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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.”

___

Laurie Kellman contributed from Jerusalem.

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Beryl forecast to become ‘dangerous’ Category 4 hurricane

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Beryl forecast to become ‘dangerous’ Category 4 hurricane

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico (AP) — Hurricane Beryl was closing in on the southeastern Caribbean, and government officials late Sunday pleaded with people to take shelter from the dangerous Category 3 storm.

The storm was expected to make landfall in the Windward Islands on Monday morning. Hurricane warnings were in effect for Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, Tobago and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.

“This is a very dangerous situation,” warned the U.S. National Hurricane Center in Miami, saying Beryl was “forecast to bring life-threatening winds and storm surge.”

Beryl was centered about 110 miles (175 kilometers) south-southeast of Barbados early Monday. It had maximum sustained winds of 120 mph (195 kph) and was moving west at 20 mph (31 kph). It is a compact storm, with hurricane-force winds extending 30 miles (45 kilometers) from its center.

It had gained Category 4 strength Sunday before weakening slightly, and further fluctuations in strength were forecast.

A tropical storm warning was in effect for Martinique and Trinidad. A tropical storm watch was issued for Dominica, Haiti’s entire southern coast, and from Punta Palenque in the Dominican Republic west to the border with Haiti.

Beryl was expected to pass just south of Barbados early Monday and then head into the Caribbean Sea as a major hurricane on a path toward Jamaica. It was forecast to weaken by midweek, but still remain a hurricane while heading toward Mexico.

Historic hurricane

Beryl initially strengthened into a Category 3 hurricane Sunday morning, becoming the first major hurricane east of the Lesser Antilles on record for June, according to Philip Klotzbach, Colorado State University hurricane researcher.

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It took Beryl only 42 hours to strengthen from a tropical depression to a major hurricane — a feat accomplished only six other times in Atlantic hurricane history, and with Sept. 1 as the previous earliest date, hurricane expert Sam Lillo said.

 

 

People disassemble a beach bar's awning in preparation for Hurricane Beryl, in Bridgetown, Barbados, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

 

People disassemble a beach bar’s awning in preparation for Hurricane Beryl, in Bridgetown, Barbados, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

 

Beryl then gained more power, becoming the earliest Category 4 Atlantic hurricane on record, besting Hurricane Dennis, which became a Category 4 storm on July 8, 2005, hurricane specialist and storm surge expert Michael Lowry said.

“Beryl is an extremely dangerous and rare hurricane for this time of year in this area,” Lowry said in a phone interview. “Unusual is an understatement. Beryl is already a historic hurricane and it hasn’t struck yet.”

Hurricane Ivan in 2004 was the last strong hurricane to hit the southeastern Caribbean, causing catastrophic damage in Grenada as a Category 3 storm.

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“So this is a serious threat, a very serious threat,” Lowry said of Beryl.

Reecia Marshall, who lives in Grenada, was working a Sunday shift at a local hotel, preparing guests and urging them to stay away from windows as she stored enough food and water for everyone.

She said that she was a child when Hurricane Ivan struck and that she doesn’t fear Beryl.

“I know it’s part of nature. I’m OK with it,” she said. “We just have to live with it.”

Forecasters warned of a life-threatening storm surge of up to 9 feet (3 meters) in areas where Beryl makes landfall, with 3 to 6 inches (7.6 to 15 centimeters) of rain for Barbados and nearby islands and possibly 10 inches in some areas (25 centimeters).

Warm waters are fueling Beryl, with ocean heat content in the deep Atlantic the highest on record for this time of year, said Brian McNoldy, a tropical meteorology researcher at the University of Miami.

Lowry said the waters are now warmer than they would be at the peak of the hurricane season in September.

Beryl marks the farthest east that a hurricane has formed in the tropical Atlantic in June, breaking a record set in 1933, according to Klotzbach.

“Please take this very seriously and prepare yourselves,” said Ralph Gonsalves, the prime minister of St. Vincent and the Grenadines. “This is a terrible hurricane.”

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Bracing for the storm

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Costumers purchase groceries ahead of Hurricane Beryl in Arnos Vale, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Lucanus Ollivierre)

 

Costumers purchase groceries ahead of Hurricane Beryl in Arnos Vale, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, Sunday, June 30, 2024. (AP Photo/Lucanus Ollivierre)
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Long lines formed at gas stations and grocery stores in Barbados and other islands as people rushed to prepare for a storm that rapidly intensified.

