Thailand ‘salesman’ PM says kingdom ‘open for business,’ sees huge potential in KSA

Exclusive Thailand ‘salesman’ PM says kingdom ‘open for business,’ sees huge potential in KSA
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Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin, center, greeted tourists in Bangkok’s Chinatown on the day of Chinese New Year — a major celebration. (AN photo by Abdulrahman Fahad bin Shulhub)
Exclusive Thailand ‘salesman’ PM says kingdom ‘open for business,’ sees huge potential in KSA
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Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin (L) spoke to Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas at a Starbucks in Bangkok’s Chinatown on Saturday, Chinese New Year. (AN photo by Abdulrahman Fahad bin Shulhub)
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Updated 11 February 2024
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Thailand ‘salesman’ PM says kingdom ‘open for business,’ sees huge potential in KSA

Thailand ‘salesman’ PM says kingdom ‘open for business,’ sees huge potential in KSA
  • Srettha Thavisin says it is his job to travel and 'sell' Thailand to the world
  • Praises Saudi reforms, notes opportunities to expand ties
  • Calls on world leaders to secure ceasefire in Gaza

BANGKOK: Nothing is perhaps more symbolic of the delicate balance Thailand manages between East and West than the Thai prime minister proposing that Arab News interviews him at the local Starbucks, in Chinatown, on the day of Chinese New Year — a major celebration.

But then again Srettha Thavisin is not your typical politician. Before becoming prime minister, he was a successful businessman who is known to run his schedule like a Swiss clock. In fact, he immediately ignites the conversation by saying that his job is to “sell Thailand,” something he says did not happen in the past, but now — nearly six months into the job — the property tycoon-turned-politician says his top priority is to travel and tell the world that his country is open for business.
“People don’t know the business scene in Thailand because, for the last nine, ten years, Thailand hasn’t been going out to sell Thailand. But since taking over the office (in August last year), the top, top priority for me is to travel and tell the world that Thailand is open for business,” he said.

“Whether it’s for investment, whether it’s for trade, whether people exchange like tourism, like education, technical assistance.”

This is no exaggeration (or you can say because the proof is in the pudding, or should I say, rice pudding), Srettha came to the meeting in a red T-shirt, the traditional color for Chinese New Year. As we walked out of the American coffee house into the bustling China Town, he was swarmed by tourists and locals alike, some Chinese, some Europeans and many Thai people. A Danish family left feeling very happy having managed to take an unexpected selfie with the kingdom’s prime minister.




Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin spoke to Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas at a Starbucks in Bangkok’s Chinatown on Saturday, Chinese New Year. (AN photo by Abdulrahman Fahad bin Shulhub)

Srettha jokes as he refers to a local tradition saying that you must not work on Chinese New Year. But he jokes: “People say that if you work on Chinese New Year, you have to work hard all year. But I’ve been working. (And) every year, when I take a New Year’s Day off, I still have to work hard every day.”

When asked how Thailand manages to balance its East and West ties, particularly as China (its second-biggest trade partner and which has an ethnic component and cultural influence) does not get along with the US (Bangkok’s top trade partner and which also cooperates on security), he says: “Of course, because we are a neutral country. We’re not in conflict with anyone here. You see Eastern Europeans, you see Russians and you see the Chinese, you see the Indians, you see Japanese, you see the Koreans, you see Europeans, you see Americans.

“Because (of the way) our diplomatic standing is, we are not part of the conflict. We believe in lasting peace and common prosperity.”
 




Thai PM Srettha Thavisin was part of the ASEAN delegation in the meeting of Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) and Association of Southeast Asian Nations leaders in Riyadh last October. For PM Srettha, his top priority is to travel and tell the world that his country is open for business.
(SPA photo)

Highlighting the advantages of investing in his country, Srettha said attracting skilled expatriate workers requires the provision of good amenities.

“It’s very important for the business people,” he said. “For example, good international schools. Expatriates, like yourself, when you come, you come with families. Where do your kids go to school? You need to make sure you have excellent international schools.”

As a former businessman, he is clear-eyed on where major opportunities lie, and one country tops the list: Saudi Arabia. In fact, this interview with Arab News was originally requested to mark the second anniversary of the reestablishment of Saudi-Thai relations, which were suspended from the early 1990s until January 2022 due to a diplomatic incident.

