US Secretary of State Antony Blinken embarked on a diplomatic tour of the Middle East this week, seeking to prevent the recent deadly conflict between Israel and Hamas from spiraling into a wider regional war. Over 10 days, Blinken will meet with leaders from Israel, the Palestinian Authority, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey and Gulf nations in a bid to restore calm and chart a path forward.
The 11-day war last May between Israel and Hamas killed over 250 Palestinians and 13 Israelis and caused immense destruction in Gaza. While the ceasefire has largely held since then, tensions remain extremely high as Gaza’s humanitarian situation worsens and violent incidents continue.
Blinken’s visit comes as he tries to support reconstruction efforts in Gaza while urging governance reforms by the Palestinian Authority. But his messaging has received a mixed response so far, as the gap persists on core final-status issues.
Seeking to Avert a Return to War
The top US diplomat started his tour in Egypt and Jordan over the weekend, where leaders warned of devastating regional consequences if the Gaza situation remains unaddressed.
Blinken asserted that the US is committed to a two-state solution, though concrete details on reaching this long-elusive goal were scarce. While calling for measures to improve living conditions in Gaza, he also said the Palestinian Authority needed to “demonstrate its capability” to govern after years of Hamas control.
“The most important thing is to make sure that violent extremists are not able to frustrate positive developments or positive work,” Blinken told reporters on Sunday. “Right now, Hamas has demonstrated that it can bring rockets to bear and fire them indiscriminately at Israeli civilians. That’s not a basis on which there can be any real progress.”
After arriving in Israel on Monday, Blinken emphasized to Israeli leaders that reducing civilian casualties was an “absolute imperative,” while pushing both sides to avoid steps that could trigger a return to clashes.
“We know that to prevent a return to violence we have to use the window of opportunity to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges,” Blinken said after meeting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
“And that begins with tackling the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and starting to rebuild.
Aid to Gaza Conditioned on Palestinian Reforms
A key message Blinken delivered throughout meetings with Israeli, Palestinian and Arab officials this week was linking provision of reconstruction aid to institutional reforms by the Palestinian Authority.
The US earlier committed $50 million in additional humanitarian assistance for Gaza and is now the largest single donor to UNRWA, the UN agency supporting Palestinian refugees.
But Blinken told Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas that governance changes were needed to ensure Hamas did not divert assistance meant for the Palestinian people. He called on the Palestinian Authority to assert leadership over Gaza.
“The United States will continue its steadfast support for UNRWA. The most important thing is to put in place a system that ensures that support reaches the people who need it most,” Blinken stated following talks in Ramallah.
Rebuilding Gaza while preventing Hamas re-armament will prove an extremely difficult balancing act. Abbas rejected accusations of graft and said Palestinians were united behind his authority. Blinken meanwhile said the US has “an obligation” to ensure taxpayers’ money does not wind up “in the wrong hands.”
|Condition for Further US Support to Gaza
|Reestablish a single legitimate governing authority
|Provide transparency on funding flows
|Ensure funds properly reach those in need
|Prevent terrorist groups from re-arming
Pushing a Two-State Solution But Offering No Plan
While reasserting US backing for an independent Palestinian state throughout meetings this week, Blinken did not present concrete ideas on how to achieve this long-stalled objective.
The gaps between the two sides on issues like borders, security and the status of occupied East Jerusalem remain extremely wide. Netanyahu leads one of the most right-wing governments in Israel’s history and reaffirmed that Israel would set its own security policy.
Veteran negotiators on both sides have said a comprehensive Israeli-Palestinian peace accord is not currently within reach. Blinken claims conditions are not “ripe” at the moment for resuming moribund direct talks.
Instead he has spoken of pursuing more modest “confidence-building measures” while rehabilitating Gaza. Though Blinken says even simple improvements for Palestinians require progress on the political track.
