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After Houthi designation, Blinken warns of ‘super-empowered groups’ that ‘can make an extraordinary amount of trouble’

The secretary of state, speaking at the World Economic Forum, discussed regional challenges with Tom Friedman

Hannes P Albert/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images

Secretary of State Tony Blinken (l) speaks at an event of the World Economic Forum (WEF).

Secretary of State Tony Blinken warned on Wednesday of “super-empowered groups, super-empowered entities,” which, he said, “can make an extraordinary amount of trouble for nation-states and others.”

Blinken made the comments during an interview with The New York Times’ Tom Friedman at the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, less than a day after reports that the Biden administration is expected to designate the Iran-backed Houthis as specially designated global terrorists.

Alongside the challenges posed by militia and terror groups in the Middle East, Blinken said, is a “different equation that answers the profound needs of virtually everyone in the region, starting with Israel, and starting with its age-old quest for genuine security.”

A broader effort to “change the larger direction of a region like the Middle East,” Blinken said, will resolve the challenges posed by malign actors. “A lot of these other problems will be minimized if not totally eliminated,” he explained. “The excuses, the rationales that various trouble-makers have for making trouble, they go away.”

A day earlier, National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan, also speaking in Davos, outlined the Biden administration’s long-term vision for the Middle East, which included further normalization efforts between Israel and Arab nations, as well as the creation of an independent Palestinian state.

A top consideration, Blinken said on Wednesday, is Israel’s security needs.

Under any circumstances, Blinken told Friedman, Israel “can’t have a repeat” of the Oct. 7 Hamas terror attacks. The secretary of state made his fourth trip to the Middle East since the start of the Israel-Hamas war last week, meeting in Tel Aviv with families of hostages still being held in Gaza.

“It’s hard to overstate the psychological impact on the country as a whole of what happened on that day,” he added.

Israel’s greatest security challenge up until now, Blinken said, has been Iran. Tehran, Blinken said, “is suddenly isolated, along with its proxies, and will have to make decisions about what it wants its future to be. So this is actually clear when you will look at it and see it. The problem is getting from here to there.” 

Blinken said that Arab nations have an “absolute conviction,” shared by the U.S., that normalization with Israel “has to include a pathway to a Palestinian state.” 

Blinken called for a “stronger, reformed Palestinian Authority that can more effectively deliver for its own people,” but stopped short of saying what that looks like in practice.

“I think it’s also clear from conversations that are going on now that the Palestinians are looking very hard at how they can come up with a more effective governance that can actually deliver what people want. Some of what needs to be delivered is the basic function of government: services, no corruption, transparency in the way government is pursued.”

“There are also things that people want that they can’t on their own deliver, absent a partnership with Israel,” Blinken added. “So that has to be part of the equation as well.”

Blinken demurred when asked by Friedman whether Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is the right leader to move Israel toward a two-state solution.

“This is a profound decision for the country as a whole to make,” Blinken responded. “What direction does it want to take? Can it seize the opportunity that we believe is there? And they’ll have to make those decisions. This is an inflection point…and when you get to an inflection point, you have to make hard decisions.”

Blinken suggested that Israeli government officials were not prepared to move forward toward a solution to the conflict. 

“When in previous times we came close to resolving the Palestinian question, getting a Palestinian state, I think the view — [from] Camp David, other places — was that Arab leaders and Palestinian leaders had not done enough to prepare their own people for this profound change,” he said. 

“I think the challenge now, the question now is: Is Israeli society prepared to engage on these questions? Is it prepared to have that mindset? That’s challenging and it’s of course doubly challenging when you’re focused intensely on Gaza and all of the security questions that are the day-in, day-out life for Israelis and Palestinians alike.”

Blinken tied many of his answers back to the Biden administration’s efforts to pursue deeper Israeli integration in the Middle East alongside a Palestinian state. “Ultimately, this is about choices,” he said. 

“What kind of society do we want to live in? What kind of world do we want to live in? What kind of region do we want to live in? We talk a lot as well today about regionalization. There’s a profound opportunity for regionalization in the Middle East in the greater Middle East that we have not had before. The challenge is realizing it.”

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