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Blinken seeks Gaza truce deal at the most ‘dangerous’ moment in the Middle East crisis

The U.S. Secretary of State began his fifth tour of the region on Monday after Washington struck targets in Iraq and Syria, where six U.S.-allied fighters were killed by pro-Iranian militias

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (middle) received by King Khalid upon his arrival in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, this Monday.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken (middle) received by King Khalid upon his arrival in Riyadh, capital of Saudi Arabia, this Monday.POOL (via REUTERS)

With the Middle East conflict at its most dangerous point in five decades and as Washington warns that it will continue its retaliatory strikes against pro-Iranian militias, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has begun a new tour of the region in the hopes of achieving a pause in Israel’s military campaign in Gaza. Blinken arrived Monday in Saudi Arabia on a visit that will also take him to Egypt, Qatar, Israel and the West Bank, to press for an agreement between Hamas and Israel to exchange the hundred hostages still held in Gaza for the release of numerous Palestinian prisoners and a truce of at least six weeks. The Biden administration’s hope is that such a lull in hostilities could lead to a permanent ceasefire.

“It’s no coincidence that we’re going to the three countries that are involved in those talks: Egypt, Qatar and Israel,” although “it’s impossible to know if and when we’ll get any progress,” a senior State Department official assured before Blinken’s arrival in Riyadh.

It is Blinken’s fifth visit to the area since the conflict between Israel and Hamas began on October 7. And it comes at what he himself has described as the most “dangerous” and “volatile” moment in half a century in the Middle East, since the Yom Kippur war between Arab countries and Israel in 1973. The Israel-Hamas conflict has spread and the United States is currently engaged in retaliatory operations against pro-Iranian militias in Iraq and Syria, and against Houthi rebels in Yemen, which have been harassing ships passing through the Red Sea.

In another diplomatic gesture, the U.S. envoy for Yemen, Tim Lenderkin, is traveling to the Gulf this week “to meet with partners in the region to discuss the urgent need to reduce regional tensions,” which escalated further on Monday after a drone attack on a base in Syria killed six U.S.-allied fighters. The Islamic Resistance of Iraq, a generic denomination that groups different armed factions supported by Tehran, has claimed responsibility for the attack and the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces have already defended their “right to respond.”

White House National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan has assured that the dozens of strikes U.S. forces carried out on Saturday against militia facilities in Iraq and Syria — in response to an enemy drone strike that killed three U.S. soldiers in Jordan — are only the beginning of the U.S. response. There, but also against the Houthis in Yemen, where this weekend U.S. forces launched a new round of bombing raids to eliminate the rebel group’s radar and missile arsenals.

Washington, Sullivan argues, will respond if attacked, but it does not want an escalation of the war or a direct conflict with Iran, which would not benefit either government and could trigger unpredictable consequences. He does not believe that the weekend bombings will aggravate the crisis in the region.

This is also something Blinken will try to make clear during his tour. “We want to send a direct message to the countries in the area that the United States does not want to see the conflict escalate” and “is not going to take steps to escalate the conflict,” according to the senior official accompanying the U.S. Secretary of State.

Among other things, the United States has so far avoided attacking targets on Iranian territory. Republican opposition lawmakers are demanding this of President Biden’s administration, but the White House is resisting, believing that it would inevitably drag Tehran into a direct confrontation. Speaking to CNN on Sunday, Sullivan avoided commenting on the possibility of such a step in the future.

Upon his arrival in Riyadh, Blinken met on Monday for two hours with the Saudi Crown Prince and de facto leader of the country, Mohammed bin Salman, though the State Department has thus far not provided details on the course of the conversation. The United States is trying to mediate a normalization of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia as one of the major pillars of the geostrategic architecture in the Middle East for when the war between Israel and Hamas is over. Another key piece of the puzzle is the implementation, 30 years after becoming official U.S. policy, of the two-state solution: Israel and the creation of a Palestinian state.

A step forward

The establishment of the humanitarian truce in exchange for the exchange of hostages would represent an important step forward in the negotiations towards normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia. A dialogue that was interrupted after October 7, but that has regained momentum in recent weeks. For Israel, it is the goal, the crown jewel in its diplomatic pacts with Arab countries known as the Abraham Accords. As custodian of Islamic holy sites, Riyadh is the spiritual leader of the Muslim world. It is also the great Arab economic engine, which, just as Israel does, views Iran as a regional rival.

Last month, Blinken assured in a speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos that a “new equation” is emerging in the Middle East, in which the Arab countries are willing to integrate Israel, provided that a path for the creation of a Palestinian state is established. The government of Benjamin Netanyahu is strongly opposed to this and insists that it must maintain control over the security of all the territory between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

Part of Blinken’s discussions during his tour will be devoted precisely to figuring out what foundations such a future state might have; how to reform the Palestinian Authority so that it can, at a later date, return to governing Gaza; and what security guarantees Israel would receive. “If we achieve a humanitarian pause, we will be in a position to move as quickly as possible on the various pieces [of the puzzle] of Gaza reconstruction, reform of the Palestinian Authority, Gaza government, the two states, normalization... Some of these are obviously quite complicated and difficult,” the senior State Department official said.

Blinken’s tour also comes in the wake of comments made by the Israeli Minister of National Security, the ultra-right-wing Itamar Ben Gvir, against the U.S. president. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, published last Sunday, Ben Gvir assured that Biden — who has been supporting the invasion of Gaza with arms, his veto in the United Nations and an economic aid package — “is busy with giving humanitarian aid and fuel [to Gaza], which goes to Hamas.” “If [Donald] Trump was in power, the U.S. conduct would be completely different,” he added.

The Israeli opposition came out in a storm to criticize Ben Gvir’s statements, while Netanyahu took advantage of the controversy to put cast himself as a responsible leader who only thinks of what is best for his country. “There are those who say ‘yes’ to everything in places where they must say ‘no.’ They receive applause from the international community but endanger our national security. And there are those who say ‘no’ to everything, receive applause at home, but they too jeopardize vital interests,” he said the same day.

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