Israeli foreign minister says annexation move unlikely Wednesday

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s foreign minister said a move toward the proposed annexation of occupied West Bank land was unlikely on Wednesday, the start date set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for discussing such a move.

“It seems unlikely to me that this will happen today,” Gabi Ashkenazi, a member of the centrist Blue and White party that is a coalition partner of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, told Israel’s Army Radio.

“I reckon there will be nothing today, regarding (the extension of Israeli) sovereignty.”

Netanyahu and his senior coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz are at odds over the timing of any unilateral annexation move.

After meeting U.S. envoys on Tuesday to discuss annexation within the framework of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, Netanyahu said such talks would continue for several days.

Trump’s proposal calls for Israeli sovereignty over about 30% of the West Bank – land on which Israel has built settlements for decades – as well as creation of a Palestinian state under strict conditions.

“There are very robust conversations with Israel on the Trump plan,” a U.S. official told Reuters after White House adviser Avi Berkowitz concluded his trip to Israel.

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and have rejected Trump’s plan, saying it would deny them a viable state.

Most world powers view Israel’s settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this, citing historical and biblical ties to the West Bank, as well as security needs.

In an editorial published in Israel’s largest selling newspaper on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for any annexation plans to be scrapped.

“Annexation would represent a violation of international law,” Johnson wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, echoing remarks he made in parliament on June 16. “I profoundly hope that annexation does not go ahead. If it does, the UK will not recognize any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties.”

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Michael Perry and Timothy Heritage)

Major West Bank annexation move not imminent, Israeli minister signals

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli minister played down on Tuesday the likelihood of major moves to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank on July 1, the planned start date for cabinet debate on the issue.

Zeev Elkin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, said Israel still did not have the green light it seeks from Washington to begin extending its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, territory Palestinians seek for a state.

Netanyahu said in a speech he had met U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and White House adviser Avi Berkowitz to discuss “the sovereignty question,” adding: “We are working on it in these very days and will continue working on it in the coming days.”

Palestinian leaders, the United Nations, European powers and Arab countries have all denounced any annexation of land that Israeli forces captured in a 1967 war.

“Whoever painted a picture of everything happening in one day on July 1, did so at their own risk,” Elkin, minister of higher education, told Army Radio when asked what would happen on Wednesday. “From tomorrow, the clock will start ticking.”

No cabinet session for Wednesday has been announced.

Friedman and Berkowitz are in Israel as part of the White House’s efforts to win consensus within its government for annexation as envisioned in an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan announced by U.S. President Donald Trump in January.

The proposal calls for Israeli sovereignty over about 30% of the West Bank – land on which Israel has built settlements for decades – as well as creation of a Palestinian state under strict conditions.

Palestinians say the blueprint would make the state they seek in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem unviable. Most world powers view Israel’s settlements as illegal. Netanyahu says the Jewish people have a legal, historic and moral claim to the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu and his main coalition government partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, are at odds over annexation, which the right-wing prime minister has promoted.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell and Timothy Heritage)

Israeli campaigners want Jewish ruins included in West Bank annexations

By Rinat Harash

NEAR JERICHO, West Bank (Reuters) – The Israeli government faces calls from campaigners to declare sovereignty over ancient Jewish ruins on land in the occupied West Bank that Israel does not plan to annex under U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace blueprint.

The annexation plan, which the government is due to start discussing as of Wednesday, envisages Israel annexing Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley – some 30% of the West Bank. Under Trump’s plan, a Palestinian state would be created in the rest of the West Bank, occupied by Israel since a 1967 war.

An Israeli advocacy group called “Safeguarding Eternity” is worried about what will happen to Jewish archaeological sites on parts of the West Bank not included in Trump’s annexation map.

It wants Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government to guarantee Israeli control over sites such as the remnants of hilltop Hasmonean and Herodian forts dating back two millennia, and hundreds of ruins from earlier Jewish rule.

“This entire plan – its right, its essence – is the connection of the Jewish people to their land and our heritage,” Eitan Melet, a director of Safeguarding Eternity, said as he stood among a jumble of limestones that were the foundation of the desert fortress of Cypros, overlooking the Palestinian city of Jericho.

“If we don’t take our heritage sites into account, this plan has no right to exist at all.”