Since the reconciliation, the relationship has seen massive improvement, with new trade, investment and people-to-people exchanges. However, Srettha says there is great potential for deeper ties, having been very impressed by what he saw during a visit to the Kingdom last October.
 




Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman met Thailand's Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin on the sidelines of the GCC-ASEAN Summit in Riyadh on October 20, 2023. (SPA/File photo)
 

“I met with SABIC,” he said. “They want to do all the agricultural things. I met with Aramco, the world’s largest oil company. I met with the PIF, the sovereign wealth fund. I met with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

“I was stunned by the scale of what you are trying to do and by the potential of what the country has. Again, the cross-border investment that you have made throughout the world is something for the world to admire and copy.

“You don’t just have the financial might. You have the ability to read what you don’t have and try to make it secure for your country. Like, for example, food security is very important.

“The logistics, The Line (NEOM’s signature project), the Riyadh airport — your airport will be twice as big as Dubai airport in the next 10 years. I mean, that’s admirable. Just, you know, it really is.”

Noting Saudi Arabia’s environmental policies, including the Saudi Green Initiative, which has set out to plant 10 billion trees across the Kingdom over the coming years, Srettha said this is an area where Thailand can offer support — including the export of saplings for replanting.




Saudi Arabia's greening project targets growing 10 billion trees under the Saudi Green Initiative. (Supplied)

One thing Thailand exports a lot of is manpower. Thai workers are found throughout the world across many sectors and are noted for their strong work ethic and friendliness. There are currently about 8,000 Thai workers in Saudi Arabia. The warming of relations means this number could quickly rise.

According to him, the recent escalation of the Israeli-Hamas conflict has badly shaken one of the most lucrative markets for skilled Thai labor, i.e. Israel. During the Hamas-led attack on southern Israel on Oct. 7 last year, about 1,200 people were killed, including at least 39 Thai nationals. The militants took some 240 hostage, including 32 Thai workers.

So far, 23 of them have been released in a separate hostage deal between Thailand and Hamas, mediated by third parties. Srettha wants the remaining hostages to be freed.

“Are we part of the conflict? We’re not part of the conflict. All we want is peace and common prosperity. All we want is safety for our people. All we want is the release of the remaining eight hostages. To this point, we still don’t know whether they are alive,” he said.

“Are we to be blamed? No. We went in there to help grow the economy. They’re not spies. They were in the field.”
 




Thailand's Prime Minister Srettha Thavisin is seen on a display monitor as he speaks to the Thai nationals released by their Hamas captors as they arrived at Bangkok's Suvarnabhumi Airport on Nov. 30, 2023. (AFP/File)

Despite the harm caused to Thai nationals in the Oct. 7 attack, Thailand has joined other nations in calling on Israel to halt its retaliatory campaign in the Gaza Strip, sticking firmly to its policy of neutrality.

“We want a ceasefire,” said Srettha. “(When I speak to world leaders, I ask them): ‘How can the conflict be ended?’

“How can we talk about green energy? How can we talk about economic development? How can you talk about trade and commerce when people are dying? I mean, that’s just not right. It’s just not right.”

And this is not the only regional conflict where Thai workers have found themselves in need of extraction. When the crisis erupted in Sudan on April 15 last year, Saudi Arabia opened its airspace to allow the Royal Thai Airforce  to evacuate its citizens from the war-torn East African country.

“We’re grateful for that,” said Srettha.
 




In this photo taken on March 3, 2022, Saudi officials welcome Thai pilgrims who arrived in Jeddah’s King Abdulaziz International Airport on board the first Saudia plane to fly directly from Thailand to Saudi Arabia after a three-decade hiatus. (X: @HajMinistry)

Around 5 percent of Thailand’s population is Muslim. Every year, thousands of Thai nationals travel to Saudi Arabia to perform the Hajj pilgrimage. This continued even during the long years of severed ties between the two countries.

“There were many, many millions of people going over to Makkah,” said Srettha.

Thai Muslims who spoke to Arab News say they would like the government to increase the quota of pilgrims permitted to travel to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage and the number of flights on offer.

“I am not aware that they don’t have enough quotas. Obviously, they have their flights already there. Being a government that comes from the people, we need to listen to what people need,” he said.




