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)

Some ultra-Orthodox Israelis chafe at coronavirus restrictions

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli police have used a drone, helicopter and stun grenades in recent days to prevent people gathering in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish neighborhood of Jerusalem in defiance of Health Ministry measures aimed at slowing the spread of the coronavirus.

On Monday, police, some in riot gear and surgical masks, encountered occasional resistance and verbal abuse while enforcing the measures in a part of the city whose residents have long chafed against the state.

“Nazis!” shouted a group of boys, as police pulled men off the narrow streets of Mea Shearim.

As well as broadcasting the message “Stay Home” from the helicopter and drone, police have issued offenders with fines.

Israeli officials describe the ultra-Orthodox as especially prone to contagion because their districts tend to be poor and congested, and in normal times they are accustomed to holding thrice-daily prayers with often large congregations.

Some of their rabbis have also cast doubt on the degree of coronavirus risk.

Many ultra-Orthodox reject the authority of the Israeli state, whose Jewish majority is mostly secular.

Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority are another sensitive community, where officials say testing for the virus has been lagging.

“There are three ‘Corona Countries’ – the ultra-Orthodox sector, the Arab sector and the rest of the State of Israel,” Defense Minister Naftali Bennett told reporters on Sunday.

The Mea Shearim patrols represented an escalation in security enforcement. On Saturday, a funeral was attended by hundreds of mourners in Bnai Brak, an ultra-Orthodox town.

Reprimanded by Internal Security Minister Gilad Erdan for allowing what he deemed a “threat to life” at the funeral, police issued a statement vowing to “draw lessons to prevent similar situations recurring”.

Public gatherings are currently limited to up to 10 people, people must keep two meters apart and the public has been urged to stay at home unless they need to buy food, get medical attention, or go to work deemed crucial by the state.

Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, ultra-Orthodox head of ZAKA, a volunteer emergency-medicine group, told Israel’s Army Radio that most ultra-Orthodox Jews did follow Health Ministry directives and only a small group defied them, possibly for political reasons.

“Everything they are doing has no value when they constitute a ‘ticking bomb’ because of whom people will get infected,” he said of those not following the government’s guidelines.

Israel has reported 4,347 coronavirus cases and 15 fatalities.

With the Health Ministry warning that the dead could eventually number in the thousands, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was due on Monday to convene officials to discuss a proposed lockdown of some of the country.

Bennett has proposed setting up a coronavirus surveillance system that would allow authorities to focus lockdowns on areas most prone to contagion.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

Palestinian and U.S. leaders blame each other for violence

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian and U.S. leaders blamed each other for a surge of violence, as mourners gathered in the occupied West Bank for the funeral of a Palestinian police officer shot dead during unrest, and Israel tightened security ahead of Friday Muslim prayers.

Tensions were high a day after two Palestinians were killed and 16 Israelis injured amid Palestinian anger at U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, unveiled last week with Israel’s prime minister at his side.

There were sporadic clashes on Friday between Palestinian protesters and Israeli security forces near Azzun, where the funeral was held for the police officer killed in Jenin the previous day.

Palestinian authorities said he was killed by Israeli gunfire. Israeli officials did not comment, and Israeli media reported that he was shot by troops by mistake.

Palestinians also clashed with Israeli troops in Jericho and burned tyres in the West Bank village of Bil’in, and Palestinian medics said one protester had been critically wounded near Tulkarm.

“The Palestinian people will not allow the ‘Deal of the Century’ to pass,” said Mohammed Barakeh, waving a Palestinian flag in Bil’in.

“They are fighting for their national character and the independence of their country,” added Barakeh, a former Israeli lawmaker and member of Israel’s 21% Arab minority, many of whom identify with their Palestinian brethren in the West Bank and Gaza.

President Mahmoud Abbas’s Palestinian Authority has rejected Trump’s peace plan, which would give Israel most of what it has sought during decades of conflict, including the disputed holy city of Jerusalem and nearly all the occupied land on which it has built settlements.

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Washington was to blame for the unrest since the plan was unveiled.

“Those who introduce plans for annexation and the legalizing of occupation and settlements are really responsible for deepening violence and counter-violence,” he said. Abbas would go to the U.N. Security Council with “a genuine peace plan”, Erekat said.

Trump’s senior adviser Jared Kushner, the principal architect of the U.S. plan, has repeatedly denounced the Palestinian leadership, a break from decades of diplomacy when Washington strove to appear as a neutral broker. On Thursday he blamed Abbas for the violence.

