Harris heads to Dubai to tackle delicate tasks of talking climate and Israel-Hamas war

Dec 1, 2023, 6:23 AM

WASHINGTON (AP) — Vice President Kamala Harris will tackle two delicate tasks this weekend in Dubai: She’ll try to demonstrate U.S. environmental leadership despite President Joe Biden ‘s notable absence from an annual summit on climate change and she’ll work to nudge forward fragile efforts to shape the next phase of the war between Israel and Hamas.

A White House official, who insisted on anonymity to preview Harris’ meetings, said she would sit down with regional leaders and outline proposals to “put Palestinian voices at the center” of planning next steps for the Gaza Strip after the conflict.

The goal, the official said, is to have “a clear political horizon for the Palestinian people” that will ultimately bring together Gaza and the West Bank under unified leadership. Hamas runs the Gaza Strip while the Palestinian Authority administers semi-autonomous areas of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Biden and other administration officials have increasingly emphasized the need for an eventual two-state solution, with Israel and a Palestinian nation coexisting, as the war continues. The White House has faced criticism at home and abroad for its steadfast support for Israel despite the rising death toll among civilians in the Gaza Strip.

Administration officials have defended Biden’s approach, saying that he’s relied on his closeness with Israeli leadership to successfully advocate for more humanitarian aid for Palestinians and a truce that lasted several days, enabling the release of some hostages held by Hamas. The pause in fighting ended on Friday.

Harris has a narrow opportunity to accomplish her goals while she’s in the United Arab Emirates. She left Washington on Friday and is scheduled to appear only briefly at the United Nations conference known as COP28. The White House official said she would deliver remarks and participate in a meeting on renewable energy with other leaders on Saturday.

Like most vice presidents, Harris is expected to hew tightly to administration talking points on controversial issues where any divergence could ricochet around the globe. Her public remarks, however limited, will be closely scrutinized.

Activists are eager for any boost in the fight against climate change, which experts warn is lagging behind what’s needed to prevent damaging global warming. And Harris will be the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit an Arab nation since the outbreak of war in the Middle East, where anti-American sentiment has been inflamed by Washington’s support for Israel’s military campaign in Gaza.

Details on Harris’ schedule remain scarce and the trip appears to have been hastily arranged. As recently as last week, the vice president’s staff said she had no plans to attend the climate conference. White House officials have not explained the change in plans.

Biden attended the last two U.N. summits, which were held in Scotland and Egypt, but he disappointed some environmental activists by his decision to skip this one.

Manish Bapna, head of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said it’s “so important” for Harris to be there on behalf of the president and his administration.

“She’s representing concrete U.S. progress — from significant investments in clean cars and clean energy to a crackdown on dirty power plants,” Bapna said. “There’s much work ahead to lock that progress in and build on it — but it’s a complete turnaround from where we stood even a year ago.”

The Dubai gathering will include a first-ever assessment of how well the world is doing in its battle against global warming. Known as the “stocktake,” countries will examine their progress since the Paris agreement in 2015, seeing how much they’ve fallen short and how best to make up lost ground.

“We don’t expect to see big political breakthroughs to kind of fashion new agreements,” said Joseph Majkut, director of the Energy Security and Climate Change Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

However, he said determining the best way to measure progress — a contentious issue in the world of global climate politics — and to collectively grapple with adapting to climate change are still “relatively important.”

Although Biden has faced some criticism for missing COP28, Robert Stavins, a Harvard University professor who regularly attends climate conferences, said his absence won’t have a substantive impact.

“The meat of the negotiations” have already taken place, he said, and all that’s left for leaders is “essentially to participate in a photo opportunity.”

He added that the most important goal should be for the U.S. and China to rebuild their partnership on climate change, which was key to the Paris agreement but has lapsed in recent years. Stavins said that “any lack of cooperation on climate change is collateral damage of our legitimate disagreements” on issues like trade, intellectual property and the South China Sea.

U.S. officials said they’re confident in the progress that has been made under Biden, particularly last year’s signing of the Inflation Reduction Act, which included hundreds of millions of dollars in financial incentives for clean energy.

“The urgency of this challenge is clear, but so is our ambition,” said John Podesta, a senior adviser to Biden on climate issues. He added that “we’re going to Dubai with confidence that the United States is on a path to achieve our climate goals and do our part to build a clean, secure, and equitable future for the entire world.”

The vice president is set to announce several initiatives to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as well as support multi-nation adaptation of plans and efforts to boost climate resilience, senior administration officials said. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, special envoy John Kerry and climate adviser Ali Zaidi are attending as well.

The administration still faces some criticism. A report by the activist Center for Biological Diversity said that while new initiatives in the Inflation Reduction Act would reduce nearly 1 billion metric tons of carbon emissions by 2030, 17 different oil and gas projects the administration has approved would add 1.6 billion metric tons of emissions.

Administration officials said they’ve been required by law to approve the fossil fuel projects, which are tied to leases held by energy companies.

Harris’s trip comes at a key moment as fighting resumed, ending a fragile truce that had held for a week while Hamas released hostages it was holding in Gaza since its Oct. 7 attack on Israel. U.S. diplomats had been engaged in efforts to extend the pause in fighting to extract additional hostages, including Americans.

Harris’ involvement could have political reverberations back home as well. She’s been focused on reaching out to younger voters who are skeptical of awarding Biden another term in office, and they’re also more likely to be critical of U.S. support for Israel.

Although Biden has worked the phones to speak with Arab leaders, he was unable to sit down with some of them in October during a trip to the region. The president had originally planned to visit Jordan as well as Israel in October, but the stop in Jordan was scrapped amid controversy over an explosion at a hospital in the Gaza Strip.

Although the blast was initially blamed on Israel by Hamas authorities, further analysis — including by The Associated Press — indicated that a misfired Palestinian rocket was the cause.

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Harris heads to Dubai to tackle delicate tasks of talking climate and Israel-Hamas war