Antony Blinken: On the US mission to stop Gaza igniting wider war

Antony Blinken meets President Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan
Image caption,Antony Blinken meeting Sheikh Mohamed bin Zayed Al Nahyan of the UAE in Abu Dhabi on Monday

Of all the priorities for US Secretary of State Antony Blinken on his fourth visit to the Middle East in three months, there is one message above all others that he wants to deliver.

His main mission on this trip is to ensure the Israel-Gaza war does not spread into a regional conflict.

As he flies between destinations in southwest Asia – a packed schedule that includes stops in Turkey, Jordan, Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Israel – there is ample evidence, however, that the cauldron of tensions in the region is on the verge of boiling over.

Houthi rebels in Yemen have launched repeated missile and drone attacks on civilian shipping in the Red Sea, bringing traffic through that key international waterway to a near halt.

The US has warned that it will defend its interests. If the rebels persist, and the disruption to global commerce continues, an American military response may be inevitable – a development that would unnerve some key American Arab allies.

“We never see a military action as a resolution,” said the Qatari prime minister in a joint press conference with Mr Blinken in Doha on Sunday. Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani said his biggest worry was that such action would “keep us in a loop that will never end and will create a real tension in the entire region”.

On Saturday, Hezbollah forces in southern Lebanon fired a barrage of rocket attacks on northern Israel in reprisal for what appeared to be an Israeli-planned bomb attack that killed a key Hamas leader in Beirut. Israel responded with air strikes targeting Hezbollah forces in Lebanon.

An escalation there, Mr Blinken said later that day, was a “real concern”. He called on regional powers with influence over Hezbollah – in other words Iran and, to a lesser extent, Turkey – to use their influence to “try to keep things in check”.

That may be difficult. As the Washington Post reported, American officials are concerned that Israel may be considering a more expansive offensive against Hezbollah.

Anti-Israel and US protest in Yemen
Image caption,Anti-Israel and US protest in Yemen

“We prefer the path of an agreed-upon diplomatic settlement, but we are getting close to the point where the hourglass will turn over,” Israeli Defence Minister Yoav Gallant said on Friday.

Meanwhile, US military installations have been hit by rocket and drone attacks from militants in Iraq and Syria, where more than 3,000 American soldiers are stationed. In late October, a drone breached US defences and struck a barracks but did not detonate, according to a Reuters report, narrowly avoiding what might have been significant American casualties.

The US has responded with military action, including an air strike in Baghdad last week that killed Mushtaq Taleb al-Saidi, an Iran-backed militia leader.

Each of these episodes, taken individually, presents a threat to regional stability. When viewed as a whole, it suggests a Middle East teetering on the brink of wider war.

In Qatar on Sunday, Mr Blinken said the US has a plan to address the growing instability – and it hinges on winding down the Israeli military campaign in Gaza and working with Arab nations and the Israelis to establish a “durable” peace for the Palestinians.

“The United States has a vision for how to get there, a regional approach that delivers lasting security for Israel and a state for the Palestinian people,” he said. “And my takeaway from the discussions so far … is that our partners are willing to have these difficult conversations and to make hard decisions.”

Therein lies the rub. After meeting with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman on Monday, Mr Blinken said he’s seen a willingness to help stabilise and revitalise a post-war Gaza among all the leaders he’s spoken with so far. But the US has to get Israel on board.

Iraqi paramilitaries carry a coffin after US air strike on Baghdad
Image caption,Iraqi paramilitaries carry a coffin after US air strike on Baghdad

The timing of Mr Blinken’s latest Middle East trip may give hints of the American strategy in this latest round of shuttle diplomacy. His early visits to Turkey and Arab nations before two days in Israel have allowed the secretary to take the temperature of regional players before sitting down with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli War Cabinet.

Then the ball, as Americans like to say, is in the Israeli court.

“I’ll have an opportunity to share with Israeli leaders everything I’ve heard thus far on this trip,” he said on Monday. “I’m convinced that there is a future path that can actually bring lasting peace and security for Israel.”

Behind all this is an American gamble – that resolving, or at least winding down, the Gaza War will cool tensions throughout the region. It is a bet that the various mini-crises – in the Red Sea, in Lebanon, and in Iraq and Syria – have not taken on a momentum of their own.

There is no peace in the region without a legitimate, peaceful solution to the Palestinian conflict, the Qatari prime minister said on Sunday. The question is, will there be peace with such a resolution?

During his November trip to the Middle East, Mr Blinken told reporters gathered on the tarmac in Ankara, Turkey, that countries across the region do not want war – and are working to prevent the conflict from spreading.

“Sometimes the absence of something bad happening may not be the most obvious evidence of progress, but it is,” the US secretary said.

Since then, there has been ample evidence that while a wider war may not be wanted, the prospects for one has increased – despite the stated intentions and efforts of Mr Blinken and the Americans.

