When Antony Blinken landed at Ben Gurion airport on Monday he said he had arrived at a “pivotal moment”.
By the end of his two-day visit, it is clear he had more than one moment in mind.
Israel and the occupied West Bank are currently gripped by a level of violence unmatched in years, which shows signs of slipping much further out of control.
But there are several “pivotal moments” converging and the Americans are worried. Their top diplomat might have been referring to any or all of them as he spoke on the tarmac with aviation fumes still blurring the air behind him.
It is a long list. First is the accelerating rate of bloodshed. Next comes the most radically nationalist governing coalition in Israel’s history, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who is on trial on corruption charges, which he denies).
The coalition is asserting “exclusive” Jewish rights to all the land (ie ending any idea of a future independent Palestinian state). It also proposes to change fundamentally the nature of Israel’s legal system (a full attack on Israeli democracy say those pouring on to the streets in protest).
Then there is a near complete collapse in control by the Palestinian Authority (PA) in parts of the occupied West Bank (seeing waves of Israeli military raids and helping create a new generation of armed militants), an ageing and unpopular PA leader (who this year marks Year 18 of his four-year elected term in office), and his announcement last week to ditch so-called security co-ordination with the Israelis (a move that could lead to a complete security collapse in the West Bank).
Much of this has been years in the making. And after the US announced a series of unprecedented announcements for the region under former President Donald Trump, the Biden administration has been winding many of them back. It is left able to prioritise only what it thinks is possible in the immediate term.
Forget any sudden talk of pursuing a two-state solution – the long held international formula for peace. This is crisis management. Mr Blinken kept using two phrases, “calling for calm” and “upholding our shared values”.
On the first point, the death toll is among the worst in years. In the last 10 months there have been waves of lethal Israeli military search and arrest raids in the occupied West Bank, a deadly round of fighting between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza, and a spate of deadly attacks by Palestinians against Israelis. More than 200 Palestinians and 30 Israelis were killed in 2022. In January alone this year, more than 30 Palestinians and seven Israelis have been killed.
Mr Blinken met Mr Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday and urged all sides “to take urgent steps to restore calm, to de-escalate”.
“We want to make sure there’s an environment in which we can I hope at some point create the conditions where we can start to restore a sense of security for Israelis and Palestinians alike, which of course is sorely lacking,” he said.
The Americans are by far still the most powerful single diplomatic force able to influence both Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, but they have significant limits.
One is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and military occupation is not the priority it used to be for US foreign policy.
Another is the force of US domestic opinion as administrations, Democratic and Republican, feel the pressure of lawmakers in Congress who can take strong positions on the conflict and occupation.
But still, the US is historically the broker for peace – an “ironclad” ally of Israel – and it ploughs in money, huge amounts of military aid to Israel and some restored funding to the Palestinians mostly through the UN.
As for Mr Netanyahu, the Americans seem to be taking him at his word that he alone is in full control of his coalition and its far-right, ultranationalist ministers.
But it is already clear the US is very worried about the scope for these figures to make things much worse. After National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir used his first public appearance in office in January to walk around Jerusalem’s most sensitive holy site surrounded by protection officers, the Americans described anything that threatened the delicate status quo arrangements there as “unacceptable”.
Meanwhile in the run-up to his trip there was speculation over whether Mr Blinken would refer to US concerns over the coalition’s controversial proposals for the legal system – to give the government powers to override the courts if they strike down its legislation.
It came in a quietly devastating moment after Mr Blinken said the US-Israel relationship transcended “any one American or Israeli government”.
He stood next to the Israeli prime minister and spoke of the two countries’ “shared interests and in shared values”, spelling out what these were: “core democratic principles and institutions… respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, free press, a robust civil society”.
It was an extraordinary description – effectively a list of expectations that the US had of the Israeli leader to maintain democracy. Before this, perhaps in anticipation, Mr Netanyahu assured him that Israel, like America, would “remain” a strong democracy.
One veteran Washington correspondent at the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth wrote that it showed the US administration saw Mr Netanyahu’s plans as nothing short of a “regime coup” that would leave Israel “an illiberal and non-democratic country in its wake”.
Mr Blinken’s comments dominated many Israeli headlines. One far-right Israeli minister angrily responded “you decided to give our prime minister a lesson in democracy”, telling him to stop interfering.
Meanwhile in Ramallah a key subject with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will have been calling on him not to follow through on his threat to drop security co-ordination with Israel, a legacy of the breakthrough 1990s Oslo peace agreements.
The system sees PA security forces stepping aside when the Israeli army raids Palestinian cities. It is deeply unpopular with many ordinary Palestinians and Mr Abbas has repeatedly threatened to ditch it in the past but only rarely ever got close to that. By Monday it already looked like he was backing down, reportedly saying it was “only partially suspended”.
Mr Blinken later spoke of “concrete steps” that both sides could now try to take to reduce the level of violence, and that members of his team would be staying on to work on them. He was asked to elaborate but he would not. The visit started with a “pivotal moment” but finished with little clarity about how to fix it.
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