Secretary Antony J. Blinken With Kristen Welker of NBC’s Meet the Press


QUESTION:  And joining me now is Secretary of State Antony Blinken.  Secretary Blinken, welcome back to Meet the Press.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Morning, Kristen.

QUESTION:  Thank you so much for being here.  I want to start with that State Department report that did not draw a definitive conclusion about Israel, whether it’s violated international law.  Amnesty International says of the report, this is the, quote, “international version of [sending] ‘thoughts and prayers.’”  Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen says it ducks the ultimate questions that the report was designed to determine.

Mr. Secretary, is the U.S. trying to avoid holding Israel accountable for its actions?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  No.  We don’t have double standards.  We treat Israel, one of our closest allies and partners, just as we would treat any other country, including in assessing something like international humanitarian law and its compliance with that law.  I would invite people to read the report.  They can see for themselves everything that we’ve laid out in the report.

The report also makes clear that this is an incredibly complex military environment.  You have an enemy that intentionally embeds itself with civilians, hiding under and within schools, mosques, apartment buildings, firing at the Israeli forces from those places.  It’s very, very difficult in the heat of war to make a definitive assessment about any individual incident, but what the report concludes is that based on the totality of the harm that’s been done to children, to women, to men who are caught in this crossfire of Hamas’s making, it’s reasonable to conclude that there are instances where Israel has acted in ways that are not consistent with international humanitarian law.

At the same time, Kristen, we continue to look at, investigate each of these incidents, but critically, so does Israel.  There are hundreds, as we understand it, of open inquiries into particular incidents that have taken place since October 7th.  There are criminal investigations that are going forward.  Israel, unlike many other countries, has both the means and the will to try to police itself.  So we need to let those play out, but our own process that has been underway for many months to look at individual incidents, that will continue as well.  And when we can reach definitive conclusions, we will, but it’s very difficult to do that in the midst of a war.

QUESTION:  And I hear you saying how complex the situation is on the ground, but here we are in the seventh month of this war, Mr. Secretary.  How is it possible that the State Department, with all of its resources, was not able to reach a definitive conclusion on this critical question of whether Israel has violated international law?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Again, precisely because we continue to be in the midst of that war, and making these assessments in real time when we don’t have people on the ground, when we also have to make sure that we’re getting information from all concerned, that takes time, and we want to make sure that we can reach definitive conclusions.

But as the report makes clear, given the totality of the damage that’s been done to civilians, to children, to women, to men – given that, given the fact that Israel clearly has procedures, rules, regulations, laws that go into the targeting decisions they make, the way they conduct themselves – but the results that we’ve seen in terms of the horrible loss of life of innocent civilians, it’s reasonable to assess, as we say in the report, that there are instances where they’ve acted inconsistent with their obligations under international humanitarian law.  Those investigations continue, both by us and by Israel.

QUESTION:  Let’s zoom out a little bit and talk about U.S. policy.  The U.S. has urged Israel not to invade Rafah, yet troops are already on the ground, and this weekend we learned that over 300,000 people are being evacuated.  President Biden threatened to withhold certain weapons if Netanyahu goes into Rafah in a full-scale invasion, while at the same time sending in other weapons.  Big picture, why should Israel believe that the U.S. is willing to back up its threats?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Well, first let’s step back for one minute.  No one has done more to defend Israel when it mattered than President Biden.  He was there in the days after October 7th, the first President to go to Israel in the midst of a conflict.  When Iran mounted an unprecedented attack on Israel some weeks ago – 300 projectiles, including ballistic missiles, launched at Israel – the United States for the first time ever participated it its active defense and President Biden brought together a coalition of countries the helped defend Israel.  So no one has done more than Joe Biden.

At the same time, what we’ve seen over the last few months is a deep concern on our part about the possibility of a major military operation in Rafah, given the damage it would do to civilians – there are more than 1.4 million Gazans in Rafah, most of whom have moved from other parts of Gaza.  Absent a credible plan to get them out of harm’s way and to support them, the President’s been clear for some time that we couldn’t and would not support a major military operation in Rafah.

Now, at the same time, we share Israel’s objective in making sure that Hamas cannot govern Gaza anymore, that it be demilitarized, that Israel get its leaders – we continue to support them.  But there’s a better way of achieving that than going headlong into Rafah.  That’s what we’re talking about with Israel now.  We have a better way of doing it.  We’re engaged in conversations with them about that.  But the President, in answering a question, was very clear about where we are on Rafah itself and what we would do or not do in the event that they go with a major military operation.

