America’s intense war-time diplomacy is so far failing to sway Arab countries in the Middle East — and President Joe Biden’s planned visit to the region may not help.
In recent days, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been nearly ghosted by Saudi Arabia’s crown prince and given a bizarre history lesson by Egypt’s ruler. U.S. officials have been unable to get most Arab leaders to denounce Hamas for the Palestinian militant group’s brutal attack on Israel or make statements supporting Israel’s military response.
The struggle suggests that U.S. influence is receding in the region, where governments’ interests often diverge from that of Washington and both Russia and China are vying for sway. And unequivocal U.S. support for Israel — as opposed to the more nuanced positions it often takes in Middle East flare-ups — may be one of the biggest barriers to better relations.
The U.S. appeared to score a diplomatic win early Tuesday in Israel when the two countries agreed to develop a plan to allow humanitarian aid to flow into the Gaza Strip, the Hamas-run territory now under Israeli siege.
The Hamas attack on Israel has been so massive and violent, killing more than 1,200 Israelis, that many regional leaders are still trying to figure out their positions.
“Given the fact that we are at the very early stages of this situation, U.S. diplomacy is succeeding as much as anyone can expect it to succeed,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former adviser to the Palestinian Authority. “But it is too early right now to talk about a major breakthrough.”
Biden’s trip to the region on Wednesday could complicate the task.
Pro-Palestinian militant groups, including Hamas, might see it as provocative. But Biden will meet with some Arab leaders in Jordan as well as visiting Israel in a show of solidarity, avoiding what could have been perceived as snubs by Arab officials.
“Biden going there is going to send a clear message that the U.S. is on the side of Israel in this,” said Jonathan Schanzer, an analyst with the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington. “It will anger some of the Arab world, but I think it will be important for the region to see the administration not waver.”
Officials and analysts warn against writing off the U.S. just yet, noting that behind-the-scenes talks may be more fruitful than public statements admit. Arab leaders especially may not be willing to say or do things in public that would anger their populations, where support for Palestinians runs high.
Blinken has been the face of the diplomatic push, visiting Israel and six majority-Arab countries in the past several days, some of them twice.
He has insisted there’s significant consensus on some basic goals, including a desire to prevent the conflict between Israel and Hamas from spiraling into a wider regional war.
“What I’ve heard from virtually every partner was a determination, a shared view that we have to do everything possible to make sure this doesn’t spread to other places,” he told reporters on Sunday. There also was “a shared view to safeguard innocent lives; a shared view to get assistance to Palestinians in Gaza who need it, and we’re working very much on that.”
But U.S. efforts to convince Egypt to open a border crossing to let Palestinians with foreign citizenship leave Gaza have yet to succeed.
Egypt is blaming Israel, saying its bombardments and other actions are preventing Cairo from sending humanitarian aid through the crossing for needy Palestinians in Gaza.
Egyptians also are wary of any suggestion that they take in Palestinians fleeing Gaza, fearing that Israel will never allow them to return even after it tears apart the tiny strip in its hunt for Hamas fighters. Such a crisis would echo past Palestinian displacements that effectively became permanent.
The U.S. does appear to be having some influence with Israel.
U.S. and other foreign officials worked successfully behind-the-scenes to convince Israel to back off an initial 24-hour evacuation notice to some 1 million people living in northern Gaza.
“They heard from across the U.S. government concern about the plan,” a Biden administration official said, having been granted anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.
And in the early hours of Tuesday in Tel Aviv, Blinken announced that the United States and Israel had “agreed to develop a plan that will enable humanitarian aid from donor nations and multinational organizations to reach civilians in Gaza.”
State Department spokesperson Matthew Miller pointed to that announcement in criticizing this story, which was initially published before the plan was unveiled.
“While POLITICO was preparing this story, Secretary Blinken was negotiating a plan to begin delivering humanitarian aid to Gaza that built on days of consultations in the region,” Miller said. “He will continue his intensive diplomacy to ensure Israel can defend itself and prevent the conflict from widening, and will let the record speak for itself.”
To the Biden administration’s disappointment — though not necessarily to its surprise — Arab countries also have been either measured or silent when it comes to denouncing Hamas by name. If they’ve explicitly criticized Hamas, such as the United Arab Emirates did, it’s generally been in combination with statements urging both sides to stay restrained.
The militants’ attack was unusually deadly, and Hamas also has taken scores of hostages. But Israeli reprisals have killed thousands of Palestinians, and Israel says it intends to eliminate Hamas.
That’s intensifying worries about the 2.2 million Palestinian civilians stuck in Gaza. An Israeli siege has led to severe shortages of water, fuel and electricity there.
Already, amid numerous Israeli airstrikes, hundreds of thousands of Palestinians have been displaced within Gaza. This comes ahead of one thing few believe Washington can or is willing to try to stop: an Israeli ground invasion of Gaza.
Blinken said he told Arab officials that it “must not be business as usual with Hamas going forward.”
But some of these governments have connections with Hamas, and their leaders are well aware that many of the ordinary Arab citizens they rule strongly support the Palestinian cause for which Hamas says it is fighting.
Qatar is home to some top Hamas leaders and a Hamas political office. The tiny Arab state is now serving as an interlocutor for a major diplomatic priority of the United States and other countries: freeing the hostages, some of whom hold nationalities other than Israeli.
At the same time, leading Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are deeply wary of Iran, a major patron of Hamas. Iran also backs Hezbollah, the Lebanese militant group that has clashed with Israel.
Biden has, in recent days, shifted his language away from unequivocal support of Israel after the attack to include concerns about protecting Palestinian civilians. He has also warned Israel that occupying Gaza may not be worth the cost.
But Biden and the United States have long been seen as far more pro-Israel than pro-Palestinian, adding to grievances in the region.
Khaled Elgindy, an analyst with the Middle East Institute in Washington, argued that Biden’s more recent nuanced language came too late. What the U.S. said publicly early on is the message that resonates most among Arabs, he argued.
“The statements of restraint have to be made in real-time, otherwise they’re meaningless,” he said. And “if it’s not public, it doesn’t count.”
As Blinken shuttled from country to country, the public reception he received from some Arab leaders was jarring.
Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi lectured him about the suffering of the Palestinians under Israeli occupation but also claimed falsely that Jews had never been persecuted in Egypt.
“It is true what happened over the past nine days was very difficult and too much, and we unequivocally condemn it,” Sisi said. “But we need to understand that this is the result of accumulated fury and hatred over four decades, where the Palestinians had no hope to find a solution.”
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman, meanwhile, kept Blinken waiting for several hours before meeting with him on Sunday. According to the Saudi readout of the meeting, the crown prince called for a stop to the “military operations that have claimed the lives of innocent people” — effectively siding against the Israeli offensive.
Reports also emerged that the Saudis were pausing U.S.-backed talks about normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel.
The crown prince often keeps visitors waiting, even if they are top figures from a key partner such as America. But to do so during this crisis was remarkable.
In the days after the Hamas strikes last weekend, the Saudi royal also spoke to Iran’s president.
Despite a sustained rivalry that has played out in a bloody proxy war in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Iran recently restored diplomatic ties broken off years earlier — adding to the confusing tangle of rivalries and interests in the region.
That said, some Arab officials are rooting for U.S. efforts to succeed, though they acknowledge it could be a while before long-term results.
“There is no doubt in my mind that without American leadership, we would be in a far tougher position,” one Arab diplomat said. “The objective today is to stop the bleed, and although Band-Aids are being applied, the wound is too deep.”