‘King Bibi’ fights for his political life in Israeli election

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Twenty years after Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as Israel’s prime minister ended, the man hailed by supporters as “King Bibi” is again fighting for his political survival in a rerun election.

Opinion polls predict a close race when Israel goes to the polls on Tuesday, five months after an inconclusive election in which Netanyahu declared himself the winner but failed to put together a coalition government.

“A Likud victory is possible but it’s hanging by a thread,” said Abraham Diskin, political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, referring to Netanyahu’s right-wing party.

An end to the Netanyahu era after his 10 successive years in power would be unlikely to lead to a dramatic change in Israel’s policy on hotly disputed issues in a peace process with the Palestinians that collapsed five years ago.

Relations with the United States would be likely to remain on track, despite Netanyahu’s close relationship with President Donald Trump.

Likud is running neck-and-neck with the centrist Blue and White party led by former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, who has focused heavily on looming corruption charges Netanyahu faces.

But Netanyahu’s political fate could ultimately end up in the hands of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu headed by former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a potential kingmaker in the coalition-building certain to follow the vote.

After the election in April, Lieberman blocked Netanyahu’s attempts to form a coalition, citing differences with the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox allies. Opinion polls indicate Yisrael Beitenu will emerge stronger in the new ballot.

ANNEXATION

Netanyahu has campaigned hard to avoid losing power, as he did in 1999 against then-Labour party leader Ehud Barak, appearing in hours of live video question-and-answer sessions on Facebook in recent weeks and dominating the news in Israel.

In a step this week that alarmed Palestinian and other Arab leaders but delighted his core right-wing constituency, Netanyahu announced his intention to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank.

It was, Israeli political commentators said, a clear attempt to draw votes away from far-right parties.

Netanyahu hammered home a get-out-the-vote message: Applying Israeli sovereignty to the valley, which Palestinians want as part of a future state, will happen only if Likud emerges from the election as the biggest party in the Knesset (parliament).

In Israel, votes are cast for a party’s list of Knesset candidates. Since no party has ever won a majority of seats on its own, Israel has always been ruled by coalitions, making post-election political bargaining key to determining the ultimate winner.

Netanyahu has burnished a statesman’s image during the campaign, visiting Britain last week for talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and meeting President Vladimir Putin in Russia on Thursday.

Netanyahu has also showcased his relationship with Trump, featuring posters in which both are shaking hands. But there has been no sign from Trump of a “grand gesture” that could bolster Netanyahu as a candidate.

Shortly before the last election, with the prime minister at his side, Trump signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Israel captured the strategic area in a 1967 war and annexed it in 1981, moves not accepted by most world powers, who deem it to be occupied Syrian territory.

“NATIONAL UNITY”

The line-up of challengers this time is similar to the one Netanyahu faced in the previous election, with Blue and White his biggest threat.

Blue and White has said it would “strengthen the settlement blocs” in the West Bank, with the Jordan Valley as Israel’s “eastern security border”. But that falls short of an outright commitment to annex the valley, and a party spokesman said a Blue and White-led government would “maintain an open channel” for a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Most of the international community regards the Israeli settlements as illegal, a view that Israel disputes.

The spokesman said the party would seek “the return of bipartisanship to Israel-U.S. relations”, a reference to Netanyahu’s close ties with Trump and his Republican party and sharp differences with the Democrats over issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and Middle East peacemaking.

After an election in Israel, its president gauges, following consultations with all political parties that won parliamentary seats, which legislator stands the best chance of forming a government.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz hope to be tapped, but a photo finish would complicate the picture.

A “national unity” government could avoid or resolve a stalemate if a Likud-led right-wing coalition or a Blue and White-led center-left alliance prove impossible.

Gantz has said his party would not join a government with Netanyahu in it, citing the prime minister’s legal troubles.

If a partnership with Gantz is the only way to stay out of the backbenches, prominent Likud members could try to topple Netanyahu as party leader, some political analysts have said.

Blue and White tied with Likud on 35 seats in the April election, and Gantz is seen by some voters as “Mr Clean”.

