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Who is Tony Blinken, Biden's incoming secretary of state?

A proponent of diplomacy with Iran and staunch supporter of Israel, Blinken will deal with an increasingly complex geopolitical landscape in the Middle East
Blinken is a veteran of the national security and foreign policy establishment (AFP/File photo)
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Washington

US President-elect Joe Biden has nominated his own foreign policy aide and former national security adviser Tony Blinken as secretary of state, a conventional appointment that signals a push to return to the Washington norms broken by outgoing President Donald Trump.

Blinken, who has worked with Biden for years, sees eye-to-eye with the incoming president on foreign policy issues - prioritising international alliances, a return to the Iran nuclear deal, reengaging in multilateral treaties and organisations and staunch support for Israel.

In fact, Blinken acted as a de-facto spokesperson for the Biden campaign on foreign policy over the past several months.

Biden officially announced Blinken's nomination on Monday, hours after several media outlets broke the news about the appointment late on Sunday. 

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A veteran of the national security and foreign policy establishment, Blinken's government experience dates as far back as 1994, when he served on then President Bill Clinton’s National Security Council staff at the White House.

He also worked on Capitol Hill as the Democratic staff director for the Senate Foreign Relations Committee between 2002 and 2008.

During the Barack Obama years, Blinken served in several key positions, including national security adviser to then-Vice President Biden, deputy national security adviser and deputy secretary of state.

As an establishment centrist without the hawkish views of some of the other candidates who were reported to be considered for the post, Blinken's appointment is unlikely to face a major pushback from progressive Democrats. 

Like most cabinet-level positions, the incoming secretary of state needs to be confirmed by the US Senate - a legislative chamber that may be under Republican control after the inauguration on 20 January, depending on the outcome of two contests in Georgia.

Staunch Israel supporter

As the top diplomat in the next administration, Blinken will take on major challenges in the Middle East after four years of a Trump doctrine driven by "maximum pressure" against Iran and unprecedented political support to Washington's Israeli and Gulf allies.

Biden has made it clear that he wants to "reassess" ties with Saudi Arabia and push to advance human rights in the region. At the same time, he has been and remains a staunch supporter of Israel. 

Blinken shares the president-elect's view that US aid to Israel is beyond debate and should never be used as leverage to influence the Israeli government's policies against Palestinians.

"Looking back at the past eight years, proud to serve a president whose administration has done more for Israel's security than any before," he wrote on Twitter in 2016.

Israel receives $3.8bn in US military aid annually as the result of a memorandum of understanding signed by Obama during his final year in office. 

In May, Blinken told the Democratic Majority for Israel (DMFI), a hawkish group linked to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), that Biden is committed to unconditional military assistance to Israel.

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"He would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions that it makes. Period. Full stop. He said it; he's committed to it. And that would be the policy of the Biden administration," he said.

At the same virtual appearance, Blinken repeated an anti-Arab trope angering community advocates.

"In the category of 'Never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity', I think a reminder to Palestinians... that they can and should do better and deserve better and that requires leadership: leadership to make clear the reality of the Jewish state; leadership to make clear the need to end incitement and violence; leadership to bring people along for the prospect of negotiating," Blinken said.

He was citing the words of the late Israeli diplomat Abba Eban who said in 1973: "The Arabs never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity." 

Blinken also vowed that disagreements between the Biden administration and Israel would not be aired out publicly, suggesting a reversal of Obama's approach of expressly denouncing settlement expansion.

"Joe Biden believes strongly in keeping your differences - to the greatest extent possible - between friends and behind doors," he said. "You’re much more effective when you have differences in opinion, when you have disagreements on a policy matter, dealing with it in private."

In a call with Arab-American advocates weeks later, Blinken said that Biden would reverse some of Trump's policies on the conflict, including restoring aid for Palestinians and reopening the Palestinian Liberation Organisation's office in Washington.

"Congratulations to Tony Blinken, a great diplomat and true friend of Israel, for his nomination as Secretary of State,"  former Israeli ambassador to the US Michael Oren wrote on Twitter late on Sunday. 

