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Biden faces Israel quandary with new Netanyahu government

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Biden faces Israel quandary with new Netanyahu government

WASHINGTON (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government is little more than a week old but it’s already giving the Biden administration headaches.

Just days into its mandate, a controversial member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Cabinet riled U.S. diplomats with a visit to a Jerusalem holy site that some believe may be harbinger of other contentious moves, including vast expansions of Jewish settlement construction on land claimed by the Palestinians.

And, Netanyahu’s government adopted punitive measures against the Palestinians that run in direct opposition to several recent Biden moves to boost U.S.-Palestinian relations, including restoring assistance to the Palestinian Authority that had been cut during the Trump administration and allowing Palestinian officials to visit the United States.

The new government is an unwelcome complication for a Biden national security team seeking to shift attention away from the Middle East and toward rivals like China and Russia. It also comes as Republicans take control of the House of Representatives and are eager to cast Biden as unfriendly to Israel ahead of the 2024 presidential election.

Bracing for more turmoil, Biden is dispatching his national security adviser to Israel in mid-January in a bid to forestall potentially deepening rifts between his administration and its top Mideast partner. That visit by Jake Sullivan may be followed by other high-level trips to Israel, including one by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, according to administration officials.

Their message goes beyond warnings about inflaming tensions with Palestinians: It’s also about not cozying up with Russia, particularly now that Moscow is relying on Israel’s main enemy, Iran, in its war on Ukraine; and not upsetting the delicate Middle East security balance.

Since Netanyahu won hotly contested elections last year with huge support from the Israeli right, U.S. officials have sought to tamp down predictions of a collision course, saying they will judge his government on actions rather than personalities. Biden himself spoke of his years-long relationship with Netanyahu.

“I look forward to working with Prime Minister Netanyahu, who has been my friend for decades, to jointly address the many challenges and opportunities facing Israel and the Middle East region, including threats from Iran,” Biden said when Netanyahu took office Dec. 29.

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Yet while Biden and Netanyahu have known each other for years, they are not close. Biden and former Obama administration officials who now work for Biden still harbor resentment toward the prime minister who, during his previous iteration as Israel’s leader, sought to derail their signature foreign policy achievement: the Iran nuclear deal.

Still, the administration is signaling it will engage with Netanyahu while avoiding more extreme members of his government. That approach wouldn’t be unprecedented in the region: The U.S. deals with Lebanon’s government while shunning members from the Hezbollah movement, a designated foreign terrorist organization that is nonetheless a domestic political power. But, it would be remarkable for the U.S. to take a similar approach with such a close ally.

“We will be dealing directly with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said this week when asked about possible contacts with Israeli National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir’s, whose visit to the site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary prompted a major outcry.

The inclusion of Ben-Gvir, a West Bank settler leader, and other extreme right-wing figures in Netanyahu’s government who are hostile to the Palestinians and opposed to a two-state resolution has put Israel and the United States on opposite paths.

On Thursday, the deputy U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Robert Wood, at an emergency meeting of the Security Council called by Arab states to condemn Ben-Gvir’s holy site visit, underscored Biden’s firm support for “the historic status quo,” especially the “Haram Al-Sharif/Temple Mount.”

Wood noted that Netanyahu had pledged to preserve the status quo — “We expect the government of Israel to follow through on that commitment,” he said — and stressed that the administration placed a priority on preserving the possibility of a two-state solution.

But on Friday, Netanyahu’s Security Cabinet approved a series of punitive steps against the Palestinian leadership in retaliation for the Palestinians pushing the U.N.’s highest judicial body to give an opinion on the Israeli occupation of the West Bank.

Those moves underscored the hardline approach to the Palestinians that Netanyahu’s government has promised at a time of rising violence in the occupied territories.

The Security Cabinet decided to withhold millions of dollars from the Palestinian Authority and transfer those funds to a compensation program for the families of Israeli victims of Palestinian militant attacks. And, it will deny benefits, including travel permits, to Palestinian officials who “are leading the political and legal war against Israel.”

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Meanwhile, Biden’s administration is moving in a diametrically opposed direction. Since taking office, the administration has reversed the Trump ban on aid and provided more than $800 million in economic, development, security, and other assistance to the Palestinians and the UN agency for Palestinian refugees.

In the fall, the State Department obtained a Justice Department opinion that allows Palestinian officials to visit the United States and spend money in the U.S. despite laws barring such travel and transactions and a Supreme Court ruling that Congress has an enforceable role in the foreign policy process.

The administration “may reasonably assess that being prevented from hosting the PLO delegation in Washington would seriously impair the president’s diplomatic efforts,” the Justice Department said in a little-noticed Oct. 28th opinion.

Then, exactly one week before Netanyahu took office in late December, the State Department imposed but immediately waived terrorism sanctions against the Palestinian leadership, saying engagement with the Palestinians is a critical U.S. national security interest.

On Dec. 22, Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman notified Congress that she had imposed travel bans on senior leaders of the Palestinian Authority and Palestine Liberation Organization because they “are not in compliance” with requirements to tamp down and publicly condemn terrorist attacks against Israelis.

But, in the same notification, the State Department said Sherman had waived the travel bans “based on her determination that such a waiver is in the national security interests of the United States.”

“An enduring and comprehensive peace between Israel and the Palestinians remains a longstanding goal of U.S. foreign policy,” the department said. “A blanket denial of visas to PLO members and PA officials, to include those whose travel to the United States to advance U.S. goals and objectives, is not consistent with the U.S. government’s expressed willingness to partner with the PLO and PA leadership.”

Despite a more-than-$3 billion annual assistance package to Israel and diplomatic backing in international forums, U.S. sway with Netanyahu appears limited.

The Biden administration has not yet followed through on its pledge to re-open the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which had historically served as the main contact point with the Palestinians, and it has made no move to re-open the Palestinian embassy in Washington. Both facilities were shut down during the Trump administration.

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Alon Liel, a former director-general of the Israeli Foreign Ministry, said further U.S. rapprochement with Palestinians may be the only way to influence Netanyahu. “If they really want to inflict pressure (on Israel), Biden tomorrow should say in the coming months, we will consider reopening the Palestinian embassy in Washington. Then they will see the earth shaking here,” Liel said.

“But there is no sign of that,” he said. “As long as they say, ‘We’re worried about your democracy,’ those words are meaningless because there were so many words. There’s nothing behind the words.”

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Laurie Kellman contributed from Jerusalem.

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

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Israel hails ‘success’ after blocking unprecedented attack from Iran

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli leaders on Sunday credited an international military coalition with helping thwart a direct Iranian attack involving hundreds of drones and missiles, calling the coordinated response a starting point for a “strategic alliance” of regional opposition to Tehran.

But Israel’s War Cabinet met without making a decision on next steps, an official said, as a nervous world waited for any sign of further escalation of the former shadow war.

The military coalition, led by the United States, Britain and France and appearing to include a number of Middle Eastern countries, gave Israel support at a time when it finds itself isolated over its war against Hamas in Gaza. The coalition also could serve as a model for regional relations when that war ends.

“This was the first time that such a coalition worked together against the threat of Iran and its proxies in the Middle East,” said the Israeli military spokesman, Rear Adm. Daniel Hagari.

One unknown is which of Israel’s neighbors participated in the shooting down of the vast majority of about 350 drones and missiles Iran launched. Israeli military officials and a key War Cabinet member noted additional “partners” without naming them. When pressed, White House national security spokesman John Kirby would not name them either.

But one appeared to be Jordan, which described its action as self-defense.

“There was an assessment that there was a real danger of Iranian marches and missiles falling on Jordan, and the armed forces dealt with this danger. And if this danger came from Israel, Jordan would take the same action,” Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman al-Safadi said in an interview on Al-Mamlaka state television. U.S. President Joe Biden spoke with Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday.

The U.S. has long tried to forge a regionwide alliance against Iran as a way of integrating Israel and boosting ties with the Arab world. The effort has included the 2020 Abraham Accords, which established diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries, and having Israel in the U.S. military’s Central Command, which oversees operations in the Middle East and works closely with the armies of moderate Arab states.

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The U.S. had been working to establish full relations between Israel and regional heavyweight Saudi Arabia before the Oct. 7 Hamas attack sparked Israel’s war in Gaza. The war, which has claimed over 33,700 Palestinian lives, has frozen those efforts due to widespread outrage across the Arab world. But it appears that some behind-the-scenes cooperation has continued, and the White House has held out hopes of forging Israel-Saudi ties as part of a postwar plan.

Just ahead of Iran’s attack, the commander of CENTCOM, Gen. Erik Kurilla, visited Israel to map out a strategy.

Israel’s military chief, Lt. Gen. Herzi Halevi, on Sunday thanked CENTCOM for the joint defensive effort. Both Jordan and Saudi Arabia are under the CENTCOM umbrella. While neither acknowledged involvement in intercepting Iran’s launches, the Israeli military released a map showing missiles traveling through the airspace of both nations.

“Arab countries came to the aid of Israel in stopping the attack because they understand that regional organizing is required against Iran, otherwise they will be next in line,” Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israel’s military intelligence, wrote on X, formerly Twitter.

Israel’s defense minister, Yoav Gallant, said he had spoken with U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin and that the cooperation “highlighted the opportunity to establish an international coalition and strategic alliance to counter the threat posed by Iran.”

The White House signaled that it hopes to build on the partnerships and urged Israel to think twice before striking Iran. U.S. officials said Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that Washington would not participate in any offensive action against Iran.

Israel’s War Cabinet met late Sunday to discuss a possible response, but an Israeli official familiar with the talks said no decisions had been made. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing confidential deliberations.

Asked about plans for retaliation, Hagari declined to comment directly. “We are at high readiness in all fronts,” he said.

“We will build a regional coalition and collect the price from Iran, in the way and at the time that suits us,” said a key War Cabinet member, Benny Gantz.

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Iran launched the attack in response to a strike widely blamed on Israel that hit an Iranian consular building in Syria this month and killed two Iranian generals.

By Sunday morning, Iran said the attack was over, and Israel reopened its airspace. Iran’s president, Ebrahim Raisi, claimed Iran had taught Israel a lesson and warned that “any new adventures against the interests of the Iranian nation would be met with a heavier and regretful response from the Islamic Republic of Iran.”

The foes have been engaged in a shadow war for years, but Sunday’s assault was the first time Iran launched a direct military assault on Israel, despite decades of enmity dating back to the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran said it targeted Israeli facilities involved in the Damascus strike, and that it told the White House early Sunday that the operation would be “minimalistic.”

But U.S. officials said Iran’s intent was to “destroy and cause casualties” and that if successful, the strikes would have caused an “uncontrollable” escalation. At one point, at least 100 ballistic missiles were in the air with just minutes of flight time to Israel, the officials said.

Israel said more than 99% of what Iran fired was intercepted, with just a few missiles getting through. An Israeli airbase sustained minor damage.

Israel has over the years established — often with the help of the U.S. — a multilayered air-defense network that includes systems capable of intercepting a variety of threats, including long-range missiles, cruise missiles, drones and short-range rockets.

That system, along with collaboration with the U.S. and others, helped thwart what could have been a far more devastating assault at a time when Israel is already deeply engaged in Gaza as well as low-level fighting on its northern border with Lebanon’s Hezbollah militia. Both Hamas and Hezbollah are backed by Iran.

While thwarting the Iranian onslaught could help restore Israel’s image after the Hamas attack in October, what the Middle East’s best-equipped army does next will be closely watched in the region and in Western capitals — especially as Israel seeks to develop the coalition it praised Sunday.

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In Washington, Biden pledged to convene allies to develop a unified response. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said the U.S. would hold talks with allies. After an urgent meeting, the Group of Seven countries unanimously condemned Iran’s attack and said they stood ready to take “further measures.”

Israel and Iran have been on a collision course throughout Israel’s war in Gaza. In the Oct. 7 attack, militants from Hamas and Islamic Jihad, also backed by Iran, killed 1,200 people in Israel and kidnapped 250 others. Israel’s offensive in Gaza has killed over 33,000 people, according to local health officials.

Hamas welcomed Iran’s attack, saying it was “a natural right and a deserved response” to the strike in Syria. It urged the Iran-backed groups in the region to continue to support Hamas in the war.

Hezbollah also welcomed the attack. Almost immediately after the war in Gaza erupted, Hezbollah began attacking Israel’s northern border. The two sides have been involved in daily exchanges of fire, while Iranian-backed groups in Iraq, Syria and Yemen have launched rockets and missiles toward Israel.

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Federman reported from Jerusalem. Associated Press writers Zeke Miller and Michelle L. Price in Washington; Amir Vahdat in Tehran, Iran; Samy Magdy in Cairo; Omar Akour in Amman, Jordan; and Giada Zampano in Rome contributed to this report.

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

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How to get rid of NYC rats without brutality? Birth control is one idea

New York lawmakers are proposing rules to humanely drive down the population of rats and other rodents, eyeing contraception and a ban on glue traps as alternatives to poison or a slow, brutal death.

Politicians have long come up with creative ways to battle the rodents, but some lawmakers are now proposing city and statewide measures to do more.

In New York City, the idea to distribute rat contraceptives got fresh attention in city government Thursday following the death of an escaped zoo owl, known as Flaco, who was found dead with rat poison in his system.

City Council Member Shaun Abreu proposed a city ordinance Thursday that would establish a pilot program for controlling the millions of rats lurking in subway stations and empty lots by using birth control instead of lethal chemicals. Abreu, chair of the Committee on Sanitation and Solid Waste Management, said the contraceptives also are more ethical and humane than other methods.

The contraceptive, called ContraPest, is contained in salty, fatty pellets that are scattered in rat-infested areas as bait. It works by targeting ovarian function in female rats and disrupting sperm cell production in males, The New York Times reported.

New York exterminators currently kill rats using snap and glue traps, poisons that make them bleed internally, and carbon monoxide gas that can suffocate them in burrows. Some hobbyists have even trained their dogs to hunt them.

Rashad Edwards, a film and television actor who runs pest management company Scurry Inc. in New York City with his wife, said the best method he has found when dealing with rodents is carbon monoxide.

He tries to use the most humane method possible, and carbon monoxide euthanizes the rats slowly, putting them to sleep and killing them. Edwards avoids using rat poison whenever possible because it is dangerous and torturous to the rodents, he said.

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Some lawmakers in Albany are considering a statewide ban on glue boards under a bill moving through the Legislature. The traps, usually made from a slab of cardboard or plastic coated in a sticky material, can also ensnare small animals that land on its surface.

Edwards opposes a ban on sticky traps, because he uses them on other pests, such as ants, to reduce overall pesticide use. When ants get into a house, he uses sticky traps to figure out where they’re most often passing by. It helps him narrow zones of pesticide use “so that you don’t go spray the entire place.”

“This is not a problem we can kill our way out of,” said Jakob Shaw, a special project manager for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. “It’s time to embrace these more common sense and humane methods.”

Two cities in California have passed bans on glue traps in recent years. On the federal level, a bill currently in committee would ban the traps nationwide.

“It ends a really inhumane practice of managing rat populations,” said Jabari Brisport, the New York state senator who represents part of Brooklyn and sponsored the bill proposing the new guidelines. “There are more effective and more humane ways to deal with rats.”

Every generation of New Yorkers has struggled to control rat populations. Mayor Eric Adams hired a “rat czar” last year tasked with battling the detested rodents. Last month, New York City reduced the amount of food served up to rats by mandating all businesses to put trash out in boxes.

While the war on rats has no end in sight, the exterminator Edwards said we can learn a lot from their resilience. The rodents, he said, can never be eradicated, only managed.

“They’re very smart, and they’re very wise,” he said. “It’s very inspiring but just — not in my house.”

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

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Coachella: Earthquake shakes SoCal desert during music fest

RIVERSIDE, Calif. (AP) — A small earthquake shook the Southern California desert Saturday near Coachella, where the famous music festival is being held this weekend. No damage or injuries were reported.

The quake, with a preliminary magnitude of 3.8, hit at 9:08 a.m. about 8 miles (13 kilometers) northeast of Borrego Springs in Riverside County, according to the U.S. Geological Survey.

The epicenter was about 20 miles (32 kilometers) southeast of Coachella. It struck at a depth of about 7 miles (11 kilometers), the USGS said.

A dispatcher with the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department said there were no calls reporting any problems from the quake.

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