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MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 2 MAY 2024

US, Saudis close in on historic defence pact; Blinken meets Netanyahu and heads for Gaza

US, Saudis close in on historic defence pact; Blinken meets Netanyahu and heads for Gaza
A handout photo made available by Israel's Government Press Office shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) during a meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken at the prime minister's office in Jerusalem, 1 May 2024. (Photo: EPA-EFE / HAIM TZACH / GPO HANDOUT)

The US and Saudi Arabia were nearing a historic pact that would offer the kingdom security guarantees and lay out a possible pathway to diplomatic ties with Israel, according to people familiar with the matter.

The US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu before heading to the Gaza border to be briefed on the flow of humanitarian aid into the besieged enclave.  

Turkey is looking to join South Africa’s case at the United Nations’ highest court as a plaintiff accusing Israel of committing genocide in the Palestinian territory of Gaza. 

US and Saudis near defence pact aimed at reshaping Middle East

The US and Saudi Arabia were nearing a historic pact that would offer the kingdom security guarantees and lay out a possible pathway to diplomatic ties with Israel, people familiar with the matter said.

The agreement faces plenty of obstacles but would amount to a new version of a framework that was scuttled when Hamas’ 7 October attack on Israel triggered the conflict in the Gaza Strip. Negotiations have sped up in recent weeks and many officials are optimistic that Washington and Riyadh could reach a deal within weeks, according to the people, who asked not to be identified discussing private deliberations.

Such a deal would potentially reshape the Middle East. Beyond bolstering Israel and Saudi Arabia’s security, it would strengthen the US’s position in the region at the expense of Iran and even China.

The pact may offer Saudi Arabia an arrangement strong enough to need the US Senate’s approval and even give the world’s biggest oil exporter access to advanced US weapons that were previously off limits. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman would agree to limit Chinese technology from his nation’s most sensitive networks in exchange for major US investments and US help in developing its civilian nuclear programme.

Once the US and Saudi Arabia settle their agreement, they would present Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with a choice: either join the deal, which would entail formal diplomatic ties with Saudi Arabia for the first time, more investment and regional integration, or be left behind. The key condition for Netanyahu would be ending the Gaza war and agreeing to a pathway for Palestinian statehood.

The proposal is fraught with uncertainty. Getting Congress to approve a deal that commits the US to protecting Saudi Arabia militarily would be a daunting prospect for the White House, especially if Israel opts not to join it. Many legislators remain wary of Prince Mohammed, the kingdom’s 38-year-old de facto ruler, after the killing of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi agents in 2018. They’re also uneasy about the Saudi strategy of lowering oil production, along with other members of the Opec+ cartel, to prop up prices.

From the Israeli side, Netanyahu leads the most right-wing government in the country’s history and has all but ruled out a two-state solution. His coalition says it still plans to attack the Gazan city of Rafah, which the US and Arab states fear would lead to thousands more deaths among Palestinian civilians.  

Still, the leaders of the three countries have plenty of incentives to reach an agreement soon. For Biden, it’s a chance for a foreign policy victory before presidential elections in November. The crown prince would avoid the uncertainty around whether former President Donald Trump would accept a deal if he wins in that race even though Trump’s administration initiated the Abraham Accords that envisioned such alliances between Israel and its neighbours.

Netanyahu, the biggest wild card, could take credit for normalising relations with the biggest economy in the Middle East and guardian of Islam’s holiest sites — a goal he’s long coveted.

US officials said talks were under way but declined to comment on specifics. Saudi Arabia’s government didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment. Netanyahu’s office declined to comment. 

Netanyahu faces ceasefire, split Cabinet as Blinken visits

As the US Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, worked toward a Gaza ceasefire on a visit to Israel on Wednesday, a major Tel Aviv newspaper offered a front-page summary of his challenge: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with key Cabinet colleagues and the headline “Who’s in charge here?”

On one side was hard-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir saying if Israel doesn’t invade the southern Gaza city of Rafah, Netanyahu “understands perfectly well what that means”. On the other were centrist ministers labelling that “blackmail”. 

Blinken met Netanyahu before heading to the Gaza border to be briefed on the flow of humanitarian aid into the besieged enclave where Israel has fought a nearly seven-month war after a Hamas invasion that killed 1,200 and abducted 240.

