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)

Nigeria’s Boko Haram has abducted more than 1,000 children since 2013: U.N.

FILE PHOTO: Nigerian soldiers hold up a Boko Haram flag that they had seized in the recently retaken town of Damasak, Nigeria, March 18, 2015. REUTERS/Emmanuel Braun/File Photo

ABUJA (Reuters) – Islamist fighters from Nigeria’s Boko Haram group have abducted more than 1,000 children in the northeast since 2013, the United Nations children’s agency UNICEF said on Friday.

The militants regularly took youngsters to spread fear and show power, the agency said on the eve of the fourth anniversary of the abduction of 276 schoolgirls from the town of Chibok, a case that triggered global outrage.

“Children in northeastern Nigeria continue to come under attack at a shocking scale,” said Mohamed Malick Fall, UNICEF’s Nigeria head.

The agency said it had documented more than 1,000 verified cases, the first time it had published an estimated tally. But the actual number could be much larger, it added.

It said it had interviewed one young woman, Khadija, now 17, who was abducted after a Boko Haram attack on her town, then locked in a room, forced to marry one of the fighters and repeatedly raped.

She became pregnant and “now lives with her young son in an IDP (displaced persons) camp, where she has struggled to integrate with the other women due to language barriers and the stigma of being a ‘Boko Haram wife’,” UNICEF said.

At least 2,295 teachers have been killed and more than 1,400 schools have been destroyed in the conflict, it added.

POLITICALLY CHARGED

The Boko Haram conflict is in its tenth year, but shows little sign of ending. In February, one faction kidnapped more than 100 schoolgirls from the town of Dapchi, previously untouched by the war.

A month later, the militants returned almost all of those girls. About five died while in Boko Haram hands. One other, Leah Sharibu, remains captive because she refused to convert to Islam, her freed classmates have said.

The government said the release was a prelude to ceasefire talks, though some insurgency experts disagree, saying it violated that faction’s ideology to kidnap Muslims.

Boko Haram remains a charged issue politically. President Muhammadu Buhari in 2015 rode to power on promises to end the insurgency. But his administration has failed to defeat Boko Haram, despite pushing the militants out of many towns in the northeast by 2016.

On Monday, Buhari said he plans to seek re-election in 2019.

Four years since the Chibok abduction, about 100 of the schoolgirls are unaccounted for. Some may be dead, according to testimony from the rescued girls and Boko Haram experts.

Boko Haram in January released a video purporting to show some of the missing Chibok girls, saying they wish to remain with their captors.

(Reporting by Paul Carsten; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Saudi crown prince says Israelis have right to their own land

FILE PHOTO: Saudi Arabia's Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman Al Saud is seen during a meeting with U.N Secretary-General Antonio Guterres at the United Nations headquarters in the Manhattan borough of New York City, New York, U.S. March 27, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Levy/File Photo

RIYADH (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia’s crown prince said Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land in an interview published on Monday in U.S. magazine The Atlantic, another public sign of ties between Riyadh and Tel Aviv appearing to grow closer.

Asked if he believes the Jewish people have a right to a nation-state in at least part of their ancestral homeland, Mohammed bin Salman was quoted as saying:

“I believe the Palestinians and the Israelis have the right to have their own land. But we have to have a peace agreement to assure the stability for everyone and to have normal relations.”

Saudi Arabia – birthplace of Islam and home to its holiest shrines – does not recognize Israel. It has maintained for years that normalizing relations hinges on Israeli withdrawal from Arab lands captured in the 1967 Middle East war, territory Palestinians seek for a future state.

“We have religious concerns about the fate of the holy mosque in Jerusalem and about the rights of the Palestinian people. This is what we have. We don’t have any objection against any other people,” Prince Mohammed said.

Increased tension between Tehran and Riyadh has fueled speculation that shared interests may push Saudi Arabia and Israel to work together against what they see as a common Iranian threat.

Saudi Arabia opened its airspace for the first time to a commercial flight to Israel last month, which an Israeli official hailed as historic following two years of efforts.

In November, an Israeli cabinet member disclosed covert contacts with Saudi Arabia, a rare acknowledgment of long-rumored secret dealings which Riyadh still denies.

