Bruised but driven, Netanyahu becomes Israel’s longest-serving PM

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he has drawn on the graphic of a bomb as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Benjamin Netanyahu makes history this weekend by becoming the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, surpassing a record held by the country’s founding father David Ben-Gurion.

Yet the conservative leader, who will match Ben-Gurion’s 8,475 days in office on Friday, is limping across that line, facing an election in September after an inconclusive April ballot, and a possible corruption trial.

“Who’s counting?” he said airily when asked about the career milestone during a conference hosted by the sympathetic Israel Hayom newspaper and attended by U.S. envoys.

To judge from his solid approval ratings, Netanyahu, 69, has delivered what Israelis wants: a purring economy and relative security despite the collapse of peacemaking with the Palestinians and combustible fronts with Syria and Lebanon.

He has also rallied a rising Israeli right-wing with rhetoric against the country’s Arab minority, and cut down potential political challengers with divide-and-conquer tactics.

Netanyahu became Israel’s youngest-ever premier in 1996, serving until his defeat in a 1999 election. Re-elected in 2009, he extended his tenure through the ballot box in 2013 and 2015.

But in a surprise turn, he failed to form a new coalition government after claiming victory in an election three months ago, and now serves as a caretaker prime minister.

That means a do-over in September, just weeks before prosecutors are expected to decide whether to indict Netanyahu in three graft cases, which he has castigated as a witch-hunt.

STATECRAFT

Netanyahu has scored a string of statecraft goals with the help of President Donald Trump: U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, as well as Washington’s withdrawal from world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Israel’s arch regional foe Iran.

He may be one of the few world leaders who can boast a rapport with both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And to the delight of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, he has sidestepped the Palestinians with outreach to Arab Sunni Muslim rulers who share his concerns over Iran.

Israel’s center-left opposition, and many of its foreign friends, worry, however, that Netanyahu has missed a chance to find a two-state deal with the Palestinians to safeguard the Jewish majority and democratic credentials of his country.

Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, said that while Netanyahu’s political longevity might be seen as a success story, “it may also be that…we will remember him more for leading Israel down the road to more oppression of the Palestinians”.

Dore Gold, a veteran Netanyahu envoy who now heads the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs think-tank, described the U.S.-educated premier as influenced by his late father, Benzion Netanyahu, a scholar of Jewish persecution during the Spanish Inquisition.

“I think he sees himself as someone who will do whatever is possible, anything in his power, to protect his people from any future disaster,” Gold said in summarizing Netanyahu’s legacy.

Netanyahu’s political strategy has included emulating Trump in blunt social media attacks on his rivals that have underlined deep divisions within Israel society.

Much like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu has doubled as defense minister and bolstered the military as part of an uncompromising distrust of Israel’s neighbors and a doctrine of self-reliance.

But the two leaders cut two very different figures.

Plain-spoken and diminutive, the Polish-born Ben-Gurion stepped down as collectivist prime minister in 1963, aged 76, and retired to a spartan desert hut. The telegenic, English-fluent Netanyahu is a free-market champion who favors cigars and American sports tropes, and keeps a beachfront villa.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich)

On the menu soon: lab-grown steak for eco-conscious diners

Employees work in a laboratory at Aleph Farms, an Israeli company producing lab-grown steak from cow cells, in Rehovot, Israel June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Lianne Back and Tova Cohen

REHOVOT, Israel (Reuters) – Diners in some upmarket restaurants will soon be able to tuck into laboratory-grown steak, thanks to an Israeli startup that seeks to tap into consumer concerns about health, the environment and animal welfare.

While lab-grown hamburgers and chicken are already in development around the world, Israel’s Aleph Farms claims to be the first company to have developed steak in a laboratory and is in talks with some high-end restaurants in the United States, Europe and Asia to have it on the market in 2021.

It plans initially to offer minute steak developed from a small number of cells taken from a cow, avoiding the need to slaughter the animal in the process or use antibiotics which can be harmful to meat-eaters.

Aleph Farms hopes to have its product on a limited number of restaurant menus from 2021 in a trial phase, aiming for an official launch in 2023, first in restaurants and then in stores.

Its next product will be a thick steak with “the properties that we like and we all know,” said Neta Lavon, vice president for research and development.

A dish including a piece of lab-grown steak produced from cow cells by Israeli company Aleph Farms, is seen as it is prepared by a chef during a demonstration for Reuters at the company office in Rehovot, Israel June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

A dish including a piece of lab-grown steak produced from cow cells by Israeli company Aleph Farms, is seen as it is prepared by a chef during a demonstration for Reuters at the company office in Rehovot, Israel June 26, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

A serving of its minute steak – a thin slice of meat that cooks very fast – currently costs around $50 but Aleph Farms says it hopes to bring that down by 2021 to only a slight premium to current prices of steak offered in restaurants.

Eventually, it aims for mass production, bringing the price down further and making its steaks viable for sale in lower-priced steak houses.

Didier Toubia, co-founder and CEO of Aleph Farms, said the company has ambitions to be one of the world’s top three meat producers within 20 years, challenging market leaders like Tyson Foods, which has invested in another Israeli start-up developing cultured meat, Future Meat Technologies.

Toubia, however, did not give a revenue target for its product.

He set up the company in 2017 in partnership with Technion – the Israel Institute of Technology and foodmaker Strauss Group’s incubator The Kitchen. In May it raised $12 million from investors including Cargill [CARG.UL], and has now raised $14 million to date.

Demand for traditional meat substitutes is growing and analysts estimate the U.S. plant-based meat market, for example, could be worth $100 billion by 2035.

The number of start-ups producing laboratory-developed meat has risen from four at the end of 2016 to more than two dozen by last year, according to market researcher the Good Food Institute.

Dutch start-up Mosa Meat projects the cost of producing a hamburger will be about 9 euros ($10) once production scales up.

(Editing by Susan Fenton)

Israeli troops mistakenly kill Hamas operative on Gaza border

Palestinian Hamas militants take part in the funeral of their comrade Mahmoud Al-Adham, 28, in the northern Gaza Strip July 11, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli soldiers mistakenly shot a Hamas operative on Thursday who had been trying to prevent Palestinians from approaching the Israel-Gaza border, the Israeli military said.

Hamas, the Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said the man had been killed. The health ministry in Gaza said the dead Palestinian man was aged 28 and had been shot near Beit Hanoun in the northern part of the territory.

“An initial inquiry suggests that a Hamas restraint operative arrived in the area of the security fence because of two Palestinians who were wandering in the area,” the Israeli military said in a statement.

“In retrospect, it appears that the IDF (Israel Defense Force) troops who arrived at the location misidentified the Hamas restraint operative to be an armed terrorist and fired as a result of this misunderstanding. The incident will be reviewed,” it said.

The last round of violence in the Gaza Strip and neighboring southern Israel was in May, with hundreds of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli airstrikes over three days before a ceasefire was brokered.

With an eye to avoiding broader confrontation, Hamas has occasionally deployed its men at the border to keep Palestinians away from the fence, where often violent anti-Israeli demonstrations that began in March 2018 have drawn lethal Israeli fire.

“CRIMINAL ACT”

In its statement on Thursday, Hamas’s armed wing said Israeli forces had deliberately targeted a fighter “on duty” near the border.

“The occupation bears responsibility for the consequences of such a criminal act,” it said, referring to Israel.

After the fighting in May, a ceasefire was brokered by Qatar, Egypt and the United Nations.

But tensions have remained high, with Hamas accusing Israel of failing to abide by the terms – never publicly confirmed by Israeli leaders – of a truce deal to ease a blockade of Gaza.

Incendiary balloons launched from Gaza have continued to spark fires in southern Israel, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – who is running in a September election – held out the prospect on Thursday of Israeli military action.