“His low-key style and relative ineloquence are for many a modest man’s refreshing antitheses to Bibi’s perceived bluster and soloism. Gantz is seen as balanced, cautious and pragmatic,” said Amotz Asa-El, a research fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute.

Two weeks after the election, Israel’s attorney-general will hold a pre-trial hearing in which Netanyahu can argue against his announced intention to file fraud and bribery charges against him in the corruption investigations.

Netanyahu, who has denied any wrongdoing, has said he will not quit as prime minister if indicted, and there is no legal obligation to do so. Allies have said they will press parliament to grant Netanyahu, as a member of the body, immunity from prosecution.

After election night, it could all come down to Yisrael Beitenu’s Lieberman, at odds with Netanyahu’s traditional ultra-Orthodox partners over military conscription exemptions for Jewish seminary students.

Lieberman, whose party is projected to double its April Knesset seat tally to 10, has said Yisrael Beitenu will not join up with a Netanyahu administration after Tuesday’s vote if it includes the religious factions.

Netanyahu’s annexation plans: https://graphics.reuters.com/ISRAEL-ELECTION/0100B2981B3/ISRAEL-ELECTION.jpg

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Netanyahu opposes Iran talks after Trump moots meeting Rouhani

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a state memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

LONDON (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged world powers on Thursday not to open a dialogue with Iran, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he may meet his Iranian counterpart to resolve a crisis over Tehran’s nuclear project and sanctions against it.

“This is not the time to hold talks with Iran. This is the time to increase the pressure on Iran,” Netanyahu told reporters en route to London, where he was hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and was later scheduled to confer with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Netanyahu’s comments marked rare public discord between the right-wing Israeli leader and Trump on the Iranian nuclear issue. Netanyahu had previously counseled France against its own outreach to Iran.

The Israeli leader, who is fighting for his political life in an election on Sept. 17, regularly touts his influence with Western leaders, especially fellow rightwingers such as Trump and Johnson, as vital for Israeli security. His opponents say his closeness to rightwing figures abroad hurts Israel by making support for it a partisan issue in friendly countries.

On Wednesday, Trump left the door open to a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York, saying: “Anything’s possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem.”

Tehran has rejected any negotiations with Washington unless Trump drops sanctions he imposed after quitting the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, an agreement Netanyahu had savaged as inadequate.

Iran has said that, starting on Friday, it would begin developing centrifuges to speed up the enrichment of uranium, which can produce fuel for power plants or for atomic bombs. The Iranians deny seeking nuclear weapons.

The centrifuge move would be Iran’s latest reduction of its commitments to restrict nuclear projects under the 2015 deal.

Netanyahu called this “another violation, another provocation by Iran, this time in the realm of its quest for nuclear weaponry”.

Meeting Johnson at 10 Downing Street, Netanyahu praised the politically embattled British leader for his “staunch stance against anti-Semitism and … support for Israel’s security”.

“We have the challenge of Iran’s aggression and terrorism, and I’d like to talk to you about how we can work together to counter these things for the benefit of peace,” Netanyahu told Johnson, according to an official Israeli transcript.

Like other European partners to the Iran nuclear deal, Britain was worried by the U.S. withdrawal. Johnson, while openly sympathetic to Israel, wants to preserve a vision of Palestinian statehood that has eroded under Netanyahu’s tenure.

Netanyahu – who has doubled as defense minister for the past 10 months, a period of stepped-up Israeli operations against Iranian targets in the region – brought his air force chief and top military mission planner for the London meeting with Esper.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Ynet TV that Netanyahu and Esper would discuss “everything that happens in the space between Syria, Lebanon, Iraq,” an allusion to the often clandestine Israeli military campaign.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Toby Chopra and Peter Graff)

Israel’s Netanyahu wins re-election with parliamentary majority: tally

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures after he speaks following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a clear path to re-election on Wednesday, with religious-rightist parties set to hand him a parliamentary majority despite a close contest against his main centrist challenger, a vote tally showed.

With more than 97 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party looked likely to muster enough support to control 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and be named to head the next coalition government. It would be his record fifth term as premier.

President Reuven Rivlin said on Twitter he would begin meeting next week with political parties that won parliamentary seats to hear who they support for prime minister.

At the sessions, which Rivlin said would be broadcast live “to ensure transparency”, he will then pick a party leader to try to form a coalition, giving the candidate 28 days to do so, with a two-week extension if needed.

The close and often vitriolic contest was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on Netanyahu’s character and record in the face of corruption allegations. He faces possible indictment in three graft cases, and has denied wrongdoing in all of them.

Despite that, Netanyahu gained four seats compared to his outgoing coalition government, according to a spreadsheet published by the Central Elections Committee of parties that garnered enough votes to enter the next parliament.

“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv after Tuesday’s vote.

“He’s a magician!” the crowd chanted as fireworks flared and Netanyahu kissed his wife Sara.

Tel Aviv Stock Exchange main indexes were up nearly 1 percent in late trading on Wednesday, displaying confidence in a veteran prime minister who has overseen a humming economy and blunted various security threats, including from Syria.

His challenger, the new Blue and White party of ex-army chief Benny Gantz, claimed a more modest victory after winning a 35-seat tie with Likud. Unless he reverses on campaign pledges to shun Netanyahu, and joins him in a broad coalition, Gantz looked destined to lead a center-left parliamentary opposition.

“The skies may look overcast…but they cannot conceal the sun of hope that we have brought to the Israeli people and society,” Gantz, 59, wrote in an open letter to supporters.

Should Netanyahu retain the helm, he will become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister in July, overtaking the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. That could be scuppered if criminal charges are filed and force his removal.

IMMUNITY?

An indictment decision would follow a review hearing where Netanyahu can be expected to argue he should be spared in the national interest. Some analysts predict he may try to pass a law granting himself immunity, as a sitting leader, from trial.

During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who delighted Israelis and angered Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moving the U.S. Embassy to the holy city last May.

Two weeks before the election, Trump signed a proclamation, with Netanyahu at his side at the White House, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

In a rare turn during the race toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu further alarmed Palestinians by pledging to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if re-elected. Palestinians seek a state there and in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

This pre-election promise from Netanyahu was widely seen as an attempt to draw right-wing votes rather than a change of policy. But with Trump’s moves on Jerusalem and the Golan, the prime minister may feel emboldened to advocate annexation.

Commenting on the election, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said: “Israelis have voted to preserve the status quo. They have said no to peace and yes to the occupation”.

The last round of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014.

Trump is expected to release his administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan after the election. If it includes Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s probable far-right coalition allies will likely object.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Ha’ayin, Ron Bousso and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa, Rahaf Ruby, Stephen Farrell, Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Angus MacSwan/Mark Heinrich)

Israelis go to polls to decide on Netanyahu’s record reign

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote with his wife Sara during Israel's parliamentary election in Jerusalem April 9, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis began voting on Tuesday in an election that could hand right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term or see him dethroned by an ex-general who has pledged clean government and social cohesion.

During the campaign leading up to polling day, the rival parties waged a vitriolic online battle, accusing each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Netanyahu’s closest rival in the campaign was Benny Gantz, a former chief of the armed forces. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, which includes other former generals, has challenged Netanyahu’s hitherto unrivalled national security credentials.

After an election eve visit to the Western Wall, Netanyahu, 69, voted at a polling station in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning, accompanied by his wife, Sara.

“This is truly the essence of democracy and we should be blessed with it,” he said, shaking hands with election officials and posing for selfies. “With God’s help the State of Israel will prevail. Thank you very much. Go to vote.”

Casting his vote in Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, Gantz, 59, said: “This is a day of hope, a day of unity. I look into everyone’s eyes and know that we can connect.”

After the election, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult the leaders of every party represented in the Knesset and select the person he believes has the best chance of forming a government.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) across the country and will close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT).

But the victor may not be decided immediately. No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, meaning days or even weeks of coalition negotiations lie ahead.

One factor may be the turnout of voters from Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority. Many were angered by Israel’s nation-state law, passed in 2018, which declared that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country. Netanyahu supported the legislation.

Voting in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Arab legislator Ayman Odeh, who heads the Hadash party, said that engagement was key to bringing about political changes that would benefit the Arab community.

“We have to vote … we need to come in droves by train, bus, car and any other way to vote and make a crucial contribution to topple the right-wing government, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said.

“It is very important that Arabs vote for the party that represents their values 100 percent, not 80 or 40 percent like other parties,” he said. Some Arabs have indicated they will vote for left-wing or centrist Israeli parties instead of party lists dominated by Arab candidates.

According to figures released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s roughly 9 million population included 1.9 million Arabs at the start of 2019. Most were Muslims, Christians or Druze. Jews made up 74.3 percent of the population.

OPINION DIVIDED

Voting at a polling station in Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, gynecologist Yaron Zalel, 64, said he supported Gantz.

“Netanyahu did a lot of great things for Israel, really, a lot of great things. But he is 13 years in power and enough is enough,” he said.

“He has had enough, he did enough. Now when he feels his earth, the political earth, is shaking, he is destroying everything. This has to be stopped. I am here for my kids and the next generations. There is no one who can’t be replaced.”

Backing Netanyahu was another voter at the same polling station, Avi Gur, 65, a lecturer at Ariel University in a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“Very excited, very excited. I hope that rightism will win,” he said, adding that the Likud leader was “the best prime minister there has ever been” in Israel.

“We are leading in high tech, we are leading in security, we are leading in the economy now. That’s good.”

In Jerusalem, Ronza Barakat, a librarian belonging to Israel’s Arab minority, said she backed the left-wing Meretz party.

“I voted for them hoping for change, a change in the racism that exists here,” she said. “We live together in a place of peace, why should hate exist between people?”

With little policy daylight between the two main candidates on issues such as Iran and relations with the Palestinians, much of the voting will be guided by judgments on character and personality.

CAMPAIGN RHETORIC

Netanyahu casts himself as the victim of media bias and judicial overreach, Gantz as a salve for Israel’s religiously and ethnically riven society and its ties with liberal Jews abroad.

But the distinctions between the leading parties in Israel were not as clear as they were in past decades, said Nabil Shaath, a veteran adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“There were times when elections were important,” he said on Monday. “But now, what are you talking about? It’s the right, and then further to the right and then the extreme right and then further to the extreme right. There is really no left left in Israel.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Ha’ayin; Ron Bousso and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa; Rahaf Ruby and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Editing by Larry King)

Iran vows to will keep military forces in Syria despite Israeli threats

FILE PHOTO: Iran's Revolutionary Guards commander Mohammad Ali Jafari looks on while attending Friday prayers in Tehran February 10, 2012. REUTERS/Morteza Nikoubazl

LONDON (Reuters) – Iran will keep military forces in Syria, the head of the elite Revolutionary Guards said on Wednesday, defying Israeli threats that they might be targeted if they do not leave the country.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that Israeli forces would continue to attack Iranians in Syria and warned them “to get out of there fast, because we will continue with our resolute policy”.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 13, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, January 13, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

Rebuffing the threats, Major General Mohammad Ali Jafari, the Revolutionary Guards top commander, was quoted as saying by the semi-official ISNA news agency that “the Islamic Republic of Iran will keep all its military and revolutionary advisers and its weapons in Syria.”

Jafari called Netanyahu’s threats “a joke”, and warned that the Israeli government “was playing with (a) lion’s tail.”

“You should be afraid of the day that our precision-guided missiles roar and fall on your head,” he said.

Iran and Russia have both backed Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in a seven-year war against rebels and militants, and have sent thousands of soldiers to the country.

Israel, increasingly concerned that its enemy Iran may establish a long-term military presence in neighboring Syria, says it has carried out more than 200 attacks against Iranian targets in Syria in the last two years.

Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israeli warplanes carried out an attack on what he called an Iranian arms cache in Syria.

(Reporting by Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London with additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Netanyahu, in U.N. speech, claims secret Iranian nuclear site

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu addresses the 73rd session of the United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2018. REUTERS/Caitlin Ochs

By John Irish and Arshad Mohammed

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described on Thursday what he said was a secret atomic warehouse in Tehran and accused Europe of appeasing Iran as he sought to rally support for U.S. sanctions against the Islamic Republic.

