Tony Blinken’s Biden spiel

Biden’s top foreign policy advisor applauds the Abraham Accords as a 'positive step' to Mideast peace, but maintains that 'ignoring the Israel-Palestine dimension doesn't make it go away'

As the Biden presidential campaign’s top foreign policy advisor, Tony Blinken has spent much of the past year making his case to key advocacy groups around the country from the comfort of his home office. Every six weeks, Blinken is said to meet with progressive groups, while also serving as a channel for Jewish and pro-Israel organizations — including AIPAC and the American Jewish Committee — to connect with the campaign. 

In those private meetings, Blinken does not usually give specific policy commitments, choosing instead to speak broadly about former Vice President Joe Biden’s foreign policy vision and to critique the Trump administration. To Jewish groups, Blinken makes sure to emphasize Biden’s long history with Israeli leaders. In an exclusive interview with Jewish Insider, Blinken detailed the Biden campaign’s views on the Middle East and what he typically shares in those off-the-record briefings.

Blinken is known for frequently telling some version of the same story — of how, during Israel’s 2014 conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip, he was woken up in the middle of the night by Israeli Ambassador to the U.S. Ron Dermer, who was desperate for U.S. assistance in response to the hundreds of rockets that were being fired into Israeli population centers.

“The very next morning, I brought that to President Obama and Vice President Biden in the Oval Office during our morning meeting. I explained what I’d heard from the ambassador and the military attache, and I got an almost simultaneous three-word response from both the president and vice president, which was: ‘Get it done,’” Blinken recalled. “The vice president then worked throughout the weekend to engage Congress on this and by Tuesday we had a quarter of a billion dollars in funding for Iron Dome replenishment.”

Blinken recounts that anecdote to underscore his efforts — and those of his former bosses — in supporting Israel in a time of crisis. “Talk about turning on a dime to do something vital for Israel’s security. That’s a pretty good example,” he told JI.

But it’s a lesser-known, much more personal story, that has shaped Blinken’s worldview and diplomatic career.

***

Born in New York City to Jewish parents, Blinken, now 58, moved to Paris at age 9 with his mother and stepfather, Polish-born American lawyer and Holocaust survivor Samuel Pisar. 

Pisar, who died in 2015 at age 86, lost both parents and a sister during the Holocaust and survived the Majdanek, Auschwitz and Dachau death camps. He later became an advisor on international economic policy to President John F. Kennedy, whom he met at Harvard, and a confidant to French Presidents François Mitterrand and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing.

During a recent event with Florida Democrats, Blinken shared that toward the end of the war, Pisar — along with a few friends — escaped a death march out of a concentration camp, miraculously avoiding gunfire from German troops, before hiding in the woods for four days. 

“One day as they were hiding out, they heard this deep rumbling sound,” Blinken recounted, “and as my stepfather looked out, he saw a sight that he had never seen before — not the dreaded Iron Cross, not a swastika, but on a tank a five-pointed white star. And, maybe in a foolhardy way, he rushed out toward it. He knew what it was. And he got to the tank, the hatch opened up, and a large African-American G.I. stared down at him. And he got down on his knees and he said the only three words that he knew in English, that his mother had taught him before the war: ‘God bless America.’ And at that point, the G.I. lifted him into the tank, into freedom, into America. That’s the story that I grew up with — about what our country is and what it represents, and what it means when the United States is engaged and leading.”

It’s a story that has stayed with Blinken throughout his career, from his first job at the White House as a staffer on the National Security Council, to his role as senior director for strategic planning at the NSC and as a speechwriter for former President Bill Clinton. 

Later, after serving as a staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the George W. Bush administration, Blinken went to work for Biden’s presidential campaign in 2008 and later joined the Obama-Biden transition team. During Obama’s first term, Blinken served as the vice president’s national security advisor. In 2014, he was tapped to serve as deputy to then-Secretary of State John Kerry. 

President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden meet with members of the National Security Council, including Tony Blinken (right), in the White House in 2014. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

***

Throughout the 2020 campaign, Biden has repeatedly proclaimed that the Trump administration has abandoned traditional U.S. allies. “Donald Trump has abandoned our allies while embracing dictators,” he charged during the Democratic primary. And to voters who look at Trump’s approach to Israel and the Middle East and say, “That doesn’t look like abandoning Israel to me,” Blinken has a long and nuanced answer. 

According to Blinken, Trump’s retreat from international institutions has, “done tremendous damage to the U.S. and to our standing in the world, which in turn is not good for Israel.” 

