September 28, 2021

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Secretary Antony J. Blinken On ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopoulos

22 min read

Antony J. Blinken, Secretary of State

Washington, D.C.

QUESTION:  Good morning, Mr. Secretary.  Welcome to This Week.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, George.  Great to be with you.

QUESTION:  Let’s start with the ceasefire.  President Biden pushed it privately, welcomed it publicly.  Both sides are claiming a sort of victory right now, but has anything really changed?  What’s to prevent this cycle of violence from kicking up again, maybe very soon?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first, George, it was critical to get to the ceasefire, and President Biden’s focus on relentless, determined, but quiet diplomacy is what got us to where we needed to be, which is to get the violence ended as quickly as possible, to stop more human suffering, and to at least put ourselves in position to make a turn, to make a pivot to building something more positive. 

That has to start now with dealing with the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza, then reconstruction, rebuilding what’s been lost, and, critically, engaging both sides in trying to start to make real improvements in the lives of people so that Israelis and Palestinians can live with equal measures of security, of peace, and of dignity.

QUESTION:  You stress that word “equal” right there.  That seems to be a new emphasis for this administration.  We haven’t heard that a lot in the past, equal rights for Palestinians and Israelis.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, it’s vitally important that Palestinians feel hope and have opportunity and can live in security, just as it is for Israelis.  And there should be equal measures.  And in a democratic society, that is, I think, an obligation of the – of any government.  So ultimately, I think that that hope, that security, that dignity can – will be found in a Palestinian state. 

But meanwhile, we have to do everything we can both to address the immediate situation, which is humanitarian, reconstruction in Gaza, starting to improve people’s lives in a concrete way, and ultimately get to a place where we can get negotiations and move towards something that brings a lasting resolution to the problem.

QUESTION:  You say you still want to work towards a two-state solution, but is that really still possible?  Is there anything constructive the United States can do?  It doesn’t seem like efforts have created much fruit in the past.  And – or is this new emphasis you’re putting on equal rights really the start of a longer-term shift?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  President Biden’s been very clear that he remains committed to a two-state solution.  Look, ultimately, it is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, and of course, the only way to give the Palestinians the state to which they’re entitled.  That’s where we have to go.  But that, I don’t think, is something for – necessarily for today.  We have to start putting in place the conditions that would allow both sides to engage in a meaningful and positive way toward two states.

In the first instance, we have to deal with making this turn from the violence – we got the ceasefire – and now deal with the humanitarian situation, deal with reconstruction, and deepen our existing engagement with Palestinians and with Israelis alike.  But the most —

QUESTION:  The President wants —

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  I was going to say, George, the most important thing is this:  What I hope that everyone takes from this is that if there isn’t positive change, and particularly if we can’t find a way for – to help Palestinians live with more dignity and with more hope, the cycle’s likely to repeat itself, and that is in no one’s interest.

QUESTION:  You say you want rebuilding; you say you want reconstruction.  The President said he wants to do that without restocking Hamas – rebuilding Gaza without restocking Hamas.  How do you do that?  They’re in charge in Gaza.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, we’ve worked in the past and we can continue to work with trusted, independent parties that can help do the reconstruction and the development, not some quasi-governmental authority.  And the fact of the matter is Hamas has brought nothing but ruin to the Palestinian people: its gross mismanagement of Gaza while it’s been in charge, and of course, these indiscriminate rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, which have elicited the response that they did because Israel has a right to defend itself.

So I think what’s the real challenge here is to help the Palestinians, and particularly to help moderate Palestinians and the Palestinian Authority deliver better results for their people.  And of course, Israel has a profound role to play in that too.

QUESTION:  The President reiterated his strong support for Israel on Friday, but he’s coming under increased pressure from progressives.  Bernie Sanders has introduced a resolution of disapproval over a new arms sale to Israel.  Others like Rashida Tlaib and AOC say the U.S. should not be rubber-stamping arms sales to Israel when they use the weapons to abuse Palestinian rights.  What’s your response to that?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, happily, George, one of the things I don’t do in this job is I don’t do politics.  I focus on the policy.  So I’ll leave the politics to others.