Gabriel Attal: Macron’s pick for PM is France’s youngest at 34

France's outgoing Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne applauds newly appointed Prime Minister Gabriel Attal during the handover ceremony at the Hotel Matignon in Paris, France, on January 9, 2024
Image caption,Gabriel Attal succeeded Élisabeth Borne on Tuesday during an official ceremony at the prime minister’s residence

Gabriel Attal has been named France’s next prime minister, as Emmanuel Macron aims to revive his presidency with a new government.

At 34, he is the youngest PM in modern French history, outranking even Socialist Laurent Fabius who was 37 when he was appointed by François Mitterrand in 1984.

Mr Attal replaces Élisabeth Borne, who resigned after 20 months in office.

Throughout that time she struggled with a lack of a majority in parliament.

Gabriel Attal, who is currently education minister, certainly makes an eye-catching appointment.

He will now have the task of leading the French government into important European Parliament elections in June.

His rise has been rapid. Ten years ago he was an obscure adviser in the health ministry, and a card-carrying member of the Socialists.

He will also be the first openly gay occupant of Hôtel Matignon. He has a civil partnership with another Macron whizz-kid, the MEP Stéphane Sejourné.

Welcoming him to his new role, President Macron wrote on social media: “I know I can count on your energy and your commitment to implement the project of revitalisation and regeneration that I announced.”

French Education and Youth Minister Gabriel Attal (L) looks at France's President Emmanuel Macron (R) addressing the audience at the 'lycée professionnel de l'Argensol' or Argensol vocational school during his visit of the school in Orange, Southeastern France on September 1, 2023
Image caption,Gabriel Attal (L) has the task of leading the government into European Parliament elections in June

“France will never rhyme with decline, France rhymes with transformation, France rhymes with audacity,” Mr Attal declared outside his new residence.

But given the difficulties of the president’s second term – and the growing challenge from the nationalist right – is “eye-catching” alone going to cut it?

Handsome, youthful, charming, popular, cogent, Mr Attal certainly comes to office trailing clouds of glory – much, let it be said, like his mentor and role-model the president himself.

But like many go-getters of his generation, he was inspired by Emmanuel Macron’s idea of breaking apart the old left-right divide and re-writing the codes of French politics.

In the wake of Macron’s 2017 election, Mr Attal became a member of parliament, and it was there that his brilliance as a debater – easily the best of the neophyte Macronite intake – brought him to the president’s attention.

At 29, he became the youngest ever minister in the Fifth Republic with a junior post at education; from 2020 he was government spokesman and his face began to register with the voters; after President Macron’s re-election, he was briefly budget minister and then took over at education last July.

It was in this post that Mr Attal confirmed to the president that he has what it takes, acting with no-nonsense determination to end September’s row over Muslim abaya robes by simply banning them in schools.

He led a campaign against bullying – he himself was a victim, he says – at the elite École alsacienne in Paris, and took on the education establishment with his proposal to experiment with school uniform.

Marine Le Pen (R) smiles flanked by Jordan Bardella on January 13, 2019
Image caption,President Macron’s party faces a strong challenge from National Rally and its young leader Jordan Bardella – as well as Marine Le Pen

And, all the while, he managed to buck the normal trends by actually becoming popular among the public.

Polls show that he is by far the most admired member of the Macron government – competing at the same level as the president’s main enemy, the nationalist Marine Le Pen and her youthful colleague Jordan Bardella.

And there, of course, is the heart of it.

By drawing Gabriel Attal from his pack of ministers, Mr Macron is using an ace to outplay the queen and her jack. But will it work?

The drawn-out process of naming him – everyone knew a reshuffle was coming but it took forever – shows that if President Macron is well aware of the weakness of his current position, he has also been in deep uncertainty over how to address it.

French Prime Minister Elisabeth Borne attends the questions to the government session at the National Assembly in Paris, France, November 22, 2023
Image caption,Mr Attal replaces Élisabeth Borne but is likely to face the same problems she had without a majority in the National Assembly

More than one commentator has made the obvious point that what the public wants above all now is not so much a rearrangement of faces at the top, but a new sense of purpose to the Macron presidency.

But as things stand, Mr Attal will face exactly the same problems as did his long-suffering predecessor Élisabeth Borne.

These are: a hard-right opposition that is surging in popularity and looks set to win easily in June’s European elections; a National Assembly with no in-built majority for the government, making every new law a struggle; and a president who seems unable to define what he wants his second term to achieve.

On top of which, the new prime minister will have a problem all of his own – which is establishing his authority over such heavyweights as Gérald Darmanin and Bruno Le Maire.

And what is the plan, some are also asking, if as seems likely Mr Macron’s party loses heavily in the European elections?

Normally that would be the occasion for a prime ministerial replacement, to give a new élan for the second half of the mandate. But, as things stand, that card has already been played, and in the event of a defeat in June Gabriel Attal risks drifting on as a discredited loser.

Even opposition figures recognise that he is a class act. He is respected and liked in the National Assembly.

But there are also questions about what he actually stands for. The suspicion for many is that he is all smiles and verbiage, much like the man to whom he owes his career.

As the president’s nominee, he is the wunderkind’s wunderkind. But if he is only Macron’s mini-me, the marvel could prove a mirage.