US delegations flock to the Middle East as Biden ups engagement

Blinken to visit Israel and Palestine while his deputy Wendy Sherman heads to Turkey

TOPSHOT - US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, boards his airplane prior to departing the Kangerlussuaq Airport in Greenland, May 20, 2021. / AFP / POOL / SAUL LOEB
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At least five US delegations are currently in the Middle East or preparing to head there as the Biden administration steps up its regional engagement following 11 days of war between Israel and Hamas.

Observers point to the flurry of visits as evidence US President Joe Biden will work more on the Middle East after largely ignoring it during his first few months in office and instead focusing on Russia, China and domestic issues.

The most senior delegation will be led by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who will visit Israel, Palestine, Egypt and Jordan in the coming days and is expected to build on the de-escalation momentum and recovery push following Friday's ceasefire.

The State Department announced the trip late Thursday after Mr Blinken called Israeli Foreign Minister Gaby Ashkenazi.

“The foreign minister welcomed Secretary Blinken's planned travel to the region, where the secretary will meet Israeli, Palestinian and regional counterparts in the coming days to discuss recovery efforts and working together to build better futures for Israelis and Palestinians,” the State Department said.

Israeli news website Walla reported that Mr Blinken would visit Israel, the West Bank, Jordan and Egypt.

It will be Mr Blinken’s first trip to the Middle East since Mr Biden took office in January.

Final dates and stops for the trip were expected to be announced on Friday.

The West Bank visit to meet the Palestinian Authority marks a departure from the former Trump administration, which broke relations with the body in 2018. Mr Blinken called Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on Friday.

Mr Blinken's visit comes on the heels of three other US delegations that were sent to the region.

Deputy Assistant Secretary Hady Amr is in Jerusalem, acting Assistant Secretary Joey Hood concluded his visit to North East Syria, Libya and Tunisia on Friday, and the head of the Pentagon's Central Command, Gen Frank McKenzie, visited Iraq this week.

The flurry of visits from Biden officials represents a late acknowledgement of how critical the Middle East is even as the US tries to shift focus to Russia and China, said Ryan Bohl, a senior analyst at the intelligence group Stratfor.

"The Biden team received a brutal reminder about why the Middle East matters through the events in the Israeli-Palestinian arena," Mr Bohl told The National.

The visits, he said, are “a combination of the White House finally beginning their normal diplomatic outreach and a realisation that if they are not paying close attention to events in the region and have a strategy to get ahead of a crisis, it could come back to affect them domestically.”

Mr Biden drew criticism domestically and internationally for his handling of the Gaza crisis and his administration ignored early warnings about the situation in Jerusalem. He still has not nominated an ambassador to Israel.

The State Department also announced on Friday that deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman will next week travel to Turkey, where US relations remain tense with President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“Deputy Secretary Sherman will underscore the importance of the US-Turkey relationship as we work together with our Nato ally to confront mutual challenges and discuss areas of concern,” the State Department said.

Ms Sherman will also visit Brussels, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, Bangkok and Honolulu between May 25 and June 4.