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Netanyahu’s wait for a call from Biden raises questions about US priorities

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By Kylie Atwood, Oren Liebermann, Andrew Carey and Amir Tal, CNN
Updated 9:39 PM ET, Thu February 11, 2021

(CNN) — The White House insists President Joe Biden will “soon” speak with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but the wait, which has now stretched beyond three weeks, is raising questions about whether there is a motive behind the delay.

Multiple US and Israeli officials insist there is a long-standing relationship between the two men and constant contact at other levels of government. But calls placed to leaders in Asia and Europe reflect the Biden administration’s belief that confronting China and Russia as well as repairing relations and damaged alliances are among its top priorities, multiple administration sources said.
While Israel is still a critical ally, one source familiar with the White House thinking said there is some sense of payback in making Netanyahu wait for a call.
The Israeli leader’s cool treatment of former President Barack Obama, his close alignment with former President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, as well as the length of time it took him to congratulate Biden on his victory are not without significance, said the source.
    Ben Rhodes, Obama’s deputy national security adviser for strategic communications, echoed that sentiment in a tweet, saying, “What a surprise that after Bibi spent years relentlessly undermining the Obama-Biden Administration he’s not at the top of the call list.”
    Biden and Netanyahu last spoke on November 17, when the Israeli leader congratulated then-President-elect Biden on his victory. The call was noteworthy because Netanyahu had struggled to find the rights words to congratulate Biden a week earlier, talking about his personal connection between the two without calling Biden the President-elect.
    Publicly, however, the White House has said that the President is making calls to fellow leaders by region and will soon be reaching out to those in the Middle East.
    Biden, who has made 11 calls to foreign leaders plus the NATO secretary general so far, has also deployed his national security team to quickly engage with Israel out of the gates. Secretary of State Antony Blinken has spoken with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi twice. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin has spoken with Defense Minister Benny Gantz and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan has spoken with his Israeli counterpart, Meir Ben Shabbat. There is constant communication between the governments, multiple officials familiar with US-Israeli relations said.
    The fact that Biden has not yet called Netanyahu is not a cause for concern, five of the officials said, pointing to the numerous other conversations between the governments.
    A source with knowledge of the relationship says the lack of a phone call has not affected the dynamics of the relationship. It is not a point of friction between the countries during ongoing conversations, according to the source. “That’s part of being normal and normalized relations,” the source said.
    White House spokeswoman Jen Psaki told reporters at Thursday’s White House briefing that “the President looks forward to speaking with Prime Minister Netanyahu. He’s obviously somebody that he has a long-standing relationship with and obviously there’s an important relationship that the United States has with Israel on the security front and as a key partner in the region.”
    “He’ll be talking with him soon,” Psaki added, but declined to provide a specific date or time on when they would speak.

    ‘I presume he will call me. Believe me, I have no doubt about it.’

    In a rare press conference from the long-time Israeli leader Monday, Netanyahu downplayed the delay. “[President Biden] calls leaders in the order that he finds acceptable, North America, then Europe,” Netanyahu said. “He hasn’t reached the Middle East yet. I presume he will call me. Believe me, I have no doubt about it.”
    Netanyahu went on to say that the alliance between Israel and the United States was strong, even though “it doesn’t mean we will agree on everything.”
    Meanwhile, Israel is waiting.
    The country’s former ambassador to the UN Danny Danon tweeted directly to Biden Wednesday, prompting a face palm moment across parts of the Israeli political spectrum.
    “Joe Biden,” Danon tweeted, “you have called world leaders from #Canada, #Mexico, #UK, #India, #Japan, #France, #Germany, #Australia, #SouthKorea, #Russia. Might now be the time to call the leader of #Israel, the closest ally of the #US? The PM’s number is: 972-2-670555.”
    Danon told Israeli Army Radio on Thursday that he “didn’t formulate the tweet, but I take responsibility for it,” adding that “the choice of words was not successful, but I stand behind the message.”
    Three officials said the Danon tweet was largely driven by internal Israeli politics and long-simmering tension between Danon and Netanyahu. But the blowback came swiftly, with many using Danon’s tweet to interpret Biden’s silence as politically driven.
    Josh Marshall, the founder of Talking Points Memo, prodded Danon, tweeting, “glad you’re seeing that Netanyahu making Israel an affiliate of the Republican party has been noticed and has consequences.”
    As others took to Twitter to chastise Danon for “trolling” the US President, Israelis rapped him for “embarrassing us in front of other nations,” and the spokesman for opposition leader Yair Lapid added his own message to Danon’s tweet to Biden: “Sorry about this. Signed, Everyone in Israel.”

