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US strives to avert Middle East conflict escalation in election year

Secretary of State Antony Blinken begins his fourth trip to the region in Turkey expecting difficult conversations

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives in Istanbul, Turkey; January 5, 2023.EVELYN HOCKSTEIN (REUTERS)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived in Istanbul on January 5, the first stop on a demanding diplomatic trip to the Middle East. It’s his fourth visit in three months and the most challenging one yet. In addition to addressing previous objectives like urging Israel to moderate tactics in the Gaza Strip and shaping its future after the war, this trip will stress the urgency of preventing regional tensions from escalating into a broader conflict just as U.S. election campaigns shift into a higher gear.

Preventing the crisis from spreading beyond Gaza has been the primary goal of the United States since the conflict began with the Hamas attacks on October 7. Washington quickly ramped up its military presence in the region to contain the risk. However, recent attacks in the Red Sea by Houthi militias from Yemen, the drone assassination in Beirut of Hamas’ second-in-command, Saleh al-Arouri, and numerous assaults on U.S. troops in Iraq and Syria are clear signs of escalation. This is a formidable problem for President Joe Biden as he kicks off his re-election campaign. After his heavily criticized withdrawal from Afghanistan early in his term, the president is now grappling with grinding conflicts in Ukraine and the Middle East.

“The risk is real; the concern is high; it has always been real and the concern has always been high, and that’s why the tempo of activity you have seen from this administration to try to lower the risk of widespread regional conflagration has also been high from the beginning,” said State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller in the January 4 press briefing announcing Blinken’s trip.

Washington’s frustration with Israel

Tensions are rising at a critical moment in the U.S.-Israeli relationship, although the United States continues to provide moral and military support to its ally. The Biden administration bypassed Congress in early January to approve $147.5 million in munitions and equipment for Israel. But Washington’s frustration with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is becoming increasingly apparent. In a January 2 press statement by Mathew Miller, the State Department strongly rejected recent statements from Israeli Ministers Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir advocating for the resettlement of Palestinians outside of Gaza.

A concerned White House has launched a full-fledged diplomatic offensive. Biden dispatched special envoy Amos Hochstein to the region on January 4, and Middle East envoy Brett McGurk met with the Lebanese Foreign Minister on January 3. The day before he boarded a plane to Turkey, Secretary Blinken posted his objectives on X: “I’m returning to the region to engage in additional diplomacy on the situation in Gaza. I will continue to urge the protection of civilian life and work intensely with partners to secure the release of hostages and ensure sustained delivery of humanitarian aid in Gaza.”

The State Department’s announcement of Blinken’s latest trip clearly spelled out his objectives. Blinken “will discuss specific steps parties can take, including how they can use their influence with others in the region, to avoid escalation. It is in no one’s interest — not Israel’s, not the region’s, not the world’s — for this conflict to spread beyond Gaza. As part of those discussions, he will raise the need to take steps to deter the Houthis’ attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea.”

Secretary Blinken will visit Turkey, the Greek island of Crete, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank and Egypt. “We don’t expect every conversation on this trip to be easy. There are obviously tough issues facing the region and difficult choices ahead,” said Miller. Blinken will discuss with Israel immediate measures to increase substantially humanitarian assistance to Gaza, plans to transition to the next phase of operations, and how to lower tensions in the West Bank.

These will be some of the toughest conversations of Blinken’s trip. Israel rejects the two-state solution advocated by the United States and proposes a Palestinian civil administration in Gaza while maintaining military control over the territory. It refuses to halt the offensive in Gaza and wants Washington to stop Hezbollah’s rocket launches from Lebanon into northern Israel. Israel also wants to force a Hezbollah withdrawal to the north side of the Litani River in Lebanon, warning Hochstein that time is running out for negotiations with the Iranian-backed Shiite militia.

Time for diplomacy

Washington believes there is still time for diplomacy. “From what we can see, it doesn’t seem like Hezbollah has any desire to go to war with Israel, and vice versa,” said a senior Biden administration official speaking off the record.

At the same time, the United States is strengthening its military presence in the region. While it has withdrawn one of the two aircraft carriers (the Gerald Ford) initially sent to the area, the Eisenhower carrier fleet has been fortified with more combat ships, aircraft and troops.

On January 4, the leader of a Shiite militia in Baghdad was killed by a U.S. airstrike, angering the Iraqi government. Prime Minister Mohammed Shia al-Sudani responded by forming a committee to plan the withdrawal of international coalition forces from the country.

In the Red Sea, the United States leads a coalition of over a dozen countries to protect commercial shipping from Houthi attacks. There have been more than 25 attacks since the crisis began. Earlier this week, the coalition issued a stern warning about further attacks and promised swift retaliation without warning if they continue. Undeterred, the Houthis launched an unmanned vessel packed with explosives into the Red Sea on January 4. The Pentagon stated that while no ships were hit, the incident heightened tensions in the region. Washington is concerned about a significant escalation if an attack sinks a merchant ship.

The White House has clearly stated its commitment to protecting U.S. interests in the region, while expressing the desire to avoid being drawn into a wider conflict in the Middle East. “We have said this consistently — privately and publicly — that we will not hesitate to take the necessary actions to protect our forces and interests,” said the State Department’s Matthew Miller.

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