Rudderless in the Middle East

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 9 Jan 2024

What are the objectives of US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s fourth visit to the Middle East since the outbreak of the Israeli war on Gaza, asks Hussein Haridy



rom 4 to 11 January, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled to the Middle East on visits to Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Occupied Palestine (Ramallah), and Israel. This was his fourth trip to the region since 7 October 2023.

In Turkey, the objectives of this fourth trip included discussing the membership of Sweden in NATO, the role of Turkey in containing, with other “allies and partners” of the US in the Middle East, the Israeli war on Gaza since 7 October, and the Turkish role in the “day after” in Gaza, if and when the guns fall silent in Occupied Palestine.

One of the points also discussed was the financing of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas), a question that both the US and Israel see as a serious one in their common objective of subduing Hamas, if not its complete annihilation, which is, it goes without saying, an unattainable one for all practicable purposes. I suspect that Washington knows that.

One of the main goals of Blinken’s fourth trip to the region is the prevention of a direct military confrontation between the Lebanese Shia group Hizbullah and the Israeli army in southern Lebanon.

The Israelis have been engaged in sabre-rattling over the past two weeks, threatening the Lebanese government and people that Beirut, the Lebanese capital, could face almost complete destruction like Gaza City and Khan Younis if Hizbullah launches a major military attack against Israel or does not agree to withdraw its forces – to be more precise, its Ridwan Brigade – beyond the Litani River in southern Lebanon, as per UN Security Council Resolution 1701 of August 2006 adopted after the war between Hizbullah and the Israeli army.

Another major concern on the US side has been the Yemeni Houthi group’s attacks against ships going through the Bab Al-Mandab Strait at the entrance of the Red Sea towards Israeli ports, mainly Eilat on the Gulf of Aqaba. The Houthis have launched more than 20 attacks since late November 2003 against international shipping using the strait, declaring that these are in response to the Israeli war against the Palestinians in Gaza.

The attacks have led major shipping companies to divert their ships from the Red Sea to going around the Cape of Good Hope, a rerouting that if it persists for months to come will have major negative economic and financial consequences for Egypt and the Western economies.

Another important question raised in the talks that Blinken has had with Arab leaders and senior officials is the future of Gaza once Israel decides to stop its war, a prospect that judging from the war-mongering statements made almost every day by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu does not seem to be on the cards.

He and his minister of defence have kept saying that the Israeli military operations against Hamas could take months. If this worst-case scenario proves true, it is difficult to believe that a major military conflagration in the Middle East can be ruled out.

However, when Blinken raises this question, we rarely see, in his public declarations at least, a linkage between the two things. If the US administration is really serious about preventing the outbreak of a regional war in the Middle East, then it should tackle the source and the casus belli that would surely lead to such a scenario – which without a shadow of a doubt is the Israeli aggression against the Palestinian people, not only in Gaza but also in the West Bank.

For the record, the Israeli Peace Movement – and it is a miracle that some Israelis are still thinking and talking about peace these days – said last week that the expansion of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank has gained pace since 7 October last year. A case in point is the decision taken on 5 January to build a further 1,700 Israeli housing units in Occupied East Jerusalem.

Those who believe, and I completely agree with them, that the war on Gaza is not only about “destroying” Hamas, as Netanyahu and his governing coalition keep on saying, but is also about the complete annexation of the West Bank, or major parts of it, by Israel are not off the mark. It should be born in mind that Israel is the only member state of the UN that has not had recognised international borders since its establishment in 1948 after the so-called “War of Independence.”

The Israeli aggression against Gaza and the Palestinian people has now entered its fourth month, and this also coincides with Blinken’s fourth trip to the region since last October. Over the preceding three months, and during his fourth tour of the region, he has never uttered the magic word of a ceasefire in Gaza.

Instead, from 7 October to mid-December last year alone Washington provided the Israeli army with – please hold your breath – 29,000 bombs. In the last week of 2023, the US administration bypassed the Congress and agreed to supply Israel with ammunition and military hardware to the amount of $147 million in a fast-track decision approved by the State Department.

If a man in the Arab street were to ask what Blinken is doing on his fourth trip to the Middle East after the killing of more than 23,000 Gazans and 58,000 wounded as a result of the Israeli war, with this figure unfortunately still rising, then it would be very difficult for the Arab governments to find an answer. The US administration has still not recognised that the key to preventing a major regional war is to call for an immediate and a sustainable ceasefire in Gaza.

Maybe the answer lies in the US presidential elections campaign that is scheduled to begin with the Republican Party primaries in Iowa on 15 January and then super Tuesday on 5 March when 16 states vote in the primaries.

The Arab governments should reassess their relations with both the US and Israel. It is hard to believe that these relations will not be revisited after the tragic and destabilising consequences of the Israeli war on Occupied Palestine in both Gaza and the West Bank.


The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

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

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