Blinken: US will judge the next Israeli government on policies, not personalities

WASHINGTON — US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said Sunday that the Biden administration will judge with the incoming hardline Israeli government based on the policies that it implements and not by the individuals slated to fill senior roles in the next coalition.

“We will gauge the government by the policies and procedures, rather than individual personalities,” said Blinken in the keynote address at the annual conference of the dovish J Street conference in Washington. “We will hold to the… standards we’ve established in our relationship over the past several decades. And we will speak honestly and respectfully with our Israeli friends as partners always should.”

The remarks come amid speculation that Biden officials will not engage with some of the most far-right members of Israel’s emerging government, such as Religious Zionism chairman Bezalel Smotrich, who is slated to become finance minister, and Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir, who is set to become national security minister. US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides refused to say during an interview last week whether he would meet with Ben Gvir.

Blinken took the opportunity to again congratulate presumptive prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu — eliciting an audible hiss from a handful among the 1,000-plus conference attendees — and welcomed his commitment to lead a government “that in his words, will work for the benefit of all residents in the State of Israel without exception.”

“We will continue to express our support for core democratic principles, including respect for the rights of the LGBT community and the equal administration of justice for all citizens of Israel,” Blinken added. The crowd loudly applauded the apparent reference to Netanyahu’s plan to appoint Avi Maoz, the chairman of the homophobic Noam party, who has pledged to end the Jerusalem Pride parade, as deputy minister with authority over various education programs.

While Blinken was warmly welcomed by the crowd, J Street activists have grown frustrated with the Biden administration over what many of them feel has been its refusal to substantially pressure and reprimand Israel over its policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

MKs Bezalel Smotrich, Itamar Ben Gvir and MKs from the Religious Zionism party visit the Damascus Gate to Jerusalem’s Old City, October 20, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The secretary of state, at times, appeared to acknowledge that frustration.

“We know that at this moment prospects for a two-state solution feel remote — that may be an understatement,” Blinken said of J Street’s raison d’etre.

He reiterated the administration’s opposition to unilateral measures by Israel and the Palestinian Authority. “We will also continue to unequivocally oppose any acts that undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, including, but not limited to, settlement expansion, moves toward annexation of the West Bank, disruption to the historic status quo of holy sites, demolitions and evictions, and incitement to violence,” he said.

“Simply discouraging the sides from taking steps that undermine prospects for two states is insufficient,” Blinken clarified to rousing applause, “because the reality is that today, Palestinians and Israelis do not enjoy equal measures of freedom, security or opportunity.”

Much of Blinken’s speech served as a review of the Biden administration’s policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which most analysts argue has been de-prioritized, as room for progress toward a resolution further shrinks.

Blinken hailed US security assistance to Israel, receiving a second hissing response from the same handful of progressive attendees.

Audience members applaud as US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is seen on a large screen, as he speaks at the J Street National Conference at the Omni Shoreham Hotel in Washington, December 4, 2022. (AP Photo/ Carolyn Kaster)

He expressed his solidarity with the people of Ukraine, along with those protesting the regime in Tehran, while insisting that a diplomatic solution to Iran’s nuclear drive was still the preferred option. The secretary reiterated that “all options are on the table,” as Iran continues to advance toward a nuclear weapon and its “breakout time” has been “shortened to just a few weeks.”

Turning to Israel’s diplomatic standing, Blinken rejected the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, along with efforts to single out Israel at the UN.

He highlighted the administration’s brokering of a maritime deal between Israel and Lebanon and an island swap between Egypt and Saudi Arabia that led to Riyadh agreeing to open its skies to Israeli airliners.

Blinken also reaffirmed the administration’s commitment to expanding and strengthening the Abraham Accords, which normalized relations between Israel and several of its Arab neighbors.

But in a statement that received overwhelming applause, Blinken clarified that the accords are “not a substitute for building peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

He did note that the accords can be leveraged by the US and Arab states with ties to Israel to improve the livelihood of Palestinians. The UAE points to how its deal saw Netanyahu commit to refrain from annexing large parts of the West Bank, while Morocco was involved in efforts to expand the operating hours of the Allenby crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, where Palestinian pedestrians suffer from long queues and various fees.

Bahrain’s Undersecretary for International Affairs Sheikh Abdullah bin Ahmed Al Khalifa (Center) leads a meeting of the Negev Forum Steering Committee in Manama, Bahrain, June 27, 2022. (Bahrain Foreign Ministry)

US President Joe Biden has also restarted diplomatic ties with the PA and resumed hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians, while pushing back against Ramallah’s policy of paying stipends to terrorists and their families, Blinken said. He also called for the PA to advance anti-corruption reforms, calling them necessary for an enduring peace.

At the same time, Blinken pointed to steps the US has encouraged Israel to take, such as authorizing thousands of work permits for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, legalizing the residency status of thousands of Palestinians in the West Bank and increasing the water supply to Gaza by 40 percent.

J Street President Jeremy Ben-Ami told reporters afterward that he appreciated the secretary’s remarks, but said his group would judge the administration on how it acts to advance the two-state solution moving forward.

He said the group expected US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to at least return to where it was before 2017, which would mean rolling back Trump-era policies that blurred the distinction between Israel and West Bank settlements and reopening a diplomatic mission to the Palestinians in Jerusalem and a PLO office in Washington. Biden campaigned on reopening those offices, but has yet to do so, due to pushback from those in both capitals.

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