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‘Mission impossible’? Blinken seeks restraint as Middle East sabres rattle

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Since taking office two years ago, Antony Blinken has tackled some of the most complicated challenges to face a modern US secretary of state, including cleaning up the diplomatic mess after the US’s precipitous Afghanistan withdrawal and holding together an anti-Russia alliance in Ukraine.

But Blinken is now in the middle of an overseas assignment that may be what one analyst called a “mission impossible”: helping arm Israel ahead of an anticipated assault on Gaza, while urging its restraint — and convincing Gulf allies to keep a lid on Islamists that will inevitably react with outrage.

“It does seem like a ‘mission impossible’ on a certain level,” said David Makovsky, a Middle East expert at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

The overlapping — and potentially conflicting — goals of Blinken’s mission was on full display during his first stop on Thursday in Tel Aviv, where he gave a full-throated endorsement of Israel’s right to defend itself even while warning the country’s prime minister to proceed under the laws of war. “How Israel does this matters,” he said at a press conference, standing next to Benjamin Netanyahu. “That’s why it’s so important to take every possible precaution to avoid harming civilians.”

The success of that effort is already under question, with human rights groups criticising Netanyahu’s decision to cut off food, water and electricity supplies to the densely populated Gaza Strip, a move Amnesty International has called an “illegal blockade”. Gaza’s sole power plant went offline after it ran out of fuel on Wednesday.

The US has also attempted to convince Israel and Egypt to provide a humanitarian corridor for civilians to leave Gaza through Egypt, which analysts said could help counter negative views of Israel as its campaign goes on. But thus far those efforts have been met with resistance.

Israel-Hamas war

As difficult as Blinken’s mission was in Israel, it could become more arduous on Friday, when he begins a tour of the US’s Arab allies, including Jordan, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

The ground in these countries has been prepared by Blinken’s boss, President Joe Biden, who has been on the phone to Arab leaders for days warning against anyone in the region who may seek to “exploit” the fighting in Gaza.

But that may prove near impossible for several Gulf allies, including Saudi Arabia, which has insisted for months that it had not forsaken the Palestinian cause even as it grew closer to Israel to counter their common foe, Iran.

Saudi Arabia has long been one of the most important supporters of the Palestinian Authority, helping finance the group and holding sway over its leadership. It also hosts millions of Muslim pilgrims each year at Islam’s holiest sites Mecca and Medina and is deeply concerned about how the so-called Arab Street will react to the ongoing conflict.

Before Saturday’s assault in southern Israel, the Biden administration had shown limited staying power in backing Netanyahu’s efforts to counter Palestinian attacks with military force. During Israel’s last conflict with Hamas in 2021, the president and other senior US officials urged Netanyahu to bring the conflict to an end after barely more than a week.

But US officials say the circumstances surrounding Hamas’s assault are different this time, and the White House is preparing to support Israel for a long war that sees it deal a decisive blow to the terror group as opposed to its approach of recent years known to Israeli officials as “mowing the lawn”.

William Wechsler, senior director of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center, said Arab leaders would show more patience with Israel’s response to Hamas because of the heinous nature of the atrocities. But he warned that as the war grinds on, Gulf allies will struggle to accede to US pleas for restraint.

“It will diminish over time as pictures and videos of suffering innocents come out,” Wechsler said.

US officials are particularly concerned over attempts by Iran to capitalise on the conflict, either by backing a second front in Israel by unleashing Shia militant groups such as Hizbollah in Lebanon or using their proxies to attack Gulf Arabs.

Biden has sought to reassure Iran’s Arab foes by sending two aircraft carrier groups to the region, saying they were intended to send a clear message to the Iranians: “Be careful”.

Tehran thus far has shown signs of restraint. US officials have said there are no indications Iran was directly involved in Saturday’s Hamas assault, and Hizbollah has yet to enter the fray in a serious way. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman held a rare call with Ebrahim Raisi, president of Iran, on Thursday.

Still, Blinken will struggle to constrain Saudi leaders and other Gulf allies if Iran becomes more aggressive. While Blinken was in Jerusalem, his Iranian counterpart, foreign minister Hossein Amirabdollahian, was in Beirut warning that Israeli attacks on Palestinians would receive a response from “the rest of the axes”, adding that “the Zionist entity” would be responsible.

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