Biden avoids further Mideast spiral as Iran, Israel show restraint but for how long?

Biden avoids further Mideast spiral as Iran, Israel show restraint but for how long?
US President Joe Biden arrives for Saturday mass at Saint Joseph on the Brandywine Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware, on April 20, 2024. (AFP)
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Updated 21 April 2024
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Biden avoids further Mideast spiral as Iran, Israel show restraint but for how long?

Biden avoids further Mideast spiral as Iran, Israel show restraint but for how long?
  • Israel’s retaliatory strikes against Iran and Syria this week caused little damage
  • Middle East remains a delicate situation for Biden as he gears up for re-election 

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.”


UK Labour leader Keir Starmer says he’ll end the era of ‘gestures and gimmicks’ if he wins power

UK Labour leader Keir Starmer says he’ll end the era of ‘gestures and gimmicks’ if he wins power
Updated 3 sec ago
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UK Labour leader Keir Starmer says he’ll end the era of ‘gestures and gimmicks’ if he wins power

UK Labour leader Keir Starmer says he’ll end the era of ‘gestures and gimmicks’ if he wins power
  • Starmer said a Labour government would “stop the chaos, turn the page and start to rebuild our country”
MANCHESTER: The left-of-center politician aiming to become Britain’s prime minister in three weeks’ time said Thursday he will lead a government that’s both “pro-business and pro-worker” and restore stability after years of economic and political turmoil.
Labour Party leader Keir Starmer said that if he’s elected on July 4, he will end the “desperate era of gestures and gimmicks” of the Conservative Party’s turbulent tenure.
Launching Labour’s election manifesto in the northwest England city of Manchester, Starmer said a Labour government would “stop the chaos, turn the page and start to rebuild our country.”
Next month British voters will elect lawmakers to fill all 650 seats in the House of Commons, and the leader of the party that can command a majority — either alone or in coalition — will become prime minister. Labour currently has a double-digit lead in opinion polls over Prime Minister Rishi Sunak ‘s governing Conservatives, who have been in power for 14 years under five different prime ministers.
The Conservatives jettisoned two prime ministers without an election in quick succession in 2022: first Boris Johnson, felled by scandals, then Liz Truss, who rocked the economy with drastic tax-slashing plans and lasted just seven weeks in office.
Starmer, a former chief prosecutor who is widely seen as competent but dull, is trying to turn his stolid image into an asset. His core message is that he has transformed Labour from its high-taxing, big-spending days under former leader Jeremy Corbyn into a party of the stable center.
Starmer said his platform was “a manifesto for wealth creation,” and acknowledged that a Labour government would face “hard choices” about public spending.
“We cannot play fast and loose with the public finances,” he said. He said he rejected the idea that “the only levers are tax and spend,” and would get the economy expanding after years of sluggish growth.
Starmer’s cautious economic approach dismays some in his party, who want bolder change, but has won the support of many business leaders.
Starmer called the party’s platform a manifesto for “wealth creation,” and its ambitious goals were largely long-term ones: establishing a new industrial policy, developing a 10-year infrastructure strategy, building 1.5 million new homes.
Labour pledged to improve ties with Britain’s former partners in the European Union, but ruled out a return to the bloc’s frictionless single market and customs union.
The plan’s spending commitments were modest. The manifesto forecasts that taxes will rise by 7.4 billion pounds ($9.25 billion) by 2028-29, through measures including a windfall tax on energy companies.
Starmer said personal taxes would not rise under a Labour government, but that did not stop the Conservatives casting Labour as the high-tax party.
“If you think they’ll win, start saving,” Sunak wrote on X, formerly Twitter.
Starmer spoke at the headquarters of the Co-op, a Manchester-founded cooperative society that has grown into a large retail and services empire. He introduced several voters, including a father whose family of four live in a one-bedroom apartment, and Nathaniel Dye, a man with terminal cancer campaigning for faster treatment.
The only unscripted moment came from a demonstrator calling for Labour to have tougher climate change policies, who was swiftly removed.
Sunak released the Conservative manifesto — the party’s key handbook of promises — on Tuesday, pledging to cut taxes and reduce immigration if the Conservative Party is reelected.
Labour’s 131-page manifesto included previously announced plans, with little in the way of last-minute treats to woo voters.
“It’s not about rabbits out of a hat, it’s not about pantomime,” Starmer said. “I’m running as a candidate to be prime minister, not a candidate to run the circus.”

NATO says over 300,000 troops now on high readiness

NATO says over 300,000 troops now on high readiness
Updated 8 min 27 sec ago
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NATO says over 300,000 troops now on high readiness

NATO says over 300,000 troops now on high readiness
  • “The offers on the table from allies comfortably exceed the 300,000 that we set,” the official said
  • The push to have more troops ready to respond quickly is part of a broader overhaul of NATO’s plans to stave off any potential Russian attack

BRUSSELS: NATO countries have “comfortably exceeded” a target of placing 300,000 troops on high-readiness as the alliance grapples with the threat from Russia, a senior alliance official said Thursday.
NATO leaders agreed in the wake of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine in 2022 to massively ramp up the number of forces that alliance commanders can deploy within 30 days.
“The offers on the table from allies comfortably exceed the 300,000 that we set,” the official said on condition of anonymity.
“Those are forces which allies have said to us, ‘They are available to you as of now at that level of readiness’.”
The push to have more troops ready to respond quickly is part of a broader overhaul of NATO’s plans to stave off any potential Russian attack that was signed off at a summit last year.
Those plans laid out for the first time since the end of the Cold War what each member of the US-led alliance would be expected to do in case of an invasion by Moscow.
NATO commanders are currently trying to make sure they have the capabilities to execute those plans if needed.
But the alliance faces shortfalls in key weaponry such as air defenses and longer-range missiles.
“There are capability gaps. There are things that we don’t have enough of as an alliance at the moment and we need to tackle,” the official said.


Migrant shipwreck victims pursue case against Greek coast guard

Migrant shipwreck victims pursue case against Greek coast guard
Updated 18 min 2 sec ago
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Migrant shipwreck victims pursue case against Greek coast guard

Migrant shipwreck victims pursue case against Greek coast guard
  • 53 have filed a group criminal complaint, alleging the coast guard took hours to mount a response despite warnings from EU border agency Frontex and the NGO Alarm Phone
  • The case is still under preliminary investigation by the naval court of Piraeus

ATHENS: A year after one of the Mediterranean’s worst migrant shipwrecks killed more than 600 people, lawyers for survivors pursuing a criminal case against the Greek coast guard gave fresh details on the case Thursday.
The rusty and overloaded trawler Adriana sank on the night of June 13-14 last year. It was carrying more than 750 people, according to the United Nations, but only 82 bodies were found.
Lawyers representing dozens of survivors held a news conference after a court in Kalamata last month dropped charges against nine Egyptian men accused of being part of the criminal gang operating the trawler.
Among the 104 survivors, 53 have filed a group criminal complaint, alleging the coast guard took hours to mount a response despite warnings from EU border agency Frontex and the NGO Alarm Phone.
“This was a crime committed over a 15-hour period,” Eleni Spathana, a lawyer with the Refugee Support Aegean (RSA) group, told journalists.
The case is still under preliminary investigation by the naval court of Piraeus, but the survivors’ lawyers say they have found many irregularities in the Greek coast guard’s actions before and after the incident.
The boat was sailing from Tobruk, Libya to Italy. In addition to Syrians and Palestinians, it was carrying nearly 350 Pakistanis, according to the Pakistani government.
Survivors said the coast guard was towing the vessel when it capsized and sank 47 nautical miles off the coast of Pylos.
The coast guard has insisted it communicated with people on board who “refused any help,” rendering any rescue operation in high seas risky.
But on Thursday Maria Papamina, legal coordinator for the Greek Council for Refugees, said the coast guard chose to dispatch a patrol boat from Crete — and not a larger rescue tugboat stationed closer by at the Peloponnese port of Gythio.
The patrol boat’s voyage data recorder was damaged and was only repaired two months after the accident, Papamina added. Nor was there any video footage from the patrol boat.
“There are reasonable concerns of an attempted cover-up,” she said.
Spathana of the RSA added: “There was clearly no intent to rescue before the boat sank. Not only is this terrifying, it is criminally liable.”
Eighteen of the victims remain unburied, including eight still to be identified.
The independent Greek ombudsman’s office has launched a disciplinary investigation into the case, after the coast guard saw no grounds to do so, the lawyers said Thursday.
On Friday, victims’ relatives in Pakistan plan to gather in the city of Lala Musa to protest the lack of response from the Greek authorities to the tragedy, organizers in Athens said.


Pope to meet Biden, Zelenksy, Modi at G7 summit

Pope to meet Biden, Zelenksy, Modi at G7 summit
Updated 29 min 29 sec ago
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Pope to meet Biden, Zelenksy, Modi at G7 summit

Pope to meet Biden, Zelenksy, Modi at G7 summit
  • Francis, the first ever pope to attend a Group of Seven rich nations summit, has been invited by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni
  • The 87-year-old is also expected to talk about the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis will meet with US President Joe Biden, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky and India’s Narendra Modi at the G7 summit in Italy, the Vatican said Thursday.
Francis, the first ever pope to attend a Group of Seven rich nations summit, has been invited by Italian Prime Minister Giorgia Meloni to address a session on artificial intelligence (AI) in Puglia on Friday.
The 87-year-old, who arrives by helicopter at 12:30 p.m. local time (1030 GMT), is also expected to talk about the conflicts in Gaza and Ukraine during a series of bilateral meetings.
As well as Zelensky, Biden and Modi, Francis will sit down with France’s Emmanuel Macron, Canada’s Justin Trudeau and International Monetary Fund (IMF) managing director Kristalina Georgieva.
He will also meet privately with Brazil’s Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, Türkiye’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Algeria’s Abdelmadjid Tebboune, the Vatican said.
Francis appeals regularly for peace but Vatican efforts to find a diplomatic solution in Ukraine have yet to bear fruit.
The leaders of the G7, which brings together Britain, Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan and the US, are meeting Thursday and Friday in the luxurious seaside resort of Borgo Egnazia in southern Italy.


Modi sends minister to Kuwait after fire kills 40 Indian workers

Modi sends minister to Kuwait after fire kills 40 Indian workers
Updated 33 min ago
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Modi sends minister to Kuwait after fire kills 40 Indian workers

Modi sends minister to Kuwait after fire kills 40 Indian workers
  • Most of the victims were from the southern state of Kerala
  • Indians account for more than 30 percent of Kuwait’s workforce

NEW DELHI: India’s Minister of State for External Affairs Kirti Vardhan Singh arrived in Kuwait on Thursday to coordinate the repatriation of the remains of 40 Indians killed in a fire a day earlier.

The blaze broke out in a building housing foreign workers in the city of Mangaf on Wednesday morning.

Footage shared on social media showed flames engulfing the lower part of the six-story apartment block and thick black smoke billowing from the upper floors.

The Kuwaiti Ministry of Interior said that 49 people were killed in the incident and more than 50 injured. At least 40 of the dead were Indian nationals, according to the Indian Ministry of External Affairs.

The ministry said that “on the directions” of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Singh would “work toward early repatriation of mortal remains as well as for medical assistance to those injured.”

On his arrival on Thursday morning, he “immediately rushed to Jaber hospital to ascertain well-being of injured Indians in the fire incident yesterday. He met the six injured people admitted to hospital. All of them are safe,” the Indian embassy in Kuwait said on social media.

“(He) called on FM of Kuwait H.E. Abdullah Ali Al-Yahya in Kuwait. FM Yahya conveyed his condolences on the tragic incident. He assured full support including for medical care, early repatriation of mortal remains and investigation of the incident.”

Before leaving for Kuwait, Singh told local media that an Air Force aircraft would repatriate the remains of those killed and that DNA tests were underway as some of the bodies had been charred beyond recognition.

“As soon as the bodies are identified, the kin will be informed and our Air Force plane will bring the bodies back,” he said.

Most of the victims are believed to be from the southern Indian state of Kerala.

More than one million Indians are living and working in Kuwait, accounting for some 22 percent of the Gulf state’s population and 30 percent of its workforce.