Blinken’s Latest Middle East Mission Shows More Labor Than Payoff

(Bloomberg) -- After stopping in five cities in four days in his latest Middle East mission, the best a tired-looking Antony Blinken could say about the results was that “all of this is a work in progress.”

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Judging from the outward results of the US secretary of state’s second marathon trip through the region in the less than a month since Israel’s latest war with Hamas began, there was more labor than payoff.

In Israel, Blinken’s calls for humanitarian “pauses” in the assault of the Gaza Strip were met with more air attacks and ground operations, worsening a grave humanitarian crisis for hundreds of thousands of trapped civilians. An Israeli government minister even hinted at using nuclear weapons there, although his comments were quickly disavowed. A stop in Jordan, one of the US’s closest allies in the region, brought an unusually public lecture about the need for not just breaks but an immediate cease-fire — an option Israel and the US reject.

Monday’s visit to another ally - Turkey - brought a snub by the president and a sense of US frustration at the lack of progress in talks with others, according to officials there who asked for anonymity to discuss private conversations.

A month after the Hamas attack on Israel killed more than 1,400 people, the US’s nightmare scenario of a wider regional war has so far been avoided, with Iran-backed groups keeping attacks limited. But Washington hasn’t had as much success in expanding humanitarian aid into the Gaza Strip or persuading Israel to hold back from strikes that have resulted in a heavy casualty toll among civilians.

“Blinken had some success on that previous trip, not so much on this one,” said Aaron David Miller, a former US diplomat who has advised both Democratic and Republican secretaries of state on the Middle East and is now a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The administration’s capacity to bring leverage against Israel is very limited.”

The challenge of the trip highlighted what people close to Blinken say has become a key tenet of US diplomacy since the Hamas attack: even if chances of success are low, the dangers of a wider war are too great not to try everything to prevent it. The risk of that approach — as evidenced by successive leaders appearing to rebuff Blinken — is that the US looks ineffectual, and its ability to shape the conflict vastly diminished.

Local authorities backed by Hamas - which the US and EU designate as terrorists - said Monday the death toll in Gaza broke 10,000. That couldn’t be independently confirmed, but the devastation there has eroded the widespread international sympathy Israel enjoyed in the first days after the Oct. 7 attack. The United Nations said 88 of its workers had been killed since the war began.

The US has stepped up calls for humanitarian pauses in the fighting to allow aid in and hostages and others out. Publicly, Israel has rejected that unless Hamas releases the more than 200 hostages it took from Israel. A deal between Israel, Egypt and Hamas to allow foreigners trapped in Gaza to leave also seemed to stall over the weekend.

Biden added his muscle to the message Monday, raising “the possibility of tactical pauses” in his latest phone call with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Monday. There was no public indication that Israel was softening its resistance, however.

Still, Blinken hinted in Turkey Monday that his closed-door conversations may have been more productive than the public statements made them seem.

“I think you’ll see in the days ahead that that assistance can expand in significant ways so that more gets into people who need it and gets to the people who need it, as well as making sure that people can continue to come out of Gaza,” he told reporters, without providing details.

William Burns, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and a veteran diplomat that President Joe Biden often uses for some of his most sensitive assignments, arrived in the region for more talks.

Publicly, neither Israeli nor Arab officials were showing much flexibility.

“I made it clear that we are going with full steam ahead, and that Israel refuses any temporary ceasefire that does not involve the release of the kidnapped Israelis,” Netanyahu said Monday. “Israel is not allowing fuel into Gaza and objects to funds being transferred into the Strip.”

Unlike their joint appearance when Blinken last visited, the two had separate press conferences after the talks this time and their messages diverged.

Arab leaders continued to press for an unconditional cease-fire, having lectured Blinken during his Jordan stop.

“The Secretary of State got an earful when he was in Amman,” Dennis Ross, who served as the White House Middle East envoy under President Bill Clinton and is now a senior advisor at WestExec Advisors, told a Washington Institute event Monday. “The issue of humanitarian pauses is extremely important to the United States, because they’re quite aware of what the mood is in the Arab world.”

Some observers called for the US to link aid to Israel’s flexibility on the issue, something the Biden administration so far has refused to do.

“Given the level of financial and diplomatic support that the US is providing, perhaps the time has come for the Biden administration to deliver a more forceful message that the opinions of the United States on these matters are more than a suggestion,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a Washington-based liberal Jewish advocacy group.

At the same time, the US remains frustrated with the Arab countries, as well as Israel, for not doing enough to plan for what will happen in Gaza after the Israeli operation.

“Secretaries of state basically do what Tony Blinken is doing — they confront hard problems,” said Miller, the former diplomat. He noted that his former boss, James Baker, took nine trips to the region in the leadup to Israel-Palestinian talks hosted by Spain in 1991. Blinken “is just at the beginning of this,” he said.

At home, the Biden administration is facing growing blowback for its strong support of Israel. Thousands marched in Washington and other cities over the weekend demanding a cease-fire, while prospects for the White House’s aid plan for Israel in Congress remained unclear.

--With assistance from Firat Kozok and Gwen Ackerman.

(Updates with details of Biden call, further comment, from 11th paragraph.)

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