Deciphering Blinken’s Unguarded Optimism

The Biden administration announced its first Middle East initiative of the new year on January 4, 2024, by dispatching Secretary of State Antony Blinken to the area to ensure the continuity and prominence of American regional diplomacy. The veracity of Washington’s intensive engagement in the increasingly turbulent region recently has been facing intense and widespread criticism, at home and abroad, due to its one-sided and unsteady handling of the war in Gaza since its eruption last October. Blinken’s weeklong itinerary covered ten stops throughout the region, including key US allies Turkey, Greece, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Egypt, Jordan, and Bahrain. The busy January 4-11 tour also included meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders in Tel Aviv and Ramallah, respectively.

In order to shore up US influence, the Department of State announced in advance that the secretary would emphasize to all stakeholders in the area five key national security objectives. First, Blinken would stress the continued US concern for “protecting civilian lives” in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Second, the secretary would convey Washington’s interest in reviving diplomatic efforts to press Hamas to release the remaining hostages. Third, he would seek increased and sustained delivery of “life-saving humanitarian assistance” to the besieged population of the Strip and “to ensure that Palestinians are not forcibly displaced from Gaza.” Fourth, he would discuss with all his counterparts the need to reduce regional tensions and prevent the spread of violence to other trouble spots in the region such as Lebanon, Iraq, and the Red Sea. And fifth, Blinken would focus the attention of US allies on the future of Gaza, setting the stage in the region for “comprehensive” and “tangible” diplomatic steps to reconcile the Palestinian yearning for statehood with Israel’s desire for normalization and its own version of peace with its neighbors.

Blinken’s Idealistic Report

Press coverage of the trip indicates that Blinken was well received by his hosts who engaged him in frank and constructive discussions, the diplomatic parlance for tough exchanges including criticism and disagreements. In his own public assessment of the extended tour, his fourth to the region in three months, the secretary noticeably departed from the cautious and guarded tone that diplomats at Foggy Bottom typically display in public. He candidly declared that he had detected significant signs of progress on his various stops and even paraphrased some of the diplomatic exchanges he had with various interlocutors. In extensive press remarks in Tel Aviv on January 9, Blinken reiterated the basic objectives of his visit, and then proceeded to reveal that “every partner that I met with on this trip said that they’re ready to support a lasting solution that ends the long-running cycle of violence and ensures Israel’s security.” He added, “But they underscored “that this can only come through a regional approach that includes a pathway to a Palestinian state.”

Blinken was equally confident about the controversial issue of normalization between Saudi Arabia and Israel, linking it with the newly proposed Palestinian statehood component. This marked the first time that a high-ranking US official had directly conveyed such a linkage in public. He stated,

With regard to normalization, there is, I think, a clear interest in pursuing that. Integration of the region is something that virtually all of the countries that I visited on this trip want to advance, want to pursue. Some of them have already taken vital steps to do that. Others, I think, are interested in doing the same. But it’s equally clear that that’s not in substitute for or at the expense of a political horizon for the Palestinians and ultimately a Palestinian state. On the contrary, that piece has to be a part of any integration efforts, any normalization efforts. That was also noticeably clear in my conversations during the course of this trip, including in Saudi Arabia.

In a January 11 media event in Cairo before departing for Washington, Blinken once more assured the international press corps covering his trip that serious progress had been made, conveniently adding Iran and its proxies to the equation. He claimed unequivocally that “There’s a path that brings Israel’s needs and desires for integration and genuine security with, as well, Palestinian aspirations for a state of their own.” To avoid any misunderstanding, Blinken reiterated his assertion that “That’s the single best way – this integration, security, a Palestinian state – to isolate and marginalize Iran and the kinds of actions it’s taking through its proxies … I think that vision is clear but for us to move on it, for it to really get started, the conflict in Gaza has to end. That’s critical.”

Blinken’s Selective Epiphany

No reputable analyst would doubt the need to end the bloody conflict in Gaza as soon as possible and to divert the attention of the warring parties to peaceful regional endeavors, for which Blinken called. But the rosy picture he depicted was quite surprising, to say the least, in light of the continued bloodletting in Gaza facilitated and supported, financially and militarily, by the Biden administration. The White House still refuses to call for a permanent halt to the fighting despite its daily perfunctory nod to the massive human toll on Palestinian civilians in Gaza.

Indeed, as Blinken was concluding his upbeat tour, the death toll in Gaza exceeded 24,000, including more than 10,000 children, in addition to 61,000 injured and 1.9 million Gazans displaced. Although, to his credit, the secretary did actually admit in his January 9 remarks in Tel Aviv that “There’s been far too much loss of life, far too much suffering,” he failed to clearly express the vital importance of attributing the human suffering on both sides, and more significantly, to call at the very least for a humanitarian ceasefire while still in the region. This was a significant missed opportunity in the annals of US diplomacy in the Middle East when factoring in the highly agitated Arab public opinion against the United States due to its biased Gaza policy since October 7.

Under normal circumstances, Blinken’s declarations that the conflict in Gaza must end and that Washington now endorses the establishment of a Palestinian state in return for more Arab normalization with Israel would have been tantamount to a magnitude 9.5 earthquake on the political Richter scale. Instead, his announcement was essentially a diplomatic dud because it first and foremost lacked credibility and clashed head on with the Biden administration’s own declared policy on how to end the war in Gaza. Washington cannot be taken seriously on its newfound commitment to ending the conflict in Gaza while it insists on the right of Israel to finish the job. What job are we talking about? When and how does it end? Selective epiphany on the Gaza war will not do at this late stage.

Furthermore, Blinken’s suggested path to end the violent conflict in Gaza and embark on regional stabilization, which includes support for Palestinian statehood, does not conform with any official or semi-official version of current Israeli policy. The deep chasm between his words and those of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu or the relatively more malleable Defense Minister Yoav Gallant seem totally irreconcilable. For the Arab world, and for other audiences for that matter, Blinken’s softer words did not necessarily earn him additional credibility nor win the hearts and minds of people of the region.

While sounding like a departure from official US pronouncements of the past 103 days, Blinken’s call for meeting the dire humanitarian needs of civilian inhabitants of Gaza, alleviating their acute food insecurity, allowing the displaced to return home safely, and preventing their forced transfer out of the Strip are totally contradicted and rendered inconsequential by the US policies of the past three months. As Secretary Blinken is fully aware, today’s Arab public is having great difficulty taking US policy seriously, notwithstanding unattainable cosmetic changes. A recent opinion poll conducted by the Qatar-based Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies, conducted in 16 Arab countries representing more than 95 percent of the population of the Arab region, found that a near consensus of 94 percent of respondents considered US policy toward Gaza “bad.” Fifty-one percent of respondents deemed US policies as the biggest threat to peace and stability in the region. Indeed, due to its ill-conceived Gaza policies, the US government will have a serious challenge on its hands for many years to come in trying to defend its image, reputation, and interests in the Arab world.

The views expressed in this publication are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab Center Washington DC, its staff, or its Board of Directors.

Featured image credit: US DoS