The Israeli government has not commented on the campaigners’ demands. The Palestinians reject Trump’s blueprint and Israel’s plan to annex territory they seek for a future state.

PALESTINIAN MINISTRY: SITES ARE PROTECTED

Assaf Avraham, an archaeologist at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University, said he too was worried about the fate of archaeological sites in the West Bank.

“If these areas are not in the hands or under the sovereignty of (authorities) that know how to take care of and maintain archaeological sites, and which have the motivation to do so, we really fear for these places,” he said.

The Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Ministry dismissed such concerns.

It said in a statement that it is “able to protect and preserve the cultural heritage sites under Palestinian control, as maintenance and restoration work is carried out continuously”.

The Palestinians say Trump’s plan is biased, and most world powers view Israel’s settlements in the West Bank as illegal.

Interim 1993 peace accords granted the Palestinians limited self-rule in West Bank areas, where they agreed to secure Jewish heritage sites for Israeli visits.

(Additional reporting by Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh; Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

In West Bank, Israeli settler leaders complicate annexation plan

By Dan Williams

ITAMAR, West Bank (Reuters) – Jewish settler leaders who resist the creation of a Palestinian state are complicating Israel’s plans to annex scores of settlements in the occupied West Bank under U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace blueprint.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet is due next month to discuss the annexation plan, under which Israel would apply sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank – in areas where most of its about 130 settlements are located.

The plan is opposed by the Palestinians, who seek a state in all of the West Bank, as well as in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as a capital. Most world powers agree.

The plan also faces resistance from settler leaders who oppose Trump’s calls for a future Palestinian state that would envelop at least 15 Jewish settlements – despite U.S. guarantees of protection for, and access to, the future “enclaves”.

“We’re talking about strangling a community,” said Hananel Elkayam, mayor of Itamar settlement, one of the 15 named in the plan.

In misgivings echoed in the other 14, Elkayam predicted residents would be unable to commute to jobs through territory that would be in a new Palestinian state, would by denied construction and would be at greater risk of attack than now.

“I would tell (Trump): Thanks very much for the plan, thanks very much for the great affection for the Jewish people (but) we’ll set our own destiny,” Elkayam said.

KEEPING DOOR TO DIPLOMACY OPEN

U.S. officials will this week discuss whether to give Israel the green light for annexation moves seen by the Palestinians and many other countries as illegal land-grabs.

Israel’s West Bank settlements were built by successive governments on land captured in a 1967 war. More than 400,000 Israelis now live there, with another 200,000 in East Jerusalem, which was also taken in 1967.

A Direct Poll survey last week found 56.8% of settlers support the Trump plan, more than the Israeli average.

Elkayam and other settler leaders say that backing is for annexation – on condition that plans for Palestinian statehood are scrapped.

Israeli and U.S. officials want to be seen as keeping a door open to diplomacy. Where that door might lead worries Yochai Damri, head of a regional council that includes four of the 15 listed settlements.

Damri sees Palestinian statehood becoming more likely if the Republican president is defeated by Democrat Joe Biden in November’s U.S. election, and if, or when, Netanyahu is succeeded by centrist Benny Gantz, the Israeli premier’s partner in a fragile unity government.

The Trump plan says residents of the future enclaves can stay put “unless they choose otherwise”. Damri and other settlers hear in that a hint that they should quit to make way for Palestinian territorial contiguity.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Timothy Heritage)

No final decision at White House talks on Israeli annexation moves, U.S. officials say

American and Israeli flags flutter in the wind atop the roof of the King David Hotel, in preparation for the upcoming visit of President Trump to Israel, in Jerusalem. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick and Dan Williams

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Three days of White House meetings between aides to U.S. President Donald Trump on whether to give Israel a green light to annex parts of the occupied West Bank have ended without any final decision, senior U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The high-level discussions centered on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to extend Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the territory, which has drawn condemnation from the Palestinians, U.S. Arab allies and other foreign governments.

With Netanyahu’s cabinet due to begin formal annexation deliberations on Wednesday, the still-unclear U.S. position suggested the Trump administration wants to move cautiously.

“There is as yet no final decision on the next steps for implementing the Trump plan,” one of the officials told Reuters, referring to the president’s Israeli-Palestinian peace blueprint that could provide a basis for Netanyahu’s annexation moves.

