Inaugurating embassy in UAE, Israel tells region: “We’re here to stay”

By Lisa Barrington

DUBAI (Reuters) -Israel’s new foreign minister inaugurated its embassy in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday and offered an olive branch to other former adversaries, saying: “We’re here to stay.”

Yair Lapid’s two-day visit is the first to the Gulf state by an Israeli cabinet minister since the countries established ties last year. He was due to sign a bilateral agreement on economic cooperation and open an Israeli consulate in Dubai on Wednesday.

The trip is also an opportunity for the two-week-old Israeli government of Naftali Bennett, a nationalist who heads an improbable cross-partisan coalition, to make diplomatic inroads despite long-stymied talks with the Palestinians.

“Israel wants peace with its neighbors – with all its neighbors. We aren’t going anywhere. The Middle East is our home,” Lapid said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Abu Dhabi high-rise office serving as a temporary embassy.

“We’re here to stay. We call on all the countries of the region to recognize that and to come to talk to us,” he said.

Brought together by shared worries about Iran and hopes for commercial boons, the UAE and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel last year under so-called “Abraham Accords” crafted by the administration of then U.S.-President Donald Trump. Sudan and Morocco have since also moved to establish ties with Israel.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, welcoming Lapid’s visit, said Washington “will continue to work with Israel and the UAE as we strengthen all aspects of our partnerships and work to create a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous future for all the peoples of the Middle East”, the State Department said.

The regional rapprochement was deplored by the Palestinians, who want their demands for statehood free of Israeli occupation addressed first.

President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the accords as “an illusion” and asserted that colonial powers had “implant(ed) Israel as a foreign body in this region in order to fragment it and keep it weak,” according to a report on Tuesday by the official Palestinian news service WAFA.

Tuesday’s agreement will be the 12th between Israel and the UAE, Lior Haiat, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said. Lapid is also set to visit the site of Expo 2020 Dubai, a world fair opening in October where Israel has built a pavilion.

Lapid’s plane transited through Saudi airspace. Riyadh, although not having normalized relations with Israel, last year opened its skies to Israel-UAE flights.

The UAE formally opened its embassy in Israel, temporarily located in the Tel Aviv stock exchange, this month.

Israel’s Abu Dhabi embassy still has only three diplomats and a head of mission, Eitan Na’eh, who has yet to be confirmed as full ambassador. The consulate in Dubai is similarly located in temporary premises.

Lapid was conciliatory toward former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose attempts to organize a trip to the UAE while in office were scotched by COVID-19 restrictions and who has sought to cast his ouster by Bennett as illegitimate.

Thanking Netanyahu as “the architect of the Abraham Accords,” Lapid said: “This moment is his, no less than it is ours.”

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Nidal Al-Mughrabi’Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, John Stonestreet, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

New Israeli government seals coalition deals as Netanyahu era approaches its end

By Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The new Israeli government set to end Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year tenure as prime minister signed its final coalition agreements on Friday, pointedly including term limits.

The coalition of parties from far-right to left is expected to focus mostly on economic and social issues rather than risk exposing internal rifts by trying to address major diplomatic issues such as the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, will be succeeded on Sunday by a coalition that includes for the first time a party from Israel’s Arab minority.

Under a power-sharing agreement, Naftali Bennett, of the ultra-nationalist Yamina (Rightwards) party, will serve as prime minister for two years.

Bennett on Friday said the coalition “brings to an end two and a half years of political crisis,” although it was unclear how long the coalition’s disparate elements would hold together. He will then hand over to Yair Lapid of the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party.

Among the agreements outlined by parties in what Lapid described as a “unity government” are:

* Limiting the prime minister’s term of office to two terms, or eight years.

* An infrastructure push to include new hospitals, a new university and a new airport.

* Passing a two-year budget to help stabilize the country’s finances – the prolonged political stalemate has left Israel still using a pro-rated version of a base 2019 budget that was ratified in mid-2018.

