Kushner launches group to promote Arab states’ new ties with Israel

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Jared Kushner is forming a group to promote relations between four Arab states and Israel, normalized under agreements he helped broker as a top adviser to his father-in-law former President Donald Trump, the group said on Wednesday.

Kushner is founding the “Abraham Accords Institute for Peace,” to work on deepening agreements Israel reached last year with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, is writing a book about his experience in helping broker the deals. He will be joined in the new group by former U.S. envoy Avi Berkowitz and ambassadors to the United States from Bahrain, the UAE and Israel.

Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, a contributor to Democratic causes, was also listed as part of the effort in a statement by the group, which described itself as non-partisan. The founders “intend to add additional Democrats to the group as well as international advisers from the region”, it said.

The Arab countries’ agreements with Israel were opposed by the Palestinians, who say they violate pledges from Arabs not to make peace until Israel withdraws from occupied lands.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat who defeated the Republican Trump in an election in November, has said he aims to strengthen and expand the agreements, a position he repeated on Tuesday in a phone call with the UAE’s powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Graff)

Morocco hosts Israeli envoys, Kushner to hammer out new ties

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Israeli envoys arrived in Morocco on Tuesday to meet its king and hammer out an upgrade of ties that was forged by the White House in a foreign policy push by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, the Israeli delegation was accompanied by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and architect of pan-Arab rapprochement with Israel.

They took El Al Israel Airlines in the first direct flight by a commercial plane from Tel Aviv to Rabat. Both countries anticipate a surge in tourism aboard such connections, mainly among the hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan descent.

Morocco followed the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in moving toward normal relations with Israel. Palestinians have censured the U.S.-brokered deals, seeing a betrayal of a long-standing demand that Israel first meet their statehood goals.

As the Trump administration has sought to isolate Iran, the deals have been sweetened with promises of business opportunities or economic aid. Israel’s new partners have also enjoyed bilateral benefits from Washington – in Rabat’s case, U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

“This type of agreement (with Israel) will help have a better interaction between communities and people,” Moroccan Tourism Minister Nadia Fettah Alaoui told I24 television.

During the visit, Ben-Shabbat and Kushner will see Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, Israeli officials said. Moroccan and Israeli officials are also scheduled to sign accords on linking up aviation and financial systems, on visas and water management.

The delegates’ plane, painted with the Hebrew, Arabic and English words for “peace” and a Maghreb good-luck talisman, had a low-key reception at Rabat airport. Moroccan officials describe their deal with Israel as a restoration of mid-level ties that Rabat cooled in 2000 in solidarity with Palestinians.

Israel and Morocco now plan to reopen mutual “liaison offices.” Israel hopes these will be upgraded to embassies.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Mark Heinrich)

Kushner to lead U.S. delegation to Israel, Morocco

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House senior adviser Jared Kushner will lead a U.S. delegation to Israel and Morocco next week for discussions on the normalization deal the two Middle East countries reached last week, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.

The U.S. delegation and an Israeli team will join together and take the first direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat as a sign of progress after the Israel-Morocco deal that Kushner helped broker, the official told Reuters.

Kushner, Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and Adam Boehler, chief executive officer of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, will leave for Israel on Monday.

While in Jerusalem, Kushner, who is U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is to hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the official.

El Al is expected to be the airliner for the first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat that the Kushner team and a delegation led by Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat will take, the official said.

The Israel-Morocco deal was the fourth that the United States helped broker, following similar agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Kushner and his team are still holding talks with other countries from the Arab and Muslim world.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller)

Bahrain open to imports from Israeli settlements

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Bahrain’s imports from Israel will not be subject to distinctions between products made within Israel and those from settlements in occupied territory, the Bahraini trade minister said on Thursday, drawing a rebuke from the Palestinians.

Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates formalized ties with Israel on Sept. 15, in a U.S.-sponsored deal billed by the Gulf countries as being made possible by Israel’s shelving of a plan to annex West Bank settlements. Most world powers deem them illegal.

But Bahrain’s Industry, Commerce and Tourism Minister Zayed bin Rashid al-Zayani voiced openness to settlement imports.

“We will treat Israeli products as Israeli products. So we have no issue with labelling or origin,” he told Reuters during a visit to Israel.

Under European Union guidelines, settlement products should be clearly labelled as such when exported to EU member countries. The Trump administration last month removed U.S. customs distinctions between goods made within Israel and in settlements.

Al-Zayani’s remarks were condemned by Wasel Abu Youssef of the Palestine Liberation Organization as “contradicting international and U.N. resolutions”.

He urged Arab countries not to import products from within Israel, either, in order to prevent it “stretching into Arab markets to strengthen its economy”.

The stateless Palestinians hope to create their own independent country in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem, but the issue of Jewish settlements on land captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East War has long been a stumbling block in the now-stalemated peace process.

They now fear that the warming ties between Gulf states and Israel, along with Trump’s strong support for Israel, have badly damaged their aspirations.

It was not clear what other Gulf states’ positions on imports from the settlements were. But an Israeli winery that uses grapes grown on the occupied Golan Heights said in September that its labels would be sold in the UAE.

