As the United States’ top diplomat concludes his fourth tour of the Middle East since the war in Gaza began, foreign policy analysts are questioning whether the visit was an act of diplomacy — or an exercise in “damage control”.
On Wednesday, Secretary of State Antony Blinken travelled from Israel to the West Bank and then Bahrain. The stops were part of a tour that included visits to Turkey, Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, with a final stop in Egypt on Thursday.
Much of the attention was on the US’s continued support of Israel, as it continues its months-long military campaign in Gaza. An estimated 23,357 Palestinians have died in that offensive, amid mounting concerns over human rights violations.
At a Tel Aviv news conference on Tuesday, Blinken ran through oft-repeated themes: that the administration of US President Joe Biden “continues to stand” with Israel but that civilian casualties in Gaza remain “far too high”.
Analysts described the latest tour as an attempt at “face-saving”, as Blinken sought to walk a fine line between exerting influence over Israel and failing to publicly exercise any real leverage.
“We want this war to end as soon as possible,” Blinken told reporters on Tuesday.
But three months into the war, an “endgame” remains elusive, said Michael Schaeffer Omer-Man, the director of research for Israel-Palestine at Democracy for the Arab World Now (DAWN).
“There’s still no plan,” he told Al Jazeera. He cast doubt on Israel’s stated mission of eliminating the Palestinian group Hamas as part of the war.
“Israelis are still living in fantasyland, in that they think they can accomplish the impossible, and the Americans are still in fantasyland [thinking] that they can bring Israelis around to something that’s acceptable to the world,” Omer-Man explained.
Critics warned that the US and Israel are also articulating different visions for the path forward after the war.
On his visit to Tel Aviv, for example, Blinken called on Israel to accept a two-state solution for Palestine, something he again discussed with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Wednesday.
But Netanyahu has repeatedly rejected any moves towards a two-state solution and has said Israel will maintain security control over Gaza for an indefinite period after the war.
Two far-right Israeli officials — Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir and Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich — have also voiced a desire for the “voluntary migration” of Palestinians out of Gaza, something critics have interpreted as a push for ethnic cleansing in the enclave.
The latest rhetoric underscored the “yawning gap” between Washington’s vision for a post-war Gaza and what Israel’s government is willing to accept, according to Joshua Landis, the director of the Center of Middle East Studies at the University of Oklahoma.
“Netanyahu, who has said numerous times that America is easy to manipulate and who has done end runs around one president after the next, is doing an end run around Biden,” Landis told Al Jazeera.
“He’s getting all the arms he wants, and he’s continuing to do this massive damage in Gaza, and he’s not moderating his government officials, who are constantly spouting out this hate messaging, which is embarrassing America in front of the world,” he said.
‘Preempt’ ICJ hearings
Still, Blinken sought to claim some victories during the trip. He announced, for instance, that US and Israeli officials had agreed on a plan for a United Nations assessment mission in northern Gaza to “determine what needs to be done to allow displaced Palestinians to return safely to homes in the north”.
That announcement came before the World Health Organization (WHO) cancelled its latest aid mission to northern Gaza, saying Israeli approval and security assurances had not been granted.
Blinken also hailed Israel’s announcement that it would begin to shift some troops out of Gaza, describing it as a transition to a “lower-intensity phase” in the enclave.
On Monday, in interviews with the New York Times and Wall Street Journal, Israeli military spokesman Daniel Hagari said his country would move from the “intense-manoeuvring phase of the war” to “types of special operations”, in an effort to reduce civilian casualties. However, intense fighting would continue in the centre and south of Gaza.
Hours later, speaking at a campaign event in South Carolina, Biden said in unscripted remarks that he had been “quietly working with the Israeli government to get them to reduce and significantly get out of Gaza”.
But far from acquiescing to US pressure, DAWN’s Omer-Man said talk of a strategic shift was more likely a response to South Africa’s proceedings against Israel at the UN’s International Court of Justice (ICJ).
South Africa has accused Israel of genocide in Gaza and requested a provisional injunction that would, in theory, order Israel to stop its operations. Preliminary hearings are set to take place on Thursday and Friday.
Israel’s rhetoric about shifting tactics is “absolutely designed so they can tell the ICJ that any interim measures are not relevant any more because major military operations have ended”, Omer-Man explained. “I think a big part of this is the US and Israel trying to preempt [the ICJ hearings] in some way.”
For his part, speaking in Tel Aviv, Blinken dismissed the charge of genocide as “meritless”.
Israel-Lebanon ‘escalatory trend’
Blinken’s latest trip through the Middle East has also coincided with increased fighting along Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where there have been a string of high-profile assassinations in recent days.
Those include the killing of Hamas deputy leader Saleh al-Arouri in Beirut, which Israel has yet to claim or deny, as well as the killing of Hezbollah commander Wissam Hassan al-Tawil on Monday.
Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Washington-based Middle East Institute, described the killings as part of an “escalatory trend” fuelled by Israeli officials pledging to “change the status quo” in the Hezbollah stronghold of southern Lebanon.
Hezbollah is an Iran-backed movement, and fighting along the Lebanon-Israel border has fuelled fears of a wider regional conflict erupting, with Iran and other countries potentially entering the fray.
“[The US] is concerned that things might get out of control. They are concerned about voices inside the Israeli war cabinet who want to escalate the Hezbollah-Israel front, who want to basically finish what they had not done in 2006,” she said, referring to Israel’s ground invasion of southern Lebanon during the Israel-Hezbollah war.
On Tuesday, Blinken was asked if the strikes surrounding his visit undermined US calls to avoid any escalation with Iranian proxy forces and potentially Iran itself.
“One thing that we’ve heard clearly every place we’ve gone, including in Israel, is that escalation is in no one’s interest. No one’s seeking it,” Blinken said.
For his part, Omer-Man said there was less “daylight” between Israel and the US over the actions along the Israel-Lebanon border. The two countries remain united in their opposition to Iran.
“Whatever public messaging is coming out of the US and Israel is really just meant to play ‘good cop, bad cop’,” he said. “Whether it’s chosen roles or understood roles.”
Another ‘performative’ trip
Nevertheless, Landis at the University of Oklahoma said the broader strategy behind the Blinken visit was damage control in the Middle East.
Washington has consistently refused to support a ceasefire in Gaza, and it has continued to offer weapons and political support to Israel’s operations. That has strained relations with many of its Arab allies in the Middle East.
“The major pillars of US strategy have been badly hurt,” Landis said. He added that those weakened relationships could result in the “years-long” delay — if not a “death knell” — for Israeli-Arab normalisation schemes sought by the White House.
The US stance on Gaza might also set back efforts to calm tensions with Iran and its proxies as part of a wider pivot to Asia.
As the Middle East Institute’s Slim told Al Jazeera: “The region, minus Israel, is not interested in listening to the Americans until the Americans call for a ceasefire.”
Meanwhile, at home, Biden has faced criticism over his Gaza stance from within his own Democratic Party — and indeed within his own administration — as the humanitarian situation continues to worsen. Polls show a majority of Americans support a call for a ceasefire.
But with little indication that the US will attempt to assert leverage over Israel, Blinken’s latest trip to the Middle East is fundamentally “performative”, according to Osama Khalil, a history professor at Syracuse University.
“There is a face-saving domestic consumption element for [the Biden administration] and a separate face-saving element to allow Israel to claim some kind of victory,” Khalil said.