Israel approves first new settler homes since suspending annexation, NGO says

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel approved more than 1,300 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, the Peace Now settlement-monitoring group said, in the first such go-ahead since it suspended annexation plans in the territory.

The decision drew an angry response from Palestinians, who seek to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

“We urge the international community to intervene immediately to stop this settlement madness, which destroys any chance for a genuine peace process,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The construction could help mute criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from settler leaders, who are traditional allies.

They had bristled at the annexation suspension that helped pave the way for last month’s deals to forge diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Peace Now said a planning committee in Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank gave final approval for building 1,357 housing units in several settlements.

A spokesman for the administration could not immediately confirm the numbers.

A statement from Beit El settlement said 350 new housing units would be built there. It hailed the committee’s decision as “a tremendous achievement for Beit El”.

The forum, which last held such a hearing eight months ago, was due to reconvene on Thursday to advance additional construction projects in settlements and give final approval for others.

Peace Now said the committee was set to move forward with projects comprising at least 4,430 new settler homes.

Most countries view settlements Israel has built in territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war as illegal and as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. The United States and Israel dispute this.

Israel cites historical and biblical links to the West Bank and around 450,000 of its settlers live there, among 3 million Palestinians.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Mike Collett-White)

Trump to host Israel-United Arab Emirates deal-signing ceremony on Sept 15

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will hold a Sept. 15 signing ceremony for a groundbreaking Middle East agreement normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, a senior White House official said on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, announced at the White House on Aug. 13 following what officials said were 18 months of talks, the Gulf state agreed to normal relations with Israel, while Israel agreed to continue with plans to suspend its annexation of the West Bank.

The senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan would lead the two delegations to the ceremony.

“I am proud to embark next week to Washington, at the invitation of President Trump, to take part in the this historic ceremony at the White House for the foundation of the peace treaty between Israel and the United (Arab) Emirates,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

Trump and other administration officials have said they expect Saudi Arabia and other countries to follow suit in recognizing Israel.

Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner and other top administration officials accompanied an Israeli delegation last week on the first flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates to celebrate the agreement.

Iran has dismissed the agreement, which also served to firm up opposition to Tehran, a regional power seen by the UAE, Israel and the United States as the main threat in the Middle East.

The deal falls short of any grand Middle East peace plan to resolve decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians despite Trump’s pledge to do so.

The White House hope is that more such deals between Israel and the Gulf states will emerge, prompting the Palestinians to join negotiations.

Trump proposed a peace plan in January that heavily favored the Israelis, but it has not advanced in any significant way.

The Palestinian leadership initially called the accord “betrayal” and a “stab in the back of the Palestinian cause,” but has curbed its criticism, according to a draft resolution ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Wednesday.

The draft, seen by Reuters, does not include a call to condemn, or act against, the Emirates over the U.S.-brokered deal.

The United Arab Emirates is planning to make its first official visit to Israel on Sept. 22, a source familiar with the provisional itinerary said on Monday.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Franklin Paul and Howard Goller)

Netanyahu ally wants West Bank ‘cultivation’ now, not annexation

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top coalition partner wants Israel to shelve planned West Bank annexations and instead focus on improving conditions for Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the occupied territory, two cabinet ministers said on Friday.

Centrist ex-general Benny Gantz and the conservative Netanyahu agreed to begin discussing annexations as of July 1, but the plan — already dogged by diplomatic blow-back — has been sidelined by a resurgence of coronavirus.

Gantz says the health crisis should take precedence over any West Bank moves that may inflame conflict with the Palestinians. The Israeli-occupied West Bank is part of territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Netanyahu could go it alone in declaring Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank settlements and strategic Jordan Valley. But Gantz’s misgivings have complicated Israeli efforts to present a united front on annexations and how they might fit with U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for Middle East peace.

While Gantz — whose popularity has plunged since he broke with an opposition alliance to join Netanyahu in March — has limited political clout, his role as defense minister also puts him directly in charge of civilian activities in the West Bank.

Alon Schuster, Israel’s agriculture minister and a member of Gantz’s Blue and White party, said he was working to achieve “cultivation and not annexation, now” for West Bank farmers.

“We need to bring water to the Jordan Valley — for both the Israelis and the Palestinians who live there, by the way — and to improve electricity,” Schuster told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM. “Why quarrel and waste time? … I hope we expend our national resources on this.”

Another Blue and White minister said this was also Gantz’s approach, and that the party leader believed working on West Bank infrastructure shared by settlers and Palestinians would “enable coexistence in accordance with the Trump plan”.

Asked to respond, Netanyahu’s office declined comment.

