Blinken finds a hardened political landscape as he tours the Middle East


US Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken has found a hardened political landscape as he tours the Middle East for the fifth time since the Gaza war erupted.

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken delivers remarks to employees at the U.S. Department of State in Washington, D.C. Photo: State Department/Ron Przysucha/ Public Domain

The war has toughened Israeli and Palestinian positions. At the same time, Saudi Arabia appears eager to finalise a comprehensive package deal that would include recognition of Israel.

Even so, the obstacles to securing a ceasefire and the exchange of the remaining 136 Hamas-held hostages and bodies of captives killed in Gaza for Palestinians held in Israeli prisons remain formidable. So, do the impediments to bridging differences on achieving a package deal.

Hamas kidnapped some 250 civilians and Israeli military personnel during its October 7 attack on Israel in which more than 1,100 people, mostly civilians, were killed. In November, Qatar negotiated a one-week truce during which Hamas swapped more than 100 hostages for 240 Palestinians incarcerated in Israel.

Raising the stakes, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu this week left Mr. Blinken seemingly empty-handed by rejecting as “crazy” a Hamas proposal for a prolonged ceasefire and a prisoner swap. The proposal was a response to a ceasefire plan drafted by Qatar, Egypt, and the United States.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, Feb. 7, 2024. Photo: Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO.

Mr. Netanyahu implied there was no need to engage with Hamas because “we are nearly there with complete victory” adding that Israel would “not do less than that.”

For his part, Mr. Blinken described a ceasefire agreement as “essential,” raising the question whether Israeli-US relations have reached a point where the US will have to apply overt pressure rather than maintain its bear hug approach to force Mr. Netanyahu’s hand.

“While there are some clear non-starters in Hamas’s response, we do think it creates space for agreement to be reached and we will work at that relentlessly until we get there,” Mr. Blinken said.

Mr. Blinken is not alone in thinking so. A Hamas delegation headed to Cairo for talks with Egyptian officials barely 24 hours after Mr. Netanyahu rejected the group’s demands.

Sources close to Hamas suggested the delegation would discuss logistical arrangements of the prisoner exchanges and the enhanced flow of humanitarian aid to Gaza. The sources said the parties, despite publicly playing hardball, were seeking to put an agreement in place before early March when Ramadan, Islam’s holy month of fasting, begins.

Hamas has proposed a 135-day truce involving three phases of 45 days each during which the remaining hostages and bodies of captives killed in the Gaza fighting would be exchanged for an unspecified number of Palestinians held in Israeli prisons.

Prisoner swaps would be staggered over the 4.5-month truce. Reconstruction of war-ravaged Gaza would start during the ceasefire.

Speaking on Al Jazeera, Hamas political bureau member Mohammed Nazzal insisted that the group would not compromise on its demand for a permanent ceasefire, an end to the war, and a withdrawal of Israeli troops from Gaza.

Hamas member Mohammad Nazzal speaks at a press conference in Beirut Photo: Al Jazeera

“The full ceasefire would be negotiated in the second phase and embedded in other agreements. Any obstacles can be ironed out in the negotiations for a final agreement,” Mr. Nazzal said.

Israel’s rejection of the plan stalls not only the ceasefire talks but also US efforts to achieve a comprehensive package deal aimed at resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The deal would involve a legally binding US defence commitment to the kingdom, US support for a Saudi civilian nuclear program, Saudi unfettered access to US weaponry, the creation of an independent Palestinian state, and diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel.

Despite Mr. Netanyahu’s assertions of victory, Israel has failed to deal Hamas a fatal blow. Four months into the war, Israel has yet to hunt down Hamas’ most senior Gaza leaders. US intelligence estimates that Israel has killed or captured at most 30 per cent of Hamas’ 30,000 strong fighting force.

Israel’s failure is compounded by the severe tarnishing of its international standing because of its war conduct, the consequences of which are likely to haunt Israel long after the guns fall silent in Gaza. Israel’s reputational damage leaves it dependent on US and Western support that is likely to prove increasingly fragile.

Israel’s failure and reputational debacle has emboldened Hamas. Like Israel, Hamas believes that hardening attitudes will ultimately force the other side to capitulate.

Yet, its, at times, hardline statements that reinforce Israel’s post-October 7 trauma complicate efforts to end the war and facilitate creation of a Palestinian state as do equally hardline Israeli statements that fuel Palestinian’s Gaza war trauma.

In Israel, the trauma has generated an embattled fortress mentality with the state lashing out like a wounded and blinded creature that has killed more than 27,000 people in its four-month-old assault on Gaza.

In Hamas’ most recent statement in what amounts to a war of words among the deaf, Ali Baraka, a Beirut-based official, told Al-Manar, the television channel of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia, that “we can repeat October 7 many times… The Arab fighters…stormed (the Gaza Envelope) and tomorrow, they will storm the Galilee. They will storm in from wherever they can.”

