Israel and Kosovo establish diplomatic relations in virtual ceremony

By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel and Kosovo established diplomatic relations on Monday, via online links due to the coronavirus crisis, under a U.S.-brokered deal that includes a pledge by the Muslim-majority country to open an embassy in Jerusalem.

Israel sees its new ties with the tiny Balkan country as part of its broader normalization with Arab and Muslim countries under agreements sponsored by former U.S. President Donald Trump.

Trump announced the two countries’ ties in September as a side deal to an economic agreement between Kosovo and Serbia. As part of the deal, Serbia, which has ties with Israel, also agreed to open an embassy in Jerusalem.

During a signing ceremony held via Zoom video conference, Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi said the new ties were “historic” and “reflect a change in the region, and in the Arab (and) Muslim world’s relationship with Israel.”

Ashkenazi said he had received an official request from Kosovo to establish a Jerusalem embassy, which Israeli officials hope will open by end-March.

Only two countries – the United States and Guatemala – have embassies in Jerusalem. Others, including Malawi and Honduras, have pledged to make the move.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest obstacles to forging a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians, who with broad international backing want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war, as their capital.

The ceremony included the unveiling of a commemorative plaque that will be placed at the entrance to Kosovo’s embassy in Jerusalem upon opening, Israel’s foreign ministry said.

Kosovo Foreign Minister Meliza Haradinaj-Stublla said Kosovo and Israel share a “historic bond” and had both “witnessed a long and challenging path to existing as a people and becoming states.”

Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008, almost a decade after a guerrilla uprising by its ethnic Albanian majority.

Haradinaj-Stublla said she had spoken in recent days with U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who she said voiced President Joe Biden’s support for Kosovo’s new relations with Israel and economic agreement with Serbia.

(Editing by Giles Elgood)

Taiwan to boost defense spending, U.S. concerned over possible military imbalance

Taiwan's President Tsai Ing-wen, (3rd L), on transit enroute to Pacific island allies, stands with delegates and park service members at the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor near Honolulu, Hawaii, U.S. October 28, 2017.

TAIPEI (Reuters) – Taiwan will increase future defense spending by two percent each year, President Tsai Ing-wen said during a visit to Hawaii where the United States expressed concern over a possible military imbalance in the Taiwan Straits, Taiwan media reported.

In the event that Taiwan purchases arms from a foreign military, the island’s defense spending could increase as much as three percent each year, and could possibly increase further using a special budget if “significant purchase cases” are made, Tsai said in remarks carried by official media on Monday.

Tsai made the comments in response to U.S. concerns about a possible military imbalance in the Taiwan Strait expressed by Ambassador James Moriarty during a meeting. Tsai did not elaborate on when the increased defense spending would start.

Tsai’s comments were reflected by National Security Council deputy secretary-general Tsai Ming-yen, who recounted to official media the conversation between Tsai and Moriarty, who is chairman of the U.S. Mission in Taiwan, about expanding Taiwan’s national defense policy.

Moriarty had expressed concern about China’s double-digit growth in defense investments in the last few years, and that Taiwan would need to address a possible military imbalance over the Taiwan Strait, deputy secretary-general Tsai recounted.

President Tsai in turn replied Taiwan would develop a comprehensive plan in accordance with strategic needs, short-term needs, and long-term plans, to create defense forces on the island that would have “reliable combat effectiveness”.

Tsai visited Hawaii at the weekend on her way to three of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in the Pacific, despite China, which considers Taiwan a wayward province, calling on the United States to stop the trip.

Her trip comes about a week before U.S. President Donald Trump visits Asia.

China has increased pressure on Taiwan since Tsai took office last year, suspecting she wants to push for formal independence. China has conducted more military drills around Taiwan and peeled away its few remaining diplomatic allies.

Tsai described Taiwan-U.S. relations as being “unprecedentedly friendly” in comments released by Taiwan’s presidential office on Monday.

“We are happy to see U.S. promises of peace and stability for the Asia-Pacific region, and from meetings with the United States understand the necessity to increase investment in defense,” it quoted her as saying.

The United States and Taiwan have not had formal diplomatic relations since Washington established ties with Beijing in 1979, but the United States is bound by law to provide Taiwan with the means to defend itself.

Taiwan is well armed with mostly U.S.-made weapons but has been pushing for sales of more advanced equipment, such as fighter jets, to deal with what Taipei sees as a growing threat from China and its own rapidly modernizing armed forces.

China has never renounced the use of force to bring Taiwan under its control. It regularly calls Taiwan the most sensitive and important issue between it and the United States and has been upset by U.S. moves to expand military exchanges with Taiwan and continued U.S. arms sales to the island.

Tsai’s stopover in Hawaii included a tour of a Pearl Harbor memorial, a banquet with the overseas Taiwan community, and joint speeches with Moriarty, the chairman of the U.S. Mission in Taiwan, also known as the American Institute in Taiwan.