The Palestinians have rejected the Trump plan, which envisages them gaining statehood in 70% of the West Bank, as a non-starter. European powers worry unilateral Israeli territorial moves could kill off long-moribund peacemaking.

Senior ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party have urged annexation now. Some privately worry that Trump’s interest will wane as the U.S. election in November nears, and that should he lose, that would close a window of opportunity for annexation.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Coronavirus resurgence sidelines Israel’s annexation planning

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A coronavirus resurgence in Israel and divisions within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have sidelined its plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, officials said.

Although the conservative Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, his centrist coalition partner, agreed the government could begin moving on annexation as of July 1, there has been “close to zero” cabinet-level discussion on the issue, one senior minister told Reuters.

And with no agreement with Washington yet on the modalities of the move under a peace proposal announced by President Donald Trump, any step soon to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank seems unlikely.

The Palestinians have rejected the Trump plan. European and Arab powers have warned of diplomatic blow-back if Israel unilaterally annexes land Palestinians seek for a state.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is preoccupied with new coronavirus transmissions that aides said could necessitate renewed lockdowns. Unemployment has hit a record 21% and anti-government protests have turned increasingly violent.

A poll by the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute on Tuesday found only 29.5% of the public trust Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis.

There has been open opposition from Gantz’s Blue and White party, which makes it hard to persuade Washington that any annexations would enjoy sweeping Israeli support.

“It’s a matter of right plan, wrong time,” a senior Blue and White minister said. “We are in the middle of the biggest crisis Israel has seen in decades…and it would be irresponsible and insensitive to tend to anything else at the moment.”

Gantz has predicted the crisis could last until late 2021.

Another official, who requested anonymity, said more than a week had passed since Israeli delegates last spoke to U.S. envoys on annexation under the Trump blueprint, which envisages Israeli sovereignty over up to 30% of West Bank land.

Asked for comment, Netanyahu’s office said it had “no updates at this time”.

Several ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party want the move implemented now. Some privately voice concern that Trump’s attention will drift as the November presidential election approaches, and that presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden has come out against annexation.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Palestinians hope Biden would roll back Trump’s embrace of Israel

By Rami Ayyub

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian leaders hope Democrat Joe Biden will tone down Washington’s pro-Israel policies if he becomes U.S. president, and Palestinian-Americans have been pressing his campaign for a change, sources familiar with the efforts said.

So far, their efforts have had little impact, the sources said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the U.S. Embassy to the city and made peace proposals envisaging Israeli sovereignty over parts of the occupied West Bank, territory Palestinians seek for a state.

Trump’s moves — including aid cuts to the Palestinian Authority that exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank — have prompted Palestinian officials to sever ties with Washington.

“If Mr. Biden (is) elected in November, we hope that it will be a totally different dynamic,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said last week during a virtual conference with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Biden is the presumptive Democratic challenger in November’s election. He is on record as challenging plans by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank — de facto annexation of territory Israel seized in a 1967 war.

“Biden opposes any unilateral action by either side that makes the prospects of a two-state solution less likely – including annexation, which Biden opposes now, and would continue to oppose as President,” campaign spokesman Michael Gwin said in a statement for Reuters.

Gwin did not address what action Biden might take if he were president and Israel annexed West Bank land.

Netanyahu’s proposed move, under Trump’s peace blueprint, has been criticized by Arab and European nations. The Israeli leader is awaiting the green light from Washington.

PROGRESSIVE SUPPORT

Buoyed by support from progressives in the Democratic party, Palestinian diaspora activists want Biden to take a more critical look at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

More than 120 prominent Palestinian-Americans have signed a “Statement of Principles” that they say determine their community’s support for candidates for federal office.

They include making aid to Israel conditional on it ending “practices that violate Palestinian rights and contravene international law”, and revoking any potential U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in occupied territory.

“We want to see Biden embrace the party’s progressives, who have recognized the shared struggle between Palestinians living under military occupation, and Black and brown Americans who face police brutality, systemic racism and injustice,” said Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in August.

Those positions have failed to gain traction with Biden’s team, three people familiar with the campaign’s thinking said.

“The progressives want a full-throttle platform change — a pro-Palestinian flank, an anti-annexation flank — but there just isn’t appetite in the campaign so far,” one of the sources said.

(Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Timothy Heritage)

Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan warn Israel on annexation

BERLIN (Reuters) – Egypt, France, Germany and Jordan warned Israel on Tuesday against annexing parts of the Palestinian territories, saying that doing so could have consequences for bilateral relations.

