U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday wrapped up a two-day visit to Israel and the occupied West Bank with no visible signs of progress toward halting one of the deadliest outbreaks of Israeli-Palestinian violence in years.
The anemic outcome highlighted what appears to be the limited influence the Biden administration has over Israel’s new government, which is dominated by hard-line nationalists who oppose concessions toward the Palestinians. But it also reflected a years-long process that has turned the U.S. into little more than a conflict manager — drawing Palestinian accusations that Washington is a dishonest broker with a bias toward Israel.
Blinken arrived in the region at a particularly tense time — ending a month in which 35 Palestinians and seven Israelis were killed.
The bloodshed overshadowed what was meant to be a mission to establish working relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his new far-right government. Instead, Blinken spent much of his time trying to defuse tensions.
Speaking to reporters before returning to the U.S., Blinken said both sides had voiced their readiness to restore calm and that he had instructed two senior officials to remain in the region.
He also reiterated the long-term U.S. goal of working toward a two-state solution that would establish a Palestinian state alongside Israel under a final peace settlement.
“Restoring calm is our immediate task. But over the longer term, we have to do more than just lower tensions,” he said.
It was a familiar message expressed by a string of U.S. administrations — but based on the bitter experiences of his predecessors — one that is unlikely to bear fruit. Blinken gave no details on what steps he has in mind to promote his short-term goals or his long-term vision.
In the short run, Blinken must contend with Israel’s most right-wing government ever — a collection of religious and ultra-nationalist politicians who oppose concessions to the Palestinians and rule out Palestinian independence.
On the eve of Blinken’s arrival, Netanyahu’s Cabinet approved a series of punitive steps against the Palestinians in response to a pair of shootings in east Jerusalem last weekend — including an attack that killed seven people outside a synagogue in a Jewish settlement.
These include plans to step up West Bank settlement construction, demolitions of the homes of attackers’ families as well as dozens of Palestinian homes constructed without building permits. Palestinians say such permits are almost impossible to get.
Blinken said the U.S. would oppose “anything” that undermines hopes of a two-state solution, including settlement construction built on occupied lands sought by the Palestinians. Some 700,000 Israeli settlers now live in the occupied West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas captured by Israel in 1967 and claimed by the Palestinians.
But he gave no indication on how the U.S. might respond if Israel presses ahead with such moves, and reiterated longstanding lines about the U.S. commitment to Israel’s security and “shared values” between the countries.
Yara Hawari, a senior analyst at Al-Shabaka, a Palestinian think tank, said Palestinian expectations for Blinken’s visit were low to begin with, and that Blinken had delivered a worn message coddling Israel.
“It’s a textbook visit,” she said. “The U.S. is not an honest broker in this situation, so I don’t understand how it could bring anything to the table that would actually lead us toward achieving Palestinian fundamental rights.”
In a sign of what could lie ahead if the U.S. pushes the new government, Israeli Cabinet Minister Orit Strock, a member of a religious ultra-nationalist party, lashed out at Blinken’s call for a commitment to human rights and rule of law.
The comments were widely seen as criticism of the government’s plans to overhaul Israel’s judicial system and weaken its Supreme Court. Critics in Israel say the plan will severely damage Israel’s democratic system of checks and balances.
“Blinken needed to respect Israeli sovereignty. We’re not the 51st or 52nd state of the U.S.,” Strock said.
Blinken played down the criticism, saying he would focus on Israel’s policies, not individual personalities.
Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said the blame for failed peacemaking lies with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who at 87 is seen as weak, corrupt and increasingly authoritarian after nearly 20 years in office.
“I think this administration understands there is no one really to work with on the Palestinian side,” he said. “They have other issues to deal with.”
The mutual lack of trust is just one of the many reasons for repeated U.S. failures in the region since the historic interim Oslo accords 30 years ago. Over the decades, the Clinton, Bush, Obama and Trump administrations have all tried their hands at Mideast peace plans — with little to show beyond sporadic interventions to halt outbreaks of violence.
Preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and the U.S. rivalry with China, the Biden administration appears to have little desire or bandwidth to wade into a mission doomed to fail.
Aaron David Miller, who served as an adviser to a string of Democratic and Republic administrations for over two decades, said he believes U.S. diplomats have reached the conclusion that the best they can do is damage control. “It’s trying to prevent an explosion, but they haven’t figured out how to do that,” said Miller, who is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
For the Palestinians, there has been one constant throughout all of the failed peace efforts —a U.S. unwillingness to put pressure on Israel. They say that without this pressure, Israel, as the occupier, holds all the cards and has no incentive to make concessions.
The U.S. has confronted Israel a few times, including over a short-lived settlement construction slowdown under President Barack Obama. These instances achieved little and ended up in bitter public spats. And when the Palestinians turned to the United Nations and other international organizations, the U.S. blocked them.
In his meeting with Blinken, Abbas appealed for more U.S. involvement, saying Israel was being given a pass "without deterrence or accountability.”
“Our people will not accept the continuation of the occupation forever, and regional security will not be strengthened by violating the sanctity of the holy sites, trampling on the dignity of the Palestinian people and ignoring their legitimate rights to freedom, dignity and independence,” he said.