“We are preparing for a campaign that will be broad and also surprising,” he said in Ashkelon, a southern Israeli city that has been a target of Hamas rocket attacks.

On Sunday, an 89-year-old Israeli woman, hurt while running for shelter during the fighting in May, died of her injuries, Israeli health authorities said.

Rockets and missiles fired from Gaza killed four other Israelis during those hostilities. Gaza health officials put the number of Palestinian dead at 21, saying more than half of them were civilians.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Gareth Jones)

Netanyahu warns Iran it is within range of Israeli air strikes, citing Iranian threats

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem July 7, 2019. Abir Sultan/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu cautioned Iran on Tuesday that it is within range of Israeli airstrikes, citing what he described as Iranian threats to destroy Israel.

“Iran recently has been threatening Israel’s destruction,” Netanyahu said at an Israeli air force base, where he viewed a squadron of advanced U.S.-built F-35 warplanes.

“It should remember that these planes can reach anywhere in the Middle East, including Iran, and certainly Syria,” he said in a YouTube video clip filmed at the base, with an F-35 in the background.

Last week, a senior Iranian parliamentarian was quoted by the semi-official Mehr news agency as saying that if the United States attacked Iran, Israel would be destroyed in half an hour.

Israel has long said that every option is on the table in ensuring that Iran does not develop a nuclear weapon, and has backed pledges to prevent Iranian military entrenchment in Syria by carrying out airstrikes there.

Tehran denies seeking nuclear arms.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Netanyahu says Trump knew in advance of Israel’s Iran archive mission

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, June 30, 2019. Oded Balilty/Pool via REUTERS/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday that he informed U.S. President Donald Trump in advance of what Israel has described as a spy mission in Tehran last year to capture a secret Iranian nuclear archive.

Netanyahu said in April 2018 that Mossad operatives had spirited thousands of hidden documents out of Tehran that proved Iran had previously pursued a nuclear weapons program. Trump cited the Israeli findings in his decision, a month later, to quit a 2015 deal that had scaled down Iran’s nuclear project.

Iran denies ever seeking nuclear weapons and has accused Israel of faking the Tehran mission and documents trove.

Awarding an Israeli national security prize on Tuesday to the Mossad team credited with the so-called “Atomic Archive” capture, Netanyahu said he had discussed the planned operation with Trump when they met at the Davos forum in January 2018.

“He asked me if it was dangerous. I told him that there was a danger to it that was not negligible, but that the outcome justified the risk,” Netanyahu said at the closed-door ceremony, according to a transcript issued by his office.

Netanyahu said that, when he later presented main findings from an Israeli analysis of the documents to Trump at the White House, the president “voiced his appreciation for the boldness”.

“I have no doubt that this helped to validate his decision to withdraw from this dangerous (Iran nuclear) deal,” he said.

With the United States having reimposed sanctions on Iran, tensions have been soaring in the Gulf in recent weeks.

Mossad officials have said the Tehran mission took place in February 2018, but have not given details on how the documents were brought out to Israel.

Six Mossad officers – four men and two women – received Tuesday’s prize for leading the mission, which also involved “hundreds” of others, the intelligence agency’s director, Joseph (Yossi) Cohen, told an international security forum this week.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli spymaster sees ‘one-time’ chance for peace with Arabs sharing Iran worries

FILE PHOTO: Mossad director Joseph (Yossi) Cohen gestures as he addresses a budgeting conference hosted by Israel's Finance Ministry in Jerusalem October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Dan Williams

HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) – Israel and U.S.-aligned Arab countries have a unique chance to forge a regional peace deal given their shared worries about Iran, the chief of Israel’s Mossad spy service said on Monday.

In a rare public appearance, Joseph (Yossi) Cohen said his agency had formed a task force designed to spot peacemaking opportunities in a region where only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

“The Mossad today espies a rare opportunity, perhaps for the first time in Middle East history, to arrive at a regional understanding that would lead to a comprehensive peace accord,” he told the Herzliya Conference, an annual international security forum near Tel Aviv.

