Secretary Antony J. Blinken at a Press Availability
Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State
David Citadel Hotel
May 25, 2021
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Good evening, everyone. Ah, must be a slow night. (Laughter.) Good to see you all.
We had, as those of you who've been along with us all day know, a fairly busy and certainly very productive day in Jerusalem and Ramallah since arriving this morning. I traveled here at the request of President Biden, who asked me to come to pursue four basic objectives. First, to demonstrate the commitment of the United States to Israel's security. Second, to start to work toward greater stability and reduce tensions in the West Bank and Jerusalem. Third, to support urgent humanitarian and reconstruction assistance for Gaza to benefit the Palestinian people. And fourth, to continue to rebuild our relationship with the Palestinian people and the Palestinian Authority.
Those objectives shaped all of the meetings that I held today with elected leaders on both sides, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, Foreign Minister Ashkenazi, Defense Minister Gantz here in Jerusalem, and President Abbas and Prime Minister Shtayyeh in the West Bank. They'll drive my discussions this evening with Knesset opposition leader Lapid and tomorrow morning with President Rivlin.
Across the meetings that I've had so far, I've heard a shared recognition from all sides that steps need to be taken, work needs to be done, to address the underlying conditions that helped fuel this latest conflict. The ceasefire creates space to begin to take those steps. Attending to the urgent humanitarian needs of Palestinians in Gaza and helping rebuild is a key starting point. The United States is committed to rallying international support to that effort and doing our part. That's why we announced additional assistance for the Palestinian people today.
But we all know that is not enough. As President Biden has said, we believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely; to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity, and democracy; to be treated with dignity. Earlier today, I had a chance to meet with two of the State Department's locally employed staff: an Israeli whose family lives near the Gaza separation wall and a Palestinian who lives in Gaza. Both of them recounted how the violence in recent weeks repeatedly forced them and their families to take cover. Both feared they would be killed. For too many innocent Israelis and Palestinians, lives lost in the conflict and loved ones suffering immeasurably as a result.
But the stories of those staff members remind us that the survivors on both sides also walk away scarred, none as much as children. That's another reason we have to break the cycle of violence. Leaders on both sides will need to chart a better course, starting by making real improvements in the lives of people in Israel, Gaza, and the West Bank. I'm convinced that if they do, they will find willing partners in both Israeli and Palestinian civil society. That's one of the messages I took away from a meeting earlier today with Palestinian civil society leaders.
Tomorrow, I've got a chance to travel to Egypt and also to Jordan. As you know, Egypt played a critical role in helping to broker the ceasefire, and Jordan has long been a voice for peace and stability in the region. We're grateful for their continued engagement, and I look forward to the meetings there tomorrow.
But with that, I'm happy to take some questions.
MR PRICE: We'll start with Lara Jakes, New York Times.
QUESTION: Good evening, Secretary Blinken. Hello.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Where are you, Lara? Oh, there you are.
QUESTION: I think some of my colleagues will ask you some of the nitty-gritty questions of the day. I wanted to kind of take a step back, if I could. Reasserting America's role in the world has been one of the themes of your foreign policy. Can you describe how that took shape over the last three weeks in this part of the Middle East, where the United States had a very active role in promoting Israeli interests during the Trump administration but had shut down relations with Palestinian officials? And so what struck you in what you heard today from both sides?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, a few things. First, I think that the violence that we've seen in recent weeks is a reminder of the need to try to make genuine progress toward peacefully resolving the conflict that continues to divide Israelis and Palestinians.
In terms of U.S. reengagement, U.S. leadership, I think what you saw was President Biden leading, very determined, very intensive, but also behind-the-scenes diplomacy to do the first thing that needed to be done, which was to end the violence, to get the ceasefire. And with a lot of hard work, with the efforts of others, including the Egyptians, we were able to do that. But that was just the starting point for something that I just described.
It's now I think incumbent on us to work with our partners here and work with others, as I said, to address the urgent needs in Gaza itself and the people in Gaza, to then try to build something more positive on that, and also to address some of the underlying causes that could, if not addressed, spark another cycle of violence.
