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Blinken’s Mideast shuttle diplomacy is just political theater

By Andreas Kluth

Not since Henry Kissinger in 1974 has a US secretary of state shuttled as frenetically around the Middle East as Antony Blinken does these days.

Here, in no particular order, is a partial list of Blinken’s stops in the region since Hamas went on its sadistic rampage on Oct. 7: Tel Aviv (multiple times), Cairo, Amman, Ankara, Doha, Manama, Abu Dhabi, Riyadh, Ramallah and Baghdad.

But whereas Kissinger’s month-long “shuttle diplomacy” (the phrase was coined for him) following the Yom Kippur War disentangled Israel from its Arab enemies and projected the sway of the American superpower during the Cold War, Blinken’s peregrinations are sending a different message. It’s one of US foreign policy as a performative and feckless exercise in awkward photo ops — diplomatic kabuki without noticeable results.

Neither Blinken nor his boss, President Joe Biden, can wholly and fairly be blamed for this poor showing. Kissinger had the benefit of intermediating between Israel and its enemies in Syria and Egypt, whereas Blinken can talk to Israel and third parties, but not Hamas.

And yet Biden and Blinken — who are as devoted to Israel’s security as any American leader in the 75 years since the Jewish state’s founding — keep looking ineffectual. Their overarching objective is to prevent the conflict from spreading in the region or even sparking a great-power war. The immediate goal, however, has been to demonstrate support for Israel while simultaneously restraining the Israelis from causing a humanitarian disaster in the Gaza Strip.

That catastrophe is now unfolding and getting worse by the day: The body count in Gaza already exceeds 10,000. This is why Blinken has been pleading for Israel to take “humanitarian pauses.” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has simply ignored these demands, dropping tunnel-busting bombs on Gaza and hitting Hamas fighters and civilians alike. There’ll be no ceasefire until Hamas releases all hostages, Netanyahu said this week — at most “tactical, little pauses, an hour here, an hour there.”

An hour here or there, maybe, at some point, to evacuate entire cities? Netanyahu is not only snubbing the US but also making it look hypocritical to much of the world, from neighboring powers to protesters in the West — including those in front of the White House this weekend — and the so-called Global South. Is not the US, by siding with Israel without restraining it, applying a different humanitarian standard in Gaza from the one it exhorts the world to defend in Ukraine?

Even if this mess seems to prove America’s hypocrisy, though, what it really shows is that Washington is either unable or unwilling to apply diplomatic levers to Israel. That might sound odd, since the US has, cumulatively since World War II, sent more aid to Israel than to any other country, and this month offered another big dollop. Washington also has Tel Aviv’s back in the United Nations Security Council, and in world politics generally. How could Netanyahu jeopardize that kind of relationship?

Yet he does — and started doing it long before Oct. 7. For much of this year, he and his extremist coalition partners have been trying to neuter Israel’s judicial branch and rule of law and burying whatever remained of the American and Arab vision of a two-state solution for the Palestinian conflict. While the Biden administration was trying to broker peace between Israel and Saudi Arabia, “Bibi” was busy peopling swathes of the West Bank with Jewish settlers.

In return, Biden punished Netanyahu by … not inviting him to the White House. That’s all. And Netanyahu knew what he was doing. A year out from the US presidential election, the Republicans can’t wait to pounce on Biden for going wobbly on Israel. As it is, Biden now faces the political dilemma of losing not only the Zionist right but also young, left-leaning and pro-Arab voters — not to mention the Global South which he’s been trying to woo away from China (and Russia) in the larger geopolitical rivalry of our time.

The reality, a month after the Hamas attack, is that US foreign policy risks becoming collateral damage in the conflict between Israel and Hamas. Biden and Blinken are proving themselves unwilling to impose, when necessary, costs or consequences on one ally, Israel, while trying to support but also manage and restrain other friends, such as Ukraine against Russia, Taiwan against China or South Korea against the North. The 2023 version of American shuttle diplomacy, unlike the 1974 original, may end in global tragedy.

(Published 09 November 2023, 06:36 IST)

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