Thousands of people were in Barbados for Saturday’s Twenty20 World Cup final, cricket’s biggest event, with Prime Minister Mia Mottley noting that not all fans were able to leave Sunday despite many rushing to change their flights.

“Some of them have never gone through a storm before,” she said. “We have plans to take care of them.”

Mottley said all businesses should close by Sunday evening and warned that the airport would close by nighttime.

Across Barbados, people prepared, including Peter Corbin, 71, who helped his son put up plywood to protect his home’s glass doors. He said by phone that he worried about Beryl’s impact on islands just east of Barbados.

“That’s like a butcher cutting up a pig,” he said. “They’ve got to make a bunker somewhere. It’s going to be tough.”

In St. Lucia, Prime Minister Philip J. Pierre announced a national shutdown for Sunday evening and said schools and businesses would remain closed Monday.

“Preservation and protection of life is a priority,” he said.

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Looking ahead

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hurricane Beryl's winds batter Carlisle Bay in Bridgetown, Barbados, Monday, July 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)

 

Hurricane Beryl’s winds batter Carlisle Bay in Bridgetown, Barbados, Monday, July 1, 2024. (AP Photo/Ricardo Mazalan)
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Caribbean leaders were preparing not only for Beryl, but for a cluster of thunderstorms trailing the hurricane that had a 70% chance of becoming a tropical depression.

“Do not let your guard down,” Mottley said.

Beryl is the second named storm in what is forecast to be an above-average hurricane season, which runs from June 1 to Nov. 30 in the Atlantic. Earlier this month, Tropical Storm Alberto came ashore in northeastern Mexico with heavy rains that resulted in four deaths.

On Sunday evening, a tropical depression formed near the eastern Mexico coastal city of Veracruz, with the National Hurricane Center warning of flooding and mudslides.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts the 2024 hurricane season is likely to be well above average, with between 17 and 25 named storms. The forecast calls for as many as 13 hurricanes and four major hurricanes.

An average Atlantic hurricane season produces 14 named storms, seven of them hurricanes and three major hurricanes.

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Judge acquits 28 people accused in Panama Papers case, including law firm co-founder

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Judge acquits 28 people accused in Panama Papers case, including law firm co-founder

PANAMA CITY (AP) — A judge has acquitted 28 people accused of money laundering in an international case known as the Panama Papers, including the co-founder of a law firm that authorities say was at the center of a conspiracy to hide money linked to illegal activities.

Jürgen Mossack founded Mossack & Fonseca with then associate Ramón Fonseca, who died in May. Mossack was acquitted on Friday along with others after a Panamanian judge found that the evidence against Mossack didn’t comply with the chain of custody after authorities raided the office of the now defunct firm.

Prosecutors had accused Mossack, Fonseca and others of creating offshore companies and using complex transactions to hide money from illegal activities related to the so-called car wash corruption scandal involving Brazilian construction company Odebrecht, which pleaded guilty in U.S. federal court to a charge related to using shell companies to hide millions of dollars in bribes paid worldwide to win public contracts.

The judge noted that other evidence in the Panama Papers case “was not sufficient and conclusive to determine the criminal responsibility of the accused.”

In addition, the judge lifted personal and property precautionary measures against all the defendants, according to a judicial statement.

“We feel satisfied in the midst of mixed emotions, because many lives were affected along the way,” Guillermina Mc Donald, who was the defense attorney for Mossack and Fonseca, told The Associated Press. Her firm also represented 80% of the accused firm’s collaborators.

Judge Balaoisa Marquínez had decided to combine the Panama Papers case with another known as “Operation Car Wash,” a major anti-corruption investigation that began in Brazil.

On Friday, she ruled that in the car wash case, “it was not possible to determine the entry of money from illicit sources, coming from Brazil, into the Panamanian financial system with the purpose of hiding, concealing, disguising or helping to evade the legal consequences of the preceding crime.”

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In June 2022, Mossack, Fonseca and 37 other people were acquitted in a separate money laundering case.

The investigation in Brazil began in 2014, with the Mossack & Fonseca firm later coming under scrutiny after 11 million financial documents tied to the company were leaked.

The repercussions of the leak were widespread: it led to the resignation of a prime minister in Iceland and brought scrutiny to now former leaders of Argentina and Ukraine, Chinese politicians and Russian President Vladimir Putin, among others.

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A San Francisco store is shipping LGBTQ+ books to states where they are banned

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A San Francisco store is shipping LGBTQ+ books to states where they are banned

SAN FRANCISCO (AP) — In an increasingly divisive political sphere, Becka Robbins focuses on what she knows best — books.

