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Astroworld Organizers Had Extensive Medical, Security Plans. Did They Follow Them?

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HOUSTON — 

A half-hour after rapper Travis Scott took the stage at 9 p.m. Friday, someone in the media pit called out for medical aid. In that instant, the Astroworld concert turned dangerous and surreal for Max Morbidelli, a 24-year-old former firefighter who was in the crowd with his sister.

“I jumped the barricade and found a girl who was passed out, supine and very clearly cyanotic, or blue,” said Morbidelli, an Advanced Emergency Medical Technician and graduate student at Auburn University in Alabama. The woman wasn’t breathing, didn’t have a pulse and no medical staff were visible, Morbidelli said. He started CPR.

“The scene was unimaginably chaotic,” he said. “The music was so loud. There were lights flashing. There’s people tapping me on the shoulder asking me questions. It was overwhelming.”

Travis Scott performs on the first day of the Astroworld Festival at NRG Park.

(Amy Harris / Associated Press)

Morbidelli was caught up in unfolding chaos that had actually begun hours earlier when fans breached a barricade at the festival. Police intervened to bring things under control, but when crowds surged again that night, injuries mounted so quickly that medical staff were overwhelmed. Some concertgoers passed out. Others were trampled. A few climbed fences and begged Scott to stop the show, to no avail. By the time he left the stage after 10 p.m., bodies were being carried out on stretchers.

Eight people died, ranging in age from 14 to 27. Two dozen were hospitalized and scores more were injured. On Monday, the Houston medical examiner released the victims’ names, but their autopsies were still pending as local police and fire officials investigate what caused the night to turn deadly. At least one security guard was treated with naloxone for opioid overdose after reporting being pricked in the neck with a needle, Police Chief Troy Finner said, leading police to launch both homicide and narcotics investigations.

Multiple lawsuits have been filed against Scott and Astroworld organizers by those injured in the melee as questions have arisen over why the crowd surged and why it wasn’t contained during a day of unruliness. Some authorities also questioned why Scott continued to perform even as people fell unconscious and at least one ambulance appeared in front of the stage.

Before the concert, organizers had presented Houston police and first responders with two lengthy plans: A medical plan by New York City-based ParaDocs Worldwide Inc., and a security plan by Austin-based promoter ScoreMore Shows addressing potential emergencies.

“Based on the site’s layout and numerous past experiences, the potential for multiple alcohol/drug related incidents, possible evacuation needs, and the ever-present threat of a mass casualty situation are identified as key concerns,” the security plan said.

Officers from the Houston Police Department are seen during the first day of the Astroworld Festival.

(Amy Harris / Associated Press)

“The key in properly dealing with this type of scenario is proper management of the crowd from the minute the doors open,” the report stated. “Crowd management techniques will be employed to identify potentially dangerous crowd behavior in its early stages in an effort to prevent a civil disturbance/riot.”

Concert safety consultant Paul Wertheimer has been studying such tragedies since 1979, when he was an on-site investigator the night 11 people were trampled to death at a Cincinnati concert by the Who.

“What caught my attention,” Wertheimer said of the Astroworld plans, “is there’s no mention of crowd management of the audience in front of the stage. It’s not even addressed. Neither is moshing, crowd surfing or stage diving. Neither do the terms ‘crowd crush,’ ‘crowd surge,’ ‘crowd collapse’ or ‘panic’ appear anywhere.”

The medical plan estimated 70,000 would attend the concert, which was permitted for 50,000, according to Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña. He said the outdoor space at NRG Park where the festival was held adjacent to an arena could have held 200,000, but that the event was permitted using a “more conservative” capacity formula, as if it was being held indoors.

“In that venue, it’s a gray area,” he said of capacity limits. “That’s something that needs to be addressed.”

Peña said it’s not clear how many people attended the concert. He requested a manifest of how many Astroworld tickets were sold, including 34,000 that were scanned, plus VIP and comp tickets. But others were caught climbing the fences to gain illicit entry during the day, he said. He had stationed about a dozen fire staff on site in case of an emergency, but it was Astroworld’s responsibility to protect those in attendance.

