Biden avoids a further Mideast spiral as Israel and Iran show restraint. But for how long?

The wars in Ukraine and Gaza could shadow US President Joe Biden right up to Election Day. (Reuters)
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Updated 21 April 2024
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Biden avoids a further Mideast spiral as Israel and Iran show restraint. But for how long?

  • The situation remains a delicate one for Biden as he gears up his reelection effort in the face of headwinds in the Middle East, Russia and the Indo-Pacific

WASHINGTON: President Joe Biden can breathe a bit easier, at least for the moment, now that Israel and Iran appear to have stepped back from the brink of tipping the Middle East into all-out war.

Israel’s retaliatory strikes on Iran and Syria caused limited damage. The restrained action came after Biden urged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to temper its response to Iran’s unprecedented direct attack on Israel last week and avoid an escalation of violence in the region. Iran’s barrage of drones and missiles inflicted little damage and followed a suspected Israeli attack on the Iranian consulate in Damascus this month that killed two generals.
Iran’s public response to the Israeli strikes Friday also was muted, raising hopes that Israel-Iran tensions — long carried out in the shadows with cyberattacks, assassinations and sabotage — will stay at a simmer.
The situation remains a delicate one for Biden as he gears up his reelection effort in the face of headwinds in the Middle East, Russia and the Indo-Pacific. All are testing the proposition he made to voters during his 2020 campaign that a Biden White House would bring a measure of calm and renewed respect for the United States on the world stage.
Foreign policy matters are not typically the top issue for American voters. This November is expected to be no different, with the economy and border security carrying greater resonance.
But public polling suggests that overseas concerns could have more relevance with voters than in any US election since 2006, when voter dissatisfaction over the Iraq War was a major factor in the Republican Party losing 30 House and six Senate seats.
“We see this issue rising in saliency, and at the same time we’re seeing voter appraisals of President Biden’s handling of foreign affairs being quite negative,” said Christopher Borick, director of the Muhlenberg College Institute of Public Opinion. “That combination is not a great one for Biden.”
Biden has staked enormous political capital on his response to the Israel-Hamas war as well as his administration’s backing of Ukraine as it fends off a Russian invasion.
The apparent de-escalation of tensions between Israel and Iran also comes as the House on Saturday approved $95 billion in wartime aid for Ukraine, Israel and Taiwan, a measure that Biden has pushed for as Ukrainian forces run desperately short on arms.
House Speaker Mike Johnson, R-Louisiana, pushed the package forward after months of delay as he faced the threat of ouster by his party’s right flank. The legislation now awaits a vote in the Senate. The new money would provide a surge of weaponry to the front lines, giving the White House renewed hope that Ukraine can right the ship after months of setbacks in the war.
Biden also has made bolstering relations in the Indo-Pacific a central focus of his foreign policy agenda, looking to win allies and build ties as China becomes a more formidable economic and military competitor.
But Republicans, including former President Donald Trump, have an argument to make that Biden’s policies have contributed to the US dealing with myriad global quandaries, said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Washington think tank Foundation for the Defense of Democracies.
Republicans have criticized Biden’s unsuccessful efforts earlier in his term to revive a nuclear deal with Iran brokered by the Obama administration and abandoned by Trump, saying that would embolden Tehran. The agreement had provided Iran with billions in sanctions relief in exchange for the country agreeing to roll back its nuclear program.
GOP critics have sought to connect Russia’s invasion of Ukraine to Biden’s decision to withdraw from Afghanistan and they blame the Obama administration for not offering a strong enough response to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s 2014 seizure of Crimea.
“You can make an intellectual case, a policy case of how we got from Point A to B to C to D and ended up in a world on fire,” said Goldberg, a national security official in the Trump administration. “People may not care about how we got here, but they do care that we are here.”
Polling suggests Americans’ concerns about foreign policy issues are growing, and there are mixed signs of whether Biden’s pitch as a steady foreign policy hand is resonating with voters.
About 4 in 10 US adults named foreign policy topics in an open-ended question that asked people to share up to five issues for the government to work on in 2024, according to The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll published in January. That’s about twice as many as mentioned the topic in an AP- NORC poll conducted in the previous year.
Further, about 47 percent of Americans said they believe Biden has hurt relations with other countries, according to an AP-NORC poll published this month. Similarly, 47 percent said the same about Trump.
Biden was flying high in the first six months of his presidency, with the American electorate largely approving of his performance and giving him high marks for his handling of the economy and the coronavirus pandemic. But the president saw his approval ratings tank in the aftermath of the chaotic withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in August 2021 and they never fully recovered.
Now, Biden finds himself dealing with the uncertainty of two wars. Both could shadow him right up to Election Day.
With the Israel-Hamas war, Republicans pillory him as not being adequately supportive of Israel, and the left wing of his party harshly criticizes the president, who has shown displeasure with Netanyahu’s prosecution of the war, for not doing more to force the Israelis to safeguard Palestinian lives.
After Israel’s carefully calibrated strikes on Iran, Middle East tensions have entered a “gray area” that all parties must navigate carefully, said Aaron David Miller, an adviser on Middle East issues in Republican and Democratic administrations.
“Does what has occurred over the last 10 days strengthen each sides’ risk-readiness or has it made them drop back from the brink and revert into risk aversion?” Miller said. “Israel and Iran got away with striking each other’s territory without a major escalation. What conclusions do they draw from that? Is the conclusion that we might be able to do this again? Or is it we really dodged a bullet here and we have to be exceedingly careful.”
Israel and Hamas appear far away from an agreement on a temporary ceasefire that would facilitate the release of remaining hostages in Hamas-controlled Gaza and help get aid into the territory. It’s an agreement that Biden sees as essential to finding an endgame to the war.
CIA Director William Burns expressed disappointment this past week that Hamas has not yet accepted a proposal that Egyptian and Qatari negotiators had presented this month. He blamed the group for “standing in the way of innocent civilians in Gaza getting humanitarian relief that they so desperately need.”
At the same time, the Biden administration has tried to demonstrate it is holding Israel accountable, imposing new penalties Friday on two entities accused of fundraising for extremist Israel settlers that were already under sanctions, as well as the founder of an organization whose members regularly assault Palestinians.
National security adviser Jake Sullivan and other administration officials met on Thursday with Israel’s minister for strategic affairs, Ron Dermer, and national security adviser Tzachi Hanegbi. US officials, according to the White House, reiterated Biden’s concerns about Israel’s plans to carry out an operation in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, where some 1.5 million Palestinians have taken shelter.
Ross Baker, professor emeritus of political science at Rutgers University, said Biden may have temporarily benefited from Israeli-Iranian tensions driving attention away from the deprivation in Gaza.
“Sometimes salvation can come in unexpected ways,” Baker said. “But the way ahead has no shortage of complications.”


