Blinken visit deepens Israeli and Palestinian skepticism about U.S. role A1

Ronaldo Schemidt/Pool via REUTERS
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives for a press conference at the Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem on January 31, 2023.

JERUSALEM – On one topic, Israelis and Palestinians appear to agree: Both are deeply skeptical, even scornful, of renewed calls made by the Biden administration this week for a two-state solution here. Many called the gesture – at this moment of violence and radicalism – feeble, even farcical.

On his first trip to the region after the return of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to power, and amid days of escalating bloodshed, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken promoted the long-held dream of two states side by side – one Israeli, one Palestinian – as the best guarantor of peace.

But recent polling suggests that only a third of Palestinians and Israelis believe in two states today, and they both blame the United States for not doing more. Outside the post office in the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Hanina in East Jerusalem, Ahmad Abdulaziz, a young accountant, said “the two-state solution is like a song the Americans sing when they want to pacify us. It’s like a lullaby you sing to children to put them to sleep.”

In a news conference Tuesday in Jerusalem before his departure, Blinken set the bar low. “Restoring calm is our immediate task,” he said. “But over the longer term, we have to do more than just lower tensions.”

Blinken reiterated that it was President Biden’s “firm conviction that the only way to achieve that goal is through preserving and then realizing the vision of two states for two peoples.” And he cautioned the Netanyahu government: “The United States will continue to oppose anything that puts that goal further out of reach,” mentioning Israeli settlement expansion and moves “towards annexation in the West Bank.”

During Blinken’s joint presser with the Israeli prime minister on Monday, Netanyahu was polite but didn’t engage on the concept of “two states,” alluding only briefly to finding “a workable solution with our Palestinian neighbors,” before he pivoted to Iran.

On Tuesday, Blinken met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, now in his late 80s and struggling for relevance. The two appeared together in Ramallah, shaking hands, then sat across from each other as Abbas read a statement in Arabic.

Abbas blamed Israel for the current spasm of violence, charging that “its practices undermine the two-state solution,” including the continued building of Jewish settlements, the demolition of Palestinian homes, and “murder.” He also singled out “the lack of international efforts to dismantle the occupation” of Palestinian territory.

Blinken noted that “it is important to continue not only reducing violence, but to ensure ultimately Palestinians and Israelis alike have the same rights.”

“What we are seeing is the shrinking of the horizon of hope, and that needs to change,” he added, expressing his condolences for “the innocent Palestinian civilians who lost their lives in the last year.”

In his diplomatic rounds, Blinken did not call for a new round of peace talks. He called for calm. The last attempt to promote the two-state solution was under President Barack Obama in 2014, led by former secretary of state John F. Kerry, and ended in failure.

On the topic of lasting peace, many Palestinians and Israelis view this visit by a top U.S. diplomat as just another episode in a long-running show, with well-worn themes and a cast of reappearing characters.

On the street, the two sides sound especially despondent – with both quick to conclude that the Americans are going through the motions, seeking a little quiet in the Middle East as they worry about bigger threats, coming from Russia and China.

Alice Krieger, a peace activist from Tel Aviv, said, “this conflict won’t end because things are going to get worse.”

She observed that in his remarks on Monday, Blinken expressed his condolences for the seven people killed by a Palestinian gunman outside a synagogue in East Jerusalem on Friday but didn’t mention the military raid in Jenin in the West Bank that killed 10 Palestinians a day before.

“He didn’t mention Jenin even. All he did was praise America’s relationship with Israel and say America is with you,” she said. “It made me puke.”

Abdulaziz, the Palestinian accountant, was equally blunt: “We are not counting on anything from Blinken and from the Americans.”

Both Israelis and Palestinians pointed out that Netanyahu’s new government – an alliance of settler activists, religious conservatives and hard-line ultranationalists – rose to power promising to expand the occupation of the West Bank and implement harsher measures to counter Palestinian violence.

Abdulaziz said he thought the Americans would stand by as Israel built more Jewish settlements in the West Bank and seized more land.

“But Blinken has to understand this,” he said, “if the Palestinians lose hope, they will turn into monsters.”

Many Jewish Israelis view a Palestinian state to be an impossible prospect, and they see the Americans as meddlers, even if well-meaning.

“The position on the two-state solution is wrong. It’s anti-Israeli,” said Michael Yigal Mimon, 74, a historian from Nahariya in northern Israel.

“The majority is against this solution. We know it’s not going to help,” Mimon said. “The U.S. has this position; we just have to maneuver around it. This is not our position. It is the American position. It’s a recipe for disaster.”

A poll last week by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research shows that support for a two-state solution in the region is at an all-time low, with only one-third of Palestinians and one-third of Jewish Israelis backing the creation of two states.

Marwan Jabir, the owner of a seafood restaurant in the Palestinian neighborhood of Shufat in East Jerusalem, said the Americans still could play a vital role – by pressuring the Netanyahu government to stop demolishing Palestinian homes and carrying out military raids.

“You think those things will make the Palestinians more agreeable? More peaceful?” he asked. “America is the only one that can protect Israel from itself.”

Jabir said he has lost hope in two states – as he has lost hope in the Palestinian Authority and its leadership.

“I don’t think the Americans are really interested in solving the conflict,” Jabir said. “Abbas is nothing. He’s only a pawn. He’s not a player. He has no power. It’s Israel. It’s America. They decide.”