Blinken grilled by Senate over Biden's approach to Israel

WASHINGTON — Secretary of State Antony Blinken fended off a sweeping attack on President Joe Biden's approach to Israel's war with Hamas from senators across the political spectrum on Tuesday.

Blinken came under forceful questioning about Biden's pause on some offensive weapons to Israel, a State Department report on Israel's conduct in the war and the administration's posture toward Iran at the hearing that broadly focused on the president's foreign policy.

In an especially fiery exchange, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, told Blinken near the end of the hours-long hearing, “You funded our enemies, and you undermine our friends, and the world is much, much more dangerous as a result and Americans are at greater jeopardy because of it."

Firing back, Blinken told him, "In fact, we've brought more countries together. We have stronger allies, stronger partnerships, stronger engagement from countries around the world to deal with a very dangerous world than we had.

"We were alone, we aren't anymore, and America's leading those efforts," Blinken said as the hearing concluded.

Blinken is delivering marathon testimony this week at hearings on Capitol Hill, where lawmakers have been keen to question the top U.S. diplomat about Israel. He appeared before the Senate Foreign Relations in the morning and has the Senate Appropriations committee in the afternoon. He'll come under questioning again on Wednesday from House members.

Protesters disrupt Blinken

Pro-Palestinian protesters interrupted Blinken's opening statements at both committee hearings on Tuesday to condemn the Biden administration's support for Israel in its war against Hamas.

One protester shouted at Blinken that he "will be remembered" as a "butcher" and for "murdering innocent Palestinians," as he was led out of the Foreign Relations hearing by law enforcement. Another shouted repeatedly: "He is a war criminal."

At least one demonstrator carried a homemade sign bearing the name of progressive, anti-war activist group CODEPINK.

"We're standing with Israel in its efforts to ensure that what happened on Oct. 7 never happens again, as we do everything we can to bring an end to the terrible human suffering in Gaza and prevent the conflict from spreading" Blinken said moments later, as he continued with his prepared remarks.

Senate Foreign Relations Chair Ben Cardin, D-Md., warned as the question and answer portion began that he would not "tolerate disruption" in the committee hearing on the Biden administration's annual budget request.

At the later hearing a succession of demonstrators challenged Blinken again, with a group holding up red, paint-covered hands to silently register their displeasure, as a protester told the Biden administration official, "This is a holocaust."

More: Iran president 'has blood on his hands': Ebrahim Raisi and Iran's prison massacres

Blinken hammers the ICC

Blinken won praise early in hearing for his condemnation of the International Criminal Court's announcement on Monday that it would seek warrants for the arrest of Israeli leaders, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and the leader of Hamas, Yahya Sinwar, on war crimes charges.

The Biden administration still sees a hostage and cease-fire agreement as the most viable way to bring about the end of the war, Blinken told senators.

"We remain at it every single day, I think there's still a possibility," he said.

Blinken said it was "wrongheaded" for the ICC to move to issue the warrants and a "shameful equivalence" between the leader of Hamas and Israel that was unhelpful to getting a deal.

Idaho Sen. Jim Risch, the ranking Republican on the committee, said it was one area where they agree. "On the ICC you got it exactly right, here," he said.

Former President Donald Trump sanctioned ICC officials over an attempt to exert jurisdiction over the U.S., which is not a party to court, for actions that it took in Afghanistan. Biden's administration immediately reversed the sanctions when he took office.

But at the hearing Blinken indicated that the Biden administration is now open to taking action against the ICC following the push for arrest warrants against Israeli officials. He said the administration wants to work with Congress on a bipartisan basis to find an "appropriate response" and is willing to entertain legislation sanctioning the ICC.

"I'm committed to doing that," Blinken told Risch. "As you say, the devil's in the details. So let's see've got. And we can take it from there."

U.S. military assistance a focus

Blinken came under scrutiny from members of Biden’s political party who have been critical of continued U.S. military assistance for Israel in the war that has lasted more than seven months.

Sen. Jeff Merkley, D-Ore., pressed Blinken to explain why the State Department determined in a report this month that it was “reasonable to assess” that Israel used U.S.-supplied weapons in ways that fell short of humanitarian standards but ruled they did constitute violations of international law.

Blinken said that the U.S. is investigating instances that were alluded to in the report – and some that were not – in addition to formal investigations that Israel is conducting.

“We’re determined that there be no double standard,” Blinken said.

He maintained that it is “very difficult to make final determinations” when the U.S. does not have personnel on the ground in Gaza and Hamas militants embed within civilian populations.

Commenting on the portion of the report that deals with humanitarian assistance, Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., bluntly told him, "This issue does not require additional investigation. We’ve seen this play out in real time."

Republicans also pushed Biden to explain the weapons hold, with Cruz insisting that Biden and Blinken "funded the Oct. 7 attacks” and claiming the administration “cut off weapons to Israel” in an especially testy exchange.

“We did not cut off weapons to Israel,” Blinken shot back.

Blinken testified that there is still just one weapons system Biden is holding back over concerns about a major ground operation in Rafah, where more than 1 million Palestinians had been sheltering.

He expressed frustration that a phone conversation in which Biden told Netanyahu he was putting a hold on the offensive weapons leaked to the press.

“There’s no final decision and it remains subject to a discussion,” he said under questioning from Sen. Pete Ricketts, R-Neb.

Ricketts kept pushing, and asked, “When was the last time you called for Hamas’ surrender?"

“Virtually every day,” Blinken responded.

Hamas could end the war by surrendering, Blinken added. “We’ve called for that repeatedly. I wish more countries around the world were doing that.”

Republicans zero in on Iran

Cruz also accused Blinken of refusing to enforce oil sanctions against Iran, which provides funding to the militant group Hamas, prompting Blinken to say that Tehran is "determined" to get around them.

The senator had questioned the administration's response to Raisi's death earlier in the back and forth, calling the leader who died in a weekend helicopter crash the “Butcher of Tehran” over human rights abuses in his wind up.

Cruz criticized the United Nations for flying the flag at half-mast and asked Blinken if he supported the decision.

“We’re certainly not mourning his death,” Blinken said.

Pressed on whether it’s “disgraceful” he replied: “We certainly wouldn’t do that.”

Creation of a Palestinian State

Blinken said the realization of a Palestinian state, which would allow for the normalization of relations between Israel and its neighbors and the full integration of Israel into the region, is the only way to stop the “endless cycles of violence, destruction, death and insecurity.”

There are 5 million Palestinians between the West Bank and Gaza and approximately 7 million Israeli-Jews in the region, he said.

“Neither is going anywhere. The Palestinians are not going anywhere, the Jews are not going anywhere. There has to be an accommodation,” Blinken said. “And there has to be an accommodation that respects and fulfills the rights of everyone concerned.”

Blinken said that it must also be done in a way that includes security guarantees for the Israelis.

“And we are and will be adamant about that,” Blinken said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Blinken questioned by Senate over Gaza crisis, backs Biden stance