QUESTION: Secretary of State Antony Blinken, welcome. Thank you very much for talking to us today.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Hi. Good to be with you.
QUESTION: This isn’t – you’re of course not a stranger to the region. This is far from being your first time here, but it’s the first time as Secretary of State. And I wanted to begin by asking you about the ceasefire. I mean, you seem to be in this cycle of every couple of years having a short but devastating war between Israel and Hamas, and of course, the U.S. played a constructive role in bringing about a ceasefire.
I’m going to ask just part of that again. The U.S. played a constructive role in bringing about a ceasefire, but many Israelis believe that this is just a countdown to the next conflict. What can be done? What is the way out?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think we do have to try to break the cycle of violence, because if we don’t it will repeat itself. And maybe it’s next month, maybe it’s next year, maybe it’s in five years, but I don’t think that’s in anyone’s interests. It’s not in the interests of Israelis. It’s not in the interests of Palestinians. It’s not in the interests of the broader region.
So I think we have to all try to work on a few things. First, of course, we need to deal with the urgent situation in Gaza itself – humanitarian assistance, water, electricity, sanitation – to respond to the immediate needs. We need to work together to try and rebuild and create some prospects for a better life for people who live in Gaza. But then I think it’s really incumbent on both sides to try to do something to take away some of the things that can spark the cycle of violence. And ultimately, what that really comes down to is, at least in our judgment, doing everything possible to make sure that Israelis and Palestinians alike have in their lives equal measures of security, of opportunity, of dignity. And that manifests itself in many different ways, but I think at heart, that’s what needs to happen. And so we spent some time today talking to our allies here in Israel about how that might go forward and did the same with the Palestinians.
QUESTION: Regarding the U.S.’s military assistance to Israel, during this operation in Gaza we heard mounting opposition from progressive lawmakers to the arms deal with Israel and trying to block it. Is there any chance that the administration will reconsider the deal to supply Israel with precision-guided weapons?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: President Biden has been absolutely clear, and he’s been clear on more than one occasion: We are committed to Israel’s security, period. We will make sure that Israel has the means to defend itself. And particularly when we have something like what the Israelis experienced in the last couple of weeks, attacks from a terrorist group indiscriminately targeting civilians, we want to make sure that Israel has the means to deal with that.
At the same time, as a democracy, I think Israel has an extra burden, and we owe the same thing to make sure that when it is defending itself, defending its citizens, it is doing everything it possibly can to avoid civilian casualties, to minimize the harm that is done to those who can get caught in the crossfire.
QUESTION: Do you believe that Israel did in this case?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I think Israel took very significant steps to do that, but we also know that on both sides men, women, and especially children were lost, and I think that’s deeply painful, and it’s a reminder that we throw around numbers, statistics, but these statistics, these numbers can’t hide the fact that we’re talking about real human beings. And that’s important because I think it just reminds us about the need to make sure that we’re doing everything we can to avoid a repetition.
QUESTION: Taking the opportunity to talk about the bigger picture, the relationship between Israel and Palestinians, will there be an attempt to reignite the Israel-Palestinian peace process? You spoke in your confirmation hearings saying that a Palestinian state is realistically – it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward. Do you still think that?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, two things. I think a lot of work needs to be redone to try to rebuild some confidence, to try to rebuild some trust, to try to build some conditions and an environment in which it might be possible to re-engage in a meaningful way on two states. But equally important, we continue to believe very strongly that a two-state solution is not just the best way, but probably the only way to really assure that going forward, Israel has a future as a secure Jewish and democratic state, and the Palestinians have a state to which they’re entitled.
So I think we want to get to that. But right now, the focus is on dealing with the aftermath, the recent violence, trying to build on the ceasefire, address the immediate needs and concerns, and then see if over time the conditions are such that there’s a better environment for trying to pursue a two-state solution.
QUESTION: I want to move on to Iran. Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said last Thursday that his country’s close to reaching a deal. He said we have taken a big step and an agreement in principle has been achieved. Is that true? How close is the deal?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, I think that would be news to us, because we’re now, I think, in the fifth rounds of talks in Vienna. These are – as I think you know – indirect talks. We haven’t been talking directly to the Iranians. It’s been through the European Union and our other partners. I think we’ve clarified increasingly what each side would need to do to come back into compliance with the JCPOA, but it remains an unanswered question whether Iran is actually prepared to do what it needs to do to come back into compliance. The jury is still out on that.
