Israel signals free hand in Syria as U.S., Russia expand truce

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem November 12, 2017.

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel signaled on Sunday that it would keep up military strikes across its frontier with Syria to prevent any encroachment by Iranian-allied forces, even as the United States and Russia try to build up a ceasefire in the area.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin on Saturday affirmed joint efforts to stabilize Syria as its civil war wanes, including with the expansion of a July 7 truce in the southwestern triangle bordering Israel and Jordan.

A U.S. State Department official said Russia had agreed “to work with the Syrian regime to remove Iranian-backed forces a defined distance” from the Golan Heights frontier with Israel, which captured the plateau in the 1967 Middle East war.

The move, according to one Israeli official briefed on the arrangement, is meant to keep rival factions inside Syria away from each other, but it would effectively keep Iranian-linked forces at various distances from the Israel-held Golan as well.

Those distances would range from as little as 5-7 kms and up to around 30 kms, depending on current rebel positions on the Syrian Golan, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity due to the sensitivity of the issue.

Moscow did not immediately provide details on the deal.

Israel has been lobbying both big powers to deny Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and other Shi’ite militias any permanent bases in Syria, and to keep them away from the Golan, as they gain ground while helping Damascus beat back Sunni-led rebels.

In televised remarks opening Israel’s weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not speak about the new U.S.-Russian arrangement for Syria.

His regional cooperation minister, Tzachi Hanegbi, sounded circumspect about the deal, telling reporters that it “does not meet Israel’s unequivocal demand the there will not be developments that bring the forces of Hezbollah or Iran to the Israel-Syria border in the north”.

 

“RED LINES”

“There’s reflection here of the understanding that Israel has set red lines, and will stand firm on this,” Hanegbi said.

That was an allusion to Israeli military strikes in Syria, carried out against suspected Hezbollah or Iranian arms depots or in retaliation for attacks from the Syrian-held Golan.

In the latest incident, the Israeli military said it shot down a spy drone on Saturday as it overflew the Golan. Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman blamed the drone on the Syrian government. Damascus did not immediately respond.

Repeating Israel’s warnings to Iran and Hezbollah, Lieberman said: “We will not allow the Shi’ite axis to establish Syria as its forefront base”.

Russia, which has a long-term military garrison in Syria, has said it wants foreign forces to quit the country eventually.

The U.S. State Department official, who briefed reporters on condition of anonymity on Saturday, said that goal could be served by Russia’s pledge to remove Iranian-linked fighters from the truce zone in southwestern Syria.

“If this works, this is an auspicious signal, would be an auspicious signal, that our policy objective – the objective that I think so many of us share, of getting these guys out of Syria ultimately – that there’s a path in that direction,” the official said.

 

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Richard Balmforth)

 

Israel willing to resort to military action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons: minister

Israel willing to resort to military action to stop Iran acquiring nuclear weapons: minister

By Tim Kelly and Nobuhiro Kubo

TOKYO (Reuters) – Israel is willing to resort to military action to ensure Iran never acquires nuclear weapons, the intelligence minister said on Thursday in Japan where he is seeking backing for U.S. President Donald Trump’s tougher line on Tehran.

Trump said on Oct. 13 he would not certify Iran is complying with an agreement on curtailing its nuclear program, signed by his predecessor, Barack Obama, opening a 60-day window for Congress to act to reimpose sanctions.

“If international efforts led these days by U.S. President Trump don’t help stop Iran attaining nuclear capabilities, Israel will act militarily by itself,” Intelligence Minister Israel Katz said in an interview in Tokyo. “There are changes that can be made (to the agreement) to ensure that they will never have the ability to have a nuclear weapon.”

Israel has taken unilateral action in the past without the consent of its major ally, the United States, including air strikes on a suspected nuclear reactor in Syria in 2007 and in Iraq in 1981. A strike against Iran, however, would be a risky venture with the potential to provoke a counter strike and roil financial markets.

An Israeli threat of military strikes could, nonetheless, galvanize support in the United States for toughening up the nuclear agreement but it could also backfire by encouraging hardliners in Iran and widening a rift between Washington and European allies.

