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)

World leaders at Jerusalem conference condemn rising anti-Semitism

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – World leaders voiced alarm at resurgent anti-Semitism on Thursday as they gathered at Israel’s national Holocaust Memorial to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi death camp Auschwitz.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and U.S. Vice President Mike Pence also castigated Iran in their speeches to the World Holocaust Forum, accusing it of rabid anti-Semitism and of seeking Israel’s destruction.

Leaders of Russia and France looked closer to home in lamenting the killing of six million Jews in Europe during World War Two by the Nazis and vowing to combat rising anti-Semitism.

German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier told the conference at the Yad Vashem memorial center that he bowed his head in “deepest sorrow (for) the worst crime in the history of humanity” committed by his countrymen.

“I wish I could say that we Germans have learned from history once and for all. But I cannot say that when hatred is spreading,” he said.

Steinmeier spoke in English rather than in German, a choice made, his office said, to avoid causing any distress to Holocaust survivors in the audience.

Russian President Vladimir Putin said it was vital to oppose xenophobia and anti-Semitism everywhere.

“You just said that it’s not known where anti-Semitism ends,” Putin told Israeli President Reuven Rivlin at a meeting before the conference convened.

“Unfortunately we do know this – Auschwitz is its end-result.”

A global survey https://global100.adl.org/about/2019 by the U.S.-based Anti-Defamation League in November found that global anti-Semitic attitudes had increased, and significantly so in Eastern and Central Europe. It found that large percentages of people in many European countries think Jews talk too much about the Holocaust.

More than one million people, most of them Jews, were killed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in Nazi-occupied Poland. Israel hailed the memorial conference, attended by more than 40 world leaders, as the biggest international gathering in its history.

IRAN DENOUNCED

In his speech to the forum, Netanyahu denounced Iran as “the most anti-Semitic regime on the planet” and vowed that Israel would always defend itself against those out to destroy it.

Netanyahu has long accused Iran of seeking nuclear weapons, an allegation it denies.

Pence, in his comments, described Iran as the one country “that denies the Holocaust as a matter of state policy and threatens to wipe Israel off the map”.

Other guests at the commemoration included French President Emmanuel Macron and Britain’s Prince Charles.

Warning of the “dark shadow of anti-Semitism”, Macron met French survivors of the Holocaust at a memorial near Jerusalem to some 76,000 Jews arrested in wartime France and transported to death camps such as Auschwitz, where most died.

One notable absentee from Thursday’s commemoration was President Andrzej Duda of Poland, who turned down his invitation because Poland he was not allowed to speak at the conference, unlike the wartime victors the United States, Russia, Britain and France, and also Germany.

Polish leaders have also been angered by comments made by Putin last month suggesting Poland shared responsibility for the war. Poland, which was invaded first by Nazi Germany and then by Soviet forces in September, 1939, sees itself as a major victim of the war, in which it lost a fifth of its population.

Poland will host its own ceremony at the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum on Jan. 27, as it does every year.

(Additional reporting by Justyna Pawlak in Warsaw, Darya Korsunskaya in Jerusalem and Sabine Siebold in Berlin; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Putin proposes 2020 summit with leaders of Russia, France, China, U.S. and UK

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin on Thursday proposed holding a summit between the leaders of Russia, China, the United States, France and Britain in 2020 to discuss the conflict in Libya and other global problems.

Putin, who was speaking during a trip to Israel, said Moscow was ready for a “serious conversation” with the permanent members of the UN Security Council, that there was much to discuss and that the summit could happen anywhere in the world.

“In any country, at any point of the world that is convenient for our colleagues. Russia is ready for this kind of serious conversation,” he said.

“There are many tasks before us. We discussed one of them very recently in Berlin…That is Libya. And we need to return to this problem at the Security Council and adopt the corresponding resolution,” he said.

Putin, who was in Israel on Thursday to mark the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, said holding such a summit would be an important symbolic step ahead of the 75th anniversary of the end of World War Two.

“We discussed (this) with several colleagues and as far as I understand in general we saw a positive reaction to holding a meeting of the heads of the permanent members of the UN Security Council…” he said.

(Reporting by Darya Korsunskaya; writing by Tom Balmforth; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Macron, in Israel for Holocaust memorial, warns of ‘dark shadow’ of anti-Semitism

By John Irish

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – President Emmanuel Macron said on Thursday France was determined to combat the hatred and intolerance that have fueled a sharp rise in anti-Semitism in his country as he met Holocaust survivors during a visit to Israel.

Macron is one of dozens of world leaders attending events at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem to mark the 75-year anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

“The dark shadow of anti-Semitism is being reborn,” Macron told members of the roughly 100,000 French-Israeli citizens.

“Anti-Semitism is back. It is here and its cortege of intolerance and hate is here. France won’t accept.”

“I responded to the call to come to Yad Vashem to say this shall never happen again. It’s a battle that is never won,” Macron said. “My determination to act on this is total.”

