QUESTION: And joining me now is Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who recently returned from a whirlwind diplomatic trip to the Middle East, which took him to Egypt, Bahrain, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia twice. Secretary Blinken, welcome back to Meet the Press.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good morning, Kristen. Good to be with you.
QUESTION: Thank you for being here on a very big Sunday. I want to start with the hostage situation. As we reported, of course, those two American hostages have been released. This morning, Hamas has come out with a statement saying they are prepared to release two more hostages. What can you tell us about that? Do you see this as a credible offer, coming from this terrorist organization?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, first, Kristen, we’ve been working on this from day one – engaged with different partners in the region, sending clear messages about the need to immediately and unconditionally release all of the hostages. And it was gratifying to see that Judith and Natalie Raanan were released yesterday. I had a chance to speak to them as well. They were – they sounded strong of mind, strong of spirit. But there remain many others, and we’re hopeful that more are released, but the bottom line is this: They need to be released, each and every one of them, now, unconditionally.
QUESTION: Do you take this word by Hamas that they are potentially prepared to release two more hostages seriously? Is the U.S. Government, for example, working with Qatar to make that happen as we speak?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, acts are what speak, not words, particularly coming from Hamas. But we’ve been engaged, as I said, with partners. One of the first things that I did after the horrific attack of October 7th – and hostages were taken – men, women, young children, elderly people – it’s extraordinary – was to talk to everyone we could who might have influence with Hamas in terms of releasing them.
In the instance of Judith and Natalie, I again want to thank the Government of Qatar for playing a very important role in getting them out and now on their way home to see their loved ones.
QUESTION: I want to ask you about their release. Can you tell us why those two were released, and why now, Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I can’t. We don’t know why Hamas chose to release Natalie and Judith first, and I use the word “first” advisedly because, again, we’re hopeful that more follow. I can’t speak to that. What I can speak to is our incessant efforts from day one to try to get people home, to try to get them out of Gaza back with their families and loved ones. That is continuing as we speak. This is something we’re engaged in virtually around the clock.
QUESTION: Do you believe that all 10 unaccounted-for Americans are being held hostage?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Kristen, we don’t know. As you said, we’ve got 10 unaccounted-for Americans. We believe that some significant number are hostages. But what’s happening is – and it just underscores the horror – Israel continues to discover, uncover people who were killed, who were slaughtered, and I use that term very advisedly – “slaughtered” – on October 7th. So what we don’t know for sure is whether some of the unaccounted-for are dead and have simply not been uncovered yet, or whether they’re hostage. But we have a pretty strong idea that some number of the 10, at least, are being held in Gaza by Hamas.
QUESTION: I want to talk to you about the ground operation in Israel. I spoke to an IDF spokesperson earlier this week who said they are not planning to change their strategy despite the fact that two hostages have now been released. I want to ask you: Does the U.S. want Israel to wait on its ground operation until more hostages can be freed?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Kristen, let’s first step back a second and put this in perspective. The attack of October 7th, the slaughtering of men, women, children, the rocketing of Israel that continues to this day – no country – no country – could accept that. And so Israel has not only the right, as we’ve said, but the obligation to defend itself. We’re not in the business of second-guessing what they’re doing. We are talking to them on a regular basis about how they do it. It’s vitally important that every measure be taken to protect civilians, that humanitarian assistance gets in to people who are caught in this crossfire of Hamas’s making. And, of course, both of us want to make sure that the many hostages who’ve been taken come home, and that’s why we’re working on it, as I said, virtually every minute of the day.
But these are decisions that Israel has to make. We can give our best advice, our best judgment, again, about how they do it and also how best to achieve the results that they’re seeking.
QUESTION: I want to try to get some clarity from you about the water situation in Gaza. As you know, Israel decided to cut off water to Gaza, along with the fuel, electricity that powers the water and sewage plants in the territory. That has exposed residents to all sorts of potential contaminated water and sickness as well. What was the strategy behind that, and can you clarify? Has any of the water been restored, Mr. Secretary?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So this is something that we’ve also been working on from – virtually from the beginning. When I was in Israel and throughout the region, as you mentioned a little while ago, one of the things that I was very focused on was making sure that people in Gaza, innocent people who are caught in this through no fault of their own, in this crossfire of Hamas’s making, get the assistance they need – whether it’s food, whether it’s medicine, whether it’s water. And so we were able to —
QUESTION: Has any of it been restored, Mr. Secretary, just to be clear?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So in short, yes.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: In short, yes. Two things.
