Sunday, June 23
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U.S. allies in Middle East try to stake out middle ground

Major Arab allies of the United States say they do not support Hamas or its brutal assault on Israel but that they also oppose the U.S. agenda that unreservedly backs Israel in a massive counteroffensive likely to cost the lives of thousands of Palestinian civilians.

In Cairo this week, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah Sisi told U.S. Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken that the Israeli response already “has gone beyond self-defense” and reached the level of the “collective punishment” — the punishment of a population for the crimes of a few and a war crime under the Geneva Conventions.

As for the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas, in which its militants slaughtered more than 1,000 Israeli civilians and took scores of hostages, Sisi said: “We can unequivocally condemn it, but we need to understand that this is the result of accumulated fury of hatred over four decades, when the Palestinians have no hope to find a solution.”

Many of the region’s countries have allowed the Palestinian cause to fade in recent years. The United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel in 2020, joining Egypt and Jordan as the only countries in the region with which it has formal diplomatic ties. Saudi Arabia had been considering a similar move.

But a crisis of this proportion has refocused the attention of many Arab governments and especially their citizens, while underscoring the gulf between the United States and its Arab allies.

That was the takeaway as Blinken traveled to seven countries in four days to drum up support for Israel.

In capital after capital, he publicly emphasized the deadly horrors of the Hamas attack and advocated on behalf of, as he put it, “Israel’s right — indeed its obligation — to defend itself” as it launches massive retaliatory airstrikes and possibly a land invasion of the Gaza Strip.

Further down his list of remarks, Blinken added the need to protect Palestinian civilians, who are already dying in Israeli airstrikes — casualties the secretary also blamed principally on Hamas, because its initial barrage of atrocities set the current events in motion.

However, many of the leaders Blinken sat down with across the Arab world had a different top priority: de-escalating violence, protecting the 2.2 million people of Gaza and opening up humanitarian aid channels to the Gaza Strip after Israel cut off food, water and electricity to the enclave. While the Biden administration has said it does not want to see more civilian deaths, it has not been willing to publicly advocate restraint or a cease-fire.

This sharp difference has hobbled Blinken’s efforts to win broad regional support for a plan to avert a war that spills far beyond the Gaza Strip. It has also stymied his ability to negotiate an opening of the Rafah crossing point on the Gaza Strip’s southern border with Egypt to let out Palestinian civilians and let in desperately needed humanitarian supplies.

At U.S. urging, Egypt promised to open Rafah, and Israel promised to turn on the water spigot to Gaza. Neither happened.

The issues are certain to be on the agenda for President Biden’s scheduled visit to Israel on Wednesday, although talks with Arab leaders were canceled after blasts at a Gaza hospital killed hundreds of people. Hamas says Israel struck the hospital; Israel blames the militant group Islamic Jihad.

As he made his diplomatic foray, Blinken may have miscalculated how strong the pro-Palestinian sentiment on the Arab “street” remained, or how cautiously some regional leaders would feel compelled to react to the Hamas rampage and the much-anticipated Israeli onslaught.

“There was pressure for a reality check” for the U.S., said Merissa Khurma, Middle East program director at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington. “A very, very strong Israel response … empowers extremist voices, with Palestinian civilians paying the hefty price.”

Several Arab governments in recent years have given little more than lip service to the importance of the Palestinian fight for independence and have allowed it to fall off the regional agenda, especially among the handful of gulf and Muslim countries that — under U.S. pressure — chose to recognize Israel to enhance business ties.

And though the gulf nation of Qatar, home to a major U.S. military base, allows Hamas leaders to reside there, few regional leaders have much love lost for the militant group.

Two of Hamas’ formative allies are anathema to much of the Arab world: Iran, a principal sponsor and arms-supplier for Hamas, and the Muslim Brotherhood, which Hamas grew out of more than 30 years ago. Shiite Iran is a top rival to the region’s Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia, and the Muslim Brotherhood is an old Islamic organization that Sisi considered a threat to his authority and has driven underground through repression and arrests.

Still, regional leaders cannot be seen to be turning their back on the broader fight for Palestinian independence, because for many ordinary Arabs, the cause remains sacrosanct.

In his meeting with Blinken, King Abdullah II of Jordan, one of the United States’ closest allies in the region, also raised the specter that Israel was carrying out “collective punishment” on the people of Gaza.

Saudi Arabia expressed alarm over “unprecedented escalation between Palestinian factions and Israeli occupation forces” but was tepid in public condemnation of Hamas, to the disappointment of U.S. officials. The kingdom notified Blinken that it was suspending talks to open diplomatic ties with Israel, a historic rapprochement that the U.S. has been pushing actively for months and that had been gaining momentum. And Saudi King Salman convened an emergency meeting of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation for Wednesday.

“The kingdom recalls its repeated warnings of the dangers of the situation exploding as a result of the continued occupation, the Palestinian people being deprived of their legitimate rights and the repetition of system provocations against” them by Israel, the Saudi foreign ministry said.

After visiting Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates, Blinken returned to Israel for marathon meetings with Netanyahu and others to focus on the humanitarian catastrophe in Gaza.

“At our request, the United States and Israel have agreed to develop a plan that will enable humanitarian aid from donor nations and multilateral organizations to reach civilians in Gaza — and them alone — including the possibility of creating areas to help keep civilians our of harm’s way,” Blinken said. “It is critical that aid begin flowing into Gaza as soon as possible.”

Israel resists opening the border because it says it does not want weapons to be smuggled in with aid.

Egypt resists opening its section of border with Gaza because it does not want to be flooded with tens of thousands of Palestinians, especially after Israel ordered the evacuation of the northern half of Gaza.

As they made clear to Blinken, leaders in both Egypt and Jordan fear that if Gazans leave, they would never be allowed to return — a latter-day repeat of the 1948 emptying of scores of Palestinian villages that made way for the creation of the Israeli state.

Palestinians then were either forced out of homes by Israel or urged to leave by Arab leaders but then never allowed to return, creating a population of refugees that persists to this day.

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