* Maintaining the “status-quo” on issues of religion and state, with Bennett’s Yamina party to have a veto. Possible reforms include breaking up an ultra-Orthodox monopoly on overseeing which foods are kosher, and decentralizing authority over Jewish conversions.

* An “overall plan for transportation” in the Israeli- occupied West Bank.

* A general goal to “ensure Israel’s interests” in areas of the West Bank under full Israeli control.* Allocating more than 53 billion shekels ($16 billion) to improve infrastructure and welfare in Arab towns, and curbing violent crime there.

* Decriminalizing marijuana and moving to regulate the market.

($1 = 3.2529 shekels)

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Out, but not down, Netanyahu could be tough opposition leader

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Long the familiar face of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu is headed to the political sidelines after serving as prime minister for more than a decade.

But even as he battles in court against corruption charges that he denies, Netanyahu, as opposition leader, will be poised to pounce on a new governing coalition of right-wing, centrist and Arab parties with little in common other than a desire to unseat him.

In a likely taste of things to come, a stern-looking Netanyahu, 71, has decried the creation of a “dangerous, left-wing government.”

“Fraud of the century,” he declared indignantly after fellow right-winger Naftali Bennett turned against him on Sunday and opted to align with centrist opposition chief Yair Lapid despite a public promise that he would not do so.

Under a power-sharing deal that follows a March 23 election – Israel’s fourth in two years – Bennett, a former defense minister and a high-tech millionaire, will become prime minister.

He will later turn over the post to Lapid, who once served as finance minister in a Netanyahu-led government.

The diverse composition of the Lapid-Bennett alliance could make it particularly unstable in a country so riven by political divisions that “do-over” elections have become the norm.

That means that no one in Israel is ruling out a Netanyahu political comeback.

Already, the tone of his remarks has echoes of his closest international ally, former U.S. President Donald Trump, himself now unseated but still commanding loyalty from supporters.

For Netanyahu’s grassroots backers, dubbed “Bibists”, he remains a leader tough on security and a bulwark against pressure, even from Trump’s successor President Joe Biden, for any bold steps that could lead to a Palestinian state.

From the opposition benches, Netanyahu is likely to press on with a message that the new coalition will be hobbled by its left-wing members if military steps are needed against Israel’s enemies.

Claiming the spotlight even as Lapid was deep in negotiations on a change in government, a combative Netanyahu seemed to pick a fight with Biden on Tuesday over how to deal with Iran’s nuclear program, again hinting at the possibility of Israeli attack.

“If we have to choose, I hope it doesn’t happen, between friction with our great friend the United States and eliminating the existential threat – eliminating the existential threat wins,” Netanyahu said in a speech.

BORROWED TIME

It has been a rocky few years for Netanyahu, whose stewardship of Israel’s COVID-19 vaccine rollout was not enough to halt his political decline.

A sense that he was living on borrowed time after 12 consecutive years in office was compounded by criminal charges over alleged favors to media tycoons and illegal receipt of expensive cigars and champagne.

Netanyahu has denied all wrongdoing and says, without offering any evidence, that he is a victim of a deep state conspiracy against him.

Popularly known by his childhood nickname, Bibi, Netanyahu is the son of a historian and attended high school and college in the United States, where his father taught.

Never lost for a soundbite, his booming baritone has resounded on the world stage since serving as Israel’s ambassador to the United Nations from 1984 to 1988.

Entering politics in Israel as a Likud legislator, he became party leader in 1993 and exerted hegemony for decades over Israeli politics.

The formation of the new government marked a rare defeat for Netanyahu: the last time he and his wife Sara had to pack their bags and move out of the prime minister’s residence was before the turn of the millennium.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Netanyahu vows to fight on as Biden urges Gaza ‘de-escalation’

By Nidal al-Mughrabi, Jeffrey Heller and Andrea Shalal

GAZA/JERUSALEM/ABOARD AIR FORCE ONE (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to press on with operations against Gaza’s ruling Hamas militants after U.S. President Joe Biden urged him to seek a “de-escalation” on Wednesday in the 10-day conflict on the path to a ceasefire.