Ali Baraka, a senior Hamas official. Photo: Screenshot from AP video

Statements like that of Mr. Baraka strengthen Mr. Netanyahu’s intransigence while ensuring that he stays caught in a Catch-22.

Mr. Netanyahu’s goals of destroying Hamas and freeing the remaining hostages seem incompatible. Hostage families demand that the prime minister prioritise the release of their loved one even if that requires ending the war. Yet, a majority of Israelis favour continuing the war until Hamas is no more.

At the same time, Mr. Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners threaten to bring his government down if he agrees to a potential deal involving an extended ceasefire and the release of large numbers of Palestinians from Israeli jails.

“What (Mr. Netanyahu) fears most is losing the majority in the Knesset that took him four years and five election campaigns, including 18 frustrating months out of office, to secure,” said prominent Israeli journalist Anshel Pfeffer.

Like Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. Hamas could face political reckoning once guns fall silent.

Some Palestinians have begun to publicly take Hamas to task for provoking Israel’s assault on Gaza in a series of op-eds and statements in Israeli, Saudi, and Emirati media.

To be sure, the statements serve Gulf states’ and Israeli interests. However, that does not necessarily diminish their sincerity even if it is near impossible to gauge public opinion in Gaza and how it may evolve once the fighting ends.

“The odd thing is that Israel is playing right into (Hamas’) hands. I don’t know why Israel doesn’t understand that its interest lies in separating the militants from the civilians, that this is the way to weaken Hamas’ standing,” said Gaza resident Abdullah, who identified himself only by a first name in a column on the Israeli news website, The Liberal.

“The problem is that Hamas is the snake that grew up in Israel’s embrace. Benjamin Netanyahu and his government are the main ones responsible for the growth of its military power. Israel did nothing when Hamas seized control of Gaza, though it could have easily intervened and stopped the coup, and Hamas went on to exploit Israel’s blockade on Gaza. Hamas profited from it, strengthened its presence, and boosted its popularity,” Mr. Abdullah added.

Speaking on Dubai-based Sky News Arabia, Zaid Alayoubi, head of a little-known Jerusalem-based thinktank, the Arab Center for Strategic Affairs, suggested that “today, the people of Gaza are saying: True, Israel is killing us, but Hamas is also killing us.”

Writing in Elaph, a London-based Saudi online magazine, Palestinian journalist Majdi Abd Al-Wahhab asked: “How can we not curse the people who caused this, given this complete devastation? How can we not curse Hamas and its leaders after they have destroyed every element of dignified existence in the Gaza Strip? When Hamas carried out its attack…did it expect Israel to refrain from retaliating in force and delivering blow after blow to Gaza, given its desire for revenge and international backing…?

The criticism contrasted starkly with the results of an Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies public opinion poll in 16 Arab countries. Sixty-seven percent of those surveyed described the October 7 attack as ‘legitimate,’ including 79 per cent of West Bank Palestinians and 58 per cent of Saudis polled.

Overall, 89 per cent of those surveyed in the 16 countries rejected Israel’s recognition. Ninety-two per cent of West Bank Palestinians and 68 per cent of Saudis polled shared that view.

Public support for Hamas’ October 7 attack and rejection of Israel’s recognition explain subtle differences in statements by Mr. Blinken and the Saudi Foreign Ministry on a potential package deal.

Speaking in Doha earlier this week, Mr. Blinken said Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman had reiterated Saudi Arabia’s strong interest in pursuing relations with Israel conditioned on “an end to the conflict in Gaza and a clear, credible, time-bound path to the establishment of a Palestinian state.”

Prince Mohammed bin Salman bin Abdulaziz, Crown Prince, Prime Minister, and the Chairman of the Human Capability Development Program Committee. Photo: SPA

Saudi interest in a deal involving Israel while Mr. Biden is in office is driven by a concern that the United States, should Donald J. Trump win the November US election, will be less inclined to commit to guaranteeing the kingdom’s security.

Even so, the Saudi ministry insisted that “the Kingdom has communicated its firm position to the US administration that there will be no diplomatic relations with Israel unless an independent Palestinian state is recognised on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital.” The statement appeared to avoid stipulating the creation of the state as a pre-condition.

As a result, the ministry left open whether recognition was required prior to establishment of the state or once the state is created, and if before the establishment, whether it was the United States or Israel or both that would have to recognise Israel.

The lack of clarity is significant given that the US State Department, in an apparent attempt to pressure Mr. Netanyahu to soften his rejection of a Palestinian state and approach to the hostage negotiations.

In a signal that the US may move ahead with elements of the package deal, Lockheed Martin this week subcontracted two Saudi companies to locally produce parts of the United States’ Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-ballistic missile system. The deal makes Saudi Arabia the first country to produce parts of the system.

Dr. James M. Dorsey is an Adjunct Senior Fellow at Nanyang Technological University’s S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, and the author of the syndicated column and podcast, The Turbulent World with James M. Dorsey.