“It’s not what we do, to go to these events and set up a first aid station,” Peña said.

ScoreMore and concert organizer Live Nation did not respond to requests for comment Monday. They released a statement saying they had provided video footage to investigators and were cooperating, “to get everyone the answers they are looking for.”

ParaDocs Worldwide Inc. released a statement disputing allegations it lacked medical staff and equipment. It said it has been “providing medical care for large venue events” for more than seven years, that their emergency medical staff have a dozen years experience on average and have successfully treated more than 300,000 people.

“We were prepared for the size of the venue and the expected audience with a trained team of medics,” the statement said. “There were ample resources of medication, remedies, treatments and supplies, and the demand and usage did not exceed the onsite stock. From the beginning, the event occurred with a standard course of care throughout the day. The multiple cardiac arrests occurred during the last set in the evening.”

Following the tragedy, Scott released a statement promising to pay for victims’ funerals, assist with the investigation and provide therapy to those affected. Scott said in a video statement on Instagram that he did not realize the extent of the emergency, and noted that he typically stops his concerts so injured fans can reach safety.

“I could just never imagine the severity of the situation,” he said.

But concert attendees said Astroworld security deteriorated within hours of the doors opening around noon on Friday.

Houston Police Chief Troy Finner tweeted that he met with Scott “for a few moments last Friday prior to the main event” and “expressed my concerns regarding public safety.” Finner said Scott’s head of security was also at the meeting, which was “brief and respectful.”

Houston disc jockey Michael Pierangeli, 30, who was attending Astroworld for the third time, arrived shortly before noon and said he noticed people sneaking in.

“A lot of people didn’t have wristbands,” signifying they had tickets, he said.

During afternoon shows, Pierangeli said the crowds felt unsafe.

“The vibe was just off,” he said. “It wasn’t actually mosh pits. People were just pushing each other. Walls were getting made and people were getting sucked in. I’m normally in the mix. I just realized it was too much.”

By 2 p.m, hundreds of fans had breached a VIP entrance, just as they breached an area at the last Astroworld in 2019. But police got the area under control and decided not to shut anything down.

“They made some arrests there and they handled that issue,” Peña said.

At about 4:30 p.m., Morbidelli, the EMT, said he started feeling overwhelmed by the density of the crowd as Houston rapper Don Toliver appeared on a smaller stage.

“I ended up grabbing my sister in a bear hug and pushing our way out of the crowd to a barrier and I lifted her up and over,” he said.

Another man in the crowd said he forced his way to the front of the crowd, where security had to lift him over a fence to escape.

At about 8:30 p.m., a countdown appeared on the concert’s big screen, ticking down the minutes to the show. As the crowd pressed in, Madeline Eskins, 23, an ICU nurse who lives north of Houston, fainted. Her boyfriend got someone to help him lift her up in the air and the crowd surfed her, unconscious, over a fence into a less crowded VIP area where she awoke to find emergency personnel woefully unprepared.

People were trying to hop over the fence. Security guards were dropping off more people — some bleeding from their noses or mouths — and then returning to pluck more people from the crowd.

One young man’s eyes rolled back into his head.

“Has ANYBODY checked a pulse?” Eskins yelled to a security guard, and she heard him say no.

Eskins checked the man’s pulse and shone a flashlight in his eyes: no response. She instructed the security guard to take him out of the VIP area for urgent medical assistance. She saw other security guards bring in bodies, including three in cardiac arrest, she said. A handful of medical staff were on site — not nearly enough to aid the seriously injured, she said.

When she asked for an automated external defibrillator, an electronic pad used to treat heart attacks, a medic said they only had one and gestured to a woman whose
shirt was ripped open as other medics gave CPR.

As Eskins gave CPR to a man struggling to breathe, she asked a member of the event medical staff to check his carotid or femoral pulse, but he didn’t know how.

“Travis acknowledged that someone in the crowd needed an ambulance and was passed out,” Eskins said. “He just kept going.”

The chaos accelerated as Scott took to the stage and launched into his first track: “Escape Plan.”

