Biden in ‘very tough spot’ trying to stop Middle East escalation

President Joe Biden walks to the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, April 13, 2024. (AP)
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Updated 15 April 2024
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Biden in ‘very tough spot’ trying to stop Middle East escalation

  • Biden has been trying to avoid a regional war that could suck the United States back into the Middle East ever since Hamas’s October 7 attack

WASHINGTON: Iran’s attack on Israel gives Joe Biden a familiar dilemma, but on steroids — how to balance support for a difficult ally while preventing the nightmare scenario of a wider war?
Tensions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu over Israel’s war on Gaza were papered over as the US president offered “ironclad” support, including shooting down Iranian drones.
But the White House said it would not support an Israeli counterattack and warned Israel to “think carefully” about escalation that could trigger a full-blown regional conflict.
The question then for Biden, who is facing a tough reelection battle against Donald Trump in November, is what if Netanyahu goes ahead anyway, as he has done in Gaza?
“It puts him in a very tough spot” Colin Clarke, Director of Research at the Soufan Group, told AFP.
“I think he’s suspicious of Netanyahu’s motives here... that Netanyahu is attempting to broaden the war throughout the region to deflect from how poorly the war is going for him in Gaza.”
Biden has been trying to avoid a regional war that could suck the United States back into the Middle East ever since Hamas’s October 7 attack and Israel’s offensive on the Gaza Strip.
The 81-year-old has, however, struggled to use the leverage provided by the United States being Israel’s main military supplier, especially given a long history of tense relations with Netanyahu.
Biden has been increasingly critical of the death toll in the Palestinian territory and even went as far as suggesting the US could limit military aid, but so far to little effect.
Iran’s attack has seen Biden go back to showing overt support — but at the same time scrambling to stop the crisis spiraling.
White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said Netanyahu was “well aware” that Biden did not want a “wider war.”
Biden himself warned Netanyahu of the potential dangers in a call on Saturday night at a time of “heightened emotion.”
“The president had a discussion about trying to slow things down, think through things,” a US official said.
The hope was that “in the light of day” Israel would see it had had a “spectacular success” against Iran’s attack, added the official.
Washington’s calculus looks to be that Iran also got what it wanted, with a show of force in retaliation for Israel’s strike in Damascus earlier this month that killed a key Iranian general, but with minimal damage.
“However, I fear the status quo will be short-lived,” said James Ryan, Executive Director of the Middle East Research and Information Project, warning of a “dangerous spiral.”
“I expect Biden to attempt to restrain Israeli responses, but Netanyahu has already shown a willingness to test any kind of limit Biden wishes to impose,” he added.
“It’s all very cynical now, unfortunately.”
Biden’s options for restraining Israel are likely to be limited at this stage to tough language in private and making threats in public.
“They’ve got themselves into a corner in many ways,” said Clarke.
“I think they’ve overplayed their hand a little bit by saying the administration is considering cutting off weapons to the Israelis. It’s never going to happen — I think it’s an empty threat, especially in an election year.”
The US presidential election in November comes as Biden faces domestic political pressure on all sides when it comes to Israel.
Trump has led a chorus of Republicans accusing Biden of being weak on the issue — while young and left-wing voters in particular are angered by his failure to stop the bloodshed in Gaza.
Netanyahu, facing his own political and legal issues at home, would now be able to use the Iran attacks to “paper over the very real rifts that exist” with Washington on Gaza, said Clarke.
“If he can drag this out until November, he’s hoping for a Trump victory” when he would have “carte blanche” to act however he wanted in the region, said Clarke.
Another possibility, however, is that Netanyahu may decide to “accede to American urgings” for now on Iran — but with a cost, said Paul Salem, President and CEO of the Middle East Institute.
“Politically, I think they can cash in on saying, ‘okay, America, we won’t do anything, we’re being good. But in exchange, you have to, you know, give us more of a free hand in Gaza,’” he said.


India’s new government will be spoilt for choice with $25 billion extra in kitty

Updated 24 May 2024
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India’s new government will be spoilt for choice with $25 billion extra in kitty

  • Indian central bank has announced record 2.11 trillion rupees dividend transfer to government, more than double New Delhi’s and street estimates
  • Surplus fund can help the new government bring down fiscal deficit by 0.3 percent of GDP or increase spending on infrastructure or “populist” stimulus

MUMBAI/NEW DELHI: India’s incoming government will be greeted with a $25 billion cheque from the central bank, giving it the option to either boost spending or narrow the fiscal deficit quicker, both of which will be cheered by investors.
On Wednesday, the Reserve Bank of India (RBI) announced a record 2.11 trillion rupees dividend transfer to the government, more than double New Delhi’s and street estimates, leading to a decline in bond yields and a rise in equity markets.
The surplus fund can help the new government, which will take charge after the current elections, bring down its fiscal deficit by 0.3 percent of gross domestic product (GDP) or increase spending on infrastructure or “populist” stimulus, Citi Research’s Samiran Chakraborty said.
“The bond markets would likely hope that the government follows the deficit reduction route, while the equity markets would likely prefer the government taking the expenditure increase one,” said Chakraborty.
During the election campaigns, the opposition Congress promised annual cash handouts of 100,000 rupees ($1,202.07) to poor women and unemployed youth. The party’s star campaigner Rahul Gandhi also promised debt waiver for farmers.
But Prime Minister Narendra Modi of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) has avoided promising any new major welfare measures.
“Despite higher revenue from the RBI dividend, we doubt the government would opt for more populist expenditure in its budget, if the government is BJP-led,” said Shreya Sodhani, an economist at Barclays.
“The current government has not shown a disposition toward populist spending even in an election year.”
The BJP-led government resisted the temptation of spending trillions of rupees on schemes for the poor in its last budget before the election while raising spending on infrastructure to 11.11 trillion rupees, more than three time the sum spent in 2019.
QUICKER FISCAL CONSOLIDATION
The new government will likely present the final budget in July, leaving the administration with only eight months to spend funds allocated to them.
Government spending has been slow so far in the year, with the start of elections from April. Tax collections, meanwhile, have been strong due to buoyancy in the economy.
India collected a record 2.10 trillion rupees in goods and services taxes in April, the first month of the financial year, ensuring the government is on track to meet its planned fiscal goal of 5.1 percent of GDP this year.
This could mean the government will lean toward using the bumper dividend for fiscal consolidation.
There is scope for a slight reduction in the targeted fiscal deficit for the current year, said Ashima Goyal, a professor and an external member of the country’s monetary policy committee, who expects the government to comfortably achieve the targeted fiscal deficit of 4.5 percent by 2025/26.
India’s fiscal deficit ballooned to 9.2 percent during the pandemic but the government has steadily brought this down.
But bringing down the deficit by 130 basis points from 5.8 percent in 2023/24 was seen as challenging and dependent on one-off revenue from either privatization or auction of telecom spectrum.
($1 = 83.1900 Indian rupees)


Armenia returns four border villages to Azerbaijan

Updated 24 May 2024
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Armenia returns four border villages to Azerbaijan

YEREVAN: Armenia has returned to Azerbaijan four border villages it had seized decades ago, officials in Yerevan and Baku confirmed Friday, in a key step toward normalizing ties between the historic rivals.
The two ex-Soviet countries in the Caucasus fought two wars in the 1990s and in 2020 for control of the breakaway region of Nagorno-Karabakh.
Azerbaijan recaptured it last year in a lightning offensive, ending three decades of Armenian separatist rule and prompting more than 100,000 locals to flee into Armenia.
Armenian Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan had agreed in March to return the four abandoned villages seized by his country in the 1990s, as part of efforts to secure a lasting peace agreement between the countries.
On May 16, they agreed on the demarcation of 12.7 kilometers (almost seven miles) of their border that returned the villages of Baghanis Ayrum, Ashaghi Askipara, Kheyrimli and GhizilHajjili to Azerbaijan.
Armenia’s security service confirmed Friday that its border guards had “officially” taken up new positions reflecting the border deal and ceded the villages to Azerbaijan’s control.
Azerbaijan’s Deputy Prime Minister Shahin Mustafayev meanwhile announced that his country’s border guards had taken control of the four settlements.
Armenian residents of nearby settlements say the move could cut them off from the rest of the country and accuse Pashinyan of unilaterally giving away territory without any guarantees in return.
The premier’s move has sparked weeks of anti-government protests in Armenia, with thousands of demonstrators led by charismatic cleric Bagrat Galstanyan demanding Pashinyan’s resignation.
A fresh anti-government protest is scheduled for Sunday.
Pashinyan last week described the deal as a “very important milestone for further strengthening Armenia’s sovereignty and independence.”
The territory is of strategic importance for landlocked Armenia because it controls sections of a vital highway to Georgia.