Addressing the United Nations General Assembly, Netanyahu showed an aerial photograph of the Iranian capital marked with a red arrow and pointed to what he said was a previously secret warehouse holding nuclear-related material. He argued this showed Iran still sought to obtain nuclear weapons, despite its 2015 agreement with world powers to curb its program in exchange for loosening of sanctions.

Netanyahu spoke four-and-a-half months after U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from the accord, arguing it did too little to rein in Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and triggering the resumption of U.S. economic sanctions on Iran.

Netanyahu said the site contained some 15 kilograms (33 pounds) of radioactive material that has since been moved called on the U.N. atomic agency to inspect the location immediately with Geiger counters.

“I am disclosing for the first time that Iran has another secret facility in Tehran, a secret atomic warehouse for storing massive amounts of equipment and materiel from Iran’s secret nuclear program,” Netanyahu said.

Iran did not immediately respond to Netanyahu’s allegations.

He did not identify the material or specifically suggest that Iran had actively violated the nuclear deal.

An outspoken opponent of the deal, Netanyahu has previously made allegations about Iran’s nuclear activities that are difficult or impossible to verify, including presenting a cartoon bomb to the General Assembly in 2012 warning of how close Tehran was to producing a nuclear device.

In April, Netanyahu presented what he said was evidence of a large secret archive of documents related to Iran’s clandestine nuclear weapons program at a different site in Tehran.

He said Israeli agents removed vast amounts of documents from that site. At the time, Iran said the documents were fake.

In a speech in which he said relatively little about efforts to achieve peace with the Palestinians, Netanyahu said Iran had since begun moving items out of the second site.

“Since we raided the atomic archive, they’ve been busy cleaning out the atomic warehouse. Just last month they removed 15 kilograms of radioactive material. You know what they did with it?” he said. “They took it out and they spread it around Tehran in an effort to hide the evidence.”

He said Iranian officials still had a lot of work to do because there were some 15 shipping containers full of nuclear-related equipment and materials stored at the second site.

“This site contained as much as 300 tonnes – 300 tonnes – of nuclear-related equipment and materiel,” he said.

Under the nuclear deal struck by Iran and six major powers – Britain, China, France, Germany, Russia and the United States – Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for relief from U.S. and other economic sanctions.

The International Atomic Agency (IAEA) has repeatedly said Tehran was abiding by its commitments to the deal, formally called the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), including in a document reviewed by Reuters on Aug. 30.

France, Britain, Germany, China, and Russia have stayed in the pact, vowing to save it despite the restoration of U.S. sanctions and this week discussing a barter mechanism they hope may allow Iran to circumvent the U.S. measures.

Netanyahu criticized Europe for doing so in unusually harsh language that evoked European nations’ initial failure to confront Nazi Germany in the 1930s.

“While the United States is confronting Iran with new sanctions, Europe and others are appeasing Iran by trying to help it bypass those new sanctions,” Netanyahu said.

A U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said the United States is aware of the facility Netanyahu announced and described it as a “warehouse” used to store “records and archives” from Iran’s nuclear program.

A second U.S. intelligence official called Netanyahu’s comments “somewhat misleading. First, we have known about this facility for some time, and it’s full of file cabinets and paper, not aluminum tubes for centrifuges, and second, so far as anyone knows, there is nothing in it that would allow Iran to break out of the JCPOA any faster than it otherwise could.”

The Israeli leader also lambasted Iran’s ballistic missile activity, identifying three locations near Beirut airport where he said Lebanon’s Hezbollah was converting missiles.

“In Lebanon, Iran is directing Hezbollah to build secret sites to convert inaccurate projectiles into precision-guided missiles, missiles that can target deep inside Israel within an accuracy of 10 meters (yards),” he said.

The IAEA, Iran and Hezbollah were not immediately available for comment.

The Israeli military released a video clip and photos of what it said were Hezbollah Shi’ite militia rocket building sites in Lebanon, shortly after Netanyahu’s address.

