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Antony Blinken’s Israel visit: A mission impossible

The US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s second trip, over the weekend, to the Middle East since the horrific Hamas terror attack on October 7 has turned out to be as unsuccessful as the first. If the last time, Blinken was trying to restrain Israel from a costly military offensive against Gaza, this time, the top American diplomat sought to persuade, without much success, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be mindful of the humanitarian catastrophe unfolding in Gaza.

At a meeting with Blinken in Jordan, several Arab foreign ministers pressed the US to prevail on Israel to bring the military offensive to a halt. At a joint press conference on Saturday with Blinken, the Jordanian and Egyptian foreign ministers vented their frustration with Israel. Jordan’s Ayman Safadi demanded that the US must “Stop this madness.” Egypt’s Sameh Shoukry called for an immediate and unconditional ceasefire. But Netanyahu, who had met Blinken last Friday, has publicly rejected the call for a ceasefire.

This has made the US balancing act harder between its competing objectives — support for Israel’s right to self-defence, the call to reduce civilian casualties in Israel’s Gaza military operations, and retaining the support of moderate Arab nations for a regional rearrangement. Blinken affirmed the US position that a ceasefire at this juncture would only help Hamas regroup and renew its attacks on Israel.

At the same time, Blinken has been pressing Israel for “humanitarian pauses”, a position that is unacceptable to both the Arab foreign ministers and to Israel, which does not want to lose the momentum in its military offensive against Hamas in Gaza. Meanwhile, the one US diplomatic success in getting Israel and Hamas to facilitate the evacuation of foreign and dual nationals from Gaza is in danger of falling apart. The two sides are accusing the other of breaking the terms of the agreement.

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Moderate Arab states, who are not enamoured of the radical regional agenda propounded by Hamas and its Iranian backers, are under mounting popular pressure to take a tougher stance against Israel or risk their own domestic political legitimacy.

Festive offer

It is no surprise, then, that the Arab leaders are not willing to publicly engage with a major element of Blinken’s mission to the Middle East — to look at the future of Gaza after the Israeli military offensive comes to an end. The US is hoping to mobilise the moderate Arab states to construct a post-Hamas arrangement in Gaza. But none of the region’s leaders want to engage in such a discussion amidst Israel’s military offensive that is producing massive casualties.

According to the UN, the death toll has crossed 10,00 and more than 2,000 people are missing. Meanwhile, Israel is losing sympathy around the world, including in the United States and the West. Israel’s regional adversaries, including Hezbollah in Lebanon, are taking full advantage of the war in Gaza to define the narrative and win new supporters. The ceasefire has become the precondition for any meaningful regional diplomacy, but the US is unable to deliver on that count, at least for now.

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