"I had the honor and pleasure of working with him for years in Washington and know him to be a brave and clear-sighted statesman. I can think of no finer choice."

On BDS

Blinken has said that Biden rejects "singling out" Israel through boycotts or at the United Nations.

Still, earlier this year he pledged that the next president would not infringe on Americans' free speech rights, despite his opposition to the Palestinian-led Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement.

He said the former vice president would "protect the constitutional right of our citizens to speak freely", citing Biden's opposition to Israel's ban on congresswomen Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib for their support of the boycott movement. 

Late on Sunday, Tlaib warned the incoming secretary of state against suppressing US citizens' right to call out the abuses of the government of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

"So long as he doesn't suppress my First Amendment right to speak out against Netanyahu's racist and inhumane policies. The Palestinian people deserve equality and justice," Tlaib wrote in a tweet in response to a post by Faiz Shakir, Bernie Sanders' former campaign manager, welcoming the appointment.

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The congresswoman was referring to recent announcements by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo declaring BDS as antisemitic and pushing to withhold funding from groups that boycott Israel or its settlements.

Rights advocates have been calling on the incoming administration to undo that designation, which the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) called "blatantly unconstitutional".

In August, Blinken personally apologised in a private call with US Arab advocates over the campaign's disavowal of Palestinian-American activist Linda Sarsour for support for BDS.

"Historically, Republicans and Democrats have been quick to dismiss Muslim, Arab-American and especially Palestinian-American voices, and I want to reiterate on behalf of all of us our support for your communities," Blinken said on the call, a recording of which was obtained by MEE.

Proponent of Iran deal

Keeping disagreements with Israel private may prove to be a challenge for Blinken, who has been an outspoken proponent of the Iran deal that the Netanyahu government portrays as a grave threat to the region. 

Blinken was part of the administration that brokered the multilateral Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which saw Iran scale back its nuclear programme in exchange for lifting sanctions against its economy.

In 2018, Blinken berated the Trump administration for nixing the agreement, saying that withdrawal from the pact puts Washington on a "collision course" not only with Iran but also with its own allies.

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"It gives Iranian hardliners the excuse to speed again toward the bomb without a united international coalition to oppose them or inspectors to expose them," Blinken said of Trump's decision to leave the agreement.

"Or if Iran and Europe stick with the deal it forces us to sanction the latter to stop them from doing business with the former. Either way we lose."

Speaking to the Aspen Institute earlier this year, Blinken said Biden would recommit to the JCPOA and use diplomacy to address the broader issues with Iran.

"[Biden] would seek to build on the nuclear deal to make it longer and stronger if Iran returns to strict compliance," Blinken said.

"And then we would be in a position to use our renewed commitment to diplomacy to work with our allies to strengthen and lengthen it, but also we'd be in a much better position to effectively push back against Iran's destabilising activities."

Blinken also reiterated his criticism of Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign against Tehran.

"The bottom line, by walking away from diplomacy, by acting erratically, President Trump has made conflict more likely, and the nuclear programme is actually now advancing instead of being stopped."

Relations with autocrats

Throughout the campaign, Blinken has criticised Trump's close ties with human rights abusers in the Gulf and Egypt.

In July, he told Arab advocates that Biden would uphold "human rights and democratic principles" in dealing with governments in the Middle East.

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"It does a lot to undermine our moral standing globally and our ability to lead when Donald Trump calls Egyptian President [Abdel Fattah] el-Sisi, as he put it, 'my favourite dictator'," Blinken said.

"We would review the US relationship with the government of Saudi Arabia, to which President Trump has basically given a blank check to pursue a disastrous set of policies, including the war in Yemen, but also the murder of Jamal Khashoggi [and] the crackdown on dissent at home."

Biden has vowed to end US assistance to the Saudi-led state in Yemen, and last year, he said he would cast Riyadh as a "pariah" over the Khashoggi murder.

Last week, Blinken denounced the arrest of three Egyptian rights advocates who had met with Western officials. "Meeting with foreign diplomats is not a crime. Nor is peacefully advocating for human rights," he wrote on Twitter.