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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)
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)
Profile'A mensch with instinctive emotional attachment to Israel'

In tapping Blinken, Biden will be served by confidant with deep Jewish roots

US secretary of state nominee’s work with president-elect spans decades, and while the two sparred with Israel over Iran, they remain guided by fundamental support for Jewish state

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

NEW YORK — It was the height of the Second Intifada, and the Clinton administration’s Middle East envoy was having breakfast in a near-empty dining hall at Jerusalem’s King David Hotel.

While so many foreigners had been avoiding the capital that was reeling under a wave of suicide bombings, Dennis Ross recalls how two guests from the United States made a point of being in the Jewish state during the trying time and had joined him at breakfast that day: Senator Joe Biden and his foreign policy aide Antony Blinken.

“Biden thought it was important to be there then, and Tony was with him,” Ross recalled to The Times of Israel as he emphasized the degree to which, even 20 years later, the US president-elect continues to march in lockstep with the man he nominated on Monday to be the next secretary of state.

“Much like Biden, there’s an instinctive emotional attachment to Israel,” Ross said, referencing Blinken’s Jewish and refugee roots.

The nominee’s great-grandfather Meir Blinken immigrated to the US in the late 19th century from Kyiv, then part of the Russian Empire, now the capital of Ukraine, where he rose to prominence as an author of Yiddish short stories, many of them about the life of Jewish newcomers to America.

Blinken’s stepfather, Samuel Pisar, survived both the Auschwitz and Dachau concentration camps as an orphan and went on to become a prominent lawyer who counseled president John F. Kennedy.

At a campaign event last month, Blinken recalled how his stepfather learned that World War II had ended.

“One day as they were hiding out, they heard this deep rumbling sound, 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,” Jewish Insider quoted Blinken as saying.

“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.’”

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

״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,” he added.

In an interview with The Times of Israel last month, Blinken emphasized how the lessons of the Holocaust had also shaped Biden’s “lifelong support for Israel and its security.”

“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,” Blinken said.

A strong, albeit honest, US-Israel relationship

The secretary of state nominee was sharing Biden’s worldview, but conversations with those who know the longtime diplomat reveal that Blinken could very well have been speaking for himself.

“The most important thing to note is his close, longstanding relationship with the president-elect,” Ross said, highlighting the immense benefit Blinken will enjoy as secretary of state when he meets with world leaders who know that the top US diplomat speaks for the president and has the full backing of the commander-in-chief.

US President Barack Obama, center, and Vice President Joe Biden, left, meet with members of the National Security Council, August 18, 2014, in the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington. Also at the meeting are Deputy National Security Adviser Tony Blinken, and Homeland Security Advisor Lisa Monaco, far right. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

“No one has worked more closely with Biden since the early 1990s than Blinken,” said Ross, who overlapped with Blinken during the Clinton and Obama years.

After serving with Biden in the Senate, Blinken moved with him to the vice president’s office, becoming his national security adviser. Blinken was then promoted to become president Barack Obama’s deputy national security adviser in 2013.

But the close relationship with Biden remained and was on full display in a frequently told 2014 episode. It featured Israel’s Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer phoning Blinken in the middle of night, desperate for American aid to build more Iron Dome missile defense batteries, which were struggling to cope with nonstop rocket fire from Gaza.

Blinken, in the interview with ToI, said he brought the matter to Obama and Biden in the Oval Office the next morning and was given a three-word answer from both of them: “Get it done.”

He and Biden worked the phones through the weekend and managed to secure a quarter of a billion dollars in congressional funding.

Barack Obama (right) speaking to advisers Tony Blinken (foreground), and Ben Rhodes (background), regarding the Iran nuclear deal, on Sunday, November 24, 2013. (Pete Souza/White House)

Ross said it’s noteworthy that Biden’s nominee for secretary of state chooses to often highlight that story in meetings with Jewish leaders because it differentiates him from others in the White House at the time who weren’t as sympathetic to Israel’s position.

That’s not to say that Biden would lead a policy that gives Israel a free pass on settlement building, which Blinken told The Times of Israel Biden would oppose as part of a broader effort to keep the two-state solution alive.

Blinken indicated that the peace process would not be at the top of the Biden administration’s agenda, but also clarified that “ignoring Israel-Palestine won’t make it go away.”

On Iran, ‘compliance for compliance’

But it’s not just Biden with whom Blinken is believed to work so well. “I can’t think of anyone who’s worked with him who doesn’t view him as a complete professional,” Ross said.

“He’s a mensch above all else,” said Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations executive vice president Malcolm Hoenlein.

“Even when we had disagreements, he was able to listen and help facilitate communication,” said Hoenlein, whose work with Blinken has also spanned decades.

The disagreements referenced were largely over the Iran nuclear deal negotiated by the Obama administration in 2015 — while Blinken was deputy secretary of state — and are likely to return to the forefront given Biden’s desire to reenter the multilateral accord.

Blinken told The Times of Israel last month that a US reentry would require Iran first returning to acquiescence with its obligations under the agreement: “compliance for compliance.”

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)

“We would then work with our allies and partners to build a longer and stronger agreement,” the secretary of state nominee said at the time.

But this strategy appears misguided to the Israeli government and its Arab allies in the region, along with Republicans and many major Jewish organizations in the US that want to continue holding Iran’s feet to the fire with the crippling sanctions put in place by President Donald Trump. Netanyahu and Dermer have both publicly spoken out in recent days against a US return to the 2015 agreement.

Blinken, in turn, has argued that while the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action did not address Iran’s regional hegemony, it was working in curbing the Islamic Republic’s nuclear program. He has lamented how that progress was reversed since Trump’s withdrawal from the accord in 2018. The International Atomic Energy Agency reported earlier this month that after maintaining compliance with the nuclear deal up to the US exit, Tehran has since enriched 12 times the amount of uranium than what is allowed under the JCPOA.

Willingness to learn from mistakes

“There’s no doubt that things will be different [under Biden] than the last four years, but [Blinken] will be open and responsive, as he always has been, to the concerns of the Jewish community,” Ross said.

“There’s an intellectual honesty to him, in that he doesn’t keep a position if he realizes after the fact that it is not the right one,” he added.

Such has been the case with the Obama administration’s Syria policy, which saw the president lay out a “red line” against the use of chemical weapons by President Bashar Assad that he subsequently failed to enforce.

“We failed to prevent a horrific loss of life. We failed to prevent massive displacement… and it’s something I will take with me for the rest of my days,” Blinken told CBS earlier this year.

Blinken has also criticized the Trump administration for furthering that hands-off policy by gradually withdrawing US forces from Syria.

“It’s a worldview based on the importance of US leadership, believing that when we don’t lead, vacuums are created and the world becomes more dangerous,” said Ross. “That’s how Biden sees it, and that’s how [Blinken] sees it.”

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