    Biden is ‘right sizing’

    Current and former US officials point to the decades-long, close relationship between Netanyahu and Biden, and say that if there’s any signal being sent, it’s about US strategic priorities. Biden is “right sizing” the US relationship with Israel, they say, and that with the challenges posed by China, Russia, climate change and other problems, the Middle East is not a top priority.
    Aaron David Miller, a CNN contributor who is a former Mideast peace negotiator and senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, suggested US priorities have quickly changed in the Biden administration’s first few weeks in office.
    “Memo to all interested parties,” he tweeted. “A call will come. But a clear message is being sent. Netanyahu was Trump’s 3rd call. To quote Dorothy, we’re not in Kansas anymore.”
    “I feel confident that this is not about Israel or about anything that happened in the Obama or Trump years,” said Daniel Shapiro, Obama’s ambassador to Israel. “It is simply about what Biden’s priorities are: Covid, economic recovery, climate change, and racial justice. And on foreign policy, it is revitalizing core alliances in Europe and Asia, restoring US leadership on multilateral issues, preparing for the challenge of China, and confronting the challenge of Russia. He has been absolutely disciplined on those priorities. But I’m sure the call will happen fairly soon.”
    The Biden administration has also sent early reassuring signals to Israel on a number of fronts, making it publicly clear they will not roll back some of Trump’s more controversial policy moves, including moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and declaring the holy city the capital of Israel. And Blinken has made clear the US will stand by the normalization agreements the Trump administration brokered between Israel and countries in the Gulf region and elsewhere.
    But Blinken’s comments about the Golan Heights to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer on Monday raised some eyebrows. Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in 1967 and has administered it ever since, but under international law it is considered occupied territory. Trump broke with international consensus when he recognized Israeli sovereignty in the Golan Heights.
      Asked if the Biden administration will continue to see the Golan Heights as part of Israel, Blinken said, “Leaving aside the legalities, as a practical matter, the Golan is very important to Israel’s security as long as Assad is in power in Syria, as long as Iran is present in Syria, militia groups backed by Iran, the Assad regime itself … over time, if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we would look at. We are nowhere near that.”
      The next day, Netanyahu said: “The Golan Heights has been and will continue to be a part of the State of Israel. With an agreement or without an agreement, we are not leaving the Golan. It will remain under the sovereignty of the State of Israel.”

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      Biden to take first limited steps on gun control, including on ‘ghost guns’ and pistol braces

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      By Kevin Liptak, CNN
      Updated 10:57 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

      (CNN) — President Joe Biden will take his first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, directing his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official.