(Reporting by John Irish, Arshad Mohammed, Yara Bayoumy and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Jonathan Landay and John Walcott in Washington, Laila Bassam in Beirut, Francois Murphy in Vienna; Editing by James Dalgleish)

Israeli joy, Palestinian fury over U.S. embassy launch in Jerusalem

Palestinian demonstrators run for cover during a protest against U.S. embassy move to Jerusalem and ahead of the 70th anniversary of Nakba, at the Israel-Gaza border in the southern Gaza Strip May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The crowd sported branded baseball caps and Israel’s prime minister wore red, white and blue as the United States opened its embassy in Jerusalem on Monday, delighting Israelis and deepening Palestinian anger.

“Our greatest hope is for peace,” U.S. President Donald Trump said in a recorded video message, even as a spokesman for the Palestinian president accused him of sowing instability by overturning decades of U.S. policy on the status of the city.

The inauguration of the embassy, after Trump outraged the Arab world and stoked international concern by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December, was hailed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “glorious day”.

Trump opted not to attend the ceremony in which a U.S. consular building was re-purposed into an embassy, pending the construction of a new facility, probably years away.

His daughter Ivanka and son-in-law Jared Kushner, both White House advisers, were there, seated next to Netanyahu opposite a stage with a backdrop of U.S. and Israeli flags. Two American pastors and a rabbi gave invocations.

Kushner, in a rare public speech, said the relocation from Tel Aviv, a diplomatically and politically sensitive step promised but never implemented by a succession of U.S. presidents, showed that Trump was a man of his word.

The comments were telling, just a week after Trump announced Washington’s withdrawal from the nuclear deal between Iran and world powers, a move that critics said weakened global trust in the United States.

GAZA VIOLENCE

“When President Trump makes a promise, he keeps it,” Kushner said, a reference to a campaign pledge to open a Jerusalem embassy. “Today also demonstrates American leadership. By moving our embassy to Jerusalem, we have shown the world once again that the United States can be trusted.”

Palestinians, with broad international backing, seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed, as its “eternal and indivisible capital”. The Trump administration has avoided that description, and noted that the city’s final borders should be decided by the parties.

The crowd, many wearing the caps marked “U.S. Embassy, Jerusalem, Israel” rose for numerous standing ovations. Attendants handed out pretzels and mineral water.

A smiling Netanyahu, decked out in U.S. colours – a blue suit, white shirt and red tie – showered praise on Trump, a president with whom he is in lockstep on many regional issues.

Thanking Trump for “having the courage” to move the embassy, Netanyahu said: “This is a great day. A great day for Jerusalem. A great day for the state of Israel. A day that will be engraved in our national memory for generations.”

Split screens on Israeli television stations showed a more complex story.

As coverage of the embassy ceremony ran on one side of the screen, the other broadcast the violence along Israel’s border with Gaza, where dozens of Palestinian protesters were killed by Israeli gunfire.

Amid expressions of international concern and condemnation over the use of live ammunition, Israel said it was taking the necessary measures to prevent any breach of its border fence with the enclave run by the militant Hamas movement.

Kushner, echoing the Netanyahu government’s position that the six weeks of Gaza protests were being orchestrated by Hamas Islamists opposed to Israel’s existence, said: “Even today those provoking violence are part of the problem and not part of the solution.”

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens)

Russia, after Netanyahu visit, backs off Syria S-300 missile supplies

FILE PHOTO: Russian President Vladimir Putin and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu shake hands during a meeting at the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia May 9, 2018. Sergei Ilnitsky/Pool/File Photo via REUTERS

By Andrew Osborn

MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russia is not in talks with the Syrian government about supplying advanced S-300 ground-to-air missiles and does not think they are needed, the Izvestia daily cited a top Kremlin aide as saying on Friday, in an apparent U-turn by Moscow.

The comments, by Vladimir Kozhin, an aide to President Vladimir Putin who oversees Russian military assistance to other countries, follow a visit to Moscow by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu this week, who has been lobbying Putin hard not to transfer the missiles.

FILE PHOTO: An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: An S-300 air defense missile system launches a missile during the Keys to the Sky competition at the International Army Games 2017 at the Ashuluk shooting range outside Astrakhan, Russia August 5, 2017. REUTERS/Maxim Shemetov/File Photo

Russia last month hinted it would supply the weapons to President Bashar al-Assad, over Israeli objections, after Western military strikes on Syria. Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov said the strikes had removed any moral obligation Russia had to withhold the missiles and Russia’s Kommersant daily cited unnamed military sources as saying deliveries might begin imminently.