“Whether we like it or not, the world doesn’t organize itself,” Blinken explained. “Until this administration, the U.S. played a lead role, doing a lot of that organizing — in helping to write the rules, shape the norms, and animate the institutions that govern the way countries relate to each other. And the challenge now is that President Trump has largely abdicated that role and responsibility of putting us in many places in full retreat from our close allies. And the problem is that when we are not engaged, when we don’t lead, then one of two things happen: Either some other country tries to take our place, but probably not in a way that advances our interests or values; or maybe just a bad one does and then you tend to get chaos or a vacuum that is filled by bad things before it’s filled by good things. Either way, that’s not good for us, and it’s typically not good for our closest partners and allies.” 

The second challenge, according to Blinken, is the “America First” doctrine adopted by the Trump administration which Blinken says does not give the U.S. enough power to act alone on global affairs and to tackle crises, such as as the coronavirus pandemic and national security matters. ”From where we sit, there’s no wall high enough or wide enough to contain these challenges,” Blinken stressed. 

In short, “when it comes to American influence, when it comes to respect for the United States in the world, that is at freefall, and that’s not only not good for us, it’s not good for our close partners and allies that depend on us, including Israel.” 

***

One of the hottest topics on the 2016 campaign trail — the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran — is making a resurgence in 2020. The deal, which the U.S. exited in May 2018, was the Obama administration’s crowning diplomatic achievement. 

With down-ballot candidates taking firm positions on the deal — to reenter, renegotiate or maintain the status quo — Iran will almost certainly require a Biden administration’s immediate attention. 

Blinken suggested that Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal “with nothing to replace it” has led not only to Iran restarting some of the most dangerous aspects of the nuclear program, “but also putting Israel, potentially, first in the line of fire if Iran were to actually develop a weapon.” 

On the campaign trail, Trump has suggested that Tehran is holding off on making a decision on whether to return to negotiations or accelerate its nuclear program until there is a determined winner in the U.S. presidential race. The president has said he believes that if he is reelected, Iran will reach out to begin work on a new deal. 

Biden has pledged to reenter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) if Tehran returns to compliance, and said he hopes to work with U.S. allies to “make it longer and stronger.” 

Advisors to the Democratic presidential nominee maintain that, with the expiration of the arms embargo on Iran earlier this month and the U.S.’s withdrawal from the JCPOA, the Trump administration has been curtailed in its ability to manage Iranian intransigence.

Jake Sullivan, who served as national security advisor to Biden and who helped establish backchannel talks with Iran that led to the 2015 nuclear agreement, believes the former vice president’s ‘diplomacy first’ approach is a “durable way” to stop Iran from getting the bomb “without resorting to military force” — while restoring trust with U.S. allies and partners.

While the former vice president argues that the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign has neither stopped Iran from advancing its program nor prevented Tehran from activating proxies across the Middle East, critics of the JCPOA have expressed concern that giving Iran billions of dollars in sanctions relief will only result in further nefarious activities from the regime, both at home and abroad. 

Blinken told JI that even if a Biden administration would suspend nuclear-related sanctions, “we will continue non-nuclear sanctions as a strong hedge against Iranian misbehavior in other areas.” 

“The hard truth is that Iran was doing bad things before the JCPOA, during and after. And much of what it does is unfortunately not very expensive,” Blinken explained. “A much stronger way of doing this is making sure that you’re working in concert with allies and partners to stop and push back against Iranian misbehavior, and the problem with the [Trump] administration’s having torn up the nuclear deal is that it alienated us from the allies that we need to hold a hard line against Iran.” 

Blinken wavered when asked if it wouldn’t be wiser to use the Trump administration’s current leverage to ensure a more comprehensive agreement that addresses shortfalls in the original deal, including restrictions on ballistic missiles and Iran’s expansive terror network. 

“I don’t want to get ahead of where we might be next year,” he responded. “So, how the reentering the deal would work, what issues or elements might be involved, that’s not something that I would prejudge at this point.”

In this interview, and in general, the Biden campaign has walked a fine line on key policy issues, hesitant to outline the former vice president’s specific positions on a number of fronts. Blinken was noncommittal on what Trump foreign policy decisions a Biden administration would seek to reverse on day one in office. 

Deputy National Security Advisor Tony Blinken speaks at the White House in 2014. (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

***

The Biden campaign does, however, give Trump credit for the administration’s handling of Israel’s rapprochement with regional players: the recently signed Abraham Accords between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, the ratified normalization deal with Bahrain and the announced warming of ties between Israel and Sudan. 

Blinken noted that Biden “applauded the work that was done” with the UAE and Bahrain. “It is good for Israel that the two countries are recognizing its existence and moving toward normalization,” Blinken said. “That’s a positive step and one that should be applauded and one that Vice President Biden did applaud in the moment.”