But here’s what I can say:  We got to the result thanks to President Biden’s relentless focus on this quiet but, I think, effective diplomacy in getting to a ceasefire and stopping the violence in 11 days.  If you go back and look at previous crises, they’ve lasted a lot longer, but of course, every single day that these things go on, we see a tremendous loss in human life and in human suffering.  And we were determined to get – to bring that to an end.

When it comes to arms sales, two things.  First, the President’s been equally clear:  We are committed to giving Israel the means to defend itself, especially when it comes to these indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilians.  Any country would respond to that, and we – we’re committed to Israel’s defense.  At the same time, any arms sale is going to be done in full consultation with Congress.  We’re committed to that.  And we want to make sure that that process works effectively.

QUESTION:  Your administration’s continuing to pursue nuclear negotiations with Iran, but 42 Republican senators have called on the President to end the negotiations, make it clear that sanctions will remain in place because of Iranian funding of Hamas.  Do you believe that Iran is funding Hamas?  And if they are, should the sanctions stay in place?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  George, Iran is engaged in a number of activities, including funding extremist groups, supporting terrorism more broadly, supporting very dangerous proxies that are taking destabilizing actions throughout the Middle East, proliferating weapons. 

And two things on that.  One, an Iran with a nuclear weapon or with the capability to build one in very short order is going to act with even greater impunity in those areas, which just adds to the urgency of trying to put the nuclear problem back in the box that the nuclear agreement put it in.  And, of course, many of these actions are going forward now while the – and have gone forward over the last few years under the so-called maximum pressure being exerted by the previous administration, and clearly did not get the result that we all seek, which is to curb all of these activities. 

But the first thing that we need to do is put the nuclear problem back in the box.  That’s why we’re committed to trying to see if Iran will come back into compliance with the nuclear agreement, the so-called JCPOA – that’s what we’re engaged in now – and then use that as a platform to build on and to try to deal with these other issues.

QUESTION:  The Iranians say the decision to raise – to lift some of the sanctions has already been made.  Is that true? 

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We’re – we’ve been now over – we’re about to have our, I think, fifth round of discussions in Vienna with the Iranians.  And what these discussions and talks – indirect, as you know – have done is they’ve clarified what each side needs to do in order to come back into compliance.  So we know what sanctions would need to be lifted if they’re inconsistent with the nuclear agreement.  But as important and indeed more important, Iran, I think, knows what it needs to do to come back into compliance on the nuclear side.  And what we haven’t yet seen is whether Iran is ready and willing to make a decision to do what it has to do.  That’s the test and we don’t yet have an answer.

QUESTION:  Finally, let’s talk about the North Korea nuclear program.  At his meeting with the South Korean prime minister on Friday, the President said he was prepared to re-engage with the North Koreans under the right conditions.  Right now, the best estimates are that the North Korean nuclear arsenal has doubled in recent years, about 45 weapons right now.  Does the United States have to accept that North Korea will remain a nuclear power?  Do we have to learn to live with a nuclear North Korea?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  We don’t and we shouldn’t, but let’s be honest:  This is a hard problem.  Previous administrations, Republican and Democrat alike, have tried to tackle it, and no one’s fully succeeded, to say the least.  In fact, the program has gotten more advanced and more dangerous over time.  And we’ve looked at different approaches that were taken, including basically doing nothing for nothing or trying to do – get everything for everything.  Neither has worked.  We engaged in an intensive review.  We looked at what every previous administration has done.  We consulted very closely with our allies and partners, starting with South Korea and Japan.  I was there with Secretary Austin.  We just had President Moon’s visit.  All of that as well as the view of experts on all sides was factored in.

And what President Biden determined was the best chance we have to achieve the objective of the total denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula is to engage diplomatically with North Korea on a deliberate, calibrated approach where we seek to make progress toward that goal.  I don’t think there’s going to be a grand bargain where this gets resolved in one fell swoop.  It’s got to be clearly calibrated diplomacy, clear steps from the North Koreans, and it moves forward in that way.

Now, we put that forward.  We’re waiting to see if Pyongyang actually wants to engage.  The ball’s in their court.  We’ve made clear we’re prepared to pursue this diplomatically even as the sanctions remain in place because North Korea continues to engage in activities that are clearly prohibited by the United Nations.  But we’re prepared to do the diplomacy.  The question is:  Is North Korea? 

QUESTION:  Secretary Blinken, thanks for your time this morning.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Thanks, George.  Great to be with you.  

 

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