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11 stops and counting, Blinken shows his patience in Mideast

In Saudi Arabia, the mercurial crown prince kept him waiting until dawn. In Israel, the prime minister kept him negotiating throughout a nigh.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been shuttling between Middle Eastern countries
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been shuttling between Middle Eastern countries - Copyright AFP HENRY NICHOLLS
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has been shuttling between Middle Eastern countries - Copyright AFP HENRY NICHOLLS
Shaun TANDON

In Saudi Arabia, the mercurial crown prince kept him waiting until dawn. In Israel, the hard-charging prime minister kept him negotiating throughout a night punctuated by air raid sirens.

In all destinations of a whirlwind Middle East tour, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken showed off one of his best-known characteristics — patience — as he tried to steer the aftermath of Hamas’s attack and Israel’s response.

Palestinian leader Mahmud Abbas, meeting Blinken again in Amman on Tuesday, joked that the top US diplomat should get a house in Jordan, to which Blinken replied: “I’m thinking about it.”

With 11 stops over five days and more to come, Blinken attempted a delicate task — unequivocally backing Israel’s right to respond militarily to Hamas while quietly encouraging the US ally to spare civilians in the Gaza Strip.

US officials believe Blinken made progress, with none of the seven Arab leaders he met defending Hamas, and Israel at least slightly moderating threats to obliterate Gaza, which is ruled by the militants.

But Blinken’s aides were under no illusions that — even if they wanted to — they could persuade Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to stand down after the deadliest attack in Israel’s 75-year history, which killed 1,400 people, most of them civilians.

Israeli air strikes have killed about 3,000 Palestinians.

– Late nights, early mornings –

Blinken announced that President Joe Biden would visit in a statement to cameras at 3:00 am local time Tuesday, after haggling with Netanyahu and his team for nearly eight hours in Tel Aviv.

At one point, the two leaders and their teams headed into a bunker at the defence ministry as air sirens went off, with waiting press ushered into basement stairwells, until the US-backed Iron Dome system shot down the rocket.

Blinken already had practice with sleep deprivation in Riyadh where he waited for a night-time call to see Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s controversial de facto ruler who is known for keeping nocturnal hours and letting his guests wait.

Blinken was suddenly invited after dawn to see the prince at his private farm.

Even as secretary of state, Blinken cannot avoid all travel headaches.

After a red-eye flight to Israel for a full first day, he could not make the short onward journey straight to Amman as his crew was required to rest.

Instead he took a US Air Force cargo plane. Jordan does not let military jets fly in directly from Israel, despite their peace treaty, forcing a circuitous route over Cyprus and Egypt.

– ‘Also as a Jew’ –

Blinken — a veteran behind-the-scenes aide to Biden — took an unusual starring role more befitting his boss as he visited a donation centre in Tel Aviv, where a survivor hugged him and a crowd thankful for support chanted, “USA! USA!”

He was visibly moved as he described graphic images of Israeli civilians being killed, including some burned alive.

Blinken, who is secular and rarely speaks of his heritage, recalled that his grandfather fled anti-Semitic pogroms in Russia and his stepfather survived Nazi concentration camps.

“If you’ll permit me a personal aside, I come before you not only as the United States secretary of state, but also as a Jew,” Blinken told Netanyahu.

In a region fraught by religion, the remarks drew wide notice.

In Turkey, which Blinken did not visit but whose top diplomat he consulted by telephone, President Recep Tayyip Erdogan asked Blinken what he would say if someone told him they would approach the region as a Muslim.

In Cairo, President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi remarked on Blinken’s comment and told him that Jews “never suffered oppression” in Egypt — a version of history likely contested by the ancient Jewish community that virtually disappeared following the 1956 Suez crisis and violence.

In the United Arab Emirates, which recognised Israel in 2020, Blinken donned a kippah — the small skullcap worn by religious Jewish men — as he toured a rare new synagogue in the Arab world.

In the complex that also includes a mosque and church, Blinken was handed a tile and pen to describe what his intentions are.

Blinken wrote, “Light in the darkness.”

After the marathon talks in Israel, Blinken flew back to Amman, this time directly, just as dawn broke.

Still in his suit, he exchanged wide grins with the US ambassador on the tarmac and his motorcade weaved through Amman’s hills to the sound of the muezzin’s call to prayer.

One day later, Blinken would be back on the plane, this time to join Biden.

AFP
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With 2,400 staff representing 100 different nationalities, AFP covers the world as a leading global news agency. AFP provides fast, comprehensive and verified coverage of the issues affecting our daily lives.

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