It was her second U.S. visit this year. In January, Tsai stopped in Houston and San Francisco on her way to and from Latin America.

Tsai moves on to visit the Marshall Islands, Tuvalu, and the Solomon Islands from Monday during a week-long trip and will stop over in the U.S. territory of Guam on her way back to Taiwan.

 

(Reporting by Jess Macy Yu; Editing by Ben Blanchard and Michael Perry)

 

Under fire at home, Trump in Saudi on first foreign trip

Saudi Arabia's King Salman bin Abdulaziz Al Saud and U.S. President Donald Trump walk during a reception ceremony in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, May 20, 2017.Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Handout via REUTERS

By Jeff Mason and Steve Holland

RIYADH (Reuters) – Dogged by controversy at home, Donald Trump opened his first presidential foreign trip in Saudi Arabia on Saturday and won a warm reception as he looked to shift attention from a political firestorm over his firing of former FBI Director James Comey.

Saudi King Salman bin Abdulaziz greeted him on a red carpet as he stepped off Air Force One, shaking the hand of his wife, Melania, and riding in the U.S. presidential limousine.

It was a warmer welcome than had been granted to Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, who was seen in the Arab kingdom as soft on Iran and hesitant on Syria.

Trump’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy, the Vatican and Belgium has been billed by the White House as a chance to visit places sacred to three of the world’s major religions, while giving Trump time to meet with Arab, Israeli and European leaders.

But uproar in Washington cast a long shadow over the trip. The president’s firing of Comey and the appointment of a special counsel to investigate his campaign’s ties to Russia last year have triggered a stream of bad headlines.

The New York Times reported Trump had called Comey a “nut job” in a private meeting last week in the Oval Office with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak.

The White House did not deny the report, but said “the real story is that our national security has been undermined by the leaking of private and highly classified conversations.”

In another development, the Washington Post said a current White House official close to Trump was a significant “person of interest” in the investigation into possible ties between Trump’s presidential campaign last year and Russia.

Trump and King Salman seemed at ease with each other, chatting through an interpreter. At the royal al-Yamama palace, the king decorated Trump with the King Abdulaziz medal, the country’s top civilian honor.

The two leaders exchanged tweets, Trump saying it was great to be in Riyadh and King Salman welcoming him.

“Mr. President, your visit will strengthen our strategic cooperation, lead to global security and stability,” King Salman said in a message on his official Twitter account in Arabic and English.

Trump’s decision to make his first official trip abroad to Saudi Arabia, followed by Israel, countries which both share his antagonism towards Iran, marks a contrast with Obama’s approach.

Trump’s criticism of the nuclear deal Iran reached with the U.S. and five other world powers in 2015 pleases both Saudi Arabia and Israel, who accused Obama on “going soft” on Tehran.

Poll results showed on Saturday that Iranians had emphatically re-elected President Hassan Rouhani, architect of Iran’s still-fragile detente with the West.

ARMS DEAL

After a royal banquet, Trump and the king were to have private talks and participate in a signing ceremony for a number of U.S.-Saudi agreements, including a $100 billion deal for Saudi Arabia to buy American arms.

National oil giant Saudi Aramco was expected to sign $50 billion of deals with U.S. companies on Saturday, part of a drive to diversify the kingdom’s economy beyond oil exports, Aramco’s chief executive Amin Nasser said.

Trump is to deliver a speech in Riyadh on Sunday aimed at rallying Muslims in the fight against Islamist militants. He will also attend a summit of Gulf leaders of the six-member Gulf Cooperation Council.

A senior Saudi official said a digital center to monitor the activities of Islamic State and other militant groups online would be opened on Sunday, to coincide with the visit.

Ahead of Trump’s trip, the White House said the president expected tangible results from Saudi Arabia in countering Islamic extremism.

Shortly after taking office, Trump sought to block people from several Muslim-majority nations from entering the United States, but the travel ban has been blocked by federal courts.

The 70-year-old president’s trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel, Italy and Belgium will be Trump’s longest time away from the White House since he took office four months ago.

Even his hand gestures may draw scrutiny in the Middle East, where the thumbs-up sign, a Trump trademark, is considered taboo.

The uproar over Comey’s firing looked unlikely to go away.

Trump, who has expressed a desire for friendlier relations with Moscow, drew a storm of criticism this week when it emerged that he had shared sensitive national security information with Russia’s foreign minister during a meeting last week in the White House.

The president was already under attack for firing Comey in the midst of an FBI probe into Russia’s role in the 2016 election and possible collusion with Trump campaign members.

Moscow has denied any such interference. Trump has denied collusion and denounced the appointment of a special counsel as a “witch hunt”.

His fellow Republicans in Congress have expressed frustration that Trump’s pro-business economic agenda, featuring a plan to cut corporate and individual taxes, has been pushed to the backburner by the turmoil.

(Editing by Andrew Roche)