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Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Dana Bash of CNN’s State of the Union


QUESTION:  Joining me now is the U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  Thank you so much for joining me; I really appreciate it.  First, what can you tell us about what’s going on on the ground in Israel and in Gaza right now, and how worried are you about how rapidly and how widely this could escalate?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, Dana, the first thing to say is this:  This is the worst attack on Israel since the Yom Kippur War in 1973 – 50 years ago.  But there’s a big difference.  That was a conventional war between countries, between armies.  This, a massive terrorist attack on Israeli civilians – indiscriminate firing of rockets against civilians, thousands of rockets; men and women and children dragged across the border into Gaza, including a Holocaust survivor in a wheelchair; people gunned down in the streets, civilians.  So, you can imagine the impact this is having on Israel, and it should be something that revolts the entire world.

Right now, what we’re seeing is relative calm throughout most of Israel but intense fighting continuing to go on in the Gaza area.  We immediately reached out – President Biden reached out to Prime Minister Netanyahu, spoke to him on the phone early yesterday.  I spoke to the Israeli President Herzog, to the Foreign Minister Eli Cohen.  We’ve been on the phones throughout our government over the last 24 hours, engaging everyone in the region and well beyond —

QUESTION:  Yeah.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  — both to make sure that there is support for Israel and that every country is using every effort to pull Hamas back and to prevent this from escalating.

QUESTION:  Well, how concerned are you about that last point that you made, that this will escalate beyond what’s happening in Israel and in Gaza?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, our first focus is to make sure that Israel has what it needs to deal with the situation in Gaza, to deal with the some-thousand militants who came into Israel – again, attacking Israeli civilians in their homes, in their towns.  They, as of now, seem to have been pushed back for the most part into Gaza, but we want to make sure that Israel has what it needs.

At the same time, President Biden was very clear in sending a message to anyone in any other area who might try to take advantage of the situation not to.  And whether that’s in the north with Hizballah and Lebanon, whether it’s in the West Bank, or whether it’s elsewhere, we’ve sent that message very clearly and we’ve sent it directly, and we’ve sent it through other countries.

QUESTION:  When you spoke with your counterpart in Israel, when the President spoke with the prime minister, did they ask specifically for help from the U.S.?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So we, as you know, Dana, provide significant assistance to the Israelis.  We have ever since then-President Obama signed a memorandum of understanding with Israel to provide $3.8 billion a year in military assistance.  We are looking at specific additional requests that the Israelis have made.  I think you’re likely to hear more about that later today.

QUESTION:  Can you give us a preview?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  (Laughter.)  Let me not get ahead of it, but again, we’re – we want to make sure that – President Biden’s direction was to make sure that we’re providing Israel everything it needs in this moment to deal with the attacks from Hamas.  And as I said, I would expect that there’ll be more on that later today.

QUESTION:  Before I move on, I just want to ask about any Americans who are in Israel.  Is there any indication that Americans were either killed or kidnapped by terrorists?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Yes, we have reports that several Americans were killed.  We’re working overtime to verify that.  At the same time, there are reports of missing Americans, and there again, we’re working to verify those reports.

QUESTION:  It does seem like this very coordinated attack came out of nowhere.  I want our viewers to listen to what the U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said just nine days ago.

NATIONAL SECURITY ADVISOR SULLIVAN:  The Middle East region is quieter today than it has been in two decades.  Now, challenges remain: Iran’s nuclear weapons program, the tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.  But the amount of time that I have to spend on crisis and conflict in the Middle East today compared to any of my predecessors going back to 9/11 is significantly reduced. 

QUESTION:  Well, that obviously has changed dramatically, not just for Jake Sullivan but for all of you.  And this isn’t specifically about anything that Jake missed, but more broadly, about the intelligence failure not just by the Israelis but the U.S.  What can you say about that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, two things, Dana.  First, what Jake Sullivan said was right.  If you look at the relationship among countries in the Middle East, you saw – with a lot of work by the United States – countries coming together, the region integrating, hostilities diminishing.  And we’ve been very engaged in pursuing, for example, normalization between Israel and its neighbors, building on what’s already been done, including with Saudi Arabia.  And other conflicts, like the conflict in Yemen where we’ve had a truce now for almost two years, have made a huge difference.

What happened over the last 24 hours doesn’t go to state-to-state conflict, where Jake is exactly right – it’s diminished.  This goes to a terrorist attack by a terrorist organization.

At the same time, we have been intensely focused on tensions between Israelis and Palestinians.  That’s why we brought them together in Sharm el-Sheikh, in Aqaba, to try to get both sides not to engage in acts that could precipitate hostilities, violence.  And that, unfortunately, does not include Hamas because it’s a terrorist organization.  And it took action, as we’ve seen over the last 24 hours, that has had a terrible impact, but that’s what was going on.