“Within the first seconds of the first song, people began to drown — in other people,” Seanna Faith McCarty, 21, a festival-goer from the Houston suburb of Katy, wrote on Instagram. “The rush of people became tighter and tighter.”

Gasping for breath, McCarty and her friend, Taylor Grace, realized they had to get out. But there was nowhere to go. As the shoving became more intense, “people began to choke one another as the mass swayed,” she wrote. “Our lungs were compressed between the bodies of those surrounding us.”

Seeing security just a few feet away in a walkway, McCarty and other festival-goers began to scream.

“Hundreds of people ripped their vocal cords apart screaming for help, but we were not heard,” she wrote. “One person fell, or collapsed … A hole opened in the ground. It was like watching a Jenga Tower topple.”

McCarty said she lost sight of Grace and was pushed away from a rail and into the crowd of people, toward the edge of a sinkhole of people. She looked down at a man’s face — only to lose the face in what she described as a “floor of bodies” with “two layers of fallen people above them.”

At one point, McCarty lost her balance and nearly fell. She yelled to a man, who pulled her up. Eventually she was able to get to the back of the crowd. A man pulled her over a guardrail and she spotted a cameraman on an elevated platform, eyes fixed on the stage.

She climbed a ladder and pointed to the hole, telling him people were dying. He told her to get off the platform. Another man grabbed her arm and told her he would push her off the 15-foot platform if she didn’t get down.

“I was in disbelief,” she wrote. “Here were two people that could actually do something. Had the power to do something. Cut the camera, call in backup, pause something. They did nothing.”

A video of the incident went viral over the weekend.

At the same time, as Morbidelli performed CPR on a breathless woman, two concert medical staff in red shirts appeared with a backboard and no other life-saving equipment. One attempted to take over compressions, he said, but “it was very obvious that he was inexperienced at CPR. He was doing it very shallow and way too fast. One of the bystanders even told him to slow down. Once that happened, the medic yelled to see who knew CPR. And I stepped in and took over again.”

“I wasn’t sure what their plan was, so I just snapped,” Morbidelli said. “I yelled to one of the medics to get ready to put her on the backboard, so she was ready to be moved and we were not wasting any time. We rolled her onto her left side, pushed the backboard under her and rolled her on. And that’s when I realized the backboard had no straps. I was shocked.”

A group of officers in bulletproof vests arrived and attempted to lift the woman on the backboard over a barricade, he said.

“Usually, there’s someone who’s at the head of the patient coordinating the lifting and transport. There was none of that. They balanced her on the barricade. But there was some miscommunication between the people at the head of the backboard and the people at the feet of the board, and the patient fell,” he said. “It was like slow motion. I watched her fall and hit the ground. I just fell to my knees and started crying.”

The woman was later identified as 22-year-old Texas A&M senior Bharti Shahani. She remains in intensive care at Houston Methodist Hospital, a spokeswoman said Tuesday.

“Dropping her like that was an act of pure negligence. That is the worst thing that can happen to anyone in the emergency medical field,” Morbidelli said.

Peña said event medical staff were “quickly overwhelmed.” At 9:38 p.m., he said local officials declared a mass casualty event, sending in SWAT, paramedics and several dozen ambulances to treat concertgoers who had collapsed.

Yet Scott continued to perform.

Travis Scott performs on the first day of the Astroworld Festival at NRG Park.

(Amy Harris / Associated Press)

“Everybody that’s there has a responsibility, even the artist. They have the stage, they have the microphone, they have the attention of the crowd,” Peña said, noting that, “at one point there was a pause, maybe when the ambulance was trying to drive through the crowd,” when Scott could have “turned on the lights and said I’m not going to continue the show.”

Instead, Pierangeli said he watched Drake join Scott onstage as an ambulance parked in the crowd trying to treat the injured.

“Kids were standing atop the ambulance, dancing, while obviously the ambulance is trying to save people,” he said.

Nine-year-old Ezra Blount attended the concert with his father, Treston Blount, who was holding the boy on his shoulders.

“He kept saying he couldn’t breathe, he couldn’t breathe and he passed out,” said Treston Blount’s mother, Tericia Blount, 52, a retired nurse in Humble, Texas.