Trump, who has hewed to a heavily pro-Israel policy, participated in the discussions, the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Another U.S. official said further “fact-finding” would be needed before a U.S. determination.

Under Trump’s peace proposal unveiled in January and met with widespread skepticism, the United States would recognize the settlements – built on land the Palestinians seek for a state – as part of Israel.

The proposal would create a Palestinian state but impose strict conditions. Palestinian leaders have dismissed the initiative and it has gone nowhere.

Netanyahu hopes for U.S. approval for his project of extending sovereignty over settlements and the Jordan Valley. Most countries view Israel’s settlements as illegal.

This week’s meetings included Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other aides. On Wednesday, Pompeo said that any decision on annexation was “for Israelis to make.”

Among the main options under U.S. consideration is a gradual process in which Israel would initially declare sovereignty over several settlements close to Jerusalem instead of the 30% of the West Bank envisaged in Netanyahu’s original plan, according to a person close to the matter.

The Trump administration has not closed the door to a larger annexation. But Kushner is concerned that allowing Israel to move too fast could further alienate the Palestinians.

There are also worries about opposition from Jordan, one of only two countries that have a peace treaty with Israel, and from Gulf states that have quietly expanded engagement with Israel. Washington also wants Israel’s unity government, divided on the issue, to reach a consensus.

(Reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Edmund Blair and Alistair Bell)

In West Bank, Israeli settler leaders complicate annexation plan

By Dan Williams

ITAMAR, West Bank (Reuters) – Jewish settler leaders who resist the creation of a Palestinian state are complicating Israel’s plans to annex scores of settlements in the occupied West Bank under U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace blueprint.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet is due next month to discuss the annexation plan, under which Israel would apply sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank – in areas where most of its about 130 settlements are located.

The plan is opposed by the Palestinians, who seek a state in all of the West Bank, as well as in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as a capital. Most world powers agree.

The plan also faces resistance from settler leaders who oppose Trump’s calls for a future Palestinian state that would envelop at least 15 Jewish settlements – despite U.S. guarantees of protection for, and access to, the future “enclaves”.

“We’re talking about strangling a community,” said Hananel Elkayam, mayor of Itamar settlement, one of the 15 named in the plan.

In misgivings echoed in the other 14, Elkayam predicted residents would be unable to commute to jobs through territory that would be in a new Palestinian state, would by denied construction and would be at greater risk of attack than now.

“I would tell (Trump): Thanks very much for the plan, thanks very much for the great affection for the Jewish people (but) we’ll set our own destiny,” Elkayam said.

KEEPING DOOR TO DIPLOMACY OPEN

U.S. officials will this week discuss whether to give Israel the green light for annexation moves seen by the Palestinians and many other countries as illegal land-grabs.

Israel’s West Bank settlements were built by successive governments on land captured in a 1967 war. More than 400,000 Israelis now live there, with another 200,000 in East Jerusalem, which was also taken in 1967.

A Direct Poll survey last week found 56.8% of settlers support the Trump plan, more than the Israeli average.

Elkayam and other settler leaders say that backing is for annexation – on condition that plans for Palestinian statehood are scrapped.

Israeli and U.S. officials want to be seen as keeping a door open to diplomacy. Where that door might lead worries Yochai Damri, head of a regional council that includes four of the 15 listed settlements.

Damri sees Palestinian statehood becoming more likely if the Republican president is defeated by Democrat Joe Biden in November’s U.S. election, and if, or when, Netanyahu is succeeded by centrist Benny Gantz, the Israeli premier’s partner in a fragile unity government.

The Trump plan says residents of the future enclaves can stay put “unless they choose otherwise”. Damri and other settlers hear in that a hint that they should quit to make way for Palestinian territorial contiguity.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Timothy Heritage)

Exclusive: Israel builds new Jerusalem road that will link settlements as government weighs West Bank annexation

By Stephen Farrell, Maayan Lubell and Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Construction is underway on a major new ring road for Jerusalem that Israeli officials say will benefit all of its residents, but critics of the project say is another obstacle to Palestinian hopes to make East Jerusalem the capital of a future state.