An Egyptian security source said the two sides had agreed in principle to a ceasefire after help from mediators, although details were still being negotiated in secret amid public denials of a deal to prevent it from collapsing.

Palestinian medical officials said that since fighting began on May 10, 227 people had been killed in aerial bombardments that have destroyed roads, buildings and other infrastructure, and worsened the already dire humanitarian situation in Gaza.

Israeli authorities put the death toll at 12 in Israel, where repeated rocket attacks have caused panic and sent people rushing into shelters. Regional and U.S.-led diplomatic efforts to secure a ceasefire have intensified but so far failed.

Netanyahu has repeatedly hailed what he has described as support from the United States, Israel’s main ally, for a right to self-defense in battling rocket attacks from Gaza.

But Biden put the Israeli leader on notice in a telephone call that it was time to lower the intensity of the conflict.

“The two leaders had a detailed discussion on the state of events in Gaza, Israel’s progress in degrading the capabilities of Hamas and other terrorist elements, and ongoing diplomatic efforts by regional governments and the United States,” White House spokeswoman Karine Jean-Pierre told reporters.

“The president conveyed to the prime minister that he expected a significant de-escalation today on the path to a ceasefire.”

‘QUIET AND SECURITY’

In a statement released soon after her comments, Netanyahu said: “I am determined to continue this operation until its objective is achieved – to restore quiet and security to you, the citizens of Israel.”

Earlier, in remarks reported by Israeli media from a closed question-and-answer session with foreign envoys to Israel, Netanyahu was quoted as saying: “We’re not standing with a stopwatch. We want to achieve the goals of the operation. Previous operations lasted a long time so it is not possible to set a timeframe.”

In response to Biden’s de-escalation call, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassam said those who sought to restore calm must “compel Israel to end its aggression in Jerusalem and its bombardment of Gaza”.

Once that happened, Qassam said, “there can be room to talk about arrangements to restore calm”.

Hamas began firing rockets on May 10 in retaliation for what it said were Israeli rights abuses against Palestinians in Jerusalem during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.

The rocket attacks followed Israeli security police clashes with worshippers at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and a court case by Israeli settlers to evict Palestinians from a neighborhood in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

In a 25-minute attack overnight into Wednesday, Israel bombarded targets including what its military said were tunnels in southern Gaza used by Hamas.

Some 50 rockets were fired from the enclave, the Israeli military said, with sirens sounding in the coastal city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, and in areas closer to the Gaza border. There were no reports of injuries or damage overnight but days of rocket fire have unsettled many Israelis.

CRATERS AND RUBBLE

Nearly 450 buildings in densely populated Gaza have been destroyed or badly damaged, including six hospitals and nine primary-care health centers, and more than 52,000 Palestinians have been displaced, the U.N. humanitarian agency said.

The damage has left large craters and piles of rubble across the coastal enclave.

“Whoever wants to learn about the humanity of the (Israelis) should come to the Gaza Strip and look at the houses that got destroyed on top of those who lived in them,” said university lecturer Ahmed al-Astal, standing by the rubble of his house in Khan Younis in southern Gaza.

He said there had been no warning before his home was destroyed in an air strike before dawn.

Israel says it issues warnings to evacuate buildings that are to be fired on and that it attacks only what it regards as military targets.

The hostilities are the most serious between Hamas and Israel in years, and, in a departure from previous Gaza conflicts, have helped fuel street violence in Israeli cities between Jews and Arabs.

The conflict has also spilled over to the Israel-Lebanon frontier and stoked violence in the occupied West Bank.

Four rockets were launched towards Israel from Lebanon on Wednesday, the third such incident since the Gaza conflict began, the military said. Israeli forces responded with artillery fire towards targets in Lebanon.

There was no claim of responsibility for the rocket attack.

