Biden embraces a Trump policy in backing Arab-Israeli deals

Biden embraces a Trump policy in backing Arab-Israeli deals
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The Biden administration saw significant prospects of several other Arab governments signing accords soothing and normalizing relations with Israel. (File/AFP)
Biden embraces a Trump policy in backing Arab-Israeli deals
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Smoke rises following Israeli missile strikes on Gaza City, May 13, 2021. (File/AP)
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Updated 10 June 2021

Biden embraces a Trump policy in backing Arab-Israeli deals

Biden embraces a Trump policy in backing Arab-Israeli deals
  • The Trump administration put US clout and incentives into landing pacts by four Arab states last year
  • The 11-day war between Israel and Hamas militants last month has complicated US-backed diplomacy

The Biden administration is laying the groundwork for a renewed push to encourage more Arab countries to sign accords with Israel and working to strengthen existing deals after last month’s devastating war in the Gaza Strip interrupted those diplomatic efforts.

The embrace of the so-called Abraham Accords is a rare carryover of a signature Trump administration policy by president Joe Biden and other democrats.

The Trump administration put US clout and incentives into landing the country-by-country pacts by four Arab states last year, easing enmity and isolation for the Jewish state in the Middle East that had dated back to Israel’s 1948 founding. The Biden administration saw significant prospects of several other Arab governments signing accords soothing and normalizing relations with Israel. US officials have declined to publicly identify the countries they regard as promising prospects.

Sudan, which signed a general declaration of peaceful intent but has not yet signed on to diplomatic relations with Israel, had been a prospect. Oman, which has a policy of non-interference that allows it to be a broker across the

Middle East’s fault lines, long has been seen by Westerners as a likely contender.

But the 11-day war between Israel and Gaza’s Hamas militant rulers last month has complicated US-backed diplomacy for new Abraham accords.

The fighting “has strengthened the conviction of opponents of normalization” with Israel, activist Doura Gambo said in Sudan. Sudanese were already divided over their government’s agreement last year to become one of the four Arab states signing accords. In Sudan’s case, the Trump administration offered financial relief from US sanctions.

Last month’s bloodshed, which killed 254 Palestinians — including 66 children and at least 22 members of one family — resonated deeply with the Arab public, including in the other countries that had signed accords with Israel: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Thirteen people died in Israel, including two children and one soldier.

The Biden administration is considering appointing a former US ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, to a Mideast role that would marshal and potentially expand the country-by-country accords between Israel and Mideast governments.

Two people familiar with the matter confirmed Shapiro was being considered for the job, as first reported by The Washington Post. They spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to comment publicly.

US officials also are working to encourage more business, education and other ties among the four Arab states and Israel. They hope visible success there will also promote the bilateral accords in the region, at the same time the US works to advance resolution of the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

Last year, the United Arab Emirates became the first Arab country in over two decades to establish ties with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1994, respectively. It was a move that bypassed the Palestinians, who saw it as betrayal.

The Abraham Accords include a general declaration of support for peaceful relations in the Middle East among Jews, Muslims and Christians, all followers of religions linked to the patriarch Abraham. The Trump administration saw the accords partly as paving a path toward full ties with Israel, including in security and intelligence cooperation to counter common rivals, such as Iran.

The deals former president Donald Trump struck were “an important achievement, one that not only we support, but one we’d like to build on,” US secretary of state Antony Blinken told the House Foreign Affairs Committee this week.

In addition, “we’re looking at countries that may want to join in and, and take part and begin to normalize their own relations with Israel. That, too, has been very much part of conversations I’ve had with, with several of my counterparts,” Blinken added.

Opponents of these deals, however, argue that they undermine Arab consensus around only recognizing Israel when it resumes serious peace talks with the Palestinians that lead to tangible concessions.

“These agreements were never about the peace process,” said Marwan Muasher, a former foreign minister of Jordan, who charges that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saw the accords as an alternative to peace-making with the Palestinians.

“Were they helpful to the peace process? No, they were not,” Muasher said. “They gave Israel the false impression that it can forge peace agreements with Arab states as a substitute for coming to terms with the Palestinians.”

