The Blinken quandary

Manal Lotfy in London , Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

With no pressure on Israel, Blinken’s Middle East tour has little to offer to the region.

Blinken meets with Jordan s King Abdullah II  in Amman on Sunday (photo: AFP)
Blinken meets with Jordan s King Abdullah II in Amman on Sunday (photo: AFP)


The Joe Biden administration does not want a wider war in the Middle East, and that is the main goal of the US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s tour of the region.

The focus of his talks in Turkey Greece, Jordan, the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the West Bank, Israel, and Egypt was how to prevent war from spreading, and Washington’s answer is to put pressure on regional powers and non-state actors not to escalate even if Israeli military operations in Gaza continue for many months, possibly till the end of the year, as Israeli officials have indicated.

On Monday, Blinken said that Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, the UAE, and Turkey have agreed to begin planning for the reconstruction and governance of Gaza once Israel’s war against Hamas ends. He stated that those countries would consider participating in and contributing to “day after” scenarios for the Palestinian territory. However, there is no end in sight to the Israeli military operation in Gaza which has so far killed some 24,000 Palestinians, two-thirds of whom are children and women, while more than 8,000 are under the rubble or missing, and about two million people have been displaced.

“Everywhere I went, I found leaders who are determined to prevent the conflict that we’re facing now from spreading, doing everything possible to deter escalation to prevent a widening of the conflict,” Blinken told reporters on Monday. The leaders in question “agreed to work together and to coordinate our efforts to help Gaza stabilise and recover, to chart a political path forward for the Palestinians and to work towards long-term peace, security, and stability in the region as a whole,” Blinken added.

He said those countries “are prepared to make the necessary commitments to make the hard decisions to advance all of these objectives to advance this vision for the region,” but he did not offer details on potential contributions. He also said that he would bring the Arab commitments to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his war cabinet as well as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas on Tuesday and Wednesday before presenting them to the Egyptian President Abdel- Fattah Al-Sisi on his way back to Washington.

Blinken made these comments after meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman in AlUla city, western Saudi Arabia. Some observers would consider this a tangible result of the tour since some regional powers had refused to discuss the future of Gaza before a permanent ceasefire. However, one Saudi official indicates that Riyadh’s position has not changed.

In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, the Saudi Ambassador to the UK Prince Khalid bin Bandar Al Saud said in response to a question about Saudi Arabia’s role in Gaza after the war, that Riyadh cannot plan without a ceasefire.

Speaking about potential contributions the day after the war, he said, “how that is made up, where it comes from, that has to be in discussion with the Palestinians, the international community, and without question, you cannot do it without the Israelis accepting it.” He also argued that there is “no perfect immediate solution” to how Gaza will be governed when Israel’s operation there ends and that the Palestinian Authority (PA) would likely need international support if it moved into Gaza.

Asked if he thought the Hamas movement in Gaza could be involved in governing a future Palestinian state, he indicated that they could in certain circumstances, adding, “if there’s no compromise, there’s no solution.”

This is another point of contention between the countries of the region on the one hand and between America and Israel on the other. Washington and Tel Aviv insist on ending Hamas’ rule in Gaza without offering acceptable alternatives to the Palestinians, while regional powers believe that talks about the future of Gaza are impossible without the Palestinians’ approval.

However, the elephant in the room in the US secretary of state’s Middle East tour is the lack of any Israeli clarification regarding the time frame of the military operation in Gaza, or the political and strategic objectives of this operation. In a clear acknowledgement of how little Washington knows about Israel’s plans, Brett McGurk, the National Security Council’s top Middle East official, said in a “Chatham House rules” Zoom briefing that the White House does not know when Israel plans to shift to a less intense phase of its operations against Hamas, adding that the war could last deep into 2024.

“We do not know when the downshift is going to happen,” McGurk said, admitting that the administration has yet to see concrete signs of a tactical shift and that there is little indication of when the change will happen. McGurk added that the conflict could last for a long time, potentially until the end of the year. His comment was a clear reference to Israeli officials who said they expect fighting in Gaza to continue for at least a year, among them Rear Admiral Daniel Hagari, a spokesperson for the Israel Defence Forces who said this week that the fighting would continue through much of 2024.

The problem with these statements is that they show major flaws in the American vision. Merely threatening that the war will continue for many months in 2024 greatly increases the chances of the war turning into a larger regional confrontation.

Since America does not have a clear idea of Israel’s plans, nor the time frame for implementing them or even the strategic goals behind them, the only thing the American administration hopes for is that Israel will achieve its desired goals quickly, before the situation in the Middle East erupts. What seems clear is that the American administration agrees with Israel on a basic point, which is ending Hamas’ rule in Gaza and destroying its infrastructure.

“It seems that the American administration is convinced by Israel’s logic that Hamas must be eliminated before thinking about any political arrangements in the Gaza Strip, on the basis that Hamas’ continuation will mean Israeli and American failure and will also be a threat to Israel in the future,” an Arab diplomat in London told Al-Ahram Weekly. “American officials say that without eliminating Hamas, it will not be possible to change the political, security, and humanitarian conditions in Gaza, and in this sense, they seem convinced of the Israeli approach which is going after Hamas as long as it takes. But neither Washington nor Tel Aviv have agreed to plans to eliminate Hamas without destroying Gaza along with it,” he added.

Nevertheless, Israel still enjoys American political and military support. On Friday, the Biden administration approved the sale of weapons and ammunition to Israel worth $150 million, bypassing Congress for the second time within a month, claiming that Israel is in urgent need of these weapons and that there is no room to wait for Congress’ approval.

There is strong resistance growing in Congress against granting the Israeli government weapons and ammunition amid fears that they are being used in Gaza indiscriminately, which could condemn America for implicit involvement in war crimes in Gaza

The key takeaway from Blinken’s Middle East tour is that America has very little to offer to calm the simmering tensions in the region as it is unwilling to pressure Israel on any issue, which leaves the heavy lifting to the regional powers to restrain themselves from reacting to the Israeli attacks on the Palestinians, plus financing a huge bill for the reconstruction of Gaza, and saving America’s face on the international stage.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 11 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

Short link: