Blinken Confronts State Dept. Dissent over Biden’s Gaza Policy

Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post
Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Capitol Hill on Oct. 31.

Moving to address dissent within the ranks of the State Department over the Biden administration’s policy on Israel and the war in Gaza, Secretary of State Antony Blinken told department employees on Monday that “we’re listening” to those who “disagree with approaches we are taking.”

In an all-department message circulated after Blinken returned over the weekend from a trip to the Mideast and Asia, the top U.S. diplomat acknowledged that some diplomats have expressed reservations about the U.S. backing for Israel as it presses an assault on Hamas that has had a heavy civilian death toll. More than 11,000 Palestinians in Gaza have died in the assault, according to the Hamas-run Gaza Health Ministry.

Multiple cables on the issue have been filed through the State Department’s dissent channel, U.S. officials have said, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss the sensitive issue. The department’s dissent system was set up during the Vietnam War to enable diplomats to express disagreements with official U.S. policy without fear of retaliation.

Blinken’s Monday letter to the State Department, which was obtained by The Washington Post, was framed as an update to staff after a nine-day trip in which he visited eight countries and the West Bank.

“I know that for many of you, the suffering caused by this crisis is taking a profound personal toll,” he said in the memo, which was first reported by the New York Times.

“I also know that some people in the Department may disagree with approaches we are taking or have views on what we can do better. We’ve organized forums in Washington to hear from you, and urged managers and teams to have candid discussions at posts around the world precisely so we can hear your feedback and ideas. I’ve asked our senior leadership to keep doing that. We’re listening: what you share is informing our policy and our messages,” he wrote.

Blinken’s letter to staff also was sent to employees of the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), where more than 1,000 employees have endorsed an open letter urging the Biden administration to call for an immediate cease-fire in the war, according to a copy of the letter obtained by The Post.

Employees at the agency said they were “alarmed and disheartened at the numerous violations of international law; laws which aim to protect civilians, medical and media personnel, as well as schools, hospitals, and places of worship.”

In reference to the dire humanitarian situation in Israel and Gaza, Blinken told employees that he is aware the “suffering caused by this crisis is taking a profound personal toll. The anguish that comes with seeing the daily images of babies, children, elderly people, women, and other civilians suffering in this crisis is wrenching. I feel it myself.”

While Blinken’s letter is unlikely to quell internal frustrations that the Biden administration isn’t exerting enough pressure on Israel to prevent the killing of civilians, U.S. officials credited him with being more upfront with dissenters than USAID administrator Samantha Power, who has not directly addressed the USAID open letter or contacted its organizers.

“The silence from leadership on the internal letter is frustrating and disappointing,” a USAID official told The Post, speaking on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal dissent. “We would like acknowledgment from USAID leadership that they’ve heard the 1,060 [and growing] number of staff who have signed the letter demanding a cease-fire. There are over 200 signatories from the Jordan, Egypt, and West Bank/Gaza Missions alone, in addition to hundreds from the Bureau for Humanitarian Affairs, and Middle East Bureau. These are people in the trenches trying to deliver aid, and they recognize that it’s not effective without a cessation of hostilities.”

A separate USAID spokesperson said the organization’s leadership has held meetings three times a week since the start of the Israel-Gaza war to coordinate a response to the crisis. It has also sent agency-wide memos providing resources for staff who have been impacted by the conflict and recognizing their work.

“This is an ongoing conversation with our workforce, who are dedicated to helping those around the world and of course feel deeply about the events that are occurring,” said the spokesperson, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss internal matters.

“All the work we are undertaking, both internally to support staff and externally to help get humanitarian aid to civilians in Gaza, is driven by the expertise of our staff in the region and those in Washington,” the official said.

Blinken’s approach to the rising civilian toll evolved over the course of his most recent trip, as he urged Israel in increasingly stark terms to reduce the suffering of the people of Gaza. Humanitarian efforts for Gaza have become central to U.S. diplomacy with Israel as well.

“Far too many Palestinians have been killed. Far too many have suffered these past weeks, and we want to do everything possible to prevent harm to them,” he told reporters in New Delhi, the final stop of his trip. He has also outlined a basic vision for a post-conflict Gaza that puts Palestinians at the center of its future.

At least one of the dissent cables was filed early in the conflict, when the Biden administration was being forceful in its efforts with Israeli leaders to minimize civilian deaths. And at least one State Department official, Josh Paul, who worked in the bureau that arranges military aid to foreign governments, resigned because of disagreements over the administration’s policy.