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Saturday, July 13, 2024

Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Christiane Baissary of Al Hadath

Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Christiane Baissary of Al Hadath

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, thank you for joining us.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you for having me.

QUESTION:  This is your sixth tour in the region since the war started in October.  Are you carrying any more initiatives to end the bloodshed in Gaza?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We are.  We’re pressing for an immediate ceasefire tied to the release of hostages.  That would bring immediate relief to so many people who are suffering in Gaza – the children, the women, the men.  It would allow a much greater expansion of humanitarian assistance getting to them, and it could create the conditions to have a lasting, enduring ceasefire, which is also what we want to see.  So that’s the urgency in this moment.  That’s what we’re pressing, with Qatar and Egypt working closely with us to try to get an agreement.

QUESTION:  Some may wonder how are you pressuring Israel to do so while you are still continuing supporting them financially and militarily, and even in the United Nations by vetoing any resolution that commits for an immediate ceasefire.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, in fact, we actually have a resolution that we put forward right now that’s before the United Nations Security Council that does call for an immediate ceasefire tied to the release of hostages, and we hope very much that countries will support that.  I think that would send a strong message, a strong signal.  But, of course, we stand with Israel and its right to defend itself, to make sure that October 7th never happens again, but at the same time, it’s imperative that the civilians who are in harm’s way and who are suffering so terribly – that we focus on them, that we make them a priority, protecting the civilians, getting them humanitarian assistance.  And we’ve been leading the effort to do that, to get more in, to get more to the people who need it.  We are pressing on that as hard as we can.

QUESTION:  Talking about the humanitarian aid, as we know, the Biden administration is working on a maritime corridor or pier.  Can you tell us more about it – when it will operate, how it will operate, who will distribute the aid?  How about the security that must be there?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  What’s so important is to get as much assistance into Gaza by as many means as possible.  So yes, the maritime corridor, and actually, we’ve already seen ships start to bring assistance to Gaza on the sea.  But we want to make sure that there’s a pier, a port that can accommodate as much assistance as possible, and we’re in the process of building that.  And I think in a matter of weeks, hopefully, that will be done.

But that’s not a substitute for what’s even more important, which is getting assistance through over land, and that means that Israel needs to open up more access points to Gaza.  We’ve seen some progress there, including a new access point that was opened just about a week ago.  The ones that are already – that already exist, we have to get more assistance through on a regular basis, and all of this is necessary to do it, to make sure that as much assistance as possible is coming in through as many points as possible, reaching as many people as possible.

Another part of the challenge is it’s not enough to simply get trucks, ships, air drops into Gaza.  Once the assistance is there, it has to get to the people who need it, and this is something that we’re focusing on very much as well with the United Nations, with other providers.

QUESTION:  A UN expert said that you’re not doing enough, and even this new maritime corridor is – it will alleviate the hunger of like a small number of people in a very short period of time, and the Biden administration is doing it out of performance for political purposes related to the elections to meet a domestic audience.  How do you respond to that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I – simply by saying that, as I mentioned a minute ago, we’re pressing very hard on maximizing assistance coming in by every possible means.  And while the maritime corridor would be a very important addition, it’s not a substitute for making sure that we’re getting as much assistance through over land as possible.  That’s the best way to get aid into Gaza and to make sure that it gets to the people who need it.  That’s why we pressed initially to have Rafah open many months ago, then we pressed to get Kerem Shalom operating and open, then we pressed for a route from Jordan directly to Kerem Shalom and now we’re expanding that route.  We pressed for another opening that was opened just a week ago.  And we’re continuing – and we also pressed to get flour from Ashdod.

QUESTION:  But the Israelis are not letting the aid in.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  More aid is getting in, but it’s not enough.  And it’s imperative that Israel make this a priority.  It has to be the main focus, making sure that more aid gets in and gets to more people.  That’s what we’re – that’s what we’re telling Israel.  That’s a big part of our focus, and it’s a focus of my trip as well.