Prime Minister Srettha received a gift of dates from Arab News Editor-in-Chief Faisal J. Abbas after an interview at a Starbucks in Bangkok’s Chinatown on Saturday, Chinese New Year. (AN photo by Abdulrahman Fahad bin Shulhub)

The Muslim-majority southern provinces of Thailand have seen decades of unrest. As a result, Srettha says his government is working to bolster the local economy of the south to encourage stability.

“If you have been following Thailand for a long time, in the deep south there has been a problem, about the three or four provinces of the deep south, there has been some trouble lately,” he said.

“I would like to see more people that live in a rural area get more income from agricultural products.”

Srettha says he wants citizens to enjoy more personal freedoms and greater prosperity.

“Generally, the well-being of the people,” he said. “More money in the pocket. Free your heart to do what they want, be who they want to be.”

 


North Korea denounces South Korea-US military drills, warns of consequences

North Korea denounces South Korea-US military drills, warns of consequences
Updated 57 min 48 sec ago
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North Korea denounces South Korea-US military drills, warns of consequences

North Korea denounces South Korea-US military drills, warns of consequences
  • The exercises can never be defensive but are an attempt to invade the North, spokesperson said

SEOUL: North Korea’s defense ministry urged South Korea and the United States to stop military drills, saying they are rehearsals of war and warning of consequences, KCNA reported on Tuesday.
South Korean and US militaries kicked off their annual spring exercises on Monday with twice the number of troops joining compared to last year, seeking to improve their responses to North Korea’s evolving nuclear and missile threats.
An unnamed spokesperson of Pyongyang’s defense ministry said it strongly denounces what it called “frantic, reckless” military drills, urging them to stop, KCNA said.
The exercises can never be defensive but are an attempt to invade the North, the spokesperson said, pointing to their increased scale and the participation of 11 member countries of the United Nations Command.
“A nuclear war may be ignited even with a spark,” KCNA quoted the spokesperson as saying.
The US and South Korea will have to “pay a dear price for their false choice,” the official added, vowing to conduct “military activities to strongly control the unstable security environment.”
South Korea’s defense ministry dismissed the North’s statement, saying the exercises are defensive and meant to fend off the North’s provocations and aggression.
“If North Korea makes a direct provocation using the exercises as an excuse, we will make overwhelming responses immediately, strongly and until the end,” it said in a statement.
The Freedom Shield exercises, set to end on March 14, came as North Korea pushes to develop its nuclear capabilities with missile and other weapons tests.
The exercises are primarily designed to neutralize the North’s nuclear threats, including by “identifying and striking” cruise missiles, which Pyongyang had indicated could carry nuclear warheads, Seoul military officials said.


US Supreme Court rules Trump can stay on Colorado primary ballot

US Supreme Court rules Trump can stay on Colorado primary ballot
Updated 05 March 2024
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US Supreme Court rules Trump can stay on Colorado primary ballot

US Supreme Court rules Trump can stay on Colorado primary ballot

WASHINGTON: The US Supreme Court on Monday removed a potential hurdle to Donald Trump’s bid to recapture the White House, unanimously dismissing a state court ruling that could have barred him from the ballot for engaging in insurrection.

The high-stakes ruling in favor of the former president came on the eve of the Super Tuesday primaries that are expected to cement Trump’s march toward the Republican nomination to take on President Joe Biden in November.

It was the most consequential election case heard by the court since it halted the Florida vote recount in 2000 with Republican George W. Bush narrowly leading Democrat Al Gore.

The question before the nine justices was whether Trump was ineligible to appear on the Republican presidential primary ballot in Colorado because he engaged in an insurrection — the January 6, 2021 assault on the US Capitol by his supporters.

In a 9-0 decision, the conservative-dominated court said “the judgment of the Colorado Supreme Court... cannot stand,” meaning 77-year-old Trump can appear on the state’s primary ballot.

“All nine Members of the Court agree with that result,” the ruling said, though one conservative and the three liberal justices dissented on certain technical aspects.

Trump hailed the decision, declaring a “BIG WIN FOR AMERICA!!!” in a post on his Truth Social website.