Israel expects trade with Bahrain worth around $220 million in 2021, not including possible defense and tourism deals.

Al-Zayani said Bahraini carrier Gulf Air was tentatively scheduled to begin flights to Tel Aviv on Jan. 7, with shipping to follow.

“We are fascinated by how integrated IT and innovation sector in Israel has been embedded in every facet of life,” he said.

He played down speculation in Israel that its citizens visiting Bahrain could be at risk of reprisals for the assassination last Friday of a top Iranian nuclear scientist, which Tehran blamed on Israeli agents.

“We don’t see any threats, and therefore we don’t see any requirement for additional security or special treatment for Israelis,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel, Bahrain cement new ties with pledges of embassies and visas

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Bahrain and Israel said on Wednesday they would open embassies, establish online visa systems and launch weekly flights between the countries soon, in a broadened cooperation promoted by Washington as an economic boon and means of isolating Iran.

On the first official visit by Bahraini officials to Israel, the Gulf kingdom’s foreign minister, Abdullatif Al-Zayani, said a Sept. 15 deal normalizing relations spelled “a warm peace that will deliver clear benefits to our peoples”.

The United Arab Emirates, which has also normalized ties with Israel, sent a delegation last month that did not leave Ben Gurion Airport in what was described as a coronavirus precaution.

The Bahraini envoys went on to Jerusalem, which Israel, with U.S. backing, considers its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem for a hoped-for state.

Al-Zayani’s trip coincided with a visit to Israel by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who hailed the regional rapprochement brokered by the Trump administration as it presses sanctions against Iran.

The normalization deals “tell malign actors like the Islamic Republic of Iran that their influence in the region is waning and that they are ever more isolated and shall forever be until they change their direction,” Pompeo said alongside his Bahraini counterpart and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Al-Zayani announced that, as of Dec. 1, Bahrainis and Israelis will be able to apply online for entry visas. He also submitted a request to open a Bahraini embassy in Israel and said an Israeli embassy had been approved for Manama.

Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Askenazi, who is due to visit Manama next month, said he hoped opening ceremonies for the embassies would be held by the end of 2020.

The Bahraini delegation travelled on Gulf Air flight GF972 – a reference to Israel’s telephone country code – in what was the airline’s first flight to Tel Aviv. Al-Zayani predicted 14 such flights weekly starting next year, as well as flights to the smaller Israeli destinations of Haifa and Eilat.

Sudan followed Bahrain and UAE in announcing last month it would move towards ties with Israel. The engagement has outraged Palestinians, who want their statehood goal achieved first.

Further such developments appear unlikely before U.S. President-elect Joe Biden takes office. Israel was due to send a first delegation to Sudan on Sunday, officials told Reuters, but the trip was postponed over what they described as logistical issues.

Speaking on Israel’s Army Radio, Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen said a commitment towards a tough policy on Iran by Biden would determine whether other countries would opt for normalization deals with Israel.

(Additional reporting by Lisa Barrington, Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Robert Birsel, Gareth Jones and Timothy Heritage)

Qatar FM: Normalization with Israel undermines Palestinian statehood efforts

DUBAI (Reuters) – Qatar’s foreign minister said on Monday Arab states that establish ties with Israel undermine efforts for Palestinian statehood, but it was in their own sovereign right to do so.

Three Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – set aside hostilities with Israel in recent months to agree to formal relations in deals brokered by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

Palestinian leaders have accused them of betrayal, while U.S. and Israeli officials have said more Arab states could soon follow.

“I think it’s better to have a united (Arab) front to put the interests of the Palestinians (first) to end the (Israeli) occupation,” Qatar Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani told the online Global Security Forum.

He said division was not in the interest of concerted Arab efforts to get the Israelis to negotiate with the Palestinians and resolve the decades-long conflict between the sides.

However, for the states who established ties, “it is up to them at the end of the day to decide what is best for their countries”, he said.

The UAE, Bahrain and Sudan broke with decades of Arab policy that had demanded Israel first cede land to the Palestinians to form their own state before establishing relations.

UAE officials have said the Gulf state remains committed to Palestinian statehood, and that its deal with Israel had stopped further annexation of lands Palestinians seek for a state.

Until this year, Israel had only current formal relations with just two Arab states – its neighbors Egypt and Jordan – established under peace deals reached decades ago.

Qatar has been tipped by Israeli officials as among Arab and other Muslim-majority countries that could establish formal ties with Israel.

Sheikh Mohammed said Doha maintains some relations with Israel, though only on matters concerning the Palestinians such as humanitarian needs or development projects.

Qatar, which also has relations with two of Israel’s bitter enemies, Iran and Palestinian militant group Hamas, supports a two-state solution with East Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state, a stance the foreign minister reiterated.

(Writing by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Lebanon and Israel, long-time foes, to start talks on disputed waters

By Dominic Evans and Ari Rabinovitch

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Lebanon and Israel, formally still at war after decades of conflict, launch talks on Wednesday to address a long-running dispute over their maritime border running through potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters.

The U.S.-mediated talks follow three years of diplomacy by Washington and were announced weeks after it stepped up pressure on allies of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah.

