March 22, 2023

Van Hollen Questions Blinken on Current Situation in Israel and West Bank

Today, U.S. Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), questioned U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken regarding the current situation in Israel and the West Bank. The Senator raised concerns about this issue in hearings in both the Senate Appropriations State and Foreign Operations Subcommittee (SFOPS) and the Senate Foreign Relations Committee (SFRC). Transcripts of his exchanges are available below and video is available here (SFOPS) and here (SFRC).

SENATOR CHRIS VAN HOLLEN (D-Md.): If I could turn now to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. Since the new Israeli government was formed, high-level members of our government have visited Israel, including yourself. Just a few days ago, President Biden had a phone call with Prime Minister Netanyahu. The readout from that call indicated that President Biden underscored the need to “maintain the viability of the two-state solution” and the importance of abiding by the two agreements that the United States helped to recently broker between Israelis and Palestinians at Aqaba and later at Sharm el-Sheikh. Those agreements committed Israel to “stop discussions of any more settlement units for four months and stop authorization of any outposts for six months.” Within days of the Aqaba agreement, as you know, Prime Minister Netanyahu rushed to disavow it – said, that doesn’t apply. And then just days after the meeting at Sharm el-Sheikh and after the phone call between President Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu, the Knesset voted to pass a law to lift the ban on reentering four settlements, including Homesh, that Israel had committed to evacuate 20 years ago. The State Department spokesperson, [Vedant] Patel, said the move was “inconsistent with Israel’s recent commitments to deescalating Israeli-Palestinian tensions,” and said “it was a clear contradiction of undertakings the Israeli government made to the United States.” I’m assuming that you also support, endorse those comments made by the State Department spokesperson?

ANTONY J. BLINKEN, SECRETARY OF STATE: Senator, I do, but it’s also based on what we hear. And I’ve heard directly from Israeli leadership as well as the Palestinian Authority about the desire for both sides to see the violence – that has reached record levels in recent months – deescalate and try to get a period of calm. And that’s clearly in the interest of both sides. And it’s an interest that at least Prime Minister Netanyahu has expressed directly to me. And there are a number of things that go with that, you’ve cited some of them – 

VAN HOLLEN: Mr. Secretary –

BLINKEN: If we see steps inconsistent with that, I think it does contradict what we believe both Israelis and the Palestinian Authority are seeking to do, and what they’ve said to us is in their own self-interest.

VAN HOLLEN: Right, no, I appreciate that. Obviously, we need to see compliance on both sides: the Palestinian Authority and the Government of Israel. But this was a very official act by the Knesset – just days after the phone call between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Biden. So I’m pleased to see you support, endorse the statement by the State Department spokesperson, but it seems to me that we look very weak when we continually make statements without any kind of consequence. So I guess my final question to you is: what are we prepared to do – what is the Biden Administration prepared to do – if you see continued violations by either side of this agreement?

BLINKEN: Look, I don’t want to speculate or get into a hypothetical about where this may go and what we would do. I can say that both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority want us to be involved and engaged in helping and supporting and working with them to try to get to this period of calm. At some point, if either or both sides are not doing what we believe is necessary to get there it will be hard or maybe futile for us to do that. So, we have to look very carefully at that. But I also think that it’s important for everyone to try to double down on the steps necessary to try to get there. Because it’s profoundly not in the interest of Israel – our close ally and partner – or for that matter the Palestinian Authority to see this cycle, cycle up.

VAN HOLLEN: Mr. Secretary, I appreciate the efforts. And the United States has been involved in trying to broker these agreements. I guess my question, and I’ll just leave it with your last answer is: what are we prepared to do when we see violations of those commitments? Thank you, Mr. Chairman. 

Later at a hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Van Hollen resumed his questioning of Secretary Blinken on this issue: 

VAN HOLLEN: I do want to pick up on our earlier conversation today about some concerning actions taken by the Government of Israel as we work to try to create a period of time where we could deescalate. And this morning, you agreed that the recent action taken by the Knesset – really just yesterday – that rolled back the agreement made more than 20 years ago by Israel to evacuate forced settlements was inconsistent with the obligations that the Government of Israel has taken on in Aqaba and Sharm el-Sheikh. And I think we need to press those issues on both sides whenever we see violations of this agreement. I do want to talk about certain elements of the new government which are really extreme forces within this government – one of them is [Itamar] Ben-Gvir, the other is [Bezalel] Smotrich. And these are not backbenchers – they’re not backbenchers. They have very important responsibilities within this new government. Ben-Gvir is the Minister of National Security, in charge of statewide law enforcement and the Israeli police. Smotrich is the Minister of Finance and also, as you know, the Minister in the Defense Ministry that has authority over civilian issues in the West Bank including illegal construction and authority over planning and construction for settlements. Just a few days ago, Smotrich commented as follows: “That there is no such thing as Palestinians because there is no such thing as a Palestinian people.” This was condemned by Biden Administration officials. And Mr. Secretary, you’re here today – do you join in condemning that comment?


VAN HOLLEN: And this is not the first time, right – that Smotrich has made these very incendiary comments – incitements to violence. It was just a few weeks ago where he stated in reference to the Palestinian village of Huwara that it needs to be “wiped out” and “that the State of Israel should do it.” Now, I agree with President Biden – as a longtime supporter of the U.S.-Israel relationship – that it has been built on interests and built on values. You have to agree, Mr. Secretary, that those comments by Smotrich, Minister of Finance, and somebody who has an important portfolio over the West Bank, those do not reflect our values – do they?

BLINKEN: They do not. But I would also point out that the second comment you alluded to on Huwara, Prime Minister Netanyahu insisted that the person in question walk those comments back. Which he did – for what that’s worth. I’d also note that the legislation you referred to – which, again, we think is indeed inconsistent with commitments made, and in fact inconsistent with long-standing commitments because those were commitments undertaken I believe during the Bush Administration – my understanding is that Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that they have no intention of actually – the government, this was a Knesset law – has no intention of actually moving forward on the authorities that it’s been apparently given.

VAN HOLLEN: So, Mr. Secretary, all of this raises the issue that Prime Minister Netanyahu says he has two hands on the steering wheel – meaning that he’s in control of this government. But we’re looking at actions his Ministers are taking – and actions in portfolios that are very significant – that go directly contrary to that. And Prime Minister Netanyahu, as we discussed this morning, specifically himself, disavowed the agreement reached in Aqaba within 24 hours of it having been reached. So, I just go back to make my final point I did this morning, which is: I appreciate the statements that have been made by Biden Administration officials – I think Mr. Secretary it’s important for you personally also to continue to speak out – and I think we look weak when we see time after time actions taken inconsistent with our positions with no consequence at all. Thank you, Mr. Chairman.