Operating out of a tiny room in Fabulosa Books in San Francisco’s Castro District, one of the oldest gay neighborhoods in the United States, Robbins uses donations from customers to ship boxes of books across the country to groups that want them.

In an effort she calls “Books Not Bans,” she sends titles about queer history, sexuality, romance and more — many of which are increasingly hard to come by in the face of a rapidly growing movement by conservative advocacy groups and lawmakers to ban them from public schools and libraries.

“The book bans are awful, the attempt at erasure,” Robbins said. She asked herself how she could get these books into the hands of the people who need them the most.

Beginning last May, she started raising money and looking for recipients. Her books have gone to places like a pride center in west Texas and an LGBTQ-friendly high school in Alabama.

Customers are especially enthusiastic about helping Robbins send books to places in states like Florida, Texas and Oklahoma, often writing notes of support to include in the packages. Over 40% of all book bans from July 2022 to June 2023 were in Florida, more than any other state. Behind Florida are Texas and Missouri, according to a report by PEN America, a nonprofit literature advocacy group.

Book bans and attempted bans have been hitting record highs, according to the American Library Association. And the efforts now extend as much to public libraries as school libraries. Because the totals are based on media accounts and reports submitted by librarians, the association regards its numbers as snapshots, with many bans left unrecorded.

PEN America’s report said 30% of the bans include characters of color or discuss race and racism, and 30% have LGBTQ+ characters or themes.

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The most sweeping challenges often originate with conservative organizations, such as Moms for Liberty, which has organized banning efforts nationwide and called for more parental control over books available to children.

Moms for Liberty is not anti-LGBTQ+, co-founder Tiffany Justice has told The Associated Press. But about 38% of book challenges that “directly originated” from the group have LGBTQ+ themes, according to the library association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom. Justice said Moms for Liberty challenges books that are sexually explicit, not because they cover LGBTQ+ topics.

Among those topping banned lists have been Maia Kobabe’s “Gender Queer,” George Johnson’s “All Boys Aren’t Blue” and Nobel laureate Toni Morrison’s “The Bluest Eye.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

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An LGBTQ+ related book is seen on display at Fabulosa Books, in the Castro District of San Francisco on Thursday, June 27, 2024.

 

An LGBTQ+ related book is seen on display at Fabulosa Books, in the Castro District of San Francisco on Thursday, June 27, 2024. “Books Not Bans” is a program initiated and sponsored by the store that sends boxes of LGBTQ+ books to LGBTQ+ organizations in conservative parts of America where politicians are demonizing and banning books with LGBTQ+ affirming content. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

 

Robbins said it’s more important than ever to makes these kinds of books available to everyone.

“Fiction teaches us how to dream,” Robbins said. “It teaches us how to connect with people who are not like ourselves, it teaches us how to listen and emphasize.”

She’s sent 740 books so far, with each box worth $300 to $400, depending on the titles.

At the new Rose Dynasty Center in Lakeland, Florida, the books donated by Fabulosa are already on the shelves, said Jason DeShazo, a drag queen known as Momma Ashley Rose who runs the LGBTQ+ community center.

 
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Becka Robbins, events manager and founder of the

 

Becka Robbins, events manager and founder of the “Books Not Bans” program at Fabulosa Books, packs up LGBTQ+ books to be sent to parts of the country where they are censored on Thursday, June 27, 2024 at the Castro District of San Francisco. The bookstore is sending LGBTQ+ books to where they are censored to counter the rapidly growing effort by anti-LGBTQ+ activists and lawmakers to ban queer-friendly books from public schools and libraries. (AP Photo/Haven Daley)

 

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DeShazo is a family-friendly drag performer and has long hosted drag story times to promote literacy. He uses puppets to address themes of being kind, dealing with bullies and giving back to the community.

DeShazo hopes to provide a safe space for events, support groups and health clinics, and to build a library of banned books.

“I don’t think a person of color should have to search so hard for an amazing book about history of what our Black community has gone through,” DeShazo said. “Or for someone who is queer to find a book that represents them.”

Robbins’ favorite books to send are youth adult queer romances, a rapidly growing genre as conversations about LGBTQ+ issues have become much more mainstream than a decade ago.

“The characters are just like regular kids — regular people who are also queer, but they also get to fall in love and be happy,” Robbins said.

_____

Ding reported from Los Angeles.

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