The bypass, called The American Road, will connect Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank that are north and south of Jerusalem. The central and southern sections of the road are already being built, and tenders for the northernmost stretch – at a projected cost of $187 million – will be issued toward the end of the year, a Jerusalem municipality official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

In total, the project, which will run along or near the outer rim of East Jerusalem, is forecast to cost more than a quarter of a billion dollars. Israel annexed East Jerusalem, in a move that has not won international recognition, after capturing the area, along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, in a 1967 war.

The construction comes as the Israeli government is set to begin cabinet-level discussions from July 1 about implementing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election promise to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank – a planned step that is sparking growing international criticism. Peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians broke down in 2014.

Israeli officials say the road, which will include a 1.6 kilometre (one mile) tunnel east of the Mount of Olives, will ease traffic congestion for both Israelis and Palestinians living in the area.

“It doesn’t unite the settlements. It’s not about uniting borders or municipal lines,” said Arieh King, a Deputy Mayor of Jerusalem and a leading figure in the city’s settler movement. “But it does connect them more on the daily level – whether it’s studies, tourism or commerce. And then in practice you create a huge Jerusalem metropolis.”

Palestinians say the new road will primarily benefit settlers, and will further undermine the feasibility of East Jerusalem as the capital of the state they seek in the West Bank and Gaza.

“This project cuts off Palestinian neighborhoods within the city from one another,” Fadi Al-Hidmi, the Palestinian Minister of Jerusalem Affairs, said via email. Responding to questions from Reuters, Al-Hidmi said The American Road was part of Israel’s “illegal” ring road project, which “surrounds occupied East Jerusalem to further connect Israeli settlements and sever the occupied Palestinian capital from the rest of the West Bank.”

Israel’s West Bank settlements were built by successive governments on land captured in the 1967 war. More than 400,000 Israelis now live there, with another 200,000 in East Jerusalem. Palestinians say the settlements make a future state unviable, and most of the world views them as illegal under international law. Israel disputes this, citing its security needs and biblical and historical ties to the land on which they are built.

King said the highway would be a “significant corridor” from the Gush Etzion settlement bloc in the southern West Bank and settlements such as Har Homa south of the city center to settlements to the north and east of Jerusalem, including Maale Adumim, which is home to more than 40,000 people.

Arab residents in East Jerusalem neighborhoods such as Umm Tuba and Sur Baher would also benefit, he said, because it would reduce their travel times.

Israel’s transport ministry directed questions to the Jerusalem municipality.

Daniel Seidemann, an Israeli attorney who represented some Palestinian families affected by the construction, told Reuters the bypass fitted into a long-time strategy by Israel of using infrastructure projects to secure “de facto annexation” of territory.

“What we are seeing here is, again, the seamless integration of the northern West Bank, East Jerusalem under sole Israeli control, and the southern West Bank for the purposes of the settlers,” said Seidemann, who specializes in the geopolitics of Jerusalem. “That is the motivation, and the fact that it will benefit a Palestinian East Jerusalemite somewhat is a collateral spinoff, but not more than that.”

Planning documents reviewed by Reuters and visits to the area to plot the route show the road will run for more than eight kilometers (five miles). Dozens of Palestinians living along the route of The American Road pointed to such factors as the scope of the construction and the proximity of the highway’s northern and southern ends to major settlements as evidence that the bypass was designed primarily for settlers.

The scale of The American Road project, named after a decades-old narrow road that winds through southeast Jerusalem, is evident some four kilometers from the city center, where a huge bridge is rising in a remote valley. The grey edifice, which can’t be seen from outside the valley, towers over the rural landscape. At the site, cement-mixers rumble through the hill-hugging Palestinian neighborhoods of Sur Baher and Jabal al-Mukabar toward the 230-metre-long structure.

Billboards advertise an August 2021 completion date for a section of The American Road nearest Har Homa, the settlement built by Netanyahu in the 1990s that overlooks the Palestinian town of Bethlehem.

“We lived in a paradise, and now we will live under a highway,” said Khader Attoun, whose house looks directly over the bridge. “Israel wants to squeeze us out of our land and confine us to our tiny homes, to let settlers drive on highways through the valley of our ancestors.”

