Interview'Ignoring Israel-Palestine won't make it go away'

Biden aide on UAE F-35 sale: Only Israel was meant to have those jets in region

Tony Blinken says accord with Emirates, while positive, seems to be quid pro quo; says Jerusalem, Ramallah too far apart for talks so Biden would work to prevent unilateral steps

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

Hosts US Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken (R), during a luncheon gathering in honor of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on June 30, 2015, at the State Department in Washington. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)
Hosts US Vice President Joe Biden and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken (R), during a luncheon gathering in honor of Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff on June 30, 2015, at the State Department in Washington. (AP/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

NEW YORK — Joe Biden’s top foreign policy adviser said Friday that while recent Middle East normalization deals brokered by the Trump administration are welcome developments, the subsequently advanced US sale of F-35s to the United Arab Emirates leaves the impression that the peace deal between Abu Dhabi and Jerusalem was something of a “quid pro quo.”

In an interview with The Times of Israel, Tony Blinken expressed discomfort with the “apparent commitment” the Trump administration made to the UAE to sell the Gulf country the US’s most advanced fighter jet during negotiations on normalization with Israel held over the summer.

Israel has vehemently denied that the transfer of F-35s had been part of the talks, but White House officials have acknowledged that the UAE was in a better position to receive the fighter jets after it normalized relations with Israel last month.

“The Obama-Biden administration made those planes available to Israel and only Israel in the region,” said Blinken, who served as Biden’s national security adviser, deputy NSA to the president and deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration.

He said that in order to preserve Israel’s qualitative military edge as current US law requires, a Biden administration would have to “take a hard look” at the F-35 sale, which the White House notified Congress of last week.

US Vice President Joe Biden (R) speaks to President Barack Obama (L) as National Security Advisor Tom Donilon (second from R) and the vice president’s national security adviser Tony Blinken look on in the Oval Office, November 4, 2010. (Pete Souza/White House)

“Whether it was actually a quid pro quo or not, it sure looks like one,” Blinken said of the normalization deal.

But Blinken, who now serves as an official adviser to the Biden campaign, did give the Trump administration credit for pushing the UAE, along with Bahrain and Sudan, to open formal diplomatic relations with Israel. “Symbolism matters and some of the additional practical things that flow from [these agreements] matter, including more people-to-people ties, more trade and investment, etc.”

“As a basic principle, encouraging Arab countries to recognize and normalize with Israel is something we supported during the Obama-Biden administration and would support in a Biden-[Harris] administration,” he added.

Blinken expressed hope that as more countries normalize relations with Israel, Jerusalem will feel more secure and more willing to advance the peace process with the Palestinians as well. He made a point of connecting the two issues “because ignoring Israel-Palestine won’t make it go away any more than COVID-19 is going to ‘miraculously disappear,'” Blinken said, in a shot at US President Donald Trump for his February prediction regarding the coronavirus.

While he refrained from getting into details, the Biden aide asserted that a two-state solution to the Israeli conflict would be the “only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and Democratic state and also to fulfill the Palestinian right to a state of their own.”

“Having said that, this isn’t 2009, it’s not 2014. The parties are far from a place where they’re ready to engage in negotiations or final status talks,” Blinken noted.

Instead, he foresaw a Biden administration initially taking a posture of “do no harm” by ensuring that “neither side takes additional unilateral steps that make the prospect of two states even more distant or closing it entirely.”

US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken arrives on Capitol Hill in Washington, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2016, to testify before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Some analysts have speculated that a Biden administration would take a softer stance on Israel than former president Obama, who sparred frequently with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, particularly over the issue of Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. While Obama ultimately made the decision to abstain on a 2016 UN Security Council resolution condemning settlements, which resulted in it passing, former administration officials have told The Times of Israel that Biden had disagreed with his boss.

Nonetheless, Biden has made statements in recent months reiterating his long-held opposition to settlements and has lauded Netanyahu’s decision to shelve plans to annex the West Bank.

Blinken refrained from drawing comparisons between Biden and Obama, but asserted that the Democratic presidential nominee has “demonstrated in word and also in deed an unshakable commitment to Israel’s security.”

He went on to cite the former vice president’s lobbying of Congress for Iron Dome funding during the 2014 Gaza War and his involvement in the signing of a $38 billion military aid package for Israel in 2016 — the largest such deal in US history.

Before concluding the interview, Blinken made a point of explaining Biden’s broader outlook when it comes to Israel.

“One of the things that’s really shaped the vice president’s… career-long support for Israel and its security is the lesson of the Holocaust,” Blinken said. “He believes strongly that a secure Jewish homeland in Israel is the single best guarantee to ensure that never again will the Jewish people be threatened with destruction. That’s a profound reason why he’d never walk away from Israel’s security, even at times when he might disagree with some of its policies.”

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