Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken on Monday was interviewed by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer and set the record straight on everything that’s been worrying pro-Israel, right-wing folks since November 3, 2020. This reporter’s overall impression of the secretary’s Mid-East policy was: 80% Obama, minus the delusions of an Arab Spring, 20% leftover common sense from Biden’s days as chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, and an alarming zero Trump. This was clear as the desert air in Blitzer’s and Blinken discussion of Iran:
Blitzer: You’re facing a stalemate apparently when it comes to Iran, the Iran nuclear deal. Iran’s ayatollah says the US needs to lift sanctions before it returns to the deal. President Biden says he won’t lift sanctions first. So what happens now?
Secretary Blinken: Well, look, the President’s been very clear about this. If Iran returns to compliance with its obligations under the nuclear agreement, we would do the same thing, and then we would work with our allies and partners to try to build a longer and stronger agreement, and also bring in some of these other issues, like Iran’s missile program, like its destabilizing actions in the region that need to be addressed as well.
Note the timeline: first Iran puts away the centrifuges it took out of the mothballs, a 2015 normalcy is returned, presumably the sanctions are removed, and then the US seeks to renegotiate the deal, with the aim of getting Iran to stop being a subversive force in the region. Then Blinken, offering no clue as to how he would make Iran play nice, glides smoothly to pinning the whole thing on Trump’s policies:
Secretary Blinken: The problem we face now, Wolf, is that in recent months Iran has lifted one restraint after another that was – they were being held in check by the agreement. We got out of the agreement, Iran started to lift the various restraints in the agreement, and the result is they are closer than they’ve been to having the capacity on short order to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon. The agreement had pushed that past a year. According to public reports now, it’s down to three or four months and heading in the wrong direction.
So the first thing that’s so critical is for Iran to come back into compliance with its obligations. They’re a ways from that. But if they do that, the path of diplomacy is there, and we’re willing to walk it.
It’s like the summer of 2015 all over again: diplomacy is the key to getting Iran to behave like a member of the civilized world, and should they disappoint us and persist in being the ruthless Shiite cult spreading violence everywhere, well, we’ll just use even more diplomacy.
Bloomberg reported Tuesday morning, based on a confidential United Nations report, that Iran and North Korea cooperated on long-range missile development projects last year. North Korea and Iran have been collaborating for decades on developing clandestine weapons systems, and now the UN independent panel of experts monitoring sanctions on North Korea received information showing Iran’s Shahid Haj Ali Movahed Research Center received “support and assistance” from North Korean missile specialists for a space launch vehicle. North Korea has also been involved in shipments of unknown materials to Iran.
Crank up the diplomacy, secretary Blinken?
On to the many other ways the Biden administration is planning to make the Middle east even better.
Blitzer: Let’s get to some other sensitive issues. So President Biden is ending US military support for Saudi and Emirati offensive operations in Yemen, pausing arms sales to those countries. Does President Biden intend to substantially change the US-Saudi relationship?
Secretary Blinken: Well, first, on Yemen itself, Wolf, three things are critical. One, we are ending our support for the military campaign led by Saudi Arabia in Yemen. Second, as we are doing that we are also deeply committed to the defense of Saudi Arabia, aggression directed at it from the Houthis. So those two points are very critical. The third point, though, is equally important. Even as we are getting out of supporting the military campaign, we are leaning into playing a leading role and an active role in the diplomacy to try to actually end the war.
You knew he was going there, admit it. After all, if diplomacy is the magic wand for making Iran comply with international laws, it should certainly work on Iran’s proxy militia, the Houthis, whose reign of terror has ruled Yemen since 2014. But we have solutions!
Secretary Blinken: The President, through the State Department, appointed a senior special envoy to deal with Yemen, and he’s now engaged and acting. We need to lean into this. This is by most accounts the worst humanitarian crisis in the world and that’s saying something right now – millions of people living in a very, very desperate situation. Ending the war is the critical thing to actually improving their lot and their situation.
And it’s back to Trump, and, naturally, the US best ally we love to hate, Israel:
Blitzer: A State Department spokesperson has given the Trump administration credit for what’s called the Abraham Accords, the normalization deals that Israel worked on thanks to the Trump administration, with the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan, but at the same time, you’re saying it can’t be a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace. So how exactly are you going to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?