(Reporting by Stephen Kalin; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)

Facing far-right challenge, minister says Islam ‘doesn’t belong’ to Germany

German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer is sworn-in by Parliament President Wolfgang Schaeuble in Germany's lower house of parliament Bundestag in Berlin, Germany, March 14, 2018. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

By Michelle Martin

BERLIN (Reuters) – New Interior Minister Horst Seehofer said Islam does not belong to Germany, and set out hardline immigration policies in his first major interview since being sworn in this week, as he sought to see off rising far-right challengers.

His comments put him on a collision course with Chancellor Angela Merkel, who on Friday reiterated her long-held view that Islam was a part of Germany, even if the country was traditionally characterized by Christianity and Judaism.

“Islam does not belong to Germany,” Seehofer, a member of Merkel’s CSU Bavarian allies who are further to the right than her own Christian Democrats (CDU), told Bild newspaper in an interview published on Friday.

Seehofer said he would push through a “master plan for quicker deportations” and classify more states as ‘safe’ countries of origin, which would make it easier to deport failed asylum seekers.

Seehofer is particularly keen to show his party is tackling immigration ahead of Bavaria’s October regional election, when the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) is expected to enter that state assembly.

Both Merkel’s conservatives and their centre-left coalition partners – the Social Democrats – lost ground to the anti-immigrant AfD in September’s national election following the arrival in Germany of more than a million migrants and refugees.

Merkel, who has faced strong criticism from some Germans as well as elsewhere in Europe for agreeing to take in so many migrants, most of them Muslims, reaffirmed on Friday her vision of an inclusive, multi-ethnic Germany.

“There are now four million Muslims living in Germany and they practice their religion here and these Muslims belong to Germany, as does their religion – Islam,” she said.

“LIVE WITH US”

Many of the Muslims living in Germany are of Turkish origin. But a majority of those who have arrived in the past three years are from Syria, Iraq and other conflict zones in the Middle East and beyond.

Seehofer’s comments come at a sensitive time for Germany’s Muslim community. Several organisations representing them complained on Thursday that politicians were not showing enough solidarity after a spate of attacks on mosques.

“Of course the Muslims living here do belong to Germany,” Seehofer told Bild, but added that Germany should not give up its own traditions or customs, which have Christianity at their heart.

“My message is: Muslims need to live with us, not next to us or against us,” he said.

Andre Poggenburg, head of the AfD in the eastern state of Saxony, said Seehofer was copying his party with a view to Bavaria’s October regional election: “Horst Seehofer has taken this message from our manifesto word for word.”

The far-left Linke and Greens condemned Seehofer’s message, and the Social Democrats’ Natascha Kohnen told broadcaster n-tv: “Saying that incites people against each other at a time when we really don’t need that. What we really need is politicians who bring people together.”

In their coalition agreement, Merkel’s CDU/CSU conservative bloc and the Social Democrats agreed they would manage and limit migration to Germany and Europe to avoid a re-run of the 2015 refugee crisis.

They also said they did not expect migration (excluding labor migration) to rise above the range of 180,000 to 220,000 per year.

(Reporting by Michelle Martin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Jerusalem’s Church of Holy Sepulchre to reopen after protest

A general view of the entrance and the closed doors of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem's Old City, February 25, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Jerusalem’s Church of the Holy Sepulchre, revered as the site of Jesus’s crucifixion and burial, will reopen its doors after Israel backtracked on Tuesday from a tax plan and draft property legislation that triggered a three-day protest.

The rare decision on Sunday by church leaders to close the ancient holy site, a favorite among tourists and pilgrims, with the busy Easter holiday approaching put extra pressure on Israel to re-evaluate and suspend the moves.

After receiving a statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Roman Catholic, Greek Orthodox and Armenian clergy said the church would reopen Wednesday morning.

An Israeli committee led by cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi will negotiate with church representatives to try to resolve the dispute over plans to tax commercial properties owned by the church in Jerusalem, Netanyahu’s statement said.

Church leaders, in a joint statement, welcomed the dialogue.

“After the constructive intervention of the prime minister, the churches look forward to engage with Minister Hanegbi, and with all those who love Jerusalem to ensure that our holy city, where our Christian presence continues to face challenges, remains a place where the three monotheistic faiths (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) may live and thrive together.”

