With Israel-Hamas conflict, Mideast gets Washington’s attention

Biden pledges to help the Israelis and the Palestinians as Blinken plans to travel to the region in the coming days.

Friday 21/05/2021
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits the Black Ridge Viewing site in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken visits the Black Ridge Viewing site in Kangerlussuaq, Greenland, Thursday, May 20, 2021. (AP)

WASHINGTON - Having secured a truce between Israel and Hamas, the US administration finds itself compelled to get directly involved in the Palestinian-Israel conflict which it had tried to managed remotely, if at all. It will also have to review the premises behind its Mideast policy  and move towards a more pragmatic stance, analysts say.

President Joe Biden on Thursday pledged humanitarian and reconstruction aid for Gaza as he hailed a deal to end 11 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas that has tested his negotiating skills and exposed him to criticism from fellow Democrats. The US secretary of state plans to go to the region in the coming days to cement the truce and restart on the arduous path of a negotiated settlement.

Biden, appearing briefly at the White House after news of the ceasefire agreement, also promised to replenish Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence system, despite complaints from the Democratic left about a pending US arms sale to Israel.

Biden said the United States would work through the United Nations and other international stakeholders “to provide rapid humanitarian assistance and to marshal international support for the people in Gaza and in the Gaza reconstruction efforts.”

He insisted that reconstruction aid would be provided in partnership with the Palestinian Authority and not with Hamas, which the United States labels a “terrorist organisation”.

However, the Palestinian Authority, which is run by moderate President Mahmoud Abbas, only governs parts of the occupied West Bank while Hamas holds sway in the Gaza Strip.

“We will do this in full partnership with the Palestinian Authority – not Hamas – in a manner that does not permit Hamas to simply restock its military arsenal,” Biden said.

The ceasefire agreement followed days of intense diplomatic activity that provided a test of the ability of Biden and his top national security aides to help resolve a conflict that could have spiralled into a prolonged war.

Blinken makes to plunge

After trying to delegate contacts in the troubled region to an intermediate level official, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken ended up working the phone himself during the last few days.

Now he plans to travel to the Middle East “in the coming days,” the State Department said Thursday after Israel and Hamas agreed to a ceasefire halting 11 days of fighting.

Blinken spoke with his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi, who “welcomed Secretary Blinken’s planned travel to the region,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in a statement.

The top US diplomat “will meet with Israeli, Palestinian and regional counterparts in the coming days to discuss recovery efforts and working together to build better futures for Israelis and Palestinians,” Price said.

The announcement came after Blinken spoke twice Thursday with Ashkenazi ahead of implementation of the ceasefire, which was brokered by Egypt and followed mounting international pressure to stem the bloodshed.

“Both leaders expressed their appreciation for Egypt’s mediation efforts and the secretary noted that he would continue to remain in close touch with his Egyptian counterpart and other regional stakeholders,” Price said.

Blinken was headed home Thursday following an Arctic tour overshadowed by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Working from hotel rooms and the airplane in the scramble for a ceasefire, he spoke to leaders on both sides, as well as from Arab nations with influence over Hamas.

The secretary “welcomed the (Israeli) foreign minister’s confirmation that the parties had agreed to a ceasefire,” Price said.

The Israeli army said Hamas and other Islamist armed groups in Gaza have fired more than 4,300 rockets towards Israel, which have claimed 12 lives, including two children and an Israeli soldier.

Israeli strikes on Gaza have killed 232 Palestinians, including 65 children, as well as fighters and have wounded another 1,900, according to the Gaza health ministry.

Egypt rehabilitated

The frantic contacts made by the US to reach a truce, relied very much on Egypt as an intermediary with Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organisation by the US and much of Europe.

The Egyptian factor will be difficult to dismiss by the US administration despite its cool stance towards Cairo since Biden’s inauguration. Analysts expect the US to operate an even more “realistic” shift towards pragmatic compromises in dealing with authoritarian but friendly regimes in the turbulent region.

During the negotiations, Biden spoke to two leaders with whom he has had tense relations – six times with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, including twice on Thursday and once with Egyptian President Abel Fattah al-Sisi.

Both Netanyahu and Sisi were close to Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump. Biden waited weeks to call Netanyahu after taking office in what Israel viewed as a snub.