Nikki Haley writes ‘finish them’ on Israeli shell: lawmaker

Updated 29 May 2024
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Nikki Haley writes ‘finish them’ on Israeli shell: lawmaker

WASHINGTON: Former US presidential hopeful Nikki Haley has been photographed writing “Finish Them” on an Israeli shell as she toured sites near the northern border with Lebanon.
The photograph was posted on X on Tuesday by Danny Danon, a member of the Israeli parliament and former ambassador to the United Nations, who was accompanying Haley on her visit.
“’Finish Them’. This is what my friend the former ambassador Nikki Haley wrote,” Danon said in his post that showed a kneeling Haley writing on a shell with a purple marker pen.
Haley was a hawkish UN envoy under Donald Trump, and her term overlapped with Danon.
The Gaza war was sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack on southern Israel, which resulted in the deaths of 1,189 people, mostly civilians, according to an AFP tally based on the latest Israeli official figures.
Militants also took 252 hostages, 121 of whom remain in Gaza, including 37 the army says are dead.
Israel’s retaliatory offensive has killed at least 36,096 people in Gaza, mostly civilians, according to the territory’s health ministry.
Haley, 52, abandoned her White House bid in March after heavy defeats in Republican primary contests to Trump, and last week said that she would vote for him in the election.
Trump has ruled her out of contention to be his vice president, but she is a potential presidential runner in 2028.
The White House said Tuesday that President Joe Biden has no plans to change his Israel policy following a deadly weekend strike on Rafah but that he is not turning a “blind eye” to the plight of Palestinian civilians.


White House says still opposes Ukraine using US arms against Russia

Updated 29 May 2024
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White House says still opposes Ukraine using US arms against Russia

WASHINGTON: The White House on Tuesday rejected Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky’s pleas for an end to restrictions on Kyiv using US-supplied arms to strike Russian territory.

“There’s no change to our policy at this point. We don’t encourage or enable the use of US-supplied weapons to strike inside Russia,” National Security Council spokesman John Kirby told a briefing.


Prosecutor urges jury to convict Trump, citing ‘powerful evidence’

Updated 29 May 2024
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Prosecutor urges jury to convict Trump, citing ‘powerful evidence’

NEW YORK: Donald Trump engaged in “conspiracy and a cover-up” to hide from voters that he had paid hush money to a porn star, prosecutors told a jury Tuesday in closing arguments at the first ever criminal trial of a former US president.

