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Trump, Biden contrasts on Ukraine, Israel to take center stage

The presidential debate Thursday will set out clear differences over the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, with President Biden’s pitch for unity among traditional allies expected to contrast with former President Trump’s tough talk and transactional foreign policy. 

And while Ukraine and Israel may not be the top priorities for U.S. voters according to polls, what the two candidates say could matter in a tight election race, especially as Trump seeks to make the case for change and Biden argues the Republican would harm U.S. interests.

Both Trump and Biden are seeking to appeal to undecided and independent voters in swing states, and the debate is a pivotal moment for each to do so.

A Pew Research Center poll in February found majorities of Americans see both wars as important to them: 59 percent say Ukraine’s war with Russia is important, while 65 percent say so of the Israel-Hamas war, noted Jacob Poushter, associate director of research at Pew.

The conflict in Gaza has hung over Biden and raised questions about whether it will hurt him with turnout of the Democratic base, particularly in swing states such as Michigan.

Biden will be challenged to win back Democratic and liberal voters who are critical that he has not done enough for Palestinians, even as Trump holds a record of denigrating and sidelining the Palestinians during his term in office. 

“Biden has to bring back that coalition of young voters, people of color, and for him to spell out why he is doing the things he’s doing with regard to Israel in particular,” said Dina Smeltz, vice president of public opinion and foreign policy at the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. 

Smeltz said independent and undecided voters tend to hold a negative view of U.S. engagement abroad — something that could play to Trump’s favor.

“More say that the cost of the U.S. role in the world is greater than the benefit,” she said. 

Trump’s “America first” slogan is likely appealing for this group. Trump’s supporters also say the former president’s philosophy and blunt message that American involvement comes at a price pushes U.S. allies to take more responsibility for their own security and defense.

In February, Trump pitched making all U.S. foreign aid a loan — an idea that his Republican allies in Congress entertained even as Congress approved Biden’s nearly $100 billion supplemental bill that provided aid for Ukraine, Israel and the Indo-Pacific.

Biden is likely to underscore the opposition from Trump and his allies to supporting Ukraine, which held up aid for months. This pitch could appeal to the majority of Democrats and independents who support continued military and economic assistance for Ukraine.

Trump has provided few details on how he would resolve the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. He has claimed he would broker an agreement between Russian President Vladimir Putin and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky within 24 hours. 

Eric Ueland, who served as undersecretary of State for civilian security, democracy and human rights under Trump, said the former president is likely to blame Biden for Putin’s invasion of Ukraine by linking it to the chaotic and deadly U.S. military pullout from Afghanistan in August 2022. 

“The fiasco and the terrible withdrawal from Afghanistan was an open invitation to Russia to see where else they can probe and try to take advantage of a weak American president, and Ukraine is the result of that weakness,” he said. 

Biden can also make an appeal to those worried about U.S. engagement abroad. By pulling troops out of Afghanistan, he ended America’s longest war. And he has promised there will be no U.S. boots on the ground in Ukraine.

The two CNN journalists moderating the debate, Jake Tapper and Dana Bash, are likely to try to draw Trump out on Israel, a subject on which he has said little.

Trump has called for Israel’s military to “finish what they started,” but spoken out critically against Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — a sharp turn from a staunchly pro-Israel policy during his time in the White House.

Trump had a close relationship with Netanyahu during his first term, and moved the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem.

Some observers say the former president is likely to use the debate to try to blame Biden for Russia’s invasion and the Hamas attack.

“All Donald Trump can say, which he has said repeatedly, is if he were president these things would not have happened, whether it’s [Hamas’s attack on] Oct. 7, or the Iranian attack [on Israel], and that’s just empty bluster,” said Halie Soifer, executive director of the Jewish Democratic Council of America.

Trump has pitched voters on the idea that they were better off for much of his presidency than under Biden, an argument he uses on both economic and foreign policy issues.

“Some people might be nostalgic for what they see as a more stable time in the world during the Trump era, not necessarily because of something the administration was doing,” Smeltz said.

“Everybody has hindsight and doesn’t remember all the other turmoil and chaos we had during that time.”

Biden and Trump’s debate will also be closely watched by viewers abroad, many of whom have a more positive view of Biden’s leadership compared to Trump. The future of both the war in Ukraine and in Gaza are viewed as deeply linked to which president will lead in 2025.

“There is a really big difference between Biden and Trump, and I think it’s a really important one for [the debate moderators] to draw out, because it could really change America’s standing in the world and how our allies think about us,” Smeltz said.

“There’s such a stark difference between their worldviews.”

Alex Gangitano contributed. 

Source: The Hill

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