U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, on January 17, 2024, about the challenges and opportunities for peace and stability in the Middle East.
In a conversation with Thomas Friedman, a columnist for The New York Times, Mr. Blinken contrasted the disruptive power of non-state actors such as the Houthis in Yemen and Hamas in Gaza, with the diplomatic progress made by some Arab and Muslim countries toward normalizing relations with Israel.
Mr. Blinken said that there is a new equation in the region that answers the profound needs of everyone, especially Israel, which has long sought genuine security.
“You now have something you didn’t have before, and that is Arab countries and Muslim countries even beyond the region that are prepared to have a relationship with Israel in terms of its integration, its normalization, its security, that they were never prepared to have before, and to do things, to give the necessary assurance, to make the necessary commitments and guarantees, so that Israel is not only integrated but it can feel secure,” Mr. Blinken said.
The top US Diplomat argued that without a viable solution for the Palestinians, Israel will not achieve the genuine integration and security it needs. He also said that a stronger and reformed Palestinian Authority is essential for delivering for its own people.
Mr. Blinken said that by taking a regional approach, the Middle East can come together in ways that isolate Iran and its proxies and force them to make decisions about their future. He said that this is a clear choice that the region faces, and that there is a profound opportunity for regionalization that has not existed before.
Mr. Blinken acknowledged that realizing this vision requires difficult and challenging decisions, and a mindset that is open to that perspective. He said that ultimately, this is about what kind of society, world, and region people want to live in.
When asked by Friedman if Israel has the prime minister for that opportunity, Mr. Blinken said that these are decisions that the Israeli people have to make, and that the U.S. will support any government that is committed to advancing peace and security in the region.
He said that a credible, legitimate Palestinian state in peace with Israel is the answer to four challenges that Israel faces: losing the narrative in the war, going to war without a vision of the morning after, building a regional alliance to counter the threats from non-state actors, and isolating Iran and its proxies.
The top US diplomat said that he feels the fierce urgency of now to start moving to a different vision, equation, and integration in the region, and that there is a profound difference in the mindset of Arab and Muslim leaders who are willing to have a relationship with Israel that includes integration, normalization, and security guarantees, but also a pathway to a Palestinian state.
Mr. Blinken said that the question now is whether Israeli society is prepared to engage on these questions and have that mindset, and that this is challenging, especially amid a human tragedy in Gaza and the security concerns that dominate the daily life of Israelis and Palestinians alike.
When asked by Friedman if this is the worst time to be Secretary of State, Mr. Blinken said that he does not think in those terms, and that he sees the opportunity and the responsibility to make a difference in the world.
Mr. Blinken said that the U.S. comes from a renewed position of strength thanks to the investments made by President Joe Biden at home and the re-engagement with allies and partners abroad. He said that the U.S. has more convergence with key partners on how to deal with China and Russia, and that the U.S. is leading in areas like climate and energy technology.
He said that in the Middle East, where there is a profound and gut-wrenching challenge right now, he hears from virtually every country that they want the U.S. present, at the table, and leading. He said that the U.S. knows that if it is not engaged and leading, either someone else will, or no one will, and that will create a vacuum that will be filled by bad things. Mr. Blinken said that the U.S. needs partners and must reimagine its partnerships to deal with the problems of the region.
When asked about the challenge of responding to the attacks of the Houthis on international shipping, and the political implications of that in the U.S., Mr. Blinken said that the U.S. is working with its partners to deter and prevent further attacks, and to address the underlying causes of the conflict in Yemen. He said that the U.S. is also working to revive the Iran nuclear deal, which he said was working effectively until the previous administration withdrew from it. He emphasized that the U.S. is not naive about Iran’s other destabilizing activities in the region, and that the U.S. will continue to counter them with its partners.