How Gaza war is testing the limits of US influence

3 weeks ago 28

Antony BlinkenImage source, Getty Images

By Tom Bateman, state department correspondent

Travelling with the US secretary of state

A security guard thrust open the door to Antony Blinken's armoured car and the US secretary of state strode out down a line of yellow barricades.

"We're working to get them home," he declared, grabbing and gripping the hands of Israeli protesters in Tel Aviv calling for a deal to release the hostages held by Hamas.

It was a striking moment but not altogether spontaneous.

The street had by now been buzzing with security officials readying his route towards the protesters.

Those of us in the travelling press were told to expect the interaction in the 20 minutes or so leading up to it. It was firmly caught on camera.

This was a strong message from America's top diplomat to both the Israeli public and its prime minister - the US was committed, engaged and pushing everything to get a ceasefire-for-hostage-release deal over the line.

Mr Blinken has spent the last week trying to show this and something else to the wider world - that the US can influence Israel to also alleviate the suffering of Palestinian civilians - by surging more aid into Gaza, and to secure the territory's long-term future.

But as the crisis deepens, the limits of American influence have become increasingly clear.

Just hours before the moment filmed at the barricades, the US had resorted to a vote in the UN Security Council to try to shape the actions of its ally.

This was a sign of President Joe Biden's growing exasperation. The American-drafted text called on Israel to surge more aid into Gaza amid UN warnings of imminent famine.

It endorsed the current process mediated by Qatar to get a ceasefire in return for the release of hostages by Hamas.

But it also warned Israel against a military assault on the city of Rafah, home to more than 1.4 million displaced Palestinians, saying an offensive could violate international humanitarian law.

The resolution failed. It was vetoed by Russia and China.

Speaking at Ben Gurion airport on Friday afternoon, Mr Blinken castigated those who voted it down. He implied they did so for reasons that had nothing to do with the substance, while also warning that a Rafah offensive could leave Israel without international support.

"It risks killing more civilians, it risks wreaking greater havoc with the provision of humanitarian assistance, it risks further isolating Israel around the world and jeopardising its long term security and standing," he said.

Amid the growing rift between Washington and the Israeli leader, Mr Netanyahu struck back at Mr Blinken's assessment.

"I told him I hope we'll do it with the support of the United States," said the prime minister, "but if we have to, we'll do it alone".

This was a superpower being pushed back, despite its pressure.

'More humanitarian aid needs to be allowed in'

I've seen the phenomenal force of US diplomacy at close quarters this week, trailing Mr Blinken on a time-zone shattering tour of Europe, Asia and ending in the Middle East trying to stem the current crisis.

To America's critics the paradox is clear: the US is sending weapons to a key ally, while at the same time urging it, without success, to do much more to alleviate the civilian suffering the military action has unleashed.

A UN-backed food security assessment this week said 1.1 million people in Gaza were struggling with catastrophic hunger and starvation, adding that a man-made famine in the north was imminent between now and May.

A growing number of US politicians have also spoken out. This week a group of Democratic senators and nearly 70 former US officials, diplomats and military officers said President Biden should consider cutting weapons supplies to Israel if it keeps restricting humanitarian aid to Gaza.

Israel blames the UN for a failure to distribute supplies. The UN categorically rejects this but Israel insists that checkpoint restrictions and attacks on police securing aid convoys have been a necessary part of its campaign to eliminate Hamas.

I asked Mr Blinken in Manilla whether the security vacuum in Gaza was a harbinger of its future. How could he convince Israel to accept the his proposals?

Hamas could end the suffering tomorrow, he said, if it surrendered. But he reiterated that more humanitarian aid had to be allowed in.

Answering my question, he gave a US endorsement for the first time to a UN-backed measure on hunger, saying "100% of the population in Gaza is at severe levels of acute food insecurity. That's the first time an entire population has been so classified."

Image source, Getty Images

Image caption,

The US is pressing Israel to do much more to alleviate the civilian suffering in Gaza

Much of Mr Blinken's trip was crisis management. Trying to get aid into Gaza, get the hostages out and secure an end to the conflict, which the US says must ensure Hamas's attack on Israel on 7 October "can never happen again".

At the same time it is trying to shape a post-war future. Washington wants the Palestinian Authority running Gaza. It is the entity formed during the 1990s Oslo Accords and driven out of Gaza by Hamas in 2007.

The Americans think they can patch together a grand bargain for the Middle East.

They want to pursue the long sought-after independent state for Palestinians in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza - albeit demilitarised - alongside a secure Israel: the so-called two-state solution.

Gaza, rebuilt, would be governed by the internationally-backed Palestinian Authority, which is revitalised with money and security forces trained by Arab states, including Saudi Arabia.

Added to this Riyadh would recognise Israel, a long-sought after goal for the Israelis that would further integrate it into the region.

In return the Saudis would get advanced American weapons, a security pact with Washington and a US-backed civilian nuclear power programme.

It sounds impossibly ambitious, and perhaps it is.

The Americans are not naive about the chances of achieving the most illusive of goals in the Middle East, amid some of the worst bloodshed in the region's modern history.

But just as he did at the barricades, Mr Blinken thinks he can use a moment of crisis to grasp the initiative.

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