Building and consolidating the ceasefire agreement of 22 May between Hamas and Israel has become a challenge for the international community.
The UN Security Council, after three unsuccessful attempts from 10 to 21 May, released a statement on 23 May urging the parties to respect the ceasefire agreement and called for facilitating the entry into Gaza of much-needed humanitarian aid in addition to the start of rebuilding it.
The Arab countries, the European Union and the US administration have been working hard to make sure that hostilities will not break out again due to miscalculations or a lack of the political will to go ahead and prepare the ground for possible talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis to reach a negotiated solution to the Palestinian question.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made a whirlwind tour of the Middle East from 24 to 26 May, visiting Israel, Ramallah, Cairo and Amman. He met, in chronological order, with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior Israeli officials, Mahmoud Abbas (Abou Mazen), chair of the Palestinian Authority (PA), Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi (on 26 May) and king Abdullah of Jordan.
The basic message that he carried was that it is essential to consolidate the ceasefire agreement brokered by Egypt, to provide urgent humanitarian assistance to Gaza, and to begin the reconstruction efforts with equal urgency, provided that these are channelled through the PA and do not benefit Hamas in rebuilding its military arsenal.
In Israel, Blinken reiterated the US commitment to the security of Israel, saying that the US fully “supports” Israel’s right to defend itself against “attacks such as Hamas firing rockets indiscriminately against civilians.”
While this is the standard US position, Blinken also had kind and just words for the Palestinians. He admitted that one of the consequences of what he called “the operation” was that it requires the recognition that “losses on both sides were profound” and that while casualties can be reduced to numbers, behind numbers there are human beings.
He said that working on economic growth in Gaza and the West Bank “will help foster a more stable environment and benefit Palestinians and Israelis.” After his meeting with Abbas in Ramallah, Blinken said the Biden administration had earmarked $5.5 million for relief work in Gaza in addition to $32 million for the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and others. He also announced that the US would reopen its consulate in East Jerusalem in a significant reversal of a decision by the former Trump administration to close it down. He pledged to request the US Congress to approve $75 million for Gaza.
If Blinken wanted to work with US allies and partners in the Middle East to ensure an extended period of calm, the Israeli prime minister did not see it this way. After thanking the Biden administration for its support for Israel in the latest round of fighting with the Palestinians and Hamas, he pivoted to the indirect negotiations in Vienna between the US and Iran to rejoin the Iranian nuclear deal of July 2015, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). He wanted to deflect international attention from his country’s aggression against the Palestinians and to what he has called the “existential threat” to Israel of a nuclear-armed Iran.
He pointed out in a joint press conference with Blinken that “with or without” an agreement between the US and Iran, Israel “will do everything to prevent Iran from arming itself with a nuclear weapon, because that [threatens] our existence,” as he put it. On the other hand, he also said he would work with the Biden administration to expand relations with the Arab countries in the spirit of the so-called Abraham Accords of the Trump administration last September.
Concluding his talks in Israel and Ramallah, Blinken said that both the Israeli and the Palestinian sides had admitted in talks he had held separately with them the necessity of solving the root causes of the conflict.
In Cairo, paying his first visit to the Egyptian capital, he met with president Al-Sisi and praised the role played by Egypt in reaching the ceasefire agreement of 22 May. He said that the US believes that Egypt is an effective partner and that Washington and Cairo are working together “positively” to secure stability and peace in the Middle East.
The Egyptian president stressed that the latest hostilities in Gaza had demonstrated the urgent need for the resumption of peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis and that Cairo would work closely with Washington to achieve this objective.
In the meantime, the General Director of the Egyptian General Intelligence Service Abbas Kamel flew to Israel on Sunday where he had a meeting with Netanyahu, and then went to Ramallah to confer with Abbas. On the following Monday, he drove to Gaza to meet with senior Hamas leaders. The senior Egyptian official has had a sensitive mission in the three stops, namely how to sell the idea that things have to change, and it would be in the interest of the Palestinians and the Israelis to show restraint in the months and years to come and try to reach a negotiated solution for the Palestinian question. Coincidentally, Kamel’s visit took place the day a new Israeli government was supposed to be announced but without Netanyahu as the next prime minister of Israel. Will this momentous change give urgency to the Egyptian mediation and diplomatic efforts? The days ahead will probably provide a tentative answer.
Blinken’s tour of the Middle East has been an opportunity for the Biden administration early in its first term to learn firsthand about the reality of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in concrete terms and after a devastating military onslaught on Gaza. If there is one conclusion of the tour of the US secretary of state in the region, it is that a diplomatic vacuum is a very dangerous situation in the Middle East and a state of affairs that has seen the outbreak of armed conflicts between the Israelis and the Palestinians. There have been four so far: 2008-2009, 2012, 2014 and 2021.
The latest round of the Israeli military offensive against Gaza and Hamas lasted 11 days. The previous one in 2014 lasted 52 days. If the diplomatic vacuum remains in place, the region will witness a new conflagration in either the nearer or more distant future. And the vicious cycle of reconstruction and destruction will continue to deprive both the Palestinians and the Israelis of the fruits of living side by side in freedom, namely security and economic prosperity for all. The earlier the Israelis realise that uprooting the Palestinians from the lands of their ancestors is next to impossible, the better it will be for the Middle East.
In Amman, the last leg of his Middle Eastern tour, Blinken reiterated in his discussions with king Abdullah on 26 May that the Palestinians and the Israelis “equally deserve to live safely and securely” and to enjoy “equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy.”
The magic words here are “equally” and “equal measures.” Rarely has there been such a strong articulation on the part of a US administration, whether Democrat or Republican, of the inalienable rights of the Palestinians. The Biden administration has put the Palestinians and the Israelis on a par, at least theoretically. We look forward to active engagement on its part in peace-making in the region.
Is the US administration ready yet to push hard to fill the diplomatic vacuum? From the results of Blinken’s tour of the Middle East, it seems that for the time being the US prefers to leave the task of resuming the negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis to its regional allies and partners. The problem in this approach is twofold. On the one hand, Israel is in the throes of a crisis of government that does not seem about to disappear any time soon. On the other hand, the resumption of peace negotiations to solve the Palestinian question is not a shared strategic priority among the Arab and regional powers.
Such being the case, the huge task of keeping the ceasefire in place and working for instituting calm over a longer period of time with the hope of reviving talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis falls on Egypt and to a lesser extent Jordan. The road towards peace and security in the Middle East is a long and a tortuous one, or so it seems. The odds at the present moment are challenging.
*The writer is former assistant foreign minister.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 June, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly