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

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?

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.”


Group of graduates walk out of Harvard commencement chanting ‘Free, free Palestine’

Group of graduates walk out of Harvard commencement chanting ‘Free, free Palestine’
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Group of graduates walk out of Harvard commencement chanting ‘Free, free Palestine’

Group of graduates walk out of Harvard commencement chanting ‘Free, free Palestine’
Student speaker Shruthi Kumar said “this semester our freedom of speech and our expressions of solidarity became punishable,” she said to cheers and applause
“I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus”

CAMBRIDGE: A group of graduates walked out of the Harvard commencement chanting “Free, Free Palestine” after weeks of protests on campus.
School officials announced Wednesday, the day before Thursday’s graduation, that 13 Harvard students who participated in a protest encampment would not be able to receive degrees alongside their classmates.
Some students chanted “Let them walk, let them walk walk,” during Thursday’s commencement, referring to allowing those 13 students to get their degrees along with fellow graduates.
Harvard University held its commencement address Thursday following a weekslong pro-Palestinian encampment that shut down Harvard Yard to all but those with university ties and roiled tensions on the campus.
Those tensions were ticked up a notch on Wednesday when school officials announced that 13 Harvard students who participated in the encampment won’t be able to receive degrees alongside their classmates. Some students chanted “Let them walk, Let them walk,” during commencement.
Student speaker Shruthi Kumar said “this semester our freedom of speech and our expressions of solidarity became punishable,” she said to cheers and applause.
She said she had to take a moment to recognize “the 13 undergraduates in the class of 2024 who will not graduate today,” Kumar said to prolonged cheers and clapping. “I am deeply disappointed by the intolerance for freedom of speech and the right to civil disobedience on campus.”
Over 1,500 students had petitioned, and nearly 500 staff and faculty had spoken up, all over the sanctions, she said.
“This is about civil rights and upholding democratic principals,” she said. “The students had spoken. The faculty had spoken. Harvard do you hear us?”
Those in the encampment had called for a ceasefire in Gaza and for Harvard to divest from companies that support the war.
Also on Thursday, the leaders of Northwestern University and Rutgers University are expected to testify at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing about concessions they gave to pro-Palestinian protesters to end demonstrations on their campus. The chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, also was scheduled to appear at the latest in a series of hearings looking into how colleges have responded to the protests and allegations of antisemitism
The decision by the school’s top governing board follows a recommendation Monday by faculty members to allow the 13 to receive their degrees despite their participation in the encampment.
Harvard’s governing board, the Harvard Corporation, however said that each of 13 have been found to have violated the university’s policies by their conduct during the encampment protest.
“In coming to this determination, we note that the express provisions of the Harvard College Student Handbook state that students who are not in good standing are not eligible for degrees,” the corporation said in a written statement.
The statement left open the possibility of an appeals process saying the corporation understands “that the inability to graduate is consequential for students and their families” and supports the Faculty of Arts and Sciences’ intention to provide an expedited review of requests for appeal.
“We care deeply about every member of our community — students, faculty, staff, researchers, and alumni — and we have chosen a path forward that accords with our responsibilities and reaffirms a process for our students to receive prompt and fair review,” the statement added.
Supporters of the students said the decision not to allow them to receive degrees at commencement violated a May 14 agreement between interim President Alan Garber and the Harvard Out of Occupied Palestine coalition that would have allowed the students to graduate.
Protesters against the war between Israel and Hamas voluntarily dismantled their tents after they said university officials agreed to discuss their questions about the endowment, bringing a peaceful end to the kinds of demonstrations that were broken up by police on other campuses.
The group issued a statement late Wednesday saying the decision jeopardizes the post-graduation lives of the 13 students.
“By rejecting a democratic faculty vote, the Corporation has proved itself to be a wholly illegitimate body, and Garber an illegitimate president, accountable to no one at the university,” the group said.
“Today’s actions have plunged the university even further into a crisis of legitimacy and governance, which will have major repercussions for Harvard in the coming months and years,” the group said,
There was a noticeable presence of police officers around the campus Thursday mixing with soon-to-be-graduates, their family members and sidewalk flower sellers.
A small plane circled above trailing an Israeli and US flag. A truck was parked outside the campus with an electronic billboard with the names and images of some of the pro-Palestinian protesters under the banner “Harvard’s Leading Antisemites.”
At Drexel University in Philadelphia, protesters packed up their belongings and left a pro-Palestinian encampment Thursday after the school announced a decision to have police clear the encampment. A wave of pro-Palestinian tent encampments on campuses has led to over 3,000 arrests nationwide.

Russia says main power line to Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant goes down, no safety threats

Russia says main power line to Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant goes down, no safety threats
Updated 59 min 34 sec ago
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Russia says main power line to Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant goes down, no safety threats

Russia says main power line to Zaporizhzhia nuclear plant goes down, no safety threats
  • The reasons for the outage, which had not caused any change in the radiation level, were being investigated
  • The main 750 kilovolt (kV) “Dniprovska” power line went down at 13.31 local

MOSCOW: Russia said on Thursday that the main power line supplying the Russian-controlled Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant (ZNPP) in Ukraine had gone down, but that there was no threat to safety and the plant was being supplied via a backup line.
The six reactors at the Zaporizhzhia plant, held by Russia and located close to the front line of the conflict in Ukraine, are not in operation but it relies on external power to keep its nuclear material cool and prevent a catastrophic accident.
The Russian management said on their official channel on the Telegram app that the reasons for the outage, which had not caused any change in the radiation level, were being investigated.
It said the main 750 kilovolt (kV) “Dniprovska” power line went down at 13.31 local (1031 GMT), while the 330 kV “Ferosplavnaya” line was supplying power to the plant now.
The main “Dniprovska” power line also went down for almost five hours on March 22, highlighting what the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) said were “ever present dangers to nuclear safety and security” from the Russia-Ukraine war.
Russia and Ukraine have each accused the other at various times of shelling the Zaporizhzhia plant, which is Europe’s largest.
IAEA has said that the ZNPP has been experiencing major off-site power problems since the conflict began in early 2022, exacerbating the nuclear safety and security risks facing the site.


US will announce $275 million more in artillery and ammunition for Ukraine, officials say

US will announce $275 million more in artillery and ammunition for Ukraine, officials say
Updated 23 May 2024
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US will announce $275 million more in artillery and ammunition for Ukraine, officials say

US will announce $275 million more in artillery and ammunition for Ukraine, officials say
  • This will be the fourth installment of military aid for Ukraine since Congress passed a long-delayed foreign aid bill late last month
  • Russia has sought to take advantage of Ukrainian shortages in manpower and weapons while the war-torn country waits for the arrival of more US assistance

WASHINGTON: The United States is expected to announce an additional $275 million in military aid for Ukraine on Friday as Kyiv struggles to hold off advances by Russian troops in the Kharkiv region, two US officials say.
This will be the fourth installment of military aid for Ukraine since Congress passed a long-delayed foreign aid bill late last month and comes as the Biden administration has pledged to keep weapons flowing regularly and to get them to the front lines as quickly as possible.
The package includes high mobility artillery rocket systems, or HIMARS, as well 155 mm and 105 mm high-demand artillery rounds, according to the two US officials. They spoke on the condition of anonymity to provide details of the aid package before the public announcement.
It follows a monthly gathering Monday of about 50 defense leaders from Europe and elsewhere who meet regularly to coordinate getting more military aid to Ukraine. At this latest meeting, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin said Ukraine was in a “moment of challenge” due to Russia’s new onslaught on Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second-largest city. He pledged to keep weapons moving “week after week.”
Russia has sought to take advantage of Ukrainian shortages in manpower and weapons while the war-torn country waits for the arrival of more US assistance, which was delayed for months in Congress. Ukrainian forces have been pushed backward in places, while Russia has pounded its power grid and civilian areas.
In the month since President Joe Biden signed the $95 billion foreign aid package, which included about $61 billion for Ukraine, the US has announced and started to send almost $1.7 billion in weapons pulled from Pentagon stockpiles.
It’s also announced $6 billion in funding through the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative. That pays for longer-term contracts with the defense industry and means that the weapons could take many months or years to arrive.
With this latest package, the US has now provided almost $51 billion in military assistance to Ukraine since Russia invaded in February 2022.


First pilgrims from Philippines depart for Hajj 2024

First pilgrims from Philippines depart for Hajj 2024
Updated 23 May 2024
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First pilgrims from Philippines depart for Hajj 2024

First pilgrims from Philippines depart for Hajj 2024
  • About 5,000 Filipino Muslims are set to perform Hajj this year
  • Muslims make up 10 percent of majority Catholic Philippine population

MANILA: The National Commission on Muslim Filipinos sent off the first group of Hajj pilgrims on Thursday, marking the beginning of the annual pilgrimage season for Muslims from the predominantly Catholic Philippines.

Muslims constitute about 10 percent of the nearly 120 million Philippine population, with most living on the island of Mindanao and the Sulu archipelago in the country’s south, as well as in the central-western province of Palawan.

With the Hajj this year expected to start on June 14 and end on June 19, many pilgrims depart early to make the most of the spiritual journey that is one of the five pillars of Islam.

The Philippines’ first group of 150 pilgrims left early on Thursday morning from the main airport in Manila, making the first leg of their journey to Madinah via Oman.

“The Hajj is not merely a journey undertaken for personal fulfillment, it is a profound act of devotion symbolizing unity, equality and submission to the will of the Almighty Allah,” NCMF Secretary Sabuddin Abdurahim said during the sendoff ceremony.

NCMF is the body governing Muslim affairs in the Philippines, in charge of organizing the annual Hajj pilgrimage.

“As we bid farewell to our beloved pilgrims embarking on the sacred journey to Saudi Arabia for Hajj, my heart is filled with prayers for your safety, security and the smoothest of journeys,” Abdurahim said.

“I fervently pray that this year’s Hajj is free from any hurdles of challenges, ensuring a profound spiritual experience for each of you.”

About 5,000 Muslims have confirmed their travel to Saudi Arabia for the pilgrimage this year, the NCMF said.

Hapidz Yusop, a pilgrim from Sulu, said that he was fulfilling his dream of doing the sacred pilgrimage.

“It’s been my lifelong dream. I’ve been planning to do the Hajj for a long time, but I don’t have the means, I don’t have the money. But by the mercy of God and the help of our mayor in Talipao, I’m finally here,” he told Arab News, referring to how his arrangements for Hajj were sponsored by the local government in Talipao.

“It feels like we are born again, that we will be cleansed of all of our sins and be born again. May God give us mercy,” Yusop said.

Rahyan Tulawi Amaraja, a 30-year-old nurse from Sulu’s Jolo island, will embark on this year’s Hajj with her parents.

“It has been my aspiration since I was a child to perform my pilgrimage. Fortunately, I will perform my Hajj journey with my parents, which is one of my aspirations, too,” she told Arab News.

“I am overwhelmed with joy,” she said. “For this Hajj journey, I wish to have Allah’s mercy and forgiveness, and to be able to perform it well and successfully.”


Pro-Palestinian protesters leave after Drexel University decides to have police clear encampment

Pro-Palestinian protesters leave after Drexel University decides to have police clear encampment
Updated 23 May 2024
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Pro-Palestinian protesters leave after Drexel University decides to have police clear encampment

Pro-Palestinian protesters leave after Drexel University decides to have police clear encampment
  • News outlets reported that police gave protesters a warning to clear the encampment and protesters left
  • “An unauthorized encampment that involves large numbers of people unaffiliated with Drexel trespassing on our campus is illegal,” Fry said

PHILADELPHIA: Protesters packed up their belongings and left a pro-Palestinian encampment at Drexel University on Thursday after the school announced a decision to have police clear the encampment.
University President John Fry said in a statement that he decided to have campus police and public safety officers join Philadelphia police in clearing the encampment as peacefully as possible.
News outlets reported that police gave protesters a warning to clear the encampment and protesters left. Protesters didn’t immediately comment.
Fry said the university is committed to protecting the community members’ right to assemble peacefully and express their views, but he has the responsibility and authority to regulate campus gatherings to ensure safety and fulfill the mission to educate students.
“An unauthorized encampment that involves large numbers of people unaffiliated with Drexel trespassing on our campus is illegal,” Fry said. “The language and chants coming from this demonstration, underscored by protesters’ repugnant ‘demands,’ must now come to an end.”
Protesters gathered their belongings as dozens of officers on bicycles arrived around 5:20 a.m., but in less than a half hour only a few items remained on the Korman Family Quad where the 35-tent encampment had been, the Philadelphia Inquirer reported.
“The campers picked up their belongings for the most part and left by their own free will,” Philadelphia Police Sgt. Eric Gripp said.
The encampment had persisted despite Fry’s threat earlier this week to have the encampment cleared. Fry said Tuesday that classes would be held virtually for a third day on Wednesday after administrators tried to open a line of communication to the protesters but were rebuffed. News outlets reported that the university announced Wednesday night that the campus would return to normal operations Thursday.
In his statement early Thursday, Fry said previous requests for protesters to disperse had been ignored, but he was asking Drexel affiliates to leave the encampment so police could “escort any remaining trespassers off our campus.”
A wave of pro-Palestinian tent encampments on campuses has led to over 3,000 arrests nationwide.
On Thursday, the leaders of Northwestern University and Rutgers University are expected to testify at a House Committee on Education and the Workforce hearing about concessions they gave to pro-Palestinian protesters to end demonstrations on their campus. The chancellor of the University of California, Los Angeles, also was scheduled to appear at the latest in a series of hearings looking into how colleges have responded to the protests and allegations of antisemitism.