QUESTION:  Let’s go back to the negotiations.  As we know, several rounds of negotiations were held in Cairo, in Paris, and in Doha.  And till now, both parties didn’t reach an agreement – not a ceasefire, not even a truce.  What’s hindering the talks?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  It’s getting closer.  I think the gaps are narrowing, and I think an agreement is very much possible.  We worked very hard with Qatar, with Egypt, and with Israel to put a strong proposal on the table.  We did that; Hamas wouldn’t accept it.  They came back with other requests, other demands.  The negotiators are working on that right now.  But I believe it’s very much doable, and it’s very much necessary.  And of course, if Hamas cares at all about the people it purports to represent, then it would reach an agreement, because that would have the immediate effect of a ceasefire, alleviating the tremendous suffering of people, bringing more humanitarian assistance in, and then giving us the possibility of having something more lasting.

QUESTION:  But Hamas – lately, they are being more pragmatic, because they wanted initially a ceasefire, and now they are accepting a truce of six weeks, whereas Israel is not accepting any of this, because they want to launch an incursion into Rafah.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, of course, if Hamas was genuinely being pragmatic, then months ago – well, they never would have done what they did on October 7th.  And then having done that, this could have ended immediately if they had stopped hiding behind civilians, put down their weapons, released the hostages.  Then we wouldn’t have seen this – this terrible suffering.  But even with that, it’s been incumbent upon Israel to put the protection of civilians and getting assistance to them as a top priority.

So I’m still hopeful that – more than hopeful that an agreement is possible, and that we can reach it.  But it’s urgent, because of course with every day that goes by, more people are suffering.  The quickest path – the quickest path to ending that is getting this immediate ceasefire with the release of hostages.  Then a lot more becomes possible.

QUESTION:  How do you think an agreement is possible?  And negotiators and mediators in Qatar were saying that Netanyahu didn’t give any mandate to his negotiation team in Doha to make really a deal.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I can’t get into – you’ll understand I can’t get into the details of the negotiation, but I can tell you that no, absolutely, the Israeli team is present, has authority to reach an agreement.  A very strong proposal was put on the table, and we have to see if Hamas can say yes to the proposal.  If it does – if it does – that’s the most immediate way to alleviate the misery of people in Gaza, which is very much what we want.

QUESTION:  But don’t you think that Netanyahu doesn’t want this to happen, because he wants to continue his operation in Rafah?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, we’ve been very clear – President Biden has been very clear – that we cannot support a major ground operation, military operation in Rafah.  There are, as you know, 1.4 million or so civilians in Rafah, many of them displaced from other parts in Gaza.  There’s no effective way of getting them out of the way and to safety, and even the people that would remain in Rafah would be in terrible jeopardy.

So this is one of the things that President Biden talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu about.  We have a team from Israel coming to the United States to look at a different way of dealing with the remaining problem of Hamas in Rafah.  So that’ll happen next week.  And —

QUESTION:  Indeed, Axios reported that Biden administration is weighing different alternatives to the invasion in Rafah.  Can you tell us more about these alternatives?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, I can’t speak to the details.  We have to have a chance to talk to the Israelis about this, but as I said, what we don’t want to see is a major ground operation because we don’t see how that can be done without doing terrible harm to civilians.  But at the same time, it is imperative to do something about Hamas, because Hamas has brought nothing but death and destruction to Palestinians.  And if you go back, Israel withdrew from Gaza unilaterally in 2006; Hamas engaged in major attacks on Israel in 2008, 2009, 2011, 2014, 2021, and of course October of 2023.  That’s not a sustainable situation.  And it’s also the greatest impediment to trying to find a lasting peace, lasting security, including a Palestinian state, which is the only way in our judgment to have something that’s genuinely enduring and that can bring lasting security for Palestinians, for Israelis, and for the region.

QUESTION:  We talk about this need (inaudible), to get back to the alternatives.  So if Netanyahu didn’t accept or approve any of these alternatives, what will your position will be?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, the President’s been clear that – as I said – we don’t and will not support a major ground operation in Rafah.  And right now our focus is on showing that there’re alternatives to that that can deal with the ongoing challenge of Hamas but in a way that doesn’t further jeopardize the safety, the security of the lives of innocent people who are caught in this crossfire of Hamas’s making.

QUESTION:  How does – you’ve always alerted Netanyahu and warned him, and he continue his operations without taking into consideration any of the United States warning.  So why now you think that the situation will be different and he will take this into consideration?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We’ve had many, many clear, direct conversations over these months with Israel.  We have a long relationship and friendship with Israel, just as we do with many partners in the Arab world.  One of the hallmarks of friendship is the ability – indeed the necessity – to speak directly, to speak clearly, just as we did on Rafah but also as we’ve done on humanitarian assistance, and as we’ve continued to do on the need to have an enduring solution, including a resolution with the Palestinians.

QUESTION:  You said you will discuss – and now you’re saying get the right architecture for a lasting regional peace.  What’s your vision on this architecture?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I think as dark as this moment is, there’s also a tremendous opportunity – maybe even a unique opportunity.  Because while there have been many efforts to make peace in the past – I was involved in some of them – what’s different now is that virtually every country in the region would like to actually integrate Israel, normalize relations for those that haven’t, and in effect help Israel provide for its own security.  But that requires a resolution to the Palestinian question and particularly a Palestinian state, and, of course, it requires an end to the military operations in Gaza.  If that happens, I think there is actually an opening to have something that’s enduring, something that’s lasting.  And it’s very hard in the moment for people to focus on that.

QUESTION:  Yeah, exactly.  Do you think it’s possible with the actual government in Israel, the extremist one?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We have an Israeli society that is totally traumatized by what happened on October 7th, just as we have a Palestinian population that’s traumatized by the suffering in Gaza.  So it is hard because there’s very little trust on either side.  It’s something that we’ll have to rebuild.  But I think as people have a chance to focus on the alternatives – one alternative is this path to finally resolve the Palestinian question, to integrating Israel into the region, to giving it genuine security – that’s one path.  The other path is an endless cycle of violence, of death, destruction for everyone.  And I think as people concentrate on what the choice is, what the alternatives are, then there is an opportunity to move people down that first path.

QUESTION:  Tomorrow in Cairo is where you will discuss the governance, security, and the aid in post-war Gaza.  What’s your vision of this?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So this is an – this is a very important question to resolve, because we want to see the conflict come to an end as soon as possible, consistent with Israel’s ability to defend itself.  When it does, we have to be ready – all of us have to be ready – for what happens with the governance of Gaza, and we would like to see, ultimately, unified governance between Gaza and the West Bank with a revitalized Palestinian Authority in the lead.

We have to look at security.  You don’t want to have a vacuum.  We don’t want – we’ve been very clear there can’t be an Israeli reoccupation.  We can’t have Hamas in charge of Gaza.  So we have to make sure that there’s a plan for security.  And there has to be a massive further infusion of humanitarian assistance and development for Gaza so that people can begin to rebuild their lives and rebuild their communities.

This is what we’ve been talking about with our Arab partners starting, really, in January.  And one of the focuses of this trip is to look at the work that we’ve been doing together and to try to carry it forward.

QUESTION:  How do you see President Abbas, Mahmoud Abbas’s decision to appoint a new prime minister?  Is it enough for the reforms the U.S. is pressuring the Palestinian Authority to perform?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  These are – these decisions on individuals, on people, these are decisions for the Palestinians to make, not for us or for anyone else to make.  I think it’s very important that the cabinet of the new government that emerges have new faces, younger people – people who are genuinely representative of Gazans, the West Bank, and who are prepared to do the necessary things to really revitalize the Palestinian Authority so that it’s better able to deliver for the Palestinian people – more transparency in government, combatting corruption, and then winning the confidence of people.

Now, it’s also going to be imperative that Israel work with, cooperate with, a new Palestinian Authority because it’s going to be very difficult for it to actually deliver results without that.  But it does start with, I think, a new – seeing what this new government looks like, the cabinet looks like.  That’s what we’re focused on.