So far, none of the other signatories to the deal – Britain, France, Germany, Russia, China, Iran and the European Union – has cited serious concerns, leaving the United States isolated.

Japan relies on the U.S. military to help defend it against threats from North Korea and elsewhere. Tokyo’s diplomatic strategy in the Middle East, where it buys almost all its oil, is to maintain friendly relations with all countries, including Iran.

“I asked the Japanese government to support steps led by President Trump to change the nuclear agreement,” said Katz, who is a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party. “The question of whether Japanese companies will begin to work in Iran or not is a very important question.”

Katz’s visit to Tokyo comes ahead of a planned trip by Trump from Nov. 5 for a summit with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Officials at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs were not immediately available to comment.

Israel, Katz said, wants the nuclear agreement to be revised to remove an expiration date, and to impose tighter conditions to stop Tehran from developing new centrifuges used to make weapons-grade nuclear material.

He also urged sanctions to stop Iran from establishing Syria as a military base to launch attacks on Israel and action to put a halt to Tehran’s development of ballistic missiles.

“We will not allow Iran to transform Syria into forward base sea harbors, air bases and Shia militias,” he said. “We will act together with the United States and other countries in the world until they stop the ballistic missiles that threaten Israel.”

The U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday backed new sanctions on Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah militia.

(Reporting by Tim Kelly; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Netanyahu lobbies world powers to stem Iraqi Kurd setbacks

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives at the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem October 15, 2017. REUTERS/Abir Sultan/Pool

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is lobbying world powers to prevent further setbacks to Iraqi Kurds as they lose ground to Baghdad’s army, Israeli officials say.

Israel has been the only major power to endorse statehood for the Kurds, partly, say analysts, because it sees the ethnic group – whose population is split among Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran – as a buffer against shared adversaries.

Iraqi armed forces retook the oil-rich Kirkuk region this week, following a Sept. 25 referendum on Kurdish independence that was rejected by Baghdad, delivering a blow to the Kurds’ statehood quest.

Israeli officials said Netanyahu raised the Iraqi Kurds’ plight in phone calls with German Chancellor Angela Merkel last week and with Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

It has also come up in his contacts with France and the Israeli national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, has been discussing the matter with Trump administration officials in Washington this week, the officials said.

A Netanyahu government official, who declined to be named, given the sensitivity of Israel-Kurdish ties, suggested Israel had security interests in Kurdistan, given its proximity to Israel’s enemies in Tehran and Damascus.

“This (territory) is a foothold. It’s a strategic place,” the official said without providing further detail. He said Israel wanted to see Iraqi Kurds provided with the means to protect themselves, adding:

“It would be best if someone gave them weaponry, and whatever else, which we cannot give, obviously.”

Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with Kurds since the 1960s, in the absence of open ties between their autonomous region in northern Iraq and Israel.

Netanyahu’s recent lobbying has focused on Kurdish ambitions in Iraq, where the central Baghdad government has grown closer to Israel’s foe Iran.

“The issue at present is … to prevent an attack on the Kurds, extermination of the Kurds and any harm to them, their autonomy and region, something that Turkey and Iran and internal Shi’ite and other powers in Iraq and part of the Iraqi government want,” Netanyahu’s intelligence minister, Israel Katz, told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM on Friday.

It was not clear to what extent Netanyahu’s outreach may have been solicited by the Kurdish Regional Government (KRG) in northern Iraq, which shies away from public engagement with Israel, worried about further alienating Arab neighbours.

The United Nations has voiced concern at reports that civilians, mainly Kurds, were being driven out of parts of northern Iraq retaken by Iraqi forces and their houses and businesses looted and destroyed.

“The prime minister is certainly engaging the United States, Russia, Germany and France to stop the Kurds from being harmed,” Katz said.

Another Israeli official, speaking to Reuters on condition of anonymity, framed Netanyahu’s efforts as a moral imperative.

