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Blinken confirmed as US secretary of state; vowed to consult with Israel on Iran

Senate overwhelmingly backs Biden’s nominee, week after hearing in which he said US commitment to Israel’s security is ‘sacrosanct,’ backed two-state solution

Antony Blinken speaks during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Alex Edelman-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)
Antony Blinken speaks during his confirmation hearing to be secretary of state before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee, on January 19, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Alex Edelman-Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON — The US Senate on Tuesday confirmed Antony Blinken as America’s top diplomat, tasked with carrying out US President Joe Biden’s commitment to reverse the Trump administration’s “America First” doctrine that weakened international alliances.

Senators voted 78-22 to approve Blinken, a longtime Biden confidant, as the nation’s 71st secretary of state, succeeding Mike Pompeo. The position is the most senior Cabinet position, with the secretary fourth in the line of presidential succession.

Blinken, 58, served as deputy secretary of state and deputy national security adviser during the Obama administration. He has pledged to be a leading force in the administration’s bid to reframe the US relationship with the rest of the world after four years in which President Donald Trump questioned longtime alliances. He is expected to start work on Wednesday after being sworn in, according to State Department officials.

At his Senate Foreign Relations Committee confirmation hearing last week, Blinken said that the Biden administration will consult with Israel and Arab allies in the Middle East before it makes decisions about reentering the Iran nuclear agreement.

File: An Iranian technician walks through the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan, 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Feb. 3, 2007 (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

“It’s vitally important that we engage on the takeoff, not the landing, with our allies and partners in the region, to include Israel and to include the Gulf countries,” he said, adding that a new agreement could address Iran’s “destabilizing activities” in the region as well as its missiles.

“Having said that, I think we’re a long way from there,” Blinken said.

Biden has said that returning to the 2015 deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), would be a top priority for him in the Middle East. US President Donald Trump withdrew from the deal in 2018 and imposed crushing sanctions that have wreaked havoc on the Iranian economy. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has spoken out against Biden’s plan to reenter the JCPOA.

Nonetheless, Israel’s Ambassador to the UN Gilad Erdan was one of the first to congratulate Blinken on his confirmation, tweeting, “I look forward to working closely with you and deepening the already robust alliance between Israel and the United States.”

Israel’s Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi also tweeted his congratulations.

Also during the confirmation hearing, Blinken praised the Abraham Accords negotiated by the Trump administration that saw Israel normalize ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, saying such agreements make the region safer. However, he said the Biden administration would “take a hard look at” some of the “commitments” that were made in tandem with those accords.

He appeared to be referencing weapons deals made with the UAE, which was set to receive 50 F-35 advanced fighter jets from the US following the signing of the normalization agreement.

Students of Iran’s Basij paramilitary force burn posters depicting US President Donald Trump (top) and President-elect Joe Biden, during a rally in front of the foreign ministry in Tehran, on November 28, 2020, to protest the killing of prominent nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh a day earlier near the capital. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Blinken expressed hope that the Abraham Accords will provide Israel with a new sense of “confidence and security” to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

He went on to call the US commitment to Israel’s security “sacrosanct” and later said that he does not consider Israel a “racist nation” when asked by Senator Lindsey Graham.

Blinken also threw his support behind a two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians, while expressing doubt that such a deal could be reached in the near future.

“The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution,” Blinken said, while adding that he opposes “unilateral” efforts by either party that make reaching such a solution more difficult.

Blinken later said he and Biden are “resolutely opposed” to the Boycott Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel because it “unfairly and inappropriately singles out Israel and creates a double standard that we do not apply to other countries.”

“At the same time, I fully respect the first amendment rights of Americans to say what they believe,” he added, saying he would oppose measures backed by some US Jewish groups to sanction those who boycott Israel.

Vice President Joe Biden (left) and Deputy Secretary of State Tony Blinken, June 30, 2015, at the State Department in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

Blinken also committed to not reversing Trump’s decision to transfer the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, adding that the holy city is Israel’s capital.

“American leadership still matters,” Blinken told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. “The reality is, the world simply does not organize itself. When we’re not engaged, when we’re not leading, then one of two things is likely to happen. Either some other country tries to take our place, but not in a way that’s likely to advance our interests and values, or maybe just as bad, no one does and then you have chaos.”

Blinken vowed that the Biden administration would approach the world with both humility and confidence, saying “we have a great deal of work to do at home to enhance our standing abroad.”

Trump’s secretary of state nominees met with significant opposition from Democrats. Trump’s first nominee for the job, former ExxonMobil CEO Rex Tillerson, was approved by a 56 to 43 vote and served only 13 months before Trump fired him in tweet. His successor, Pompeo, was confirmed in a 57-42 vote.

Opposition to Blinken centered on Iran policy and concerns among conservatives that he will abandon Trump’s “maximum pressure” campaign against Iran.

Nominated Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks as US President-elect Joe Biden looks on during a cabinet announcement event in Wilmington, Delaware, on November 24, 2020. (CHANDAN KHANNA / AFP)

Blinken inherits a deeply demoralized and depleted career workforce at the State Department. Neither Tillerson nor Pompeo offered strong resistance to the Trump administration’s attempts to gut the agency, which were thwarted only by congressional intervention.

Although the department escaped proposed cuts of more than 30% of its budget for three consecutive years, it has seen a significant number of departures from its senior and rising mid-level ranks. Many diplomats opted to retire or leave the foreign service given limited prospects for advancement under an administration that they believed didn’t value their expertise.

A graduate of Harvard University and Columbia Law School and a longtime Democratic foreign policy presence, Blinken has aligned himself with numerous former senior national security officials who have called for a major reinvestment in American diplomacy and renewed emphasis on global engagement.

Blinken served on the National Security Council during the Clinton administration before becoming staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Biden was chair of the panel. In the early years of the Obama administration, Blinken returned to the NSC and was then-Vice President Biden’s national security adviser before he moved to the State Department to serve as deputy to Secretary of State John Kerry, who is now serving as special envoy for climate change.

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