10 stops in 5 days, plus a bomb shelter, for Blinken | ET REALITY

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Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken rushed into a bunker as air raid sirens blared in Tel Aviv on Monday, in the most dramatic moment of a whirlwind – and unusually chaotic – tour of the Middle East by the top diplomat. of the United States.

After his second visit to Israel in five days, Blinken was scheduled to land in Amman, Jordan, on Monday night, but ended up trapped in a marathon late-night negotiating session in Tel Aviv, and his next destination was uncertain. A trip originally scheduled for two days has now been extended to the sixth, with 10 stops and counting.

For an official whose travel schedule is meticulously planned and rarely reviewed, Blinken’s frenetic trip has highlighted the scale and complexity of the diplomatic crisis he faces.

Blinken is trying to show US support for Israel after Hamas attacked it on October 7; limit Arab criticism of Israel’s military response; winning the freedom of hostages held by Hamas in Gaza; and avoid an escalation of the conflict, perhaps including Hezbollah and Iran, that could attract the United States.

It has been a somber journey for Blinken, who at times seemed tormented as he described the massacre of Israeli citizens and a growing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.

Speaking to reporters in Cairo on Sunday, two days after his first stop in Israel, Blinken admitted that things had become blurry even for him. “I think I’ve lost count” of how many countries he had visited, Blinken said, before correctly tallying the count to seven since leaving 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, Blinken’s trip was reminiscent of a recent predecessor. John Kerry, who was Secretary of State during the Obama administration, frequently extended and improvised his trips, even changing destinations mid-flight, in what was called “diplomacy sitting in pants.” Not so with Blinken, who typically travels Monday through Friday and returns in time to spend the weekend at home with her two young children.

The ad hoc nature of the trip began just days after the Hamas massacres. Blinken immediately brought forward a visit to the region that he had planned for the following week. The State Department announced that he would depart on October 11 for Israel and Jordan and return on Friday, October 13.

That plan was soon scuttled when State Department officials, in consultation with the White House, expanded Blinken’s itinerary to include several other major capitals.

“Henry Kissinger’s 33-day trip to reach a withdrawal agreement between Israel and Syria after the 1973 October War holds the record for a trip to the Middle East,” said Aaron David Miller, senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International. Peace and former long-time State Department Environment official. Eastern Negotiator. “Blinken’s recent wild ride through the region cannot be compared. But it does reflect the uncertainty and chaos of a crisis that the administration did not see coming and the complexity of the challenges he will face in the future.”

“From now on,” he added, “the secretary might want to pack a few extra shirts. If the administration wants to make a difference in this region, there will probably be more than a few wild rides in its future.”

Making a difference will not be easy. Blinken has not yet achieved one of his goals: ensuring the free passage of American citizens in Gaza through a border crossing into Egypt. Hundreds of people remained trapped at the sealed border on Monday.

It’s not for lack of trying. After his arrival in the region on Thursday, Blinken and his assistants finalized their agenda for the next day: four countries in one day, from Jordan to Qatar, Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.

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

In Jordan, Blinken met with King Abdullah II at his palace and later with Mahmoud Abbas, the head of the Palestinian Authority, at a villa. In Qatar, Blinken held a joint news conference with the prime minister at a lavish government building. In Bahrain, she spoke with Prime Minister Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa in an airport VIP lounge as royal guards in dress uniforms flanked a red carpet on the open-air tarmac.

In order to attend the meetings, Blinken made a quick day trip from Riyadh to the United Arab Emirates on Saturday and then returned again to the Saudi capital. On Saturday night, he prepared to meet with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the country’s de facto leader who has regained some diplomatic legitimacy less than three years after the Biden administration released intelligence finding him responsible for the assassination. and dismemberment of Saudi Arabia in 2018. Jamal Khashoggi, Washington Post columnist.

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

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

Officials said it was typical for the prince to keep even important visitors waiting. Still, it was a rare and likely frustrating experience for Blinken, sleep-deprived and accustomed to foreign officials adapting to his agenda.

At noon on Sunday, he left for Egypt, reportedly Blinken’s last stop before returning home. “I know this is the last of his big tour of the region,” Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi told Blinken at the start of his meeting in Cairo.

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

At the time, State Department officials had begun whispering about Biden’s possible visit to Israel this week. Plans to return to Washington on Monday were frustrated. The new plan was to fly back to Jordan after negotiations with Israeli leaders over humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, and everyone would wait there for further instructions.

In Jerusalem on Monday, between meetings with Israeli leaders, Blinken made an unscheduled stop at the American ambassador’s residence and borrowed a secure line to call Washington. Shortly before, the White House had announced that Biden would cancel a trip to Colorado that day for a national security meeting, perhaps the same one that Blinken was calling for.

Blinken’s journey has also been fraught with an unusual undercurrent of danger. Security officers who normally wear suits wore bulletproof vests and helmets as they guarded their plane during its stops in Israel.

On Monday, just after Blinken’s convoy left Jerusalem, aerial sirens sounded there, signaling the arrival of rockets or missiles. Everyone in the city ran for cover. Sirens also sounded in Tel Aviv. Officials and journalists in the convoy between the two cities were told to run from cars if sirens sounded and lie on the ground on the side of the road.

After Blinken met with Netanyahu and his war cabinet around 7 p.m. at the Kirya military base in Tel Aviv, the sirens sounded again. Traveling journalists and Israeli soldiers outside ran toward an interior staircase.

Blinken and Netanyahu were meeting in the prime minister’s office at the Shimon Peres House on the base when the sirens sounded. Blinken and Israeli officials went into a bunker for five minutes. They then walked to a command center to continue their meeting on humanitarian aid, which was interrupted by a third siren before beginning early Tuesday with no end in sight, much longer than originally planned.

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