So I think we found in working on this intensely, quietly but resolutely, that America's words matter, America's actions matter, and America's engagement matters. I'm glad that we were able to make – help make a difference in getting to the ceasefire. And I hope and expect that we can continue to make a difference in moving beyond it in trying to build something more positive. So that's what I take away from at least the last couple of weeks.
MR PRICE: We'll go to Gili Cohen from KAN.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for that. Prime Minister Netanyahu has been pretty vocal in his objection to the JCPOA. Did those remarks encourage or deter the U.S. from returning to the JCPOA? And speaking of the Iran deal, is it a matter of weeks before the U.S. will return to the agreement?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. Let's start with this. The fact is the United States and Israel are absolutely united in the proposition that Iran must never be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon. We share exactly the same goal. It's no secret that we sometimes have our differences with regard to the best way to achieve that goal, and that's what allies and partners do. We work together, try to find the best way to achieve a common objective. What we have done very, very resolutely, as we've tried to see whether a return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA is possible, is that we have regularly before, during, and after all of our engagements – indirect engagements with the Iranians in Vienna – kept our partners here in Israel informed, as well as others who are concerned. And that's not going to stop.
Let me add this: The JCPOA I think accomplished something very important, and that is it cut off all of Iran's pathways to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order. And it pushed the so-called breakout time, the amount of time it would take Iran to develop that material for a nuclear weapon, to beyond a year. It was the most heavily monitored and verified agreement in the history of arms control. Our experts said that Iran was abiding by its commitments under the agreement. So did international experts. And as a result, the challenge that both the United States and Israel were focused on, the prospect of Iran getting to the point where it could have a – fissile material for a nuclear weapon or produce it on very short order, we took that off of the – off the field. And I think that was an important development.
What have we seen since we pulled out of the agreement? Well, Iran has stopped abiding by some of the critical constraints in the agreement, and as a result, it is far closer today to the ability to produce fissile material for a nuclear weapon on short order than it was even before the deal was reached, and certainly during the pendency of the deal itself. And so I think that only underscores the importance and, indeed, urgency in seeing if we can get Iran back into compliance with the agreement, to put Iran back in the nuclear box that the deal constructed. The alternative is an Iran that is getting closer and closer – if it continues to do what it's doing, in spinning more and more sophisticated centrifuges and building up stockpiles of enriched uranium – getting closer and closer to having a very, very short breakout time, which is in – not in our interest, not in Israel's interest, not in anyone's interest.
So that's why we're working to see if we can get back into mutual compliance. We've said all along that that would be a first step, that we also would seek to try to make the agreement longer and stronger, and also to deal with other issues and other challenges posed by Iran, to include its support for terrorism, its support for destabilizing proxy groups in countries throughout the region, its proliferation. All of these things we're determined to engage, but the first thing we're trying to achieve is to, as I said, put the nuclear problem back into the box that we constructed and that was strong, solid, and doing what we needed to do.
Now, we're engaged or about to engage in I think the fifth round of discussions in Vienna, and we still don't know the answer to the most important question, which is whether Iran is actually willing and able to make the decisions it needs to make to come back into full compliance. The jury is still out, and we will see whether or not Iran makes that decision.
MR PRICE: Nick Wadhams.
QUESTION: Thanks. Mr. Secretary, a few of those nitty-gritty questions for you: Did President Abbas say anything to you about reopening a Palestinian Authority representative office in the U.S.? Can you give us a timeframe on when you would reopen the consulate and bring Michael Ratney here?
And then if I could just press you a little bit on the Iran issue, understanding everything you've laid out to us, did you offer any assurances to Prime Minister Netanyahu? His comments to us essentially showed that he disagreed with everything you just said. He thinks that the deal essentially legitimizes Iran getting a nuclear weapon. So was there anything you asked of him or offered him on the JCPOA to try to reassure him? Thanks.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you. So on the question of an office in Washington, that did not come up today. With regard to our consulate, we're just beginning the process. I can't give you a timeline on how long that will take. But I can tell you that it's, I think, important to have that platform to be able to more effectively engage not just the Palestinian Authority, but Palestinians from different walks of life, the NGO community, the business community, and others. And so we look forward to doing that, but I can't put a timeline on it.
