Blinken miss not an option for US as Secretary of State travels to Middle East to prevent wider war


As the conflict in Gaza rages, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken has embarked on his visit to the Middle East (Israel and Jordan) and later to the Indo-Pacific (Japan, South Korea and India).

The Middle East part of the trip will obviously focus on the Gaza conflict where the US has taken a firm stand to support Israel. But as the bombing of Gaza continues and the humanitarian crisis worsens, with some even accusing Israel of ‘war crimes’, the US is likely to find the going tough in the coming days and months.

Close alliances and partnerships of decades are coming under strain as the US faces a united Arab condemnation of Israel’s advance in Gaza even as many agree that Hamas’s massacre on October 7 cannot be justified under any circumstances.

In Israel, Blinken has his task cut out: to try and secure the release of more than 200 hostages kidnaped by Hamas, to make sure the conflict doesn’t spread further, to get more humanitarian aid into Gaza and also discuss the future of the enclave and Hamas, its elected rulers who rule by terror.

In Jordan, which has a large population of Palestinians, Blinken might find the going not to his liking. King Abduallah has clearly said that the way forward is a two-state solution. Amman is clear that “Israel must end its war on Gaza where it was committing war crimes by bombing civilians and imposing a siege”.

Of course, the planned normalisation of relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia is off the table, at least for the time being. Iran is asserting itself and its support of Hamas, Hezbollah and the Houthis is unflinching. For Arab nations, including the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, this is a time to show solidarity with the Palestine people.

Blinken will then move over to the Indo-Pacific where he will hold meetings with Japanese and South Korean leaders, and finally land in India where he will be joined by the US Defence Secretary to hold the 2+2 Ministerial Dialogue in Delhi. Russia and North Korea are strengthening defence ties and the US needs to reassure South Korea. China, of course, looms large on these trips to Japan, South Korea and finally India.

For a while now, the assessment has been that the US was showing less interest in the Middle East and seemed more focussed on the Indo-Pacific. In the last few years, with the emphasis on the Indo-Pacific Quad (comprising US, India, Australia and Japan), saw the US more involved in containing the rise of China. One such wake-up call came in March this year when Beijing surprised everyone by brokering peace talks between Iran and Saudi Arabia.

It was also a move by China into the Middle East’s sphere of influence, once Washington’s domain. Yet US policy stayed focussed on the Indo-Pacific and the Biden administration also made the mistake of assuming that the Palestine cause would be forgotten as more nations in the Middle East established ties with Israel. Hamas read the script well and the October 7 attacks were a rude reminder of the fallacy of such thinking.

The US has dismissed calls from Arab and several other nations for a full ceasefire in the war so far. Iraq and Afghanistan are two case studies of what happens to people and nations once an armed offensive ends. Both these countries are suffering even today because there was no plan ever in place once the US withdrew.

Is Gaza going to meet a similar fate? It’s too early to say but Israel has to realise that an unsafe, insecure Gaza will always make Israel fearful of what’s next. The US, which has the biggest clout with Israel, needs to turn its attention back to the Middle East. That is why during his visits to Japan, South Korea and India, Blinken will also be discussing Gaza and how the US is working to prevent the conflict from spreading. At this point, the politics of the Middle East takes precedence over the Indo-Pacific.

While the Indo-Pacific is where the US needs to counter China in order to retain its global influence, the Middle East can no longer be ignored as Gaza has shown. In any case, the US strategy to isolate Iran in the region by normalising Israel’s relations with Arab nations is now unlikely to go further.

It is, therefore, back to basics for US policy makers, and a return to the Palestine conflict that remains the core problem. A solution to the quagmire appears as distant as it was seventy years ago. To expect progress in the Indo-Pacific while the Middle East burns would be a costly mistake Washington cannot afford to make again. – The writer is an analyst and senior journalist based in New Delhi


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