WASHINGTON — While Secretary of State Antony Blinken huddled with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday at the Kirya — Israel's version of the Pentagon — air raid sirens warned citizens in surrounding Tel Aviv neighborhoods to shelter in place.
Blinken, Netanyahu and the Israeli war Cabinet were forced to hide in a bunker for five minutes before moving their meeting to an underground military command center, an indelible reminder of the fragility of life near the front lines.
After nine hours of discussions, some with his Israeli counterparts and some with his U.S. team, Blinken emerged to say that President Joe Biden would visit Israel on Wednesday to demonstrate America's "ironclad commitment" to Israel's security and that Netanyahu had promised to work to secure humanitarian assistance for Palestinians.
"[T]he United States and Israel have agreed to develop a plan that will enable humanitarian aid from donor nations and multilateral organizations to reach civilians in Gaza and them alone, including the possibility of creating areas to help keep civilians out of harm’s way," Blinken said.
That plan, whose details have not been released, represents a small but significant step in the direction of America's goals for managing the crisis — and a personal diplomatic achievement for Blinken.
For nearly a week, Biden's top emissary and longtime confidant has lived at the brink of an unfolding war in the Middle East, shuttling among seven countries over the past 133 hours as he articulates why America is supporting Israel's counter-offensive while seeking to keep other nations on the sidelines and limit the loss of civilian life on both sides of the Gaza border. Along the way, Blinken spoke with Biden daily — "every airplane ride or when we got back to the hotel," according to top Blinken adviser Derek Chollet — to stay in close coordination.
“He’s making a Herculean effort to stay in touch with the Arab World and trying to convince them that this is a different time for Israel,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., who spoke at length with Blinken by phone Sunday night. “The job of the secretary of state right now is to convince the region and the world writ large that this attack has changed the game — that the old way of doing business died with the babies killed by Hamas — and to prepare the Arab world for some tough times.”
Importantly, Graham added, “he’s also trying to get Israel to [do] all they can to minimize casualties.”
Blinken's charge is to make room for Israel to destroy Hamas without drawing Arab nations or their populations into the fight, which may require persuading Israel to exercise more restraint in its response than its leaders envision and convincing the Arab world that Israel is, in fact, doing that. As he spoke with Netanyahu, Israeli forces appeared to be on the verge of a ground invasion of the Gaza Strip.
It would be a monumental task for any diplomat in any era to contain a conflagration in the world's oldest tinder box, much less in the midst of Russia's invasion of Ukraine and a massacre in Sudan. In that mission, Blinken has the confidence of Biden and top White House officials.
"The challenges we face in the Middle East and around the world require a secretary of State who is respected, who everyone knows speaks directly for the president, who has worked these issues going back many years, and who can get things done," White House chief of staff Jeff Zients said in a statement. "Secretary Blinken’s deliberate marathon diplomacy across the region over the past few days is just the latest example of the great value he brings to President Biden on behalf of the American people."
The ideal Biden aide
Blinken, who built his career as a Washington foreign policy hand with aggressive advocacy for intervention in defense of liberal democracy and human rights, is trying to restrain Middle East powers without the star power of many of his predecessors. In that way, he is reflective of a Biden Cabinet that departed from the high-profile Team of Rivals approach that President Barack Obama took in filling the top ranks of his administration with an all-star cast that included Biden, Hillary Clinton and several former governors.
If Blinken has been the consummate Washington staffer, he is also something of the ideal Biden aide — personally close to the boss, an expert in his field and unlikely to outshine the president.
Unflappable and urbane, Blinken came to office with neither the medal-bedecked uniform of retired Gen. Colin Powell nor the international acclaim — and presidential ambitions — of Clinton. That can be a double-edged sword as he negotiates with foreign leaders who expect high-level attention from the U.S. and also value knowing that the secretary speaks to and for the president.
Chollet said that he didn't know whose idea it was for Biden to accept Netanyahu's invitation for a presidential visit, but that the secretary of state was the key player in laying the groundwork.
“Blinken’s voice, from my perspective, was the most important because he was out here with everyone. He was on point,” said Chollet, who is traveling with Blinken. He was able to get that “fingertip feel” of how it would land in Israel if the president visited, Chollet added.
Daleep Singh, a former deputy national security adviser in the Biden White House, praised Blinken for executing a "tough balancing act," noting the value his presence brings in prodding Israel to demonstrate restraint.
"Time is certainly your friend if you're trying to help a country think through the strategic implications of the day after — every day allows for more thought to be put into a response," Singh said. "Also, with him on the ground and the president on the way, it just increases the odds that Israel is not going to do anything that doesn't have alignment with the U.S."
Foreign leaders can be sure there is little daylight between Biden and Blinken, who has no apparent agenda or aspiration for higher office, but there is also little public cost for slighting an official who does not have the global profile of some of his predecessors.
Saudi Prince Mohammed bin Salman reportedly kept Blinken waiting overnight for a meeting in Riyadh this weekend. On Sunday, Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi noted that Blinken had spoken to Israelis earlier in the week "as a Jew" and claimed — incorrectly and in front of Blinken — that his own country had never persecuted Jews.
"I come first and foremost as a human being, a human being like so many others appalled at the atrocities committed by Hamas," Blinken responded in an apparent effort to play down the tribal appeal he had made to Israelis.
