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Blinken’s whirlwind Mideast visit futile to quench tensions

Blinken's visit is purely tactical, aimed at pacifying Gulf countries and other nations in the Middle East. The unchanged part is that the Biden administration continues to share the objective of Israel being engaged in warfare with Hamas, said an expert in Qatar.

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Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi (R) talks with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Cairo, Egypt, Jan. 11, 2024. Blinken held talks on Thursday with Sisi in the Egyptian capital of Cairo as he wraps up his Mideast tour over the ongoing Israeli escalation in the Gaza Strip. (Egyptian Presidency/Handout via Xinhua)

 A whirlwind diplomatic tour by U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken to quench the prolonged Israel-Hamas conflict and growing spillover in the Mideast is bound to be a futile attempt.

U.S. President Joe Biden confirmed Thursday that the United States and its allies have conducted targeted strikes against a number of targets in Yemen used by the Houthis.

On the same day, Blinken said at a press availability in Cairo, Egypt, that if the Houthis don’t stop their attacks, “there’ll have to be consequences.”

Heading home from Cairo, the final leg of his visits to 10 countries and territories, Blinken once again failed to brighten the region’s dismal peace prospect, observers have said.

COLD-SHOULDERS

The visits came amid global cries for an immediate humanitarian ceasefire in the Gaza Strip, where Israeli air and ground raids on Hamas targets have killed more than 23,469 people, or 1 percent of the enclave’s total population, and displaced some 1.9 million.

The weeklong trip was also undertaken in response to heightened concern about military escalation. This followed an Israeli drone attack that resulted in the death of a top Hamas leader and officials in southern Beirut, disruptions to shipments in the Red Sea due to attacks by the Houthi militia, and a twin bombing incident in southern Iran that claimed more than 90 lives.

In the interim of back-to-back talks with Turkish and Arab state leaders, Blinken arrived in Tel Aviv to meet with senior members of the Israeli government.

Following the Wednesday meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Blinken said the two sides discussed the release of more Israeli hostages as well as Gaza’s displacement and humanitarian crisis. He stressed that “escalation is in no one’s interest.”

Netanyahu’s office, however, did not issue any detailed statement on his talks with Blinken, nor did the two officials attend a joint press conference. Israeli Channel 12 reported that this indicated increasingly “tense” ties and “obvious differences” between the United States and Israel, the good old buddies.

Later in the day, when meeting with Blinken in Ramallah, the West Bank, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas reiterated the Palestinian call for an end to Israeli aggression and complete rejection of the displacement, Palestinian official WAFA news agency reported.

The appeals were echoed by almost all other state leaders who received the top U.S. diplomat, especially those of Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Türkiye, and Egypt.

“We hope that there will be a ceasefire, but if not so, at least a humanitarian pause to end the fighting,” said Gulru Gezer, a former Turkish diplomat and foreign policy analyst.

SELF-SERVING INTERESTS

However, local observers have treated Blinken’s fourth regional tour in three months with deep skepticism as it aimed to serve primarily U.S. self-interests, rather than facilitate a ceasefire, or a real peace through the two-state solution.

Meanwhile, the lack of details or tangible follow-through mechanism renders any freshly agreed consensus fragile.

Bassam as-Salhi, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said that throughout the visits, Blinken has apparently dodged mentioning nor seriously considering a Gaza ceasefire, the region’s core concern.

In a press briefing just before Blinken embarked on his tour, the State Department on Jan. 4 outlined four diplomatic bearings — protecting civilians, releasing Israeli hostages, facilitating humanitarian aid delivery to “civilians in Gaza,” and stopping forced displacement in the enclave.

“These cannot fundamentally solve the problem,” Bassam as-Salhi said, adding that in the runup to the U.S. presidential election, the Biden administration wanted to roll back aggressive Mideast diplomatic moves that had eroded its approval rate.

Samer Anabtawi, a Palestinian political analyst, further boiled down the trip to a diplomatic facelift for U.S. global credibility, which has been faltering since the onset of the Gaza conflict on Oct. 7, 2023.

“Washington claims that it is seeking to contain the situation in the region and not expand the war beyond Gaza, while it is militarizing the Red Sea and … buying more time for Israel to keep the latter’s military campaign in full swing,” said Oraib Al Rantawi, director general of the Amman-based Al Quds Center for Political Studies.

In December, the Biden administration resorted twice to emergent executive power to skip congressional steps to sell Israel tank and artillery shells for a total worth of over 250 million U.S. dollars, despite the abject reality in Gaza.

Blinken’s visit is purely tactical, aimed at pacifying Gulf countries and other nations in the Middle East. The unchanged part is that the Biden administration continues to share the objective of Israel being engaged in warfare with Hamas, Steven Wright, associate professor of International Relations at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences of Hamad Bin Khalifa University, Qatar, told Xinhua.

Bearing that in mind, whatever Washington has expressed on the Palestinian issue would reduce to lip service, achieving no real result, Palestinian analyst Ayman Yousef noted.

ALARMING SPILLOVER RISKS

As the Gaza conflict rages on, Israel has been launching attacks on Syrian military targets and Hezbollah sites, stoking fears of regional spillover.

During the past week, Israeli forces and Hezbollah escalated clashes, with two senior commanders of the Iran-backed group killed, a bleak contrast to what was touted in Blinken’s tour in Türkiye, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Israel, the West Bank, Bahrain, and finally Egypt.

Washington shows no real influence over appeasing the anger of the other warring sides, be it Hamas, Hezbollah, or Yemen’s Houthi militants, which all demand a ceasefire in Gaza as a precondition of halting strikes against what they called Israeli targets, according to Eyal Zisser, professor at the Middle East History department, Tel Aviv University.

“Once again, the gap is very wide between the actors — and the United States has no influence over most of them — so it will be difficult for Washington to keep the conflict from expanding,” Zisser told Xinhua.

In response to the Israeli airstrikes on Gaza and “in solidarity with the Palestinians,” Yemen’s Houthi group has escalated its attacks on commercial vessels in the Red Sea since Nov. 19, 2023, demanding an end to the conflict.

U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin announced on Tuesday that the country has formed a multinational naval task force to deter the attacks.

Though the Pentagon said several nations had now agreed to participate in the group, regional countries like the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan have stood aloof from the U.S.-led naval coalition, out of concerns that the move may further militarize the waterway.

Abdul Aziz, a Saudi political analyst believes that Washington should realize that it is no longer the only foreign power with influence in the region, and Israel alone cannot protect its interests.

The United States should develop relations with regional countries, including the Gulf ones, based on friendship and mutual benefit, rather than impose its will on these countries, he said.

However, the essence of Blinken’s visit is still based on security concerns for Israel, while rights of the Palestinian people and regional interests are largely ignored, according to Al Rantawi.

“The United States is the primary factor exacerbating regional tensions and undermining regional and international stability,” said the Jordanian analyst.

Xinhua News Agency

Founded in 1931, Xinhua News Agency is one of the largest news organizations in the world, with over 10,000 employees across the globe. As the main source of news and information for China, Xinhua plays a key role in shaping the country's media landscape and communicating its perspectives to the world. The agency produces a wide range of content, including text news articles, photos, videos, and social media posts, in both Chinese and English, and its reports are widely used by media organizations around the world. Xinhua also operates several international bureaus, including in key capitals like Washington, D.C., Moscow, and London, to provide in-depth coverage of global events.

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