Blinken tells Jewish leaders the United States does not want Israel to ‘escalate’ after Iran attack
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken answers questions during a press conference with British Foreign Secretary David Cameron at the State Department, Dec. 7, 2023. (Photo: Win McNamee/Getty Images)

By Ron Kampeas
April 17, 2024

WASHINGTON (JTA) — The Biden administration does not want tensions between Iran and Israel to “escalate” after Iran’s massive attack on Israel over the weekend, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told American Jewish leaders.

Blinken called the meeting at the State Department on Tuesday morning as Israel contemplates how and when to retaliate against Iran. Blinken underscored how eager the Biden Administration is for the Israel-Hamas war not to spread across the region.

“We understand and appreciate why the Israelis feel like they must respond,” Blinken said according to the notes of one participant, confirmed by three others. “In our estimation, it is not in Israel’s interests or in America’s interest for this to escalate. However, that is a decision for Israel to make. We would never tell Israel what to do — we just give the best advice we can.”

That message came after reports that President Joe Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the United States would not participate in or support an Israeli attack on Iran. The United States did help defend Israel from the Iranian attack, shooting down missiles and drones fired by Iran. It was part of a coalition of countries that came to Israel’s defense, including the United Kingdom, France and Jordan.

Tuesday’s meeting was off the record, but a number of participants agreed to describe it on condition they not be identified. Groups represented included the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, J Street, the Orthodox Union, theReform movement, the Jewish Democratic Council of America, the National Council of Jewish Women, the Jewish Federations of North America, the Israel Policy Forum, the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, the American Jewish Committee, the Conservative movement, Hadassah and the Anti-Defamation League.

Deborah Lipstadt, the State Department’s envoy to combat antisemitism, moderated the gathering. The State Department did not return a request for comment.

There was some pushback from the centrist and right-wing Jewish officials present, who called on the United States to support whatever decision Israel makes. “If and when and how Israel responds, we said it’s very important for that to be backed up by the United States, so that Iran and others see that the coalition [that repelled Iran’s attack] will stay together and remain a deterrent to Iran,” one of the participants said.

Overall, the Jewish leaders evinced gratitude, with the word “miracle” used multiple times to describe the relief that Israel and its allies downed most of the missiles and that no one was killed by the attack. There was relief, too, the U.S.-Israel tensions over the Gaza war, intensifying in recent weeks, appeared to dissipate for the time being. “The alllyship solidified this weekend,” a participant said.

The centrist and center-right officials also decried the tensions between Israel and the United States prior to the Iran attack over Israel’s prosecution of the war against Hamas. They said that divisions between Israel and the United States should remain private, and that creating public “daylight” between the countries encourages their enemies and spurs antisemitism.

Blinken said he too preferred to keep disagreements private, and noted that most leaks regarding U.S.-Israel disagreements come from the Israeli side. No one in the room argued with that.

Others in the room, representing the more liberal groups, were sympathetic to the Biden administration’s pressing Israel to facilitate the entry of more aid into the Gaza Strip, which is experiencing a humanitarian crisis.

Jeremy Ben-Ami, the president of J Street, the liberal Jewish Middle East lobby,  praised the Biden Administration for sanctioning Jewish extremists the Biden Administration says are terrorizing West Bank Palestinians.

The atmosphere was warm despite the pushback on Israel’s potential retaliation against Iran, all participants said; the hour-long meeting opened and closed with the Jewish groups lavishing praise on the Biden Administration for rapidly coming to Israel’s assistance to repel the attacks.

“While there might be specific policy disagreements, everyone there was also coming from the same fundamental place, having the same fundamental values and the same fundamental concern for the safety of the Jewish people and the safety of the Israeli people,” Amy Spitalnick, the CEO of the JCPA, a liberal-leaning public policy group, said in an interview.

Spitalnick thanked Blinken for the work the Biden Administration was undertaking to identify foreign-sourced misinformation in an election year, noting how the toxicity in the misinformation often morphs into bigotry and antisemitism, which spreads.

“We see how post-Oct. 7, antisemites of all stripes are being empowered and emboldened and amplified by a number of these foreign bot farms and disinformation campaigns,” she said. “And it’s having very real impacts on Jewish safety.”

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