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VP Harris takes more visible role in Mideast, focused on postwar Gaza

A weekend trip to a climate summit in Dubai doubled as a chance for Harris to pitch Arab leaders on their support for Washington’s vision of a political solution in Gaza

Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Vice President Kamala Harris speaks during day two of the high-level segment of the UNFCCC COP28 Climate Conference at Expo City Dubai on December 02, 2023 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates.

When Vice President Kamala Harris was introduced to give a speech on Saturday at the U.N. climate summit in Dubai, attendees cheered. But she wasn’t actually in the room; Harris was focused on other priorities, and at that moment she was on the phone with the emir of Qatar. It was part of a 36-hour flurry of diplomacy focused on the Israel-Hamas war. (She later made it to COP28 to give a brief speech.)

A former member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, Harris has in recent days become a much more visible face of the Biden administration’s handling of the war in Gaza. Last week, she offered her first lengthy public remarks on the topic, hinting at a behind-the-scenes U.S. campaign pressuring Israel to do more to avoid civilian casualties. Since then, senior White House officials have promoted her as the definitive U.S. voice on what postwar Gaza will look like.  

“We’ve been having conversations internally, which she’s been a part of, and the idea now is that we were ready to expand [those conversations] to our regional partners,” said a senior Biden administration official, who requested anonymity to speak about White House strategy. While in the United Arab Emirates, Harris met with Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, UAE President Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed and Jordanian King Abdullah II. 

“She’ll certainly be making it clear, as we’ve said many times before, that we believe that Palestinian people need a vote and a voice in their future, and that they need governance in Gaza that will look after their aspirations and their needs,” Adm. John Kirby, the National Security Council’s coordinator for strategic communications, said on Friday. 

Harris is expected to travel to Israel in the coming months to continue those conversations. The trip to Dubai, which was focused on the climate summit, also provided an opportunity for her to start conversations about Gaza with major stakeholders from the region.

“We were ready to engage with our regional partners at the leader level through this trip, so it was really an opportunity to talk to them and to begin the conversations in a serious way about what the day after looks like,” said the official.

On Harris’ plane ride back to Washington on Sunday, she spoke to Israeli President Isaac Herzog and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. She shared the details of her meetings with Biden on Monday after she returned. 

Before departing to the U.S., Harris offered more details on Washington’s vision for postwar Gaza than other officials had previously shared.

“Five principles guide our approach for post-conflict Gaza: no forcible displacement, no reoccupation, no siege or blockade, no reduction in territory and no use of Gaza as a platform for terrorism,” Harris said. Gaza and the West Bank must be governed together under a revitalized Palestinian Authority, she said, as a unified Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state.

Harris also articulated the need for increased international support for these goals, particularly the postwar reconstruction of Gaza. Official readouts of her weekend meetings showed Harris making this argument to the Arab leaders, telling them that any plans for Gaza will require their buy-in and support. 

“When this conflict ends, Hamas cannot control Gaza, and Israel must be secure. Palestinians need a hopeful political horizon, economic opportunity, and freedom. And the region, more broadly, must be integrated and prosperous. And we must — we must work toward that vision,” Harris concluded her remarks. 

Harris’ advisors are publicly touting her record and her involvement on the issue, painting her as a key diplomatic figure in the Biden administration. Her national security advisor, Phil Gordon, stayed in the region after Harris left Dubai; he flew to Tel Aviv for meetings with Israeli and Palestinian officials in Jerusalem and Ramallah. 

“This builds on quite a bit of engagement that the vice president has been doing since October 7,” Rebecca Lissner, Harris’ deputy national security advisor, said on Monday at a White House briefing. Lissner listed the number of calls with Israeli and Arab leaders that Harris has joined with Biden. “She has spent truly countless hours in the Oval Office with the president and their national security team working on Israel-Gaza policy issues.”

In her remarks about the war over the weekend, Harris offered harsher criticism of Israel’s killing of civilians than anything President Joe Biden had said before that point.

“Far too many Palestinian civilians — innocent people — have been killed and Israel must do more to protect innocent civilians,” Harris said. 

Halie Soifer, a former advisor to Harris and a close ally of the Biden White House, denied that Harris was playing the bad cop in her rebuke of Israel. 

“The administration speaks in one voice. There is no daylight between President Biden and Vice President Harris on this or any other issue,” said Soifer, CEO of the Jewish Democratic Council of America. 

The senior White House official also denied that Harris’ recent leadership, focused specifically on Gaza, is meant to cater to critics of the Biden administration’s generally pro-Israel stance.

“No, she is doing what our administration believes is in the best interest of our country and the world,” the official explained. “She is articulating administration policy based off of what we are trying to do from a national security perspective.”

Harris, too, made clear that she supports Israel’s fight against Hamas. She started her Saturday remarks by noting that, since Oct. 7, “President Biden and I have been clear: Israel has a right to defend itself. And we will remain steadfast in that conviction.”

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