More than 34,000 Palestinians have been killed in Israel’s offensive, according to health officials in the Hamas-run enclave. The figures don’t differentiate between combatants and civilians and Israel claims a third of them are fighters.

After the Netanyahu meeting, the secretary’s spokesperson said he’d “discussed the need to avoid further expansion of the conflict and updated the Prime Minister on ongoing efforts to ensure a lasting, sustainable peace in the region. The Secretary reiterated the United States’ clear position on Rafah.” 

Even if Netanyahu manages to keep his government together, recent days have underlined the challenges. 

The US is seeking an exchange of hostages for prisoners and a pause that would lead to the end of the war. Linked to this are efforts for eventual ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia and steps toward an independent Palestinian State.

Before meeting with Netanyahu, Blinken spoke to angry demonstrators outside his hotel seeking a return of the hostages, saying, “Bringing your loved ones home is at the heart of everything we’re trying to do. There is a very strong proposal on the table right now. Hamas needs to say yes, and needs to get this done.”

It’s increasingly unclear whether Netanyahu can accept any deal and stay in power. 

Nationalist leaders Bezalel Smotrich and Ben Gvir, who hold the key to his government’s survival, say they’ll walk out if he delays a Rafah invasion and releases hundreds of Palestinian prisoners. Israel says thousands of Hamas fighters are entrenched in Rafah.

Centrists, led by Benny Gantz, who joined the war Cabinet after the 7 October attack, argue that the government will lose its legitimacy if it doesn’t put all its efforts into getting the 130 hostages — some of whom are dead — released, and worry about Rafah later. 

Netanyahu appears to be trying to have it both ways. On Tuesday, he told a meeting of hostage families and relatives of soldiers killed in the fighting that “the idea that Israel will stop the war before achieving all its goals is out of the question. We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there — with or without a deal.”

Hamas has yet to respond to the proposal. According to an Israeli official quoted in Haaretz newspaper, it would stop fighting for some weeks, release 33 hostages, permit Gazans to return home in the northern part of the enclave and release hundreds of prisoners, some of whom have been convicted of murder. 

Israeli news site Ynet says the proposal discusses a yearlong ceasefire with steps toward a Palestinian state. 

Finance Minister Smotrich said on Tuesday the government would “lose its right to exist” if it refrained from invading Rafah and agreed to any proposal that “keeps Hamas intact”. He would be willing to “pay a price to save Israel from such existential danger”.

Ben Gvir had voted against a previous ceasefire in November that saw more than 100 Israelis and foreign nationals released from Gaza along with several hundred Palestinian prisoners.

Yair Lapid, head of the Israeli opposition, said he’d spoken to Blinken and told him that “Netanyahu has no political excuse not to go to the deal for the return of the abductees. He has a majority in the people, he has a majority in the Knesset and if necessary I will make sure he has a majority in the government.”

Lapid’s party has 24 seats in the 120-seat parliament and has said before he’d join the government for something specific like a hostage deal before seeking new elections. A party official said Netanyahu has never approached Lapid on the issue. 

Meanwhile, the Israeli army is completing preparations for an operation in Rafah, where more than a million Gazans are taking shelter. It says tens of thousands of tents are being set up north of Rafah as safe zones for civilians before any invasion. US officials, however, say they’ve seen no serious plan to protect civilians so far. 

Turkey wants to join South Africa’s UN court case against Israel

Turkey is seeking to join South Africa’s case at the United Nations’ highest court as a plaintiff accusing Israel of committing genocide in the Palestinian territory of Gaza.

“I would like to announce it for the first time that we have decided to join South Africa’s case against Israel at the International Court of Justice,” Turkish Foreign Minister Hakan Fidan said on Wednesday at a joint news conference with his Indonesian counterpart. 

South Africa filed its case at the International Court of Justice in December. The following month, the court told Israel that it must act to prevent the killing and harm to innocent Palestinians in an interim ruling that stopped short of demanding an immediate ceasefire in Gaza. 

Fidan said Turkey had spent “a while” preparing a formal application to join the case. “We will finalise the legal work and then work on what more we can do with allied countries,” he said. 

Biden faces make-or-break moment in Gaza ceasefire talks

The US president desperately needs Israel and Hamas to agree to a ceasefire, a first step toward resolving a conflict that has shaken the region and harmed his chances of reelection. 