In terms of the intelligence, there’ll be plenty of time in days to come to look and see what anyone missed, what might have – what we could have done better.  Right now, the focus is on helping Israel and making sure that it has what it needs to deal with this attack.

QUESTION:  Understand.  The U.S. – you mentioned Saudi Arabia.  I wanted to ask you about that, because the U.S., your administration, has been working to help craft a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia.  Do you think that this attack was in part to disrupt that, and could that be successful?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Certainly, that could have been part of the motivation.  Look, who opposes normalization?  Hamas, Hizballah, Iran.  So it wouldn’t be a surprise that part of the motivation may have been to disrupt efforts to bring Saudi Arabia and Israel together, along with other countries that may be interested in normalizing relations with Israel.  So that’s certainly a factor.  And I think it speaks to the fact that if we could achieve normalization, which is incredibly difficult – there are a lot of hard issues to work through – but if we could achieve it, it would bring even greater – it would bring greater stability to the region.  It would move the region away from decades of turmoil, decades of conflict.

At the same time, what we’ve been very clear about and others have been very clear about is normalization cannot be a substitute for Israelis and Palestinians resolving their differences.  In fact, it ought to be able to reinforce it, to strengthen it.

So there’s – there are really two paths for the region.  One is a path of much greater integration, much greater stability, and a resolution of the challenges between Israelis and Palestinians, including equal measures of democracy, of opportunity, of justice, and dignity for both Israelis and Palestinians.  Or the path that Hamas is engaged in, a path of terror, of wreaking havoc in people’s lives, and of doing nothing to better the lives of Palestinians.  On the contrary, every action that Hamas has taken is only making it worse for Palestinians as well as Israelis.

QUESTION:  Secretary Blinken, do you have evidence that Iran directed this attack?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There’s a long relationship between Iran and Hamas.  In fact, Hamas wouldn’t be around in the way that it is without the support that it’s received from Iran over the years.  In this specific instance, we have not yet seen evidence that Iran directed or was behind this particular attack, but there’s certainly a long relationship.  It’s one of the reasons why we have been resolutely taking action against Iran and its support for terrorists and terrorist proxies and other groups over the last few years of this administration.  We’ve sanctioned more than 400 Iranian individuals and entities, precisely because of their support for things like Hamas.

QUESTION:  While we’re talking about Iran, I just have to ask you to – if you want to respond to what we’re hearing from Republicans who are, over and over since this happened, using the word “appeasement” when it comes to Iran and your administration.  They criticize the decision to unfreeze $6 billion in Iranian funds.  I know and want to state that that money, according to your administration, has not yet been unfrozen.  Iran does not yet have it.  But the accusation is that Iran’s posture – excuse me, that the U.S., your administration’s, posture towards Iran has helped contribute to this.  I want to get you – to give you a chance to respond.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, there are two things here.  First, with regard to the funds that you mentioned that were released to – made available to Iran for humanitarian purposes as part of getting Americans back who were being held and detained in Iran, let’s be very clear about this – and it’s deeply unfortunate that some are playing politics when so many lives have been lost and Israel remains under attack.  The facts are these:  No U.S. taxpayer dollars were involved.  These were Iranian resources that Iran had accumulated from the sale of its oil that were stuck in a bank in South Korea.  They have had from day one, under our law, under our sanctions, the right to use these monies for humanitarian purposes.  They were moved from one account to another in another country to facilitate that use.

As of now, not a single dollar has been spent from that account.  And again, the account is closely regulated by the U.S. Treasury Department, so it can only be used for things like food, medicine, medical equipment.  That’s what this is about.  And by the way, the previous administration set up a very similar mechanism to enable Iran to use its oil proceeds that were blocked in various places or stuck in various places for humanitarian purposes.  So people are either misinformed or they’re misinforming, and either way, it’s wrong.

QUESTION:  Before I let you go, I want to ask you about the United Nations saying that they have detected rockets coming from Lebanon toward Israel and that Hizballah is claiming responsibility.  Have you seen intelligence that Hizballah is contemplating a more fulsome attack in the north of Israel and perhaps maybe would even —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So —

QUESTION:  — get help from groups like the Taliban or Iran, as we’ve been talking about?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, one of the reasons President Biden was very clear from the very first moments that no one elsewhere should try to take advantage of this situation is precisely to do everything we can to ensure that there’s not another front in this conflict, including Hizballah in Lebanon.  We saw some limited firing of missiles by – coming from Lebanon toward Israel.  That seems for now to have stopped.  The Israelis responded immediately.  And as of now, that’s quiet, but it’s something we’re watching very carefully.

QUESTION:  Secretary of State Antony Blinken, thank you so much for your time this morning on this very dark, dark day.  Appreciate it.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, Dana.

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