Less than six months before an election in which Trump is seeking to return to the White House, the stakes riding on the verdict are high — both for the 77-year-old personally and for the country.

Trump is accused of falsifying business records to reimburse his ex-lawyer Michael Cohen for a $130,000 payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels, afraid that her account of an alleged sexual encounter could doom his 2016 presidential campaign against Hillary Clinton.

Assistant District Attorney Joshua Steinglass delivered the summation for the prosecution after Trump’s defense lawyer, Todd Blanche, called for his acquittal, insisting the case against the former president was based on lies.

Steinglass said Daniels’s story about her 2006 tryst with the married Trump was the motive for the alleged crime, but the “case at its core is about a conspiracy and a cover up” on the eve of an election.

“The people have presented powerful evidence of the defendant’s guilt,” he said.

Blanche told the jury that Trump was “innocent.” The only outcome should be a “very quick and easy not guilty verdict.”

Cohen, the one-time Trump fixer who became the star prosecution witness, was motivated by “outright hatred” for his former boss, Blanche said.

“He told you a number of things on that witness stand that were lies, pure and simple,” he said.

Blanche said Trump was busy “running the country” when the reimbursements were made to Cohen and he did not closely inspect all the invoices that came across his desk.

“There was no intent to defraud and beyond that there was no conspiracy to influence the 2016 election,” Blanche said.

But Steinglass countered that there was a mountain of corroborating evidence in addition to Cohen’s testimony.

“They want to make this case about Michael Cohen,” he said. “This case is about Donald Trump and whether he should be accountable for causing false entries in his own business records and whether he did that to cover up his own election violations.”

Speaking to reporters before entering the Manhattan courtroom, Trump called it a “very dangerous day for America.”

“We have a rigged court case that should have never been brought,” he said as three of his five children — Don Jr, Eric and Tiffany — stood behind him.

The 12 anonymous jurors were to start deliberations as early as Wednesday.

Polls show Trump neck and neck against President Joe Biden and the verdict will inject new tension into the White House race.

Speaking on behalf of the Biden campaign outside court, legendary actor Robert De Niro berated Trump as a “clown” intent on destroying the country.

The first former or sitting president under criminal indictment, Trump faces charges ranging from the relatively minor hush money case to accusations he took top secret documents and tried to overthrow the 2020 election.

The New York case, which featured more than 20 witnesses over five weeks and gripping testimony by Daniels and Cohen, is the only one likely to come to trial by election day.

If convicted, Trump faces up to four years in prison on each of 34 counts, but legal experts say that as a first-time offender he is unlikely to get jail time.

A conviction would not bar him from appearing on the ballot in November.

Trump chose not to testify in his defense.

Instead, he used his trips to court to stage tirades against “corrupt” Judge Juan Merchan, and to claim the trial is a Democratic ploy to keep him off the campaign trail.

To return a guilty or not guilty verdict requires the jury to be unanimous. Just one holdout means a hung jury and a mistrial, although prosecutors could seek a new trial.


Biden’s blurred red lines under scrutiny after Rafah carnage

Updated 29 May 2024
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Biden’s blurred red lines under scrutiny after Rafah carnage

WASHINGTON: Joe Biden’s red lines over Israel’s assault on Rafah have kept shifting, but the US president faces growing pressure to take a firmer stance after a deadly strike in the Gazan city.

Despite global outrage over the attack in which 45 people were killed, the White House insisted on Tuesday that it did not believe Israel had launched the major operation that Biden has warned against.

John Kirby, the US National Security Council spokesman, said that Biden had been consistent and was not “moving the stick” on what defined an all-out military offensive by key ally Israel.

But Biden faces a difficult balancing act both domestically and internationally over Gaza, especially in a year when the 81-year-old Democrat is locked in an election battle with Donald Trump.

“Biden wants to appear tough on Rafah, and has really tried to be stern with (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu, but in an election year, his red lines are increasingly blurred,” Colin Clarke, director of research at the Soufan Group, told AFP.

“I think he’ll continue shifting those lines, ducking and weaving, largely in response to events on the ground.”

Facing US campus protests over his support for Israel, Biden said earlier this month that he would not supply Israel with weapons for a major military operation in Rafah, and he halted a shipment of bombs.

Yet he has since taken no action even as Israel has stepped up air attacks and, as of Tuesday, moved tanks into central Rafah.

Instead, the White House has largely retreated to arguing about what does, and does not, constitute an invasion.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan said last week there was “no mathematical formula” and said that “what we’re going to be looking at is whether there is a lot of death and destruction.”

