Middle East: Blinken’s visit to Egypt, Israel and the West Bankby Anna Maria Cossiga
A report on the US Secretary of State’s recent visit to the Middle East. By Anna Maria Cossiga
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US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s trip to Egypt, Israel and the West Bank had been planned for some time, but it was hard to predict what would happen in the meantime.
The agenda included “consultations with partners on a number of regional and global priority issues, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Iran, Israeli-Palestinian relations and safeguarding the two-state solution, human rights and democratic values” . Beyond the official announcements, Blinken’s trip was also meant to get in touch with the new Israeli government, whose policies are beginning to raise elements of concern in the United States – for this reason, the US Government sent National Security Advisor Jack Sullivan on an advance mission to Israel to “pave the way” for the visit .
Blinken’s visit to Israel came at a time of growing tensions. On 26 January, a raid by the Israeli army killed nine people, including two civilians, in the Jenin refugee camp. Hamas reacted promptly, with a first missile launch against Israel on 27 January, followed by an immediate response from the Israeli air force. On the same day, a Palestinian bomber murdered seven people outside a synagogue, in Jerusalem’s Neve Yaakov neighborhood. These actions were defined as retaliation for the deaths of the “heroic militiamen” by Hamas and Islamic Jihad. Furthermore, on Saturday 28, a 13-year-old Palestinian boy – subsequently killed by Israeli forces – seriously injured two people near the Old City of Jerusalem.
Blinken arrived in Cairo on 29 January, only to find one of the many somewhat dormant fires of the Near East rekindled. During his meeting with Egyptian President al-Sisi, the US Secretary of State discussed the US-Egypt strategic partnership and cooperation on various regional and international issues, including the situation in Libya and South Sudan. Considering the situation at the time of the visit, he could not avoid touching upon tensions between Israelis and Palestinians. Egypt, in addition to supporting the two-state solution, has repeatedly mediated between Israel and Hamas and has contributed to the reconstruction of Gaza, while at the same time siding with Israel in maintaining the blockade of the Strip. Egypt is keen on having good relations with the Palestinians, but also with Israel and, above all, the United States – and it is keen on ensuring its own security and role in the region. Interestingly, after Blinken's visit, Egyptian Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, in his meeting with Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov, relayed a message to Russia from the US . Lavrov confirmed this, stating that the request to Moscow is to end the war in Ukraine.
Upon his arrival at Tel Aviv airport, in his first public address from Israel, Blinken called on Israelis and Palestinians to avoid violence and retaliation. He met with President Isaac Herzog and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, with whom he reaffirmed the close ties between Washington and Tel Aviv, America’s commitment to the defence of Israel, and the shared values between the two countries.
This would be nothing new, but on the issue of shared values Blinken made some significant additions. In a sort of “review” of the meaning of “democracy”, the Secretary of State specified that these values include "support for the basic principles of democracy and its institutions, an equal administration of justice for all, minority rights, the rule of law, a free press, a strong civil society". It is not difficult to catch the reference to some of the possible legislation changes envisaged by some members of the Netanyahu government, including the reform of the judiciary, and the fear that some of these may infringe on the rights of minorities.
In the press conference at the end of his visit, Blinken clarified that the United States supports the two-state solution and, therefore, is also opposed to the expansion of settlements, moves leading to annexation, demolitions and evictions. Furthermore, it does not want to see changes in the status quo of holy sites.
The statements will probably have pleased the Palestinians even if, during his visit to Ramallah, Blinken clarified that the Palestinian National Authority had to resume security collaboration with Israel, which had been interrupted after the 26 January raid on Jenin. In relation to the incident, Blinken extended his condolences to the families of the deceased civilians.
Most probably, the Secretary of State’s words did not please Netanyahu, nor many members of his government. The United States, since the inauguration of the new executive, has declared that it would judge the Israeli government by the policies implemented and not by the people who are part of it.
Perhaps some of these policies, for now only proposed, are causing concern in Washington. It is not the first time that Israel has been blamed in the US for some of its activities in the West Bank and it seems unlikely that relations between the two countries will seriously deteriorate due to new laws. At the moment, the greatest concern for the US seems to be avoiding an escalation in the West Bank and Gaza. Blinken will leave two senior officials of the US Secretariat of State behind in Israel to facilitate the easing of tensions. Meanwhile, after a second rocket launch from Gaza, the Israeli air force hit two Hamas sites, one for the storage of chemical materials and one for the construction of weapons. While all actors are fearing a new escalation, it is to be hoped that the situation in the Strip does not degenerate into a new conflict.