Serbia, Kosovo agreed to normalize economic ties, Trump says

By Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Serbia and Kosovo have agreed to normalize economic ties, U.S. President Donald Trump said on Friday, hailing what he called a “major breakthrough” more than a decade after Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008.

Trump, speaking in the Oval Office with the leaders of both countries, said Serbia had also committed to moving its embassy to Jerusalem, and Kosovo and Israel had agreed to normalize ties and establish diplomatic relations.

Serbian President Aleksander Vucic told reporters there were still many differences between Serbia and the breakaway province, but said Friday’s agreement marked a huge step forward.

Kosovo Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti said the agreement should lead to mutual recognition between the two countries.

“Serbia and Kosovo have each committed to economic normalization,” Trump said. “By focusing on job creation and economic growth, the two countries were able to reach a major breakthrough.”

The announcement came after two days of high-level talks among the leaders and senior Trump aides, and follows close on the heels of last month’s historic agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates to normalize ties.

Ethnic Albanian-majority Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 after a NATO-led bombing campaign to curtail ethnic warfare. Serbia, backed by its large Slavic and Orthodox Christian ally Russia, does not recognize Kosovo’s independence, a precondition for Belgrade’s future membership in the European Union.

National Security Adviser Robert O’Brien, who participated in the meetings, said the agreement on expanding economic ties could pave the way for political solutions in the future.

A top EU official on Monday said EU-led negotiations, which broke down in 2018 but resumed in July, could lead to a deal within months.

The U.S. talks were previously set for June but delayed after Kosovo President Hashim Thaci was indicted for alleged war crimes during the 1998-99 guerrilla uprising against Serbian rule and its aftermath. He has denied the charges.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; writing by Andrea Shalal; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Kushner hopes another Arab state normalizes Israel ties within ‘months’

DUBAI (Reuters) – White House adviser Jared Kushner hopes another Arab country normalizes ties with Israel within months, he said, after arriving in the United Arab Emirates accompanied by Israeli officials on the first commercial flight between the countries.

No other Arab state has said so far it is considering following the UAE, which agreed to normalize ties with Israel in a U.S.-brokered deal announced on Aug. 13. Several have ruled out normalization under current conditions.

Israel’s neighbors Egypt and Jordan reached peace deals with it decades ago, but other Arab states have long held the position that Israel must agree to give more land to the Palestinians for a state before ties can be normalized.

Israel and the United States have said they are pushing more Arab countries to follow the UAE’s path. Israel’s intelligence minister has mentioned Bahrain and Oman. Kushner will next visit Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Qatar on his Gulf tour.

Asked by UAE state news agency WAM when the next Arab state could normalize ties, Kushner, son-in-law to President Donald Trump, was quoted as saying: “Let’s hope it’s months.”

The UAE-Israel deal was welcomed by some Gulf countries but has been met by overwhelming Palestinian opposition.

(Writing by Alexander Cornwell and Lisa Barrington; Editing by Peter Graff)

Israel opposes any F-35 sale to UAE despite their warming ties

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel would oppose any U.S. F-35 warplane sales to the United Arab Emirates despite forging relations with the Gulf power, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday, citing a need to maintain Israeli military superiority in the region.

The statement followed a report in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that the Trump administration planned a “giant” F-35 deal with the UAE as part of the Gulf country’s U.S.-brokered move last week to normalize ties with Israel.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and representatives of the UAE government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Under understandings dating back decades, Washington has refrained from Middle East arms sales that could blunt Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME). This has applied to the F-35, denied to Arab states, while Israel has bought and deployed it.

“In the talks (on the UAE normalization deal), Israel did not change its consistent positions against the sale to any country in the Middle East of weapons and defense technologies that could tip the (military) balance,” Netanyahu’s office said.

This opposition includes any proposed F-35 sale, it added.

The Trump administration has signaled that the UAE could clinch unspecified new U.S. arms sales after last Thursday’s normalization announcement.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, an observer in Netanyahu’s security cabinet, noted that past U.S. administrations had “against our wishes” sold the UAE more advanced F-16 warplanes than Israel possesses as well as F-15 warplanes to Saudi Arabia.

Even were Washington to sell F-35s to the UAE, Steinitz told public radio station Kan that they would be unlikely to pose a danger to Israel as the distance between the countries is more than twice the jet’s range without refueling.

“I would like to offer us reassurance. Any F-35 that ends up, ultimately, in the United Arab Emirates – not that we would be happy with this, as we always want to be the only ones (with such arms) in the region – threatens Iran far more than it does us,” he said, citing a foe common to Israel and many Gulf Arabs.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alex Richardson, Angus MacSwan and Mike Collett-White)

Israel’s president invites UAE’s de facto leader to Jerusalem

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president on Monday invited the United Arab Emirates’ de facto leader to visit Jerusalem, praising his role in achieving a “noble and courageous” deal to normalize relations between Israel and the UAE.

Both countries announced on Thursday they would forge formal ties under a U.S.-sponsored deal whose implementation could recast Middle East politics ranging from the Palestinian issue to dealing with Iran, the common foe of Israel and Gulf Arabs.

The deal drew anger and dismay in much of the Arab world and Iran but a quiet welcome in the Gulf.

“In these fateful days, leadership is measured by its courage and ability to be groundbreaking and far-sighted,” Israeli President Reuven Rivlin wrote in a letter to Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, the crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

“I have no doubt that future generations will appreciate the way you, the brave and wise leaders, have restarted the discourse on peace, trust, dialogue between peoples and religions, cooperation and a promising future,” Rivlin wrote.

“On behalf of the people of Israel and (me) personally, I take this opportunity to extend an invitation to Your Highness to visit Israel and Jerusalem and be our honored guest,” Rivlin said in the letter, which his spokesman released publicly.

The Palestinians have called the deal a “betrayal” by an Arab country that they have long looked to for support in establishing a state in Gaza, East Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank, lands Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

“I am hopeful,” Rivlin’s letter went on, “that this step will help build and strengthen the trust between us and the peoples of the region, a trust that will promote understanding between us all.

“Such trust, as demonstrated in the noble and courageous act, will set our region forward, bring economic well-being and provide prosperity and stability to the people of the Middle East as a whole.”

Palestine Liberation Organization official Wassel Abu Youssef condemned Rivlin’s invitation, saying “the visit of any Arab official to Jerusalem through the gate of normalization is rejected.”

Any such top-level Arab visit could be politically explosive given Jerusalem’s internationally disputed status.

Israel seized the eastern part of the city in 1967 and annexed it in a move that has not won world recognition. It considers all of Jerusalem its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem to be the capital of the state they seek.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller with additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israeli foreign minister says annexation move unlikely Wednesday

By Dan Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

By Stephen Farrell, Maayan Lubell and Rami Ayyub

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Graphic – The American Road:

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

Masked and partitioned, worshippers return to Jerusalem’s Western Wall

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Worshippers are returning to the Western Wall in Jerusalem as Judaism’s holiest prayer site gradually reopens under eased coronavirus precautions. But now they are themselves being walled-off.

Under revised rules, up to 300 visitors at a time are being allowed to access the Western Wall, a remnant of two ancient Jewish temples in Jerusalem’s Old City. They must wear masks.

“Worshippers that have so yearned to visit the sacred stones and pray in front of them can return to the Western Wall while keeping to the health ministry restrictions,” said the site’s chief rabbi, Shmuel Rabinowitz.

But the prayer plaza facing the wall, which in peak holidays of the past would throng with thousands of people, is subdivided by barriers and cloth partitions forming temporary cloisters that can each accommodate 19 worshippers – the current cap.

Full Jewish prayer services require a quorum of 10.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Pravin Char)

Coronavirus lockdown deepens Holocaust survivors’ loneliness

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Elias Feinzilberg, a 102-year-old Holocaust survivor, had to commemorate Israel’s annual memorial day for the six million Jewish dead on Tuesday separated from his family because of the coronavirus lockdown.

From his third-floor Jerusalem home, he blew kisses to his daughter, grandchildren and great-grandchildren who stood in the street below to be with him, at a safe distance, as a siren sounded across Israel to honour those who perished.

“It pains me that I cannot be with my family, with my friends,” said Feinzilberg from his window.

Harry and Janny Brodesky, son-in-law and daughter of Elias Feinzilberg, a 102-year-old Holocaust survivor, wave as they stand by his home in Jerusalem as Israel marks Holocaust Remembrance Day under coronavirus disease (COVID-19) restrictions, April 21, 2020. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Below, his family members, including five of his 19 great-grandchildren, brandished a sign that read “Remembering close-by, embracing from afar”, part of a nationwide campaign to show solidarity with Israel’s roughly 190,000 Holocaust survivors at this time of coronavirus lockdown and enforced separation.

As the siren sounded, his family bowed their heads and then waved to Feinzilberg.

The average age of the survivors today is 84, putting them in the highest risk group for COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the coronavirus.

Israel, which has about nine million people, has reported 13,833 confirmed COVID-19 cases to date, including 181 deaths.

Feinzilberg, born in Poland in 1917, was imprisoned with his family in the Lodz ghetto after the Nazi German invasion at the start of World War Two in 1939. His father perished there and his mother and sisters were murdered at the Chelmno death camp.

“A GREAT INSPIRATION”

Feinzilberg was packed aboard a cattle train and sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau, where more than a million Jews were murdered. He survived months of forced labour before being marched by the Nazis from one concentration camp to another in the final weeks of the war.

He and his wife moved to Israel in 1969 and opened a shoe store. She died in 2008 and Feinzilberg now has a full-time care worker living with him.

The Holocaust survivors, like other elderly Israelis, are confined to their homes under the country’s partial lockdown and find themselves far from their usual network of support.

“Loneliness is one of their greatest sources of distress,” said Offir Ettinger, a spokesman for Israel’s Authority for Holocaust Survivors’ Rights, which provides thousands of survivors with regular support through dedicated NGOs.

“Every Holocaust Day we see an increase in survivors turning to us for help, but this year, because of the coronavirus isolation, it’s different,” said Ettinger.

“Even a mere word like ‘curfew’ can bring back painful memories for some,” he added, because of its associations with draconian wartime restrictions in the ghettos and camps.

Therapy sessions, led by social workers and psychologists, have been increased since the outbreak, said Ettinger, and are being conducted by phone and video chats.

Jenny Brodsky, Feinzilberg’s daughter, said her father was dealing with isolation relatively well.

“(The coronavirus) is nothing compared with what he’s been through,” she said. “The most difficult part for him is knowing that his family are okay, but he has a lot of patience, he is very optimistic. He’s a great inspiration to us.”

 

(Reporting by Eli Berelzon and Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Gareth Jones)

Israelis mark Passover, a celebration of freedom, in virtual isolation

Israelis mark Passover, a celebration of freedom, in virtual isolation
By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The Jewish Passover holiday typically draws crowds of Israelis outside to burn heaps of leavened bread, commemorating the Biblical exodus from slavery in Egypt.

But on Wednesday, a coronavirus lockdown meant the streets of Jerusalem and other cities were nearly empty on the first day of the week-long holiday, when they would normally be dotted with fires and columns of smoke.

Israel this week imposed holiday restrictions to try to halt the spread of the disease.

Jews may only celebrate the traditional “seder” meal that kicks off the April 8-15 holiday season with immediate family. Travel between cities is banned until Friday.

A full curfew took effect on Wednesday, just before the seder begins, and will last until Thursday, prompting a dash for last-minute shopping, which saw long lines of Israelis wearing face masks outside grocery stores.

Police have thrown up roadblocks and will deploy drones and helicopters to enforce curbs on movement throughout the lockdown, a spokesman said.

But some areas found workarounds to keep festive traditions alive in a month that will also see Christians celebrate Easter and Muslims mark the beginning of the holy month of Ramadan.

The Jerusalem municipality on Wednesday collected leavened products from designated dumpsters outside peoples’ homes and took them away to be burned in a large open area on the city’s outskirts.

A rabbi accompanied by a firefighter tossed a long, fire-tipped stick onto a patch of flammable liquid leading to a pile of the leavened bread products, many still in plastic bags, engulfing the mound in smoke and flames.

LEAVENED BREAD

One Jerusalem man, Daniel Arusti, disposed of a paper bread box in one of the dumpsters outside his house, instead of gathering with his ultra-Orthodox community to burn it in public.

“Next year … when there will hopefully be no (coronavirus) threat, we’ll be able to come and redo public burning of chametz (leavened bread) together, as we should,” Arusti said.

Throughout Passover, Jews abide by special dietary laws which include eating unleavened bread known as matzo. The tradition marks a Book of Exodus tale that the Jews did not have time to prepare leavened bread before leaving for the promised land.

But in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim, some Israelis flouted the restrictions and gathered in small groups or by themselves to burn leaven alongside the district’s sandstone homes and concrete walls.

Some ultra-Orthodox have heeded rabbis who, distrusting the state, spurned Health Ministry restrictions.

Unable to gather in person, other Israelis plan to hold the seder with friends and extended family online by video conferencing platforms.

The holiday restrictions added to anti-virus measures that have seen Israelis largely confined to their homes, forcing many businesses to close and sending unemployment to 25%.

Israel has reported more than 9,400 cases and at least 71 deaths from COVID-19, according to Health Ministry data.

(Additional reporting by Suheir Sheikh; Editing by Alison Williams and Janet Lawrence)

Workers in hazmat suits collect prayers from ‘God’s mailbox’ in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Twice a year, cleaning teams using long sticks gouge out tens of thousands of written prayers that visitors traditionally cram into the crevices of Judaism’s Western Wall in Jerusalem.

It was spring cleaning again at the wall on Tuesday. But this time, the rite was held with precautions against coronavirus infection in place.

Workers in hazmat suits and gas masks sprayed sanitizer on the wall’s ancient stones while others held onto their sticks with gloves as they extracted the paper notes left in “God’s mailbox”.

Religious authorities also operate a service in which people can email their prayers for placement between the stones.

One would-be worshipper, who stepped up to the wall and kissed it, was removed by police, a day after Israel tightened public prayer restrictions.

The Rabbi of the Western Wall, Shmuel Rabinowitz, who oversees the collection of the notes to ensure there’s always room for more, offered a prayer for salvation “from this difficult virus that has attacked the world”.

The papers were placed into bags for ritual burial on Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. A short distance away from the Western Wall, al-Aqsa mosque was also being sanitized.

The Western Wall is a remnant of the compound of the Second Temple that was destroyed in 70 AD. It stands today beneath a religious plaza revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alexandra Hudson)