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)

Netanyahu formally indicted in court on corruption charges

By Stephen Farrell and Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was formally indicted in court on Tuesday on corruption charges after he withdrew his request for parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahyu was in Washington for meetings with U.S. President Donald Trump ahead of the release of Trump’s long-delayed Israel-Palestinian peace plan when Israel’s attorney-general filed the charges in a Jerusalem court.

The immunity bid seemed doomed to fail from the beginning since Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, lacked sufficient votes in the legislature for approval.

The request for protection from prosecution had effectively blocked the filing of the indictment until now.

As proceedings move toward trial the timeline remains unclear and it could take months or years.

In addition to his legal battle, Netanyahu is fighting for his political life in a March 2 election, Israel’s third in less than a year after inconclusive ballots in April and September.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, said in a statement that an immunity debate in parliament would have been a “circus” and he did not want to take part in this “dirty game”.

With public attention in Israel focused on events in Washington, Netanyahu’s White House meetings seemed likely to overshadow his latest legal woes.

The veteran right-winger is under no legal obligation to resign.

Netanyahu’s main rival, centrist former general Benny Gantz, made Netanyahu’s legal troubles a centerpiece of his campaigns in two Israeli elections last year.

Gantz made a brief trip to Washington to discuss the peace plan with Trump, and had rushed back to Israel expecting to lead the parliament debate against granting Netanyahu immunity.

“Netanyahu is going to trial – we have to move on,” Gantz said after Netanyahu pulled his immunity request.

“The citizens of Israel have a clear choice: a prime minister who works for them or a prime minister busy with himself. No one can manage the country and in parallel manage three serious criminal cases,” Gantz said in a tweet.

The corruption charges marked the first criminal indictment against a serving Israeli prime minister. The charge sheet was first published by Israel’s attorney general in November following a long-running investigation. The charges included bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000 worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and of dispensing regulatory favors in alleged bids for improved coverage by a popular news website.Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum three-year term for fraud and breach of trust.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell and Ari Rabinovitch. Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israeli parties agree on March 2 election if no government formed

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s two biggest parties agreed on Monday on a March 2 election date, barring a last-minute power-sharing deal, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for political survival under criminal indictment.

A 21-day period in which parliament can nominate a legislator with majority support to try to put together a ruling coalition expires at 2200 GMT on Wednesday, triggering the legislature’s dissolution and an election within 90 days.

It would be Israel’s third national ballot in less than a year. Recent opinion polls have predicted no dramatic shifts among voters since inconclusive elections in April and September.

Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party nor the centrist Blue and White party led by his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, won enough seats in parliament for a governing majority in the previous two contests.

Both men were delegated the task of forming a coalition, but failed, throwing the ball into parliament’s court. Their parties have been deadlocked in talks on a “unity” administration in which Netanyahu and Gantz would take turns as prime minister.

The two parties, which disagree over which man would serve first and for how long, announced they had agreed on the March 2 election date. The date needs parliament’s approval but the two parties dominate the assembly so it is sure to pass.

The political disarray and a long-running corruption investigation have threatened to curtail Netanyahu’s decade-long hold on power. Last month, Netanyahu, 70, was charged with bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Denying any wrongdoing, he has accused Israel’s legal authorities of attempting a “coup” aimed at ousting a popular right-wing leader. Critics alleged that Netanyahu was trying to undermine the rule of law and set an election campaign theme portraying himself as the victim of “deep state” conspiracy.

As prime minister, Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign following the indictment. A caretaker premier remains in the post until a new government is formed – a process that could stretch months past a March ballot if coalition-building is taken into account.

Before the national poll, Netanyahu would face an internal Likud leadership election. No date has been announced and only one challenger has emerged, former cabinet minister Gideon Saar, with no signs of any broad party revolt to oust Netanyahu.

In a speech on Sunday, Netanyahu said he hoped to avoid another election, “but if one is forced upon us, we will win big.”

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Prosecution in Israel lines up over 300 witnesses in Netanyahu case

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An indictment submitted to Israel’s parliament on Monday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu names more than 300 prosecution witnesses, including wealthy friends and former aides, in three graft cases against him.

By formally sending the indictment to the legislature, after announcing charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud on Nov. 21, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit set the clock ticking on a 30-day period in which Netanyahu can seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Such protection seems unlikely, with Israeli politics in disarray after inconclusive elections in April and September and the failure of Netanyahu and his main challenger, Benny Gantz, to secure a ruling majority in the legislature.