In the West Bank, Israeli troops shot dead a Palestinian woman who the military said had fired a rifle at troops and civilians at a bus stop near the city of Hebron.

At least 21 Palestinians have been killed in clashes with Israeli troops or other incidents in the West Bank since May 10, Palestinian health officials said.

The latest deaths in Gaza included three Palestinians killed in overnight air strikes, one of them a journalist with Hamas’s Al-Aqsa radio station, officials said.

Gaza medical officials say the Palestinian death toll includes 64 children, and that more than 1,600 people have been wounded since the fighting began. Israeli authorities say the death toll in Israel includes two children.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller; Additional reporting by Aidan Lewis in Cairo and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Cooney, Michael Perry, Timothy Heritage, William Maclean and Gareth Jones)

Israel pounds Gaza to curb Palestinian militants but rockets still fly

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Stephen Farrell

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel pummeled Gaza with artillery fire and air strikes on Friday as it targeted Palestinian militant tunnels to try to stop persistent rocket attacks on Israeli towns.

The 40-minute, pre-dawn offensive killed 13 Palestinians, including a mother and her three children whose bodies were pulled from the rubble of their home, health officials in Gaza said.

The Israeli operation included 160 aircraft as well as tanks and artillery firing from outside the Gaza Strip, Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Conricus said.

Palestinian rocket barrages against southern Israel swiftly followed on the fifth day of the most serious fighting between Israel and Gaza militants since 2014.

Egypt was leading international efforts to secure a ceasefire and ensure the conflict does not spread. Security sources said neither side appeared amenable so far but a Palestinian official said negotiations intensified on Friday.

French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Friday, urging a return to peace in the region.

Hamas, the Islamist group that rules Gaza, launched the rocket attacks on Monday, in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest site, in East Jerusalem.

Violence has since spread to cities where Jews and Israel’s minority Arab community live side by side. There have also been clashes between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where health officials said seven Palestinians were killed on Friday.

At least 122 people have been killed since Monday in Gaza, including 31 children and 20 women, and 900 others wounded, Palestinian medical officials said.

Among eight dead in Israel were a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, six Israeli civilians – including two children, an elderly woman and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

SYSTEM OF TUNNELS

The U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said there were reports of more than 200 housing units destroyed or severely damaged in Gaza and hundreds of people seeking shelter in schools in the north of the coastal enclave.

Israel says it makes every effort to preserve civilian life, including warning in advance of attacks.

“What we were targeting is an elaborate system of tunnels that spans underneath Gaza, mostly in the north but not limited to, and is a network that the operatives of Hamas use in order to move, in order to hide, for cover,” Conricus told foreign reporters, adding that the network was known as “the Metro”.

Israeli warplanes bombed the houses of three senior Hamas military commanders in central Gaza on Friday that had already been evacuated, local residents said.

An Israeli plane also bombed the building that housed the National Production Bank in Gaza City, with bricks and debris sent flying and windows shattered in some nearby buildings, witnesses said.

Dozens of mourners took part in the funeral of six people – members of two families whose houses were hit by Israeli air strikes on Thursday – in the southern Gaza town of Rafah.

Holding the cloth-bound body of his 19-month-old nephew in his arms, Khamees al-Rantissi said their house was bombed without prior warning. “What was this child doing? What threat did he pose for the state of Israel?” Rantissi asked.

Netanyahu said on Thursday the campaign “will take more time”. Israeli officials said Hamas must be dealt a strong deterring blow before any ceasefire.

The Israeli military’s build-up of forces on the Gaza border has raised speculation about a possible repeat of ground invasions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and 2009, but Israel is loath to risk a sharp increase in military casualties.

FLURRY OF DIPLOMACY

Egypt was pushing for both sides to cease fire from midnight on Friday pending further negotiations, two Egyptian security sources said, with Cairo leaning on Hamas and others, including the United States, trying to reach an agreement with Israel.

“The talks have taken a real and serious path on Friday,” a Palestinian official said. “The mediators from Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations are stepping up their contacts with all sides in a bid to restore calm, but a deal hasn’t yet been reached.”

