After passing through Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Israel on Tuesday with a message for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: the Jewish state has a “real chance” of being recognized by new Arab countries, despite the crisis in the region, but that will only happen if it abandons its refusal to create a Palestinian state and offers a credible horizon for peace in the Middle East.
“Virtually every country I have visited wants to pursue the normalization [of relations with Israel]. Some have already taken vital steps toward that, and I believe that others are interested in doing the same. But it is just as clear that [it will] not [be] a substitute for or at the expense of Palestinian political rights and, ultimately, a Palestinian state. On the contrary. That peace has to be part of any normalization effort. That has been part of my discussions on this tour, including in Saudi Arabia,” Blinken said late this afternoon at a press conference in Tel Aviv.
In 2020, Israel — which had already established diplomatic ties with Jordan and Egypt — was recognized by three other Arab countries (Morocco, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain) without having to offer concessions to Palestinians to do so. Saudi Arabia was close to joining that list when Hamas launched its attack, which triggered the current war and halted the rapprochement. Just this Tuesday, the leader of the Islamist movement, Ismail Haniya, cited the normalization of relations “at the expense of the Palestinian cause” as one of the motives for its attack, which killed some 1,200 people, mostly civilians. Hamas refuses to formally recognize Israel, although it has suggested that, de facto, it would do so in the framework of a peace agreement.
Blinken, who will finish his regional tour in Egypt, wants to prevent Israel from once again seeking recognition from more Arab countries by bypassing the Palestinian issue, an approach the Israeli prime minister boasted about just half a month before the attack. “For years it was rejected by the so-called experts; well, they were wrong,” Benjamin Netanyahu told the UN General Assembly.
Instead, the Biden administration is hoping that Israel will create a true path to peace — impossible to imagine with the current coalition government — that will convince various Arab countries not only to establish diplomatic relations, but also to pitch in, in some way, when the war ends and they are called upon for the unpopular task of getting involved in a demolished Gaza while the Israeli army carries out the raids it deems necessary. “When the conflict in Gaza is over, many countries in the region are actually prepared to invest in various ways, in its reconstruction, in its security, in supporting the Palestinians as they govern themselves.... But it is essential for them that there also be a clear path for the fulfillment of Palestinian political rights,” Blinken emphasized.
The Secretary of State also said that the hundreds of thousands of displaced Palestinian civilians must be able to “return to their homes as soon as conditions permit.” In addition, without elaborating further, he announced “an agreement with the UN to assess” how to accomplish that. Two-thirds of Gaza’s buildings are damaged and thousands of them are completely destroyed. Blinken also insisted that civilians in the Gaza Strip “should not be pressured to leave Gaza,” as Israeli ministers openly advocated reestablishing the Jewish settlements that were evacuated from there in 2005 by order of then Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
As the 100th day of war approaches, Blinken’s words conveyed the sense that Netanyahu must now decide which path to take. At the press conference, he dodged a question about whether he had convinced the Israeli leader to support the creation of a Palestinian state. According to Israel’s television channel 12, the meeting between Blinken and Netanyahu was “tense.” The Prime Minister’s office did not broadcast its normal summary, which points to disagreements. According to Matthew Miller, Blinken’s spokesman, the U.S. Secretary of State reiterated to Netanyahu the need to avoid further civilian deaths and to “protect civilian infrastructure in Gaza.”
A secret channel of dialogue with Netanyahu
For weeks, Netanyahu has been maintaining a secret channel of communication with the White House to revitalize negotiations with Riyadh; according to Israeli television channel 12, the effort is being led by the United States. That would be a remarkable personal triumph for the Israeli Prime Minister at a time of serious political weakness, as his previous policy toward Gaza is questioned and he sinks in the polls. In addition, last week Israel’s Supreme Court overturned a key law in Netanyahu’s controversial judicial reform, which divided the country for eight months and sparked the largest demonstrations in the nation’s 75-year history. The broad executive coalition formed in the wake of the war is also showing increasing signs of strain.
The state of the Israeli campaign in Gaza is not helping Netanyahu. The effort is continuing to fail to achieve its main objectives, despite immense destruction (with a bombing rate that has not been seen in nearly eight decades) and the humanitarian crisis it is leaving in its wake: almost the entire population is displaced, and Israel is only allowing limited supplies after completely blocking access to water, food, fuel oil and electricity. Over 23,000 Gazans have been killed, mostly women and children, accounting for 1% of the population (in the last 24 hours alone, there have been 126 deaths; almost twice as many in the previous day).
The Palestinian militias are still holding 132 hostages in Gaza, at least 25 of whom are dead. The hundred or so released hostages were returned in a negotiated settlement, with several failed military rescue attempts. Israel has also failed to kill top Hamas leaders, but on Tuesday, it mourned the deaths of nine soldiers, making it one of the deadliest days since Israel launched its ground invasion in late October.
These days, Israeli leaders are acting in the same way they used to accuse former Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat (who died in 2004) of behaving: using conciliatory speech in English before the international community, and employing another more incendiary discourse, in their own language. In Hebrew, Netanyahu continues to promise his compatriots the complete eradication of Hamas in a war that will last as long as necessary, without yielding to international pressure. But just before Blinken’s arrival, Netanyahu’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, and the Israeli army’s chief spokesman, Daniel Hagari, went on two U.S. media outlets and announced the start of a third, less intense phase of the war that focuses more on the center and south of the Gaza Strip (where displaced persons are concentrated) and deploys fewer troops.
“We have been hearing about the destruction, defeat, eradication of Hamas for three months. Unfortunately, none of this reflects reality [...] Netanyahu has created expectations that no one can fulfill and, in doing so, he has condemned us to an endless war,” Nahum Barnea, a political commentator for the daily Yediot Aharonot, wrote on Tuesday.
On Sunday, Israel dismantled the armed wing of Hamas in the devastated northern Gaza Strip. The army has been reducing the intensity of its attacks in recent weeks, and it has demobilized tens of thousands of reservists. The greatest concern is of the conflict spreading to Lebanon, where the number of selective assassinations of mid-level Hezbollah militia commanders is increasing and there continue to be measured daily confrontations. In particular, these battles have picked up since the death of the second highest Hamas leader, Saleh al Aruri, a week ago in one of Hezbollah’s Beirut fiefdoms; the killing is widely attributed to Israel.
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