His phone call with Sisi on Thursday was the first time they had spoken since Biden took office in January. Egypt, which has a peace treaty and diplomatic relations with Israel and also maintains contacts with Hamas, has traditionally played a key role in quelling Gaza fighting.

The absence until now of direct communication between the two presidents had been widely seen as a snub to Sisi by a new administration that has made clear its concerns about Egypt’s human rights record.

When the conflict began, the administration was cautious not to make public demands on Israel out of concern Israelis would ignore US appeals and prolong the conflict, a source familiar with the behind-the-scenes negotiations said.

The United States got a sense five or six days ago that Israel was prepared to begin a wind-down phase after destroying much of the Hamas targets it had set out to hit, the source said.

At that point, senior US officials from Biden on down began pressing Israel more strongly for a de-escalation and a ceasefire, the source said.

On Thursday, Israel signalled to Biden officials a readiness for a ceasefire, the source said. The United States informed Egypt, which told Hamas.

US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Middle East in the Cross Hall of the White House, in Washington, DC on May 20, 2021. (AFP)
US President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Middle East in the Cross Hall of the White House, in Washington, DC on May 20, 2021. (AFP)

The Islamist militant group then informed Egypt of its readiness for a ceasefire and Egypt told the United States. The main interlocutor for Egypt was Cairo’s intelligence chief, the source said.

Biden’s public backing of Israel’s “right to self-defence” against Hamas rocket attacks prompted criticism from fellow Democrats that he needed a more balanced approach instead of marching in lockstep with Israel.

In his remarks, Biden defended his approach to handling the crisis but gave a nod to his critics, saying Palestinians deserve to live in peace and security just like Israelis.

“My administration will continue our quiet, relentless diplomacy toward that end. I believe we have a genuine opportunity to make progress and I am committed to working for it,” he said.

With some critics pointing to Biden’s lack of high-level representation on the ground, the source made clear that the selection process for a new US ambassador to Israel was nearing an end.

Thomas Nides, a former State Department official who is currently a Morgan Stanley bank executive and Robert Wexler, a former Democratic lawmaker with extensive Middle East experience, are the front-runners, a US official told Reuters recently.

The Axios news website reported on Thursday that Biden was leaning toward picking Nides.

Dragged back

The last few days of fighting in Gaza and the US efforts to secure a ceasefire have signalled Washington’s failure to stay out of the Middle East. Blinken’s forthcoming visit to region will seal the end of disengagement.

Early in Biden’s term, foreign policy has taken a back seat. The president has tried to avoid getting bogged down in an interminable effort to establish an elusive Mideast peace to which many of his White House predecessors have dedicated precious time without much success.

Biden’s call on Netanyahu to de-escalate the fighting came as political and international pressure mounted on the US president to intervene more forcefully to push for an end to the hostilities. Biden, until Wednesday, had avoided pressing Israel more directly and publicly for a cease-fire, or conveying that level of urgency for ending Israeli airstrikes targeting Hamas in the thickly-populated Gaza Strip.

His administration has relied instead on what officials described as “quiet, intensive” diplomacy, including quashing a UN Security Council statement that would have addressed a cease-fire. The administration’s handling opened a divide between Biden and some Democratic lawmakers, dozens of whom had called for a cease-fire.

Biden’s relationship with Netanyahu could be further complicated for the president by a shifting tide on Israel among some congressional Democrats. Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York has called Israel an “apartheid state,” and Representative Ilhan Omar of Minnesota has labeled Israeli airstrikes “terrorism.” Biden, during a visit to Michigan on Tuesday, had an animated conversation about the ongoing fighting with Representative Rashida Tlaib, who has family in the West Bank. Tlaib told Biden that his administration must do far more to protect Palestinian lives, according to a person familiar with their conversation.

Soon after Netanyahu announced he planned to continue operations, Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Mark Pocan of Wisconsin introduced a resolution opposing the sale of $735 million in military weaponry to Israel that has already been approved by the Biden administration. Separately, 138 House Democrats on Wednesday signed a letter, organised by David Price of North Carolina, urging Biden and his administration to “boldly lead and take decisive action to end the violence.”