It’s fascinating, by the way, how both Blitzer, and then Blinken, are so entrenched inside the box, that to them the possibility that the Abraham Accords might do away with the need for an enforced/negotiated “Israeli-Palestinian peace” does not even exist. It’s like a man who discovered a way to walk on water and still shows up for his swimming lessons. There’s no need for this “peace,” there’s a dire need for Arab prosperity in both the PA and the Gaza Strip. The “peace process” empowers the ruthless gangsters that rule both areas, while prosperity empowers the people. And there’s clear evidence of a great change of heart across the region regarding Israel, including within the “Palestinian” enclaves. Why mess with it? Why bring things back to the stalemate of 2015? Because it’s the only thing they know.
Secretary Blinken: Well, first, Wolf, yes, we applauded the Abraham Accords. This is an important step forward. Whenever we see Israel and its neighbors normalizing relations, improving relations, that’s good for Israel, it’s good for the other countries in question, it’s good for overall peace and security, and I think it offers new prospects to people throughout the region through travel, through trade, through other work that they can do together to actually materially improve their lives. So that’s a good thing.
A begrudged compliment to the previous administration whose name shall not be mentioned done with, now we can get back to the real message. Note how the two-state solution is intertwined here with Blitzer’s hammering the fact that Biden and Netanyahu have not yet spoken to each other since the inauguration.
Secretary Blinken: But as you said rightly, that doesn’t mean that the challenges of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians go away. They don’t. They’re still there. They’re not going to miraculously disappear. And so we need to engage on that. But in the first instance, the parties in question need to engage on that.
Look, the hard truth is we are a long way I think from seeing peace break out and seeing a final resolution of the problems between Israel and the Palestinians and the creation of a Palestinian state. In the first instance now, it’s do no harm. We’re looking to make sure that neither side takes unilateral actions that make the prospects for moving toward peace and a resolution even more challenging than they already are. And then hopefully we’ll see both sides take steps that create a better environment in which actual negotiations can take place.
Blitzer: I know that you, the Biden administration still supports what’s called a two-state solution —
Secretary Blinken: That’s right.
Blitzer: …But I understand that President Biden still hasn’t even spoken with Prime Minister Netanyahu; is that right?
Secretary Blinken: Well, they spoke actually during the transition. I think one of the first calls that the President had was with the prime minister. I’ve talked to my Israeli counterparts on multiple occasions already. And you’re exactly right about the two-state solution: the President strongly supports it. It is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and the only way to give the Palestinians a state to which they’re entitled.
Blitzer: But is there a reason as President he still hasn’t spoken with Netanyahu? He’s spoken with so many other world leaders.
Secretary Blinken: Oh, I’m sure that they’ll have occasion to speak in the near future.
But we know that at this point, three weeks after the new administration has kicked off, the fact that the president and the prime minister have not spoken betrays a strategy on the part of the White House. It ain’t Bibi. Also, isn’t it touching how the Secretary of State is concerned about Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state? Could we express here that we, too, are concerned about America’s future as a democratic country? Would you like us to send a negotiating team to make peace between Antifa and the Proud Boys?
Blitzer: You’ve said the United States will keep the US embassy in Jerusalem. It used to be in Tel Aviv. Do you regard Jerusalem as Israel’s capital?
Secretary Blinken: I do, yes. And more importantly, we do.
Blitzer: As part of an Israeli-Palestinian agreement, would you support a Palestine having its capital in East Jerusalem?
Secretary Blinken: Look, what we have to see happen is for the parties to get together directly and negotiate these so-called final status issues. That’s the objective. And as I said, we’re unfortunately a ways away from that at this point in time.
So, for the time being, we can expect that the break in the peace process that began in the sunset year of the Obama administration will continue into the first few years of the Biden administration. Blinken—and Biden know better than to throw themselves into a no-win situation, which the two-state solution definitely has been for five or six years. They have far bigger chickens to fry right now. And the same goes for the Israeli sovereignty on the Golan heights. Blinken did not acknowledge Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty, and even put an end-condition to it, but he did not indicate a burning desire to do anything about it, for now:
Blitzer: The Trump administration, as you know, also recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria back in 1967. Will your administration, the Biden administration, continue to see the Golan Heights as part of Israel?
Secretary Blinken: Look, leaving aside the legalities of that question, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security. As long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself – all of these pose a significant security threat to Israel, and as a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation I think remains of real importance to Israel’s security. Legal questions are something else. And over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we’d look at. But we are nowhere near as that.
In conclusion: despite the alarming headline of this report, Biden and Blinken are probably better for Israel and the Middle East than Obama and John Kerry, simply because they’re too busy with other things, and are not likely to pick up fights they know they can’t win right now, which is a double-edged sword: it means they’ll hopefully leave Israel alone — for the time being, but it also means they’ll be absolutely useless regarding Iran.