“They (Kurds) are a deeply pro-Western people who deserve support,” he said.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell and Andrew Heavens)

Israel approves building plans for 31 settler homes in West Bank’s Hebron

Israeli soldiers stand at a military camp in the West Bank city of Hebron October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel on Monday approved building plans for 31 settler homes in Hebron in the West Bank, a spokeswoman said, a first such move in the Israeli-occupied area for some 15 years.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has felt increased pressure for settlement expansion from the rightist flank of his coalition, though construction is not imminent as a bureaucratic process must still run its course.

His government has made numerous announcements of settlement building recently, angering Palestinians seeking a state on land Israel captured in a 1967 war but no longer eliciting serious U.S. criticism with President Donald Trump in the White House.

Still, settlement advocates say that despite a string of announcements for construction of thousands of settler homes in the West Bank, only a fraction might be built eventually.

Hebron is the largest Palestinian city in the occupied West Bank with a population of some 216,000. About 1,000 Israeli settlers live in the heart of the city, which for decades has been a focus of religious friction between Muslims and Jews.

Israeli anti-settlement watchdog Peace Now detailed the project’s plans in an area of Hebron where the settlers live and its web site showed a graphic of what the prospective four-storey, stone-clad apartment block would look like.

It said that the last time settler homes were built in this area was in 2002.

Hadar Horen, a spokeswoman for the Israeli body that runs civilian affairs in the West Bank, could not confirm the details issued by Peace Now and said the planning committee decision would be published later.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Interpol approves membership for State of Palestine over Israeli objections

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas addresses the 72nd United Nations General Assembly at U.N. headquarters in New York, U.S., September 20, 2017. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Interpol voted on Wednesday to admit the State of Palestine as a member over Israeli objections at the international police organization’s general assembly in Beijing.

The decision came despite Israeli efforts to delay a vote and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a statement that the Palestinians’ joining the global police agency contravened signed agreements with Israel.

Israel had argued that Palestine is not a state and that it is ineligible to join. Under interim Israeli-Palestinian peace deals, a Palestinian Authority was granted limited self-rule in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Shortly before the vote in the Chinese capital, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said Israel’s efforts to delay the ballot until next year had failed.

“This victory was made possible because of the principled position of the majority of Interpol members,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said in a statement.

Interpol said membership applications by the State of Palestine and the Solomon Islands were approved at its annual general assembly by more than the required two-thirds majority of votes. The organization now has 192 members.

A Palestinian bid to join last year, at an Interpol conference in Indonesia, was foiled by what Israel said was its diplomatic campaign against it.

In 2012, the U.N. General Assembly upgraded the Palestinian Authority’s observer status at the United Nations to “non-member state” from “entity”, like the Vatican.

The step fell short of full U.N. membership, but it had important legal implications in enabling the Palestinians to join the International Criminal Court and other world bodies.

Netanyahu’s statement said Palestinian membership of Interpol was one of the issues discussed during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy, Jason Greenblatt, who is visiting the region.

Netanyahu also raised the Palestinian refusal to condemn an attack on Tuesday in which a Palestinian laborer shot dead three Israeli guards in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“The actions of the Palestinian leadership in the past few days directly harm the prospects of achieving peace and the Palestinian diplomatic offensive will not go unanswered,” the statement said.

Some Israeli media commentators have voiced concern that as an Interpol member, Palestine could ask the organization to issue a “Red Notice”, an alert to police worldwide to locate and provisionally arrest an individual, pending extradition.

But the procedure does not appear to pose serious legal problems for Israelis such as government officials and military officers whom pro-Palestinian groups have sought to have arrested by local authorities as suspected war criminals during overseas visits.

A red notice is not an international arrest warrant, and on its website Interpol notes that it cannot compel any member country to detain an individual named in one.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell and Mark Heinrich)

Israel endorses independent Kurdish state

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a ceremony at the Casa Rosada Presidential Palace in Buenos Aires, Argentina September 12, 2017. REUTERS/Marcos Brindicci

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel supports the establishment of a Kurdish state, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Wednesday, as Kurds in Iraq gear up for a referendum on independence that lawmakers in Baghdad oppose.

Israel has maintained discreet military, intelligence and business ties with the Kurds since the 1960s, viewing the minority ethnic group — whose indigenous population is split between Iraq, Turkey, Syria and Iran — as a buffer against shared Arab adversaries.