“Common interests, the fight against rivals such as Iran and jihadist terrorism, the close relations with the White House, and channels of communication with the Kremlin all combine to create what might be a one-time window of opportunity,” he said.

The United States convened Arab and other dignitaries in Bahrain last week to encourage investment in the Palestinian economy that might help renew peace talks with Israel. 

The Palestinians, seeing a pro-Israel bias in the Trump administration and a ruse to deny them their goal of full statehood, boycotted the Manama meeting. Israel, which sent only a non-official delegation, saw in the event a chance to bolster its wider ties to the Arab world.

Cohen, whose speech alluded to the Palestinians only in the context of threats against Israel from the armed factions, said many Arab countries “cannot stand Iran’s thuggish behavior”.

He cited Iran’s nuclear program, assistance for guerrillas in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, and alleged responsibility for a recent spate of sabotage strikes on oil tankers in the Gulf. Iran denies any role in those incidents.

RAPPROCHEMENT PUSH

Cohen said Israel’s warming of relations with Oman, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited last October, followed “a lengthy covert effort by the Mossad” to seek out closer ties.

He pointed to what he termed “an expanding group of responsible, serious countries” – which he did not name – in the region that have channels of communication with Israel despite no formal relations, and cooperate with it in various ways.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz made a rare visit to Abu Dhabi, which does not have officials ties with Israel, for a two-day U.N. climate meeting on Sunday and Monday. While there, he met with an unnamed Emirati official to discuss bilateral ties as well as the Iranian threat, his office said.

Iran announced on Monday it had amassed more low-enriched uranium than permitted under its 2015 deal with major powers, its first major step in violation of the deal since the United States pulled out of it more than a year ago.

Cohen reaffirmed Israel’s policy that it would not allow its arch-foe to get a bomb. ”The Mossad or the State of Israel did not sign the nuclear deal (and) will do everything to ensure that Iran will never have nuclear weaponry,” he said.

Iran denies ever seeking to acquire a nuclear bomb.

“Currently, it’s about uranium enrichment at a relatively low percentage, and in amounts that are not large. The threat is to step up enrichment and increase the amounts,” Cohen said, speaking before news of the enrichment breach.

“Just imagine what will happen if the material stockpiled by the Iranians becomes fissionable, at military-enrichment grade, and then an actual bomb. The Middle East, and then the entire world, will be a different place. Therefore, the world must not allow this to happen.”

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean and Andrew Cawthorne)

Palestinians reject U.S. peace plan as Kushner keeps silent on political details

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner gives a speech at the opening of the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019 in this still image taken from a video. Peace And Prosperity conference pool/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick

MANAMA (Reuters) – Palestinians poured scorn on the Trump administration’s much-touted peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Wednesday, saying its framework for a trade and investment boost ignored their political aspirations for statehood.

Gulf states attending an international meeting in Bahrain, orchestrated by the plan’s architect, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, gave it qualified support.

But they also stressed that any peace settlement must be based on two-state solution.

Kushner told reporters his team would release the plan’s political details, which remain secret, “when we’re ready”, adding: “We’ll see what happens”.

He said a peace deal would happen when both sides are ready to say “yes”. He acknowledged that they may never get there.

Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments are attending the meeting, which takes place amid a years-long stalemate in other international efforts to resolve a conflict that has lasted more than 70 years.

Senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official Hanan Ashrawi, speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said the Manama conference was “quite disingenuous”.

“It is totally divorced from reality. The elephant in the room is the (Israeli) occupation itself,” she told a news conference.

Several thousand Palestinians demonstrated in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and burned posters of Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “No to the conference of treason, no to the conference of shame” read one banner.

The chief of the Islamist Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, criticized the plan as a ruse against the Palestinian people.

“This money must not come at the expense of our enduring rights, or at the expense of Jerusalem or the right of return or at the expense of sovereignty and resistance,” he said.

The foreign minister of Bahrain said the plan, nearly two years in the making, was an “opportunity not to be missed”.

He reiterated the need for a two-state solution, which has underpinned every peace plan for decades, but Trump’s team has consistently refused to commit to it.

“I think if we take this matter seriously it could be a very important game-changer,” Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told Israeli public broadcaster Kan in English.

Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, has said Israel was open to the economic proposals.

But many Arab states, including Lebanon, stayed away from the event while others including Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab nations that have reached peace agreements with Israel, sent deputy ministers.

The Lebanese government and parliament both oppose the U.S. plan, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said on Wednesday.

 

Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO, AT&T is seen during the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Handout via REUTERS

Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO, AT&T is seen during the “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Handout via REUTERS

HARD SELL

Washington hopes the wealthy Gulf states will bankroll the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute $50 billion to Palestinian and neighboring Arab state economies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said the kingdom would support whatever brings prosperity to the region but that it was important that it was driven by the private sector.

UAE Minister of State for Financial Affairs Obaid Humaid al-Tayer said: “We should give this initiative a chance”.

Riyadh said on the eve of the conference that any peace deal should be based on a Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war.

It also envisages a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return – points rejected by Israel.

It is not clear whether the Trump team plans to abandon the two-state solution, which is backed by the United Nations and most countries. Kushner has said the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative.

Any solution must settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, Israel’s security concerns, Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory where Palestinians want to build that state.

Palestinian leaders are refusing to engage with the White House, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Breaking with the international consensus, Trump in 2017 recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating the Palestinians and other Arabs.

SOUND POLITICS

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also emphasized the need for a two-state solution and said peace required both political and economic tracks.

“It’s absolutely foolish to believe you can have economics without sound politics, but it’s likewise completely futile to think politics will work without economics buttressing it,” he told the gathering.

International Monetary Fund managing director, Christine Lagarde, said generating economic growth in conflict-riven countries can be a struggle.

The IMF puts unemployment at 30% in the West Bank and 50% in Gaza, which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades and recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ rival in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“Gaza right now is feeling a lot of pain because of bad leadership and the sanctions that have been imposed on them because of it,” Kushner said.

“So the question that (Hamas)leadership has to ask themselves is…do they hate their neighbor in Israel more than they love their citizens and their people?”

The 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects in the plan include a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza, which has been floated before and stalled for lack of underlying political or security agreements.

Palestinian businessman Ashraf Jabari, chairman of the Palestinian Business Network, told the gathering it was difficult to build an economy with a “siege and unstable situation”.

“Frankly, we demand an independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967,” said the businessman from Hebron, who has co-founded a trade group to boost business between Palestinians and Israeli settlers.

(Story was refiled to remove extraneous words from headline)

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Manama, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Rami Ayyub in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Davide Barbuscia, Lisa Barrington, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nafisa Taher, Hadeel AlSayegh and Alexander Corwnwell in Dubai; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. seeks funds for Middle East peace plan but details are vague and Palestinians unhappy

Palestinians burn a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and representations of Israeli flags during a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. Middle East peace plan, in Gaza City, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Matt Spetalnick

MANAMA (Reuters) – The Trump administration prepared to launch its $50 billion economic formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace in Bahrain on Tuesday but the Palestinian leadership reiterated its disdain for the plan and Saudi Arabia, envisaged as one of its main bank-rollers, also indicated some reservations.

Bahraini armoured vehicle takes up position on bridge leading to Manama’s Four Seasons hotel for first day of U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

Bahraini armoured vehicle takes up position on bridge leading to Manama’s Four Seasons hotel for first day of U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

The two-day international meeting, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s broader political blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the political details of the plan, which has been almost two years in the making, remain a secret. Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in Manama, which Lebanon and Iraq are staying away from.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success.

“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important.”

