U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken is headed to the Middle East this week for talks with Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab leaders as the region grapples with the aftermath of recent fighting between Israel and Gaza militants and fears grow of a wider conflict.
Blinken’s trip, planned for January 5-15, will cover Turkiye, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, and Egypt. The focus will be on supporting a ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, providing humanitarian aid to Gaza, and urging de-escalation amid rising tensions between Israel and Hezbollah along the Lebanese border.
Lead Up to Latest Violence
Tensions have been building in the region for months. Last May, fighting broke out between Israel and Hamas for 11 days, leaving over 250 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead. Despite a ceasefire reached on May 21, tensions remained high.
In late December, Israeli forces launched a raid in the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank, killing 10 Palestinians. This triggered rocket fire from Gaza and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes. At least 49 Palestinians, including children, were killed in the latest clashes.
Goals of Blinken’s Trip
The State Department says Blinken will focus on three key objectives:
- Solidifying the ceasefire between Israel and Gaza militants
- Delivering aid to rebuild Gaza while preventing funds from reaching Hamas
- Urging regional partners to deescalate tensions that could spark another war
“He will reinforce the United States’ commitment to strengthening all aspects of our partnerships with Israel and other regional partners, as well as advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace, security, and prosperity,” the State Department said.
Meetings with Regional Leaders
Israel and Palestine
Blinken’s first stop will be Israel and the occupied West Bank. He plans to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Eli Cohen, and Defense Minister Yoav Galant to discuss bolstering Israel’s security while urging restraint in its response to rocket attacks.
Blinken will also likely press Israel to make some gestures to improve economic conditions in Gaza, in order to undermine popular support for Hamas. However, analysts say Israel is unlikely to lift its blockade on the coastal enclave.
In Ramallah, Blinken will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to discuss plans to rebuild Gaza while bypassing Hamas. He is also expected to ask Abbas to reschedule long-overdue Palestinian elections.
Egypt and Jordan
As key U.S. allies and neighbors of Israel and Gaza, Egypt and Jordan play critical roles in mediating tensions.
In Cairo, Blinken will meet with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi and Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry to discuss Egypt’s behind-the-scenes efforts to mediate a long-term ceasefire between Israel and Palestinian factions.
In Amman, talks with King Abdullah II and Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi will cover Jordan’s custodianship of Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem amid heightened Israeli-Palestinian tensions over the flashpoint Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.
Risk of Wider Conflict
While the immediate priority is avoiding another war between Israel and Gaza militants, the bigger concern is conflict erupting on additional fronts.
Hezbollah Threatens Retaliation
Lebanon’s powerful Iran-backed Hezbollah has threatened to strike Israel in retaliation for an alleged Israeli drone attack in Beirut in December. This has raised fears of another Israel-Hezbollah war, like the month-long conflict in 2006.
Blinken is expected to travel to Beirut after his Middle East tour to urge Hezbollah and its allies to refrain from escalatory actions. But with Lebanon facing economic and political crises, its government seems unable to restrain the Shiite group.
Iran Nuclear Deal in Limbo
Looming over the tensions is the future of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the pact in 2018 and reimposed sanctions; Iran responded by ramping up its nuclear program.
President Joe Biden wants to negotiate a return to the agreement, but talks have stalled. If the accord collapses, experts warn it could fuel a regional arms race and more proxy battles as Iran accelerates its nuclear advances.
Iran’s Influence in Yemen, Iraq, and Syria
Another key concern is limiting Iran’s influence across the region. This includes Iranian support for Houthi rebels in Yemen, who continue cross-border attacks against U.S. ally Saudi Arabia.
In his travels, Blinken will likely discuss countering Iran’s proxies in places like Iraq and Syria while reviving the nuclear deal. However, Iran shows no sign of curbing its regional ambitions.
Outlook Going Forward
Blinken faces long odds to achieve breakthroughs on this trip. Israel and Hamas remain fundamentally opposed; Hezbollah refuses to disarm; Iran keeps advancing its nuclear program.
Without meaningful progress towards resolving these complex issues, another eruption of violence seems inevitable. Blinken’s focus may be conflict management rather than conflict resolution.
With midterm elections looming in November, Biden cannot afford to ignore a major new war in the Middle East. But his administration has struggled to develop coherent policies for quelling regional tensions.
For now, Blinken hopes high-level engagement with all sides and offers of U.S. support will help maintain a fragile calm. But the ingredients for a wider conflagration remain.
|Key Issues and Challenges
|– Ceasefire violations between Israel and Gaza militants
– Rebuilding Gaza while sidelining Hamas
– Calls for Israel to ease blockade on Gaza
– Settler violence and Palestinian attacks in the West Bank
– Fate of Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem
|– Hezbollah threats to attack Israel in retaliation for alleged Israeli drone strike in Beirut
– Risk of new Israel-Hezbollah war like that of 2006
– Lebanon’s economic crisis and political dysfunction limiting government’s ability to restrain Hezbollah
|Iran Nuclear Deal
|– Talks stalled on U.S. return to 2015 nuclear deal
– Iran expanding nuclear program in violation of accord
– Collapse of deal could fuel regional arms race, more Iran-backed proxy battles
|– Ongoing Houthi rebel attacks against Saudi Arabia
– Iran’s support for Houthis destabilizing region
– Saudi frustration with U.S. response to Houthi strikes
|– Limiting Iran’s influence over proxies destabilizing Iraq, Syria
– Constraining Iran’s regional ambitions seen as key to nuclear talks
– But Iran shows no intent to curb proxies like Hezbollah, Iraqi militias
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