10 stops in 5 days, plus air raid shelter for Blinken

Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken rushed to a bunker as air raid sirens blared in Tel Aviv on Monday, the most dramatic moment of a whirlwind — and unusually chaotic — Middle East tour for America’s top diplomat.

After his second visit to Israel in five days, Mr. Blinken was scheduled to land in Amman, Jordan, on Monday night, but ended up stuck in a marathon negotiating session in Tel Aviv, with his next destination uncertain. The trip that was originally planned for two days has now expanded to six, with 10 stops and counting.

For an official whose travel schedule is carefully planned and rarely revised, Mr. Blinken’s frenetic trip underscored the scale and complexity of the diplomatic crisis he faces.

Mr. Blinken immediately tries to show US support for Israel after Hamas attacked it on October 7; limit Arab criticism of Israel’s military response; win the freedom of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza; and prevent an escalation of conflict, possibly involving Hezbollah and Iran, that could attract the United States.

It was a bleak journey for Mr. Blinken, who at times seemed haunted as he described the slaughter of Israeli citizens and the growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Speaking to reporters in Cairo on Sunday, two days after his first visit to Israel, Mr. Blinken admitted that things had become unclear even for him. “I think I’ve lost track” of how many countries he’s visited, Mr Blinken said, before correctly counting to seven since his departure from Washington on Wednesday afternoon: Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, plus two stops each in Israel , Jordan and Saudi Arabia.

For State Department veterans, the trip of Mr. It reminded Blinken of its recent predecessor. John Kerry, who was secretary of state during the Obama administration, often extended and improvised his trips — even changing destinations mid-flight, in what was labeled “diplomacy in pants.” Not so Mr. Blinken, who usually travels Monday through Friday, returning in time to spend the weekend at home with his two young children.

The ad hoc nature of the trip began just days after the massacre by Hamas. Mr. Blinken immediately postponed the visit to the region he had planned for the following week. The State Department announced that he will travel to Israel and Jordan on October 11 and return on Friday, October 13.

That plan soon fell apart as State Department officials, in consultation with the White House, expanded Mr. Blinken’s itinerary to include several other major capitals.

“Henry Kissinger’s 33-day trip to broker a disengagement agreement between Israel and Syria after the October War of 1973 holds the Middle East shuttle record,” said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and a former longtime State Department Middle East official. negotiator. “Blinken’s recent wild ride through the region is not quite comparable. But it reflects the uncertainty and chaos of the crisis that the administration did not anticipate and the complexity of the challenges it faces going forward.”

“From here on out,” he added, “the secretary might want to pack a few extra shirts. If the administration wants to make a difference in this region, there are likely to be more than a few wild rides in his future.”

It won’t be easy to make a difference. Mr. Blinken has still failed in one of his goals: to ensure the free passage of American citizens in Gaza through the border crossing into Egypt. Hundreds of people remained stuck at the sealed border on Monday.

It’s not for lack of trying. After arriving in the region on Thursday, Mr. Blinken and his associates hammered out their schedule for the next day: four countries in one day, from Jordan to Qatar to Bahrain to Saudi Arabia.

Sometimes they improvised transport: to get from Tel Aviv, their first stop, to Amman, they took a US military C-17 plane that flew over Cyprus after sending a regular Air Force Boeing 757 ahead so the crew could rest while American diplomats met with Israeli officials.

In Jordan, Mr. Blinken met with King Abdullah II at his palace and then with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, at a villa. In Qatar, Mr. Blinken held a joint press conference in an opulent government building with the prime minister. In Bahrain, he spoke with the prime minister, Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa, in the airport’s VIP lounge as uniformed royal guards lined the red carpet on the open-air tarmac.

In order to get meetings, Mr. Blinken took a short one-day trip from Riyadh to the United Arab Emirates on Saturday, before returning to the Saudi capital again. On Saturday night, he prepared to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader who has regained a measure of diplomatic legitimacy less than three years after the Biden administration released intelligence finding him responsible for killing and dismembering Saudi Arabia in 2018. Columnist Washington Post’s Jamal Khashoggi.

That meeting introduced a new element of uncertainty. Journalists traveling with Mr. Blinken were told to be ready at any moment to leave their hotel in a convoy of secretaries for an audience with the crown prince, the region’s most powerful Sunni Muslim ruler.

The hours dragged on, from midnight to 2 a.m. and then 4 a.m. Finally, the prince agreed to meet Mr. Blinken after 7:30 a.m. on Sunday at his private farm. (The reporters, who stayed up most of the night, were eventually denied access.)

Officials said it was typical for the prince to wait even for important visitors. Still, it was a rare and most likely frustrating experience for the sleep-deprived Mr. Blinken, who is used to foreign officials accommodating his schedule.

On Sunday at noon, he left for Egypt — supposedly the last stop of Mr. Blinkena before returning home. “I know this is your last major tour in the region,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi told Mr Blinken at the start of their meeting in Cairo.

Not so fast. After speaking with President Biden, Mr. Blinken added a return trip to Israel to his schedule. He spent the night in Jordan before returning to Tel Aviv on Monday morning and driving to Jerusalem to see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu again.

By then, State Department officials had begun whispering that Mr. Biden would likely visit Israel this week. Plans to return to Washington on Monday have been scratched. The new plan was to return to Jordan after negotiations with Israeli leaders on humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, and all would await further instructions there.

In Jerusalem on Monday, between meetings with Israeli leaders, Mr. Blinken made an unscheduled stop at the US ambassador’s residence, stopping by to borrow a secure line to call Washington. Shortly before that, the White House announced that Mr. Biden was canceling a trip to Colorado that day for a national security meeting — possibly the same one Mr. Blinken had called.

Mr. Blinken’s journey is also punctuated by an unusual undercurrent of danger. Security officers who normally wear suits wore bulletproof vests and helmets as they guarded his plane during its stops in Israel.

On Monday, just after Mr. Blinken’s convoy left Jerusalem, air sirens sounded there to indicate incoming rockets or missiles. Everyone in town ran to shelter. The sirens sounded in Tel Aviv as well. Officials and journalists in a convoy between the two cities were told to run from their cars if sirens sounded and to lie on the ground by the side of the road.

After Mr. Blinken met with Mr. Netanyahu and his war cabinet at about 7 p.m. at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, the sirens sounded again. Traveling journalists and Israeli soldiers standing outside burst into the inner staircase.

Mr. Blinken and Mr. The Netanyahus were meeting in the prime minister’s office at Shimon Peres’ house in the base when the sirens went off. Mr. Blinken and Israeli officials ducked into a bunker for five minutes. They then went to the command center to resume their humanitarian aid meeting, which was interrupted by a third siren before entering early Tuesday morning with no end in sight – far longer than originally planned.

Leave a Comment