Washington will be hoping that attendees in Manama such as wealthy Gulf states will show a concrete interest in the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute $50 billion to Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia – a close U.S. ally which shares a common foe with Israel in Iran – voiced support on Tuesday for “international efforts aimed at improving prosperity, investment and economic growth in the region”.

But Riyadh reiterated that any peace deal should be based on the Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that has been the Arab consensus on the necessary elements for a deal since 2002.

That plan calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war, as well as a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return – points rejected by Israel.

Kushner said the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative. “It will be somewhere between the Arab Peace Initiative and between the Israeli position,” he told Al Jazeera TV in an interview to air on Tuesday.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Kushner is “committed to the initiatives of Israel’s colonial settlement councils.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, said Israel was open to the plan. “We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” he said on Sunday.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama's Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted "Peace to Prosperity" conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama’s Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

Expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes the economic plan – billed “Peace to Prosperity” – will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.

Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states to have reached peace with Israel, are sending deputy finance ministers. Kushner’s plan has hit a political nerve in Jordan, home to millions of citizens of Palestinian refugee origin.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want to move on from a Palestinian conflict they believe has held back the Arab world. Other Gulf states such as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman have not said who they are sending to the conference.

“If there is a one percent chance we do something good here, we should get together and try,” billionaire Mohamed Alabbar, one of Dubai’s most prominent businessmen, said after arriving at the venue in Manama and embracing two American rabbis.

POLITICAL PLAN?

It is not clear whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution,” which involves creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

The United Nations and most nations back the two-state solution and it has underpinned every peace plan for decades.

But Trump’s team has consistently refused to commit to it, keeping the political stage of the plan a secret.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the pursuit of “peace efforts to realize the vision of two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security”.

Any such solution would have to settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, satisfying Israel’s security concerns and Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory in Palestinians want to build that state.

In Gaza, businesses closed doors in a general strike called by the ruling Islamist Hamas group and other factions.

In the West Bank on the outskirts of Ramallah, where a small crowd of protesters was dispersed by Israeli troops firing tear gas, Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti said: “There can be no economic solution as a substitute for our freedom.”

The workshop is being held in Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, at a time of heightened tension between Tehran and Washington and its Gulf allies. Trump on Monday imposed sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and other officials after Iran downed an U.S. drone last week.

Palestinian leaders have boycotted the conference, and are refusing to engage with the White House – accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Breaking with international convention, Trump in 2017 recognized disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a move that infuriated the Palestinians and other Arabs.

Seven Palestinian businessmen gathered in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel, the conference venue. They estimated that 15 to 20 Palestinian business representatives would be present.

“The politicians will not bring us anywhere,” said conference attendee Shlomi Fogel, an Israeli entrepreneur. “We, the business people, should be able to show them there might be another way.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. to unveil ‘economy first’ approach to Mideast peace at Bahrain conference

FILE PHOTO: A footbridge leads from the Western Wall to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

By Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell

MANAMA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The first stage of President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan will be launched in Bahrain on Tuesday at a conference the White House touts as a bid to drum up $50 billion in investment but which Palestinians deride as an “economy first” approach doomed to fail.

The two-day international meeting, led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s long-delayed broader political blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to be unveiled at a later date.

But neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in the Bahraini capital Manama.

And there will be close scrutiny as to whether attendees such as Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf Arab states show any interest in making actual donations to a U.S. plan that has already elicited bitter criticism from Palestinians and many others in the Arab world.

Bahrain, a close American ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been making preparations for weeks.

Though the event is supposed to focus on economics, Gulf Arab states hope it will also be used to show their solidarity with the Trump administration over its hard line against Iran, a senior Gulf diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Under the plan, donor nations and investors would contribute about $50 billion to the region, with $28 billion going to the Palestinian territories – the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip – as well as $7.5 billion to Jordan, $9 billion to Egypt and $6 billion for Lebanon.

Among 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects is a $5 billion transport corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.

“I laugh when they attack this as the ‘deal of the century’,” Kushner told Reuters, referring to the lofty nickname that Trump’s peace plan has assumed over the last two years.

