WASHINGTON - U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken downplayed speculation surrounding the lack of communication between U.S. President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Netanyahu on Monday, saying that he was sure they would speak "in the near future."
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In a wide-ranging interview with CNN's Wolf Blitzer, Blinken said that "they spoke actually during the transition. I think one of the first calls the president had was with the prime minister, and I've talked to my Israeli counterparts on multiple occasions already."
The president has not made a call to Netanyahu in the three weeks since his inauguration, leading to conjecture that Biden was deliberately giving him a cold shoulder. The previous two presidents, Donald Trump and Barack Obama, both called Israel's prime minister the same week in which they were inaugurated for the first time.
Blinken also stopped short of endorsing the Trump administration's recognition of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967, as Israeli territory. "Leaving aside the legalities of that question – as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel's security," he said. "As long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself – all of these pose a significant security threat to Israel. As a practical matter, the control of Golan in that situation remains of real importance to Israel's security," Blinken said.
He added that "legal questions are something else and over time if the situation were to change in Syria, that's something we look at. But we are nowhere near that."
On a visit to the Arab locality of Zarzir, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addressed the status of the territory: "The Golan Heights has been and will continue to be a part of the State of Israel. With an agreement or without an agreement, we are not leaving the Golan. It will remain under the sovereignty of the State of Israel,” he said.
Asked by Blitzer if he would support labelling East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state, Blinken said that "what we have to see happen is for the parties to get together directly and negotiate these so-called final-status issues. That's the objective, and as I've said, we're unfortunately a ways away from that at this point in time." He added that both he and the Biden administration regard Jerusalem as Israel's capital and will keep the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem.
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The secretary of state also repeated his praise of Israel's normalization pacts with several Arab states, while reiterating that they are not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace.
"We applauded the Abraham Accords," said Blinken. "This is a important step forward. Whenever we see Israel and its neighbors normalizing relations, improving relations, that's good for Israel, it's good for the other countries in question, it's good for overall peace and security. I think it offers new prospects to people throughout the region through travel, through trade, through other work that they can do together to actually materially improve their lives so that's a good thing," he continued. "But as you said rightly, that doesn't mean that the challenges of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians go away. They don't, they're still there, they're not going to miraculously disappear. So we need to engage on that but in the first instance the parties in question need to engage on that."
Blinken also said that the Biden administration's current goal in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was ensuring that tensions do not further deteriorate. "The hard truth is we are a long way from seeing peace break out and seeing a final resolution of the problems between Israel and the Palestinians, and the creation of a Palestinian state," he said. "In the first instance now, it's 'do no harm.' We're looking to make sure that neither side takes unilateral actions that make the prospects for moving toward peace and a resolution even more challenging than they already are. And then, hopefully, we'll see both sides take steps to create a better environment in which actual negotiations can take place."