The case stemmed from a ruling in December by the supreme court of Colorado, one of the 15 states and territories voting on Super Tuesday.

The state court, citing the 14th Amendment to the US Constitution, ruled that Trump should be kicked off the ballot because of his role in the January 6 attack on Congress, when a mob tried to halt certification of Biden’s 2020 election victory.

Section 3 of the 14th Amendment bars those who engaged in “insurrection or rebellion” after once pledging to support and defend the Constitution from holding public office — although Trump’s lawyers argued the rule does not apply to the presidency.

During two hours of arguments last month, both conservative and liberal justices on the US Supreme Court expressed concern about having individual states decide which candidates can be on the presidential ballot this November.

On Monday, the top court ruled that “responsibility for enforcing Section 3 against federal officeholders and candidates rests with Congress and not the States” — and that the principle applied “especially (to) the Presidency.”

The 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868 after the Civil War, was aimed at preventing supporters of the slave-holding breakaway Confederacy from being elected to Congress or from holding federal positions.

Monday’s ruling renders other similar state challenges to Trump’s primary ballot appearance effectively moot, including in Maine which also votes on Super Tuesday.

Maine Secretary of State Shenna Bellows said her state’s barring of Trump from the ballot had been withdrawn, writing in a statement that the votes cast for Trump “will be counted.”

Colorado Secretary of State Jena Griswold said she was “disappointed” in the outcome, posting on X that the state should be able to bar “oath-breaking” insurrectionists.

Speaking to reporters from his Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida, Trump alleged again without evidence that the legal maneuvering against him was “in total coordination with the White House.”

His only remaining rival in the Republican primary, former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, told CNN she was happy with the decision.

“Look, I’m trying to defeat Donald Trump fair and square. I don’t need them taking him off the ballot to do it,” she said.

The Supreme Court, which includes three justices nominated by Trump, has historically been loath to get involved in political questions, but it is taking center stage in this year’s White House race.

Besides the Colorado case, the high court has also agreed to hear Trump’s claim that he is immune from criminal prosecution as a former president and cannot be tried on separate charges of conspiring to overturn the 2020 election.

Trump was impeached by the Democratic-majority House of Representatives for inciting an insurrection but was acquitted thanks to Republican support in the Senate.

He is also scheduled to go on trial in New York on March 25 on charges of covering up hush money payments to a porn star ahead of the 2016 election.

In yet another case, Trump faces federal charges in Florida of refusing to give up top secret documents after leaving the White House.


France becomes the only country to explicitly guarantee abortion as a constitutional right

France becomes the only country to explicitly guarantee abortion as a constitutional right
Updated 05 March 2024
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France becomes the only country to explicitly guarantee abortion as a constitutional right

France becomes the only country to explicitly guarantee abortion as a constitutional right

PARIS: French lawmakers on Monday overwhelmingly approved a bill to enshrine abortion rights in France's constitution, making it the only country to explicitly guarantee a woman’s right to voluntarily terminate a pregnancy
The historic move was proposed by President Emmanuel Macron as a way to prevent the kind of rollback of abortion rights seen in the United States in recent years, and the vote during a special joint session of France's parliament drew a long standing ovation among lawmakers.
The measure was approved in a 780-72 vote in the Palace of Versailles. Abortion enjoys wide support in France across most of the political spectrum, and has been legal since 1975.
Many female legislators in the hall smiled broadly as they cheered. While a small group of protesters stood outside the joint session, there were jubilant scenes of celebrations all over France as women’s rights activists hailed the measure promised by Macron within hours of the Dobbs ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2022.
The U.S. decision has reverberated across Europe’s political landscape, forcing the issue back into public debate in some countries at a time when far-right nationalist parties are gaining influence.
Both houses of France's parliament, the National Assembly and Senate, had separately adopted a bill to amend Article 34 of the French Constitution, but the amendment needed final confirmation by a three-fifths majority in the special joint session. The measure specifies that “the law determines the conditions by which is exercised the freedom of women to have recourse to an abortion, which is guaranteed.”
The French measure is seen as going a step further than was the case in the former Yugoslavia, whose 1974 constitution said that “a person is free to decide on having children.” Yugoslavia dissolved in the early 1990s, and all its successor states have adopted similar measures in their constitutions that legally enable women to have an abortion, though they do not explicitly guarantee it.
In the lead-up to the vote, French Prime Minister Gabriel Attal addressed the more than 900 lawmakers gathered for the joint session in Versailles, and called on them to make France a leader in women's rights and set an example for countries around the world.
“We have a moral debt to women,” Attal said. He paid tribute to Simone Veil, a prominent legislator, former health minister and key feminist who in 1975 championed the bill that decriminalized abortion in France.
“We have a chance to change history,” Attal said in a moving and determined speech. “Make Simone Veil proud," he said to a standing ovation.
None of France’s major political parties have questioned the right to abortion, including Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party and the conservative Republicans.
Le Pen, who won a record number of seats in the National Assembly two years ago, said on Monday that her party planned to vote in favor of the bill but added that “there is no need to make this a historic day.”
A recent poll showed support for abortion rights among the French public at more than 80%, consistent with previous surveys. The same poll also showed that a solid majority of people are in favor of enshrining it in the constitution.
A group of about 200 anti-abortion protesters gathered soberly in Versailles ahead of the vote, some holding a banner reading: ‘’I too was an embryo.''
A larger crowd of women's rights activists gathered at Trocadero Plaza overlooking the Eiffel Tower, letting out a collective cry of joy as the vote results came in. Others celebrated around France even before the joint parliamentary session began.
Sarah Durocher, a leader in the Family Planning movement, said Monday's vote is “a victory for feminists and a defeat for the anti-choice activists.”
“We increased the level of protection to this fundamental right,” said Anne-Cécile Mailfert of the Women’s Foundation. “It’s a guarantee for women today and in the future to have the right to abort in France.”
The government argued in its introduction to the bill that the right to abortion is threatened in the United States, where the Supreme Court in 2022 overturned a 50-year-old ruling that used to guarantee it.
“Unfortunately, this event is not isolated: In many countries, even in Europe, there are currents of opinion that seek to hinder at any cost the freedom of women to terminate their pregnancy if they wish,” the introduction to the French legislation says.
“It may not be an issue in France, where a majority of people support abortion,” said Mathilde Philip-Gay, a law professor and a specialist in French and American constitutional law. “But those same people may one day vote for a far-right government, and what happened in the U.S. can happen elsewhere in Europe, including in France.”
Inscribing abortion into the French Constitution "will make it harder for abortion opponents of the future to challenge these rights, but it won't prevent them from doing it in the long run, with the right political strategy,” Philip-Gay added.
"It only takes a moment for everything we thought that we have achieved to fade away,” said Yael Braun-Pivet, the first female president of the French parliament, in her address to the joint session.
Amending the constitution is a laborious process and a rare event in France. Since it was enacted in 1958, the French Constitution has been amended 17 times.
The justice minister said the new amendment will be formally inscribed into the Constitution at a public ceremony at Vendome Plaza in Paris on Friday — International Women's Day.


’Uncommitted’ protest over Biden’s Israel support heads to Minnesota

’Uncommitted’ protest over Biden’s Israel support heads to Minnesota
Updated 05 March 2024
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’Uncommitted’ protest over Biden’s Israel support heads to Minnesota

’Uncommitted’ protest over Biden’s Israel support heads to Minnesota
  • Hussein, who estimates the Midwestern state has about 250,000 Muslims, said the effort in the Minnesota Democratic primary aims to get at least 10,000 votes checking the “uncommitted” option instead of backing Biden

MINNEAPOLIS: The “uncommitted” movement to pressure US President Joe Biden to change his policy on Israel has landed in Minnesota, where activists hope a coalition of progressive Democrats and Muslim Americans will fuel a strong protest vote on Super Tuesday.
Minnesota is not a battleground state, given Democrats’ historic strength there, so any uncommitted vote won’t carry the same impact as Michigan’s unexpectedly large protest last week, which won two delegates for the Democratic National Convention in August.
Still the vote is being closely watched as a gauge of Biden’s strength within his own party.
“This will be another protest vote against Biden with the aim of stopping the war,” said Jaylani Hussein, co-chair of the Abandon Biden movement in Minnesota, one of several groups pushing the vote with phone banks, texting campaigns, and events in mosques and other community centers.
Hussein, who estimates the Midwestern state has about 250,000 Muslims, said the effort in the Minnesota Democratic primary aims to get at least 10,000 votes checking the “uncommitted” option instead of backing Biden, but the numbers could end up being higher.
Some organizers tried to lower expectations Monday.
“The Michigan effort was months in the making...we don’t have that in Minnesota, the organizers on the ground don’t have the kind of grassroots muscle,” said an uncommitted organizer, who did not wish to be named.
The uncommitted movement is asking Biden to back a permanent ceasefire and halt aid to Israel. Biden’s early and strong support of Israel and his refusal to condition military aid on not killing innocent people or destroying infrastructure has sparked outrage in key parts of his coalition that could affect his chances of reelection against likely Republican rival Donald Trump.
Biden, 81, faces low general approval ratings and concern about his age, as does Trump, 77. If Trump is reelected, he is expected to be a strong supporter of Israel and its right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu.
The Michigan results, where Biden won 81 percent of the vote, shows his “core group of supporters are still behind him,” said an official from the Biden campaign — which expects to see the same result from Minnesota.
“None of this means we will ignore the Arab American and Muslim American population,” the official said. “We will not. We are not taking anyone for granted.”
The sharpest US comment on the war to date came from Vice President Kamala Harris, who on Sunday called for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and urged Hamas to accept a deal to release hostages in return for a six-week cessation of hostilities. The vice president’s comments “show the pressure the Biden campaign is under and that they are starting to feel that pressure,” said Wa’el Alzayat, chief executive of Emgage Action, the political arm of a Muslim outreach group worked on the uncommitted vote in Michigan and is doing the same in Minnesota and Pennsylvania.
Organizers are also targeting California, Georgia, North Carolina, Vermont and other states.
Even with a protest vote, Biden is expected to sweep Democratic primaries in Minnesota and more than a dozen other states on March 5, also known as Super Tuesday, and secure the Democratic nomination in the coming weeks.
Minnesota hasn’t backed a Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon in 1972, though Trump came within 1.5 percentage points of winning in 2016. Biden won the state with over 233,000 votes in 2020.
’COMPARE HIM TO THE ALTERNATIVE’
Biden campaign and many Democratic Party officials believe disaffected Democrats will ultimately support Biden in November when faced with the prospect of Trump.
Democrats, overall, support Biden’s handling of the Israel-Hamas conflict by 61 percent, February polling by Harvard-Harris shows, although a Reuters/Ipsos February poll show 56 percent of Democrats prefer a president who doesn’t support military aid to Israel.
Ken Martin, chair of the Minnesota branch of the Democratic party, formally known as the Democratic-Farmer-Labor (DFL) Party, told reporters, “this is an existential election” and he anticipates Biden will have near-unanimous support in the state.
“I respect people’s feelings and differences of opinion on a whole host of issues. But as Joe Biden says, ‘don’t compare him to the Almighty, compare him to the alternative,’ and I think that’s the reality here,” Martin said.

 


White House defends Harris meeting with Israeli Cabinet official despite Netanyahu’s concerns

White House defends Harris meeting with Israeli Cabinet official despite Netanyahu’s concerns
Updated 05 March 2024
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White House defends Harris meeting with Israeli Cabinet official despite Netanyahu’s concerns

White House defends Harris meeting with Israeli Cabinet official despite Netanyahu’s concerns
  • Israel has essentially agreed to the deal, according to a senior Biden administration official, and the White House has emphasized that the onus is on Hamas to come on board

WASHINGTON: Vice President Kamala Harris and other top Biden administration officials were holding talks on Monday with a member of Israel’s wartime Cabinet who came to Washington in defiance of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
White House officials said Benny Gantz, a centrist political rival of Netanyahu, requested the meeting and the Democratic administration believed it was important to meet with the prominent Israeli official despite Netanyahu’s objections.
The meeting comes as President Joe Biden, Harris and other senior administration officials have become increasingly blunt about their dissatisfaction with the mounting death toll in Gaza and suffering of innocent Palestinians as the war nears the five-month mark.
“We’re going to discuss a number of things in terms of the priorities that certainly we have, which includes getting a hostage deal done, getting aid in and then getting that six-week ceasefire,” Harris told reporters before her meeting with Gantz.
The US on Saturday carried out the first of what is expected to be ongoing aidrops of humanitarian aid into Gaza.
The moment is reflective of the increasingly awkward dynamics in the US-Israel relationship, with the US forced to fly badly needed aid past its close ally as it looks to ramp up badly needed assistance for civilians in Gaza. The first airdrop occurred just days after more than 100 Palestinians were killed as they were trying to get food from an Israel-organized convoy.
The White House agreed to the meeting with Gantz even as an official from Netanyahu’s nationalist Likud party said Gantz did not have approval from the prime minister for his meetings in Washington. Netanyahu gave Gantz a “tough talk” about the visit — underscoring a widening crack within Israel’s wartime leadership.
“We have been dealing with all members of the war Cabinet, including Mr. Gantz,” White House national security spokesman John Kirby said. “We see this as a natural outgrowth of those discussions. We’re not going to turn away that sort of opportunity.”
In addition to his talks with Harris, Gantz is meeting on Monday with National Security Council Middle East coordinator Brett McGurk and Jake Sullivan, the White House national security adviser. Gantz was also scheduled to meet on Monday with Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And he will meet with Secretary of State Antony Blinken on Tuesday.
Gantz just before the start of his White House meetings told a reporter with Israel’s public broadcaster Kan: “There will be an open and honest conversation between two friendly and important countries and partners.”
Biden is at Camp David, the presidential retreat just outside Washington, until Tuesday.
Over the weekend, Harris issued a forceful call for a temporary ceasefire deal in Gaza, which administration officials say would halt fighting for at least six weeks, and also increased pressure on Israel not to impede the aid that workers were trying to get into the region. The White House has been advocating for that framework deal for weeks.
Israel has essentially agreed to the deal, according to a senior Biden administration official, and the White House has emphasized that the onus is on Hamas to come on board.
Biden faces mounting political pressure at home over his administration’s handling of the Israeli-Hamas war, which was triggered when militants in Gaza launched an attack, killing 1,200 people and taking about 250 people hostage.
In last week’s Michigan presidential primary, more than 100,000 Democratic primary voters cast ballots for “uncommitted.” Biden still easily won the state’s primary, but the coordinated push by voters on the left who are dissatisfied with the president’s unwavering support for Israel as its military operations in Gaza have left more than 30,000 Palestinians dead. The vote totals raise concerns for Democrats in a state Biden won by only 154,000 votes in 2020.
Gantz, who polls show could be a formidable candidate for prime minister if a vote were held today, is viewed as a political moderate. But he has remained vague about his view of Palestinian statehood — something that Biden sees as essential to forging a lasting peace once the conflict ends but that Netanyahu adamantly opposes.
It is also assumed that when the heavy fighting subsides, Gantz will leave the government, which would increase pressure for early elections.
Since Gantz joined Netanyahu’s three-minister war Cabinet in October, US officials have found him to be easier to deal with than either Netanyahu or Defense Minister Yoav Gallant. Although Gantz holds many of the same hard-line views as Netanyahu and Gallant, he has been seen as more open to compromise on critical issues, including the increased delivery of humanitarian assistance that will be a prime topic of discussion in the meetings in Washington this week.
Until now, calls for elections have been muted due to the war, but analysts think that when Gantz leaves the government, it will send a signal to the Israeli public that the need for national unity has passed and efforts to oust Netanyahu’s government can begin in earnest.
For his part while in Washington, Gantz aims to strengthen ties with the US, bolster support for Israel’s war and push for the release of Israeli hostages, according to a second Israeli official. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because they weren’t allowed to publicly discuss the disputes within the Israeli government. Gantz is scheduled to head to London for meetings after his US visit.
It remains to be seen if Gantz while in Washington will diverge from Netanyahu’s stances on Palestinian statehood or carrying out an expanded operation in the southernmost Gaza city of Rafah. The Biden administration has repeatedly warned Israel against a Rafah operation without a plan to protect civilians.
“I don’t doubt there are some administration officials who believe just by meeting with Gantz they are undermining Netanyahu,” said Richard Goldberg, a senior adviser at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a conservative Washington think tank. “But if Gantz carries the government’s line on key issues of disagreement, these meetings are net-negative for the White House while helpful back home for Gantz.”