Under a fresh proposal for a six-week fighting pause, Israeli hostages would return home, an assault on Rafah would be put on hold and aid could flood into Gaza to relieve human suffering. That could accelerate talks on a long-desired normalisation agreement with Saudi Arabia and deflate anti-Israel protests on college campuses that carry political risk for Biden.  

If negotiations collapse, Biden could face an increasingly grim scenario. Netanyahu would likely move ahead with a Rafah invasion, exacerbating the humanitarian crisis. It would also complicate progress toward Saudi-Israeli ties — killing a top foreign-policy goal — and demonstrators could escalate their tactics and disrupt Biden’s renomination at this summer’s Democratic National Convention in Chicago.

Asked on Tuesday what would happen if there was no deal, White House spokesperson John Kirby said, “There just has to be.” 

The war has become one of the biggest drags on Biden’s bid for a second term. The president’s handling of the conflict has come under attack from both sides of the political spectrum and polls show voters have lost confidence in his approach. 

The war was Biden’s worst-rated issue in a new CNN poll, with 71% of respondents saying they disapprove of how he’s handling it. That includes more than eight in 10 adults under the age of 35 — a group Biden needs to defeat Trump in November.

Rafah offensive is not justified, says UN humanitarian chief

No amount of planning or aid deliveries can justify an Israeli offensive into Rafah, the Gaza city where more than one million Palestinians are seeking refuge as the death toll from the Israel-Hamas war continues to rise, the United Nations humanitarian chief said on Tuesday.

“These improvements in bringing more aid into Gaza cannot be used to prepare for or justify a full-blown military assault on Rafah,” Under-Secretary-General Martin Griffiths said in a statement. “A ground operation in Rafah will be nothing short of a tragedy beyond words. No humanitarian plan can counter that.” 

Earlier on Tuesday, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said it was important for allies like the US to “put all possible pressure” on Israel to avoid “what would be an absolutely devastating tragedy”.

Israel ‘won’t join truce talks until Hamas responds’

Israel would consider joining ceasefire talks with Hamas only when the militant group responded to the latest internationally mediated proposal for a temporary truce and hostage release, state-run Kan News reported.

Citing an unidentified political official, Kan said the Israeli government was expecting an answer from the Iran-backed militant group on Wednesday evening. Under the latest terms for a pause in hostilities, Israeli forces had agreed to withdraw from parts of Gaza, according to Kan.   

Under the latest ceasefire proposal, displaced Palestinians who need to return to their homes in northern Gaza after being forced to take refuge in the south won’t be inspected by Israeli forces, Kan said. Only Egypt and other countries will carry out that task. 

Israel will still be allowed to “track” Palestinians returning to northern Gaza using “other tools,” Kan said, without giving more details.  

NYPD arrests more than 300 protesters in crackdown on college campuses

Dozens of New York City police officers surged on to Columbia University’s campus late on Tuesday to clear out pro-Palestinian demonstrators who had barricaded themselves in a building, while violent clashes broke out at a separate protest at UCLA in Los Angeles. 

Live television broadcasts showed police entering Columbia’s Hamilton Hall, the latest focal point of the protest, which had been occupied by demonstrators early on Tuesday. About 300 people were arrested at Columbia and in a separate operation at City College of New York, Mayor Eric Adams said on Wednesday in a media briefing.  

Columbia President Minouche Shafik said she asked police to clear all protest encampments and maintain a campus presence until at least 17 May. At around 11.40pm, Columbia personnel took down tents and removed supplies from the main encampment, the Columbia Daily Spectator reported

The police action capped two weeks of rising tensions at Columbia, punctuated by more than 100 arrests on 18 April and subsequent protests that culminated with the takeover of Hamilton Hall. The activists have condemned the Israeli military campaign in Gaza that the Hamas-run health ministry says has left more than 34,000 people dead, and are demanding the university divest from companies that are supplying weapons to Israel.

In Los Angeles, police responded to a request for help at the UCLA campus, according to an emailed statement from Deputy Mayor of Communications Zach Seid.

Clashes broke out early on Wednesday at a pro-Palestinian encampment after the university declared it unlawful, according to the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper said that a group of counter-protesters tried to tear down the barricades surrounding the protest area. Pro-Palestinian protesters later used pepper spray on those demonstrators, it said.