      The steps — which also include nominating a gun control advocate to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives — fulfill a commitment Biden made in the aftermath of two deadly shootings last month to take “common sense” steps right away to address gun violence.
      But they fall short of the sweeping actions Biden promised as a candidate that must be passed by Congress, including a ban on assault weapons or enacting universal background checks. Senior administration officials framed the upcoming announcements as initial steps that would be followed by additional actions later on, including applying pressure on lawmakers to act.
        Biden said last month following a mass shooting in Colorado, “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common sense steps that will save lives in the future.” But he has acknowledged that passing a massive new infrastructure plan — and not new gun laws — is his top legislative priority.
          Biden will make the announcements Thursday from the White House alongside his attorney general, Merrick Garland, whose Justice Department will be responsible for drafting the proposed rules.
              The announcements will come as the President is expected to nominate David Chipman as the next director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, a White House official told CNN. Chipman is a former ATF agent who serves as senior policy adviser at Giffords, the organization led by former congresswoman Gabby Giffords, who became a gun control advocate after being shot in 2011.
              The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
              Biden also plans to announce new investments in intervention programs in violence-prone communities; a directive to the Justice Department to publish model “red flag” laws for states that allow the temporary removal of guns from people deemed at high risk of harming themselves or others; and a comprehensive report on firearms trafficking.
              Taken together, the actions amount to the first real steps by Biden’s administration to combat gun violence. Inside the White House, efforts to devise executive actions have been led by White House Domestic Policy Council Director Susan Rice and Office of Public Engagement Director Cedric Richmond, administration officials and gun safety advocacy groups told CNN.
              That included meeting with some of those groups and fielding ideas for steps that Biden could take on his own. Some advocates had been clamoring for steps earlier in the administration, pointing to Biden’s pledge to prioritize gun control during his campaign.
              But initial reaction from gun safety advocacy groups Wednesday evening was positive.
              “Each of these executive actions will start to address the epidemic of gun violence that has raged throughout the pandemic, and begin to make good on President Biden’s promise to be the strongest gun safety president in history,” John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety, said in a statement.
              “These much-needed executive actions will start saving lives right away, and our grassroots army of nearly 6 million supporters looks forward to standing behind President Biden as he urges the Senate to follow his lead and act,” Shannon Watts, founder of Moms Demand Action, said in a statement.
              While campaigning, Biden had said he would task his attorney general with instituting better enforcement of existing gun laws as a means of slowing gun violence. He also made a campaign pledge to send $900 million for community programs meant to combat violence, something the administration is sorting out how to fulfill.
              Following last month’s shootings, Biden called on Congress to take steps like reenacting an assault weapons ban, with Vice President Kamala Harris, who argued for executive actions on the campaign trail, telling “CBS This Morning” that “if we really want something that is going to be lasting, we need to pass legislation.”
              The Democratic-controlled House passed gun legislation that would expand background checks on all commercial gun sales last month, but the bills face tougher paths in the Senate, where Democrats hold a slim 50-50 majority and would need significant Republican support to overcome a legislative filibuster.
              Biden acknowledged during a news conference that his main legislative priority was passing an infrastructure package and that he believed careful timing was key to the success of any proposed bills.
              And he has acknowledged that his political capital is limited.
              “I haven’t done any counting yet,” he said in March when asked whether he believed he had enough votes to pass significant reforms.
              As the nation’s posture on guns has evolved, Biden has been front-and-center at most every stop along the way for more than three decades, from the triumph of a 10-year ban on assault weapons in 1994 to the disappointment of a failed push for universal background checks in the wake of the Sandy Hook massacre.
                Recent shootings in Georgia and Colorado had raised the question inside the West Wing over how much political capital Biden should expend on the matter, which has so often ended in frustration.
                This story has been updated with details about Biden’s executive actions and reaction to them.

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                Virginia lawmakers OK marijuana possession starting July 1

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                By Paul LeBlanc and Kay Jones, CNN
                Updated 9:45 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                (CNN) — The Virginia General Assembly on Wednesday passed a bill legalizing simple possession of marijuana, becoming the latest state to modify its laws around cannabis use and possession that disproportionately jailed Black people for nonviolent offenses.

                The new law, which goes into effect July 1, allows anyone in the state 21 or older to possess up to 1 ounce of marijuana. The law also “modifies several other criminal penalties related to marijuana, and imposes limits on dissemination of criminal history record information related to certain marijuana offenses,” according to a summary posted to the Legislature’s website.
                “Virginia led and made history once again today,” Virginia Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax, who cast the tie-breaking vote in the state Senate, said in a tweet.
                  “I was proud to cast the tie-breaking vote to legalize marijuana and bring long overdue justice, fairness, equity and opportunity to the people of our great Commonwealth.”
                    The bill had originally passed in late February, but Democratic Gov. Ralph Northam sent it back to the Legislature with a series of revisions, including a proposal to accelerate the timeline of its enactment to this July instead of 2024.
                        Still, the measure was met with fierce opposition from state GOP lawmakers Wednesday, including Del. Chris Head, who called it a “train wreck” during a virtual House floor speech.
                        “If this policy change is to be undertaken, it has to be undertaken prudently, and I understand the enormous pressure on the majority party to make this change right now. I understand that opposing immediate legislation and legalization is going to anger many of your constituents. And I understand that taking the time to do this right might possibly even lead to charges of racism,” he said.
                        “But we have to do this right. And doing it right takes time.”
                        Legalization advocates have long touted the righting of past criminal justice wrongs, eliminating illegal market activity and generating additional tax revenue when they’ve pushed for overhauling state cannabis laws.
                        “At the end of the day, economics talk and jobs talk,” Jessica Billingsley, chief executive officer of Akerna, which makes regulatory compliance software that helps states track cannabis sales from seed to sale, previously told CNN.
                          “I truly believe we’re going to see some very meaningful and important movement coming out of this as states and governors look for a way to bolster their economy.”
                          Cannabis sales in states that have legalized the plant for medical and recreational purposes totaled about $15 billion in 2019, and are expected to top $30 billion by 2024, according to data from BDS Analytics, which tracks dispensary sales.