QUESTION:  On the other hand, there is also calls for Netanyahu to step down for early elections in Israel – this is what Chuck Schumer said, and what President Biden endorsed.  Netanyahu, before we entered this room, in an interview said that he’s ready and open to do early elections.  Do you think he’s serious, or he just maneuvering?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, just as it is for the Palestinians to choose their own leadership, it’s for Israelis to do the same thing.  It’s not our position to do that.  And Israelis will have to decide when to have elections.  That’s up to them.  Meanwhile, we’re working, as we always have, with the government in Israel right now, and from administration to administration in our country, Democrat or Republican, that’s exactly what we’ve done and what we’ll continue to do.

QUESTION:  The Biden administration was pressuring Israel as well to not to launch its spring offensive against Hizballah and Lebanon.  And yesterday a source told Al Arabiya that the administration is not doing this role anymore.  What does this mean?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  In fact, we’re very much engaged in a diplomatic effort to ensure that there is no conflict, there is no deepening of the conflict, spreading of the conflict, including to Lebanon and with Hizballah.  And at least it’s my judgment that no one involved actually wants that.  I don’t believe the Israelis actually want that.  I don’t believe Hizballah wants that.  I don’t believe – Lebanon certainly doesn’t want that.  And even Iran, Hizballah’s patron, I don’t believe wants that.  But it’s also unfortunately easy sometimes to fall into an unintentional conflict when there’s back and forth.

But this has to be resolved because in Israel, there are well over 100,000 people who have been displaced from their homes in northern Israel, and they should be able to go back.  There are Lebanese in southern Lebanon who’ve also been displaced from their homes.  They should be able to go back.  So we need to have a resolution where people can feel confident, feel safe, feel secure, and we have a sustained effort underway to try to reach a diplomatic solution.

QUESTION:  From Palestine, Israel, to the Red Sea, the United States and the UK were striking the Houthis in Yemen and were having talks in Amman in order to pressure Iran to use its influence over the Houthis to stop attacks in the Red Sea, and this wasn’t working.  Is the United States also doing any other editorial methods to deter the Houthi?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, I think you have countries around the world – much of the international community – that condemns what the Houthis are doing: attacking international shipping, jeopardizing commerce that’s so vital to people around the world.  Thousands of ships have had to reroute.  Prices have gone up for everything they’re carrying because they have to take longer voyages to get where they’re going.  Insurance has gone up.  And just recently, what did we see?  We saw the Houthis actually kill three sailors from – who were on a boat, Filipinos.  We saw them sink a ship that created an environmental disaster because oil was spilled, fertilizer was spilled into the sea.  We saw them attack ships that were carrying food to Yemen, to the very people that the Houthis purport to represent.

So no matter what your views are on Gaza, there’s no justification for this ongoing attack on international shipping that’s having terrible consequences for people in Yemen and for people around the world.  And dozens of countries, including at the United Nations, have spoken up and spoken out about this.  So we would like to see Iran exert the influence that it has, because it’s the primary supplier to the Houthis of weapons, of information, of technology.  We would like to see them tell the Houthis to stop.  Meanwhile, we and other countries have no choice but to try to defend the shipping and, as necessary, degrade the assets – the military assets – that the Houthis are using to continue to attack shipping.

QUESTION:  How are you pressuring Iran to do so?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, we, as you know, have many differences with Iran in many different areas, and we have a lot of pressure that’s imposed on them by us and by many other countries, including through sanctions.  But I also don’t think it’s in Iran’s interest to continue to support these Houthi attacks, attacks that, again, are being condemned by countries around the world.  The extent to which Iran is seen as being responsible for that – I don’t think that’s good for Iran, so we hope that it will use the influence it has to put an end to this.

QUESTION:  Thank you very much, Mr. Secretary, for your time.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thank you.  Thank you so much.

Official news published at https://www.state.gov/secretary-antony-j-blinken-with-christiane-baissary-of-al-hadath/

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