Netanyahu, in office for the past decade, has denied any wrongdoing, saying he is a victim of an attempted “coup” waged by legal authorities trying to unseat a popular right-wing leader.

As prime minister, he is under no legal obligation to resign after being charged. No date has been set for the opening of the trial, with three judges presiding in Jerusalem District Court.

The indictment submitted to parliament listed 333 witnesses for the prosecution. Legal experts said the long roster meant proceedings could go on for years.

They include U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, Australian billionaire James Packer and retired Israeli security chiefs, and several former aides who will be state witnesses against him.

Netanyahu poured scorn on the length of the witness list.

“When an accusation is true, you don’t need 333 witnesses,” he wrote on Twitter. “When the accusation is untrue, not even 333 witnesses will help.”

TALKS DEADLOCKED

In one case, Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully requesting and accepting expensive gifts, including champagne and cigars, from Milchan and Packer. Neither has been charged with any wrongdoing.

Another case focuses on allegations that Netanyahu promised the owner of Israel’s best-selling newspaper to push for regulations on its main competitor, owned by Adelson.

Netanyahu also is accused of granting regulatory favors worth about 1.8 billion shekels ($500 million) to Bezeq Telecom Israel <BEZQ.TA> in return for positive coverage on a website owned by its former chairman.

Talks between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party on a “national unity” government are deadlocked.

If no agreement is reached within 10 days – the end of a three-week period in which legislators can nominate a candidate to try to form a government – Israel is likely to hold a new election.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Trump says he made Golan Heights decision after a quick history lesson

U.S. President Donald Trump addresses the Republican Jewish Coalition 2019 Annual Leadership Meeting in Las Vegas, Nevada, U.S., April 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Roberta Rampton

LAS VEGAS (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Saturday he made the controversial decision to recognize Israel’s 1981 annexation of the Golan Heights after getting a quick history lesson during a conversation on a different subject.

Speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition gathering in Las Vegas, Trump said he made the snap decision during a discussion with his top Middle East peace advisers, including the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“I said, ‘Fellows, do me a favor. Give me a little history, quick. Want to go fast. I got a lot of things I’m working on: China, North Korea. Give me a quickie,” Trump said to laughter from the Las Vegas crowd.

“‘How do you like the idea of me recognizing exactly what we’re discussing?'” said Trump, recounting the conversation.

Trump, who typically demands short sharp briefings and is known for his colorful retelling of stories, said Friedman was shocked, “like a wonderful, beautiful baby,” and asked the President if he would actually do it.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Trump last month. At their March 25 meeting, Trump signed a proclamation officially granting U.S. recognition of the Golan as Israeli territory, a dramatic departure from decades of U.S. policy. The move, which Trump announced in a tweet days prior, was widely seen as an attempt to boost Netanyahu who is up for re-election on April 9.

Israel captured the Golan in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in 1981 in a move not recognized internationally.

“I went – ‘BING!’ – it was done,” Trump said on Saturday, describing the swiftness of his decision. “We make fast decisions. And we make good decisions.”

When Trump asked the crowd who will win Israel’s election – there were shouts of “Bibi!” Trump responded “I think it’s going to be close. Two good people.”

Netanyahu is fighting for his political survival against former top general Benny Gantz, a political novice.

Republican megadonor Sheldon Adelson, who is reportedly gravely ill, watched the speech in person.

Earlier three protesters stood on their chairs as Trump began to speak, shouting “Jews are here to say – occupation is a plague.” The rest of the crowd quickly drowned them out with chants of “USA! USA!” They were physically removed by security guards.

“He is going back to mommy and he will be reprimanded,” Trump said of the protesters. “She gets it.”

(Reporting by Roberta Rampton, writing by Lucia Mutikani; additional reporting by David Shepardson and David Brunnstrom; editing by Michelle Price and David Gregorio)

Israel-Hamas fighting abates along Gaza border after major escalation

Palestinians inspect a destroyed Hamas site after it was targeted in an Israeli air strike in Gaza City March 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Ari Rabinovitch

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Cross-border fighting between Israel and Hamas abated on Tuesday after a day of Palestinian rocket attacks and Israeli air strikes, but Israel said it reserved the right to strike again and kept its forces massed at the Gaza frontier.

The biggest Israeli-Palestinian escalation in months, which began on Monday with the longest-range Palestinian rocket attack to cause casualties in Israel for five years, appeared to have been curbed overnight by Egyptian mediation.

But even if brought to an end, the crisis could have an impact on an Israeli election in two weeks in which right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting for his political life, arguing that he must stay in power to keep Israelis safe.

Israel responded to Monday’s rocket attack with a wave of strikes on targets belonging to the Hamas militant group that controls the Gaza strip. Seven Israelis were injured in the initial rocket attack and five Palestinians were wounded by the retaliatory Israeli strikes, although most of the targets hit appeared to have been evacuated in advance.

A senior Israeli official on board the plane of Netanyahu — who flew home cutting short a visit to the United States to deal with the crisis — said Israel had not yet stood down.

“We are prepared to deliver another blow, if necessary,” Israeli Army Radio quoted the official as saying.

The border area fell quiet on Tuesday morning after Hamas said Egypt had brokered a truce. As in past escalations that ended with Egyptian mediation, Israel denied it had agreed to a ceasefire with Hamas, which it views as a terrorist group.

Rocket warning sirens, which had sounded in Israeli towns near the border on Monday night, fell silent by morning.

The escalation was the biggest since November between Israel and Hamas, which fought three wars between 2007 and 2014 and have come to the brink of all-out conflict several times since.

Security is a major issue as Netanyahu, in power for a decade, faces his strongest electoral challenge from a centrist coalition led by a top general. The right-wing leader is beset by corruption allegations which he denies. He argues that he has kept Israelis safe with a tough stance towards the Palestinians that could be weakened if he leaves office.

In Washington, he met U.S. President Donald Trump, who reversed decades of U.S. policy to sign a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

Reporters who flew with Netanyahu quoted the senior Israeli official as saying Trump’s move was proof that Israel could retain land captured in a “defensive war”, an apparent suggestion of a permanent hold over other areas captured in 1967, such as parts of the West Bank.

“WE DON’T WANT WAR”

The Israeli military blamed Hamas, the dominant armed group in Gaza, for Monday’s initial strike that destroyed a house in Mishmeret, a village north of Tel Aviv. It said the rocket had been launched from the enclave, some 120 km (70 miles) away.

Retaliatory Israeli air strikes in Gaza lit up the night sky and explosions rocked the densely-populated coastal enclave, destroying targets that included the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. The military said extra Israeli soldiers and tanks had been moved to the border.

In the morning, with the bombing having stopped, Gazans picked through the rubble of destroyed buildings to search for valuables and documents. Some Gaza universities were shut but schools were open, although many families kept children home.

“We don&rsquo;t want war, but if Israel wants it then what should we do? We ask our factions to respond,” said Mohammad Sayed, 40. “But we hope Egypt reaches a deal to end this.”

Gaza militants fired barrages of rockets into Israel late into Monday night. Some were shot down by Israeli defenses and others landed in empty areas. Israel remained on high alert on Tuesday and ordered schools near the border closed and residents to stay near bomb shelters.

“I told my kids that everything is going to be all right and that it will be over. We trust the government will solve the problem,” Eliav Vanunu, whose house in the Israeli border town of Sderot was damaged by a rocket on Monday night, said on Israel Radio.

Gaza is home to 2 million Palestinians, mostly descendants of people who fled or were driven from homes in Israel on its founding in 1948.

Israel captured the territory in the 1967 war but pulled out its troops in 2005. Hamas took control two years later, and since then Israel and Egypt have maintained a security blockade that has brought Gaza’s economy to a state of collapse.

In the past year, nearly 200 Palestinians and one Israeli soldier have been killed during demonstrations near the border by Palestinians seeking a lifting of the blockade and the right to return to homes in Israel. Israel says it has no choice but to use deadly force to protect the frontier from militants.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ran Tzabari and Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israel’s Netanyahu takes over defense job as coalition falters

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits next to Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett during a session of the plenum of the Knesset, the Israeli Parliament, in Jerusalem, March 12, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will take over the defense portfolio in his government after his defense minister resigned this week, a spokesman for his Likud Party said on Friday, fuelling speculation of an early election.

Earlier Netanyahu met with key coalition partner Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, who had sought the post for himself, but the two men emerged without an agreement.

Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition government was rocked by Avigdor Lieberman’s resignation on Wednesday in protest at a ceasefire reached between Israel and the Islamist group Hamas in the Gaza Strip.

Lieberman’s far-right Yisrael Beitenu party has quit the coalition and its five MPs have withdrawn support for the government.

After Bennett and Netanyahu’s meeting, a spokesman for the PM’s Likud Party said that for now, Netanyahu would handle the defense portfolio himself.

The premier then spoke by phone with the rest of his coalition partners, urging them to “make every effort not to bring down the right-wing government” and to prevent the left from getting into power, the spokesman said.

A source close to Bennett said that after his meeting with Netanyahu “it became clear … there was a need to go to elections as soon as possible with no possibility of continuing the current government.”

Israeli media reported that other coalition partners would oppose Bennett, who leads an ultra-nationalist, religious party, becoming defense minister.

An election date would be decided on Sunday, the source close to Bennett said.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, who heads the centrist Kulanu party, has also called for a vote to be held before the scheduled date next November.

Before the crisis, Netanyahu’s coalition had 66 seats in the 120-seat parliament. The loss of Lieberman’s five has brought him down to a perilous 61. Losing Bennett’s eight means Netanyahu would lose his majority.

Opinion polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud would be likely to remain the dominant party after a parliamentary election.

Netanyahu, a conservative serving his fourth term as premier, is under investigation for corruption. Commentators say he may agree to bring the ballot forward in order to win a renewed mandate before the attorney-general decides whether to indict him.

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Andrew Roche)

Trump to reveal Iran decision, Europeans doubt he will stick with nuclear deal

U.S. President Donald Trump arrives for the launch of first lady Melania Trump's "Be Best" initiative in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., May 7, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will announce on Tuesday whether he will pull out of the Iran nuclear deal or stay in and work with European allies who have struggled to persuade him that it has halted Iran’s nuclear ambitions.

Trump has consistently threatened to pull out of the 2015 agreement because it does not address Iran’s ballistic missile program or its role in wars in Syria and Yemen, and does not permanently prevent Tehran from developing nuclear weapons.

European leaders have warned that a U.S. withdrawal would undo years of work that led to and sustained a landmark deal that has kept nuclear weapons out of Iran’s hands

But a senior French official doubted Trump had taken heed of European concerns.

“I think in Washington it was quite clear the president was convinced that Trump was heading to a negative decision so we have been preparing more aggressively the hypotheses of a partial or total pullout”, the official said.

Two other European officials also said they expected Trump to pull out of the accord.

Such a move could ratchet up tensions in a region riven with interrelated wars, including the multi-layered conflict in Syria where Iran’s presence has brought it into conflict with Israel.

Reflecting those strains, Iran’s Armed Forces Chief Major General Mohammad Bagheri said Iran’s military power would defuse any threat to Tehran, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Iran of deploying “very dangerous weapons” in Syria to threaten Israel.

A decision to quit the deal could also rattle oil markets due to Iran’s role as a major exporter, and critics say it could also harm Trump’s efforts to reach a deal in nuclear talks with North Korea, a prospect he has dismissed.

“This deal … is a factor of peace and stabilization in a very eruptive region,” French Defense Minister Florence Parly told RTL radio.

Trump, in a tweet on Monday, said he would make the announcement at 2 p.m. (1800 GMT) on Tuesday.

Iran suggested its economy would not be hurt whatever happened, but its rial was near record lows against the dollar in the free market as Iranians tried to buy hard currency, fearing financial turmoil if Trump quits the deal.

“We are prepared for all scenarios. If America pulls out of the deal, our economy will not be impacted,” central bank chief Valiollah Seif said on state television.

‘STAND ON OUR OWN FEET’

“One man in one country might create some problems for us for a few months, but we will overcome those problems,” President Hassan Rouhani said. “If we are under sanctions or not, we should stand on our own feet.”

It would be a severe mistake for Iran to stay in the nuclear deal if the United States leaves it, said senior hardline official Mohammad Javad Larijani, head of the Iranian Judiciary’s Human Rights Council, Tasnim news agency reported.

Even before the latest standoff, a raft of business deals including plane purchases have been delayed amid bankers’ concerns that the nuclear deal could unravel or that they could fall foul of U.S. financial controls.

Whatever Trump’s decision, those concerns are unlikely to ease any time soon as the fallout from weeks of uncertainty and the appointment of a more hawkish U.S. foreign policy team expose underlying obstacles, bankers said.

The deal, negotiated during the administration of Trump’s Democratic predecessor, Barack Obama, eased economic sanctions on Iran in exchange for Tehran limiting its nuclear program.

Trump has called it the “worst deal ever negotiated” and he wants Britain, France and Germany – which also signed the pact along with Russia and China – to toughen up the terms.

Under the deal, known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the United States committed to ease a series of U.S. sanctions on Iran and it has done so under “waivers” that effectively suspend them.

 

WAIVERS

International Atomic Energy Agency chief Yukiya Amano has said in Iran his agency had the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime. If the deal failed it would be “a great loss”.

Trump has until Saturday to decide whether to extend the waivers or withdraw and reintroduce sanctions related to Iran’s central bank and Iranian oil exports.

That would dissuade foreign companies from doing business with Iran because they could be subject to U.S. penalties.

Rouhani suggested on Monday that Iran might remain in the nuclear deal even if Trump abandons it and imposes sanctions. But he also warned that Tehran would fiercely resist U.S. efforts to limit its influence in the Middle East.

The Kremlin said on Tuesday a U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear deal would have harmful consequences.

Israel is widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, although it neither confirms nor denies possessing atomic weapons.

Financial markets are watching Trump’s decision closely. On Tuesday, oil retreated from 3-1/2 year highs as investors waited for Trump’s statement.

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Sybille de La Hamaide, John Irish and Tim Hepher in Paris, Parisa Hafezi in Ankara, Bozorgmehr Sharafedin in London, Andrew Torchia in Dubai, Writing by William Maclean, Editing by Janet Lawrence)

Netanyahu accuses Palestinian leader of anti-Semitism, Holocaust denial

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem April 15, 2018. Gali Tibbon/Pool via Reuters/File Photo

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accused Mahmoud Abbas of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial on Wednesday after the Palestinian leader suggested in a speech that historic persecution of European Jews had been caused by their conduct.

Jewish groups also condemned Abbas’ comments, made in a speech on Monday to the Palestinian National Council, that Jews had suffered historically not because of their religion but because they had served as bankers and money lenders.

“It would appear that, once a Holocaust denier, always a Holocaust denier,” Netanyahu said on Twitter.

“I call upon the international community to condemn the grave anti-Semitism of Abu Mazen (Abbas), which should have long since passed from this world.”

Abbas said in his speech that Jews living in Europe had suffered massacres “every 10 to 15 years in some country since the 11th century and until the Holocaust”.

Citing books written by various authors, Abbas argued: “They say hatred against Jews was not because of their religion, it was because of their social profession. So the Jewish issue that had spread against the Jews across Europe was not because of their religion, it was because of usury and banks.”

“CLASSIC ANTI-SEMITE”

Netanyahu’s criticism was echoed by Jewish leaders around the world.

“Abbas’ speech in Ramallah are the words of a classic anti-Semite,” said Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper of the U.S.-based Jewish human rights organization the Simon Wiesenthal Center.

“Instead of blaming the Jews, he should look in his own backyard to the role played by the Grand Mufti in supporting Adolf Hitler’s Final Solution,” they added.

They were referring to Muslim Grand Mufti Haj Amin Husseini, a World War Two ally of Adolf Hitler, whose “Final Solution” led to the killing of six million Jews in Europe.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman tweeted that Abbas had “reached a new low in attributing the cause of massacres of Jewish people over the years to their ‘social behavior'”.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and the foreign service of the European Union, the biggest donor of aid to the Palestinians, also condemned the comments.

“We reject any relativisation of the Holocaust,” Maas told Die Welt daily.

“Germany bears responsibility for the most atrocious crime of human history,” he said, adding the memory of the Holocaust was a constant reminder to tackle any form of anti-Semitism.

The European External Action Service in Brussels said in a statement: “Such rhetoric (about the Jews) will only play into the hands of those who do not want a two-state solution, which President Abbas has repeatedly advocated.”

Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah declined comment on the criticism.

Abbas, 82, made his remarks in the West Bank city of Ramallah at a rare meeting of the Palestinian National Council, the de facto parliament of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO), which Abbas heads.

A veteran member of Fatah, the dominant faction of the PLO, Abbas served for decades as a loyal deputy of his predecessor, Yasser Arafat. He assumed the leadership of Fatah, the PLO and the Palestinian Authority after Arafat died in 2004.

Abbas was born in 1935 in Safat, a town in the north of what was then British-ruled Palestine. His family became refugees in 1948, fleeing across the border to Syria as violence intensified between Jews and Arabs, culminating in war between the newly created State of Israel and its Arab neighbors in May 1948.

In 1982 Abbas obtained a doctorate in history at the Moscow Institute of Orientalism in the then-Soviet Union. His dissertation, entitled “The Secret Relationship between Nazism and the Zionist Movement”, drew widespread criticism from Jewish groups, who accused him of Holocaust denial.

