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Blinken’s Israel visit exposes limits of US diplomacy

The US has been Israel’s staunchest ally since Hamas fighters attacked it on October 7. But as US secretary of state Antony Blinken ended his latest visit, it was the two countries’ deepening divisions that were most clearly on display.

After a day of meetings between US and Israeli officials, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, and Blinken held separate press conferences that laid bare their disagreements on issues ranging from the war’s next phase to how to secure the release of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza.

“This trip reflected just how hard this whole [diplomatic] process is going to be,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former US state department official.

“It’s the two combatants that determine the arc of this crisis. And while the US has been, and is, playing a significant role, I think we have to be really pretty sober about assessing the degree to which [Washington] can fundamentally alter the trajectory of this crisis.”

In another sign of the gap between the allies, US President Joe Biden later on Thursday described Israel’s military response in Gaza as “over the top”, one of his sharpest criticisms of the Israeli offensive to date.

“There are a lot of innocent people who are starving, a lot of innocent people who are in trouble and dying, and it’s gotta stop,” Biden told reporters at the White House.

Back in Israel, the starkest divergence between Blinken and Netanyahu was in their assessment of the latest conditions offered by Hamas for releasing the roughly 130 hostages still in its hands, not all of whom are alive.

Blinken said that while the proposal — which called for a 135-day pause in hostilities, the withdrawal of Israel’s military from Gaza, and the release of at least 1,500 Palestinian prisoners from Israeli jails — contained some “non-starters”, it nevertheless offered “space for agreement to be reached”.

Netanyahu, however, dismissed the terms as “delusional”.

Instead, the Israeli premier insisted the only way to free the captives was “total victory” over Hamas. To achieve this, he added, Israel would expand its military operations to the town of Rafah in southern Gaza, where more than a million displaced Gazans are sheltering in abject conditions.

That, in turn, would be at odds with efforts during the past few months by US officials to persuade Israel to reduce the intensity of the fighting.

Blinken repeated his concerns about the civilian death toll in Gaza on Wednesday evening and warned bluntly that the dehumanisation of Israelis by Hamas “cannot be a licence to dehumanise others”.

In a sign of the Biden administration’s growing frustration with Netanyahu and extreme-right members of his coalition, such as ministers Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, Blinken also said he had raised “our profound concerns about actions and rhetoric, including from government officials, that inflame tensions that undercut international support” for Israel.

Israel was not the only stop on Blinken’s four-country tour of the Middle East that underscored the challenges facing US diplomacy.

There were also signs that Saudi Arabia — which Blinken visited on Monday — wanted to check the US’s positive messaging on the chances of the kingdom normalising relations with Israel.

The Biden administration has been using Israel’s long-held ambition of normalisation with Saudi Arabia as a part of its efforts to broker a “just and lasting peace” that would ultimately involve the creation of an independent Palestinian state — something Netanyahu has long resisted.

But on Wednesday, in response to US comments that Washington had “received positive feedback from both sides”, Riyadh released a statement saying there would be “no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognised on the 1967 borders”.

In a clear message to the US and its western allies, it also called on all permanent members of the UN Security Council to “expedite the recognition of the Palestinian state”.

The statement was released after Blinken had held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman. It underlined that while Riyadh is willing to discuss diplomatic ties with Israel as part of a broader peace plan, it also wants to make clear that Israel and western powers would have to make significant concessions to the Palestinians.

“The trip shows that the US is still not putting enough pressure on Netanyahu, and [demonstrates] the limits of Blinken’s diplomacy, because he’s coming up empty-handed,” said Sanam Vakil, head of the Middle East programme at Chatham House.

She added that “perhaps the strategy has to be much more international and multilateral”.

US officials argue, however, that Washington’s diplomacy has had some impact. Blinken insisted on Wednesday that US pressure had led Israel to allow more aid into Gaza — although aid groups say the amounts are still far less than what the civilian population in the besieged territory needs.

Meanwhile, a person familiar with the matter said that although Netanyahu had rejected Hamas’s terms, Israeli officials were continuing to participate in meetings on the next steps towards a potential deal.

“Netanyahu might be closing the door on the idea Hamas put forward. But that doesn’t mean he’s closing the door on a deal of any kind,” a former Israeli official said.

Jonathan Rynhold, professor of political-science at Bar-Ilan University, said the US had also succeeded in dissuading Israel from being drawn into a broader conflict with other enemies in the region, such as the Lebanese militant group Hizbollah, whose fighters have been exchanging cross-border fire with Israeli forces since October.

“Gaza is where Israel has more of the say. Lebanon is where America has more of the say.”

But others warned that the window for breakthroughs on a hostage deal, let alone a broader solution to the conflict, is narrowing.

The US presidential election campaign is starting to accelerate, and Miller said that once it began in earnest, the appetite of the Biden administration to invest its political capital in long-shot attempts at brokering a peace deal would wane.

“During that period . . . presidents don’t usually demonstrate a great deal of risk [appetite] when it comes to Middle East,” he said. “The Israeli clock and the Hamas clock . . . are not ticking that quickly. The administration clock is ticking much faster. And therein lies the problem.”

Additional reporting by Felicia Schwartz in Washington

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