Supporters of the country-by-country accords say isolating Israel failed to overcome decades of stalemate on Palestinians’ demand for their own state with its capital in East Jerusalem.

“As many ways as the Biden administration will depart from Trump policy in the region, there will be places where it sees an interest in continuity,” said democratic sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut, who spoke to officials in Oman on a trip immediately before last month’s Gaza war erupted.

Before any new efforts on the accords move forward, big political and pragmatic developments need to fall into place in the region. Eyes are on Israel at the moment to see how a possible new coalition government led by a new prime minister may affect Israeli-Palestinian relations, especially in the aftermath of the Gaza war.

The Knesset is set to vote on Sunday on whether to confirm the new government and end Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year rule. If it does, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett will become prime minister. Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.

The accords signed by the four Arab nations so far seem solidly in place despite the strain of last month’s war. So too do the big incentives that the Trump administration threw in to help close the deals, such as US recognition of the disputed territory of Western Sahara for Morocco.

In the UAE, a Gulf financial hub that has been the most enthusiastic about establishing ties with Israel, Emirati political analyst Abdulkhaleq Abdulla said the government is gauging public sentiment, but can also control the street and sometimes defy whatever public opposition there is.

“The UAE have taken this decision. They knew exactly where they are and knew the risk, and they are not going back on it,” he said.


COVID-19 curbs to end in Australian’s Victoria state, continue in Sydney

COVID-19 curbs to end in Australian’s Victoria state, continue in Sydney
Updated 27 July 2021

COVID-19 curbs to end in Australian’s Victoria state, continue in Sydney

COVID-19 curbs to end in Australian’s Victoria state, continue in Sydney
  • Victoria’s 5 million residents will be allowed to leave home freely and schools will reopen
  • Highly infectious Delta variant took hold in the New South Wales capital of Sydney

CANBERRA/SYDNEY: Australia’s Victoria state said on Tuesday it will end lockdown after curtailing the spread of COVID-19, but neighboring New South Wales faced a four-week extension of restrictions according to media reports after new cases hit a 16-month peak.
More than half of Australia’s near 26 million population has been in lockdown in recent weeks after an outbreak of the highly infectious Delta variant took hold in the New South Wales capital of Sydney and spread to three states.
New South Wales reported 172 COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours, up from 145 a day earlier, with at least 60 spending time in the community while infectious.
New South Wales Premier Gladys Berejiklian said a decision whether to lift the five-week lockdown will be taken this week, and local media later reported the state would announce a four-week extension of the order on Wednesday. With less than 13 percent of the state’s population fully vaccinated, curbs are expected to stay.
“We know we’ve put in the hard yards for five weeks and we don’t want to waste all the good work that we’ve done by opening too early and then having the virus spread again,” Berejiklian told a media conference.
A spokesperson was not immediately available to confirm the media reports about the planned lockdown extension.
In contrast, Victoria state said most restrictions imposed on July 15 will be removed from Wednesday after recording just 10 infections of people already in quarantine.
“All in all, this is a good day,” Victoria state Premier Daniel Andrews told reporters in Melbourne.
Victoria’s 5 million residents will be allowed to leave home freely and schools will reopen, though households will not be permitted to have visitors.
South Australia said it will also lift a lockdown on Wednesday after it recorded zero COVID-19 cases in the past 24 hours.
Lockdowns have raised the prospect of Australia recording its second recession in as many years, though Treasurer Josh Frydenberg said on Tuesday talk of this was premature.
Frydenberg said last week the country’s A$2 trillion ($1.5 trillion) economy is expected to shrink in the latest GDP figures, with lockdowns costing about A$300 million daily.
Easing lockdowns will soften the economic toll, but New South Wales is Australia’s biggest state economy and accounts for about a third of national output.
Swift contact tracing, tough social distancing rules and lockdowns have helped Australia to keep its COVID-19 numbers low, with just under 33,100 cases and 920 deaths since the pandemic first appeared in early 2020.
The outbreak in Sydney, however, has seen a wave of hospitalizations and 10 deaths in recent weeks.
New South Wales said 169 people are in hospital with the virus, of which 46 are in intensive care.
Amid heightened concerns about hospitalizations of younger people, Australia has urged people to take AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccine after struggling to secure enough supplies of Pfizer’s inoculations.
Authorities had previously recommended only over 60s should take the AstraZeneca shot after rare but serious blood clotting cases.


Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases

Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases
Updated 27 July 2021

Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases

Olympic host Tokyo hits record 2,848 COVID-19 cases
  • The rise in cases threatens to further erode support for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga
  • It also spells trouble for the Olympics, as many Japanese fear the influx of athletes and officials for the event could add to the surge
TOKYO: Tokyo’s 2,848 COVID-19 infections on Tuesday were the Olympic host city’s highest since the pandemic began, officials said, as media reported that authorities had asked hospitals to prepare more beds for patients as the Delta variant drives the surge.
The rise in cases threatens to further erode support for Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, whose ratings have slid to their lowest level since he took office last September, in large part because of his haphazard handling of the pandemic.
It also spells trouble for the Olympics, as many Japanese fear the influx of athletes and officials for the event could add to the surge. About 31 percent in a survey by the Nikkei daily on Monday said the Games should be canceled or postponed again.
“It’s the Delta variant,” said Kenji Shibuya, a former director of the Institute for Population Health at King’s College London, explaining the swift recent surge.
Shibuya added it was impossible to quantify to what extent the Olympics contributed to the surge but blamed the global sports showpiece as “one of the major driving forces.”
“The government has sent signals that people are supposed to stay home at the same time they celebrate the Games. It’s a totally inconsistent message,” said Shibuya, who is now running the vaccine roll-out in a town in northern Japan.
Japan has avoided the devastating outbreaks suffered by other nations such as India, Indonesia and the United States, but the fifth wave of the pandemic fueled by the Delta variant is piling pressure on Tokyo’s hospitals.
By Sunday, only 20.8 percent of the Japanese capital’s 12,635 COVID-19 patients had been able to obtain hospital treatment, government data showed. A government advisory panel says that if the ratio falls below the threshold of 25 percent, a state of emergency should be triggered.
In anticipation of the surge and considering the tough hospital situation, Tokyo has already declared a fourth state of emergency this month to run until after the Olympics.
In a last-minute change of heart, Japan also made the unprecedented decision to hold the Games, postponed from last year by the pandemic, without spectators to stem the spread of the virus.
As hospitals admit more patients, the city aims to boost the number of beds to 6,406 by early next month from 5,967 now, broadcaster TBS said.
Hospitals should look at pushing back planned surgery and scaling down other treatments, the broadcaster said, citing a notice to medical institutions from city authorities.
Health experts had warned that seasonal factors, increased mobility, and the spread of variants would lead to a rebound in COVID-19 cases this summer.
While vaccinations boost protection for the oldest citizens most likely to need emergency care, just 36 percent of the population has received at least one dose, a Reuters vaccination tracker shows.
The inoculation push has recently ebbed amid logistical snags after having picked up steam last month from a sluggish start.
Voter support for Suga slid nine points to 34 percent, its lowest since he took office last September, a July 23-25 Nikkei business daily survey showed on Monday.
Nearly two-thirds of respondents said the country’s rollout of coronavirus vaccinations was not going well.
Suga’s term as ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) president expires in September and his LDP-led coalition faces an election for parliament’s powerful lower house, which must be held by November.
About a third in the Nikkei survey wanted the Games postponed again or canceled, while more than half said Japan’s border steps for incoming Olympics athletes and officials were “inappropriate.”
Despite tight quarantine rules for the Games, 155 cases have emerged involving athletes and others.
A strict “playbook” of rules to avoid contagion requires frequent virus testing, restricted movement and masks worn in most situations.