(Additional reporting by Berlin and Brussels bureaus; Reporting by Stephen Farrell, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Ali Sawfta, Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Israel presents Iran nuclear files, putting pressure on U.S. to scrap deal

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

By Stephen Farrell

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up pressure on the United States to pull out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, holding a primetime address on Israeli TV to present what he called evidence of a secret Iranian nuclear weapons program.

Intelligence experts and diplomats said he did not seem to have presented a “smoking gun” showing that Iran had violated the agreement, although he may have helped make a case on behalf of hawks in the U.S. administration who want to scrap it.

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel, April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Most of the purported evidence Netanyahu unveiled dated to the period before the 2015 accord was signed, although he said Iran had also kept important files on nuclear technology since then, and continued adding to its “nuclear weapons knowledge”.

Tehran dismissed Netanyahu as “the boy who cried wolf”, and called his presentation propaganda.

President Donald Trump has threatened to pull the United States out of the international deal unless it is renegotiated by May 12. After Netanyahu spoke, Trump repeated his criticism of the deal, suggesting he backed the Israeli leader’s remarks.

“Iran’s leaders repeatedly deny ever pursuing nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said at Israel’s Defence Ministry, standing in front of stacks of files representing what he described as a vault full of Iranian nuclear documents obtained weeks before.

“Tonight I’m here to tell you one thing: Iran lied.”

“Iran lied about never having a nuclear weapons program,” he said. “One hundred thousand secret files prove it did. Second, even after the deal, Iran continued to preserve and expand its nuclear weapons knowledge for future use.”

Although the presentation was live on Israeli television, Netanyahu made clear that his audience was abroad: he delivered most of his speech in English, before switching to Hebrew.

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Israeli Prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a news conference at the Ministry of Defence in Tel Aviv, Israel April 30, 2018. REUTERS/ Amir Cohen

Netanyahu said he had already shared the new intelligence with the United States and would dispatch envoys to France and Germany to present it. He also spoke by phone to Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Tehran has denied ever seeking nuclear weapons and accuses its arch-foe Israel of stirring up world suspicions against it.

However, much of what Netanyahu presented is unlikely to surprise world powers, which have long concluded that Iran was pursuing atomic weapons before the agreement was signed in 2015: that is why they imposed sanctions in the first place. The agreement lifted those sanctions in return for curbs on Iran’s nuclear work.

The French ambassador to Washington, Gerard Araud, tweeted that information about past Iranian nuclear activity was in fact an argument in favor of the nuclear deal, not against it.

Washington’s European allies say Tehran has generally abided by the terms of the deal since then, and have urged Trump not to scrap it. Some independent analysts and diplomats said Netanyahu appeared to be presenting old evidence.

Eran Etzion, former deputy Israeli national security adviser who now heads the Israeli-European think-tank Forum of Strategic Dialogue, said on Twitter: “No ‘smoking gun’ was revealed this evening, nor was it proven that Iran is today developing nuclear weaponry or violating the (nuclear deal) in any other way.”

A senior European diplomat told Reuters: “We knew all of this and what especially stands out is that Netanyahu doesn’t speak of any recorded violations” of the deal itself.

Speaking after Netanyahu’s presentation, Trump told a White House news conference the nuclear deal was “a horrible agreement for the United States”. He said it would let Tehran develop nuclear arms after seven years and had “proven right what Israel has done today” with Netanyahu’s disclosures.

However, Washington itself has concluded that Iran has not violated the deal’s terms. Two U.S. intelligence officials who have monitored Iran’s nuclear weapons program for years said nothing in Netanyahu’s remarks appeared to contradict that view.

“We have seen no new and credible evidence that Iran is violating the agreement, wither in the Prime Minister’s remarks today or from other sources,” said one of the officials, both of whom spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Moments before Netanyahu spoke Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif tweeted: “The boy who can’t stop crying wolf is at it again”.

Abbas Araqchi, a senior Iranian foreign ministry official, was quoted by Iran’s Tasnim news agency as calling Netanyahu’s presentation “a childish and ridiculous game” with the goal of influencing Trump’s decision ahead of the May 12 deadline.

Israel is widely believed to be the only nuclear-armed state in the Middle East, though it neither confirms nor denies possessing atomic weapons.

(Reporting by Rami Amichay, Stephen Farrell, Ori Lewis, Ari Rabinovitch, Dan Williams, Arshad Mohammed, John Irish, John Walcott, Parisa Hafezi, Francois Murphy; Editing by Peter Graff)