The Jerusalem Municipality, Netanyahu said, would suspend the tax collection actions it had taken in recent weeks.Mayor Nir Barkat has said the churches owed the city more than $180 million in property tax from their commercial holdings, adding that “houses of worship” would remain exempt.

Church leaders, in closing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, said church-owned businesses, which include a hotel and office space in Jerusalem, had enjoyed a tax exemption.

While the review is under way, work on legislation that would allow Israel to expropriate land in Jerusalem that churches have sold to private real estate firms in recent years will also be suspended, Netanyahu said.

The declared aim of the bill, deemed “abhorrent” in a prior statement issued by church leaders, is to protect homeowners against the possibility that private companies will not extend their leases of land on which their houses or apartments stand.

The churches are major landowners in Jerusalem. They say such a law would make it harder for them to find buyers for church-owned land – sales that help to cover operating costs of their religious institutions.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas called on Israel to permanently cancel the proposed measures, which he said would “lead to escalating tension and to instability”.

A small minority of Palestinians are Christians, many of them in Bethlehem, the town in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – near Jerusalem – where Jesus is believed to have been born.

(Reporting by Ori Lewis, Mustafa Abu Ghaneyeh and Nidal al-Mughrabi; writing by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Mark Heinrich)

Indonesia passes law to ban organizations deemed against its ideology

Indonesia passes law to ban organizations deemed against its ideology

By Agustinus Beo Da Costa

JAKARTA (Reuters) – Around 1,000 Indonesians, led by hardline Islamist groups, protested outside parliament on Tuesday as lawmakers approved a presidential decree banning any civil organizations deemed to go against the country’s secular state ideology.

Tuesday’s approval puts into law a policy President Joko Widodo set in a decree in July. The policy was aimed at containing hardline groups who have cast a shadow over the long-standing reputation for religious tolerance in the world’s largest Muslim-majority nation.

“We have seen mass organizations that are against the Pancasila (state ideology) and have created social conflict,” said Arya Bima, a lawmaker in favour of the policy. “This law doesn’t impede freedom of organization or assembly, it strengthens it.”

In late 2016 and early this year, groups such as Hizb-ut Tahrir Indonesia (HTI) and the Islamic Defenders Front (FPI), which call for Islamic law to be imposed in Indonesia, led mass street rallies attacking Jakarta’s governor, a Christian, whom they accused of insulting Islam.

Basuki Tjahaja Purnama, who in April lost an election to get a new term, was jailed one month later after being convicted of blasphemy, in a court ruling widely criticized in Indonesia and overseas as unjust.

The presidential decree Widodo signed in July ordered the disbanding of all organizations deemed to be in conflict with the secular state ideology. HTI, which seeks to establish an Islamic caliphate, was the first organization to be disbanded under the policy.

Pancasila or ‘five principles’ is Indonesia’s state ideology, which includes belief in god, the unity of the country, social justice and democracy, and which enshrines religious diversity in an officially secular system.

VIOLATION OF RIGHTS?

Under the new law, anyone who “embraces, develops of spreads ideology that is in conflict with the (state ideology) Pancasila” can face imprisonment of six months to life, according to a copy of the draft law reviewed by Reuters.

Rights activists and civil organizations have decried the move, saying it harks back to the era of authoritarian ruler Suharto, who demanded loyalty to Pancasila and took repressive measures against some opponents.

Opposition lawmaker Al Muzamil Yusuf said the new law could “violate democratic rights and remove checks and balances on the government”.

During the protest outside parliament on Tuesday, around 5,200 police and military personnel stood guard around the complex in central Jakarta.

A hashtag supporting Widodo’s policy was a top trending topic on Indonesian Twitter.

“This policy is not about (Widodo) or any political party, it’s about safeguarding the unity of the country,” said user @Senopati.

(Writing by Kanupriya Kapoor; Editing by Richard Borsuk)

Blasphemy laws on the books in one-third of nations: study

Protesters hold placards condemning the killing of university student Mashal Khan, after he was accused of blasphemy, during a protest in Islamabad, Pakistan April 18, 2017

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – Laws prohibiting blasphemy are “astonishingly widespread” worldwide, with many laying down disproportionate punishments ranging from prison sentences to lashings or the death penalty, the lead author of a report on blasphemy said.

