As the sun set in a polluted haze behind Antony Blinken’s plane on the tarmac of a military airport in Cairo, the US Secretary of State tried to recall exactly how many countries he’d visited as he crisscrossed the Middle East to bolster support for Israel.
(Bloomberg) — As the sun set in a polluted haze behind Antony Blinken’s plane on the tarmac of a military airport in Cairo, the US Secretary of State tried to recall exactly how many countries he’d visited as he crisscrossed the Middle East to bolster support for Israel.
“I think I’ve lost track,” he told reporters late Sunday, before listing them anyway.
After landing in war-time Israel three days earlier, Blinken had stopped in Jordan, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Egypt – at one point, hitting four countries in a single day. At the foot of the stairs to his plane, which his Egyptian hosts had decorated with a red-and-gold carpet, he announced he was heading back to Israel for yet more talks.
When he set off on the trip to marshal support for the Jewish state after the Oct. 7 assault by Hamas that killed 1,300, officials in Washington were cautiously hopeful that they might be able to keep the conflict from spiraling into a broader regional war.
Click here for more on the Israel-Hamas war
But as Blinken made the circuit of Arab capitals, extending the trip to add more stops, he and his team grew steadily more worried. Israel stepped up bombing of Gaza, giving more than a million residents just 24 hours to evacuate as it prepared for a ground campaign to wipe out Hamas. With the death toll there exceeding 3,000, Iran and its ally Hezbollah warned that they might join the fighting and open a second front from Lebanon, to Israel’s north.
Blinken found little sympathy in Arab capitals for his appeals for support of Israel’s right to defend itself against the attack by Hamas, which the US and EU have designated a terrorist group. Even NATO ally Turkey denounced Washington’s decision to send warships to show its support. China and Russia publicly called for a cease-fire, an option Israel and the US reject.
READ MORE: Understanding the Roots of the Israel-Hamas War
By Monday evening, Blinken was back in Tel Aviv, with little public result to show for his travels beyond an agreement with Israel to develop a plan to enable aid to reach civilians in Gaza. After more than seven hours of talks with officials, he announced Joe Biden will also come to Israel Wednesday to show support and warn others against joining the fight. The president will also stop in Jordan.
Less than a week earlier, Blinken’s stop in Israel was an emotional one, but the feeling was more sympathy than fear. Shown photos by Israeli officials of slaughtered infants, Blinken was at times speechless. On a stop at an aid station, he hugged a young survivor of the Hamas attack. Volunteers clamoring for a view yelled “thank you” and chanted “USA! USA!,” filming him on their phones as he walked over to shake hands.
Two days later, he was in Abu Dhabi for meetings with UAE officials, who didn’t clear the roads for his motorcade, which was forced to stop at traffic lights. Blinken also made a stop at newly built cubist complex containing houses of worship for the three Abrahamic faiths: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. At the synagogue, Blinken, whose grandfather fled pogroms in Russia, wore a kippah and signed a small tile with the words, “light in the darkness.”
But for all messages of interfaith harmony, the news from Gaza was relentlessly bad. Israeli’s 24-hour evacuation order drew criticism from the EU and the UN as “impossible,” especially since residents had nowhere to go with the tiny region’s borders sealed. Protests erupted across the Arab world, including in places where Blinken was touching down.
Iran and Hezbollah – whose thousands of high-precision missiles threaten Israeli cities far more than Hamas’s – were warning they might join the fight if Israel crushed the group as it had vowed to. Fighting along the border with Lebanon picked up.
Suddenly, it started to look more possible that two US aircraft-carrier groups headed to the region might do more than deter other actors from joining the fight.
At the same time, US efforts to figure out how to arrange the rescue or release of American hostages captured by Hamas appeared stalled as the risk they might be killed in Israeli strikes on Gaza grew by the day.
Blinken placed a call to his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, appealing for Beijing to use its influence to get Iran to back off. He didn’t make much progress. China’s statement after the conversation pointedly criticized Israel for going too far in its retaliation.
Saturday evening, the US delegation was up late hoping for a meeting Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman. He received them only the following morning. His readout of the meeting did express concern about civilian casualties, but those in Gaza, not Israel.
“Israel has wiped out entire families, how does America expect the Kingdom and others to condemn the Palestinian violence while ignoring the Israeli violence?” said Hesham Al-Ghannam, a Riyadh-based political scientist.
From Riyadh, Blinken headed for Cairo, where the US was struggling to win agreement to allow at least the 500 or so American citizens trapped in Gaza to cross the the border. US officials had told them to go to the crowded border post at Rafah, only to find the border closed. A convoy of humanitarian aid was also stuck, prevented from entering Gaza.
In Cairo, Blinken met Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, who allowed only local media to cover their handshake. The Egyptian leader delivered a monologue that played down Israeli deaths, mentioned Blinken’s Jewish heritage and whitewashing anti-Semitism in the region.
“They just overextend the right of self-defense, and it turns into a collective punishment,” the Egyptian president told Blinken of the Israeli response in comments carried on Egyptian TV.
While Israel had called on Egypt to allow all the residents of Gaza across the border to avoid its attack, Blinken said the message from his other meetings on that was crystal clear.
“I’ve heard directly from Palestinian Authority President Abbas and from virtually every other leader that I’ve talked to in the region, that that idea is a nonstarter, and so we do not support it,” Blinken said Sunday, referring to Mahmoud Abbas. “We believe that people should be able to stay in Gaza, their home. But we also want to make sure that they’re out of harm’s way and that they’re getting the assistance they need.”
Still, Biden’s team was hopeful their message was getting through that Israel’s plan to wipe out Hamas for good was something that the Arab leaders in the region could support, if only behind closed doors.
“What I’ve heard from virtually every partner was a determination,” Blinken told reporters in Cairo on Sunday before taking off for Tel Aviv. “A shared view that we have to do everything possible to make sure this doesn’t spread to other places, a shared view to safeguard innocent lives, a shared view to get assistance to Palestinians in Gaza who need it, and we’re working very much on that.”
Every Arab leader he met told Blinken that it was critical to address the humanitarian situation in Gaza, a senior State Department official said later. After the session with El-Sisi in Cairo, Blinken phoned Biden and told him what he’d heard, and the president urged his top envoy to return to Israel and get a deal done on that issue with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, this person said.
Still, when the US diplomats arrived Monday at Ben Gurion airport, there was little sign of optimism.
Diplomatic security agents flanking the stairs coming down from the plane wore camouflage flak jackets and helmets, instead of their usual suits, and Israeli security nearby carried assault rifles.
Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant praised the US for sending its carriers but had a blunt message on what’s to come.
“Let me tell you, Mr. Secretary, this will be a long war, the price will be high,” Gallant told Blinken. “But we are going to win for Israel and the Jewish people, and for the values that both countries believe in.”
That evening, air-raid sirens went off over central Tel Aviv as Hamas fired rockets at the city. Blinken, meeting with Netanyahu and his war cabinet, fled to a bunker, restarting their talks shortly afterward as the alert passed.
Those discussions ultimately lasted more than seven hours, and ended around 3 a.m. with an exhausted-looking Blinken taking two minutes to announce Biden would be on his way soon.
“President Biden will underscore our crystal clear message to any actor, state or non-state, trying to take advantage of this crisis to attack it — don’t,” he said.
–With assistance from Sam Dagher.
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