In a statement distributed by the German Foreign Ministry, the countries, which include two of Israel’s leading partners in the Middle East, said their foreign ministers had discussed how to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

They, along with most other European countries, oppose Israeli plans that envisage annexing parts of the occupied West Bank as part of a deal being promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

The Palestinian Authority, which wants the West Bank for a future Palestinian state, opposes the move. The United States has yet to give its approval to the annexation plans.

“We concur that any annexation of Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 would be a violation of international law and imperil the foundations of the peace process,” the European and Middle Eastern foreign ministers said after their video conference.

“We would not recognize any changes to the 1967 borders that are not agreed by both parties in the conflict,” they added. “It could also have consequences for the relationship with Israel.”

Israel declined to comment. But in a separate statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he had told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday that he was committed to Trump’s “realistic” plan for the region.

“Israel is prepared to conduct negotiations on the basis of President Trump’s peace plan, which is both creative and realistic, and will not return to the failed formulas of the past,” Netanyahu’s statement said.

(Reporting by Michelle Martin; additional reporting by Dan Williams; editing by Thomas Escritt and Gareth Jones)

Israeli foreign minister says annexation move unlikely Wednesday

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s foreign minister said a move toward the proposed annexation of occupied West Bank land was unlikely on Wednesday, the start date set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for discussing such a move.

“It seems unlikely to me that this will happen today,” Gabi Ashkenazi, a member of the centrist Blue and White party that is a coalition partner of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, told Israel’s Army Radio.

“I reckon there will be nothing today, regarding (the extension of Israeli) sovereignty.”

Netanyahu and his senior coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz are at odds over the timing of any unilateral annexation move.

After meeting U.S. envoys on Tuesday to discuss annexation within the framework of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, Netanyahu said such talks would continue for several days.

Trump’s proposal calls for Israeli sovereignty over about 30% of the West Bank – land on which Israel has built settlements for decades – as well as creation of a Palestinian state under strict conditions.

“There are very robust conversations with Israel on the Trump plan,” a U.S. official told Reuters after White House adviser Avi Berkowitz concluded his trip to Israel.

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and have rejected Trump’s plan, saying it would deny them a viable state.

Most world powers view Israel’s settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this, citing historical and biblical ties to the West Bank, as well as security needs.

In an editorial published in Israel’s largest selling newspaper on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for any annexation plans to be scrapped.

“Annexation would represent a violation of international law,” Johnson wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, echoing remarks he made in parliament on June 16. “I profoundly hope that annexation does not go ahead. If it does, the UK will not recognize any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties.”

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Michael Perry and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. pressure delays Israel’s ‘Greater Jerusalem’ bill

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks on a road in the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the occupied West Bank

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. pressure delayed an Israeli ministerial vote on Sunday on a proposed bill that Washington fears entails annexation of Jewish settlements near Jerusalem, an Israeli lawmaker said.

The “Greater Jerusalem” legislation would put some settlements in the occupied West Bank, built on land Palestinians seek for a future state and viewed as illegal by most countries, under the jurisdiction of Jerusalem’s municipality.

The bill, proposed by a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, was to have been submitted for approval on Sunday to a ministerial committee on legislation, a first step before a series of ratification votes in parliament.

But Likud lawmaker David Bitan, chairman of Netanyahu’s coalition in parliament, said a vote by the cabinet committee would be delayed because Washington told Israel the bill’s passage could impede U.S. efforts to revive peace talks that collapsed in 2014.

“There is American pressure that claims this is about annexation and that this could interfere with the peace process,” Bitan told Army Radio.

“The prime minister doesn’t think this is about annexation. I don’t think so either. We have to take the time to clarify matters to the Americans. Therefore, if the bill passes in a week, or in a month, it’s less problematic,” he said.

Proponents of the legislation say it falls short of formal land annexation to Israel but will enable some 150,000 settlers to vote in Jerusalem city elections. Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, a supporter of the bill, has said this would “ensure a Jewish majority in a united Jerusalem”.

Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem as its capital, including the eastern sector it captured along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a 1967 Middle East war, has not won international recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they seek to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli media reports said the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, had conveyed misgivings about the legislation, under which the large Maale Adumim and Beitar Illit settlements would become part of a Greater Jerusalem municipality.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper quoted Netanyahu as telling cabinet ministers on Sunday: “The Americans turned to us and inquired what the bill was all about. As we have been coordinating with them until now, it is worth continuing to talk and coordinate with them.”

A U.S. embassy spokeswoman declined immediate comment.

Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas home to more than 2.6 million Palestinians. Israel disputes that its settlements are illegal, citing historical, Biblical and political links to the territory, as well as security considerations.