The hostilities have fueled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority. Violence continued in mixed communities overnight after street fighting and tit-for-tat attacks that prompted Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

Sheikh Ikrima Sabri, who led Friday prayers at al-Aqsa Mosque, decried the treatment of the mosque by Israeli forces. He said its “sanctity has been violated several times during the holy month of Ramadan” in what he called violations “unprecedented” since the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Israel’s military said a Palestinian tried to stab a soldier near the West Bank city of Ramallah. The soldier shot the attacker. Palestinian health officials said the man was killed.

Major airlines have suspended flights to Israel and at least two owners of tankers delivering crude oil asked to divert from Ashkelon to the port of Haifa, farther north of Gaza, because of the conflict, shipping sources said on Friday.

There were pro-Palestinian protests in Jordan and Lebanon, on the borders of the West Bank and Israel, and in Bangladesh, where thousands marched from Dhaka’s national mosque.

But the broader picture across the Middle East and the Islamic world, where Muslims are marking the Eid al-Fitr holiday and where restrictions on movement due to COVID-19 are in place in some countries, was noticeably muted.

The U.N. Security Council will publicly discuss the worsening violence on Sunday, diplomats said after the United States had objected to a meeting on Friday.

The Israeli military has put the number of militants killed in Israeli attacks at between 80 and 90. It said that so far, some 1,800 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 430 fell short in Gaza or malfunctioned.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch in Israel; Aidan Lewis in Cairo, Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington, Michelle Nichols in New York and Emma Farge in Geneva; Editing by Philippa Fletcher, Mark Heinrich and Frances Kerry)

Gaza conflict intensifies with rocket barrages and air strikes

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Jeffrey Heller

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militants fired more rockets into Israel’s commercial heartland on Thursday as Israel kept up a punishing bombing campaign in Gaza and massed tanks and troops on the enclave’s border.

The four days of cross-border fighting showed no sign of abating and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the campaign “will take more time”.

Violence has also spread to mixed communities of Jews and Arabs in Israel, a new front in the long conflict. Synagogues were attacked and fighting broke out on the streets of some towns, prompting Israel’s president to warn of civil war.

At least 87 people have been killed in Gaza, including 18 children, over the past four days, Palestinian medical officials said. Hospitals already under heavy pressure because of the COVID-19 pandemic have faced further strain.

Seven people have been killed in Israel: a soldier patrolling the Gaza border, five Israeli civilians, including two children, and an Indian worker, Israeli authorities said.

Worried that the region’s worst hostilities in years could spiral out of control, the United States is sending an envoy, Hady Amr. Truce efforts by Egypt, Qatar and the United Nations have so far offered no sign of progress.

U.S. President Joe Biden called on Thursday for a de-escalation of the violence, saying he wants to see a significant reduction in rocket attacks.

Militants fired rocket salvoes at Tel Aviv and surrounding towns, Israel’s commercial heartland, with the Iron Dome anti-missile system intercepting many of them. Communities near the Gaza border and the southern desert city of Beersheba were also targeted.

Five Israelis were wounded by a rocket that hit a building near Tel Aviv.

Israeli warplanes struck a six-story residential building in Gaza that it said belonged to Hamas, the Islamist group that controls the Palestinian enclave. Netanyahu said Israel has struck a total of close to 1,000 militant targets in the territory.

Israeli aircraft also attacked a Hamas intelligence headquarters and four apartments belonging to senior commanders from the group, the military said, adding that the homes were used for planning and directing strikes on Israel.

Standing beside a Gaza road damaged in Israeli air strikes, Assad Karam, 20, a construction worker, said: “We are facing Israel and COVID-19. We are in between two enemies.”

In Tel Aviv, Yishai Levy, an Israeli singer, pointed at shrapnel that came down on a sidewalk outside his home.

“I want to tell Israeli soldiers and the government, don’t stop until you finish the job,” he said on YNet television.

