WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Sunday said the Biden administration would engage with Israel's incoming far-right coalition based on its policy rather than individual personalities.
Blinken's remarks at J Street's annual conference were the most high-level address from the Biden administration since Benjamin Netanyahu's success in last month's Israeli elections, and amid escalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions.
"We fully respect the democratic choice of the Israeli people," he said, congratulating Benjamin Netanyahu and adding "We welcome his commitment to make this a government that, in his words, 'will work for the benefit of all residents of the State of Israel, without exception.'”
Blinken said the U.S. would object to any actions that could increase tensions or undermine a potential two-state solution, specifically flagging settlement construction, annexation and changes to the Temple Mount status quo.
"We expect the new Israeli government to continue to work with us to advance our shared values, just as we have with previous governments. We'll 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. This reflects new official language from the U.S. in the weeks since the election.
Shortly before Blinken's speech, Prime Minister-in-waiting Benjamin Netanyahu pushed back against concerns regarding his new far-right partners by offering what-aboutisms concerning the outgoing coalition and defending his own record of "having two hands on the wheel" and vowing he will "safeguard Israeli democracy."
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The secretary noted that "normalization between Israel and its neighbors is not a substitute for building peace between Israelis and Palestinians," lauding Israel's ongoing regional integration, whether related to the Abraham Accords or other regional collaboration such as the I2-U2 forum. He further acknowledged that "Palestinians and Israelis today do not enjoy equal measures of freedom."
"We believe Palestinians and Israelis, like people everywhere, are entitled to the same rights and the same opportunities," Blinken said in additional new official language.
Blinken further noted that he supports equal treatment for violence in the West Bank, no matter whether it comes from Israel or the Palestinians, highlighting the administration's efforts to reengage with the Palestinians via diplomacy and restored economic aid. He also noted the need to materially improve Palestinian lives, adding that the U.S. has encouraged Israel to institute according policy reforms. He further called upon the Palestinian Authority to institute reforms and strengthen the rule of law, transparency and accountability.
"Just as we believe Israel has a responsibility to take steps to advance the prospects for enduring peace, the Palestinian Authority must demonstrate that it has the will and it has the capacity to be a true partner in a process that can lead to two states," he said.
He acknowledged his speech came at a particularly "consequential" period for U.S.-Israel ties, with the administration staring down the pipe of the most right-wing government in Israel’s history. This includes but is not limited to bringing the homophobic Noam party into the coalition, granting Kahanist Itamar Ben-Gvir the newly created position of “national security minister” and granting Bezalel Smotrich’s Religious Zionism party authority over civil administration of the West Bank.
The majority of Blinken's speech, however, was remarkably effusive of the U.S.-Israel relationship — significantly more so compared to the tone emerging from the organization which hosted him.
He used his address to lay out the Biden administration's approach to Israel, highlighting its commitment to "strengthening Israel's security, recognizing that no peace is possible [and] sustainable without a strong secure Israel; deepening Israel's integration in the region and in the world; holding firm to the vision of two states for two peoples." He also noted the depth of the U.S.-Israel alliance, which he said touches "virtually every aspect of our people's lives," insisting that U.S. commitment to Israel's security is sacrosanct and has never been stronger.
Blinken also noted the administration's efforts at providing humanitarian reconstruction in Gaza following the May 2021 war, highlighting the Biden-led intensive behind-the-scenes efforts. He further lauded the administration's commitment to defending Israel against threats posed by Iran and its proxies, and decrying Iran's crackdown on protesters and its tactical support for Russia's military invasion of Ukraine.
He further warned against Iran's continued efforts to accelerate its nuclear program, warning that its current posture decreases the likelihood of diplomatic success aimed at re-entering the Iran nuclear deal. He vowed to combat antisemitism and defend Israel against efforts to legitimize it, whether in international forums or through the BDS movement.
The U.S. has taken an extremely cautious approach to the emerging coalition, having various models and plans for how to engage with specific officials depending on their portfolios and pasts. It has already demonstrated it will be unafraid to publicly rebuke officials in ways it hasn’t before, such as State Department spokesperson Ned Price’s denunciation of Ben-Gvir for his remarks at the Meir Kahane memorial.