(January 26, 2022 / JNS) At a crucial moment for U.S. President Joe Biden’s foreign policy, U.S. Secretary of State Blinken held a virtual policy session with an Atlanta synagogue on Monday night, where tensions regarding a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine’s borders were front and center. China was also discussed as another threat to America’s interests.
The lecture, titled “21st Century Global Challenges Facing the U.S.”, was moderated by Stuart Eizenstat, the U.S. Special Adviser on Holocaust Issues, who grew up at Ahavath Achim Synagogue, which his family has belonged to since the early 20th century.
Eizenstat is a former ambassador to the European Union and has devoted much effort to Holocaust restitution, earning the Courage and Conscience Award from the government of Israel in the process. He has now served three presidential administrations on advocating for and advising on crucial matters related to the Holocaust.
“I wish your invited guest was Vladimir Putin,” Blinken said in response to Eizenstat’s early query about what the Russian president’s next move might be in his current standoff with the West over the positioning of troops along the border with Ukraine. “He is the only one that can give you an answer.”
Blinken went on to explain that “there are principles we live by—like how one country can’t change the borders of another by force, how one country can’t simply decide for another its choices, its decisions, its foreign policy, whom to associate with. One country can’t exert its sphere of influence to subjugate its neighbors to its will. The stakes are greater even than the fate of Ukraine or the relationship between Europe, and the U.S. and Russia. This is something of global consequences.”
His comments came on the same day that Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid declined to publicly take a position on the crisis, telling an Israeli TV station that he’s been in touch with “all players.” He was reportedly referring to Jewish communities in both Russia and Ukraine, saying, “We won’t endanger any Jew for a media statement.”
Earlier this month, the U.S. State Department said Blinken had discussed the situation in a phone call with Lapid that included other items. At the time, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs refused to comment on why Blinken brought up the subject.
‘The world desperately needs investment and infrastructure’
Despite the talk occurring just recently after the incident at a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas, and days before International Holocaust Remembrance Day, there was little mention during the discussion on anti-Semitism and threats to the Jewish community.
In discussing a sore spot in the U.S.-Israel relationship, Blinken spoke at length on the American posture towards China. Both the Biden administration and the former Trump administration have taken a hard line on Israel regarding its approval of massive Chinese investment—particularly in sensitive infrastructure such as ports, which host U.S. military, and rail, fearing nefarious use by the Chinese government.
“The world desperately needs investment and infrastructure, and it’s not inherently bad if China is providing it. It could be a good thing, provided it is done to highest standards, not the lowest, [and] that it is a race to top, not the bottom,” said Blinken. “When there are Chinese investments in particular sensitive areas—technologies, industries—of course, we have to effectively guard against that because there is no distinction. Any private Chinese company is beholden to the state. Anything the developer does or learns is to the benefit of the state.”
America’s top diplomat was also questioned about the current condition of Iran nuclear negotiations and the aftermath of the U.S. military’s withdrawal from Afghanistan last summer, which has colored its dealings with the Middle East and elsewhere around the world. Blinken largely rehashed long-standing grievances with the Trump administration, blaming his predecessors for placing the Biden White House in a box when developing and attempting to implement policies on Afghanistan and Iran. There was no substantive update on the nuclear talks, with Blinken saying that an agreement needs to come in the next few weeks if it is going to benefit either side.
Blinken wrapped up his discussion by noting the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, telling Eizenstat and those tuning in that the present environment is not conducive to reaching a two-state solution, and the United States would have to “build back” a different will, approach and attitude on both sides.
“We continue to very much believe in a two-state solution and in its necessity—whether it’s tomorrow, or whether it’s next year, or whether it’s more years down the road—for the simple reason that there is no other way forward that gives to the Palestinians the state they deserve, and preserves Israel as a secure and democratic state,” explained the secretary of state. “None of the alternatives give you that.”
“In the meantime,” he added, “it is vitally import we address living conditions for Palestinians to make sure their lives are a little bit better. That’s the right thing to do. It’s the humane thing to do, and from Israel’s perspective, I think it’s the smart thing to do.”
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