However, Blinken was quick to argue that Bahrain and the UAE have never been at war with Israel, calling the significance of the deals “a little bit overstating,” and noting that ties between Israel and a number of its Arab neighbors have long existed, albeit clandestinely.

“You know, talking about historic peacemaking, when these countries were not actually at war, and the practical reality built up over many years, including during our administration, was that their relations were actually very close,” Blinken explained. “But symbolism matters,” he conceded. “And some of the additional practical things that flow from normalization matter.”

Blinken also voiced concern regarding the possible sale of F-35 jets to the UAE, which has been a worry among Democrats on Capitol Hill. Israel has indicated it will support the sale, which it agreed to after receiving U.S. guarantees that its qualitative military edge would be maintained. 

He suggested that a Biden administration “would have to take a hard look at it to understand exactly what’s involved,” and noted the commitment the Obama administration gave to Israel in 2015 that Israel would be the only Middle Eastern country allowed to purchase the jets. “I hope very much that the administration isn’t moving forward quickly or does not try to do so in a way that circumvents Congress,” he said. 

Blinken was hopeful that the recent normalization deals could “have a potentially positive impact” on achieving durable peace between Israel and its neighbors in the Middle East. 

“The more countries normalize their relationship with Israel, the greater I think Israel’s confidence is in being able to make peace across the board,” he suggested. “And also hopefully to resolve the Palestinian issue to the extent that it makes Israelis feel generally more secure. That may be helpful in creating greater confidence to move forward with the Palestinians, and it may also be that it does send a message to the Palestinians that they have to actually engage, negotiate in a meaningful way.” 

Blinken pledged that a Biden administration “would certainly try and continue to pursue and advocate for normalization with any Arab state that is prepared to do that,” while also working to achieve a two-state reality between Israel and the Palestinians. “Two states,” he said, “remains the only way to truly ensure Israel as a Jewish democratic state in and of itself.”

“Ignoring the Israel-Palestine dimension doesn’t make it go away — like the coronavirus, it’s not going to miraculously disappear,” Blinken asserted. “Of course this is not 2009, it’s not 2014, it’s not 2017. The parties are far from ready for any kind of negotiations toward final status. Right now, it’s hard to know exactly what situation the Biden administration would inherit. But I think, at the very least, [Biden] would want to make sure that neither side set back even further the prospects for eventually getting to negotiations.” 

Asked about the odds of Saudi Arabia joining the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan in normalizing relations with Israel — given that Biden has committed to reassess ties with Riyadh — Blinken maintained that a Biden administration would indeed “undertake a strategic review of our bilateral relationship with Saudi Arabia to make sure that it is truly advancing our interests and is consistent with our values. But beyond that there is not much I can say at this point.” 

***

In his public appearances, Biden rarely misses an opportunity to boast of his decades-long record on Israel, going back to his first meeting with former Prime Minister Golda Meir in 1973. Blinken pointed to the 2014 Iron Dome incident — mentioned above — as a prime example of the former vice president’s commitment to Israel’s security. 

Blinken also indicated that Biden would take his own approach to managing geopolitical affairs. Former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro, who is also a Biden campaign surrogate, said that in 2016 he recommended the Obama administration veto controversial U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334, which condemned Israeli settlements as illegal, but that other factions in the administration pushed for then-Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power to abstain. 

According to a Washington Post report shortly after the vote, Biden “warned of fierce backlash in Congress and in Israel itself” if the U.S. abstained. 

Blinken refused to state that a Biden administration would have vetoed that resolution. “I am not going to revisit that past history,” Blinken told JI. “The vice president has a long and strong record of standing up for Israel in international organizations. Part of the challenge when you totally abandon organizations and institutions, whatever their flaws, is that it’s a lot harder to defend Israel when you’re not there. So, re-engaging the United States is going to put us in a much stronger position to defend Israel when it is unfairly singled out.”

Blinken attempted to reframe the Trump administration’s warm relations with Israel. “I think there are a number of steps that President Trump has taken that are not so good for Israel,” he said, referencing the U.S. cutting security assistance to the Palestinians, moving away from a two-state solution, leaving the Iran deal while not resolving the nuclear issue, and withdrawing U.S. troops from Syria without consulting with the Israeli government. 

Last week, during a joint conference call with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office, announcing that Sudan will begin to normalize ties with Israel, Trump asked the Israeli leader: “Do you think ‘Sleepy Joe’ could have made this deal?” Netanyahu diplomatically replied, “One thing I can tell you, is… we appreciate the help for peace from anyone in America.”

Blinken declined to react specifically to those comments. “But I think that it is hard to think of anyone in American politics who is more steeped in these issues than Joe Biden,” he said, “or [has] a deeper and longer commitment to Israel and it’s security.”

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