Five people missing after explosion rocks German chemicals site

Five people missing after explosion rocks German chemicals site
Updated 27 July 2021

Five people missing after explosion rocks German chemicals site

Five people missing after explosion rocks German chemicals site
  • Police in nearby Cologne said they did not have any information on the cause or size of the explosion

BERLIN:  Five people were missing and several injured after an explosion rocked an industrial park in the western German city of Leverkusen on Tuesday, sending up plumes of smoke and prompting police to ask nearby residents to remain in their homes.
The explosion happened at 9.40 a.m. local time (0740 GMT), causing a fire at a fuel depot at Chempark, an industrial park for chemicals companies including Bayer and Lanxess , Chempark operator Currenta said.
Several staff were hurt, with at least two seriously injured, and five people were missing, Currenta said, adding it was not yet clear what caused the explosion and the subsequent fire.
Sirens and emergency alerts on the German civil protection agency's mobile phone app warned citizens of "extreme danger".
Police asked nearby residents to remain indoors and keep doors and windows closed. Currenta said they should also turn off air conditioning systems while it measured the air around the site for possible toxic gas.
Several nearby motorways were closed, and police said drivers should take detours to avoid the area.
More than 30 companies operate at the Chempark site in Leverkusen, including Covestro, Bayer, Lanxess and Arlanxeo, according to its website.
Bayer and Lanxess in 2019 sold Chempark operator Currenta to Macquarie Infrastructure and Real Assets for an enterprise value of 3.5 billion euros ($4.12 billion).


US Defense Secretary says committed to stable, constructive relationship with China

US Defense Secretary says committed to stable, constructive relationship with China
Updated 27 July 2021

US Defense Secretary says committed to stable, constructive relationship with China

US Defense Secretary says committed to stable, constructive relationship with China
  • A top Chinese diplomat took a confrontational tone on Monday in rare high-level talks with the United States

SINGAPORE: US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said on Tuesday he was committed to having a constructive relationship with China and working on common challenges as he laid out his vision for ties with Beijing, which have sunk to their lowest point in decades.
The United States has put countering China at the heart of its national security policy for years and President Joe Biden’s administration has called rivalry with Beijing “the biggest geopolitical test” of this century.
While Austin’s speech in Singapore will touch on the usual list of behavior Washington describes as destabilizing, from Taiwan to the South China Sea, his comments about seeking a stable relationship could provide an opening for the two countries to start to reduce tension.
“We will not flinch when our interests are threatened. Yet we do not seek confrontation,” Austin said, according to excerpts of his speech.
“I am committed to pursuing a constructive, stable relationship with China, including stronger crisis communications with the People’s Liberation Army.”
Austin has been unable to speak with any senior Chinese official despite repeated attempts since starting as defense secretary in January.
Even with the tension and heated rhetoric, US military officials have long sought to keep open lines of communication with their Chinese counterparts, to be able to mitigate potential flare-ups or tackle any accidents.
A top Chinese diplomat took a confrontational tone on Monday in rare high-level talks with the United States, accusing it of creating an “imaginary enemy” to divert attention from domestic problems and suppress China.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman, the second-ranked US diplomat, had arrived on Sunday for the face-to-face meetings in China’s northern city of Tianjin.
“Big powers need to model transparency and communication,” Austin said.
Austin’s speech, which was postponed by a month because of Singapore’s COVID-19 outbreak, is being closely watched by regional nations concerned about China’s increasingly assertive behavior but heavily reliant on access to its large markets.
He is set to visit Vietnam and the Philippines later this week to emphasize the importance of alliances.


NATO chief urges ‘negotiated settlement’ in Afghanistan

NATO chief urges ‘negotiated settlement’ in Afghanistan
Updated 27 July 2021

NATO chief urges ‘negotiated settlement’ in Afghanistan

NATO chief urges ‘negotiated settlement’ in Afghanistan
  • Country faces a ‘deeply challenging’ security situation as foreign troops leave

BRUSSELS: NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg on Tuesday reiterated calls for a “negotiated settlement” with the Taliban in Afghanistan, admitting the country faced a “deeply challenging” security situation as foreign troops leave.
“The security situation in Afghanistan remains deeply challenging, and requires a negotiated settlement. NATO will continue to support Afghanistan, including with funding; civilian presence; and out-of-country training,” Stoltenberg wrote on Twitter after speaking to Afghan President Ashraf Ghani.