World

MIDDLE EAST CRISIS UPDATE: 20 MARCH 2024

Biden and Netanyahu ease feud; Trump slammed for ‘anti-Semitic’ comments on Jewish Democrats

Biden and Netanyahu ease feud; Trump slammed for ‘anti-Semitic’ comments on Jewish Democrats
Doug Emhoff, husband of US Vice-President Kamala Harris, has condemned Donald Trump for accusing Jews who support Democrats of hating their religion and Israel. (Photo: Alex Wong / Getty Images)

US President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday sought to turn down the heat in their unusually public feud over Israel’s war in Gaza, but there was little sign the domestic political pressures that had pushed them apart were easing.

US second gentleman Doug Emhoff condemned Republican Donald Trump for accusing Jews who support Democrats of hating their religion and Israel. Emhoff, who is Jewish and the husband of Vice-President Kamala Harris, singled out Trump’s comments on Tuesday.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will make his sixth visit to the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October as tensions persist between Washington and the Israelis over the conduct of the fighting and the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza. 

Biden and Netanyahu ease their feud, but suspicions linger

Joe Biden and Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday sought to turn down the heat in their unusually public feud over Israel’s war in Gaza, but there was little sign that the domestic political pressures that have pushed them apart are easing.

After weeks of growing vitriol between the two leaders over Israel’s punishing ground invasion of the Gaza Strip, the US president won a valuable concession in a telephone call with the Israeli prime minister on Monday — their first in more than a month. 

Netanyahu agreed to send a group of advisers to the US to talk about Israel’s planned invasion of Rafah, where more than one million people have sought shelter from the fighting.

Global opposition to the plan is mounting. Israel insists an offensive on Rafah is needed because it is the last bastion of Hamas, an Iran-backed Islamist group. Netanyahu has said he will allow civilians to leave before any assault, but there’s scepticism, including in the US, that this can be done.

The visit will buy some crucial time for Biden, who has been the target of withering criticism from the left in the US to do more to halt the bloodshed in Gaza after some 31,000 deaths and amid warnings of imminent famine.

“I continued to affirm that Israel has a right to go after Hamas, a group of terrorists responsible for the worst massacre of the Jewish people since the Holocaust,” Biden said of the call. He added he had asked Netanyahu “to send a team to Washington to discuss ways to target Hamas without a major ground operation in Rafah”.

While celebrating the concession on Monday, officials were already speculating on how long it would last, given the pressure both leaders are under from political forces back home.

Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners want a more aggressive military posture in Gaza and reject a Palestinian state. The constituents Biden worries about — progressives, Muslim Americans and young Democrats — want a permanent ceasefire and Palestinian sovereignty. It’s an existential threat for the US leader given that they may withhold votes from him in the November election in key states such as Michigan.

On Tuesday, Netanyahu said there was no way to destroy the remaining Hamas battalions in Rafah without a ground incursion. He said he “made this as clear as possible” to Biden.

“We need to complete the military elimination of Hamas,” Netanyahu said in remarks in Jerusalem to Israeli legislators. “There is no alternative to this. We cannot go around it. Neither can we say, ‘We will destroy 80% of Hamas and leave 20%’, because from that 20%, they will reorganise and take over the Strip again and — of course — constitute a new threat to Israel.”

The agreement for a visit by Israeli officials, which came from a phone call from the two leaders, was a rare bright spot in a relationship that has grown increasingly strained in the months since Hamas fighters attacked Israel on 7 October and Israel responded with a punishing air and ground campaign. The two leaders’ governments have taken to openly criticising each other, and last week a group of senators urged Biden to halt military aid to Israel.  

Trump slammed for ‘anti-Semitic’ comments on Jewish Democrats

US second gentleman Doug Emhoff condemned Republican Donald Trump for accusing Jews who support Democrats of hating their religion and Israel.

Emhoff, who is Jewish and the husband of Vice-President Kamala Harris, singled out Trump’s comments on Tuesday as Biden’s team has highlighted the presumptive Republican nominee’s incendiary rhetoric against minorities and immigrants.

“This is a disgusting, toxic, anti-Semitic thing to say, by anyone, let alone a former president of the United States and it must be condemned,” Emhoff said during a campaign event in Omaha, Nebraska.

Emhoff is the highest-ranking Biden administration figure to criticise Trump’s comments. The first Jewish spouse of a president or vice-president, Emhoff has been an outspoken voice in the White House against anti-Semitism. He has frequently denounced Trump’s remarks invoking anti-Jewish tropes as well as a spate of anti-Semitic harassment following Hamas’s 7 October attack and Israel’s subsequent military campaign in Gaza. 

Read more: Trump says Jewish Democrats hate their religion and Israel

The former president said in an interview published on Monday that Jews who back Democrats “hate Israel”. He was asked about Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer’s speech calling for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ouster, which was praised by Biden.

“Any Jewish person that votes for Democrats hates their religion,” Trump said. “They hate everything about Israel, and they should be ashamed of themselves because Israel will be destroyed.”

Blinken returns to Middle East with US-Israel tensions high

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken will make his sixth visit to the Middle East since the Israel-Hamas war broke out in October, as tensions persist between Washington and the Israelis over the conduct of the fighting and the dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Blinken, who has been travelling in Europe and Asia since Thursday, would extend his trip and make stops in Saudi Arabia and Egypt to meet leaders and other senior officials in both countries, the State Department said on Tuesday.

The top US diplomat called on Israel to let more aid into Gaza. He referred to aid agencies describing the situation in the Palestinian enclave as worse than in Sudan or Afghanistan — and of them saying it was the first time in history an entire population had suffered from acute food insecurity.

“According to in this case the United Nations, 100% — the totality of the population — is in need of humanitarian assistance,” Blinken said of Gaza as he spoke at a news conference in the Philippines capital of Manila. “Compare that to Sudan — about 80% of the population there is in need of humanitarian assistance. Afghanistan — about 70%. This only underscores both the urgency, the imperative of making this the priority.”

Blinken’s Middle East trip will focus on negotiations to reach a ceasefire that could lead to the release of Israeli hostages held by Hamas, which the US and European Union consider a terrorist group. He will also discuss trying to increase the flow of aid into Gaza, planning for post-war governance in the territory, and US-led efforts to end attacks on commercial shipping in the Red Sea by Houthi militants.

The looming famine, however, has led to immense pressure on the US to exert more leverage over Israel. Also on Tuesday, United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres said the world had to act now to prevent the “unthinkable”. 

“The imminent famine in the northern part of Gaza is an entirely man-made disaster,” Guterres wrote on X, formerly Twitter.  

Asked about the nearly 100 journalists and media workers who have been killed in the war and the inability of international journalists to enter Gaza, Blinken said that “as a basic matter of principle” he wanted reporters to be able to access any conflict.

Israel’s ban on Palestinian workers hurts both economies

For Fadi Sajdia, a construction labourer from the West Bank city of Ramallah, the Muslim holy month of Ramadan should be a time of daily fasting and nightly feasting. But like 150,000 other Palestinians who worked in Israel until the Hamas massacre in southern Israel in October, he’s out of a job.

“I’m the sole breadwinner in my family,” Sajdia (37) said. “Now we only buy essentials.”

All across Israel, building sites are idle as a ban on Palestinian workers continues with no end in sight. It’s turned the bellwether construction industry into an economic crisis epicentre, offering a glimpse of what awaits both sides if the war in Gaza permanently ruptures their precarious ties. 

A painful decoupling between the two economies has threatened a lifeline for Palestinian territories and left Israeli builders scrambling for labour abroad — a shift in the workforce that industry forecasts show will take a year, at best, to complete. More than two-thirds of Palestinians employed in Israel before the war worked in construction.

After the 7 October Hamas attack that provoked the war in Gaza, Israeli authorities instituted a complete shutdown of borders with the West Bank over security concerns. The government has since tripled to 65,000 the quota of foreign workers allowed to enter Israel, mainly from India and Sri Lanka. But so far only 850 have arrived.

The plight is tangible on both sides of the divide.

Israel’s Finance Ministry estimates the absence of Palestinian workers in construction, agriculture and industry is costing three billion shekels ($840-million) in lost output a month.

Economic shockwaves from the war have been far more devastating in Palestinian territories, and in Gaza are exacerbating a humanitarian crisis.  

In the West Bank, where 17,000 Palestinians are still working in Jewish settlements, unemployment has more than doubled to above 30%.

Before the war, a fifth of all employed residents of the West Bank worked in Israel or its settlements, where they earned more than twice the average domestic wage, according to the United Nations. Their earnings totalled around $4-billion annually, equivalent to a quarter of the local gross domestic product.

Tensions have escalated in the West Bank, which is ruled by the Palestinian Authority, but still largely controlled by the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Hundreds of Palestinians have been arrested by the IDF following what it called attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers. Settler violence against Palestinians has also been on the rise.

The employment of Palestinian workers from the West Bank had gradually expanded over the past two decades, partly in response to the demand for low-wage manual workers in Israel, now one of the world’s richest countries. Until last October, about 156,000 Palestinians were employed in Israel.

For workers from Gaza, the border with Israel had been shut since 2005. Only a limited portion of a maximum of 20,000 workers were allowed to enter from the Mediterranean enclave in recent years.

Before 7 October, Palestinians made up one of every three construction workers in Israel. They dominated the early stages of building work, meaning little can proceed without them. Some 40% of construction sites are shut; the rest have only partially resumed. 

It’s a similar situation with Israel’s infrastructure sector, which can no longer count on the roughly 10,000 Palestinian workers it employed before the war. Its needs are even more urgent because multiple sites require repairs after being hit by missiles fired from Gaza and Hezbollah militants in Lebanon.

Construction, while making up only 6% to 7% of GDP, accounted for almost half of the near-record drop in growth over the last quarter of 2023.

“It’s like a millstone on the economy that can cost Israel some 1.5%-2% of its GDP in the coming year or longer,” said Adi Brender, the central bank’s head of research. A construction downturn was among a handful of factors that could hold back a broader recovery, he said. 

Israel’s high-flying economy of the past two decades — with GDP per capita passing those of the UK and France, thanks in large part to a booming hi-tech sector — has involved rapid expansion of roads and housing. Now that those industries are at a near standstill, the knock-on effects will be widespread. 

For now, there’s no sign of a major return of the workers to Israel. As Eli Cohen, the CEO of Termokir, a factory that supplies the construction industry, sees it, the change is probably here to stay.

“This is a real breaking point,” he said. “Things will not go back to the way they were soon and even if some restrictions are lifted it will be a very limited process.” DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: Middle East crisis news hub

Gallery

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Troy Marshall says:

    “Netanyahu’s far-right coalition partners want a more aggressive military posture in Gaza and reject a Palestinian state”
    Deny a race their statehood? That has never been acceptable.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

X

This article is free to read.

Sign up for free or sign in to continue reading.

Unlike our competitors, we don’t force you to pay to read the news but we do need your email address to make your experience better.


Nearly there! Create a password to finish signing up with us:

Please enter your password or get a sign in link if you’ve forgotten

Open Sesame! Thanks for signing up.

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options

Daily Maverick Elections Toolbox

Feeling powerless in politics?

Equip yourself with the tools you need for an informed decision this election. Get the Elections Toolbox with shareable party manifesto guide.