QUESTION:  I hear you saying you haven’t seen a credible plan yet for how Israel would go into Rafah and mitigate any civilian casualties.  Is it fair to see – say that President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu are not seeing eye to eye right now?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  There are two things.  One is that, as the President said and as we’ve said in many conversations over the last couple of months, there has to be a credible plan for the civilians.  We have to make sure —

QUESTION:  Have you seen a credible plan?


Second, there’s something else that’s important.  We also haven’t seen a plan for what happens the day after this war in Gaza ends, because right now the trajectory that Israel is on is even if it goes in and takes heavy action in Rafah, there will still be thousands of armed Hamas left.  We’ve seen, in areas that Israel has cleared in the north, even in Khan Younis, Hamas coming back.  So the trajectory right now is that going into Rafah, even to deal with these remaining battalions – especially in the absence of a plan for civilians – risks doing terrible harm to civilians and not solving the problem, a problem that both of us want to solve, which is making sure Hamas cannot again govern Gaza.

Israel’s on the trajectory potentially to inherit an insurgency with many armed Hamas left or, if it leaves, a vacuum filled by chaos, filled by anarchy, and probably refilled by Hamas.  We’ve been talking to them about a much better way of getting an enduring result, enduring security, both in Gaza itself and, much more broadly, in the region.  Those conversations continue.  And that’s what partners, that’s what allies, do.  We are clear-eyed and we speak the truth to each other as we see it.  We have American interests first and foremost in mind; we also have Israel’s interests in mind.


SECRETARY BLINKEN:  And there may be a difference in view in the best way to achieve them, but that’s also the nature of the relationship.

QUESTION:  I want to drill down with you on President Biden’s threat to withhold weapons.  What exactly is his red line, Mr. Secretary?  What would trigger him to say, “I am now withholding weapons?”

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, we don’t talk about red lines when it comes to Israel.  We talk, again —

QUESTION:  President Biden did talk about a red line, though, Mr. Secretary, respectfully.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  So let me be – yeah, let me be clear.  Let me be clear about two things.

QUESTION:  What would trigger him to make that decision?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Sure.  So first, we have been holding back – and we’re in active conversations with Israel about – the provision of heavy or high-payload weapons, large bombs, because of the concern that we have about the effect these weapons can have when they’re used in a dense urban environment like Rafah.  We’re discussing that with Israel right now.

Second, what the President said is that if Israel goes in with a major military operation in Rafah, in that case there are certain systems that we will not provide to Israel that would aid in – aid that effort, because it’s something that we do not want to be part of given the damage that it would do to civilians, and again, not to achieve a durable, lasting, effective result for Israel and for its security.  That’s what the President said.  We’ve said that in conversations with our Israeli partners.  It’s unfortunate that that leaked out, but the President responded forthrightly to a question when he was asked about it.

QUESTION:  Mr. Secretary, I want to ask you about the very latest on the deal to get the hostages released, for a ceasefire.  We know that the CIA director has since returned home.  Did those talks fall apart because Prime Minister Netanyahu was threatening and is making moves to go into Rafah?

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Look, it’s important, first of all, to remind ourselves that Hamas could have ended this on day one.  Well, this never, of course, should have happened.  There was actually a ceasefire before October 7th, on October 6th, that Hamas destroyed in the most barbaric way possible, humanly imaginable.  But every day after that, Hamas could have decided to give up the hostages, stop hiding behind civilians, put down its weapons, and all of this would have been over.

It still has that possibility.  The quickest way for this to end is for Hamas to give up the hostages.  We will get a ceasefire that we can build on – and build to something more lasting and more durable.  The different teams continue to talk.  It remains our view that the fastest way to get to a ceasefire, the fastest way to get hostages home, is through an agreement, and we’re determined every single day to pursue that and to try to get it to happen.  I think you can question whether Hamas actually wants to get this.  It would also be the best way to make sure that we can really surge humanitarian assistance and better protect civilians in Gaza.  Hamas purports to be interested in that; its actions certainly demonstrate the opposite.

QUESTION:  All right.  Secretary Blinken, thank you so much for your time this morning.  We really appreciate it.

SECRETARY BLINKEN:  Kristen, thank you.

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