Iran, Pakistan, and Yemen score worst, topping a list of 71 countries with laws criminalizing views deemed blasphemous, found in all regions, according to a comprehensive report issued this month by the U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.

The bipartisan U.S. federal commission called for repeal of blasphemy statutes, saying they invited abuse and failed to protect freedoms of religion and expression.

“We found key patterns. All deviate from freedom of speech principles in some way, all have a vague formulation, with different interpretations,” Joelle Fiss, the Swiss-based lead author of the report told Reuters.

The ranking is based on how a state’s ban on blasphemy or criminalizing of it contravenes international law principles.

Ireland and Spain had the “best scores”, as their laws order a fine, according to the report which said many European states have blasphemy laws that are rarely invoked.

Some 86 percent of states with blasphemy laws prescribe imprisonment for convicted offenders, it said.

Proportionality of punishment was a key criteria for the researchers.

“That is why Iran and Pakistan are the two highest countries because they explicitly have the death penalty in their law,” Fiss said, referring to their laws which enforce the death penalty for insulting the Prophet Mohammad.

Blasphemy laws can be misused by authorities to repress minorities, the report said, citing Pakistan and Egypt, and can serve as a pretext for religious extremists to foment hate.

Recent high-profile blasphemy cases include Jakarta’s former Christian governor being sentenced to two years in jail in May for insulting Islam, a ruling which activists and U.N. experts condemned as unfair and politicized. Critics fear the ruling will embolden hardline Islamist forces to challenge secularism in Indonesia.

A Pakistani court sentenced a man to death last month who allegedly committed blasphemy on Facebook, the first time the penalty was given for that crime on social media in Muslim-majority Pakistan.

“Each of the top five countries with the highest scoring laws has an official state religion,” the report said, referring to Iran, Pakistan, Yemen, Somali and Qatar. All have Islam as their state religion.

Saudi Arabia, where flogging and amputations have been reported for alleged blasphemy, is not among the top “highest-risk countries”, but only 12th, as punishment is not defined in the blasphemy law itself.

“They don’t have a written penal law, but rely on judges’ interpretation of the Sharia. The score was disproportionately low,” Fiss said. “If a law is very vague, it means prosecutors and judges have a lot of discretion to interpret.”

 

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Toby Chopra)

 

The Maute brothers: Southeast Asia’s Islamist ‘time bomb’

A policeman stands on guard behind a window full of bullet holes as government soldiers assault the Maute group in Marawi City, Philippines

By Neil Jerome Morales and Tom Allard

MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – On his Facebook profile page Omarkhayam Romato Maute describes himself as a “Walking Time-Bomb”.

When a band of militants led by Omarkhayam and one of his brothers over-ran a town in the southern Philippines on May 23, festooning its alleyways with the black banners of Islamic State, the Facebook description seemed appropriate.

Governments across Southeast Asia had been bracing for the time when Islamic State, on a back foot in Iraq and Syria, would look to establish a ‘caliphate’ in Southeast Asia and become a terrifying threat to the region.

“The Middle East seems a long way away but it is not. This is a problem which is amidst us,” Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong told Australian radio on Saturday as the battle to re-take Marawi neared the end of the third week, with a death toll of nearly 200. “It is a clear and present danger.”

Omarkhayam and Abdullah Maute grew up with several other brothers and sisters in Marawi, a Muslim-majority town in a country where over 90 percent of the population is Christian.

Marawi is, historically, the center of Islam on Mindanao, a sprawling island where violent resistance to authority has been a tradition since the era of Spanish colonialism, spurred in recent decades by poverty and the neglect of successive governments.

As teenagers in the 1990s, the brothers seemed like ordinary young men, said a neighbor of the Maute family: they studied English and the Koran, and played basketball in the streets.

“We still wonder why they fell to the Islamic State,” said the neighbor, who was once an Islamist militant himself and surrendered to the government. “They are good people, religious. When someone gets to memorize the Koran, it’s unlikely for them to do wrong. But this is what happened to the brothers.”

In the early 2000s, Omarkhayam and Abdullah studied in Egypt and Jordan, respectively, where they became fluent in Arabic.