On Tuesday, Iraq’s Kurdish leader Massoud Barzani said he would press ahead with the Sept. 25 referendum despite a vote by Iraq’s parliament rejecting it.

“(Israel) supports the legitimate efforts of the Kurdish people to achieve their own state,” Netanyahu said, in remarks sent to foreign correspondents by his office.

Western powers are concerned a plebiscite in Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdish region – including the oil-rich city of Kirkuk – could divert attention from the war against Islamic State militants.

Netanyahu said Israel does however consider the Turkey-based Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK) a terrorist group, taking the same position as Turkey, the United States and the European Union.

An Israeli general told a conference in Washington last week that he personally did not regard the PKK, whose militants have been fighting Turkey for more than three decades, as a terrorist group.

Netanyahu, who is due to address the U.N. General Assembly on Sept. 19, voiced support for “the Kurds’ aspirations for independence” in a speech in 2014, saying they deserve “political independence”.

His latest remarks appeared to be a more direct endorsement of the creation of a Kurdish state.

But they will cut little ice in Baghdad, which has no diplomatic relations with Israel and has strong ties with Israel’s arch-foe Iran.

Iraq’s neighbors — Turkey, Iran and Syria — oppose the referendum, fearing it could fan separatism among their own ethnic Kurdish populations.

Kurds have sought an independent state since at least the end of World War One, when colonial powers divided up the Middle East after the collapse of the multi-ethnic Ottoman Empire.

(editing by John Stonestreet)

Netanyahu to Putin: Iran’s growing Syria role threatens Israel

Russian President Vladimir Putin (L) welcomes Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Sochi, Russia August 23, 2017. Sputnik/Alexei Nikolsky/Kremlin via REUTERS

By Denis Pinchuk

SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – Iran’s growing role in Syria poses a threat to Israel, the Middle East and the world, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu told Russian President Vladimir Putin on Wednesday.

“Mr. President, with joint efforts we are defeating Islamic State, and this is a very important thing. But the bad thing is that where the defeated Islamic State group vanishes, Iran is stepping in,” Netanyahu told Putin during talks at Russia’s Black Sea resort of Sochi.

“We cannot forget for a single minute that Iran threatens every day to annihilate Israel,” Netanyahu said. “It (Iran) arms terrorist organizations, it sponsors and initiates terror.”

Netanyahu also said that “Iran is already well on its way to controlling Iraq, Yemen and to a large extent is already in practice in control of Lebanon”.

Iran denies sponsoring terrorism.

Putin, in the part of the meeting to which reporters had access, did not address Netanyahu’s remarks about Iran’s role in Syria.

Russia intervened in Syria on behalf of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in 2015, its forces fighting what it deems Islamist terrorists. Russia is acting in partnership with Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah group, Israel’s arch-foes.

In the past few months, Russia has been the main broker of de-escalation zones set up in Syria. Israel worries those zones will allow Iranian troops and Hezbollah forces to deploy in greater strength.

Moscow argues its big-power clout deters Iran or Hezbollah from opening a new front with Israel.

In comments published last week, the chief of Israel’s air force said Israel had struck suspected Hezbollah arms shipments in Syria around 100 times during the Syrian civil war, apparently without Russian interference and rarely drawing retaliation.

(Reporting by Denis Pinchuk; Writing by Dmitry Solovyov; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Israel faces mounting Palestinian anger over holy site metal detectors

Palestinians shout slogans during a protest over Israel's new security measures at the compound housing al-Aqsa mosque, known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City July 20, 2017. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is weighing whether to remove metal detectors at a Jerusalem holy site whose installation after a deadly attack last week has stoked Palestinian protests, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Thursday.

There have been nightly confrontations between Palestinians hurling rocks and Israeli police using stun grenades in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem since the devices were placed on Sunday at entrances to the Temple Mount-Noble Sanctuary compound.

Tensions remain high ahead of Friday prayers when thousands of Muslims usually flock to al-Aqsa mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, in the compound above Judaism’s sacred Western Wall.

Muslim religious authorities, who say the metal detectors violate a delicate agreement on worship and security arrangements at the site, have been urging Palestinians not to pass through, and prayers have been held near an entrance to the complex.

Ismail Haniyeh, leader of the Hamas Islamist movement that rules Gaza, called on Palestinian demonstrators to confront Israeli troops along the enclave’s border on Friday in protest at the Israeli measure.

Netanyahu was due to hold security consultations over the issue, and likely decide on a course of action, on his return to Israel later in the day from visits to France and Hungary, Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan said.

Far-right members of Netanyahu’s government have publicly urged him to keep the devices in place at the flashpoint site, but Israeli media reports said security chiefs were divided over the issue amid concerns of wider protests in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

“The prime minister is considering whether to change this decision, and that’s his prerogative,” Erdan said on Army Radio. He described the equipment as a legitimate security measure.

Last Friday, three Arab-Israeli gunmen shot dead two Israeli policemen outside the Temple Mount-Noble Sanctuary complex in one of the most serious attacks in the area in years. The assailants were killed by security forces.

Israel briefly closed the compound, holy to Jews as the site of biblical temples, and install the metal detectors which it said were commonplace at religious sites worldwide.

Israel captured East Jerusalem, along with the West Bank, in the 1967 Middle East war. Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel considers all of Jerusalem its capital, a claim that is not recognized internationally.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Israel backs Hungary, says financier Soros is a threat

FILE PHOTO: Hungarian government poster portraying financier George Soros and saying "Don't let George Soros have the last laugh" is seen at a tram stop in Budapest, Hungary July 6, 2017. REUTERS/Krisztina Than/File Photo

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s foreign ministry has issued a statement denouncing U.S. billionaire George Soros, a move that appeared designed to align Israel more closely with Hungary ahead of a visit to Budapest next week by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Soros, a Hungarian-born Jew who has spent a large part of his fortune funding pro-democracy and human rights groups, has repeatedly been targeted by Hungary’s right-wing government, in particular over his support for more open immigration.

In the latest case, Prime Minister Viktor Orban has backed a campaign in which Soros is singled out as an enemy of the state. “Let’s not allow Soros to have the last laugh” say billboards next to a picture of the 86-year-old investor, a campaign that Jewish groups and others say foments anti-Semitism.

Soros, who rarely addresses personal attacks against him, has not commented on the billboards. But Hungarian Jewish groups and Human Rights Watch, an organization partly funded by Soros, have condemned the campaign, saying it “evokes memories of the Nazi posters during the Second World War”.

Many posters have been defaced with anti-Semitic graffiti, including the words “stinking Jew” written in magic marker.

Israel’s ambassador to Hungary issued a statement denouncing the campaign, saying it “evokes sad memories but also sows hatred and fear”, an apparent reference to Hungary’s part in the deportation of 500,000 Jews during the Holocaust.

But hours after the ambassador made his comments over the weekend, Israel’s foreign ministry issued a “clarification” saying that Soros was a legitimate target for criticism.

“In no way was the statement (by the ambassador) meant to delegitimize criticism of George Soros, who continuously undermines Israel’s democratically elected governments,” said foreign ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon, adding that Soros funded organizations “that defame the Jewish state and seek to deny it the right to defend itself”.

A spokesman for Soros’s Open Society Foundations did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

NETANYAHU VISIT

The foreign ministry’s unusual decision to issue a statement clarifying comments by one of its ambassadors comes days before Netanyahu, who also serves as Israel’s foreign minister, is scheduled to visit Orban.

Israel is normally quick to denounce anti-Semitism or threats to Jewish communities anywhere in the world. While it made that point in the statement, it chose to focus on the threat it believes Soros poses to Israeli democracy.

Among the organizations Soros funds is Human Rights Watch, which is frequently critical of Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its policies toward the Palestinians.

Like Hungary, Israel has passed legislation that seeks to limit the influence of non-governmental organizations that receive a large portion of their funding from abroad.

Israel and Hungary were briefly at odds last month after Orban praised Hungary’s World War Two leader Miklos Horthy, calling him an “exceptional statesman”.