EU’s Borrell says recognizing Palestine is not a gift to Hamas

Updated 24 May 2024
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EU’s Borrell says recognizing Palestine is not a gift to Hamas

MADRID: European Union’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said Friday said that recognizing a Palestinian state was not a gift to Hamas.
Ireland, Norway and Spain said on Wednesday they would recognize a Palestinian state on May 28, to help secure a halt to Israel’s Gaza offensive after the Hamas attack on Oct.7 and revive peace talks that stalled a decade ago.
“Recognizing the Palestinian state is not a gift to Hamas, quite the contrary,” he said. “The Palestinian authority is not Hamas, on the contrary they are deeply confronted.”
He added the EU already talked, financed and met the Palestinian authority.
“Every time someone makes the decision to support a Palestinian state, ... the reaction of Israel is to transform it in an antisemitic attack,” he added.


Philippines opens coast guard post after China build-up

Updated 24 May 2024
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Philippines opens coast guard post after China build-up

  • China and the Philippines are enduring a bitter diplomatic dispute over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea
  • Coastguard says the post will be used to gather data

MANILLA: The Philippines said Friday it had opened a coast guard post in the country’s far north to boost security following China’s “military build-up” near Taiwan over the past two years.
The outpost “shall gather essential maritime data and intelligence, enabling the (Philippine Coast Guard) to respond effectively to threats such as illicit trade, trafficking, piracy, and foreign intrusions,” National Security Adviser Eduardo Ano said in a statement.
“In 2022, the area around Itbayat witnessed a military build-up as China responded to political developments between Taiwan and the United States,” Ano said, announcing the opening of the station on the Philippines’ northernmost inhabited island.
“Securing peace, stability, and freedom of navigation along the Luzon Strait is crucial for ensuring Philippine national security and economic prosperity,” he added.
Itbayat is located around 150 kilometers (93 miles) south of Taiwan’s south coast.
China and the Philippines are enduring a bitter diplomatic dispute over rival claims to parts of the South China Sea.
China has built artificial islands and military installations in waters close to the Philippines.
China’s efforts to enforce its claims have in recent years including water cannon attacks by China Coast Guard vessels that damaged Philippine government boats and injured several crew members.
Itbayat is just outside the area designated by a vaguely defined map of dashes that China uses to claim most of the South China Sea.
Ano made no reference to war games that China began on Thursday in which it encircled Taiwan with warplanes and naval vessels.


Russia says Daesh behind deadly Moscow concert hall attack

Updated 24 May 2024
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Russia says Daesh behind deadly Moscow concert hall attack

Moscow: Russia on Friday admitted for the first time that Daesh coordinated the deadly concert hall attack in Moscow in March.
“In the course of the investigation... it has been established that the preparations, the financing, the attack, and the retreat of the terrorists were coordinated via the Internet by members of Khorasan Province (IS-K),” a branch of Daesh active in Afghanistan and Pakistan, Alexander Bortnikov, the head of FSB, was quoted as saying by the RIA Novosti news agency.

At least sixty people have been killed after gunmen stormed a concert hall near Moscow in March, one of the deadliest attacks on Russia in decades.

Gunmen opened fire at a rock concert leaving dead and wounded before a major fire spread through the theater, Moscow’s mayor and Russian news agencies reported.

Putin has called the attack back in March as “a bloody, barbaric terrorist act” and said Russian authorities captured the four suspects as they were trying to escape to Ukraine through a “window” prepared for them on the Ukrainian side of the border.


Russian media broadcast videos that apparently showed the detention and interrogation of the suspects, including one who told the cameras he was approached by an unidentified assistant to an Islamic preacher via a messaging app and paid to take part in the raid.


Putin didn’t mention Daesh, known as Daesh in Arabic, in his speech to the nation, and Kyiv accused him and other Russian politicians of falsely linking Ukraine to the assault to stoke fervor for Russia’s fight in Ukraine, which recently entered its third year.


US intelligence officials said they had confirmed the Daesh affiliate’s claim.
“ISIS bears sole responsibility for this attack. There was no Ukrainian involvement whatsoever,” National Security Council spokeswoman Adrienne Watson said in a statement.
 The US shared information with Russia in early March about a planned terrorist attack in Moscow, and issued a public warning to Americans in Russia, Watson said.


The raid was a major embarrassment for the Russian leader and happened just days after he cemented his grip on the country for another six years in a vote that followed the harshest crackdown on dissent since the Soviet times.
Some commentators on Russian social media questioned how authorities, who have relentlessly suppressed any opposition activities and muzzled independent media, failed to prevent the attack despite the US warnings.


Daesh, which fought against Russia during its intervention in the Syrian civil war, has long targeted Russia. In a statement posted by the group’s Aamaq news agency, the Daesh Afghanistan affiliate said that it had attacked a large gathering of “Christians” in Krasnogorsk.