Antony Blinken’s visit to the Middle East

Published : 14 Feb 2023 09:40 PM

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his latest visit to the Middle East urged Israel and Palestinians to calm tensions and also reaffirmed the long-stalled peace vision for a two-state solution as the "only path" forward. Through this he raised hopes in the horizon filled with despair.

It may be recalled that the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, and the Gaza Strip were captured by Israel in the 1967 war. Since then, regrettably successive Israeli governments have illegally built settlements in the occupied territories that the Palestinian Authority seeks as a home for a future Palestinian state. Although it verbally supports a two-state solution to the conflict, the United States has been reluctant to criticize Israeli settlement activity.

Tensions between Israelis and Palestinians also spiked earlier this month after ultranationalist Israeli National Security Minister Ben Gvir visited the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound. Such a move was condemned by Palestinian and Arab leaders as a “provocation”. This was seen as breaking existing rules. The historic status quo maintains that neighboring Jordan has custodianship over the Al-Aqsa Mosque – Islam’s third holiest site and no one should intrude into this equation without their agreement.

After arrival in Israel, in a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blinken urged both sides to take "urgent steps" to calm tensions and said Washington would work to "restore a sense of security" craved by "Israelis and Palestinians alike".

Israel, it may be observed, was reeling from an attack on 27 January that had killed seven civilians outside a Synagogue in annexed east Jerusalem. This happened a day after their army had carried out the deadliest army raid in years in the occupied West Bank – that claimed 10 Palestinian lives in the densely populated Jenin refugee camp.

After landing in Israel Blinken also criticized Palestinians who had celebrated the Synagogue attack, saying: "We condemn all those who celebrate... acts of terrorism that take innocent lives." 

He also appeared to reprimand Israelis blamed for dozens of incidents of reprisal violence. "Retaliatory acts of violence against civilians are never justified," he said. "It is the responsibility of everyone to take steps to calm tensions rather than inflame them," Blinken fortunately told reporters after landing in Tel Aviv.

It may be noted here that since the start of the year, the conflict has claimed the lives of 35 Palestinian adults and children -- including attackers, fighters and civilians. Over the same period six Israeli civilians, including a child and one Ukrainian civilian have been killed.

United States has voiced 

support for Israel’s security 

and for Palestinians to enjoy 

equal measures of dignity

Before arriving in Israel, Blinken had made an initial stop in Egypt, where he met President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, commending "Egypt's important role in promoting stability in the region." This obviously took place because the diplomats and intelligence services of Egypt -- a major recipient of US military aid -- are regularly called upon to intercede between Israelis and Palestinians.

Analysts have observed that Blinken's Israel visit is part of the Biden administration's efforts to engage quickly with Netanyahu, who had tense relations with the previous Democratic President Barack Obama.

He also reiterated US support for a Palestinian state, a prospect few expect to advance under the new Israeli government led by Netanyahu, a veteran leader, who returned to power late last year at the helm of the most right-wing government in Israeli history. Already Netanyahu's cabinet has moved to punish "the families of terrorists that support terrorism" with home demolitions and other measures. His government is also planning to take steps to make it easier for Israeli citizens to obtain permits to carry firearms.

It would be interesting to note at this point that Blinken in his earlier remarks in Cairo stated that Washington remains "a stalwart believer in the negotiated two-state solution - the only path to a lasting resolution for the conflict". However, the other side of the coin appears to be growing bigger due to the inability of the current Palestinian leadership in being able to pursue their efforts with determination and agreement.

It may be recalled in this context that the last round of US-sponsored talks on founding a Palestinian state alongside Israel stalled in 2014.

Unfortunately there appears to be a growing feature among Palestinians about the relevance of the elderly politicians who have dominated Palestinian political life for decades. That includes the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, who, at 87, has been unwell in recent years and does not appear to have any agreed natural successor. 

That lack of leadership, and the emergence of the new independent groups, has meant that it is harder for foreign countries to intervene and calm matters, particularly at times when the Israeli government continues any harsh policies towards Palestinians.