“To achieve lasting progress for Israel and the Palestinian people, there is no substitute for direct negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians to resolve the core issues that divide them,” Blinken said in Ramallah. “But we can work to set an environment in which we improve the lives of Palestinians to build trust and confidence.”
Blinken’s public and private push to reopen a US consulate in East Jerusalem that served Palestinians also did not seem to gain traction amid Israeli opposition.
Overall the administration is likely acting from a defensive crouch in trying to manage the conflict, not expecting to drive a peace breakthrough during Biden’s term.
Tensions With Arab Allies Over Role of Iran, Criticism of Abuses
While seeking Arab backing on the Israeli-Palestinian situation, Blinken also faced pointed discussions this week with traditional regional partners over wider disagreements.
Gulf Arab monarchies have stepped up engagement with Tehran given a perception that US strategic focus is shifting away from their interests towards competition with China and Russia. Ties have also been strained by Washington speaking out against human rights violations.
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman told Blinken that failed nuclear talks and Iran’s expansionist behavior “represent a threat not only to the region’s security but to the world’s security.”
Blinken replied that the US is “very much determined to do everything we possibly can to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.”
But Saudi Arabia and the UAE remain frustrated over a lack of US involvement in Yemen’s war where Iranian-aligned Houthi rebels have launched attacks. The Biden administration has ended support for the Saudi-led offensive and called for a political settlement.
Meanwhile Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned Blinken that backing for Kurdish militias in Syria is “delegitimizing” America in the region. The US has partnered with Kurdish fighters to combat ISIS remnants.
Ongoing Israeli Strikes Add to Challenges
While Blinken conducts his weeklong regional tour attempting to ease tensions, the environment on the ground continues to grow more combustible.
Over recent months, Israeli security forces have dramatically escalated raids in the occupied West Bank after a series of deadly Palestinian attacks in Israel last spring. Some 30 Palestinians have been killed this year, making 2023 the deadliest in the West Bank since 2015 at this pace.
On Tuesday, as Blinken was urging restraint, Israeli forces shot dead a 16-year-old Palestinian boy during an operation in Nablus. The following day, a Palestinian gunman killed seven people outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem.
Blinken condemned the attacks but it remains to be seen if he can convince either side to pull back amid calls for retaliation and with Israeli-Palestinian relations severely ruptured.
Outlook: No Clear Endgame in Sight
Analysts say that while averting another war in Gaza is a priority, Blinken’s current regional tour seems unlikely to produce a significant breakthrough. The prospect of resuming fruitful peace talks ahead of Israeli elections in November is very slim.
And the longer-term strategy of the Biden administration to handle the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is opaque. Blinken has backed off from high-profile diplomatic initiatives in the early going while focusing on other foreign policy matters.
With the region less central to US global interests compared to the past, some argue Washington has effectively tried to “manage” rather than resolve the dispute. But the lack of American leadership has coincided with the erosion of prospects for a two-state compromise.
Meanwhile the economic and humanitarian crises festering in Gaza, stalled Palestinian state-building efforts and ongoing Israeli settlement expansion all continue to deepen resentment. This will likely fuel further unrest given the current volatile status quo deemed unsustainable by many experts.
Antony Blinken’s extensive Middle East tour this week has reflected the complex balancing act the Biden administration faces trying to prevent another flareup between Israel and Hamas in Gaza.
While reasserting US support for a two-state solution, Blinken offered no new diplomatic blueprint to break the deadlock. Instead he focused on short-term reconstruction plans for Gaza conditioned on internal reforms by the Palestinian Authority.
But Israeli leaders also gave no indication of willingness to offer concessions. And amid more violence, the visit seemed yielding little meaningful progress toward resuming a functional political process or substantive upgrades in Palestinian living standards.
Rather than Engineering a breakthrough, the administration’s objectives at this stage appear limited mostly to conflict management and mitigating regional tensions. Though with hostility running high in the absence of any conflict resolution horizon, critics warn the status quo still risks descending again into open war.
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