Antony Blinken returned to the Middle East on Friday with a publicly declared mission of convincing Israel to use restraint in its war in Gaza and to press for humanitarian pauses. But the US secretary of state arrived with another goal as well: to start talks on what will follow the war.
The increasingly bloody conflict, now four weeks old, has refocused Washington’s attention on reviving a diplomatic process towards a settlement of the protracted Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“The United States is convinced . . . and I think we are only reinforced in that conviction since October 7th that the best path, maybe even the only path . . . two states for two peoples,” Blinken said in Tel Aviv after meeting with Israel’s prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and other senior leaders.
The push to come up with a viable endgame for the conflict has gained new urgency in Washington in recent days as US political support for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has started to wane.
On Thursday, senator Chris Murphy, a Democrat on the US Senate’s foreign relations committee, said Israel’s offensive in Gaza was causing “an unacceptable level of civilian harm and does not appear likely to achieve the goal of permanently ending the threat from Hamas”.
Other leading Democrats, including senator Dick Durbin, have made similar criticisms, while senator Ben Cardin, the chair of the Senate foreign relations committee, also raised the question of what will follow the conflict.
“We don’t know how long the campaign is going to be, but it will be a period where we’re going to pull back [and] you have to have something in place,” Cardin said.
Like most of his predecessors, President Joe Biden endorsed the idea of creating two separate states – one for Israel, one for the Palestinians – when he took office, but he put little focus on the issue; other international flashpoints such as China, Afghanistan and Russia were higher on his foreign policy agenda.
But as the Israeli offensive has intensified, Biden and Blinken have raised the so-called two-state solution more frequently in their public remarks, and officials say the idea of using the crisis to create some momentum towards a new peace process is gaining traction within the administration.
“I think it’s important as we’re talking about all of this with every partner in the region . . . that we have that big frame in mind and whatever we do, whatever is done also helps to advance that,” Blinken said on Friday, referring to peace talks.
Last week, Biden himself said there was no other outcome available. “When this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next, and in our view it has to be a two-state solution,” he said.
Debate about what comes after the conflict is now front of mind for US and Arab officials, even as Washington presses its more immediate goal of getting more humanitarian aid into Gaza, securing the release of hostages, and urging Israel to exercise more restraint as it tries to achieve its goal to destroy Hamas.
Testifying to Congress on the eve of his trip to the region, Blinken said the Biden administration was looking at “a variety of possible permutations” for how Gaza would be run when the war ends. These include a possible interim government run by Arab states or the UN before “an effective and revitalised Palestinian Authority (PA)” takes over governance of the territory.
Hamas has ruled Gaza since 2007. But replacing it with the internationally backed PA – which was created in the 1990s as part of the peace process – would be among the steps needed to build an independent Palestinian state, by putting Gaza and the West Bank under one authority, analysts believe.
“People are talking about an international coalition or strengthening the PA,” said one western diplomat. “It could be a bit of both. Or one leading to the other.”
“The Americans are considering ways to bring a reformed PA back into Gaza. They’re looking at [PA president] Mahmoud Abbas as the least worst option,” said one person familiar with the discussions. “They realise Abbas can’t do this alone, and they are looking for a partner. But who that is remains to be seen.”
But the PA is weak and lacks credibility among many Palestinians, highlighting what many US and allied diplomats believe are insurmountable hurdles in eventually getting negotiations back on track.
Even if Israel crushes Hamas’s military capability, it will be far harder to destroy the ideology, say analysts. The group, both political and military wings, won the 2006 Palestinian elections and is deeply embedded in Palestinian society.
“The two-state solution is deeply, deeply unsatisfying. It’s deeply inadequate. But it remains much more adequate than any of the alternatives,” said Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East programme at the Center for Strategic and International Studies think-tank in Washington.
Blinken’s enthusiasm for a two-state solution could become more evident on the second stop on his latest Middle East tour, when he arrives in Amman for a meeting with Jordanian and other Arab officials.
Some Arab allies, who in recent years have been equally unenthusiastic about restarting negotiations over the Palestinian issue while they focused on the threat posed by Iran, are now troubled about the Israel-Hamas conflict spilling across borders. Blinken may be able to use the promise of eventually restarting the peace process as a way to channel mounting anger in the Arab world.
But the latest peace ideas, including that of the PA reassuming control of Gaza, are not new – and in the past have failed to deliver.
Part of the problem with resurrecting them now is that the ageing Abbas and Netanyahu are the same men who held power for years during the moribund American-led peace efforts. Though Netanyahu publicly endorsed a two-state solution when he returned to office in 2009, he backed away from it in 2015, and now heads a right-wing governing coalition that includes settlers who have publicly stated their goal of annexing the occupied West Bank.
Washington’s reputation as an honest broker in the Middle East has also suffered in recent years. US policy in the region under Republican and Democratic presidents – from the invasion of Iraq, to the embrace of the Arab Spring, and Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem and cut funding to Palestinians – severely undermined American credibility in the region.
Peace efforts by the administrations of Bill Clinton, George W Bush and Barack Obama all failed. So did the Trump administration’s effort to find a settlement without engaging the Palestinians.
Meanwhile, support for two states among Israelis and Palestinians is at an all-time low; a Gallup poll released last month before Hamas’s attack on Israel found that just 24 per cent of Palestinians living in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem support a two-state solution while a September Pew Research Center poll found only 35 per cent of Israelis believe Israel and a Palestinian state could coexist peacefully.
Still, many US, Israeli and Arab officials see this formula as the only option.
“It’s more than a virtue signal. It’s more than a throwaway talking point, which I think it was on October 6th,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “After October 7th, it’s become more important.”
Yet despite the talk of putting the two-state solution back on the agenda, many analysts remain pessimistic. Although many of the most significant developments in Arab-Israeli peace have come after brutal conflicts – the 1978 Camp David Accords was, in part, a result of the 1973 Yom Kippur war, and the 1993 Oslo Accords followed the first intifada – there is little optimism the Israel-Hamas war will engender the right climate for successful peace talks.
“All the talk about ‘the day after’ is based on [the notion] that there is a day after,” said David Makovsky, the Ziegler Distinguished Fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “So much of the ‘day after’ is wrapped up into the fundamental question of whether Israel will succeed in toppling Hamas.” – Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2023