Analysts William Booth, Shira Rubin and Sufian Taha commenting in ‘The Washington Post’ recently have in the meantime made a significant observation- “recent polling suggests that only a third of Palestinians and Israelis believe in two States today, and they both blame the United States for not doing more”. Similarly, a survey published recently by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Research indicates that just 33 percent of Palestinians and 34 percent of the Israeli Jewish community say they support the idea of two States now- marking a significant drop from data collected in 2020. The United States has voiced support for Israel's security and for Palestinians to enjoy equal measures of dignity.

George Bisharat, a Professor at UC Hastings College of the Law in San Francisco, said the US administration views occasional eruptions of violence in Israel-Palestine as “inconveniences to be managed” while maintaining unconditional support for the Israeli government. Annelle Sheline, a research fellow at the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft, a US-based think tank also appears to have very little support for what the United States is doing right now. They tend to think that the US is keener in not only maintaining the status quo in the Middle East in general but also and further “integrate” Israel into the Middle East by strengthening normalization with other Arab states.

This is consistent with the recent observations made by Netanyahu in a news conference. He remarked- “in the previous decade, our political rivals warned us that if we did not make extraordinary concessions to the Palestinians, we would receive a diplomatic tsunami that would lead very quickly to a terrible economic tsunami. 

In practice, the complete opposite happened. Our policy led Israel to four historic peace agreements with Arab countries (signed with several Arab states since 2020, including the United Arab Emirates and Morocco) as well as an unprecedented diplomatic flourishing and economic prosperity.”

One leading zealot in the new Israel government according to Marwan Bishara, political analyst at Al Jazeera, appears to be Bezalel Smotrich, the head of the Religious Zionism party and Israel’s new Finance Minister. He and his fellow zealots believe that: first, Israel cannot and should not be both Jewish and democratic; second, Israel has the exclusive right over all of what they call “the Land of Israel”, i.e. historic Palestine; and third, Israel should beware of the ways of the liberal West, and reject American dictates or overtures. 

On the other hand it may also be noted that the new Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant, who took office as part of the right-wing Netanyahu government had a meeting with Blinken and praised Blinken for his "unwavering support" in helping safeguard Israel's military superiority in the region. Israel receives US Dollar3.8 billion in US militarys aid annually, but the Biden Administration has increased the assistance by another US Dollar 1 Billion last year. This has its own denotation.

It would also be important to observe here that Blinken’s visit to Israel had other ramifications. Interestingly, that also included what is happening in Ukraine. It appears that the geo-strategic paradigm that was touched upon included discussion also on Ukraine.

The media later reported that Netanyahu was asked in an interview with CNN if Israel could provide assistance to Ukraine such as Iron Dome, the US-backed technology that defends Israel from air attack. "Well, I'm certainly looking into it," Netanyahu said. He confirmed that the United States had shifted a little-known stockpile of artillery from its stations in Israel to Ukraine. Netanyahu said he was asked to mediate in an unofficial role after Russia invaded Ukraine in February last year but did not pursue it as he was then in opposition.

He said he was willing to mediate if asked by the concerned Parties and the United States now. "I've been around long enough to know that there has to be a right time and the right circumstances. If they arise, I'll certainly consider it," he said. Netanyahu said he believed the Ukraine war was of "monumental importance" but added: "We have our own backyard to deal with." 

The remarks come after US Secretary of State Antony Blinken had also nudged Israel to boost support to Ukraine. Using language familiar to Israelis, Blinken said Ukraine needs assistance "as it bravely defends its people and its very right to exist." 

Israeli Foreign Minister Eli Cohen apparently also told Blinken that he would travel to Ukraine to reopen his country's Embassy, the first such trip since the war.  It may be recalled that in March, 2022 Israel's then-Prime Minister Naftali Bennett had paid a surprise visit to Moscow to mediate with Putin. Bennett reportedly passed along Putin's messages to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky but did not succeed in arranging direct negotiations. 

Muhammad Zamir, a former Ambassador, is an analyst specialized in foreign affairs, right to information and good governance