Trump receives Morocco’s highest award for Middle East work: official

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday received Morocco’s highest award for his work in advancing a normalization deal between Israel and Morocco, a senior administration official told Reuters.

In a private Oval Office ceremony, Princess Lalla Joumala Alaoui, who is Morocco’s ambassador to the United States, gave Trump the Order of Muhammad, an award given only to heads of state. It was a gift from Morocco’s King Mohammed VI.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz received other awards for their work on the Israel-Morocco deal, which was reached in December.

The United States in the last five months helped broker deals between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. The agreements are aimed at normalizing relations and opening economic ties.

Trump, who leaves office on Wednesday, has drawn some criticism over the Morocco agreement because to seal the deal, he agreed that the United States would recognize Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara.

Western Sahara has been the site of a decades-old territorial dispute between Morocco and the Algeria-backed Polisario Front, a breakaway movement that seeks to establish an independent state in the territory.

The Kushner team had been working on reaching more agreements between Israel and the Arab world. But time has run out and no more are expected before Trump’s departure.

Media were not allowed to witness the award ceremony.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Cynthia Osterman)

Iran works on uranium metal for reactor fuel in new breach of nuclear deal

By Francois Murphy

VIENNA (Reuters) – Iran has started work on uranium metal-based fuel for a research reactor, the U.N. nuclear watchdog and Tehran said on Wednesday, in the latest breach of its nuclear deal with six major powers as the country presses for a lifting of U.S. sanctions.

Iran has been accelerating its breaches of the deal in the past two months. Some of those steps were required by a law passed in response to the killing of its top nuclear scientist in November, which Tehran has blamed on its arch-foe Israel.

They are also, however, part of a process started by Tehran in 2019 of committing breaches in response to U.S. President Donald Trump’s 2018 withdrawal from the deal and his re-imposition of U.S. sanctions that the deal lifted in exchange for restrictions on Iran’s nuclear activities.

“(International Atomic Energy Agency) Director General Rafael Mariano Grossi today informed IAEA Member States about recent developments regarding Iran’s plans to conduct R&D activities on uranium metal production as part of its declared aim to design an improved type of fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor,” the IAEA said in a statement.

The agency issues ad hoc reports to member states when Iran commits a new breach of the deal, though it declines to call them breaches, leaving that call to parties to the 2015 accord.

The deal specifically imposes a 15-year ban on Iran producing or acquiring uranium metal, a sensitive material that can be used in the core of a nuclear bomb.

The IAEA’s confidential report to member states, obtained by Reuters, said Iran had indicated it plans to produce uranium metal from natural uranium and then produce uranium metal enriched up to 20% for fuel for the Tehran Research Reactor.

The deal also says that can only happen in small batches and in consultation with parties to the deal after 10 years.

Separately Iran also plans to enrich uranium to 20%, a level it last reached before the 2015 deal, at its Fordow site buried in a mountain, and it started that process last week. It had so far only gone as far as 4.5%, above the 3.67% limit imposed by the deal but still far short of the 90% that is weapons grade.

U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003. Iran denies ever seeking nuclear weapons and says its aims with nuclear energy are entirely peaceful.

Iran told the agency on Wednesday, however, that “there is no limitation on (its) R&D activities” and “modification and installation of the relevant equipment for the mentioned R&D activities have been already started” at its Fuel Plate Fabrication Plant in Isfahan, the IAEA report said.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Dubai, Editing by William Maclean)

Israel launches major air strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria

By Suleiman Al-Khalidi

AMMAN (Reuters) – Israel launched an air attack against Iranian-linked targets in Syria near the main border crossing to Iraq in the early hours of Wednesday, one of the biggest strikes yet in a campaign that has escalated in the Trump administration’s final weeks.

Israel has been stepping up strikes against Iranian targets in Syria, part of aggressive posture adopted before President-elect Joe Biden takes office next week in what could bring a reassessment of Trump’s “maximum pressure” policy on Iran.

Syrian news agency SANA and Syrian state media said Israel had struck sites in Al Bukamal, the Syrian city that controls the border checkpoint on the main Baghdad-Damascus highway. The highway is part of the main over ground supply route linking Iran to its proxy fighters in Syria and Lebanon.

The Syrian reports also said Israeli strikes had hit areas in Deir al Zor province, where Iranian-backed militias and Iran’s Revolutionary Guards fighters have a heavy presence.

Two residents in the regional capital Deir al Zor City told Reuters they could hear the distant sound of huge explosions, apparently from arms depots destroyed in the raids.

Israel’s military did not immediately comment. Tzachi Hanegbi, an Israeli government minister, told Israeli radio he would not discuss the specific reports, but that Israel hit Iranian targets in Syria “whenever our intelligence dictates it and according to our operational capability.”

The United States has a small number of troops at Tanf, a base in Syria near Al Bukamal, the main city struck by Wednesday’s Israeli raid. Western intelligence sources say Israel’s stepped up strikes on Syria in the last few months are part of a shadow war approved by the Trump administration.

Israel’s Defense Force Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi said last month that missile strikes had “slowed down Iran’s entrenchment in Syria” adding they had hit more than 500 targets in 2020.

Israel has said its goal is to end Tehran’s military presence, which Western intelligence sources say has expanded in Syria in recent years.

A regional intelligence source said the targets included Syrian security compounds inside Al Bukamal and Deir Zor, while in the past raids had struck only the cities’ outskirts.

The latest raids were notable for having hit “advanced weaponry and weapons depots … in a large combat arena,” the regional intelligence source said.

Iran’s proxy militias led by Lebanon’s Hezbollah now hold sway over vast areas in eastern, southern and northwestern Syria, as well as several suburbs around Damascus. They also control Lebanese-Syrian border areas.

(Reporting by Ahmed Tolba and Suleiman al Khalidi in Amman; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky and Timothy Heritage)

Netanyahu orders more settler homes built

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered construction plans advanced on Monday for some 800 Jewish settler homes in the occupied West Bank, anchoring the projects in the final days of the pro-settlement Trump administration.

Palestinians condemned such construction as illegal. The timing of the move appeared to be an attempt to set Israel’s blueprint in indelible ink.

Moving ahead with the projects could help shore up support for Netanyahu from settlers and their backers in a March 23 election, Israel’s fourth in two years, in which the conservative leader faces new challenges from the right.

An announcement by Netanyahu’s office said about 800 homes would be built in the settlements of Beit El and Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem, and in Tal Menashe, Rehelim, Shavei Shomron, Barkan and Karnei Shomron in the northern West Bank. It gave no starting date for construction.

The Trump administration has effectively backed Israel’s right to build West Bank settlements by abandoning a long-held U.S. position that they break international law. Trump has also delighted Israeli leaders and angered Palestinians by recognizing contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there.

Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said Netanyahu wants the settlement move “to be set in stone before the Biden administration comes into office, and maybe changes Israeli-American tacit understandings on settlements that existed under Trump.”

Netanyahu also wants to tell voters he is “the only leader who can stand up to Biden and make sure he doesn’t dictate our policy in the (Palestinian) territories,” Talshir said.

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

Most countries view Israeli settlements as violating international law. Israel disputes this, citing historical, political and biblical links to the West Bank, where more than 440,000 Israeli settlers now live among 3 million Palestinians who have limited self rule under Israeli occupation.

As vice president under Barack Obama, Biden was put in an uncomfortable position during a visit to Israel in 2010 when Israel announced plans for a settlement in a West Bank area annexed to Jerusalem. Arriving 90 minutes late for dinner with Netanyahu, Biden condemned the decision as undermining U.S.-Israeli trust.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Ali Sawafta and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Peter Graff)

Iran vows “decisive response” to any Israeli move against it

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran said on Tuesday it would deliver a “decisive response” to any Israeli move against it, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not allow Tehran to develop nuclear weapons, a news agency close to the Revolutionary Guards said.

On Monday, Iran said it resumed 20% uranium enrichment at a nuclear facility, a move that coincides with rising tensions with the United States. The decision is the latest of several Iranian breaches of a 2015 nuclear accord with world powers.

Netanyahu said the move was aimed at developing nuclear weapons and Israel would never allow Tehran to build them. Iran says it has never sought nuclear weapons.

Iran’s Nour News quoted an unnamed security official as saying: “This regime (Israel) should be aware that any aggression against Iran’s interests and security from any side and in any way, whether (Israel) admits or denies responsibility, will face a decisive response from Iran against this regime.”

The statement was widely carried by Iranian news agencies and state media.

Separately, Iran on Tuesday gave more details about its enrichment decision by saying it had the capacity to produce up to 9 kg of 20% enriched uranium per month.

“At present, we produce 17 to 20 grams of 20% uranium every hour,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said according to state media. “We have a monthly production capacity of 8 to 9 kg to reach the 120 kg stipulated by the law.”

The decision to enrich to 20 percent purity was one of many moves mentioned in a law passed by Iran’s hardline-dominated parliament last month in response to the killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.

Tehran started violating the accord in 2019 in a step-by-step response to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord in 2018 and the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions lifted under the deal.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Editing by William Maclean)

Iran resumes 20% uranium enrichment amid rising tensions with U.S

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran has resumed 20% uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility, the government said on Monday, breaching a 2015 nuclear pact with major powers.

Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Iran’s arch foe Israel, said the move was aimed at developing nuclear weapons and Israel would never allow Tehran to build them.

The enrichment decision, Iran’s latest contravention of the accord, coincides with increasing tensions between Iran and the United States.

Tehran started violating the accord in 2019 in a step-by-step response to Trump’s withdrawal from it in 2018 and the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions lifted under the deal.

The agreement’s main aim was to extend the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to at least a year from roughly two to three months. It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.

“A few minutes ago, the process of producing 20% enriched uranium has started in Fordow enrichment complex,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei told Iranian state media.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran had started the process of enriching uranium to 20% purity at its Fordow site.

“Iran today began feeding uranium already enriched up to 4.1 percent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment up to 20%,” the IAEA said in a statement on a report that was sent to member states.

The step was one of many mentioned in a law passed by Iran’s parliament last month in response to the killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.

“Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL (parties to the deal),” tweeted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Tehran insists it can quickly reverse its breaches if U.S. sanctions are removed.

NUCLEAR WATCHDOG

The White House National Security Council had no comment, and referred queries to the U.S. State Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tehran’s move could further hinder efforts to salvage the pact as its breaches have increasingly worried some of the deal’s other parties, which have urged Iran to act responsibly.

In Brussels, a European Union Commission spokesperson said that the “move, if confirmed, would constitute a considerable departure from Iran’s commitments”.

On Jan 1, the IAEA said Tehran had told the watchdog it planned to resume enrichment up to 20% at the Fordow site, which is buried inside a mountain.

“The process of gas injection to centrifuges has started a few hours ago and the first product of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas will be available in a few hours,” Rabiei said.

Iran had earlier breached the deal’s 3.67% limit on the purity to which it can enrich uranium, but it had only gone up to 4.5% so far, well short of the 20% level and of the 90% that is weapons-grade.

U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003. Iran denies ever having had one.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said Iran’s enrichment decision could be explained only as a bid to “continue to carry out its intention to develop a military nuclear program.” “Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons,” he added

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Michael Shields and Francois Murphy in Vienna and Marine Strauss in Brussels Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean)

Israel speeds vaccines, locks down in hope of February exit from pandemic

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel began what officials hope will be its last coronavirus lockdown on Sunday as they ramp up vaccinations to a pace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said may allow an emergence from the pandemic in February.

If realized, that could help Netanyahu’s re-election hopes after missteps that include lifting a first lockdown with a premature declaration of victory in May, inconsistent enforcement of curbs and sluggish economic relief.

Since beginning vaccinations a week before Sunday’s European Union roll-out, Israel’s centralized health system has administered 280,000 shots, the world’s fastest rate.

The opening of 24/7 vaccination stations is under consideration. Netanyahu wants the daily rate doubled to 150,000 shots by next weekend.

That would enable, by the end of January, administering both first and follow-up shots to the elderly and other vulnerable groups that make up a quarter of Israel’s 9 million citizens and have accounted for 95% of its COVID-19 deaths, Netanyahu said.

“As soon as we are done with this stage … we can emerge from the coronavirus, open the economy and do things that no country can do,” he said in a televised address.

Sunday’s lockdown – the country’s third – will last at least three weeks and aims to tamp down contagions that are currently doubling in scale every two weeks, the Health Ministry said.

The vaccines mean “there is a very high chance that this is our final lockdown,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, told Army Radio.

Israel has logged almost 400,000 COVID-19 cases and 3,210 deaths.

(Editing by Kirsten Donovan, Larry King)

Israel imposing third national COVID-19 lockdown

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will impose a third national lockdown to fight surging COVID-19 infections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, as the country pursues a vaccination campaign.

The restrictions will come into effect on Sunday evening and last for 14 days, pending final cabinet approval, a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.

They include the closure of shops, limited public transport, a partial shutdown of schools and a one-kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) restriction on travel from home, except for commuting to workplaces that remain open, and to purchase essential goods.

Such measures will cost Israel’s economy about three billion shekels ($932.6 million) a week, the Finance Ministry said.

The economy is expected to shrink 4.5% in 2020, though the Bank of Israel has said the contraction could reach 5% should the COVID-19 crisis prompt more curbs. In November, the jobless rate stood at 12%. The economy is projected to grow as much as 6.5% in 2021 and possibly faster – if the pandemic is contained.

With a population of nine million, Israel has so far reported more than 385,000 cases of COVID-19 and 3,150 deaths.

The number of daily infections approached 4,000 on Wednesday, rising from around 1,000 at the end of a month-long lockdown imposed in September that followed one that ran from late March to early May.

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry said it had found four people infected with the new variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in Britain.

With regard to Israel’s Christian minority, the Health Ministry said that during Christmas, prayers at houses of worship would be limited to gatherings of 10 people in closed spaces and 100 people in open areas.

The new lockdown comes with Israel’s vaccination drive already underway. Health workers and people over the age of 60 are the first groups to be inoculated in a campaign which the health minister said he expected to be completed within months.

But public anger has risen over the government’s perceived inconsistent handling of the crisis, and Israel will hold an election on March 23, its fourth in two years, after constant infighting in Netanyahu’s coalition.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Steven Scheer and Rami Amichay; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Israel hopes for rapprochement with fifth Muslim country

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel is working towards formalizing relations with a fifth Muslim country, possibly in Asia, an Israeli cabinet minister said on Wednesday.

The White House has brokered rapprochements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco this year. Rabat hosted an Israeli-U.S. delegation on Tuesday to flesh out the upgrade in relations.

Asked if a fifth country could sign up, Regional Cooperation Minister Ofir Akunis told Israel’s Ynet TV: “We are working in that direction.”

“I believe … there will be an American announcement about another country that is going public with the normalization of relations with Israel and, in essence, with the infrastructure for an accord – a peace accord,” he said.

Administration officials have said they are trying to get more countries to recognize Israel or warm existing ties to it.

Akunis said there were two main candidate countries to become the next to move towards normal ties with Israel.

He did not name either but said one is in the Gulf and could be Oman but would not be Saudi Arabia. The other, further to the east, is a “Muslim country that is not small” but is not Pakistan, Akunis said.

Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, said last week it would not recognize Israel as long as Palestinian statehood demands remain unmet. Malaysia has signaled a similar policy.

“Malaysia’s firm stance on the Palestinian issue will not change,” Deputy Foreign Minister Kamarudin Jaffar told the country’s senate on Wednesday, adding that Kuala Lumpur would not interfere in other nations’ decisions on Israel.

In Dhaka, a foreign ministry official said Bangladesh was not interested in establishing diplomatic ties with Israel. “Our position remains the same,” he told Reuters.

Oman has praised the U.S.-brokered diplomatic drive but has not commented on its own prospects of forging Israel ties.

The Palestinians, whose negotiations with Israel stalled in 2014, fear being sidelined by the normalization process.

(Additional reporting by Rozanna Latiff in Kuala Lumpur and Rula Paul in Dhaka; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Morocco hosts Israeli envoys, Kushner to hammer out new ties

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Israeli envoys arrived in Morocco on Tuesday to meet its king and hammer out an upgrade of ties that was forged by the White House in a foreign policy push by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, the Israeli delegation was accompanied by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and architect of pan-Arab rapprochement with Israel.

They took El Al Israel Airlines in the first direct flight by a commercial plane from Tel Aviv to Rabat. Both countries anticipate a surge in tourism aboard such connections, mainly among the hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan descent.

Morocco followed the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in moving toward normal relations with Israel. Palestinians have censured the U.S.-brokered deals, seeing a betrayal of a long-standing demand that Israel first meet their statehood goals.

As the Trump administration has sought to isolate Iran, the deals have been sweetened with promises of business opportunities or economic aid. Israel’s new partners have also enjoyed bilateral benefits from Washington – in Rabat’s case, U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

“This type of agreement (with Israel) will help have a better interaction between communities and people,” Moroccan Tourism Minister Nadia Fettah Alaoui told I24 television.

During the visit, Ben-Shabbat and Kushner will see Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, Israeli officials said. Moroccan and Israeli officials are also scheduled to sign accords on linking up aviation and financial systems, on visas and water management.

The delegates’ plane, painted with the Hebrew, Arabic and English words for “peace” and a Maghreb good-luck talisman, had a low-key reception at Rabat airport. Moroccan officials describe their deal with Israel as a restoration of mid-level ties that Rabat cooled in 2000 in solidarity with Palestinians.

Israel and Morocco now plan to reopen mutual “liaison offices.” Israel hopes these will be upgraded to embassies.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Mark Heinrich)