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Blinken’s Middle East tour exposes the limits of Washington’s ability to influence Israel

The United States has repeatedly called on Netanyahu to agree to humanitarian pauses to allow aid to come into Gaza, but to no avail — a situation that has sparked concern in Arab nations

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken attends meeting at the foreign ministry in Tokyo
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in TokyoPOOL (via REUTERS)

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Monday had just completed his tour of the Middle East and was continuing his trip to Japan. U.S. President Joe Biden had just got off the phone to Israel. Both had repeatedly expressed the same message: the need to protect Palestinian civilians and implement “tactical pauses” in the Israeli bombings of Gaza. But that same night, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ruled out humanitarian pauses and said that Israel will be in control of the Gaza Strip for an indefinite period.

Biden confirmed on Tuesday that, in his conversation on Monday with Netanyahu, he had asked for a pause in the bombings. “Netanyahu and Biden are not always exactly in the same place on every issue,” admitted White House national security spokesperson John Kirby, who sought to downplay the disagreement. “Israel and the United States are friends, and we do not have to agree on every single word.”

The latest diplomatic efforts of the United States in the Middle East have revealed, on the one hand, the limits of Washington’s ability to influence the Israeli Government — which is determined to eliminate the Hamas militia regardless of the cost to human life — and, on the other, the deep unrest in Arab countries at its very public support for Israel. This discomfort is also felt by the progressive ranks of the Democratic Party and even among State Department officials.

The results of Blinken’s four-day tour — his second in three weeks in the Middle East, which has taken him to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey — appear meager at first glance. As on his first trip, the secretary of state faced a complicated mission: to show support for Israel and at the same time reassure America’s Arab allies. This involved trying to extract concessions from Israel: increasing the entry of humanitarian aid into Gaza, getting residents — and, perhaps, hostages — out, and protecting Palestinian civilians from indiscriminate violence. On this last trip, he also tried to convince Israel to approve humanitarian pauses.

But after Blinken’s departure, Israel is about to launch a new phase of its offensive in Gaza and has intensified its bombing. The Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) is already at the heart of Gaza City, according to Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Meanwhile in Gaza, more than 10,000 civilians, many of them children, have been killed in the past months of attacks, according to the Ministry of Health in Gaza.

Dismay in Arab countries

The consternation in Arab countries, which hoped that Blinken would convince Israel to agree to humanitarian pauses, was evident in the meeting in Amman, the Jordanian capital, where the U.S. secretary of state met with the foreign ministers of Jordan, Egypt, Qatar, United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia last weekend. Blinken continued to cling to Washington’s opposition to a ceasefire, arguing that such a step would only benefit Hamas. At his side, the Jordanian and Egyptian officials attacked Israel’s campaign in the Gaza Strip.

“What happens next? How can we even entertain what will happen in Gaza when we do not know what kind of Gaza will be left after this war is done? Are we going to be talking about a wasteland? Are we going to be talking about a whole population reduced to refugees? Simply, we do not know – we do not have all the variables to even start thinking about that,” said Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi.

Blinken argues that advances have been made. Before leaving for Tokyo on Monday, he stressed that “all of this is a work in progress.” “What I heard in every single place, in a variety of ways, on all these different issues, is the indispensability of American leadership, of American diplomacy, of America engagement,” he said.

But Israel shows no signs of softening its positions. According to The New York Times, the Netanyahu government has raised the possibility of transferring hundreds of thousands of Palestinians to Egypt while the fighting continues. And in an interview with the U.S. television network ABC on Monday, the Israeli prime minister said that Israel plans to have “overall security responsibility” in Gaza “for an indefinite period.”

Washington immediately distanced itself from the comments. “The U.S. does not support any forced relocation of Palestinians outside of Gaza. It is not a policy we are pursuing,” the Department of State said on Tuesday. At the daily White House press briefing, Kirby added that “a reoccupation by Israeli forces of Gaza is not the right thing to do.”

Meanwhile, as Israel continues its bombardment of Gaza, and the death toll of civilians, including children, rises even further, the Biden administration is coming under pressure for its seemingly unconditional support of Israel. While the U.S. government has tried to make it clear that Israel is responsible for the military decisions it makes, it is inexorably linked to Israel’s actions in Gaza — the U.S. sends military aid to the country on an almost daily basis. Some Democrats, including veteran Senator Dick Durbin, are already calling for a ceasefire. Polls indicate that Biden’s already low approval ratings have fallen even further in recent weeks.

Within the State Department, some officials have even expressed their opposition to official U.S. policy through internal channels. The staunch defense of Israel “contributes to regional public perceptions that the United States is a biased and dishonest actor, which at best does not advance, and at worst harms, U.S. interests worldwide,” reads an internal document published by Politico.

Senior U.S. officials have tried to argue that the United States does exert influence over Israel. “We build a law of armed conflict assurances anytime we transfer a security assistance to any country, including Israel,” Deputy National Security Advisor Jon Finer told CBS News. “When we see a circumstance, events, that concern us, we raise those very directly with the government of Israel. And again, we will continue to do that as this conflict transpires.”

Upon leaving for Tokyo, Blinken also stressed this point, arguing that the tour had achieved the goal of preventing the conflict from spreading to the Middle East. “Sometimes the absence of something bad happening may not be the most obvious evidence of progress, but it is,” he said.

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