But Kozhin’s comments, released so soon after Netanyahu’s Moscow talks with Putin, suggest the Israeli leader’s lobbying efforts have, for the time being, paid off.

“For now, we’re not talking about any deliveries of new modern (air defense) systems,” Izvestia cited Kozhin as saying when asked about the possibility of supplying Syria with S-300s.

The Syrian military already had “everything it needed,” Kozhin added.

The Kremlin played down the idea that it had performed a U-turn on the missile question or that any decision was linked to Netanyahu’s visit.

“Deliveries (of the S-300s) were never announced as such,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters on a conference call, when asked about the matter.

“But we did say after the (Western) strikes (on Syria) that of course Russia reserved the right to do anything it considered necessary.”

The possibility of missile supplies to Assad along with its military foray into Syria itself has helped Moscow boost its Middle East clout. with Putin hosting everyone from Netanyahu to the presidents of Turkey and Iran and the Saudi king.

ISRAELI LOBBYING

Israel has made repeated efforts to persuade Moscow not to sell the S-300s to Syria, as it fears this would hinder its aerial capabilities against arms shipments to Iranian-backed Lebanese group Hezbollah. Israel has carried out scores of air strikes against suspected shipments.

On Thursday, Israel said it had attacked nearly all of Iran’s military infrastructure in Syria after Iranian forces fired rockets at Israeli-held territory. S-300s could have significantly complicated the Israeli strikes.

The missile system, originally developed by the Soviet military, but since modernized and available in several versions with significantly different capabilities, fires missiles from trucks and is designed to shoot down military aircraft and short and medium-range ballistic missiles.

Though since been superseded by the more modern S-400 system, the S-300s are still regarded as highly potent and outstrip anything that the Syrian government currently has.

Syria currently relies on a mixture of less advanced Russian-made anti-aircraft systems to defend its air space.

Russian media on Friday were actively circulating a video released by the Israeli military which showed an Israeli missile destroying one such system — a Russian-made Pantsir S-1 air defense battery — on Thursday in Syria.

(Additional reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

Pushing to bury Iran deal, Israel insists nobody wants war with Tehran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, April 29, 2018. Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

By Maayan Lubell and Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel said on Tuesday it does not seek war with Iran, a day after presenting purported evidence of past Iranian nuclear arms work, but suggested President Donald Trump backed its latest attempt to kill a deal aimed at curbing Iran’s atomic ambitions.

A senior Israeli official said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had informed Trump on March 5 about alleged evidence seized by Israel in what Netanyahu on Monday presented as a “great intelligence achievement”.

Trump agreed at the meeting that Israel would publish the information before May 12, the date by which he is due to decide whether the United States should quit the nuclear deal with Iran, an arch foe of both countries, the Israeli official said.

Word of the consultations between Trump and Netanyahu serve to underscore perceptions of a coordinated bid by both leaders to bury the international agreement, which Trump has called “horrible” and Netanyahu has termed “terrible.”

In a televised statement on Monday night Netanyahu detailed what he said were Iranian documents that purportedly prove Iran had been developing nuclear arms before the 2015 deal that it signed with the U.S. and world powers. [L8N1S7531]

On Tuesday Netanyahu told CNN that “nobody” sought a conflict with the Islamic Republic, a prospect seen by some as a possible result of the deal’s collapse.

Asked if Israel is prepared to go to war with Tehran, Netanyahu said: “Nobody’s seeking that kind of development. Iran is the one that’s changing the rules in the region.”

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

But Netanyahu’s presentation said the evidence showed Iran lied going into the deal, a landmark agreement seen by Trump as flawed but by European powers as vital to allaying concerns that Iran could one day develop nuclear bombs.

Tehran, which denies ever pursuing nuclear weapons, dismissed Netanyahu as “the boy who cried wolf,” and called his presentation propaganda.

“We warn the Zionist regime and its allies to stop their plots and dangerous behaviors or they will face Iran’s surprising and firm response,” Iranian Defense Minister Amir Hatami was quoted as saying by Tasnim on Tuesday.