At the White House on Tuesday, his colleague Kirby faced intense questioning over the Israeli strike, which sparked a fire at a displaced persons camp in which dozes of people burned to death.

Kirby said the deaths were “heartbreaking” and “horrific” but again said there would be no change in policy toward Israel.

“We have not seen them smash into Rafah,” he said.

“We have not seen them go in with large units, large numbers of troops, in columns and formations in some sort of coordinated maneuver against multiple targets on the ground.”

But internationally the pressure is growing on Biden, a self-described Zionist who has stuck by Netanyahu despite deep disagreements since the war began with the October 7 Hamas attack.

Questions are mounting over how long the United States can tolerate an Israeli assault on Rafah when the International Court of Justice — the UN’s top court, of which both the US and Israel are members — ordered it to stop.

Political pressure is also mounting on Biden at home.

Protests against his support for Israel have roiled university campuses across the United States, while many on the left wing of his Democratic Party also oppose his stance.

Republicans however have assailed Biden over what they say is his faltering support for Israel, with US House Speaker Mike Johnson inviting Netanyahu to address Congress.

“It is indeed a difficult balancing act,” Gordon Gray, a former US ambassador who is now a professor at George Washington University, told AFP.

“Threading the proverbial needle — as the Biden administration is apparently seeking to do — will only disappoint voters who feel strongly about the issue one way or another.”

Gray however said he believed Biden’s decades-old support for Israel meant he would unlikely change his position, saying he was a “rare politician who is acting out of genuine conviction rather than for his own electoral benefit.”


Deputy leader of UK’s Labour Party promises to fight to end Gaza’s suffering, in leaked video

Updated 28 May 2024
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Deputy leader of UK’s Labour Party promises to fight to end Gaza’s suffering, in leaked video

  • Labour, if elected, would recognize Palestinian statehood, says Angela Rayner

LONDON: Angela Rayner, the deputy leader of the UK’s Labour Party, has promised that her party will do everything in its power to ease the suffering in Gaza as it bids to regain Muslim voters’ support, a leaked video surfacing on social media has revealed.

The footage was first reported by the political blog Guido Fawkes, which claimed to have obtained the leaked tape from a meeting in Ashton-under-Lyne, Rayner’s constituency.

The MP is seen appealing to voters upset with the party’s stance on Israel’s assault on Gaza, The Telegraph reported.

Rayner — claiming she worked “day and night” to get three British doctors out of Rafah and is now attempting to secure aid for the enclave — said: “I promise you, the Labour Party, including myself, is doing everything we can, because nobody wants to see what’s happening.”

She acknowledged the party’s current inability to halt the fighting, admitting that Labour’s influence would be “limited,” even if it came to power after July’s general election.

Rayner added: “Only last week the Labour Party were supporting the ICC (International Criminal Court). The Conservatives didn’t support the ICC, so with this general election on that issue, we can’t affect anything when we’re not in government.

“And I’ll be honest with you, if Labour gets into government, we are limited. I will be honest. I’m not going to promise you … because (Joe) Biden, who’s the US (president), who has way more influence, has only got limited influence in that.

“And Qatar, Saudi Arabia, all of these people, we are all working to stop what’s happening at the moment; we want to see that. So I promise you, that’s what we want to see.”

Rayner also promised that, if Labour was elected, the party would recognize Palestinian statehood.

She added: “If Labour gets into power, we will recognize Palestine. I will push not only to recognize … there is nothing to recognize at the moment, sadly. It’s decimated.

“We have to rebuild Palestine; we have to rebuild Gaza. That takes more than just recognizing it.”

Gaza has been a divisive issue for Labour since Oct. 7, with reports revealing that Muslim voters have abandoned the party as a result of what they perceive as its politicians enabling the war.

The Telegraph found that Labour’s support had dropped in local elections in areas with large Muslim populations, including Oldham in Greater Manchester, where the party lost control of the council in a surprise defeat.

Labour leader Keir Starmer has expressed his determination to re-establish trust among those who have abandoned his party due to his handling of the Gaza war.

However, when probed on particular commitments, he remained vague.

Rayner said in the video: “I know that people are angry about what’s happening in the Middle East.

“If my resignation as an MP now would bring a ceasefire, I would do it. I would do it if I could effect change.”

However, she said such an eventuality was not “in my gift” due to the “failure of the international community.”

In response to the footage, Nigel Farage, Reform UK’s honorary president, accused Rayner of “begging” for the Muslim vote, The Telegraph reported.