High-stakes manoeuvring in the Middle East

Hussein Haridy
Tuesday 26 Mar 2024

Last week saw US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s sixth visit to the Middle East since last October along with a visit to the Rafah Crossing by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, writes Hussein Haridy

 

One day after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken left Israel at the conclusion of his sixth trip to the Middle East since 7 October, where he visited Saudi Arabia on 20 March and Egypt one day later, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres visited the Rafah border crossing on 23 March.

The day before the UN Security Council had failed for the fourth time since 7 October to adopt a ceasefire resolution on Gaza, with the latest one being presented to the council by the US. The draft resolution was vetoed by Russia and China and supported by 11 members of the council. Algeria voted against, and Guyana abstained.

The comings and goings of the US Secretary of State in the Middle East have taken place against the background of negotiations for a temporary ceasefire in Gaza through the mediation efforts of Egypt, Qatar, and the US itself. During his remarks on his sixth tour of the region, Blinken said that progress had been made in the talks but that negotiations are still needed to close gaps in the positions of Israel and Hamas.

The diplomatic manoeuvring around the hostages and a possible ceasefire in Gaza has taken on the character of a race against the clock in order to reach a ceasefire agreement and the release of 40 to 42 Israeli hostages before the end of Ramadan. It has become a question of great concern for the US administration.

Blinken reiterated the unwavering support of the US for the security of Israel during his latest tour, saying that this was necessary in order to ensure that the 7 October attacks are not repeated. However, he also talked about the need to increase humanitarian assistance to Gaza and to find acceptable alternatives to the Israeli plans to stage a major military offensive in Rafah in the southern part of the Gaza Strip.

During a press conference in Israel on 22 March, Blinken said that a large Israeli ground operation in Rafah would not be the best way to provide long-term security for Israel. He talked about the talks that are expected to take place shortly in Washington between senior US and Israeli officials that aim at drawing up alternative plans.

A senior US official has already expanded on the situation in Rafah, saying that such alternative plans would be much more effective in securing the border of Egypt with Gaza than launching a major ground operation that could lead to staggering human losses among civilians in Rafah, where the population now exceeds one million.

Blinken himself warned that a military incursion on a large scale into Rafah would endanger the prospects of cooperation with Egypt to provide security in the Philadelphia Corridor along the borders of Egypt with Gaza.

After his meeting with Blinken in Cairo on 21 March, Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah Al-Sisi warned of “dire consequences” if Israel attacks Rafah, without elaborating on what those consequences would be. Some observers believe that the Egyptian president was sending a message of deterrence to the Israeli War Cabinet by sounding the alarm in this way, while at the same time keeping everyone guessing about the nature of the Egyptian reaction.

While in Cairo, Blinken also held a meeting with a group of Arab foreign ministers, including those of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Jordan, and Egypt, along with the Emirati Minister for International Cooperation and a representative of the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Arab ministers called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, a surge in humanitarian assistance, and the establishment of a state of Palestine as part of the two-state solution.

In Israel, Blinken met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and had another meeting with the country’s War Cabinet.

Blinken talked in Israel about an integrated humanitarian, military, and political plan that would ultimately allow for the integration of Israel into the Middle East region. He said that this would be the best way to provide long term security to Israel. He stressed that the US has been working on the morning after the war, not only in Gaza, but also throughout the Middle East. He said it was “determined that [Israel] emerges from the attacks on October 7 strong, secure, and integrated in the region.”

Blinken also told reporters on 22 March that the question of normalisation between Saudi Arabia and Israel has progressed. The Saudi government has said that any such normalisation should be linked to a serious and irreversible political path towards a political solution to the Palestinian question – that is to say, the implementation of the two-state solution.

I believe that the main objectives of Blinken’s sixth tour of the Middle East were twofold. The first was to discuss the morning after in Gaza and who will run the Gaza Strip once the war stops. The second was to revive the momentum for the normalisation of Saudi-Israeli relations and, as a consequence, the regional integration of Israel into the Middle East. The addition of Israel to Blinken’s tour at the last minute probably means that there was progress in this regard after he met with Saudi Crown-Prince Mohamed bin Salman.

In order to push further on this path, an immediate ceasefire in Gaza has become a must. It is really this that Blinken has described as an integrated humanitarian, military, and political approach to peace in the region.

However, the internal political manoeuvring of the Israeli prime minister could prove to be a constraining factor on the diplomatic efforts by the Biden administration to secure full Israeli cooperation, which is far from certain. On the contrary, Netanyahu has started playing off the Republicans and the Democrats in the US Congress.

Whereas the Majority Leader in the US Senate Senator Chuck Schumer, has refused to extend an invitation to Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress, the Republican Speaker of the House of Representatives Mike Johnson, has said that he will invite Netanyahu to speak before a joint session of Congress without prior coordination with the White House or the State Department.

Such an invitation would not be unprecedented. In 2015, the then Republican Speaker of the House John Boehner, invited Netanyahu to address a joint session of Congress without prior consultation with the White House. The administration at that time, headed by then US president Barack Obama, was negotiating a nuclear deal with Iran. Nine years later, continuing partisan politics in the US could provide Netanyahu with an important platform to defend his devastating aggression against innocent Palestinian civilians.

There was also his rebuff of Blinken after their talks on 22 March, when he declared that Israel would stage an attack on Rafah with or without the support of the US. “I hope we will do it with the support of the US,” Netanyahu said. “But if we must, we will do it alone.”

Visiting the Rafah Crossing on Saturday, Guterres commented on a possible Israeli attack on Rafah by saying that “any further onslaught will make things worse for Palestinian civilians, worse for the hostages, and worse for the people of the region,” let alone having a destabilisng effect on Egyptian-Israeli relations.

He said that people around the world were outraged at the horrors “we are witnessing in real time” and that he was speaking for the voices of the vast majority of the world. “We have seen enough. We have heard enough,” he said.

However, the Israeli prime minister, his governing coalition and their US enablers, seem to be oblivious to the incessant calls for an immediate and permanent ceasefire in Gaza.

 

The writer is former assistant foreign minister.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 28 March, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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