Israel launched its offensive after Hamas fired rockets at Jerusalem and Tel Aviv in retaliation for Israeli police clashes with Palestinians near al-Aqsa mosque in East Jerusalem during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

A number of foreign carriers have cancelled flights to Israel because of the unrest.

‘DISRUPTING’ HAMAS

Brigadier-General Hidai Zilberman, the Israeli military’s chief spokesman, said attacks on militants’ rocket production and launching sites were “disrupting Hamas’ activities”, but still not to the point of stopping the barrages.

“It is more difficult for them, but we have to say in fairness that Hamas is an organized group, one that has the capability to continue to fire for several more days at the places it has been targeting in Israel,” he said on Israeli Channel 12 TV.

He said between 80 and 90 militants had been killed in Israeli attacks.

Zilberman said Israel was “building up forces on the Gaza border”, a deployment that has raised speculation about a possible ground invasion, a move that would recall similar incursions during Israel-Gaza wars in 2014 and in 2009.

Israeli military affairs correspondents, who are briefed regularly by the armed forces, have said however that a major ground operation is unlikely, citing high casualties among the risks.

Hamas armed wing spokesman Abu Ubaida responded to the troop buildup with defiance, urging Palestinians to rise up.

“Mass up as you wish, from the sea, land and sky. We have prepared for your kinds of deaths that would make you curse yourselves,” he said.

FOREIGN APPEALS

So far some 1,750 rockets have been fired at Israel, of which 300 fell short in the Gaza Strip, the Israeli military said.

The U.N. agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, said two of its schools were hit on Tuesday and Wednesday “within the context of air strikes by Israel”, and that at least 29 classrooms were damaged.

School is in recess in Gaza, and classes have also been suspended in many parts of Israel, including in one town where an empty school was hit by a rocket on Tuesday.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for an “urgent de-escalation” of violence and French President Emmanuel Macron urged a “definite reset” of long-frozen Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Russian President Vladimir Putin and United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres also appealed for an end to the fighting.

The hostilities have fuelled tension between Israeli Jews and the country’s 21% Arab minority who live alongside them in some communities.

Jewish and Arab groups attacked people and damaged shops, hotels and cars overnight. In Bat Yam, south of Tel Aviv, dozens of Jews beat and kicked a man thought to be an Arab as he lay on the ground.

One person was shot and badly wounded by Arabs in the town of Lod, where authorities imposed a curfew, and over 150 arrests were made in Lod and Arab towns in northern Israel, police said.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin called for an end to “this madness”.

Although the latest unrest in Jerusalem was the immediate trigger for hostilities, Palestinians are frustrated by setbacks to their aspirations for an independent state in recent years, including Washington’s recognition of disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The conflict has led to the freezing of talks by Netanyahu’s opponents on forming a governing coalition to unseat him after an inconclusive election in March.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Rami Ayyub and Dan Williams, Additional reporting by Nandita Bose and Steve Holland in Washington and Michelle Nichols in New York; Editing by Timothy Heritage, Angus MacSwan and Frances Kerry)

Pompeo visits Israeli-occupied West Bank and Golan Heights

By Rami Amichay and Ali Sawafta

SHAAR BINYAMIN, West Bank (Reuters) – Mike Pompeo on Thursday paid the first visit by a U.S. secretary of state to an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank, in a parting show of solidarity with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu by the outgoing Trump administration.

Palestinians accused Pompeo of helping Israel to cement its control over West Bank land that they seek for a state after he made a trip to the Shaar Binyamin winery near the settlement of Psagot, just north of Jerusalem.

To Israel’s delight and Palestinian dismay, Pompeo in 2019 broke with decades of American foreign policy to announce that the U.S. under President Donald Trump no longer viewed Israel’s settlements as “inconsistent with international law”.

Palestinians and much of the world regard the settlements as illegal under international law.

After meeting with Netanyahu on Thursday morning Pompeo travelled to the West Bank to visit the settler winery, which has a blend named after him.

He also issued guidelines for Israeli products made in settlements to be labelled “Made in Israel” or “Product of Israel” when imported to the United States, removing the distinction between products made within Israel and those produced in occupied territory.

Pompeo’s visit departed from past policy that had kept top U.S. officials away from settlements, which Palestinians view as obstacles to a viable future state.

Palestinian negotiator Hanan Ashrawi accused Pompeo of using Trump’s final weeks in office “to set yet another illegal precedent, violate international law and perhaps to advance his own future political ambitions”.

“Pompeo is intoxicated by apartheid wine stolen from Palestinian land. It is opportunistic and self-serving, and it damages the chances for peace,” Ashrawi told Reuters.

Wasel Abu Youssef, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, also denounced his labelling announcement.

“This is totally rejected. It reaffirms the partnership between President Trump and the occupation,” he said.

It is unclear whether Trump’s decision on settlements would be reversed by a Biden administration, amid Israeli concerns he will take a tougher line on the issue.

GOLAN HEIGHTS

Before heading to the West Bank, Pompeo said he also intended to visit the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights.

In 2019 Trump formally recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the area of the strategic plateau that it captured from Syria in 1967 and later annexed in a move not recognized by the United Nations and most countries.

“The simple recognition of this as part of Israel, too, was a decision President Trump made that is historically important and simply a recognition of reality,” Pompeo said on Thursday.

The Palestinian leadership cut ties with Trump White House three years ago, accusing it of pro-Israel bias.

But many Israelis viewed Trump’s election defeat with dismay, and his close ally Netanyahu waited 10 days after Joe Biden declared victory to speak with the Democratic candidate and refer to him as president-elect.

Pompeo said Washington would also step up action against pro-Palestinian efforts to isolate Israel economically and diplomatically.

“I want you to know that we will immediately take steps to identify organizations that engage in hateful BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) conduct and withdraw U.S. government support,” he said.

“We will regard the global anti-Israel BDS campaign as anti-Semitic,” Pompeo said. BDS supporters dispute that, saying they are against all forms of racism.

U.S.-based Human Rights Watch said Pompeo had falsely equated peaceful support for boycotts of Israel with antisemitism.

“Instead of combating systemic racism and far-right extremism in the United States, the Trump administration is undermining the common fight against the scourge of antisemitism by equating it with peaceful advocacy of boycotts,” said Eric Goldstein, the group’s acting Middle East and North Africa director.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Maayan Lubell, Dan Williams and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Rami Ayyub in Bethlehem; Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Stephen Farrell, Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood)

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)

Stop or suspend West Bank annexation? Devil in the detail for Israel-UAE deal

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/ABU DHABI (Reuters) – A difference between English and Arabic versions of a trilateral statement after an historic flight from Israel to the UAE has been seized upon by Palestinians to suggest the Gulf state has overstated Israeli readiness to drop West Bank annexation plans.

The English version of a joint communique by the United Arab Emirates, Israel and the United States in Abu Dhabi on Monday said the accord had “led to the suspension of Israel’s plans to extend its sovereignty”.

But the Arabic version, carried by the UAE state news agency WAM, said “the agreement … has led to Israel’s plans to annex Palestinian lands being stopped”.

The discrepancy was highlighted by Palestinians after President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner flew with U.S. and Israeli delegations on the first Israeli commercial flight to the UAE to cement the normalization accord, the first by a Gulf state.

“Compare yourself the two versions… suspension of extending sovereignty, not stopping annexation of Palestinian lands,” tweeted Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation on Tuesday.

The UAE has portrayed the accord, announced by Trump on Aug. 13, as a means to halt Israeli annexation of occupied West Bank lands, where Palestinian hope to build a future state.

Jamal Al-Musharakh, chief of policy planning and international cooperation at the UAE foreign ministry, said the difference in wording was merely a translation issue.