Omarkhayam went to Al-Azhar University in Cairo, where he met the daughter of a conservative Indonesian Islamic cleric. After they married, the couple returned to Indonesia. There, Omarkhayam taught at his father-in-law’s school, and in 2011 he settled back in Mindanao.

It may have been then, and not when he was in the Middle East, that Omarkhayam was radicalized.

In Cairo “none of his fellow students saw him as having any radical tendencies at all, and photographs show a young man enchanted by his baby daughters and playing with the growing family by the Red Sea,” Jakarta-based anti-terrorism expert Sidney Jones wrote in a 2016 report.

Little is known about Abdullah’s life after he went to Jordan, and it is not clear when he returned to Lanao del Sur, the Mindanao province that includes Marawi.

Intelligence sources said there are seven brothers and one half-brother in the family, all but one of whom joined the battle for Marawi.

Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017.

Men identified by Philippines Intelligence officers as Isnilon Hapilon (2nd L, yellow headscarf) and Abdullah Maute (2nd R, standing, long hair) are seen in this still image taken from video released by the Armed Forces of the Philippines on June 7, 2017. Armed Forces of the Philippines/Handout via REUTERS TV

SMART, ARTICULATE

The Mautes were a monied family in a close-knit tribal society where respect, honor and the Koran are paramount.

Military spokesman Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said the ‘Maranao’ clan, to which the Mautes belong, has a matriarchal tradition, and so their mother played a central role.

He said Farhana Maute, who according to the neighbor had furniture and used-car businesses, helped finance the group, and she drove recruitment and radicalization of local youths.

On Friday, she was stopped outside Marawi in a vehicle loaded with firearms and explosives and taken into custody. It was a major blow for the militants, according to Herrera, as she had been the “heart of the Maute organization”.

A day previously, the brothers’ father, an engineer, was arrested in Davao City, 250 km (155 miles) away.

When the Marawi siege began, several hundred militants were involved, including men from nations as far away as Morocco and Yemen. But most of the marauders, who took civilians as human shields and torched the town cathedral, were from four local groups allied to Islamic State, and in the lead were the Maute, military officials said.

According to Jones, the Maute group has “the smartest, best-educated and most sophisticated members” of all the pro-Islamic State outfits in the Philippines.

Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, a local civic leader who knows some of the Maute’s extended family, said the brothers rely heavily on social media to recruit young followers and spread their “rigid and authoritarian” ideology.

“The Mautes are very active online. On YouTube, they upload their ideas” she said. “They are articulate, they are educated, they are idealistic.”

The Maute family’s neighbor, who requested anonymity for his own safety, said the group’s fighters are fearless too.

He was trapped for five days in his three-storey house last month watching the battle between the militants and the Philippines armed forces unfold, with sniper fire pinging around him and OV-10 aircraft bombing from above.

“During the bombing runs of the OV-10, they just carried on eating biscuits, not running for cover,” he said.

On May 28, a group of seven fighters – he recognized Omarkhayam among them – came to his house and asked why he had not left. When he told them that he feared being caught in the crossfire, they guided him and several others to a bridge leading out of town and gave them a white cloth to wave.

“I WANT TO KILL THEM NOW”

The Maute group first surfaced in 2013 with a bombing of a nightclub in nearby Cagayan de Oro. Its stature has grown since then, most notably with the bombing last year of a street market in President Rodrigo Duterte’s hometown, Davao City.

Maute members who were captured said the Davao attack was ordered by Isnilon Hapilon of Abu Sayyaf, a group that has fought since the 1990s for an independent Islamic province but is as well known as a vicious gang of criminals and kidnappers.

Hapilon, who was last year declared by Islamic State as its ’emir’ of Southeast Asia, was seen in a video that emerged last week showing the militants – including two Maute brothers – plotting to seal Marawi off as a separate enclave.

Herrera said the Mautes enjoy strong support in Marawi.

“This is their place, this is where their family is, this is where their culture is, this is where the heritage is. There is a huge sympathetic perspective towards the … Maute,” he said.

But Khana-Anuar Marabur Jr., a Marawi town councillor, said the Mautes had made enemies in the area with their radicalism.

He said he went to the brothers on the day the attack on Marawi was launched and they told him to the leave the town.

“They told me to leave because the caliphate … had ordered it,” Marabur told Reuters. “They treated me like an enemy.