“The violence unfolding this evening at UCLA is absolutely abhorrent and inexcusable,” Los Angeles Mayor Karen Bass said in a post on X. “LAPD has arrived on campus.”

Protests have spread to colleges around the US, sparking recriminations and drawing in everyone from students to faculty and donors to politicians. Universities are struggling to handle the increasingly confrontational pro-Palestinian protests amid accusations that they’re not responding strongly enough to anti-Semitism on campuses. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Israel-Palestine War
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  • Robert de Vos says:

    Perhaps Hamas could simply release the hostages and ask Hezbollah to stop firing rockets and other missiles into Northern Israel as a start?

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      Or Israel can can release the prisoners sentenced without trial, stop the illegal occupation and leave the illegal settlements and allow a Palestinian state.
      The attack by Hamas happened on settlements violently taken by Israel settlers from Palestinians under the protection of the murderous IDF.
      Because we don’t take sides we still don’t condone the terror attack by Hamas on the families of the settlers but we can not deny that the attack did not happen in a vacuum.

    • Luke S says:

      This isn’t a war. Less than 2000 Israelis dead, including Oct 7 and IDF soldiers since. While the majority of residences, universities, hospitals, mosques, farms have been flattened, food and other aid held up at checkpoints, and almost 35 000 dead, most of which are women and children… with the most advanced precision weapons on the planet. It’s very clearly not about Hamas, it’s about getting rid of the people and the infrastructure they rely on. The people who were living in what is now Israel and kicked out in ’48, which is why they’re angry. Free the hostages, and everything there will be reduced to rubble. Children are literally being killed daily. That’s not a war. It’s genocide. Plus, if it’s ended now without total destruction, Netanyahu’s government will fall apart, he’ll face corruption charges, and won’t be re-elected. What would you do?

  • JP K says:

    How does this work? Hamas is expected to deal with Israel whose stated aim is their destruction (Yes, I’ve read the Hamas charter). According to Netenyahu “We will enter Rafah and we will eliminate the Hamas battalions there — with or without a deal.” Seemingly then, there is nothing that Hamas can do that will stop the Israel genocide machine because, in pursuance of Israel’s stated aims of destroying Hamas and securing the release of hostages, Palestinians will be slaughtered. But, of course, the stated aims are just a pretext (i.e. the rationale for the actions are so removed from reality that they are not believable). This is because if the conditions of occupation are not removed, destruction of Hamas will merely lead to another resistance movement (unless of course the population is utterly and permanently suppressed). Secondly, starving and attacking the population of Gaza makes no sense in terms of being able to secure the release of hostages (it’s a war crime and all hostages released were done through negotiation) nor in terms of destroying Hamas (again, a war crime and terrorism since it employs targeting of civilians to achieve political aims). The destruction of Hamas and the securing the release of hostages, then, is nothing but an obvious pretext, the real reason is about genocide, revenge and creating a deterrence. At the start real intent was clear. Gallant: “There will be no electricity, no food, no fuel, everything is closed … we’re fighting human animals”

  • dexter m says:

    7 months on, all the suffering on both sides, and the IDF are still no closer to achieving their core objective regaining “military deterrence ” that they lost on Oct 7. In fact after the spat with Iran, Israel vaunted missile shield has been shown to be outdated .

  • Johan Buys says:

    the only way Gaza and Israel can function would be if a handful of Arab nations set up and ryn Gaza (schools clinics police military etc) Elected parties should not able to look the other way on terrorism or actually be involved. Parties’ only role should be negotiating a peaceful future for two states plus reversal of settler illegal occupations.

    But then Gaza must have the normal things. Airport, harbor, rail. It is insane that residents can only buy certain things from Israeli gougers that determine price and availability from even basics such as cement and food.

    • Kenneth FAKUDE says:

      True Johan we cannot deny that the Israel state is in existence it makes them selfish to even try to pretend that Palestinians can live as stateless beggars, they even take the whole world for morons to believe everyone will swallow this cruel illegal occupation and terror.
      It only suits UK and USA Israel is their surrogate state.
      Hamas will not exist in it’s form in a free Palestinian state of pre 1948 borders.

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