QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us this morning. I know you’ve been working through the day, through the weekend. What is the United States doing right now? What comes next?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, George, first, to put this in perspective – and as some of your correspondents just said – this is the worst attack on Israel since 1973, the Yom Kippur War, almost exactly 50 years ago. But there’s a fundamental difference. That was a war that was state to state, country to country, army to army. This is a massive terrorist attack that is gunning down Israeli civilians in their towns, in their homes, and – as we’ve seen so graphically – literally dragging people across the border with Gaza, including a Holocaust survivor in a wheelchair, women, and children. So. you can imagine the impact this is having throughout Israel, and the world should be revolted at what it’s seen.
We have immediately engaged our Israeli partners and allies. President Biden was on the phone with Prime Minister Netanyahu early yesterday to assure him of our full support. I was on the phone with the Israeli president, the foreign minister. The entire government has been engaged throughout the region – and well beyond, both to build support for Israel and to make sure that every country was using whatever means it has, whatever influence it has, to pull Hamas back and also to make sure that we don’t see conflict erupt in other areas. The President sent a very clear message that no one should try to take advantage of this elsewhere.
QUESTION: How do you explain this intelligence failure, especially – especially – on the anniversary of the Yom Kippur War?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: George, there’ll be time to look at that and to make determinations about what may have been missed. And right now, the focus has to be on the effort to get – to repel the aggression by the Hamas terrorists, to push them back, and to put Israel in a position where this doesn’t happen again.
QUESTION: But there are implications for the United States as well, of course. We rely on Israeli intelligence, don’t we?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: We have a very close relationship with Israeli intelligence, as well as with the Israeli military, as well as with Israel more broadly. So yes, of course, this is something that they and we will be looking at. But the effort, right now, has to be in dealing with the aggression from Hamas with these attacks. There remains intense fighting around Gaza. We continue to see that. The rest of the country right now seems to be calmer. But the intensity of the fighting is real, and we had about a thousand Hamas militants who infiltrated Israel. Most of them seem to have either been killed or have gone back into Gaza. But as I said, intense fighting remains. So, that’s the focus. And the focus is also on taking steps to make sure, to the best of their ability for Israel, that this doesn’t repeat itself.
QUESTION: Can Israel control Gaza if they go in?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Look, I don’t want to get ahead of what Israel may or may not do when it comes to Gaza. What they need to be able to control one way or another is, as I said, putting in place measures so that this doesn’t happen again. No country should be expected to live with the fear, the possibility, and now the actuality of terrorists crossing a border, coming into people’s homes, gunning them down in the street, dragging them across the border, and making hostages of them. That is intolerable for any democracy. It’s intolerable for Israel. And one way or another, they’re going to have to take steps to make sure that, to the best of their ability, this doesn’t repeat itself.
QUESTION: As I discussed with Steve Gannon, the U.S. had been making progress in these negotiations with Saudi Arabia and Israel. What happens to that now?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: George, it’s no surprise that those opposed to the efforts to normalize relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel, and more broadly to normalize Israel’s relations with countries throughout the region and beyond – who opposes it? Hizballah, Hamas, and Iran. So, to the extent that this was designed to try to derail the efforts that were being made, that speaks volumes. Right now, the focus is on dealing with this attack, dealing with Hamas. And we’ll come to the normalization efforts, which, by the way, are incredibly difficult when it comes to Saudi Arabia and Israel. Lots of hard issues to work through.
But if we could get there, that would significantly advance stability in the region. It would offer so many greater prospects for people in all of these countries. And there are basically two paths that are before the region right now. One is the path of normalization, of integration, of people working together. And by the way, in that and on that path, it’s not a substitute for resolving the differences between Israelis and Palestinians. On the contrary, it needs to be used to advance that effort as well. But that’s one path.
The other path is what we’ve seen from Hamas: terrorism, horror, and something that offers not only nothing to people throughout the region; it offers nothing to the Palestinians. On the contrary, everything that Hamas does makes their situation, their plight, even worse. They bring nothing but death and destruction not only to Israelis but to Palestinians.
So, the paths are clear. We know which path we want to follow. We’re determined to do that. But right now, the focus has to be on helping Israel as it defends itself against this terrorist attack.
QUESTION: Does dealing with Hamas mean dealing with Iran? Was Iran behind this?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: So, there’s a long relationship between Iran and Hamas. In fact, Hamas wouldn’t be Hamas without the support that it’s gotten over many years from Iran. We haven’t yet seen direct evidence that Iran was behind this particular attack or involved, but the support over many years is clear. It’s one of the reasons that over the last couple of years we have been resolutely working against Iran’s support for terrorism, for destabilizing actions in other countries. We’ve sanctioned more than 400 Iranian individuals and entities, precisely for the kind of support that they’ve offered Hamas in the past. And it’s something that we remain extremely vigilant about.
QUESTION: As you know, many in the GOP are laying blame on the Biden administration in the wake of that recent deal to unfreeze Iranian assets that were unfrozen for humanitarian purposes in return for the release of those American hostages. Here’s what Steve Scalise, one of the candidates for speaker, put out yesterday:
“The Biden administration must be held accountable for its appeasement of these Hamas terrorists, including handing over billions of dollars to them and their Iranian backers.”
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Well, look, I’m not going to comment on specific comments by individuals. I can say this: It’s unfortunate that some are, in effect, saying things that may be motivated by politics at a time when so many lives have been lost and Israel remains under attack.
And the facts are these and should be well known: This involved Iranian resources, not American taxpayer dollars; these were resources that Iran had acquired from the sale of its oil that were stuck in a bank, in this case in South Korea. They have always been entitled to use those funds under our law and under our sanctions for humanitarian purposes, and the funds were moved from one bank to another to facilitate that. By the way, not a single dollar from that account has actually been spent to date, and in any event it’s very carefully and closely regulated by the Treasury Department to make sure that it’s only used for food, for medicine, for medical equipment.
So, some who are advancing this false narrative, they’re either misinformed or they’re misinforming, and either way it’s wrong.
QUESTION: Are we in for a long war?
SECRETARY BLINKEN: The challenge for Israel and the challenge for all who support Israel and oppose horrific acts of terrorism is, again, to take measures that provide for accountability for what’s happened; and, also, to do our best to ensure that this doesn’t happen again. And that is likely to take some time, and it’s fraught with very difficult decisions for the Israelis to make.
I don’t want to speculate, get ahead, get into hypotheticals, but this is – now we’re 24 hours or so into this. As I said, there remains intense fighting in the Gaza area. And the focus has to be on helping Israel recover the territory that has been taken briefly by Hamas, protecting its citizens, and taking whatever measures are necessary to avoid this repeating itself.
QUESTION: Mr. Secretary, thanks for your time this morning.
SECRETARY BLINKEN: Thanks, George.