I want to kill them now.”

(Additional reporting by Manuel Mogato in MANILA and by Simon Lewis in MARAWI CITY; Writing by John Chalmers; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)

Trump says he has new reasons to hope for Middle East peace

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday that he had come to Israel from a weekend visit to Saudi Arabia with new reasons to hope that peace and stability could be achieved in the Middle East.

On the second leg of his first overseas trip as president, Trump was to hold talks separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The U.S. leader visited the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem’s walled Old City and was due to pray at Judaism’s Western Wall. He travels on Tuesday to Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank at the end of a stopover lasting 28 hours.

Netanyahu and his wife Sara, as well as President Reuven Rivlin and members of the Israeli cabinet, were at Tel Aviv’s Ben-Gurion airport to greet Trump and first lady Melania in a red carpet ceremony after what is believed to have been the first direct flight from Riyadh to Israel.

“During my travels in recent days, I have found new reasons for hope,” Trump said in a brief speech on arrival.

“We have before us a rare opportunity to bring security and stability and peace to this region and its people, defeating terrorism and creating a future of harmony, prosperity and peace, but we can only get there working together. There is no other way,” he said.

Trump’s tour comes in the shadow of difficulties at home, where he is struggling to contain a scandal after firing James Comey as FBI director nearly two weeks ago. The trip ends on Saturday after visits to the Vatican, Brussels and Sicily.

ARAB WELCOME

During his two days in Riyadh, Trump received a warm welcome from Arab leaders, who focused on his desire to restrain Iran’s influence in the region, a commitment they found wanting in the Republican president’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama. He also announced $110 billion in U.S. arms sales to Saudi Arabia.

Israel shares the antipathy that many Arab states have toward Iran, seeing the Islamic Republic as a threat to its very existence.

“What’s happened with Iran has brought many of the parts of the Middle East toward Israel,” Trump said in public remarks at a meeting in Jerusalem with Rivlin.

He also urged Iran to cease “its deadly funding, training and equipping of terrorists and militias”.

But Iran’s freshly re-elected pragmatist president, Hassan Rouhani, said regional stability could not be achieved without Iran’s help, and accused Washington of supporting terrorism with its backing for rebels in Syria.

He said the summit in Saudi Arabia “had no political value, and will bear no results”.

“Who can say the region will experience total stability without Iran? Who fought against the terrorists? It was Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Syria. But who funded the terrorists?”

Rouhani also said Iran would continue a ballistic missile program that has already triggered U.S. sanctions, saying it was for defensive purposes only.

U.S. President Donald Trump (C) stands next to Western Wall Rabbi Shmuel Rabinowitz at the plaza in front of the Western Wall, Judaism’s holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem’s Old City May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

“ULTIMATE DEAL”

Earlier, at the airport, Netanyahu said Israel hoped Trump’s visit would be a “milestone on the path towards reconciliation and peace”.

But he also repeated his right-wing government’s political and security demands of the Palestinians, including recognition of Israel as a Jewish state.

Trump has vowed to do whatever is necessary to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians — something he has called “the ultimate deal” — but has given little indication of how he could revive negotiations that collapsed in 2014.

U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson told reporters en route to Tel Aviv that any three-way meeting between Trump, Netanyahu and Abbas was for “a later date”.

When Trump met Abbas this month in Washington, he stopped shortly of explicitly recommitting his administration to a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict, a long-standing foundation of U.S. policy.

Trump has also opted against an immediate move of the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a longtime demand of Israel.

A senior administration official told Reuters last week that Trump remained committed to the measure, which he pledged in his election campaign, but would not announce such a move during this trip.

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) listens as U.S. President Donald Trump (L) speaks during a welcoming ceremony upon his arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport in Lod near Tel Aviv, Israel May 22, 2017. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

On Sunday, Israel authorized some economic concessions to the Palestinians that it said would improve civilian life in areas controlled by the Palestinian Authority and were intended to respond to Trump’s request for “confidence-building steps”.

The United States welcomed the move but the Palestinians said they had heard such promises before.

Trump will have visited significant centers of Islam, Judaism and Christianity by the end of his trip, a point that his aides say bolsters his argument that the fight against Islamist militancy is a battle between “good and evil”.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller)