Blinken’s latest Middle East trip yields few results amid row with Israel over Rafah

Benjamin Netanyahu declares Israel will go ahead with ground operations after talks with US Secretary of State

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks to the media at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv before leaving Israel. AP
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A three-day diplomatic blitz by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken appears to have failed to mend fences with Israeli leader Benjamin Netanyahu as the countries continue to butt heads over Israel's impending invasion of Rafah in southern Gaza.

Even before Mr Blinken left Israel, Mr Netanyahu doubled down on his support for a ground operation aimed at rooting out Hamas in Rafah, where more than a million Palestinians displaced from elsewhere in the enclave are sheltering.

Washington has repeatedly said it wants Israel to devise a plan that takes into consideration the safety of civilians before any operation begins.

Speaking after a meeting with Mr Blinken, Mr Netanyahu acknowledged the strong US support for Israel, particularly after October 7, when Hamas militants killed about 1,200 people in the south of the country, according to local officials, and kidnapped about 240.

“I told him that I greatly appreciate the fact that for more than five months we have been standing together in the war against Hamas,” Mr Netanyahu said.

“I also told him that we recognise the need to evacuate the civilian population from the combat zones and – of course – also see to the humanitarian needs, and we are working to this end.”

But the long-time Israeli leader added that his country's forces would go into Rafah regardless of US approval.

Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledges debate with US over plan to invade Rafah – video

Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledges debate with US over plan to invade Rafah

Benjamin Netanyahu acknowledges debate with US over plan to invade Rafah

“I also said that we have no way to defeat Hamas without entering Rafah and eliminating the remnant of the battalions there. I told him that I hope we would do this with US support but if necessary – we will do it alone,” he said.

Relations between the US and Israel have grown increasingly frosty as the war in Gaza has dragged on.

“You now have something much more profound and much more fundamental to the US-Israeli relationship,” Aaron David Miller, a former State Department Middle East analyst and current senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told The National.

“You have a huge crisis of confidence between the American President and Israeli Prime Minister, who has the most extreme right-wing government in the history of the country.”

According to Gaza health officials, about 32,000 Palestinians have been killed since Israel launched its onslaught on the Gaza Strip, the enclave’s infrastructure has been shattered and international aid agencies have warned of the possibility of famine.

But while Washington has taken a more critical tone towards its long-time ally, it has not yet held the Netanyahu government to account.

Israel targets Rafah with air strikes – in pictures

“They're angry, they're frustrated, but they've yet to impose a single cost or consequence,” Mr Miller said.

Speaking to reporters at the airport in Tel Aviv before returning to Washington after his sixth trip to the region since October 7, Mr Blinken avoided pushing back too hard against Israel's apparent intransigence over Rafah.

He said he had begun to lay out the US vision for Rafah, but was looking forward to next week when a senior Israeli team was expected to travel to Washington and go “through the details of what we see as the best way forward”.

But Mr Blinken did add that an invasion of Rafah risked “jeopardising” Israel’s “long-term security and standing” in the world.

As he met leaders in Israel, US, Egyptian, Qatari and Israeli officials were scheduled to meet in Doha for further discussions on a potential hostage deal.

“We've made progress in the last couple of weeks on the hostage negotiations, closing gaps,” Mr Blinken said.

“Almost by definition, when you get down to the last items, they tend to be the hardest. So there's still a lot of work to be done.”

His final meetings with Israeli leaders came on the same day China and Russia vetoed a US Security Council resolution that stressed the need for an “immediate” ceasefire.

After the vote, Mr Blinken said: “I think we were trying to show the international community a sense of urgency about getting a ceasefire tied to the release of hostages – something that everyone, including the countries that vetoed the resolution, should have been able to get behind … It’s unimaginable why countries wouldn’t be able to do that.”

Updated: March 22, 2024, 6:51 PM