Hatami called Netanyahu’s accusations “baseless”.

International and Israeli experts said Netanyahu had presented no evidence Iran was in breach of the deal. Rather, it appeared the presentation, delivered almost entirely in English, was composed as an Israeli prelude to Trump quitting the accord.

Tzachi Hanegbi, Israeli minister for regional development and a Netanyahu confidant, said the presentation was meant to provide Trump with the grounds to bolt the deal.

“In 12 days a huge drama will unfold. The American president will likely pull out of the deal,” Hanegbi said in an interview to Israeli Army Radio. “What the prime minister did last night, was to give Trump ammunition against the European naiveté and unwillingness regarding Iran.”

Under the deal struck by Iran and six major powers Tehran agreed to limit its nuclear program in return for relief from U.S. and other economic sanctions.

Trump gave Britain, France and Germany a May 12 deadline to fix what he views as the deal’s flaws – its failure to address Iran’s ballistic missile program, the terms by which inspectors visit suspect Iranian sites, and “sunset” clauses under which some of its terms expire – or he will reimpose U.S. sanctions.

The senior Israeli official said Israel knew about the Iranian archive for a year, got hold of it in February and informed Trump about it at a meeting in Washington on March 5.

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Israel had updated China on its Iran material and by the end of this week was scheduled to host experts from Britain, Germany and France who would inspect it, the senior official said.

Most of the purported evidence Netanyahu presented dated to the period before the 2015 accord was signed, although he said Iran had also kept important files on nuclear technology since then, and continued adding to its “nuclear weapons knowledge”.

Although the presentation was live on Israeli television, Netanyahu made clear his audience was abroad, delivering most of his speech in English, before switching to Hebrew.

A 2007 U.S. National Intelligence Estimate judged with “high confidence” that Tehran halted its nuclear weapons program in the fall of 2003. The IAEA later reached a similar judgment.

One Vienna-based diplomat who has dealt with the IAEA for years, when asked what he made of Netanyahu’s speech, said: “Nothing new. Theatrics.”

EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said Netanyahu did not question Iran’s compliance with the deal. She noted the deal was made “exactly because there was no trust between the parties, otherwise we would not have required a nuclear deal to be put in place”.

Hanegbi acknowledged Netanyahu had not shown Iran had violated the agreement: “The Iranians are clean in regard to the nuclear deal because it is a gift given to them by an exhausted, tired, naive world.”

An Israeli official familiar with Netanyahu’s telegenic style – one the Israeli leader has refined over decades in the international arena – said that the two-word headline “Iran Lied” that appeared beside him during the presentation was tailor-made for Trump’s own short, pithy, rhetorical style.

Noting Trump’s own use of short epithets, the Israeli official said Trump “responds to pithy messaging, and that is what we were going for with this briefing.”

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem, François Murphy in Vienna, Mark Heinrich in London, Alastair Macdonald in Brussels, Bozorgmehr Sharefedin in London, Editing by William Maclean)

Israel’s Netanyahu to make ‘significant’ announcement on Iran

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem, April 29, 2018. Sebastian Scheiner/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make a televised announcement Monday evening (1700 GMT) in what his office said would be a “significant development” regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran.

The announcement will be made from Israel’s military headquarters in Tel Aviv, according to a brief statement from Netanyahu’s office.

“Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will make a statement on a significant development regarding the nuclear agreement with Iran,” the statement said, offering no further details.

Netanyahu met on Sunday with new U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and the two had spoken about Iran.

Speaking alongside the Israeli leader, Pompeo said in Tel Aviv: “We remain deeply concerned about Iran’s dangerous escalation of threats towards Israel and the region.”

Netanyahu had said: “I think the greatest threat to the world and to our two countries, and to all countries, is the marriage of militant Islam with nuclear weapons, and specifically the attempt of Iran to acquire nuclear weapons.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to withdraw from the 2015 agreement reached between Iran and global powers, which granted Tehran relief from economic sanctions in return for curbs to its nuclear program.

Israel has long opposed the agreement. Washington’s major European allies have urged the Trump administration not to abandon it and argue that Iran is abiding by its terms.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Peter Graff)