Horthy was an ally of Adolf Hitler who approved anti-Jewish legislation in the 1920s and 1930s and cooperated with the Germans in deporting Hungarian Jews during the Holocaust.

Initially Israel expressed alarm, but then quickly accepted the Hungarian government’s explanation that Orban had zero tolerance for anti-Semitism and was not suggesting everything Horthy did was positive.

The strong ties between Netanyahu and Orban have raised eyebrows in the European Union, where Orban is regarded as an illiberal maverick. His party has curtailed press freedom and stymied EU efforts to tackle the migrant crisis.

Hungary has held discussions with Israel about purchasing security fences to keep migrants out, while Israel has sought better ties with countries that it hopes will take its side in any EU discussions where Israel is criticized.

(Additional reporting by Marton Dunai in Budapest; Writing by Luke Baker; editing by Ralph Boulton)

Trump’s son-in-law launches Middle East peace effort

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with White House senior advisor Jared Kushner in the West Bank City of Ramallah June 21, 2017. Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/Handout via REUTERS

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, met Israeli and Palestinian leaders on Wednesday to try to revive long-fractured Middle East peacemaking that Washington acknowledged will take some time.

Kushner, a 36-year-old real estate developer with little experience of international diplomacy or political negotiation, arrived in Israel on Wednesday morning and was due to spend barely 20 hours on the ground.

Video showed him giving Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a friend of Kushner’s father, a handshake and a hug as they prepared to sit down with the Israeli ambassador to Washington, the U.S. ambassador to Israel and other senior officials for preliminary discussions.

“This is an opportunity to pursue our common goals of security, prosperity and peace,” Netanyahu said. “Jared, I welcome you here in that spirit. I know of your efforts, the president’s efforts, and I look forward to working with you to achieve these common goals.”

Kushner replied: “The president sends his best regards and it’s an honor to be here with you.”

Kushner did not speak to the media or take questions, maintaining the circumspect profile he has established since Trump took office in January.

U.S. officials and Israeli leaders “underscored that forging peace will take time and stressed the importance of doing everything possible to create an environment conducive to peacemaking,” the White House later said in a statement.

Kushner traveled to Ramallah, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, for two hours of talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas after iftar, the evening meal that breaks the daily Ramadan fast.

Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah said all major issues at the heart of the conflict were discussed.

U.S. officials called the trip part of an effort to keep the conversation going rather than the launching of a new phase in the peace process, saying that Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, the president’s special representative for international negotiations, are likely to return often.

Trump has described peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians as “the ultimate deal” and made it a priority. As well as receiving both Netanyahu and Abbas in the White House, he visited the region last month.

But it remains unclear what approach Trump, via Kushner and Greenblatt, plans to take on resolving one of the world’s most intractable conflicts.

For at least two decades, the goal of U.S.-led diplomacy has been a “two-state solution”, meaning an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side and at peace with Israel.

But when Trump met Netanyahu in Washington in February, he said he was not fixed on two states saying, “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like”.

12 ‘BULLET POINTS’

Netanyahu has in the past given conditional backing to two states. But ahead of his last election victory in 2015, he promised there would never be a Palestinian state on his watch, a remark seen as an attempt to shore up right-wing support.

In discussions with Greenblatt before Kushner’s visit, Palestinian sources said the phrase “two-state solution” had not been used.

Palestinian sources said that ahead of Kushner’s meeting with Abbas, they had been asked to draw up a list of 12 “bullet point” demands they would want met in any negotiations.

They saw it as a helpful exercise in focusing on core elements rather than an oversimplification of a complex issue.

Trump administration officials have said that if they are going to make progress on peace, they do not want to get bogged down in process but to move rapidly on tackling what are known as “final status” issues, the complexities around Jerusalem, Palestinian refugees, water resources, security and borders.

Those have long been thorny problems in the multiple rounds of peace negotiations launched by both Republican and Democratic presidents since the mid-1990s. It remains unclear what new approach Trump’s administration may have to untangling disputes that blend politics, land, religion and ethnicity and have defied resolution for 70 years.

(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Howard Goller)