 

 

(Editing by Catherine Evans)

 

U.S. hopes for more from Russia after Crimean prisoners freed

Kurt Volker, United States Special Representative for Ukraine Negotiations, speaks during an interview with Reuters in Kiev, Ukraine October 28, 2017. REUTERS/Valentyn Ogirenko

By Matthias Williams

KIEV (Reuters) – The release of two Crimean Tatars from Russian custody this week was a good sign and hopefully means Russia will take positive steps in eastern Ukraine as well, the U.S. special envoy to the Ukraine peace talks said on Saturday.

Ukraine and Russia are at loggerheads over Russia’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 and support for separatists in the Donbass region in a conflict that has killed more than 10,000 people despite a notional ceasefire.

Russia unexpectedly released a pair of Tatar activists on Wednesday thanks partly to an intervention by Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan. They have vowed to return to Crimea to campaign for the release of other prisoners.

“The fact that they were released is a small positive sign,” Kurt Volker told Reuters on a visit to Kiev, where he met the freed men. “It’s the kind of thing you hope you could build on that, Russia would build on that with some other steps with the Donbass,” he added.

A former ambassador to NATO, Volker was appointed in July by the Donald Trump administration to help resolve the Donbass conflict, which Washington cites as a key obstacle to better relations between the United States and Russia.

A recent sticking point is whether and how the United Nations should send a peacekeeping force to the region. Volker met Kremlin aide Vladislav Surkov in October for talks on this, which he said produced no breakthroughs but were “constructive”.

“What we are doing, is we are seeing whether we can create some common ideas for how a peacekeeping force could be useful in resolving the conflict,” Volker said, saying the force could only be effective with a stronger mandate than Russia envisages.

Russia denies sending its own troops or sophisticated weaponry to helping the separatists.

Volker blamed Russian aggression for the Donbass conflict but said a realization on Russia’s part that the violence is against its interests could spur a change in Moscow’s behavior.

“The real issue is Russia’s decision-making. Until now, Russia has been holding this territory, keeping this conflict alive, hoping that it provides some leverage over Ukraine,” Volker said.

“The reality has sunk in I believe that this has actually produced the opposite. It has produced a Ukraine that is more unified, more nationalist, more anti-Russian, more westward-looking than ever existed before.”

Volker also said the United States was “actively considering” supplying lethal defensive weapons to Kiev, a prospect that has riled Russia.

“No-one has any worry about someone defending themselves unless they are an aggressor, so it should not be that controversial an issue,” Volker said.

(Editing by Stephen Powell)

Kiev and Kremlin trade blame over surge in east Ukraine fighting

Russian/Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov gives news briefing on Ukraine situation

KIEV/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Ukraine and Russia blamed each other on Tuesday for a surge in fighting in eastern Ukraine over recent days that has led to the highest casualty toll in weeks and cut off power and water to thousands of civilians on the front line.

The Ukrainian military and Russian-backed separatists accuse each other of launching offensives in the government-held industrial town of Avdiyivka and firing heavy artillery in defiance of the two-year-old Minsk ceasefire deal.

Eight Ukrainian troops have been killed and 26 wounded since fighting intensified on Sunday – the heaviest losses for the military since mid-December, according to government figures.

“The current escalation in Donbass is a clear indication of Russia’s continued blatant disregard of its commitments under the Minsk agreements with a view of preventing the stabilization of the situation and achieving any progress in the security and humanitarian spheres,” Ukraine’s foreign ministry said in a statement.

The peace deal was agreed in February 2015, but international security monitors report ceasefire violations on a daily basis, including regular gun and mortar fire.

The latest clashes mark the first significant escalation in Ukraine since the inauguration of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose call for better relations with Moscow has alarmed Kiev while the conflict remains unresolved.

Ukrainian authorities said they were prepared for a possible evacuation of Avdiyivka’s 16,000 residents, many of whom have little or no access to electricity or water after shelling from the separatist side hit supply infrastructure.

Meanwhile Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov said Ukrainian government troops had launched a deadly attack on pro-Russian rebels across the Avdiyivka front line on Monday.

“Such aggressive actions, supported by the armed forces of Ukraine, undermine the aims and the task of realizing the Minsk accords,” he said, accusing the Ukrainian authorities of organizing the offensive as a ruse to try to distract attention from domestic and other problems.

Close to 10,000 people have been killed since fighting between Ukrainian troops and rebels seeking independence from Kiev erupted in April 2014.

Ukraine and NATO accuse the Kremlin of supporting the rebels with troops and weapons. The United States and European Union have imposed sanctions on Russia over the conflict, as well as for its annexation of Crimea.

(Reporting by Pavel Polityuk and Natalia Zinets in Kiev, Katya Golubkova in Moscow; Writing by Alessandra Prentice in Kiev and Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Christian Lowe and Mark Trevelyan)