Blinken: U.S. will help foster further Israeli ties with Arab states

By Matt Spetalnick and Humeyra Pamuk

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged on Friday to encourage more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel as he hosted a virtual meeting with Israeli and Arab counterparts to mark the first anniversary of a set of landmark diplomatic agreements.

The event – held with Blinken’s counterparts from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco – was the Biden administration’s highest-profile embrace of the so-called Abraham Accords, which were widely seen as a diplomatic success for Republican former President Donald Trump.

Democratic President Joe Biden has backed the deals since taking office in January, and senior aides have said they want more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel after decades of enmity. But the administration until now had been cool to the idea of commemorating the anniversary of the accords.

On Friday, however, Blinken hailed their diplomatic and economic benefits, saying: “This administration will continue to build on the successful efforts of the last administration to keep normalization marching forward.”

He said the Biden administration would help foster Israel’s growing ties with the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco – as well as Sudan, which also reached a breakthrough with Israel last year – and would work to deepen Israel’s relationships with Egypt and Jordan, which have long-standing peace deals.

And Blinken said Washington would encourage more countries to follow their lead. “We want to widen the circle of peaceful diplomacy,” he said.

Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid agreed, saying: “This Abraham Accords club is open to new members as well.”

The leaders of Israel, the UAE and Bahrain signed the accords at the White House last September. Israel and Sudan announced in the following month that they would normalize relations, and Morocco established diplomatic ties with Israel in December, after Biden defeated Trump in the U.S. election.

Palestinian officials said they felt betrayed by their Arab brethren for reaching deals with Israel without first demanding progress toward the creation of a Palestinian state.

Some critics said Trump had promoted Arab rapprochement with Israel while ignoring Palestinian aspirations for statehood.

But Blinken, who has sought to repair ties with the Palestinians badly damaged under Trump, said: “We all must build on these relationships and growing normalization to make tangible improvements in the lives of Palestinians, and to make progress toward the long-standing goal of advancing negotiated peace between Israelis and Palestinians.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick, Humeyra Pamuk and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Jonathan Oatis)

Israel opposes Biden plan to reopen U.S. Palestinian mission in Jerusalem

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel said on Wednesday that a U.S. plan to reopen its consulate in Jerusalem that has traditionally been a base for diplomatic outreach to Palestinians is a “bad idea” and could destabilize Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s new government.

The prior administration of President Donald Trump signaled support for Israel’s claim on Jerusalem as its capital by moving the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. It later subsumed the consulate, in west Jerusalem, in that mission.

It was among several moves that incensed the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as capital of a hoped-for, future state.

President Joe Biden has pledged to restore ties with the Palestinians, back a two-state solution and move forward with reopening the consulate. It has been closed since 2019, with Palestinian affairs handled by the embassy.

“We think it’s a bad idea,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told a news conference when asked about the reopening. “Jerusalem is the sovereign capital of Israel and Israel alone, and therefore we don’t think it’s a good idea.

“We know that the (Biden) administration has a different way of looking at this, but since it is happening in Israel, we are sure they are listening to us very carefully.”

Wasel Abu Youssef, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, told Reuters that the Israeli rejection of the consulate’s opening was expected, adding: “They are trying to maintain the status quo and block any political solution”.

Asked about Lapid’s remarks, a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said: “As Secretary Blinken announced in May, the United States will be moving forward with the process to reopen our consulate in Jerusalem. We do not have additional information to share at this time.”

The spokesperson said the United States was not reversing its decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem nor its recognition of the city as Israel’s capital.

Israel captured the city’s east, along with the occupied West Bank and Gaza, in the 1967 Middle East war.

It deems all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital – a status not recognized internationally. In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, Trump said he was not taking a position on “any final-status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem”.

Bennett, a nationalist atop a cross-partisan coalition, opposes Palestinian statehood. Reopening the consulate could unsettle Bennett’s government, which ended long-term premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure in June, Lapid said.

“We have an interesting and yet delicate structure of our government and we think this might destabilize this government and I don’t think the American administration wants this to happen,” he said.

Divisions among Palestinians also cast doubt about the prospects for diplomacy, Lapid said. “I am a devoted believer in the two-state solution … but we’ll have to admit the fact this is not feasible in the current situation.”

(Writing by Rami Ayyub;Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Jonathan Oatis)

Israel says it will loan Palestinians money after highest-level talks in years

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel will lend the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority more than $150 million after the sides held their highest-level meeting in years, Israeli officials said on Monday, while playing down prospects of any major diplomatic breakthrough.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who has overall responsibility for the Israeli-occupied West Bank, travelled to the Palestinian self-rule area of the territory for previously undisclosed talks on Sunday with President Mahmoud Abbas.

A source close to Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said the premier had approved the Gantz-Abbas meeting and deemed it a “routine” matter. “There is no diplomatic process with the Palestinians, nor will there be one,” the source told Reuters.

U.S.-sponsored talks on founding a Palestinian state stalled in 2014. The Gantz-Abbas meeting took place as Bennett, a nationalist who opposes Palestinian statehood, returned from his first talks with U.S. President Joe Biden in Washington.

PA official Hussein Al Sheikh said the talks with Gantz included “all aspects” of Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Abbas coordinates West Bank security with Israel. Both sides are wary of Hamas Islamists who seized the Gaza Strip, another Palestinian territory, from Abbas in 2007.

But Israel chafes at stipends the PA pays to militants jailed or killed in attacks on Israelis. In a protest measure, the Bennett government last month withheld $180 million from 2020 tax revenues it collected on behalf of the PA. A Gantz spokeswoman said that policy was unchanged.

The 500 million shekel ($155 million) loan was meant to help “with vital PA functions” and would be repaid in 2022 out of future tax revenues collected by Israel, the spokeswoman said.

A White House statement said Biden, during his talks with Bennett on Friday, reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and “underscored the importance of steps to improve the lives of Palestinians”.

Bennett did not mention Palestinians in public remarks at the White House that focused largely on arch-enemy Iran’s nuclear program.

Gantz, a centrist in Bennett’s coalition government, has called in the past for resumption of a peace process with the Palestinians, who aspire to a state of their own in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital. Israel captured those territories in the 1967 Middle East war.

But any renewed movement on the issue could shake the foundations of Bennett’s government of left-wing, rightist, centrist and Arab parties that in June ended the conservative Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister.

In a sign of friction within the coalition, Mossi Raz, a legislator from the left-wing Meretz party, said dismissal of prospects for renewed peace talks by the Bennett source was “outrageous.”

“A peace process is an Israeli interest,” Raz wrote on Twitter.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Howard Goller)

Israel finds COVID-19 vaccine booster significantly lowers infection risk

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A third dose of Pfizer’s COVID-19 vaccine has significantly improved protection from infection and serious illness among people aged 60 and older in Israel compared with those who received two shots, findings published by the Health Ministry showed on Sunday.

The data were presented at a meeting of a ministry panel of vaccination experts on Thursday and uploaded to its website on Sunday, though the full details of the study were not released.

The findings were on par with separate statistics reported last week by Israel’s Maccabi healthcare provider, one of several organizations administering booster shots to try to curb the Delta coronavirus variant.

Breaking down statistics from Israel’s Gertner Institute and KI Institute, ministry officials said that among people aged 60 and over, the protection against infection provided from 10 days after a third dose was four times higher than after two doses.

A third jab for over 60-year-olds offered five to six times greater protection after 10 days with regard to serious illness and hospitalization.

That age group is particularly vulnerable to COVID-19 and in Israel was the first to be inoculated when the vaccine drive began in late December.

In recent weeks, the health ministry has said immunity has diminished over time for seniors and younger people as well. Most vaccinated people who fell severely ill in Israel were over 60 and with underlying health conditions.

Israel started administering third jabs to over 60-year-olds on July 30. On Thursday it dropped the age of eligibility for a booster to 40, and included pregnant women, teachers and health care workers below that age. Third doses are given only to those who received their second shot at least five months ago.

The United States has announced plans to offer booster shots to all Americans, citing data showing diminishing protection. Canada, France and Germany have announced booster campaigns.

Fighting an outbreak of the Delta variant since June, Israel presently has one of the world’s highest infection rates per capita. Close to 1.5 million people out of the country’s 9.3 million population have taken a third jab.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Wildfires outside Jerusalem contained, Israeli fire brigade says

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Wildfires in wooded hills near Jerusalem were contained on Tuesday, the Israeli fire brigade said, after crews waged a three-day battle joined by Palestinian firefighters and the Israeli Air Force.

No serious injuries were reported in the worst fires in the Jerusalem area for years.

Evacuated residents of several outlying small communities were able to return home on Monday, and Israel withdrew on Tuesday a request for international air support to fight the fires, which burned more than 4,200 acres (17,000 hectares).

National Fire and Rescue chief Dedi Simchi said in broadcast remarks after nightfall on Tuesday that the flames had been “fully contained.”

Several fire trucks from the Palestinian Authority (PA) took part in operations on Tuesday. Israeli media and leaders highlighted the assistance, but official Palestinian news outlets made no immediate mention of the aid.

“I would like to thank PA Chairman (Mahmoud) Abbas for his initiative to send the firefighters who came to assist Israel today. Mutual care and saving human lives are common interests to us all,” Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz said in a statement.

The PA exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank under 1990s interim peace deals with Israel. U.S.-brokered talks on a final agreement collapsed seven years ago.

A U.S.-made, Israeli Air Force C-130J “Super Hercules” transport plane joined smaller aircraft on Tuesday in dumping chemical retardant on the wildfires.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Firefighters evacuate towns outside Jerusalem as wildfire blazes

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Firefighters battling a wildfire in wooded hills outside Jerusalem evacuated more small communities on Monday as planes and crews fought flames for a second day.

The blaze some 10 km (six miles) west of Jerusalem sent clouds of smoke billowing east but there appeared to be little danger the fire would reach the city. No serious injuries have been reported.

Israel’s Fire and Rescue Authority said 45 crews and eight planes were battling the blaze, which the country’s internal security minister said burned around 4,200 acres (17,000 hectares) on Sunday, forcing hundreds to evacuate.

Several more communities were evacuated on Monday afternoon, the Fire and Rescue Authority wrote on Twitter, while others were given evacuation orders. The authority’s commissioner announced a general mobilization for personnel to help stop the blaze.

In a meeting with fire and rescue officials late on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he was concerned the blaze could reach Jerusalem’s western localities, including the area of Ein Kerem, home to Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center.

“Fire brigades are preparing a defensive position there,” Bennett said, warning that while he was hopeful crews would bring the blaze under control, “fires and winds have a capricious dynamic.”

An investigation has been launched into the cause of the fires, the Fire and Rescue Authority said.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Israel, Morocco to upgrade ties and open embassies, Israeli FM says

RABAT (Reuters) – Israel and Morocco plan to upgrade their restored diplomatic relations and open embassies within several months, Israel’s foreign minister said during a visit to the North African kingdom on Thursday.

Morocco was one of four Arab countries – along with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan – to move towards normalizing relations with Israel last year under U.S.-engineered accords.

Those agreements also saw Washington recognize Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara, in a diplomatic boon for Rabat.

“We are going to upgrade from liaison offices to embassies,” Yair Lapid told a news conference.

In similar comments to Israeli reporters accompanying him on a two-day trip that began on Wednesday, Lapid was quoted as saying that he had agreed with his Moroccan counterpart Nasser Bourita that the embassies would open in two months’ time.

There was no immediate confirmation of Lapid’s remarks by Morocco.

Lapid’s visit was the first by an Israeli foreign minister to Morocco since 2003, after the two countries agreed in December to resume diplomatic relations under a U.S.-brokered deal.

Earlier on Thursday, Lapid inaugurated Israel’s liaison office in Rabat and visited a synagogue in Casablanca.

The deals between Israel and the four Arab states angered Palestinians, who have long relied on Arab support in their quest for statehood in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and Gaza. Until last year, only two Arab states – Egypt and Jordan – had forged full ties with Israel.

Morocco cooled mid-level relations with Israel in 2000 in solidarity with the Palestinians, who launched an uprising that year.

(Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi; Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Former UN rights boss to head probe into Israel, Hamas alleged crimes

GENEVA (Reuters) – Former United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay will head an international commission of inquiry into alleged crimes committed during the latest conflict between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in Gaza, the U.N.’s Human Rights Council said in a statement on Thursday.

The council agreed in late May to launch the investigation with a broad mandate to probe all alleged violations, not just in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank, but also in Israel during hostilities that were halted by a May 21 ceasefire.

At least 250 Palestinians and 13 people in Israel were killed in the fierce fighting, which saw Gaza militants fire rockets towards Israeli cities and Israel carry out air strikes across the coastal enclave.

Michelle Bachelet, the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, told the council at the time that deadly Israeli strikes on Gaza might constitute war crimes and that Hamas had violated international humanitarian law by firing rockets into Israel.

Israel rejected the resolution adopted by the Geneva forum at an emergency special session and said it would not cooperate.

Pillay, a former South African judge who served as U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights from 2008-2014, will lead the three-person panel also composed of Indian expert Miloon Kothari and Australian expert Chris Sidoti, said the statement issued by the Human Rights Council. The investigators, who have been tasked with trying to identify those responsible for violations with a view to ensure they are held accountable, are due to present their first report in June 2022.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Turkey and Israel want to improve ties after presidents’ call – Turkish ruling party

ANKARA (Reuters) – Turkey and Israel have agreed to work towards improving their strained relations after a rare phone call between their presidents, a spokesman for Turkey’s ruling AK Party said on Wednesday.

The two countries expelled ambassadors in 2018 after a bitter falling-out. Ankara has condemned Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and its treatment of Palestinians, while Israel has called on Turkey to drop support for the militant Palestinian group Hamas which rules Gaza.

Both sides say the other must move first for any rapprochement.

President Tayyip Erdogan called Israel’s new president, Isaac Herzog, on Monday to congratulate him on taking office. Israel’s presidency is a largely ceremonial office.

“A framework emerged after this call under which advances should be made on several issues where improvements can be made, and where steps towards solving problematic areas should be taken,” spokesman Omer Celik said after an AK Party meeting.

Celik singled out the Palestinians as one of many issues Turkey wants to discuss with Israel, adding that areas such as tourism and trade should be a “win-win” for both nations. Bilateral trade has remained strong amid the political disputes.

During the call, which came a day after Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas visited Ankara, Erdogan told Herzog he valued maintaining dialogue and said Turkish-Israeli relations were key for regional stability.

Erdogan also reiterated his support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, adding “positive steps” would also help Turkey’s ties with Israel, his office said.

In May, Erdogan called Israel a “terror state” after Israeli police shot rubber bullets and stun grenades towards Palestinian youths at Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque.

Israel accuses Turkey of aiding members of Hamas, which is considered a terrorist organization by Israel and its Western allies.

Turkey has also recently been trying to repair its frayed ties with Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

Monday’s call came a month after Naftali Bennett became Israeli prime minister, replacing Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom Erdogan had frequently traded barbs.

(Reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Daren Butler; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Living with COVID-19: Israel changes strategy as Delta variant hits

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Four weeks ago, Israel was celebrating a return to normal life in its battle with COVID-19.