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                          Biden’s planned pick for ATF director a fierce advocate for gun control

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                          By Paul LeBlanc, CNN
                          Updated 9:30 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                          Washington (CNN) — David Chipman, President Joe Biden’s planned nominee for director of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, has a long history at the agency and sports credentials in gun control advocacy sure to excite firearm safety groups.

                          If confirmed, Chipman will lead the agency that enforces gun laws at a critical point in Biden’s early tenure, as the President looks to take fresh action on the issue in the wake of two deadly shootings last month.
                          “I don’t need to wait another minute, let alone an hour, to take common-sense steps that will save lives in the future,” Biden said last month. The President plans to announce new executive actions on guns Thursday, a person familiar with the plans said.

                            Longtime ATF special agent

                              Chipman, if confirmed, would return to the agency where he worked for 25 years as a special agent.
                                He lists “Violent Crime Reduction Strategist,” “Certified Explosives Specialist” and “Interagency Liason Specialist” among his specialties on his Linkedin profile, and Giffords notes his expertise includes ghost guns, the gun industry, law enforcement and assault weapons.
                                In the President’s first, limited actions on gun control Thursday, Biden will direct his administration to tighten restrictions on so-called ghost guns and pistol stabilizing braces that allow the weapons to be used more accurately, according to a senior administration official. Ghost guns are handmade or self-assembled firearms that don’t have serial numbers, and some can be fabricated in as little as 30 minutes using kits and parts purchased online.
                                The ATF has been without a permanent director since 2015.
                                In recent years, the bureau has become most visible in the aftermath of mass shootings around the US and at other crimes involving firearms. But the agency has a broader scope than just guns.
                                According to its website, ATF “protects our communities from violent criminals, criminal organizations, the illegal use and trafficking of firearms, the illegal use and storage of explosives, acts of arson and bombings, acts of terrorism, and the illegal diversion of alcohol and tobacco products.”
                                “We partner with communities, industries, law enforcement, and public safety agencies to safeguard the public we serve through information sharing, training, research, and use of technology,” the bureau’s website states.

                                Gun control advocacy

                                After leaving the ATF in 2012, Chipman became a senior adviser at Everytown for Gun Safety, where he was “consulted frequently” by lawmakers considering gun control legislation, according to his Linkedin.
                                Chipman then served as senior vice president of Public Safety Solutions for almost three years before arriving at Giffords as a senior policy adviser in 2016.
                                It’s in these roles that Chipman’s voice as a fierce advocate for gun control was elevated, as he frequently wrote op-eds and made media appearances to advance the cause.
                                “As a former ATF special agent with more than 24 years of experience at the bureau, I know all too well how serious our gun violence problem is and how desperately the agency lacks for the law enforcement tools that are necessary to help curb this national epidemic,” Chipman wrote in a 2013 Politico op-ed.
                                The country’s gun safety laws, he wrote at the time, “make it all too easy for guns to fall into the wrong hands — and since Congress has failed to address these gaps legislatively, ATF must chart a new course to combat the scourge of gun violence. This requires strong leadership.”
                                More recently, Chipman voiced support for limiting high-capacity magazines in a 2019 interview with PBS NewsHour.
                                “Talking to any gun owner, a 100-round magazine is just not traditional. It’s not normal. And I can’t think of a purpose, beyond killing a lot of people, for having it,” he said. “So if the debate is, should it be 10 or what have you, it can’t be 100. And so I think there’s room where we can have progress, although we will not have perfection.”
                                  And in light of FBI records last summer showing US firearm background checks having skyrocketed during the Covid-19 pandemic, Chipman told CNN at the time: “My biggest concern involves the potential number of first time gun buyers who, before March, did not think they needed a gun.”
                                  This story has been updated with additional details Wednesday.

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                                  Andrew Giuliani, former Trump aide and son of Rudy Giuliani, says he plans for to run for governor of New York

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                                  By Devan Cole, CNN
                                  Updated 12:16 PM ET, Wed April 7, 2021

                                  Washington (CNN) — Andrew Giuliani, the son of former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, says he’s planning to run for governor of the heavily Democratic state next year.

                                  “I plan to run,” Andrew Giuliani, who served as an aide to former President Donald Trump, told the Washington Examiner in an interview published Wednesday.
                                  Giuliani’s gubernatorial bid could set up a high stakes, headline-grabbing showdown with Andrew Cuomo, should the embattled incumbent Democratic governor decide to seek a fourth term. But Giuliani would face a steep uphill battle in the heavily Democratic state, and his candidacy could help hand another win to the party as his proximity to Trump would likely be seen as a liability in a state where the former President is widely unpopular.
                                    “I believe I can win the race,” Giuliani told the Examiner. “I think I’m the right candidate, and this is the right time to help change New York State, and we’ve got a playbook that works.”
                                      “Outside of anybody named Trump, I think I have the best chance to win and take the state back, and I think there’s an opportunity in 2022 with a wounded Democratic candidate, whether it’s going to be Gov. (Andrew) Cuomo, whether it’s going to be a radical (attorney general), Letitia James, whether it’s going to be a no-name lieutenant governor, I think there’s a very, very real chance to win,” he said, according to the magazine.
                                            Asked if he expected Cuomo to seek reelection to a fourth term next year, Jay Jacobs, the state party chair and a close ally of the governor, demurred.
                                            “I honestly don’t know the answer to that question. I think that he’s more focused on getting through his current troubles, then seeing where he’s going to go,” he said. “These investigations are going to be critical in all of that. It’s hard to tell. I’m sure that, given his druthers, he’d like to run for reelection.”

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                                            Stephen Breyer worries about Supreme Court’s public standing in current political era

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                                            By Joan Biskupic, CNN legal analyst & Supreme Court biographer
                                            Updated 9:07 PM ET, Tue April 6, 2021

                                            (CNN) — Justice Stephen Breyer, who may be nearing the end of his Supreme Court tenure, expressed concern on Tuesday about the standing of the high court and the possible erosion of public confidence in its decisions.

                                            In an expansive, two-hour lecture at Harvard Law School, Breyer bemoaned the common practice — by journalists, senators and others — of referring to justices by the presidents who appointed them and of describing the nine by their conservative or liberal approach to the law.
                                            “These are more than straws in the wind,” the 82-year-old Breyer said. “They reinforce the thought, likely already present in the reader’s mind, that Supreme Court justices are primarily political officials or ‘junior league’ politicians themselves rather than jurists. The justices tend to believe that differences among judges mostly reflect not politics but jurisprudential differences. That is not what the public thinks.”
                                              Breyer also warned against proposals to expand the size of the Supreme Court from its current nine members. Public trust was “gradually built” over the centuries, he said, and any discussion of change should take account of today’s public acceptance of the court’s rulings, even those as controversial as the 2000 Bush v. Gore case that settled a presidential election.
                                                “The public now expects presidents to accept decisions of the court, including those that are politically controversial,” he said. “The court has become able to impose a significant check — a legal check — upon the Executive’s actions in cases where the Executive strongly believes it is right.”
                                                  Some of Breyer’s most compelling opinions, it should be noted, have been written in dissent. In 2007, for example, he objected to an opinion by Chief Justice John Roberts rejecting school integration plans in Seattle and Louisville. Roberts said districts could not consider a student’s race when making school assignments to reduce racial isolation throughout the school district.
                                                  “This is a decision that the Court and the Nation will come to regret,” wrote Breyer, whose father, Irving Breyer, was a long-serving school board member in San Francisco. Breyer still wears the wristwatch his father received upon his retirement from the district. Breyer said the Roberts opinion threatened “the promise of” the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.
                                                  Breyer said Tuesday that differences with his colleagues were based on their distinct views of the structure of the Constitution or how they interpreted statutes. He did not refer to instances in which his colleagues themselves have publicly questioned each other’s motives.
                                                    Breyer did allow that sometimes justices weigh public opinion or the future ramifications of a decision. And he acknowledged that the nine are products of their individual backgrounds and experiences.
                                                    Still, he said, “judicial philosophy is not a code word for ‘politics.'”

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