Blinken’s Brief Mideast Trip Shows Biden’s Focus Is Elsewhere

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Secretary of State Antony Blinken visited the Middle East with promises of aid for Palestinians caught up in the latest Israel-Gaza confrontation. What he didn’t bring was any U.S. interest in forcing a bigger negotiation to resolve the underlying conflict.

Wrapping up a whirlwind two days of meetings in Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian territories, his first to the region as secretary of state, Blinken made clear the U.S. doesn’t think the time is right to get entrenched in the sort of exhaustive push for a two-state solution that has bogged down American presidents for decades.

Blinken’s Brief Mideast Trip Shows Biden’s Focus Is Elsewhere

So while the 11-day conflict between Israel and Hamas militants forced a pivot in Blinken’s schedule, U.S. priorities remain elsewhere: with the delicate negotiations in Vienna over Iran’s nuclear program and a broader effort to reorient American foreign policy toward competition with China. As for the region, Blinken signaled that the U.S. thinks incremental moves are more realistic for now.

“What we want to see, and what we’re working on, is steps that all sides can take to reduce tensions and to build both some more trust and more hope going forward,” Blinken told reporters Wednesday in Amman, Jordan. “Then I think we can see the possibility of conditions developing in which it will be more possible to actually advance on the prospect of two states.”

While Blinken and his team talk about addressing sources of the conflict, their answer for the time being is financial aid -- on his trip the secretary of state said the U.S. was committing more than $100 million in new support.

“There’s no question the administration would prefer to achieve stability and promote Gaza reconstruction over having to deal with the more problematic underlying drivers of the conflict,” said Daniel Kurtzer, a former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel who’s now a professor at Princeton. “There is no evidence the administration wants to actively promote the two-state paradigm, although it has repeated that mantra.”

That’s especially true given that Hamas -- designated by the U.S. as a terrorist group -- governs the Gaza Strip, making direct American talks impossible. Blinken emphasized that the U.S. would work to ensure Hamas doesn’t benefit from additional American aid being sent to help Gaza recover from the latest conflict, which destroyed hundreds of buildings and key infrastructure and killed more than 230 people, mostly Palestinians.

Another challenge for the Biden administration is that in Israel and the West Bank it faces a pair of leaders -- Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah and Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem -- who have effectively spent more than a decade resisting any real compromise in his strategy toward the other.

The Biden team is “hostile to the Netanyahu and Trump ‘advance Israel at any cost’ approach,” said Kori Schake, the director of foreign and defense policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “But mostly they’re trying not to get dragged into it it subsuming their priorities.”

West Bank Motorcade

In a nod to one aspect of former President Donald Trump’s policy that the new administration is sticking with, Blinken wants more countries to join diplomatic normalization agreements with Israel, known as the Abraham Accords. At the same time, the Biden administration is going back to a more traditional approach to the Middle East, shifting away from Trump’s policy of siding entirely with Israel.

At no point was that more clear than when Blinken’s motorcade of more than a dozen armored vehicles blasted past traffic on the narrow streets of Ramallah in the West Bank on Tuesday. In four years, Trump’s secretaries of state never visited the Palestinian territories. Instead, Secretary of State Michael Pompeo visited a settlement in the disputed West Bank in a show of support to Israel, something no top U.S. diplomat had ever done.

Blinken’s Brief Mideast Trip Shows Biden’s Focus Is Elsewhere

Blinken’s trip -- which wraps up Thursday with him returning to Washington from Amman -- also demonstrated a basic tension in the Biden administration’s approach to foreign policy. While it has pledged to put human rights at the heart of its decision-making, it’s made clear it will go ahead and back nations when doing so serves U.S. interests.

That’s been the case with Egypt, to which the U.S. plans to sell some $197 million in missiles and which remains an important partner despite rights abuses including the arrest of several American citizens. Blinken visited Cairo on Wednesday and said he raised human rights with President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi.

“You know that President Biden takes the issue of human rights and our commitment to human rights very seriously,” Blinken told reporters Wednesday. “Indeed, he’s asked us to put it at the heart of our foreign policy, and that’s exactly what we’re doing.”

While Blinken was traveling the region, the Biden administration’s biggest priority for the Mideast was being worked on far from Cairo and Jerusalem. In Austria, U.S., Iranian and European officials are among those working to revive the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, the nuclear deal with Iran that Trump quit in 2018. Israel opposes the U.S. bid to get back into the deal, and their disagreement over the issue is a major irritant.

Netanyahu made that clear when he and Blinken met on Tuesday, saying no issue the two discussed was more significant than Iran.

“And I can tell you that I hope that the United States will not go back to the old JCPOA because we believe that that deal paves the way for Iran to have an arsenal of nuclear weapons with international legitimacy,” Netanyahu said.

Asked about the disagreement at a press conference, Blinken said the U.S. will consult with allies such as Israel. But he offered no assurances and didn’t try to assuage Netanyahu’s concerns.

“We speak very directly, very frankly to each other, and ultimately we try to reason through problems together,” Blinken told Israel’s Channel 12 in an interview. “And I suspect that when the President does come here, he’ll pursue a long, longstanding conversation that he’s had going back a few years.”

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