And coming back to Iran, no, I think the most important thing when it comes to this is what we committed to do from day one of this administration. We said all along that if there was an opportunity, we would seek to return to mutual compliance with the JCPOA, but we also said that from day one, we would be keeping our closest allies and closest partners fully and contemporaneously informed of what we were doing and where we were going. And that's what we've done and that's what we'll continue to do. That is how you keep faith with your partners and allies on something that, of course, is of great consequence to Israel. We understand that.
And again, we have the same objective, and let's see where things go in the next few weeks. But I can again tell you that we are fully, fully engaged with our partners here in at least making sure that they're fully informed of what we're doing.
MR PRICE: We'll turn to Hikmet Yosef from PalSawa.
QUESTION: (In Arabic.)
MR PRICE: Please, go ahead.
QUESTION: (Via interpreter) Good afternoon.
INTERPRETER: Okay. So his question was: "The U.S. administration said that it's going to do the reconstruction of Gaza through the United Nations. Is this considered an implicit, direct, or indirect recognition of Hamas that is taking over – that is the taken-over authority in Gaza? And – or is there a plan for Washington to deal with Hamas directly or indirectly?"
And he's asking also: "Is the negotiation – will be resumed between the PA and Israel after the ceasefire?" Thank you.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you very much for your question. Look, if we do this right, reconstruction and then – and relief for the people of Gaza, far from empowering Hamas, I think has the potential to undermine it. I say that because Hamas thrives, unfortunately, on despair, on misery, on desperation, on a lack of opportunity. In fact, it's a movement that has thrived on a vacuum of opportunity. And what reconstruction and relief need to do is not just answer the immediate needs – and those needs are significant and they're urgent, whether it's water, whether it's sanitation, whether it's electricity – but they need to offer a genuine prospect for opportunity, for progress, for material improvement in people's lives. And our goal is to give the Palestinian people, including those in Gaza, a renewed sense of confidence, of optimism, of real opportunity.
And if we succeed – and by the way, it's not just us, it's not just the UN. It's the Palestinian Authority that needs to be fully engaged, Israel needs to fully engage, other partners need to fully engage. But in my judgment, at least, if we're able to do that all together, then Hamas's foothold in Gaza will slip, and we know that and I think that Hamas knows that.
MR PRICE: We'll take one final question from Andrea Mitchell.
QUESTION: Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary. Did you get any commitments from Prime Minister Netanyahu to not evict Palestinians from East Jerusalem neighborhoods and to work with the Palestinian Authority and other Palestinians in order to avoid any spark that could break the ceasefire? And did you get any assurances from the Palestinian Authority today that they could have any influence over Gaza? Thank you very much.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, Andrea. So first, as – let me take a step back for a minute, because we're focused right now on responding to, as I said, the urgent needs that exist in Gaza on a humanitarian basis, the urgent needs for rebuilding and reconstruction, and then looking to see actions on the part of both Israelis and Palestinians that will take down tension, and try to remove or minimize some of the potential catalysts for a renewed cycle of violence, and, building on that, try to – in very practical and material ways, start to improve people's lives and add a real sense of dignity and hope.
If that happens – and that will take some time – that may, I think, produce a better environment in which ultimately there's a possibility of resuming the effort to achieve a two-state solution, which we continue to believe is the only way to truly assure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, and of course, to give the Palestinians the state that they're entitled to.
I say all that because any steps that either side takes that either risk sparking violence or – over time – and ultimately undermine the prospect for returning to the pursuit of two states, we oppose. And that includes settlement activity, it includes demolitions, it includes evictions, it includes incitement to violence, it includes payment to terrorists. All of those things would, I think, on the one hand potentially be catalysts for renewed tension and potentially violence, and certainly undermine the prospects of achieving two states. And that's something that we've been very clear about in our conversations with Israelis and Palestinians alike.
QUESTION: But did you get any commitment today?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: I'll let the – I'll let our partners speak for themselves.
MR PRICE: Thank you very much, everybody.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thank you.
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