After a rapid vaccination drive that had driven down coronavirus infections and deaths, Israelis had stopped wearing face masks and abandoned all social-distancing rules.

Then came the more infectious Delta variant, and a surge in cases that has forced Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to reimpose some COVID-19 restrictions and rethink strategy.

Under what he calls a policy of “soft suppression,” the government wants Israelis to learn to live with the virus – involving the fewest possible restrictions and avoiding a fourth national lockdown that could do further harm to the economy.

As most Israelis in risk groups have now been vaccinated against COVID-19, Bennett is counting on fewer people than before falling seriously ill when infections rise.

“Implementing the strategy will entail taking certain risks but in the overall consideration, including economic factors, this is the necessary balance,” Bennett said last week.

The main indicator guiding the move is the number of severe COVID-19 cases in hospital, currently around 45. Implementation will entail monitoring infections, encouraging vaccinations, rapid testing and information campaigns about face masks.

The strategy has drawn comparisons with the British government’s plans to reopen England’s economy from lockdown, though Israel is in the process of reinstating some curbs while London is lifting restrictions.

The curbs that have been reinstated include the mandatory wearing of face masks indoors and quarantine for all people arriving in Israel.

Bennett’s strategy, like that of the British government, has been questioned by some scientists.

Israel’s Health Ministry advocates more of a push for stemming infections, Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at Israel’s Health Ministry, told Kan Radio on Sunday.

“It’s possible that there won’t be a big rise in the severely ill but the price of making such a mistake is what’s worrying us,” she said.

But many other scientists are supportive.

“I am very much in favor of Israel’s approach,” said Nadav Davidovitch, director of the school of public health at Israel’s Ben Gurion University, describing it as a “golden path” between Britain’s easing of restrictions and countries such as Australia that take a tougher line.

THE VIRUS ‘WON’T STOP’

Israel’s last lockdown was enforced in December, about a week after the start of what has been one of the world’s fastest vaccination programs.

New daily COVID-19 infections are running at about 450. The Delta variant, first identified in India, now makes up about 90% of cases.

“We estimate that we won’t reach high waves of severe cases like in previous waves,” the health ministry’s director-general, Nachman Ash, said last week. “But if we see that the number and increase rate of severe cases are endangering the (health) system, then we will have to take further steps.”

Around 60% of Israel’s 9.3 million population have received at least one shot of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine. On Sunday, the government began offering a third shot to people with a compromised immune system.

Ran Balicer, chair of the government’s expert panel on COVID-19, said Israel had on average had about five severe cases of the virus and one death per day in the last week, after two weeks of zero deaths related to COVID-19.

Noting the impact of the Delta variant, he said the panel was advising caution over the removal of restrictions.

“We do not have enough data from our local outbreak to be able to predict with accuracy what would happen if we let go,” Balicer said.

Some studies have shown that though high, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine’s effectiveness against the Delta variant is lower than against other coronavirus strains.

Drawing criticism from some scientists, Pfizer and BioNTech SE have said they will ask U.S. and European regulators to authorize booster shots to head off increased risk of infection six months after inoculation.

Israel is in no rush to approve public booster shots, saying there is no unequivocal data yet showing they are necessary. It is offering approval only to people with weak immune systems on a case-by-case basis.

Authorities are also considering allowing children under 12 to take the vaccine on a case-by-case basis if they suffer from health conditions that put them at high risk of serious complications if they were to catch the virus.

Only “a few hundred” of the 5.5 million people who have been vaccinated in Israel have later been infected with COVID-19, Ash said.

Before the Delta variant arrived, Israel had estimated 75% of the population would need to be vaccinated to reach “herd immunity” – the level at which enough of a population are immunized to be able to effectively stop a disease spreading. The estimated threshold is now 80%.

Such data ensure doctors remain concerned.

“…the virus won’t stop. It is evolving, it’s its nature. But our nature is to survive,” said Dr. Gadi Segal, head of the coronavirus ward at Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Timothy Heritage)