Blinken urges calm

Ahmed Eleiba , Tuesday 31 Jan 2023

The escalating Israeli violence in the occupied Palestinian territories topped US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s talks in Cairo this week, writes Ahmed Eleiba

Al-Sisi and Blinken
Al-Sisi and Blinken


US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited Cairo at the start of a three-day visit to the Middle East that also included Tel Aviv and Ramallah this week.

In Cairo, the Palestinian-Israeli question featured prominently on the agenda of Blinken’s talks with Egyptian officials because of the violent developments in Israel and the West Bank triggered by Israel’s deadly attacks in the occupied West Bank on Thursday.

In remarks to the press following President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi’s meeting with Blinken, Presidential Spokesman Bassam Radi said that “Washington is counting on close coordination with Cairo to restore stability, achieve calm, and contain the situation between the Palestinians and Israelis.”

He explained that the president and US secretary of state had discussed recent developments in the Palestinian Territories and Egyptian and joint efforts to contain the mounting tensions between the Palestinians and Israelis.

He said that President Al-Sisi had emphasised the gravity of the current crisis and the need for immediate action to restore calm and forestall unilateral measures on both sides.

Blinken’s tour was followed by a similar tour by CIA Director William Burns. Both men stressed the need to contain tensions and restore calm between Israel and the Palestinians, and they reaffirmed their commitment to the two-state solution.

In Israel, the talks between US and Israeli officials were shaped by another recent development, namely the recent drone strike against an Iranian defence facility near Isfahan.

Discussions of arrangements related to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s forthcoming visit to Washington also appeared to take priority over the Palestinian question. With regard to the latter, the tone of the Israeli discourse reflects an intention to further escalate military operations in the West Bank.

In Tel Aviv, Blinken called for urgent measures to restore calm between Israel and the Palestinians. In a joint press conference with Netanyahu after their meeting in Jerusalem, he said that his government was “urging all sides now to take urgent steps to restore calm, to de-escalate.”

He reiterated Washington’s support for “upholding the historic status quo at Jerusalem’s holy places, including the Temple Mount/Haram Al-Sharif,” and stressed that “anything that leads us away from [the vision of a two-state solution] is, in our judgement, detrimental to Israel’s long-term security.”

Netanyahu called on Washington to “forge a common policy” to thwart the Iranian nuclear programme and Iranian designs for regional hegemony.

According to Palestinian reports, Blinken’s main aim in the West Bank was to persuade the Palestinian Authority (PA) to resume security coordination with the Israelis.

A source in Ramallah told Al-Ahram Weekly that the PA could not easily comply with this request despite the inducements Blinken offered, such as a commitment to oppose settlement expansion and to get Israel to unfreeze the tax revenues it has collected on behalf of the PA and that it withheld from the PA last summer.

The PA suspended security cooperation with Israel after Israeli occupation forces killed nine Palestinians in Jenin last week. The source said that the PA could not back down from its position in the light of the ongoing blockade of the West Bank and the escalating raids by the occupation forces on the pretext of preventing Palestinian attacks inside Israel.

Sources in Cairo familiar with the matter believe that the situation in the Occupied Territories will deteriorate further, regardless of Egyptian efforts to promote restraint. The Netanyahu government’s policies appear deliberately intended to turn the West Bank into a “powder keg”, as the sources put it.

“We can only expect the worst,” they said, in view of the type of Israeli violence the Palestinians had experienced in Jenin and the inflammatory behaviour of senior officials in the Netanyahu government.

The most dangerous are Netanyahu’s interior minister, Itamar Ben Gvir, who promotes the distribution of firearms among West Bank settlers and provocative actions such as the storming of the Al-Aqsa Mosque by radical settlers, and Bezalel Smotrich, a notorious extremist who is in charge of settler affairs.  

Netanyahu’s defence minister and close political ally Yoav Galant has also been adding fuel to the fire. Speaking at an army post at the settlement of Beit El overlooking Ramallah, Galant declared that “every terrorist will either go to court or to his grave.”

“We will hunt them down if need be. We will carry out offensive and preemptive measures against all who try to harm our children. All who abet terrorists will be harmed. If need be, we will destroy their homes. We will strip them of their rights.”

The sources the Weekly spoke with in Cairo agree that both Cairo and Washington are unsure how to handle the problem. They know that trying to convince Netanyahu alone will not work. The Israeli government does not speak with one voice, and there is no longer a single address to turn to in order to mediate or promote restraint.

The escalating tensions are likely to drive the Palestinian factions to ramp up their actions against Israel. The Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ), in particular, will be chomping at the bit, but it is unlikely to act on its own without Hamas.

But Hamas, too, might feel forced to take action after the recent exchanges of missile fire between Israel and Gaza. For Cairo the problem is not just that the situation could spiral out of control in the form of military clashes or a fully-fledged Intifada. Cairo fears the crisis could grow more complex and spread because of how various regional issues interweave.

Not the least of these is the Iranian crisis following the recent strike against the facility outside Isfahan for which Israel is widely believed to be responsible. Iran may try to retaliate via Syria where Israel has been stepping up strikes recently, ostensibly to prevent Iranian forces from establishing themselves too close to the Israeli border.

The PIJ and Hamas could come into play in support of Iranian pressure on Israel from the north, perhaps in conjunction with support from Hizbullah in Lebanon and other pro-Iranian factions in Syria.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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