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analysisIsrael at War

In return to Israel, Blinken meets with Netanyahu, Herzog, Gallant

The U.S. secretary of state's whirlwind Middle East tour was part of an American effort to shore up regional allies and prevent a wider conflict.

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on Oct. 12, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv on Oct. 12, 2023. Photo by Tomer Neuberg/Flash90.
Etgar Lefkovits

U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrived back in Israel on Monday following a whirlwind tour of six Arab countries in the region aimed at preventing the war with Hamas from erupting into a broader regional conflict.

In a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the secretary “underlined his firm support for Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas’s terrorism and reaffirmed U.S. determination to provide the Israeli government with what it needs to protect its citizens,” per Matthew Miller, the State Department spokesman.

Blinken also met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog “to reiterate U.S. support for Israel’s right to defend itself from Hamas’s terrorism,” according to Miller, who added that Blinken “reaffirmed the U.S. commitment to provide Israel with the assistance it needs to protect its citizens.”

Also on Monday, Blinken met with Israeli Defense Minister Yoav Gallant, who thanked the U.S. diplomat for visiting gain. “We always knew that the United States is a great ally, but today, the people of Israel and in the world see it with their own eyes. You are here, for the second time this week,” Gallant said, per an Israeli readout of the meeting. “Senior American officials are here everyday, and the American flag waves in the Mediterranean—we know what is the meaning.”

“This will be a long war, the price will be high, but we are going to win- for Israel, for the Jewish people and for the values that both countries believe in,” Gallant added.

“Our deep commitment to Israel’s right—indeed, its obligation—to defend itself and to defend its people,” Blinken said, per a U.S. State Department readout.” In that, you have and always have the support of the United States.”

America’s top diplomat had crisscrossed the Middle East over the last four days, beginning on Thursday with a solidarity trip to Israel following the devastating Hamas assaults on Oct. 7 which killed more than 1,400 Israelis and wounded 3,500 others in the country’s most lethal attack in the last half-century.

His subsequent visits to Jordan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Egypt were seen as an effort to shore up allies behind America, at a time when Iran’s foreign minister is threatening Israel with a regional escalation. Tehran’s Lebanese proxy, the Shi’ite terror group Hezbollah, has been intermittently attacking Israel’s northern border in recent days, prompting Israeli retaliatory strikes.

Underscoring fears of a wider conflict, the U.S. military has positioned a carrier battle group in the Eastern Mediterranean, and on Saturday announced the deployment of a second to the area. The naval presence is intended to serve as a deterrent to both countries and groups against entering the conflict.

The U.S. fleets “are the biggest help,” said Eyal Zisser, vice rector of Tel Aviv University. “The other Arab countries are not effective beyond acting as intermediaries.”

Uzi Rabi, director of Tel Aviv University’s Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, said that “the warships and Biden’s rather explicit threat not to exploit the situation are causing the Iranians to pull back.”

“I don’t see Iran ordering Hezbollah to enter into an all-out war with Israel,” he said.

At the same time, he acknowledged that low-level cross-border events, such as Hezbollah’s deadly anti-tank missile attack on Sunday, risk creating a snowball effect that could deteriorate rapidly.

“Both Biden and the warships pushed Iran and Hezbollah back from participating in the war as they would have liked to,” said Ronni Shaked, of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Truman Institute.

Seeking to avoid a regional war, the United States also does not want Israel to take the offensive against Hezbollah, and has pressured the Jewish state not to carry out a preemptive strike against the terror group, a move which had been under consideration, Amos Yadlin, a former head of the IDF Military Directorate, told Israel’s Channel 12.

At the same time, the United States promised to defend Israel from any such attack, he said.

Hostages

America’s top diplomat also used his trip through the Arab world to work toward the release of some of the more than 150 hostages seized by Hamas during their attack. One proposal reportedly raised with Qatar and still under discussion would see the release of women, children and elderly hostages in exchange for dozens of Palestinian women and teen prisoners. It was not immediately clear on Sunday if such a deal was the primary reason for Blinken’s return to Israel.

Salvaging a Saudi deal

The U.S. secretary of state’s trip through the Arab world was also aimed at ensuring that a planned normalization deal with Saudi Arabia—seen by many as one of the main reasons for the Hamas attack—is not jeopardized by the violence.

“The Americans want to be sure that the Saudi deal is not canceled, and is kept on a low flame,” Zisser said.

At a press conference in Doha, Qatar, Blinken said, “Israel has both the right and even the obligation to defend its people.”

Israel’s current operations in Gaza were “not retaliation,” he said. “What Israel is doing is defending the lives of its people,” he added, and “trying to make sure that this cannot happen again.”

“At the same time, the way Israel does this matters,” he said.

U.S. officials have said the Arab reaction to Blinken’s message has been generally positive—acknowledging Israel has a right to respond to the Hamas attacks but expressing deep concern about the humanitarian situation in Gaza over the Palestinian civilian casualties due to their own restive street.

“There’s a determination in every country I went to, to make sure that this conflict doesn’t spread,” Blinken said. “They are using their own influence, their own relationships, to try to make sure that this doesn’t happen.”

“All the Arab countries are afraid of their public opinions,” according to Shaked. There is a large gap between the Arab leaders, whose interests are aligned with those of Israel, and their publics, whose actions are guided by emotion and concepts such as “Arab unity,” he said.

“In the end, the Saudis’ own interests will supersede those of the Arab world, even if it takes time to rehabilitate the normalization deal,” he added.

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