First, there are multiple pipelines. Israel turned back on one of the pipelines about six or seven days ago, so that was an important step. There are a couple of other pipelines that we’d like to see restored. In addition, water is coming in. We – as you mentioned, we had the first 20 trucks of assistance come in. That includes water. We’re getting more that we hope will be moving as early as today. In fact, we were just told that some of the convoys have started to move again and are moving as we speak.
At the same time, there are other things that need to happen. There are desalination plants that need to be powered in order to make sure that the water people are drinking is clean. We do have concerns about the spread of disease as a result of people drinking dirty water. All of these things are very much part of what we’re doing, again, every day to try to make sure that Palestinians have the assistance they need. We appointed a very senior diplomat, David Satterfield, to be on the ground every day working to make sure that the humanitarian aid that people need is getting there. And this is a work in progress. It’s something we’re at all the time.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, there’s been a lot of discussion about what happens after the war. Can you tell us what Israel’s strategy is after your meeting with Prime Minister Netanyahu? Who will govern Gaza once the war is over?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: One thing’s for sure: Israel cannot go back to the status quo. And again, no country would be able to accept that. No country would want to go back —
QUESTION: But is there a clear strategy, Mr. Secretary? Is it clear who’s going to govern Gaza once this war is over?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think we know two things. We can’t go back to the status quo. They can’t go back to the status quo with Hamas being in a position, in terms of its governance of Gaza, to repeat what it did. At the same time, what I’ve heard from the Israelis is absolutely no intent, no desire, to be running Gaza themselves. They moved out of Gaza unilaterally, unconditionally, a couple of decades ago.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: But they can’t be in a position where they’re constantly at the threat of the most horrific terrorist attacks coming from Gaza. So something needs to be found that ensures that Hamas can’t do this again, but that also doesn’t revert to Israeli governance of Gaza, which they do not want and do not intend to do. There are different – there are different ideas out there about what could follow, but all of that, I think needs, to be worked. And it’s something that needs to be worked even as Israel is dealing with the current threat.
QUESTION: Yeah. As I had mentioned earlier, we have seen an uptick in attacks against U.S. military facilities, against troops around the region. Overnight, the Pentagon announced it was actually increasing its force posture in the region. How concerned are you about Iran trying to escalate this war?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We are concerned. In fact, we expect that there’s a likelihood of escalation – escalation by Iranian proxies directed against our forces, directed against our personnel. We are taking steps to make sure that we can effectively defend our people and respond decisively if we need to. This is not what we want, not what we’re looking for. We don’t want escalation.
QUESTION: Is – is —
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We don’t want to see a second or third front develop. We don’t want to see our forces or our personnel come under fire. But if that happens, we’re ready for it.
QUESTION: Is the U.S. opposed to a preemptive strike by Israel, as has been discussed by some Israeli officials?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The Israelis have been very clear with us, and we share this view: No one wants a second or third front, including when it comes to Lebanon – northern Israel, southern Lebanon. That’s not in anyone’s interest, and that’s exactly why we’ve sent a very strong message to try to deter Hizballah, deter Iran more directly, from opening up a second front. You’ve heard the President speak to this very clearly. He has put the countries and non-state actors on warning: don’t take advantage of the situation. We’ve also deployed very significant assets to the region, two aircraft carrier battle groups, not to provoke but to deter, to make clear that, if anyone tries to do anything, we’re there. So my expectation is that, again, coming from us, coming from Israel, no one is looking for that second front.
QUESTION: And I just finally, with the few seconds we have left here, want to ask you about the more than hundred billion dollars in aid that President Biden is requesting from Congress, currently in a state of paralysis without a speaker of the House. How can the U.S. deliver on that aid if you can’t get it through the House, where there are also deep divisions about potentially linking aid to Israel and Ukraine?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We need to see the continuation of strong bipartisan support for both Ukraine and for Israel. We have two friends who are under attack in different ways, but you heard the President speak very powerfully, very eloquently to this the other night, speaking to the American people. We know that if we let would-be aggressors act with impunity – whether it’s a state like Russia, whether it’s terrorists like Hamas – we open a Pandora’s box for other aggressors around the world to try to get away with the same thing.
So we have to stand strongly with our friends; we have to stand strongly with both Ukraine and with Israel. We have to be looking out for the people of Gaza, who were caught in this crossfire. The supplemental budget request, the money the President asked Congress for, would do just that. It gives us the assistance that Ukraine needs, that Israel needs, and also that the people of Gaza needs with a lot of humanitarian aid. So we need Congress and we need it to move forward on the strong bipartisan basis we’ve already seen when it comes to supporting both Ukraine and Israel and, I hope, the people of Gaza.
QUESTION: All right. Secretary Blinken, thank you very much for your time this morning. We really appreciate it.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Kristen.