Blinken’s Middle East visit: ‘What can he offer?’
US state department says Antony Blinken aims to cement Israel-Hamas ceasefire, but experts question long-term strategy.
United States President Joe Biden has dispatched his top diplomat to the Middle East just days after an Egypt-brokered ceasefire was reached to end the Israeli military’s deadly 11-day bombardment of the Gaza Strip and the firing of rockets towards Israel.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday arrived in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv for the first leg of his four-day trip. He held talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in West Jerusalem. He will then travel to Ramallah in the occupied West Bank where he will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in efforts to “solidify” the ceasefire.
Blinken will travel on to neighbouring Egypt and Jordan this week “to discuss essential follow-up efforts to consolidate the ceasefire and reduce risks of further conflict over the coming months”.
The visit comes amid increased domestic pressure on the Biden administration to hold Israel accountable for rights abuses against Palestinians, as well as mounting criticism of US support for, and arms sales to, the Israeli government.
But experts say Blinken’s Middle East tour primarily aims to manage the conflict, rather than resolve it and demonstrates that the Biden administration is largely sticking to a decades-old, US foreign policy playbook that critics argue has failed.
“Blinken and the Biden administration don’t have an answer for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. They don’t want to get sucked into what they see as an impossible mission,” said Joshua Landis, director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
Simply put, the goal of Blinken’s visit is “to try to make this go away”, Landis told Al Jazeera – and the administration’s strategy appears to be to “throw money at the problem”.
“He’s hoping that the next war in Gaza is going to break out on somebody else’s watch. And then … he can throw some money at this, promise to rebuild, convince Israel not to do anything really stupid, perhaps slow down the settlements, or at least make it less visible,” Landis said.
“That’s all he can do: continue to mother hen this enough, provide some money to the Palestinians, and buy them off for four more years.”
Biden had previously signalled that the Israel-Palestine conflict was not a priority amid more pressing challenges in the early months of his administration, such as the withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan and Iran nuclear deal talks.
But the Israeli assault on Gaza forced the US president to address it. Biden and his top officials have repeatedly stressed over the past two weeks that Washington stands firmly behind Israel’s “right to defend itself”, even blocking attempts by the UN Security Council to call for a ceasefire as the violence in Gaza raged.
Since the ceasefire was reached on Thursday, the administration has touted its approach, saying behind-the-scenes diplomacy helped cement the deal. But critics have questioned that, saying Biden needs to take a firmer line with Israel to address the root causes of the conflict, such as the ongoing Israeli occupation and its 14-year-old blockade of Gaza.
A state department official, speaking to reporters on background on Monday, said the primary goals of Blinken’s visit are to ensure the ceasefire holds between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian faction that governs the besieged enclave of 2 million people, and to advance “the quality of people’s lives”.
That includes working with the UN and the Palestinian Authority to bring reconstruction aid into the Gaza Strip – sidestepping Hamas, which the US considers a “terrorist organisation” and does not speak to directly.
“We expect that they [Hamas] understand that if assistance is going to come in, that’s the manner it’s going to do so… We believe that by doing so, it will get us on the pathway, we hope eventually, to a reintegration to some extent of the Palestinian Authority in Gaza,” the official said.
William Lawrence, a former US diplomat and international affairs professor at the American University, said he did not expect much talk of a “peace process” during Blinken’s trip because “discussion … and then disagreement about a peace process could itself threaten the ceasefire”.
Lawrence told Al Jazeera he expects the Biden administration to prioritise “finding ways to enhance Palestinian rights and welfare over the peace process”, adding that a shift in the US approach has already been noticed.
“The Biden administration has somewhat changed the US approach to this issue by speaking of the equivalence between Palestinian rights and welfare and Israeli rights and welfare, even though the US preference is to support the State of Israel,” he explained.
“I think this visit will be further articulation of that new argument that Palestinian lives matter.”
‘Wedding long over’
Imad Harb, director of research and analysis at Arab Center Washington DC, said Blinken’s visit is a positive step, as are US efforts to help rebuild in Gaza, where hundreds of buildings have been damaged and destroyed in the recent Israeli attacks.
“Blinken going there, that means that the administration is really interested in seeing how this thing develops, but on what basis? What is he ready to offer? What can he offer?” he said.
Harb told Al Jazeera that core issues, such as Palestinian self-determination and national rights, must be addressed – but he questioned whether Blinken has the power to pressure Benjamin Netanyahu to do anything the Israeli prime minister does not want to do.
A key unknown also is whether the Biden administration has a plan for what comes after the reconstruction phase. “We do provide the material, the assistance, to try to fix things up, but what comes after that?” Harb said.
“How can the administration keep talking about [a] two-state solution when we know that Israel has basically closed [that option] with its continued occupation, its continued building of illegal settlements… If we keep talking about the two-state solution, we’re just simply not doing anything – we’re just repeating words and words and words.”
Sarah Leah Whitson, executive director of Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN), a US-based think-tank, said Blinken’s visit is an attempt “to pretend that there is a two-state solution and that there is a peace process that they’re going to attempt to revive”.
“It’s really like showing up to a wedding after the wedding is long over,” she told Al Jazeera.
Palestinians for years have said a two-state solution, in which an independent Palestinian state is created alongside Israel, is not possible due to Israel’s continued occupation of Palestinian lands and the presence of more than 600,000 Jewish settlers in the occupied territories.
Whitson added, however, that recent statements by Biden and other US officials have mentioned the need for equal rights for Palestinians – something she said signals subtle recognition of the fact that a two-state solution is no longer viable.
“What needs to happen is for the Biden administration to act like a democratic administration, like a transparent administration, and like a thoughtful administration that comes to terms with the reality that I think it’s struggling with: that our approach to Israel is a failed one and a harmful one.”