Now 61, Blinken began his career as the chief foreign policy speechwriter on the National Security Council under President Bill Clinton. He later served as staff director when Biden was the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, as Biden’s national security adviser and deputy secretary of state during the Obama administration, and as the top foreign policy adviser on Biden’s 2020 campaign.
Friends say that background helps Blinken navigate effectively with little fanfare.
"It's actually a pretty big advantage," said former New Jersey Rep. Tom Malinowski, who worked closely with Blinken in the Clinton administration and has remained a friend as their careers have crossed paths repeatedly in the ensuing decades.
"This is not a guy who is chasing headlines or seeking credit or worried about what his next job is going to be," Malinowski said. "He is driven, and I've seen this over the years, by a very intense and intensely personal sense of responsibility to save lives in these situations and uphold a set of principles that he believes are at the heart of American foreign policy — which is often easier said than done, especially in the Middle East."
Blinken has spoken publicly about his sense of personal responsibility, as he did during his Senate confirmation hearing in 2021. His grandfather fled anti-Jewish pogroms in Russia, and his step-father, Samuel Pisar, survived four years in Nazi concentration camps.
On a death march at the tail end of the war, Pisar ran away and hid in the woods, Blinken told the senators. He emerged when he saw a tank decorated with a five-pointed U.S. Army star, falling to his knees in front of an African American soldier. Pisar knew just three words in English, and he said them: "God Bless America."
"That’s who we are," Blinken said to the Senate committee where he had once served as the top aide. "That’s what we represent to the world, however imperfectly, and what we can still be at our best."
Blinken's work is a manifestation of that view of the U.S. as a force for good, according to friends.
"You can't know Tony without knowing the extent to which that family history shapes who he is," said Susan Rice, a former U.S. ambassador to the U.N. and national security adviser who worked with Blinken since the Clinton administration.
"He's been able to bring a clarity and a moral urgency and empathy to this work and this mission that he's on, which I hope the world sees is really human and deeply felt," Rice said.
People who have worked with Blinken say that he has a rare ability to remain calm in stressful situations while also displaying empathy for those in distress. That lends Blinken credibility with his counterparts.
But Tom Nides, Biden's former ambassador to Israel and onetime Obama deputy secretary of State, said Blinken's demeanor can be deceiving.
"I’ve been in the room when he was very aggressive with Netanyahu when he felt he wasn’t doing the right thing," Nides said. "People get confused between his appropriate attire, his dark tie and his white shirt. They should not misjudge his ability to have a velvet hammer in his right hand.”
A belief in using force when 'necessary'
Over the years, Blinken's worldview has often put him in a camp of Democratic foreign policy thinkers who favor using the American military to stop humanitarian crises — either through threat or action.
Blinken has written that “force can be a necessary adjunct to effective diplomacy.” He believes the U.S. did "too little" in confronting Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. In 2003, he helped Biden think through President George W. Bush's request for authorization to go to war in Iraq. Though Biden preferred giving Bush more limited powers, he voted with the Republican president.
At times, his tendency to turn to military force has placed him at odds with Biden, such as when the Obama administration struck Libya. Biden opposed that mission, which Blinken backed.
When Biden sought to pull the U.S. out of a two-decade war in Afghanistan in 2021, Blinken pushed back privately, according to a person familiar with the deliberations. Though he defended the move publicly, Blinken had resisted sticking to a withdrawal timeline negotiated by then-President Donald Trump and argued for creating more leverage with American military force, this person said.
Biden and Blinken are close enough that Blinken attended the wedding of Biden's granddaughter at the White House last year.
Although he has a reserved, low-key manner in public, Blinken has staked out a more hawkish stance on Ukraine than some others in the administration, according to sources familiar with the matter. During the course of the war, he has argued for sending more advanced weapons to Ukraine and disagreed with the idea that the U.S. should hold off on some arms shipments to avoid provoking Russia, seeing that as merely playing into Russian President Vladimir Putin’s strategy.
Blinken has been instrumental in Biden’s successful effort to rally the NATO alliance following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His response to the war in Ukraine reflects his strong belief that America has a leading role to play in the world, and that it can only succeed by working with allies.
At Foggy Bottom, Blinken — whose father served as ambassador to Hungary — has been a reassuring presence for State Department diplomats after the turmoil of the Trump presidency, which was often at war with the foreign service. The diplomatic corps suffered an exodus of senior figures and a decline in applications during the previous administration, but career foreign service officers say Blinken has helped restore things to a more even keel.
Graham, a close Trump ally, praised Blinken for taking a "hawkish" approach on Ukraine and said it's a benefit to Biden to have a lower-profile diplomat running the State Department.
"This is literally Biden’s alter ego and most trusted ally running the foreign policy shop," he said. "It’s a secretary of state who has no agenda other than that of the president and who has no ambitions other than serving the president. And when he speaks, people know he’s speaking for the president."
Right now, Blinken is talking to everyone in the Middle East — from Egypt to Qatar and Israel to Saudi Arabia. Whether those discussions prevent a broader war — or limit civilian casualties — remains to be seen.
"It's too soon to talk about results," Malinowski said. "But I think this is a moment where a lot of Americans are seeing just how hard Tony works and how effective he can be in a moment of crisis."