Fresh from consecutive talks with President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi in Egypt and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Tuesday.
Blinken’s three-leg tour of the region comes against a backdrop of significant Israeli military escalation on two parallel fronts: Palestinian and Iranian.
Last Thursday, Israel, now under one of the most far-right governments in its history, launched an aggressive attack on Jenin in the West Bank that killed nine Palestinians.
In reaction to a retaliatory attack against Israeli settlers, on Sunday it hit again by launching an attack on Gaza. During the same week, Israel said it had hit Iranian targets three times, including an attack on an ammunition depot, which Iran said was insignificant, and two other attacks on convoys of weapons.
Blinken arrived in Cairo on Sunday for a visit that had been under preparation for days ahead of this two-track escalation.
Kicking off with meetings with a group of young men and women at the American University in Cairo and civil society figures, Blinken went on to focus on regional affairs, especially the Palestinian situation amid concerns about a possible escalation beyond the limits of the control of the Palestinian Authority (PA) owing to widespread Palestinian anger and the aggressive political and security positions of the Israeli government.
An informed Egyptian source said that Egypt was in favour of de-escalation and that it had received relatively reassuring statements from the leading resistance movements in Gaza, namely Hamas and Islamic Jihad.
The worry, the source said, was more on the Israeli side because it was clear that Israel’s “ultra-radical” government would adopt provocative positions that could trigger sporadic Palestinian anger that “nobody can either anticipate or control.”
“This is not just about the Palestinian Authority, but also about both Hamas and Islamic Jihad, who have shown considerable restraint.”
On Monday, Blinken’s talks in Cairo started with a meeting with President Al-Sisi and then with Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukri. In joint press statements, both Shoukri and Blinken said there Cairo and Washington are committed to work on the containment of the Palestinian-Israeli situation.
Neither offered a specific vision of the path towards détente, however.
According to Mohamed Ibrahim, an informed strategic analyst with previous experience of high-level mediation between the Palestinians and Israelis, it would be hard to say that there was a coherent vision on the management of the Palestinian-Israeli situation on the US side.
“This is precisely where we differ with the US. Egypt has a vision that is the need to relaunch political talks on the basis of a clear and coherent agenda for peace. The US is too focused on the containment issue and does not seem to be planning to go further any time soon,” Ibrahim said.
He added that with such an intense political and security agenda, the US “is not really prioritising the political agenda on the Palestinian front.”
“This [US] administration has so many issues, including Ukraine, Russia, China, Iran, and the strained relations with the Gulf. It is too preoccupied.”
He added that despite Cairo’s awareness of the limitations on how far the Biden administration would go, Egypt was willing to engage on the containment front to match whatever the US was going to invest, though he doubted that the US would invest much.
Senior fellow at the US Institute of Peace Hisham Youssef, who has long and direct diplomatic experience of the Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, shared Ibrahim’s scepticism.
Youssef said that it was Egyptian-US cooperation that had led to the successful containment of tensions with Israel under previous Netanyahu governments and later under the Ya’ir Lapid and Naftali Bennett coalition.
“US-Egyptian cooperation succeeded in ending the war in May 2021 after 11 days, in avoiding any major escalation in Ramadan and Passover in 2022, and in ending the military attack on Islamic Jihad after three days in August 2022,” he said.
“But today the situation is somewhat different given the radical nature of the Netanyahu government” that includes far-right cabinet members like Itamar Ben Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich.
“Netanyahu needs the support of the extremist members of his cabinet for his own agenda that includes an attempt to fix some legal charges against him. He will have to accommodate them, and this could make it more challenging to keep détente in place, even if we are just talking about détente and not a political process,” Youssef said.
The US “could always put pressure on this government, but the question is whether the US has the political will to go there,” he said. “The indicators we have do not suggest that there will be much pressure from the US on this government.”
Following his talks in Israel, Blinken said during a joint press conference with Netanyahu that he had underlined the need to avoid escalation and to work towards a political path in resolving the crisis.
“We continue to believe that the best way to achieve it is through preserving and then realising the vision of two states. As I said to the prime minister, anything that moves us away from that vision is, in our judgement, detrimental to Israel’s long-term security and its long-term identity as a Jewish and democratic state,” Blinken said.
“That’s why we’re urging all sides now to take urgent steps to restore calm, to de-escalate. We want to make sure that there’s an environment in which we can, I hope, at some point create the conditions where we can start to restore a sense of security for Israelis and Palestinians alike, which of course is sorely lacking.”
According to both Ibrahim and Youssef, such statements need to come with concrete action to help things move in the direction of talks towards the two-state solution. So far, both said, the US has yet to show this type of concrete commitment.
Both also agreed that much can happen on the ground and that the role of Egypt in working to use its relations with all concerned is essential, even if only for the sake of détente.
In addition to the Palestinians and Israelis, the parties include Jordan, whose King Abdullah is scheduled to attend talks in Washington with Biden. The Jordanian monarch earlier in the month also received Netanyahu in an unannounced visit that was leaked to the Israeli press.
In Washington, he is expected to ask the US to work on a specific containment plan that relates to the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem for which the Hashemite Kingdom is responsible.
Egyptian officials agree that Jordan is a partner in working on averting escalation against the Palestinians, especially when it comes to Jerusalem. Earlier in the month, President Al-Sisi hosted Palestinian President Abbas and the Jordanian monarch before Al-Sisi and Abdullah flew to the UAE where they discussed the Palestinian situation during a wider Arab meeting hosted by UAE President Mohamed bin Zayed.
The latter is leading the momentum for Arab normalisation with Israel, but he has also been working through his country’s non-permanent seat at the UN Security Council to call for détente. At the same meeting was Emir of Qatar Tamim bin Hamad, a close interlocutor of the US, the Palestinians, Jordan, and the Israelis.
Egyptian officials say that during the meeting, President Al-Sisi spoke of the need for collaborative work to secure stability in the Palestinian territories. Those present agreed that at the end of the day, and without considerable support from the US, there would be no telling how far Netanyahu could go, if only to accommodate his radical cabinet members.
They argued that the US is fully aware that Egypt is an important player when it comes to the Palestinian-Israeli situation and that for the US this issue is also much more consequential than the issue of human rights that Blinken mentioned during his talks with officials while in the Egyptian capital.
* A version of this article appears in print in the 2 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly