Joe Biden entered the White House hoping to avoid entanglement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, like US presidents before him, a crisis is dragging him in sooner than he would have liked.
The flare-up in violence is putting Biden on a tightrope not only diplomatically but at home where progressives in his Democratic Party are increasingly vocal in criticism of Israel, which enjoyed zealous support from former president Donald Trump.
"You can appreciate that the Biden administration looks at this as a low-value, low-return enterprise fraught with political risk," said Aaron David Miller, a longtime US negotiator on the Middle East.
"There are no prospects of any success at all on this issue. You don't have leaders on either side who are willing to make decisions," said Miller, now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.
"The absolute best that the Biden administration could achieve in this conflict would be tamping down the violence," he said.
Secretary of State Antony Blinken and national security advisor Jake Sullivan since last week have been looking to restore calm as tensions soared over Israel's potential eviction of Palestinians from east Jerusalem, which the Jewish state sees as part of its eternal capital but is considered occupied by the United Nations.
Following US appeals, Israel postponed a court ruling and rerouted a flashpoint march. But hundreds of Palestinians were injured in clashes with police and the Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, fired rockets as it demanded Israeli forces leave the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, holy to both Muslims and Jews.
Israel responded with attacks by fighter jets and helicopters, killing at least 30 people including children, according to the health ministry in Gaza.
Successive US presidents have tried to tread carefully on the Middle East in their first months and the Biden administration had made explicit it was in no rush on peacemaking, especially with question marks over the futures of both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas.
In his confirmation hearing in January, Blinken backed efforts to create an independent Palestinian state but said that "realistically it's hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that."
Parting ways with Trump
Trump had abandoned the pretense of US neutrality, delivering a wishlist for Netanyahu that included US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
At the start of his final year in office, Trump put forward a plan led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner that would let Israel annex much of the West Bank, with the Palestinians in return receiving money from oil-rich Gulf Arab states for a limited state with a capital on Jerusalem's outskirts.
State Department spokesman Ned Price said Monday: "I think it is safe to say there are elements in that so-called peace plan that are not a constructive starting point."
Trump gradually shifted his focus to winning Arab recognition of Israel, with four nations moving to normalize ties last year.
The Biden administration has supported recognition of Israel but returned to a more traditional diplomacy, keeping Gulf Arabs at a careful distance and working closely with Jordan, whose foreign minister flew to Washington and appealed to maintain the status quo in Jerusalem.
Rising criticism from left
Biden and Blinken are diplomatic veterans with longstanding ties to Israel but support for the Jewish state -- once rock-solid across party lines and still passionate in Trump's Republican Party -- has eroded on the left amid alarm over Netanyahu's increasingly right-wing turn.
Senator Bernie Sanders, Biden's left-wing rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, said that the United States must "speak out strongly against the violence by government-allied Israeli extremists."
A bill introduced last month by Representative Betty McCollum and backed by progressive Democrats would bar any US aid for supporting annexation, destruction of homes or detention of Palestinian children, including in Jerusalem.
Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the left-wing Institute for Policy Studies, said that Biden, even if he voices disagreements with Netanyahu, has shown he does not plan any substantive break from Trump's approach.
One factor, she said, is Biden's determination to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, which was trashed by Trump and remains bitterly opposed by Netanyahu.
"Their position is that Israel doesn't want us to go back to the deal and we're going to go back anyway, so we're not going to do anything else that Israel doesn't like, for example pressuring them on their direct violations of international law," she said.
"I think the Biden administration's calculus is that foreign policy is not our priority. Our priority is the pandemic and the economy -- which is understandable and probably right."
Democratic Senators Jeff Merkley (OR) and Jon Ossoff (GA) challenged Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) on Tuesday after he suggested that automatic voter registration leads to massive election fraud.
During a Senate Rules Committee hearing on Tuesday, Cruz offered an amendment that would make automatic voter registration more difficult.
"We have many states that have established automatic voter registration," Merkley told Cruz. "Do you have any studies you want to present for the record that document extensive mistakes being made, which people who are non-citizens are registered to vote?"
Merkley noted that the Brennan Center for Justice has studied automatic voter registration and found that you are "more likely to be struck by lightning" than find widespread fraud.
"If you have evidence to the contrary, I think it would be an appropriate time to present it to the committee," Merkley said.
Cruz responded by deflecting.
"Sen. Merkley is one of the authors of the bill as I understand it," Cruz said. "I suppose I could ask why he saw fit to repeatedly immunize state officials from registering illegal immigrants if it were not that the obvious and intended effect of this bill was to register millions of illegal immigrants?"
"Does the senator have documentation he wishes to submit to the committee?" Merkley pressed.
"Sen. Merkley is declining to answer," Cruz said, ignoring the question.
Ossoff then gave Cruz another chance to provide "evidence" of his claim.
"I'd like to offer you the opportunity in good faith, Sen. Cruz, to present any evidence for the record to this committee that in any of the states where this policy exists, if there's any widespread registration by people who should not be eligible to vote," Ossoff said.
"I'm very glad that Democratic senators are suggesting illegal immigrants won't be registered to vote," Cruz replied. "If that's the case, you should support this amendment. Because this amendment would be supporting what you claim are the purposes of the bill."
Cruz's amendment was eventually defeated by a 9-9 vote along party lines.
Watch the video below from C-SPAN.
Man accused of spa murders of Asian women charged with domestic terrorism – and a jury could add the death penalty
A 22-year old white man accused of the murders of eight people, including six women of Asian descent at Atlanta-area spas in March has been indicted on murder, felony murder, assault with a deadly weapon, possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, and domestic terrorism charges. A jury could also add hate crime charges and the death penalty.
Robert Aaron Long (photo) was indicted Tuesday by a grand jury in the March 16 killings at two spas of four people: Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; and Yong Ae Yue, 63, the Associated Press reports.
"The indictment only covers those four killings that happened at two spas in Atlanta, and not the attack in Cherokee County in which Xiaojie “Emily" Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; Delaina Yaun, 33; and Paul Michels, 54, were killed."
Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis says she will seek hate crime charges and the death penalty from a jury. Georgia's hate crime law makes the jury determine if a crime is a hate crime.
"It will be up to a separate grand jury in Cherokee County to decide on charges in the the shooting at a spa near suburban Woodstock in which four were killed and one person was wounded."
This is a breaking news and developing story.
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