She said Ezra “got trampled a lot. He’s dealing with a lot of severe injuries at this time. He has swelling in the brain, most of his organs have been damaged, he had cardiac arrest.”

“He’s a survivor. With God’s help, he can pull through,” Blount said. “There are a lot of other people who are still in the hospitals and we’re thinking of them, too.”

A man visits a makeshift memorial on Sunday at the NRG Park grounds, where eight people died in a crowd surge at the Astroworld Festival in Houston.

(Thomas Shea / AFP / Getty Images)

Lina Hidalgo, chief executive for Houston’s Harris County which owns NRG Park, arrived at 1:30 a.m. and met with families searching for lost loved ones. She has since called for an independent investigation into what went wrong.

“There should be a more detailed plan somewhere,” she said. “Was there anything more systemic that needed to be done better? Is the plan supposed to be so vague? There needs to be a question of was this tragedy a result of circumstances beyond the control of those involved?”

Hidalgo noted that Astroworld organizers’ plans didn’t show where security guards were deployed or how many were in the crowd.

“I don’t know how quickly everybody knew that people were dying. The plan says people are supposed to be in communication, but were the communication lines open enough?” she asked. “There was a recognition that there had been an incident at the concert. When did they know?”

Hidalgo said she spoke Monday with the county medical examiner, who told her it will take weeks to get toxicology results, determine the victims’ causes of death and whether there was foul play.

“There’s families, all of these people wanting answers: the community, the country. And they deserve them,” she said. “If there’s something that needed to be done better, that needs to be addressed ahead of other events.”

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Looking for a Boost, Taiwan’s Oldest Political Party Turns to the Great-grandson of Chiang Kai-shek

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TAIPEI, Taiwan — 

Between internal strife, muddled campaign messages and a stance on China that has become a political liability, Taiwan’s oldest political party is deep in existential crisis.

The Chinese Nationalist Party, better known as the KMT, or Kuomintang, was founded in mainland China but went into exile in Taiwan in 1949. It ruled the island for 50 years before losing its grip on power.

The party has long pushed for closer ties with China, a position that has increasingly put it out of touch with a younger generation that identifies as Taiwanese and has grown wary of the Chinese Communist Party’s designs on the island.

Now the 110-year-old KMT is looking to a rising star to refurbish its image: Chiang Wan-an, who is favored to become the next mayor of Taipei — among thousands of local offices up for grabs in nationwide elections Saturday.

The charismatic 43-year-old former legislator and lawyer has billed himself as a thoroughly modern figure who can lead the party into the future. He supports same-sex marriage and lowering the voting age from 20 to 18. His handsome looks and young children haven’t hurt his appeal either.

At the same time, he claims deep roots in the party’s past as a great-grandson of the revolutionary Chiang Kai-shek.

It was under Chiang Kai-shek that the party fled to Taiwan after losing the Chinese civil war to Mao Zedong’s Communist Party. Waiting to someday take the mainland back, the KMT often using brutal means to suppress any political threats, finally lifting martial law in 1987as Taiwan began to democratize.

Ham radio, a niche hobby among older Taiwanese, has reemerged as a potential wartime tool as China’s military aggression grows.

Now, it’s the Communist Party that wants to retake Taiwan. In the face of growing aggression under President Xi Jinping, who considers the democracy of 23 million a part of China, much of the national political discourse has centered on the best way to defend the island.

President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party, or DPP, was reelected by a landslide in 2020, thanks to growing Taiwanese nationalism and anti-China sentiment. But this year, the KMT has enjoyed a boost of support that could help it clean up in local races.

The mayorship of Taipei is often a stepping stone to the presidency. According to recent polls, Chiang is leading independent candidate Huang Shan-shan, the former deputy mayor of Taipei, and the DPP’s Chen Shih-chung, who as minister of health and welfare oversaw Taiwan’s pandemic response.

“He is the young, fresher and slightly updated face that the KMT needs,” said Lev Nachman, a political science professor at National Chengchi University. “But one candidate does not a successful political strategy make.”