Graphic – The American Road:

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell, Maayan Lubell and Rami Ayyub; Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Nuha Sharaf in Jerusalem; edited by Peter Hirschberg, Janet McBride)

Iran lauds arms supply to Palestinians against ‘tumor’ Israel

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s Supreme Leader on Friday denounced Israel as a “tumor” to be removed and hailed Tehran’s supply of arms to Palestinians, drawing swift condemnation from the United States, European Union and Israel.

Opposition to Israel is a core belief for Shi’ite Muslim-led Iran. The Islamic Republic supports Palestinian and Lebanese armed groups opposed to peace with Israel, which Tehran refuses to recognize.

“The Zionist regime (Israel) is a deadly, cancerous tumor in the region. It will undoubtedly be uprooted and destroyed,” Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said in an online speech.

The United States and European Union rejected the comments.

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo on Twitter dismissed them as “disgusting and hateful anti-Semitic remarks” that did not represent the tradition of tolerance of ordinary Iranians.

EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said they were “totally unacceptable and represent a deep source of concern”.

Although leaders of Palestinian militant groups in Gaza, including Hamas and Islamic Jihad, have frequently praised Iran’s financial and military support, Khamenei had not himself previously given public confirmation of Tehran’s weapons supply.

“Iran realized Palestinian fighters’ only problem was lack of access to weapons. With divine guidance and assistance, we planned, and the balance of power has been transformed in Palestine, and today the Gaza Strip can stand against the aggression of the Zionist enemy and defeat it,” he said.

Israeli Defence Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz said: “The State of Israel has great challenges in a variety of arenas. Khamenei’s statement that Israel is a ‘cancerous tumor’ illustrates this more than anything.”

He said on Facebook: “I do not suggest anyone to test us …We will be prepared for all threats, and by any means.”

In a statement described as a response to Khamenei, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Those that invoke the threat of destruction against Israel put themselves in similar danger.”

RALLIES CANCELLED

Zeyad al-Nakhala, chief of Palestinian Islamic Jihad, which has publicly admitted getting Iranian arms and funds, praised Khamenei’s comments. “We are ready for a long jihad and victory is granted,” he said in remarks distributed by the group.

Iranian officials have repeatedly called for an end to Israel, including by a referendum that would exclude most of its Jews while including Palestinians in the region and abroad.

Khamenei suggested global attention on the coronavirus crisis had helped obscure wrongs done to Palestinians. “The long-lasting virus of Zionists will be eliminated,” he added.

Khamenei was speaking on Iran’s annual Quds Day, which uses the Arabic name for Jerusalem, held on the last Friday of the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan.

Iran cancelled nationwide Quds Day rallies due to coronavirus. Iran is one of the most affected countries in the region with 7,300 deaths and a total of 131,652 infections.

Khamenei also denounced what he called treason by “political and cultural mercenaries in Muslim countries” helping Zionists to downplay the Palestine issue, an apparent reference to some Arab states including Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Tel Aviv, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean/Mark Heinrich)

Iran will support any nation or group that fights Israel: supreme leader

(Reuters) – Iran will support any nation or group that fights Israel, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday.

“We will support and assist any nation or any group anywhere who opposes and fights the Zionist regime, and we do not hesitate to say this,” Khamenei said in a post on his official English language Twitter account.

(Reporting by Babak Dehghanpisheh; Editing by Sandra Maler)

Hezbollah leader says Israel turns attention to hitting missile-making sites in Syria

BEIRUT (Reuters) – Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah said on Wednesday that Israel is now concentrating its attacks in Syria on missile-manufacturing sites.

Israel has conducted many raids inside Syria since the start of the civil war in 2011. It sees the presence of Hezbollah and its ally Iran there as a strategic threat.

The heavily armed Lebanese Shi’ite movement has played a vital role in the war, helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad reclaim much of the country.

In rare comments on Israeli attacks in Syria, Nasrallah said that with Assad firmly in control, Israel has turned its attention more recently to striking Syrian targets for precision missile manufacturing seen as a threat.

He denied that Israeli airstrikes have pushed either Hezbollah or Iran to retreat from Syria, calling Israel’s insistence that they have done so “imaginary victories”.

Israeli Defense Minister Naftali Bennett said in April that the Israeli military was working to drive Tehran out of Syria.

(Reporting by Laila Bassam; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Writing by Eric Knecht; Editing by Jon Boyle and Angus MacSwan)