“I think he does have responsibility,” Kushner said after briefing United Nations Security Council ambassadors. “He calls for days of rage in response, and he said that before he even saw the plan.”

Israeli police said security chiefs had met late on Thursday and decided to increase security “across the country, with emphasis on Jerusalem”.

A police statement singled out the risk of trouble during Friday prayers at the Jerusalem holy site known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary.

Palestinians have long boycotted relations with the Trump administration, which they view as biased against them. Washington says its plan offers a path toward a Palestinian state, and blames the Palestinian leadership for rejecting it over unrealistic demands.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Peter Graff and Hugh Lawson)

What’s in Trump’s Middle East peace plan

By Stephen Farrell

(Reuters) – More than two years after he first proposed a plan to revive the long moribund Israeli-Palestinian peace process, U.S. President Donald Trump released details on Tuesday of his proposal to solve a conflict that has frustrated peacemakers for decades.

WHAT ARE THE KEY ISSUES?

* The status of Jerusalem, including historical sites sacredto Judaism, Islam and Christianity. * Establishing mutually agreed borders. * Finding security arrangements to satisfy Israeli fears ofattacks by Palestinians and hostile neighbors. * The Palestinian demand for statehood in territory – theWest Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem – captured by Israel inthe 1967 Middle East War. * Finding a solution to the plight of millions ofPalestinian refugees. * Arrangements to share natural resources, such as water. * Palestinian demands that Israel remove its settlements inthe West Bank and East Jerusalem. More than 400,000 Israelis nowlive among about 3 million Palestinians in the West Bank, withanother 200,000 settlers in East Jerusalem.WHAT DOES THE PLAN SAY?

The White House released a statement immediately after Trump’s televised address outlining the main points:

* A map to set out borders for “a realistic two-statesolution, offering a viable path to Palestinian statehood.” * A demilitarized Palestinian state to live peacefullyalongside Israel. * The proposed map more than doubles the size of the landcurrently used by the Palestinians. * Israel agreed to a four-year “land freeze” to secure thepossibility of a two-state solution. But a senior Israeliofficial later played down the notion of a settlement freeze. * The status quo to be preserved at Jerusalem’s TempleMount/al-Haram al-Sharif complex. * Israel to “continue to safeguard” Jerusalem’s holy sitesand to guarantee freedom of worship to Jews, Christians, Muslimsand other faiths. * Jerusalem to stay united and remain the capital of Israel. * The capital of the State of Palestine to include areas ofEast Jerusalem. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu latersaid the capital would be in Abu Dis, which lies one mile eastof Jerusalem’s historic walled Old City. * An earlier – economic – part of the plan announced lastJune called for a $50 billion investment fund to boost thePalestinian and neighboring Arab state economies.WHY WAS IT RELEASED NOW

Critics say both Trump and Netanyahu are intent on diverting attention away from domestic troubles. Trump faces an impeachment trial while Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges in November. Both deny wrongdoing.

They also both face re-election campaigns – Netanyahu in March and Trump in November. Netanyahu twice tried and failed to secure a majority in the Israeli parliament last year.

Trump repeatedly delayed the launch of his plan to avoid causing election problems for Netanyahu because of the likelihood that any concessions on settlements or Palestinians statehood would create problems for him among his right-wing voter base.

But Trump faces his own political clock and could ill-afford to wait for months for Israel to decide its next prime minister, according to a source familiar with the peace team’s thinking.

WHAT ARE ITS CHANCES?

The last Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.

Enduring obstacles include the expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land over decades, and generations of mutual suspicion.

In November the United States reversed decades of policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced Washington no longer regarded Israeli settlements in the West Bank as a breach of international law.

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal under international law. Israel disputes this.

The last two decades have also seen the rise to power in Gaza of the armed Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel’s destruction and is in the midst of a decades-long power struggle with the Western-backed Palestinian Authority, headed by President Mahmoud Abbas.

WHAT WAS THE REACTION?

Speaking after Trump in Washington, Netanyahu described the announcement as “a historic day.”

He compared Trump’s plan to former President Harry Truman’s 1948 recognition of the state of Israel.

“On this day, you became the first world leader to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over areas in Judea and Samaria that are vital to our security and central to our heritage,” he added, using the Biblical names for the West Bank.

Abbas called Trump’s plan the “slap of the century.”

“I say to Trump and Netanyahu: Jerusalem is not for sale, all our rights are not for sale and are not for bargain. And your deal, the conspiracy, will not pass,” Abbas said in a televised address in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

The Islamist militant group Hamas, whose stronghold is in Gaza, was scathing.

“Trump’s statement is aggressive and it will spark a lot of anger,” Hamas official Sami Abu Zuhri told Reuters.

“Trump’s statement about Jerusalem is nonsense and Jerusalem will always be a land for the Palestinians.”

The Palestinian leadership has argued that Washington can no longer be regarded as a mediator after a series of Trump decisions that delighted Israel but infuriated Palestinians.

These included recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians.

The cuts were widely seen as a means of pressuring the Palestinian leadership to come back to the negotiating table. So far, that has failed.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams and Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem; Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Writing by Stephen Farrell; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Marguerita Choy)

Palestinians decry Trump peace plan before he meets Israeli leaders

By Steve Holland and Dan Williams

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump is expected to disclose details of his Middle East peace plan to Israeli leaders on Monday as Palestinian officials decried it as a bid “to finish off” the Palestinian cause.

Trump will meet separately with right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and centrist opposition leader Benny Gantz in Washington over his long-delayed proposals, which have been kept secret.

Palestinians fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Palestinian leaders say they were not invited to Washington and that no peace plan can work without them. Ahead of the U.S.-Israeli meetings, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said Trump and Netanyahu were using the plan as a distraction from their domestic troubles.

Trump was impeached in the House of Representatives last month and is on trial in the Senate on abuse of power charges. Netanyahu faces corruption charges and an national election on March 2, his third in less than a year. Both men deny wrongdoing.

“This plan is to protect Trump against being impeached and to protect Netanyahu from going to jail, and it is not a peace plan,” Shtayyeh said on Monday at a cabinet meeting in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“We reject it, and we demand the international community not be a partner to it because it contradicts the basics of international law and inalienable Palestinian rights,” he added.

“It is nothing but a plan to finish off the Palestinian cause.”

Neighboring Jordan, which along with Egypt is one of two Arab states that have peace treaties with Israel, said on Thursday that annexation of the occupied Jordan Valley – as Netanyahu has pledged to do – “will blow up the peace process”.

WASHINGTON MEETINGS

Trump’s initiative, whose principal author is his son-in-law Jared Kushner, follows a long line of efforts to resolve one of the world’s most intractable problems.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014. The United Nations and most governments around the world back a blueprint for a two-state solution – an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel, the foundation of every peace plan for decades.

Trump hoped to release his own plan last year but was forced to delay as Netanyahu twice tried unsuccessfully to form a governing coalition after inconclusive elections.

After Monday’s meetings with Netanyahu and Gantz, Trump will on Tuesday deliver joint remarks with Netanyahu at the White House, where the president may reveal details of his proposal.

But whether it truly will jumpstart the long-stalled effort to bring Israelis and Palestinians together is far from certain.

Palestinians have refused to engage the Trump administration and denounced its first stage – a $50-billion economic revival plan announced last June.

The White House hope was that if Trump could get the support of both Netanyahu and Gantz for the plan, it would help provide some momentum. A U.S. official said Trump wants to know they are both on board with the plan before announcing it.

Gantz, Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival, last week lifted his objection to having the plan published before Israel’s March election.

“I am looking forward to meeting the president – a president of utmost friendliness to the State of Israel – on a matter that is very important for the State of Israel – with national, strategic and security ramifications,” Gantz said as he landed in Washington on Sunday.

But Trump, preoccupied with November’s re-election bid, can ill afford to wait months for Israel to decide its next prime minister, a U.S. official said.

HONEST MEDIATOR?

Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water even before its publication.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has said Washington can no longer be regarded as an honest mediator, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. This followed a series of Trump decisions that delighted Israel but dismayed and infuriated Palestinians.

These included recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, and slashing hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to

the Palestinians.

Palestinian and Arab sources who were briefed on the draft fear it seeks to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation, in what could be a prelude to Israel annexing about half of the West Bank including most of the Jordan Valley, the strategic and fertile easternmost strip of the territory.

Continuing obstacles to a peace settlement include the expansion of Israeli settlements on occupied land and the rise to power in Gaza of the Islamist movement Hamas, which is formally committed to Israel’s destruction.

The Trump administration in November reversed decades of U.S. policy when Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced that Washington no longer regarded Israeli settlements on West Bank land as inconsistent with international law.

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this.

(Reporting by Steve Holland and Dan Williams; additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem and Ulf Laessing in Cairo, Editing by Clarence Fernandez and Angus MacSwan)