They also come after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to establish full relations with Israel, under U.S.-brokered deals which realign some of Washington’s closest Middle East allies against Iran.

Hezbollah, which last fought a war with Israel in 2006, says the talks are not a sign of peace-making with its long-time enemy. Israel’s energy minister also said expectations should be realistic.

“We are not talking about negotiations for peace and normalization, rather an attempt to solve a technical, economic dispute that for 10 years has delayed the development of offshore natural resources,” minister Yuval Steinitz tweeted.

Still, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the decision to go ahead with the talks as historic, and said Washington looked forward to separate talks later over disagreements on the land border.

Wednesday’s meeting will be hosted by the United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL, which has monitored the land boundary since Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, ending a 22-year occupation.

A Lebanese security source says the two sides will meet in the same room in UNIFIL’s base in south Lebanon, but will direct their talks through a mediator.

LEBANON CRISIS

Disagreement over the sea border had discouraged oil and gas exploration near the disputed line.

That may be a minor irritation for Israel, which already pumps gas from huge offshore fields. For Lebanon, yet to find commercial reserves in its own waters, the issue is more pressing.

Lebanon is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. The financial meltdown has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and by an explosion that wrecked a swathe of Beirut in August, killing nearly 200 people.

Struggling to form a new government to tackle the multiple crises, some Lebanese politicians even argued this week over the formation of their negotiating team, with the prime minister’s office complaining it was not consulted by the presidency.

“The Lebanese negotiator will be much fiercer than you can imagine because we have nothing to lose,” caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe said.

Hezbollah’s political ally, the Amal party, has also come under pressure. Last month the United States sanctioned Amal leader Nabih Berri’s top aide for corruption and financially enabling Hezbollah, which it deems a terrorist organization.

David Schenker, the U.S. assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, who landed in Beirut on Tuesday, has said more sanctions remained in play.

For Hezbollah and Amal, the decision to start the border talks is a “tactical decision to neutralize the tensions and the prospect of sanctions ahead of the U.S. elections,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Berri, a Shi’ite leader who led the border file, has denied being pushed into the talks.

In 2018 Beirut licensed a group of Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek to carry out long-delayed offshore energy exploration in two blocks. One of them contains disputed waters.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Dominic Evans in Beirut, and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Editing by William Maclean and Gareth Jones)

Pompeo says Trump administration eager for end to Gulf rift

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed on Monday for a solution to the three-year rift between the Gulf state of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, saying the Trump administration was eager to see it resolved.

Speaking at a State Department meeting with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Pompeo said it was important to concentrate on countering Iranian activity in the Middle East.

“To keep our focus on this work and to close the door to increased Iranian meddling, it’s past time to find a solution to the Gulf rift,” Pompeo said.

“The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved and to reopen Qatar’s air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf states. I look forward to progress on this issue.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of backing terrorism. Qatar denies the charge and has accused its neighbors of seeking to curtail its sovereignty.

Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift, which has undermined Washington’s efforts to confront Iran, which is struggling for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia.

The boycotting nations have set 13 demands for lifting the boycott, including closing Al Jazeera television, shuttering a Turkish military base, reducing ties with Iran and cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, said last week there could be some progress within weeks in resolving the rift, citing signs of “flexibility” in negotiations.

With Trump’s facing re-election on Nov. 3, he is eager to show foreign policy successes in the Middle East, and last month the UAE agreed to normalize ties with Israel under a U.S.-brokered deal scheduled to be signed at a White House ceremony on Tuesday. Bahrain joined the UAE in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel on Friday.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Tom Brown)

Bahrain to normalize ties with Israel, Israeli media say

JERUSALEM/DUBAI (Reuters) – The Gulf state of Bahrain is to normalize relations with Israel, the diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s public broadcaster Kan said on Friday, without citing sources.

Another Israeli reporter, Raphael Ahren of the Times of Israel, said U.S. President Donald Trump would on Friday announce that Bahrain was joining its neighbor the United Arab Emirates in formally establishing ties with Israel.

The White House had no immediate comment. Trump will on Tuesday host a White House ceremony solemnizing the Israel-UAE deal, which was announced on Aug. 13.

The Kan reporter, Amichai Stein, said in a tweet that Bahrain Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad Al Khalifa would be in Washington on Monday.

Neither Bahrain’s government communications center nor Bahrain’s embassy in Washington immediately responded to a request for comment.

Last week Bahrain said it would allow flights between Israel and the UAE to use its airspace. This followed a Saudi decision to allow an Israeli commercial airliner to fly over it on the way to the UAE.

Bahrain, a small island state, is a close ally of Saudi Arabia and the site of the U.S. Navy’s regional headquarters. Riyadh in 2011 sent troops to Bahrain to help quell an uprising and, alongside Kuwait and the UAE, in 2018 offered Bahrain a $10 billion economic bailout.

The Trump administration has tried to coax other Sunni Arab countries concerned about Iran to engage with Israel. The most powerful of those, Saudi Arabia, has signaled it is not ready.

Such a move would make Bahrain the fourth Arab country to reach such an agreement with Israel since exchanging embassies with Egypt and Jordan decades ago.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Alex Cornwell and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Angus MacSwan)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)