The situation in Israel is obviously very fluid. I just saw the death toll rose to a staggering 900 people, many of whom were civilians. This was an unprecedented terrorist attack that some people have described as Israel’s 9/11. As far as the White House is concerned, does Israel have the United States’ blessing to respond using whatever means necessary to protect its people?
The president has already made clear and will continue to make clear that we stand solidly behind Israel and the Israeli people. And we understand clearly the scope and scale of these terrorist attacks, not just one attack, but attacks, that were very complex and complicated to pull off and we understand the gravity of the situation. And we will continue to support the Israeli people as they again work vigorously to defend themselves.
I saw yesterday that Defense Secretary Austin had ordered American military ships, including an aircraft carrier and additional aircraft, closer to the Middle East region in response to the attack on Israel. Was the purpose of sending the ships a public show of support, or is there some possibility that the United States might become engaged in some fashion in an effort to respond to the attacks?
The main purpose of moving military forces into the eastern Mediterranean, particularly a carrier strike group, was to reassure Israel and the region that the United States takes seriously our national security interest there and to make it clear to any other nation state that might want to try to take advantage of this that the United States does not want to see this conflict expand and go beyond that.
Unfortunately, there were quite a number of hostages taken. I’ve seen varying numbers – 100, 130, 150 – and I saw the State Department confirmed that there are at least nine Americans that were killed in the Hamas attack on Israel. In terms of the hostages, I saw reports that Ron Dermer, Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, had noted that there were U.S. citizens among those hostages. Does the fact that there were American casualties change the calculus of the U.S. in terms of how it responds to the attack and is the US involved in efforts to get the hostages released?
We are in constant touch with Israeli officials on a whole panoply of issues, as you might imagine, to include security systems but also to talk about the unaccounted-for Americans and we’re working with Israeli officials to try to get more information about the American citizens who we can’t account for. Sadly, you’re right. We know that there has been some number of Americans killed. And we have to accept the very real possibility that Americans could also be among those being held hostage. We call on Hamas to immediately release every single hostage in their possession right now. This is yet another example of their barbarity. And, again, we’re going to continue to stay closely coordinated with Israeli officials going forward.
I saw reports today that there were some armed suspects that infiltrated into northern Israel from Lebanon and there were also some mortar shells that were being launched in Israel from Lebanon. Is the United States concerned about Hezbollah getting involved in this conflict and forcing Israel to confront yet another existential threat coming from the north?
We are concerned about any attack on Israel sovereignty, any attack that further prompts the Israeli people to have to further defend themselves. We don’t want to see any additional attacks on Israel, of course. So, we’re watching this very, very closely. I think, seeing the comments coming out of Hezbollah in support, at least rhetorically in support, of what Hamas has done, but we don’t have any specific evidence that they’re going to get more engaged in this conflict. Again, I would draw you back to what the president said in his statement yesterday. We don’t want to see anybody try to take advantage of this situation. Anybody whose interests are inimical to Israel and to the right of Israel to exist, to try to take advantage of the situation. Again, that’s one of the reasons why we’ve taken the additional force posture steps that we’ve taken in the eastern Mediterranean.
Does the current situation in Israel impact American efforts to broker a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia? And if so, how?
We still believe that normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia is good not just for Israel and Saudi Arabia, but good for the entire region. And we still want to preserve the time and the space to help those two countries as they work towards it. But as we’ve always said, the normalization really has to be a decision between those two countries and so we’re not going to speak for them or what their thinking and their plans are in that regard. Clearly, in the last 24-36 hours, Israel is rightly focused, first and foremost, on defending its territory, defending its population and dealing with just an incredibly horrific set of terrorist attacks. And we understand that our focus right now, as you and I are speaking today, is making sure Israel knows the United States has its back, that the Israeli people know that President Biden will continue to support them, and that we’re going to make sure that Israel has what it needs to continue to extend itself.
We’re aware of the role of Iran in the Middle East region as the world’s largest state sponsor of terrorism. Is there any any belief that perhaps Iran played a role in the Hamas attacks on Israel over the weekend?
We haven’t seen specific evidence pointing to direct participation by Iran in these attacks over the last day or so. That said, look, it’s no secret to anybody, as you rightly said in your question, that Iran supports Hamas and has for decades in terms of resourcing and training capabilities. So in that regard, clearly, Iran is complicit here, but we just haven’t seen any specific evidence. And our Israeli counterparts said as much yesterday that there just isn’t any specific evidence linking them to these particular attacks.