“If anyone can think of a better synonym than ‘Eeqaf’ (stopping) for ‘suspending’, then please let me know,” he told reporters.

“One of the prerequisites of the commencing of bilateral relations was the halting of the annexation,” said Musharakh. The Emirati government did not respond when asked for further comment.

But Hanan Ashrawi, a senior PLO official, said it was a “forked tongue” attempt to influence public opinion in the Arab world.

“NO CHANGE IN MY PLAN”

“I don’t think it is a problem of translation, I think it is a disingenuous way of trying to manipulate the discourse,” she told Reuters.

“The Arabic translation is a way of misleading Arab public opinion by saying they have succeeded in stopping the annexation, while actually they suspended it.”

In recent election campaigns Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to apply Israeli sovereignty to West Bank areas, including Jewish settlements, but said he needed a green light from Washington.

Speaking in Hebrew and using the biblical terms for the West Bank, Netanyahu told Israelis on Aug. 13 – the day the deal was announced: “There is no change in my plan to apply our sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, in full coordination with the United States. I am committed, it has not changed.”

Keeping annexation hopes alive is widely seen as Netanyahu’s attempt to placate his right-wing voter base. Settler leaders have accused him of repeatedly floating annexation, only to cave in to international pressure.

An Israeli Foreign Ministry spokeswoman on Wednesday said it had nothing to add to the original Aug 13. statement, which said: “As a result of this diplomatic breakthrough …Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty over areas outlined in the President’s Vision for Peace.”

The White House declined to comment on the UAE trip communique, but a U.S. source familiar with the matter said the White House was not responsible for the Arabic translation.

At the briefing to reporters in Washington after the Aug 13 announcement Trump said annexation was “right now off the table,” and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman added: “The word suspend was chosen carefully by all the parties. ‘Suspend’ by definition, look it up, means a temporary halt. It’s off the table now but it’s not off the table permanently.”

During his UAE trip this week Kushner also used the word “suspend”.

“Israel has agreed to suspend the annexation, to suspend applying Israeli law to those areas for the time being,” he told the WAM agency. “But in the future it is a discussion that I am sure will be had. But not in the near future.”

Israel, UAE will cooperate on financial services, investment

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel and the United Arab Emirates agreed on Tuesday to set up a joint committee to cooperate on financial services, aiming to promote investment between the two countries, an Israeli statement said.

An Israeli delegation is in Abu Dhabi on a historic trip to finalize a pact marking open relations between Israel and the Gulf state.

Representatives from both countries signed the understanding, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in the statement.

One focus, Netanyahu said, would be on “cooperation in the field of financial services and removing financial barriers for making investments between the countries, as well as promoting joint investments in the capital markets”.

The countries will also collaborate in banking services and payment regulations, he said.

Separately, the state-run Abu Dhabi Investment Office (ADIO) and Invest in Israel, part of the economy ministry, agreed to set out a plan to establish formal cooperation between then, they said in a joint statement.

“The organizations will explore mutually beneficial areas of collaboration to unlock investment and partnership opportunities for companies in Israel and Abu Dhabi with a strong focus on innovation and technology,” they said.

An initial virtual meeting was held between Ziva Eger, Invest in Israel chief executive, and Monira Hisham al-Kuttab who leads ADIO’s international promotional activity. Further meetings are scheduled throughout September.

“Israel’s ecosystem has a lot to offer to the UAE’s economy in terms of innovation, specifically in the Life Sciences, CleanTech, Agtech and Energy sectors,” Eger said in the statement.

ADIO Director General Tariq Bin Hendi said ADIO’s investor care team would “facilitate connections throughout Abu Dhabi’s ecosystem” and explore opportunities over the coming months.

Israeli officials have been quick to play up the economic benefits of the accord, which once formalized would also include agreements on tourism, technology, energy, healthcare and security, among other areas.

A number of Israeli and Emirati businesses have already signed deals since the normalization deal was announced.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller and Yousef Saba; editing by Ari Rabinovitch, Larry King, William Maclean)