Blinken Talks a Grand Vision for Mideast Peace but Hits a Wall in Israel

As Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken stood on the tarmac of an airport in Cairo on Thursday before flying back to the United States, he expressed confidence in the support he said he had gotten from leaders across the Middle East for a vision of postwar Gaza, eventually including a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

“None of this will happen overnight,” he said at the end of a week of high-stakes diplomacy with 10 governments. “But there is a greater willingness now for countries to make the hard decisions, to do what’s necessary to advance on that track.”

But however much ground Mr. Blinken may have gained in his conversations with Arab and Turkish leaders, the one government that matters most in the equation — Israel’s — has given no sign that it is aligned with the Biden administration’s long-term goals. The Israelis are interested in forging full diplomatic relations with powerful Arab states like Saudi Arabia, but they remain publicly dismissive of a critical American and Arab demand: the creation of a Palestinian state.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his aides are focused on the war in Gaza against Hamas. “Today, no one can speak with Israelis about a Palestinian state,” Danny Danon, a senior lawmaker from Mr. Netanyahu’s party, said in an interview. “Today, we have to look at stability, security.”

Over the course of his trip, Mr. Blinken repeatedly said that now is the moment to forge a political solution, however difficult and ambitious, to the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The burst of violence on Oct. 7, when an estimated 1,200 people were killed in a Hamas-led attack, and the failure that day of the Israeli government to protect its citizens, show that Israel cannot rely solely on its security apparatus to guard its safety, other U.S. officials say.

Mr. Blinken left the tough talks with Israel for near the end of his trip, which began on Friday when he landed in Turkey. From there he went to Greece, Jordan, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Only then did he spend a day in talks in Israel before driving to Ramallah to visit the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank, flying to Bahrain and then Egypt.

It was the secretary’s most ambitious diplomatic mission to the region, his fourth in three months of war.

By the time he met with Israeli leaders on Tuesday, Mr. Blinken had heard enough to tell them that the region’s leaders were refusing to take part in a multinational security force in Gaza, as some Israeli officials had proposed. He said that postwar security should be handled by Palestinians not linked to Hamas, and that Gaza and the West Bank had to be run by the Palestinian Authority, U.S. officials said.

And although leaders in the region were saying for now that they would not pay to rebuild Gaza, they might do so if Israel agrees to a concrete pathway to a Palestinian state encompassing both territories, Mr. Blinken told Israeli officials.

There was also a bigger enticement: In a rug-festooned desert tent, the leader of Saudi Arabia, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, told Mr. Blinken on Monday over a meal of baby camel meat that Saudi Arabia was still willing to consider normalizing ties with Israel, which it has never formally recognized, if the government there would agree to a Palestinian nation, said a senior State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to describe the diplomacy more candidly.

In normalization talks before the Hamas attack on Israel, Prince Mohammed was focused mainly on wringing concessions from Washington, among them a U.S.-Saudi mutual defense treaty, American cooperation on a civil nuclear program and more arms sales, U.S. officials said.

But the price for the Saudis to give diplomatic recognition to Israel has now risen, because Saudi citizens and many others across the region are outraged at what they view as an Israeli massacre in Gaza, the officials said. Israel’s bombardment and ground invasion have killed more than 23,000 Palestinians, health officials in the enclave say.

This is why all the talk by Americans of long-term visions for the region could remain exactly that: just talk. Mr. Netanyahu and his far-right government oppose the notion of a Palestinian state. The prime minister has gone so far as to advocate strengthening Hamas in Gaza years ago to keep the Palestinian Authority weak and Palestinians divided. When Mr. Blinken laid out the Saudi leader’s proposal on Tuesday in Tel Aviv, the Israelis did not have a strong response, and the Americans are awaiting a counteroffer, the State Department official said.

Israeli officials demurred on several U.S. demands — including that they slow down the invasion, release funds to the Palestinian Authority and allow displaced Palestinians in Gaza to return to homes in the north, where at least half the buildings have been damaged. Mr. Netanyahu would agree only to allow a United Nations team to enter northern Gaza at some point to assess conditions there.

Mr. Blinken pressed him on statements that two far-right cabinet ministers had made suggesting Palestinians be moved out of Gaza permanently. After Mr. Blinken left Israel on Thursday morning, Mr. Netanyahu released a statement promising that “Israel has no intention of permanently occupying Gaza or displacing its civilian population.”

Mr. Netanyahu needs the United States to maintain its diplomatic, military and financial support for Israel. So far, President Biden has expressed strong backing for Israel and has not placed conditions on the sales of American-made bombs, artillery shells and other weapons to Israel, despite the global outcry over civilian casualties and destruction in Gaza.

But Mr. Netanyahu also seeks to placate the Israeli mainstream, which wants the invasion to continue until Hamas is ousted. And he needs to mollify far-right members of his own fragile coalition, who could withdraw from the government, resulting in his possible ouster, if he accedes to too many international demands.

“It was not a good visit,” Itamar Rabinovich, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington who is critical of Mr. Netanyahu, said in an interview.

“The Netanyahu government is completely paralyzed,” he said. “The extreme right-wing ministers won’t tolerate what the U.S. thinks is essential, both in terms of the final stages of the war and dealing with ‘the day after.’”

In a meeting with Mr. Blinken, Yoav Gallant, the Israeli defense minister, said that Israel was not slowing its campaign in northern Gaza, but merely changing tactics, according to an Israeli official briefed on the meeting who spoke on the condition of anonymity, in line with Israeli protocol.

Mr. Blinken was also told that Israeli military activity in southern Gaza would actually intensify because of the scale of the challenge there, the Israeli official said. The Hamas leadership is thought to be hiding in Khan Younis, the main city in southern Gaza, and many of the remaining hostages — more than 100 — are believed to be nearby.

Mr. Netanyahu rejected Mr. Blinken’s calls for civilians to be allowed to swiftly return to northern Gaza. The majority of the area’s 1.1 million residents were forced to move south at the start of the war, ahead of Israel’s invasion.

“Returning Palestinian civilians to northern Gaza will put them in harm’s way,” Mr. Netanyahu’s office said in a statement to The New York Times.

“There are still thousands of Hamas terrorists in northern Gaza, miles of underground terror tunnels and other Hamas infrastructure that Israel will need to deal with before it is safe for civilians to return,” it said.

Mr. Netanyahu’s political position is precarious, and Mr. Danon, the senior lawmaker, said his priority is to win over Israelis, not the U.S. government. “Bringing back the hostages and eradicating Hamas — I don’t think Israelis will accept anything less than that,” he said.

Before flying from Cairo back to Washington, Mr. Blinken acknowledged to reporters that this was Israel’s immediate need, but said Israeli officials would come around to seeing the bigger picture. “Israel’s integration, its security, a pathway to a Palestinian state — that is the equation,” he said.