In local elections, cross-strait tensions take a backseat to more immediate concerns. The mayoral candidates have talked a lot about urban renewal, the rising cost of housing, subsidies for young parents and ways to make the city friendlier for pets. Chiang wants to improve health insurance for animals and expand programs to let them ride on public transportation.

He has also sought to capitalize on voters’ dissatisfaction with the Tsai administration, in particular pointing to a lack of transparency in its vaccine rollout early in the pandemic.

“This is a contest of values: democracy against the black box,” he declared at an election rally Saturday night. “Hard work against laziness, integrity against lies, light against darkness.”

In the crowd that night was Mark Chu, a 30-year-old IT worker who found the event to be a moving morale boost for KMT supporters. However, he couldn’t help but notice a distinct lack of people his own age.

“There’s a sense of distance between the KMT and young people,” Chu said. “They’re getting further and further away from mainstream ideas.”

But Chiang has managed to convince Bernie Hou, a 33-year-old public relations worker who has supported politicians from various parties over the years.

His decision to back Chiang is in large part a vote against the DPP for its handling of the pandemic. He also was impressed by Chiang’s performance during the mayoral debate.

“He has all the makings of a capital mayor,” Hou said. “And he looks very good.”

Still, even in local races, the strained relations between Beijing and Taipei are an unavoidable factor.

The ruling DPP leans toward independence for Taiwan and has taken a confrontational stance toward China, an approach that appeals to those who came of age under Taiwan’s democracy and rebuke Beijing’s calls for unification. Those voters are leery of giving too much leeway to an authoritarian regime that has threatened to fulfill its territorial claims by force.

The president, whose term ends in 2024, has recently stepped up efforts to capitalize on those fears. But her calls to resist China have failed to translate into broader support for the DPP this election.

“It’s a tough balancing act,” said Sung Wen-ti, a political scientist with Australia National University’s Taiwan Studies Program. “DPP has been riding on the wave of its Taiwanese nationalism card since 2014 and is inevitably facing a degree of voter fatigue.”

The KMT wants to maintain the status quo of Taiwan’s democratic governance, but favors a friendlier relationship with Beijing. Its support comes largely from older generations, who associate the party with their Chinese identities and mainland roots. A minority within the party still hope to see reunification with China.

As the KMT grapples with how to appease both its traditional base and reach a new one, Chiang could help bridge that gap.

His father Hsiao-yan, a former vice premier and foreign minister, was born with the surname Chang, but he changed it after gathering evidence that he was the illegitimate grandson of Chiang Kai-shek. Though some still doubt that claim, his son changed his last name too.

Older KMT members revere the former generalissimo for his contributions to Taiwan’s industrial development and his experiences fighting Japanese and Communist forces. Younger Taiwanese see him as an emblem of the island’s authoritarian past.

The Chiang Kai-shek legacy has come under greater scrutiny in recent years amid initiatives to compensate the families of victims that suffered under his reign and remove statues glorifying him.

Chiang Wan-an has at times found himself caught in the middle. Earlier this year he advocated for removing Chiang Kai-shek’s name from a famous memorial hall in Taipei. But he dropped the proposal after KMT supporters criticized him for diminishing his own history and Chinese identity.

“Leaning too far into his family background is a risk,” said Brian Hioe, a founding editor of the Taiwan-based media outlet New Bloom. “Now there is much more backlash against these second generations and political dynasties.”

The bigger challenge for the KMT looking ahead to the 2024 presidential election may be persuading voters that it can adeptly navigate cross-strait relations without acceding to pressure from Beijing.

Watching Chiang greet voters in Taipei on Monday, Wendy Chang, a 25-year-old visiting home from studying business in the Netherlands, said he seems more modern than the traditional KMT candidates. Nonetheless, she has a hard time swallowing the party’s friendlier attitude toward China.

“I feel like Taiwan’s elections ultimately are all about cross-strait relations,” she said.

Yang is a Times staff writer and Shen a special correspondent.

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The Times Podcast: Mexico’s Unique, Binational Soccer Fans

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Right now, the eyes of much of the world is on the FIFA World Cup in Qatar as 32 teams fight for national pride. One team is Mexico, whose unique fanbase sets it apart from the world. With loyalties to both Mexico and the United States, it’s a representation of resilience, controversy and so much more.

Today, we examine the phenomenon. Read the full transcript here.

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A New Foreign Policy Headache for Biden As Israel Forms Its Most Right-wing Government Ever

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WASHINGTON — 

The Biden administration is grappling with how to deal with a new Israeli government that will be the most right-wing in that country’s history and may stand in the way of core U.S. goals for the Middle East.

The new government will be led by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister, who was ousted from the job just a year ago and is on trial for corruption. To regain the position, Netanyahu formed an alliance with controversial political figures known for their extreme anti-Arab views, likely dooming any peace deal with Palestinians.

Dealing with the Netanyahu-led government will pose major challenges for the Biden administration, which desires a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and broader acceptance of Israel in the Arab world.

Republicans in the U.S. who are eager to cast themselves as true friends of Israel are sure to question any Biden administration criticism of the new government.

Netanyahu and the GOP have grown closer over the past decade, undermining decades of bipartisan support for Israel.

In 2015, Netanyahu, whom congressional Republicans had invited to address a joint session of Congress, used the speech to criticize President Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran. Former President Trump moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognized the Israeli annexation of the Golan Heights, delighting Netanyahu. Just this week, Netanyahu delivered a speech to the Republican Jewish Coalition, a partisan group.

Itamar Ben-Gvir, who has a long record of extreme anti-Arab rhetoric, is promised the post of national security minister in Israel’s new government.

Netanyahu and President Biden have both said that U.S. support for Israel should remain bipartisan.

Netanyahu’s new allies may make that difficult, however. Some U.S. officials have already privately indicated they will not meet with Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezazel Smotrich, two likelymembers of Netanyahu’s government.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich advocate recognizing illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank, where most Palestinians live, and eventually annexing most or all of that territory. They oppose a separate Palestinian state. Netanyahu needs their support to cement a majority in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament. Their support could also help him pass a law that would allow him to dodge his corruption trial.

The two men have also called for a far harsher crackdown on Palestinian militants and their supporters, including strict curfews in Palestinian villages, mass deportations and targeted killings of terrorism suspects. They have advocated making it easier for Israeli security forces to use live ammunition against Palestinian protesters who throw stones.

Ben-Gvir has also expressed affinity for the late ultra-nationalist rabbi Meir Kahane, whose ideology the Anti-Defamation League has described as reflecting “racism, violence and political extremism” and whose organization until recently was listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. government.

For years, Ben-Gvir had a poster of Baruch Goldstein, an Israeli American terrorist and Kahane disciple who murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in Hebron in 1994, hanging in his home, according to Israeli media. In 2007, an Israeli court convicted Ben-Gvir of incitement to racist violence and support for a terrorist organization.

Israel has sworn in its most religious and right-wing parliament after nearly four years of political deadlock and five elections.

Ben-Gvir and Smotrich want to head the ministries of public security and defense, respectively, portfolios that have the closest contact with U.S. officials. On Friday, Netanyahu’s Likud party and Ben-Gvir’s Jewish Power party announced an agreement for Ben-Gvir to become security minister.

“This country is a democracy that elected a leadership and I intend to work with them,” the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides, said in an interview with Israeli media, adding quickly: “That said, we have to stand up for the things that we believe in, that’s what American values are about. We have a very strong ally in the state of Israel, but there will be times when we will articulate where we believe our differences are.”

Nides and other U.S. officials have stated that the two countries’ points of disagreement include expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank and the possible annexation of the territory.

“The administration will have to decide what the real red lines are,” said Michael Koplow, a senior analyst with the Israel Policy Forum, a U.S.-based pro-Israel organization that advocates the two-state solution. “This will test U.S. boundaries on all fronts.”

Negotiations to form the government are underway and could take days or even weeks. A fair amount of horse-trading is part of the process, so it remains unclear which politicians will assume which posts. Netanyahu offered Smotrich the Finance Ministry instead of Defense, according to Israeli media, but Smotrich has so far given no indication he will budge from his initial demand.

