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Blinken’s Trip Will Be Short

Blinken’s Trip Will Be Short

Wednesday, 26 May, 2021 - 16:45
Robert Ford
Robert Ford is a former US ambassador to Syria and Algeria and a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute for Near East Policy in Washington

Biden administration officials last week claimed they had a key role in establishing the ceasefire between Israel and Hamas. Of course, the Americans played a role but the American role in 2021 is not the role of America in the region in 1973 or 1979 or 2000. It is smaller and it will remain smaller.

The American officials repeatedly said to American journalists last week: “We learned the lessons of the 2014 American failure during the war between Israel and Hamas.” They decided in 2021 their efforts must not be the center of attention. Blinken, unlike John Kerry in 2014, did not go to the region. Officials made calls from Washington or, in the case of Blinken, from Denmark and Iceland where he was discussing the Artic region and climate change.

Instead of leading, however, the Americans preferred to support the Egyptian ceasefire effort in Gaza. A second, related lesson the Biden team applied was not to criticize Israel’s air attacks publicly. President Obama criticized Netanyahu sharply in 2014 and it made his difficult personal relationship with Netanyahu worse.

In comparison, Biden always insisted Israel has the right to defend itself against missile attacks from Gaza. When the Israeli Air Force had no more useful targets in Gaza, and Netanyahu was ready to stop the air attacks, then Biden urged him more strongly in private for a stop. The American role was with the guarantee from the Israeli side that it would, in fact, stop its air attacks.

Some in the Washington foreign policy establishment think after the ceasefire the Biden administration must give more time and attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Middle East region in general. They are pleased Blinken is visiting the region. But what will Blinken do?

He will talk to the Israelis and Egyptians about aid to Gaza, and Ambassador Samantha Power who is the new director of the American foreign aid agency has promised to provide big help to rebuilding Gaza. Blinken will ask how to strengthen the ceasefire and monitor aid deliveries so that they do not benefit Hamas, especially militarily. And it is notable that the Biden administration is using some new words like “equal security and equal freedom” when talking about Israel and the Palestinians. This is the result of pressure from the left wing of the Democratic Party.

But the leftists in the Democratic Party are not the majority, and they are not the party leaders. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren lost to Biden in the presidential campaign last year. They can pressure Biden, but Biden is their party leader still and he is a president who supports Israel strongly. The Democratic leaders in the House of Representatives and Senate, and their deputies, are closer to Biden on the Israel issue. The Democratic Party may change to be stronger in support of the Palestinians, but it will take years.

In the meantime, Biden’s administration pledges support for the two-state solution but it does nothing concrete when the reality on the ground changes and weakens the possibility of this solution. If Blinken raises Palestinian human rights with the Israelis, it will be in private and without sharp criticism. Biden and Blinken won’t try to compel Israel to stop settlement expansion and probably won’t respond in a concrete way when there are new evictions from East Jerusalem. In addition, Biden and Blinken have no solution for the Palestinians’ leadership problems and without a strong Palestinian leadership American mediation effort are much harder if not impossible. The Americans could expend many efforts and spend a lot of time without making any progress on a solution.

Therefore, in the end the Biden administration wants calm in the Middle East. If not for the Hamas rocket attacks, neither Blinken nor Biden would have become very involved. Their special relationship with Israel will continue with more military assistance and strong American support for Israel at the United Nations.

Biden will want one thing in return from Netanyahu: if there is a nuclear agreement with Iran, Biden wants Netanyahu to limit his criticism. Biden made no public criticism of Israel’s government in the Gaza fighting, and he will expect the same from Netanyahu if the nuclear negotiations in Vienna give birth to a new deal.

And after Blinken’s short trip to the region, you can expect the Biden team to return to their focus on China and Asia. Did you notice that Biden met the South Korean president at the White House last Friday? The first foreign officials visiting the White House were from Japan and South Korea. That is not a coincidence. That shows the priority, the region that in their opinion deserves top officials’ time in addition to treating climate change and the Iran nuclear program.

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