Secretary Blinken’s Middle East Tour

May 31, 2021

On April 29, 2018, Mike Pompeo made his first visit to Israel as Secretary of State. This is how Prime Minister Netanyahu started off their joint press conference:

“Secretary Pompeo, it’s wonderful to welcome you.

“This is your first visit to Israel as Secretary of State. I think it’s significant that you chose, as did the President, to include Israel on this important itinerary. I think it’s symbolic of our friendship, which is deep and getting even deeper and stronger.

 “We’ve known each other for some time. I’ve followed your activities in Congress, and then as the CIA, now as Secretary of State. You’re a true friend of Israel, a true friend of the Jewish people. And I look forward to working with you in your new role…”[i]

And this is how Mr. Netanyahu started off his joint press conference with Secretary Blinken on May 23, 2021:

“Secretary Blinken, Tony, welcome to Jerusalem, your first visit as the Secretary of State.  I have – since we’re running – we had a long discussion, and we’re running late, so I want to be very brief and speak about three points…”

With Secretary Pompeo, Mr. Netanyahu first thanked President Trump again for his historic decision on recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. He then addressed  the Iran nuclear deal:

“Mr. Secretary, I think the greatest threat to the world and to our two countries—and to all countries—is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons, and specifically the attempt of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons. We’ve had a very productive talk today on this subject as well. I appreciate the President’s leadership and your position on stopping Iran from ever acquiring nuclear weapons.

“I appreciate the President’s and your position on stopping Iran’s aggression in the region. That aggression has grown many-fold since the signing of the Iranian deal. If people thought that Iran’s aggression would be moderated as a result of signing the deal, the opposite has happened, and Iran is trying to gobble up one country after the other. Iran must be stopped. Its quest for nuclear bombs must be stopped. Its aggression must be stopped, and we’re committed to stopping it together.”

With Secretary Blinken, Prime Minister Netanyahu said he wanted to make three points:

The first point is a vote of thanks to President Biden and you for firmly supporting Israel’s right of self-defense…

The second point is – naturally, is Iran.  We discussed many regional issues, but none is greater than Iran.  And I can tell you that I hope that the United States will not go back to the old JCPOA because we believe that that deal paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons with international legitimacy.  We also reiterated that whatever happens, Israel will always reserve the right to defend itself against a regime committed to our destruction, committed to getting the weapons of mass destruction for that end.

The third point is peace… I think President Biden was absolutely correct when he said you’re not going to get peace until Israel is recognized as an independent Jewish state.  And that is the key.  I couldn’t agree more with President Biden.”[ii] (emphasis added)

Following the change at the White House, the word “recalibration” has often been used in the context of Washington’s relations with countries particularly in the Middle East. The word referred to an intention by the Biden White House to redefine  its relationships on the basis of America’s recommitment to democratic values. Of course, Israel is not among those countries. Yet, despite strict time constraints of Secretary Blinken’s day in Jerusalem and Ramallah, the foregoing tells something about the change in the atmospherics, if not the essence, of the Israel-US relationship. President Biden has repeatedly underlined his commitment to Israel’s security, and he means it. But this does not mean that the Bidens are family either with the Netanyahus as the Trumps were. In other words, Middle East politics would cease being a family business regardless of who leads the next governments of Israel.

The difference in Presidents Trump’s and Biden’s approach to the Iran nuclear deal needs no elaboration. The former withdrew form it, and the latter is trying to revive it. So, Mr. Netanyahu’s expression of disapproval comes as no surprise. Nonetheless, the language he used to convey his message was rather tough. To emphasize his point, he also referred to the JCPOA as the greatest regional issue and relegated the question of Palestine to a secondary problem.

Secretary Blinken tried hard to reassure him. He referred to President Biden as one of Israel’s most steadfast supporters. He made clear that the US will ensure that Hamas does not benefit from the reconstruction assistance. Nonetheless, he concluded, “As President Biden has said, we believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely; to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity, and democracy; to be treated with dignity.” He chose to avoid mentioning the JCPOA.

Later in the day, Secretary Blinken visited Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah where he underscored that Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, and dignity.