“This is going to be the ‘opportunity of the century’ if they have the courage to pursue it.”

Kushner, a senior Trump adviser who like his father-in-law comes from the world of New York real estate, is presenting his plan in a pair of slick pamphlets filled with graphs and statistics that resemble an investment prospectus; in fact, he has repeatedly called it a “business plan.”

PEACE TO PROSPERITY

Expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes that the economic plan – billed “Peace to Prosperity” – will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.

Any such solution would have to settle longstanding issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, satisfying Israel’s security concerns and Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory in Palestinians want to build that state.

Hanging over the entire initiative are persistent questions about whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution” – the long-standing international formula to bring about peace by creating an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel.

The United Nations and most nations back the two-state solution and it has underpinned every peace plan for decades.

But the Trump team – led by Kushner, Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman – has consistently refused to commit to it, keeping the political stage of the plan a tightly guarded secret.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, has his own domestic problems, facing an election, and possible corruption charges after a long-running police investigation. He denies any wrongdoing.

“We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” Netanyahu said on Sunday. Although no Israeli government ministers will attend, an Israeli business delegation is expected.

But Palestinian leaders have boycotted the workshop, and are refusing to engage with the White House – accusing it of pro-Israel bias after a series of recent Trump decisions. Kushner told Reuters “some” Palestinian businessmen would be present but declined to name them.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success.

“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important,” he said.

Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, has found itself in rare agreement with its arch-rival Abbas.

“The Palestinian people only and no one else can represent the Palestinian cause,” Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said.

He said the Trump approach “seeks to turn our political cause into a humanitarian cause, and to merge the occupation into the region.”

Kushner said that even without the Israeli and Palestinian governments represented, the presence of Israeli businessmen and journalists with their counterparts from the Arab world would be significant at a time of rising tensions with Iran.

“People realize that the real threat to that region is Iran and their aggression, and Israel and a lot of the other Arab states have a lot more in common today than they did before,” he said.

David Makovsky, a Washington-based Middle East expert, agreed that although the principal focus of the event was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Iran is higher on the chain of interest right now.”

But Makovsky, who the White House has invited as an observer, said the Trump/Kushner plan would ultimately succeed or fail on how it addressed the big underlying issues, not the money. “No one believes you can solve this thing economically without addressing the political issues.”

(Writing by Stephen Farrell. Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah.)

U.S. records 33 new measles cases, raising year’s total to 1,077

FILE PHOTO: A vial of the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine at the International Community Health Services clinic in Seattle, Washington, U.S., March 20, 2019. REUTERS/Lindsey Wasson

(Reuters) – The United States recorded 33 new measles cases last week, bringing the number of confirmed cases this year to 1,077 in the worst outbreak of the virus since 1992, federal health officials said on Monday.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said the cases of the highly contagious and sometimes deadly disease rose 3% in the week ended June 20 from the prior week. The 2019 outbreak, which has spread to 28 states, is the worst since 1992, when 2,126 cases were recorded.

Health experts say the virus has spread among school-age children whose parents declined to give them the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, which confers immunity to the disease. A vocal fringe of U.S. parents, some in New York’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish communities, cite concerns that the vaccine may cause autism, despite scientific studies that have debunked such claims.

The disease has mostly affected children who have not received the vaccine.

Measles was declared eliminated in the United States in 2000, meaning there was no continuous transmission of the disease for a year. Still, cases of the virus occur and spread via travelers coming from countries where measles is common.

CDC officials have warned that the country risks losing its measles elimination status if the ongoing outbreak, which began in October 2018 in New York, continues until October 2019.

The outbreak has escalated since 82 people in 2018 and more than 40 people in 2019 brought measles to the United States from other countries, most frequently Ukraine, Israel and the Philippines, federal officials said.

(Reporting by Gabriella Borter in New York and Ankur Banerjee in Bengaluru; Editing by Shailesh Kuber and Susan Thomas)