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March 2, 2024

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Harris in Dubai to tackle climate change and war; each carries high political risks at home

Vice president filling in for Biden at UN summit, meetings regarding Israel-Hamas conflict

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Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a plenary session at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.
Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during a plenary session at the COP28 U.N. Climate Summit, Saturday, Dec. 2, 2023, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. (AP Photo/Rafiq Maqbool) Photo Gallery

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — Filling in for President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris flew to the Middle East to tackle a pair of challenges that have flummoxed White Houses for decades: climate change and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Each carries the risk of political blowback going into next year’s presidential elections.

She spent barely 24 hours on the ground in Dubai, less time than it took to get to the United Arab Emirates and then back to Washington.

At the U.N. climate conference, when it was announced that “her excellency Kamala Harris” was taking the stage Saturday for remarks, she was not even in the room.

Harris’ chair sat unoccupied as world leaders assembled for the panel spoke. When she did show up, she gave a short speech, then dashed off quickly, only to be summoned back for a group photo.

Harris was delayed because she had been on the telephone with the emir of Qatar regarding the Israel-Hamas war. And she was in a hurry after the climate event for more meetings with Arab leaders as Israeli bombardments resumed in Gaza after a temporary cease-fire.

The awkward double booking during Harris’ hastily arranged Dubai trip illustrates a set of tricky — and at times potentially contradictory — policy and political crosscurrents. The Biden administration, with its diverse coalition of voters, is trying to navigate these crosscurrents just as the 2024 presidential race is heating up.

When Harris spoke to reporters after her day of diplomacy, her prepared remarks skipped over the U.S. pledge to commit an additional $3 billion to a climate fund, a development she had cited in her conference speech. To the media, she focused on steps to resolve the war and prepare for what would come next.

“We all want this conflict to end as soon as possible, and to ensure Israel’s security and ensure security for the Palestinian people,” Harris said. “We must accelerate efforts to build an enduring peace, and that begins with planning for what happens the day after the fighting ends.”

Climate and conflict are matters that require a balancing act at home as a possible Biden rematch with former Republican President Donald Trump unfolds.

The Democratic administration is staking much of the U.S. economy’s future on renewable energy, yet voters are frustrated by gasoline prices that are higher than when Biden took office. Similarly, the war that began on Oct. 7 has exposed a divided between Democrats over Washington’s support for Israel and the suffering of Palestinian civilians.

As the 81-year-old Biden seeks a second term, Harris, 59, has taken on a larger role promoting his campaign to younger voters.

During a monthslong college tour to campuses across the country, the vice president spoke at every stop about the existential threat of climate change, only to have audience members frequently express concern that the administration and the rest of the world are not doing enough.

In Dubai, Harris said it was “our duty and our obligation” to do more to move the world away from fossil fuels and limit the increase in average global temperatures. She said the U.S. would contribute $3 billion to a global fund meant to help developing countries better confront climate change and was joining 90-plus nations in promising to double energy efficiency and triple renewable energy capacity by 2030.

JL Andrepont, a senior policy analyst at the environmental group 350.org, said the funding pledge was a “cautious but hopeful sign of the power of public pressure.”

But Harris stopped short of calling for a phaseout of fossil fuels, something many environmental groups want in order to stop the emissions causing climate change.

“We will continue to celebrate the global wins that support justly sourced and implemented renewable energy for all, and we won’t stop advocating for a fast, full phaseout of all fossil fuels, including oil and gas,” Andrepont said.

There is a similar level of tension among Democratic supporters over the Israel-Hamas war. Polling by The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research has shown that 50 percent of Democrats approve and 46 percent disapprove — a near split — of how Biden has dealt with the war.

Harris reaffirmed the administration’s position that Israel must be able to defend itself. Yet her words after hearing from Arab leaders conveyed some frustration with the scale of Israel’s response.

She described the “scale of civilian suffering” as “devastating” and said Israel must do more to protect the lives of Palestinians not involved in the fighting. Biden has previously declared that the U.S. relationship with Israel was ironclad, and his administration is seeking more than $14 billion to support Israel’s war efforts.

Harris also stressed the importance of a rebuilding process for homes and hospitals in the Gaza region.

Amber Sherman, chair of the Black Caucus of the Young Democrats of America, said Harris’ comments were “encouraging.” Sherman had previously put out a statement on X, formerly Twitter, that said the Palestinians were revolting against occupation by the Israeli government, just as Black Americans had fought against slavery and white supremacy.

“It’s important that people call out what’s happening in Palestine,” Sherman said. “We do want Gaza to be rebuilt, and it’s important that she mentioned that.”

Yet Harris’ statements were not entirely reassuring to some critics of the administration’s support of Israel.

“President Biden and his administration should show their statement in action,” said Nihad Awad, executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “We want the siege to be lifted.”

In all, the vice president spent barely 24 hours on the ground in Dubai, less time than the roughly 15 hours each way it took to get there and back from Washington.

While Harris was on her way back Sunday, White House national security spokesman John Kirby applauded Israel for having published online a map of where Gaza residents could go to avoid the fighting. He held that out as a sign that Israel was responsive to the kinds of concerns raised by Harris and others.

“There’s not a whole lot of modern militaries that would do that,” Kirby said on ABC’s “This Week,” “to telegraph their punches in that way. So they are making an effort.”

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