More importantly he said,

We will, as the president noted, continue to firmly oppose any unilateral provocative actions that risk sparking more violence and that undermine prospects for a just, durable resolution of the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, which ultimately requires two states.  And whether that is settlement activity, whether that is home demolitions, annexation of territory, incitement to violence, compensation for individuals imprisoned for acts of terrorism, any unilateral action that undermines the prospects for genuine progress and genuine peace is something we will continue to oppose.”  (emphasis added)

In brief, Secretary Blinken’s messages during his tour were the following:

  • The US remains committed to Israel’s  security.
  • The US remains committed to the two-states vision.
  • The US disapproves Mr. Netanyahu’s settlement activity.
  • Today’s order of business is rebuilding Gaza, start putting in place the conditions that would allow both sides to engage in a meaningful and positive way toward a final settlement.
  • The US is in the process of providing more than 360 million dollars of assistance to the Palestinian people. 
  • For Washington, Hamas remains a terrorist group. Its sole interlocutor on the Palestinian side will be the Palestinian Authority. (This means that contacts with Hamas would be through intermediaries like Egypt.)

Prioritizing the rebuilding of Gaza over  the immediate launching of yet another process for lasting peace is understandable. Firstly, the people of Gaza need all the help they can get. Secondly, the diplomatic stage has to be set with caution allowing the Palestinian side time to forge a united leadership. Not an easy task. Thirdly, Israel needs time for the settling of the dust in domestic politics. And fourthly, Israel would not engage in peace talks shortly after the fighting since this would provide substance to Hamas’ claims of victory.

Throughout his Middle East tour Secretary Blinken avoided rhetoric, expressed empathy for both sides, did his best to appeal to the parties involved in the conflict. As an experienced diplomat, he chose his words carefully even when addressing Washington’s objections to Hamas. His public discourse represented a sea change in US diplomacy.     

On May 25, Israel Democracy Institute published a press release on the main findings of a survey  on Operation Guardian of the Walls according to which,

  • 41% of Jewish Israelis and 63% of Arab Israelis thought that there is a connection between the operation in Gaza and the Prime Minister’s political considerations as coalition negotiations continue and he seeks to remain in office.
  • A large majority of the public (78%) rated the government’s management of the military aspects of the Operation, Guardian of the Walls as “pretty good” or “excellent”.
  • A smaller majority (58%) gave good grades on the government’s care of the home front during the operation. About half gave the government good grades in conveying its goals to the Israeli public (50%), and less than a third (31%) —in conveying its goals to international audiences. The latter was perceived as the main weakness among all the population groups examined.
  • When it comes to Arabs who harmed Jews, only a minority of Jewish Israelis (40%) and a majority of Arab Israelis (61%) believe that they are just a small minority of extremists who do not reflect the general sentiment among Arab Israelis.
  • On the other hand, when it comes to Jews who have harmed Arabs, a very large majority among Jewish Israelis believed that this is just a small and unrepresentative minority of extremists (80%); and a majority, albeit a smaller one, among Arab Israelis (56%), concurred with this assessment. In other words, Arab Israelis view Jews much more favorably than Jewish Israelis view Arab Israelis, with regard to whether the offenders represent a minority or a majority of the respective group.[iii]

In his famous Cairo speech of June 4, 2009, President Obama had  said,

“For decades, there has been a stalemate: two peoples with legitimate aspirations, each with a painful history that makes compromise elusive. It is easy to point fingers – for Palestinians to point to the displacement brought by Israel’s founding, and for Israelis to point to the constant hostility and attacks throughout its history from within its borders as well as beyond. But if we see this conflict only from one side or the other, then we will be blind to the truth: the only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.

“That is in Israel’s interest, Palestine’s interest, America’s interest, and the world’s interest…”

So, now it is the Biden administration’s turn to try energizing the Middle East peace process as this would be the most effective response to the distorted ideologies of extremist groups such as the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, al-Nusrah and the Taliban.

Finally, a word on Turkey’s Middle East policy.

Some years ago, the foreign minister of Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party said, “not a single leaf stirs in the Middle East without our knowledge…” At the time I thought this was an overstatement. Today, I admit having missed the joke.

———————————————————————————

[i] https://mfa.gov.il/MFA/PressRoom/2018/Pages/PM-Netanyahu-meets-with-US-Secretary-of-State-Pompeo-29-April-2018.aspx

[ii] https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-and-israeli-prime-minister-benjamin-netanyahu-statements-to-the-press/

[iii]   https://en.idi.org.il/media/16349/operation-guardian-of-the-walls-survey-may-2021.pdf

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