concrete action or results. He's had the rhetoric. He's talked about the issue a lot and the White House has done outreach. At the federal level, Biden's Justice Department has opened up a civil rights review of the Minneapolis Police Department. But in his joint address to Congress, Biden set a deadline for Congress to pass the George Floyd bill into law by this anniversary. That was a very clear choice to set that deadline. And it was a bit of a risk, but that deadline has not been met.

MARTIN: So where are things at? You mentioned that the bill has passed the House, but what is happening in the Senate?

RASCOE: You know, this is a somewhat rare case where there actually has been real bipartisan negotiations. Republican Senator Tim Scott is working with Democrats, including Senator Cory Booker and Congresswoman Karen Bass, to get something done. And that trio did put out a statement yesterday saying they are making progress toward a compromise and they're optimistic. So a big sticking point has been over what's called qualified immunity, which protects police officers from civil repercussions for the work they do. But still, the White House has said that they are hopeful.

MARTIN: All right. NPR White House correspondent Ayesha Rascoe. Ayesha, thank you so much. We appreciate it.

RASCOE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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