US committed to ‘giving Israel means to defend itself’: Blinken

Al-Jazeera  /  May 23, 2021

US secretary of state’s comments follow pressure and criticism from progressive lawmakers over arms deals with Israel.

Facing an unprecedented wave of criticism and questions from United States legislators about US weapons sales to Israel, Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the Biden administration remains committed to “giving Israel the means to defend itself”.

In an interview with ABC News program This Week, Blinken said President Joe Biden has been clear in his commitment to Israel’s defence, “especially when it comes to these indiscriminate rocket attacks against civilians”.

“Any country would respond to that, and we’re committed to Israel’s defence,” Blinken said on Sunday. “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.”

Progressive US legislators, including Democratic Congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, have slammed Biden for his unequivocal support for Israel during the country’s recent bombing campaign on the Gaza Strip.

Nearly 250 Palestinians, including dozens of children, were killed in 11 days of Israeli bombardments of the besieged Palestinian territory, while more than 1,900 others were injured and scores of buildings and critical infrastructure were damaged or destroyed.

In Israel, 12 people – including two children – were also killed in rocket fire from the Strip.

US legislators had put pressure on Biden to call for an immediate ceasefire to end the violence, while criticizing statements from the White House and other top administration officials defending Israel’s “right to defend itself”.

They also questioned a planned $735m weapons sale to the Israeli government that was first reported on during the Israeli military offensive on Gaza.

“The United States should not be rubber-stamping weapons sales to the Israeli government as they deploy our resources to target international media outlets, schools, hospitals, humanitarian missions and civilian sites for bombing,” Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on May 19, a day before a Gaza ceasefire was reached.

The New York legislator put forward a resolution that same day in the US House of Representatives seeking to block the arms transfer, and on May 20, Senator Bernie Sanders presented a similar resolution in the Senate.

The Biden administration has insisted that its behind-the-scenes diplomacy helped secure the ceasefire in Gaza, however, and it has pledged to help rebuild the Palestinian enclave.

But experts have criticized that approach, saying Israel only responds to public pressure and that “the more Israel is coddled, supported, sustained, the more belligerent and intransigent Israel becomes to making any concessions”.

Blinken is expected to visit Israel and the occupied West Bank next week to discuss the situation, which continues to be tense amid Israeli plans to forcibly expel Palestinian families from occupied East Jerusalem and Israeli settlers entering Al-Aqsa Mosque compound.

The State Department said Blinken would “meet with Israeli, Palestinian, and regional counterparts in the coming days to discuss recovery efforts and working together to build better futures for Israelis and Palestinians”.

The US secretary of state reiterated that message in his ABC News interview on Sunday, saying “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 have got the ceasefire – and now deal with the humanitarian situation, deal with reconstruction, and deepen our existing engagement with Palestinians and with Israelis alike,” Blinken said.

Al-Jazeera’s James Bays, reporting from West Jerusalem, said what was lacking in Blinken’s comments “was any suggestion that the US is going to try to kick-start diplomacy”, as the Israel-Palestine issue has so far not been a priority for the Biden administration.

“It’s been focused on the Iran nuclear deal, on Afghanistan, on relations between China and Russia. And it may be that some in the administration have decided that after this conflict, things are likely to be calm for the next few months or maybe even the next few years,” Bays said.

“But we’ll see when [Blinken] gets here in the coming days … whether there is any effort by the US to actively start some sort of peace negotiation.”