QUESTION: Israeli prime minister has been quite clear in his opposition to the Iran deal. Today during your joint statement, he said, “I hope the U.S. [does] not [return] to the old JCPOA.” So let me ask you, Mr. Secretary, are the plans indeed to return to the same terms as the JCPOA or additional safeguards, for example to ensure that Iran – Iran’s compliance?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The United States and Israel are absolutely united in the proposition that Iran can never acquire a nuclear weapon. We are joined in that goal and in that commitment. It’s also no secret that over time we’ve had differences over the best way to get there, to make sure that Iran does not get a weapon. From our perspective, the JCPOA did exactly what it set out to accomplish, which was to cut off all of the pathways that Iran had to producing fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order. And our experts verified that it was working, international experts verified that it was working, and it had the most intrusive inspections regime of any arms control agreement ever achieved. And the result was that when the agreement was in force, Iran, had it decided to try to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon, would have required at least a year to do so, which would have been plenty of time to see it and, if necessary, to do something about it.
But here’s what happened since. Now that we’re out of the deal, Iran has started to ignore the constrains that the deal imposed. And it is closer and closer and closer to being able to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon on very short order. And so far from getting less dangerous without the deal, it’s gotten more dangerous. And I think there’s a certain amount of urgency to try to put Iran back into the nuclear box that the deal constructed.
So having said that, if – what we’ve said along is if we succeed in doing that, if Iran returns to compliance with the deal, we would do the same. We would also seek to make it, as we say, longer and stronger. And we’d also work hard to engage the other issues where Iran is a very dangerous and problematic actor for us and for Israel – destabilizing activities in the region, proliferation of weapons, support for terrorist groups, et cetera. All of those things —
QUESTION: So when you say “longer” does that mean the sunset clause is extended, for example? It won’t end in 2031?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Yeah, I think this is important. Of course, with the passage of time the different timelines have gotten shorter. Having said that, the two most important timelines – the level at which Iran can enrich, 3.67 percent, the limits on the stockpile of enriched uranium to 300 kilograms – those don’t expire until 2030. So if Iran were to come back into compliance, we would also have some time to seek to extend those deadlines and others.
QUESTION: Sir, I think you spoke in your acceptance speech – you spoke about your stepfather Samuel being a Holocaust survivor. I think that resonated with many Israelis. And I wanted to ask you: When we see this rise in anti-Semitic incidents in the U.S., could you tell us what that makes you feel not only on the national level as the Secretary of State, but on a personal level?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: It’s profoundly, profoundly disturbing. And we have seen, not just in the last week although we’ve seen – well, actually, we have seen a very disturbing eruption of anti-Semitic incidents. But the truth of the matter is anti-Semitism’s been on the rise in the United States and around the world for the last several years. And we know this from history. It’s the canary in the coal mine because it’s almost inevitable that when you see anti-Semitism erupt and emerge, hatred directed at other groups almost is sure to follow. And we’re seeing that in the United States now with hatred directed, for example, at Asian Americans.
And so when I see that I feel it both on a very personal level, but I also see it as a warning sign, a signal that there are – things are happening that we have to address. Because if it’s allowed to fester, if it’s allowed to grow, if it’s allowed to go even further with impunity, you wind up having a conflagration that affects a lot of people. So we’re taking this very, very seriously. I think you heard President Biden’s speech just yesterday – the most recent incidents we’ve seen in the United States, he called them despicable. And we’re determined to deal with that and put it to an end.
QUESTION: The Israeli-Palestinian conflict obviously has been stoking anti-Semitic violence in Europe for years. When we see, for example, known figures on the far left in the United States referring to Israel as an apartheid state, are you worried that this rhetoric could lead to more anti-Semitic incidents, instead of calming things down?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: One of the – one of the great things about my job right now as Secretary of State is I don’t do politics, I just focus on policy.
QUESTION: So I’m not going to ask you anything about Israeli politics either. Don’t worry about it.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: No, no – no Israeli politics, no American politics. But look, I think we all have to be attentive. And whether – when we see anti-Semitism emerge anywhere, whether it’s in the United States, whether it’s in this part of the world, whether it’s anywhere in the world, we have to take it seriously, we have to address it, we have to deal with it.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, my final question: President Biden, of course, has been here many times. His famous story about as a young senator meeting Golda Meir, he’s been here as a senator and as a vice president. Can you let us in on when his first visit as President will be to Israel?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I don’t have the time, I don’t have the date, but I can tell you I know that he very much looks forward to coming back. And you’re right, he’s been engaged here for – ever since Golda Meir. And as he’s often said, he’s worked with every Israeli prime minister since Golda Meir. This is something that he feels deeply: the relationship with Israel, the commitment to Israel’s security. That’s something that’s very deeply rooted in him. And of course, as a true friend of Israel’s, he’s also fully prepared to say when he might disagree with something.
But that’s exactly the nature of our relationship, of our alliance, of our partnership. We speak very directly, very frankly to each other, and ultimately we try to reason through problems together, right? That was the nature of the conversations that I had today with the prime minister, with the foreign minister, with the defense minister, and so many others. And I suspect that when the President does come here, he’ll pursue a long, longstanding conversation that he’s had going back a few years.
QUESTION: Well, you still have a long schedule in front of you, so thank you so much, Mr. Secretary, for talking to us today. We really appreciate it. Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Great to be with you. Thanks for having me.