Gaza war: How the crisis is testing the limits of US diplomacy

A security guard thrust open the door of Antony Blinken’s armoured car and the US secretary of state strode out down a line of yellow barricades.

“We’re working to get them home,” he declared, gripping the hands of Israeli protesters in Tel Aviv calling for a deal to release the hostages held by Hamas. It was a striking moment but not altogether spontaneous .The street had by now been buzzing with security officials readying his route towards the protesters. Those of us in the travelling press were told to expect the interaction in the 20 minutes or so leading up to it. It was firmly caught on camera.

This was a strong message from America’s top diplomat to both the Israeli public and its prime minister – the US was committed, engaged and pushing everything to get a ceasefire-for-hostage-release deal over the line. In other words the message is: The US is trying to stop the war – albeit with firm conditions.

Washington has been under growing domestic and international pressure due to the unprecedented crisis unfolding in Gaza and the catastrophically high number of civilians killed. President Joe Biden and Mr Blinken have spent weeks now publicly ramping up pressure on Israel to surge more aid in, and they want to develop a plan to secure the territory’s long-term future. But as the crisis deepens, the limits of American influence have become increasingly clear.

Just hours before the moment filmed at the barricades, the US had resorted to a vote in the UN Security Council to try to shape the actions of its ally. This was a sign of President Biden’s growing exasperation. The American-drafted text called on Israel to surge more aid into Gaza amid UN warnings of imminent famine. It endorsed the current process mediated by Qatar to get a ceasefire in return for the release of hostages by Hamas. But it also warned Israel against a military assault on the city of Rafah, home to more than 1.4 million displaced Palestinians, saying an offensive could violate international humanitarian law. The resolution failed. It was vetoed by Russia and China.

Speaking at Ben Gurion airport on Friday afternoon, Mr Blinken castigated those who voted it down. He implied they did so for reasons that had nothing to do with the substance, while also warning that a Rafah offensive could leave Israel without international support.

“It risks killing more civilians, it risks wreaking greater havoc with the provision of humanitarian assistance, it risks further isolating Israel around the world and jeopardising its long term security and standing,” he said. Amid the growing rift between Washington and the Israeli leader, Mr Netanyahu struck back at Mr Blinken’s assessment. “I told him I hope we’ll do it with the support of the United States,” said the prime minister, “but if we have to, we’ll do it alone”.

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