“We provide nearly $4 billion a year to the Defense Ministry … and do we want to put our money in the hands of these guys?” said Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Israel who now teaches at Princeton University. “I’d say no.”

Netanyahu is reported to be considering Ron Dermer as his foreign minister. Dermer served as Israel’s ambassador to the United States starting in 2013 and through the Trump administration, with which he was especially friendly. He arranged Netanyahu’s 2015 speech to Congress. Dermer’s appointment would be a “poke in the eye” for Biden, Kurtzer said.

Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert defamed his successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, and must pay damages to Netanyahu and his family, a court rules.

Republicans remain eager to criticize anything short of unquestioning support for Israel from the Biden administration. After the Israeli government revealed that the U.S. Justice Department had launched an inquiry into the May killing of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh near the West Bank city of Jenin, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) demanded Atty. Gen. Merrick Garland and “everyone involved in this debacle” be “fired or impeached.”

Multiple investigations by independent human rights and journalism organizations have concluded that an Israeli soldier probably fired the shot that killed the veteran journalist. Israel eventually acknowledged one of its soldiers was likely responsible. No one has been disciplined.

If the new Israeli government decides to try to annex the West Bank, it would jeopardize the Abraham Accords, a deal brokered under the Trump administration that opened business and some diplomatic ties between Israel and several Persian Gulf states, such as the United Arab Emirates, that had previously refused to recognize Israel’s existence.

The UAE’s entry into the agreement was predicated on Netanyahu, in his previous stint as prime minister, backing away from plans to annex West Bank territory.

“If they push too far, it will foreclose any movement forward” in regional relations, said Aaron David Miller, a former U.S. envoy for the Middle East now at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Miller thinks Biden and Netanyahu will attempt to avoid overt conflict to safeguard their own domestic and global positions: “Biden wants to avoid a public wrestling match with Netanyahu,” Miller said, while Netanyahu “craves the international stage and is intending to strut on it.”

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Publicly, U.S. officials remain cautious, saying they want to see what kind of government Netanyahu ultimately forms, reiterating their “ironclad” commitment to Israel while emphasizing American “values” that include freedom and prosperity “in equal measure” for Israelis and Palestinians.

“The administration is right to be concerned … and to telegraph those concerns,” Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said in an interview. He is one of several Democratic lawmakers who are firm supporters of Israel but have raised alarms over potential members of the new government. These include Sen. Bob Melendez of New Jersey, who chairs the committee, and California Rep. Brad Sherman (D-Northridge).

But Ben-Gvir further alienated Biden administration officials by taking an electoral victory lap at a memorial service for Kahane, who was assassinated more than 30 years ago.

“Celebrating the legacy of a terrorist organization is abhorrent — there is no other word for it,” State Department spokesman Ned Price said in unusually strongly worded comments. “We remain concerned by the legacy of Kahane and the continued use of rhetoric among violent right-wing extremists,” he said.

Ben-Gvir has reached an agreement with Netanyahu that would allow him to vastly expand police powers and remove officers from oversight by other legal authorities.

Naming a person who has been convicted of terrorism-related charges to head Israel’s national police force has alarmed numerous Israelis.

“It means that the police will become politicized to favor the extreme right,” the liberal Israeli newspaper Haaretz said in an editorial this week. “Those who are supposed to be safeguarding democracy have turned into soldiers at the service of politicians. That’s what happens when those accused and convicted of crimes take control of the institutions charged with maintaining law and order.”

The prospect of a Ben-Gvir-run police force has also alarmed American supporters of Israel. Ben-Gvir “has promised a no-holds-barred crackdown on terrorism and increased police and border security presence,” Yulia Shalomov, a fellow at the U.S.-based Atlantic Council think tank, said in a recent web appearance. His party “has consistently stoked domestic ethnic and societal tensions,” she said.

Netanyahu’s right-wing partners will also push for other legislation that would not only have an impact on Palestinians and Arabs. They have threatened to criminalize homosexuality and to ban non-Orthodox Jews from Israeli citizenship. Many U.S.-born Jews are members of more progressive branches of the faith, such as Reform or Conservative Judaism, and might not be able to obtain Israeli citizenship under the proposed laws.

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