US Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s ongoing visit to Israel is taking place in a period of intense crisis aggravated by provocative actions by the new ultra-right controlled government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Days after assuming the reins of power, the government authorised the deadliest Israeli army raid in years, which claimed at least nine Palestinian lives in the Jenin refugee camp. This triggered a backlash when a young Palestinian gunman launched an attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem killing seven Israeli civilians. Palestinians celebrated the killings by honking cars and distributing sweets. Investigation reveals the assailant’s grandfather had been murdered 25 years ago allegedly by a Jewish supremacist. The ideological followers of those extremists are now in power in Israel.
Arriving in Tel Aviv against this backdrop, Blinken urged both sides to take “urgent steps to restore calm”. But it is questionable how far his entreaties may go. In fact, analysts say Blinken’s trip is not expected to produce any diplomatic breakthrough. His visit is nothing but an attempt by the Biden administration to quickly re-engage with Netanyahu, with whom the US president has a long, but often strained relationship.
During his Israel tour Blinken will meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after his engagement with the Israeli Prime Minister. Tensions are mounting between Israelis and Palestinians after a surge in vigilante attacks carried out by Jewish settlers in the West Bank and raids by Israeli security forces followed by retaliatory strikes by Palestinian militants.
Interestingly, there is turmoil within the Israeli political system with the ultra-right ruling alliance partner pushing for overhauling the country’s judiciary. Detractors of the new regime fear the move would dilute Israeli democracy and lead to further Palestinian dispossession. Blinken’s visit becomes important for this reason. The US can ill afford to see major problems plaguing the region either in the form of fierce strife between Israelis and Palestinians over further occupation of the West Bank by Israeli settlers or attempts to rewrite Israel’s democratic constitution making the judiciary subservient to the parliament.
At least 22 people have been killed in the past week, with dozens of copycat or retaliatory attacks targeting Israelis and Palestinians, including shootings and burning of cars and property. No wonder in a news conference after his meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken repeatedly called for calm and reaffirmed that the US believes that the dormant peace process aimed at a two-state solution is the “only path forward”.
Blinken is making a balancing act to mollify Israel while at the same time keep the right-wing element of the new government at bay. This is why he left no one in doubt about the USA’s “ironclad commitment” to its security ally. However, he also insisted any deviation from its policy of a two-state solution upholding status quo at Jerusalem’s holy places would be detrimental to Israel’s long-term security.
In a clever move Blinken sought to dissuade Israel’s far-right government from overhauling the country’s judicial system by asking it to have broad public support for its agenda. There have been major demonstrations in Israeli cities against the move by the ultra-right to rewrite the constitution. He made the right noise by iterating that “building consensus for new proposals” is the most effective way.
The main purpose of the visit, however, is not to stabilise Israeli-Palestinian relations, which is extremely difficult to manage now more than ever before. The USA’s main concern is to prevent escalation of the conflict which, it fears, will weaken the West’s fight against Russia over the latter’s invasion of Ukraine. Similarly, the USA wants to tone down the acrimony between Iran and Israel. Netanyahu is determined to stymie the Iran-US nuke deal so as to frustrate Iran’s ambition to produce nuclear weapons. The US is keen on reviving the nuke deal with Iran with proper safeguards. Though negotiations in this regard have been stalled following political turmoil in Iran over attacks on women’s rights, the US is aware its ambivalence over the nuke deal may push Iran to Russia’s embrace.
It seems the US is aware that provocative actions from Israel’s ultra-right government will be a considerable diplomatic liability at a time when it is trying to isolate Russia further on the world stage. That is what Blinken’s visit could be all about.
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