Blinken’s optimism for postwar Gaza runs into Mideast skepticism

CAIRO — Secretary of State Antony Blinken concluded an eight-country swing through the Middle East on Thursday, touting progress on postwar planning for the Gaza Strip, but he received little public enthusiasm from the regional states essential for the plan’s success.

Arab leaders in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar and other Middle Eastern countries insisted that any postwar plan must include a path to an independent state that unites the West Bank and Gaza under a Palestinian-led government.

But that idea landed with a thud during Blinken’s visit to Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed never to allow the creation of a Palestinian state and his ministers have belittled the Biden administration’s approach to the long-running territorial conflict.

“Secretary Blinken, it’s not the time to speak softly with Hamas, it’s time to use that big stick,” Israel’s minister for national security, Itamar Ben Gvir, posted on social media during Blinken’s visit.

Blinken’s talks with Israeli officials reveal divisions over Gaza

While acknowledging the huge gaps between the two sides, U.S. officials said Blinken’s discussions with Arab leaders went into far more depth and detail than during his previous three trips to the region since the Oct. 7 Hamas attack that killed about 1,200 Israelis.

“What was different about this trip is that on our previous trips here, I think there was a reluctance to talk about some of the ‘day after’ issues … but now we’re finding that our partners are very focused on wanting to engage on those questions,” Blinken told reporters before boarding a plane back to Washington.

In an early December meeting in Dubai, for instance, Arab leaders pushed back on Blinken’s attempts to discuss Gaza’s post-Hamas future, insisting instead that the United States pressure Israel to implement an immediate cease-fire.

Now Arab leaders have shown a willingness to engage on what their roles might be in helping usher in a “revitalized” Palestinian Authority that brings new and younger faces into the government headed by 88-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas.

Abbas, who has led the authority for years, is widely viewed by Palestinians as corrupt and out of touch with the needs of everyday people. Senior Jordanian and Egyptian officials in recent days have discussed advising Abbas to consider bowing out in favor of the next generation of Palestinian leaders, though it is unclear whether Abbas would accept that.

There are limits to how much trust Arab leaders will place in Washington as its top Middle East ally lays waste to whole neighborhoods and residential buildings in Gaza in a relentless campaign to eliminate Hamas.

South Africa presents genocide case against Israel at U.N.’s top court

Israeli attacks killed almost 250 Gazans in the 24 hours before Blinken’s arrival in Israel, making it one of the deadliest days for Palestinians in a conflict that has already claimed more than 23,000 lives, according to local health authorities. Lawyers representing South Africa have accused Israel of committing genocide and appealed to the United Nations’ top court to stop to the military operation. Israel and the United States both oppose the effort.

“Most Arab leaders are extremely skeptical about U.S. plans for post-conflict stabilization in Gaza,” said Hussein Ibish, a Middle East expert at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. “There are real doubts about the U.S. ability to restrain Israel.”

In Israel, where the Biden administration has expedited the transfer of billions of dollars in powerful bombs, guns and munitions, in some cases bypassing congressional review, U.S. largesse has done little to soften opposition to U.S. proposals.

The two sides remain opposed on a range of issues, including when Palestinians can return to northern Gaza and when the Palestinian Authority can receive its tax revenue collected by Israel. Bigger issues such as agreeing on a path to a Palestinian state, a key demand for Arab and U.S. postwar planning, appear more remote than ever.

“This coalition certainly will not endorse a two-state solution even verbally,” said Natan Sachs, an Israel expert at the Brookings Institution, referring to Israel’s governing coalition that includes far-right politicians.

But he cautioned that U.S. planning could pay off if a different Israeli government comes to power — a possibility given widespread domestic criticism of Netanyahu’s handling of the conflict. “It’s important to remember that this coalition may not last past 2024,” Sachs said.

But the promise of a new Israeli government sometime in the future is little relief for Palestinians in southern Gaza, especially after Defense Minister Yoav Gallant told Blinken that Israel would “intensify” its offensive there.

The timeline of operations has been a source of contention between U.S. and Israeli officials. While Netanyahu and Gallant have said the campaign will take months, U.S. officials wanted to see the high-intensity campaign end in December. Now Israeli officials have said the heavy bombing will last at least until the end of January, raising the prospect of significantly more casualties in the weeks ahead.

A senior State Department official said Blinken’s meetings with Israelis served several important purposes, including dismissing Israeli proposals that the United States views as totally unrealistic. Gallant, for instance, has been promoting his own postwar plan for Gaza that excludes any role for the Palestinian Authority and requires an international force led by the United States to handle security in Gaza, with reconstruction paid for by Arab states of the Persian Gulf.

Blinken’s team made clear that the United States was not willing to dedicate forces to maintain peace in Gaza and that the only way Israel could secure Arab financing for reconstruction was through a credible path to a two-state solution. Officials spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive diplomatic steps.

Ibish said Israel’s tactics in Gaza, which have “rendered the territory virtually uninhabitable, with few undamaged structures remaining,” are impacting the level of trust between Washington and its Arab allies.

“Once Arab governments have a sense that Washington’s policies are proving effective, which is still not the prevailing sense, then an American leadership role in post-conflict stabilization in Gaza would be seen as much more credible,” he said.

This will be set back significantly, however, “if Washington is perceived as increasingly ineffective in restraining its own closest regional ally, Israel,” he added.

In an Israeli war cabinet meeting Tuesday, Blinken said that comments from Ben Gvir and Israeli Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich about permanently displacing Palestinians from Gaza were extremely unhelpful and that Netanyahu needed to disavow them publicly, said the senior State Department official. Netanyahu clarified on Wednesday that the ministers did not speak for the government on that policy.

Before flying back to Washington, Blinken sounded an optimistic note, saying that “because things are so difficult, I think that’s actually only reinforced the commitment of countries to work to find a real resolution.”

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