Earlier on Thursday, Macron met French survivors of the Holocaust at a memorial near Jerusalem to some 76,000 Jews who were arrested in France during World War Two and transported in terrible conditions in railway boxcars to death camps such as Auschwitz, where most died.

In 1995 France’s then-president, Jacques Chirac, officially acknowledged for the first time French complicity in the wartime deportations. But it was only in 2009 that France’s highest court recognized the state’s responsibility.

A survey published on Tuesday by French think-tank Fondapol and the American Jewish Committee found that 70 percent of Jews living in France today had been victims of anti-Semitism.

France has Europe’s biggest Jewish community – around 550,000 – and anti-Semitic acts have risen by 70 percent in each of the last two years. More than 500 were reported in 2018 alone.

Last month, scores of Jewish graves were found desecrated in a cemetery in eastern France, hours before lawmakers adopted a resolution equating anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

“UNCERTAIN FUTURE”

Commentators have blamed the surge in anti-Semitic attacks on incitement by Islamist preachers, others on the rise of anti-Zionism – opposition to the existence of Israel as a homeland for the Jewish people.

Macron and the French survivors of the Holocaust were joined by young college students at a solemn ceremony at the Roglit memorial, west of Jerusalem, to remember the French Jews deported between 1942-1944.

Serge Klarsfeld, an 84-year-old Nazi hunter, welcomed the participation of Macron and the young people in the ceremony.

“Your presence today with the education minister and the children from the banlieues (suburbs) who are bravely engaged in studying the Shoah and drawing the consequences touches us deeply and allows us to look with hope toward an uncertain future,” said Klarsfeld.

(Reporting by John Irish; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Carols and bells in Bethlehem as Christmas draws near

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – Christmas cheer rang out through Bethlehem’s Manger Square on Monday as pilgrims and worshippers flocked to the city revered as Jesus’s birthplace and locals made final preparations for this year’s festivities.

Children dressed as Santa Claus sang carols and rang bells during a Christmas-themed show at the College des Freres, which sits in the biblical city’s central market where holiday decorations and wooden nativity scenes line the narrow alleys.

The main attractions in Bethlehem are the 4th-century Church of the Nativity, built over a grotto where Christian tradition says Jesus was born, and the 16-metre (52-foot) Christmas tree in Manger Square.

On Tuesday – Christmas Eve – the acting Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem, Archbishop Pierbattista Pizzaballa, will lead a procession from Jerusalem to nearby Bethlehem and later celebrate Midnight Mass in the Church of the Nativity, squeezing through its narrow sandstone entrance.

Bethlehem’s Christmas season lasts through the Eastern Orthodox celebration on Jan. 7 to Armenian Christmas on Jan. 18.

The season offers measured cheer for Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank city, which is separated from nearby Jerusalem by a towering Israeli concrete military barrier.

Bethlehem is enjoying its busiest tourist year in two decades, with foreign pilgrims coming in large numbers, taking advantage of a relative lull in Israeli-Palestinian tension.

Israel said on Sunday it would allow Christians in the Palestinian Gaza Strip to visit Bethlehem and Jerusalem at Christmas, reversing an earlier decision not to issue them permits.

(Writing by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Bethlehem set for a Happy Christmas: more rooms, more inns and part of its manger back

Bethlehem set for a Happy Christmas: more rooms, more inns and part of its manger back
By Stephen Farrell

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – As the Christmas decorations go up in Manger Square, Bethlehem is preparing for its best Christmas for two decades, the town’s mayor and hoteliers say.

Five new hotels are in the pipeline and existing ones are expanding. The town has even extended the opening hours of the Church of the Nativity, revered by Christians worldwide as the place of Jesus’ birth.

But even after three years of relative peace and prosperity, people are still nervous in the small Palestinian town, a few miles south of Jerusalem in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

So dependent has Bethlehem become on tourist income that an upsurge of violence anywhere in the volatile Middle East – not just in its near vicinity – spells financial disaster, with nervous tour groups prone to cancelling months ahead.

Sitting in his municipality office overlooking the newly lit Christmas tree in Manger Square, Mayor Anton Salman said Bethlehem looked set to improve upon the 1.5 million visitors it received last year.

“Since three years (ago), things are going up, this year is better than 2018 and 2018 was better than 2017 and it is a continuous increase in the number of tourists who are coming to the city,” Salman told Reuters.

The main bottleneck, he said, was the tiny front door of the Nativity church, through which pilgrims must crouch to enter. Once vast, it was reduced in size centuries ago by the Crusaders, then again during the Mamluk and Ottoman Turkish eras to prevent looters driving carts into the church.

For the first time this year the authorities extended the church’s opening hours from sunset to 8 p.m., Salman said, and in 2020 they plan to enlarge the town’s coach station and to address heavy congestion on the narrow road to Manger Square.

They will even consider asking tourist groups to register in advance in future. “If the number will be high and the church can’t receive all of them we need to look for other plans that can be helpful,” he said.

GHOSTS OF CHRISTMAS PAST

This year townsfolk are abuzz about a new attraction – a wooden relic reputed to be from the manger used by the infant Jesus and sent back last week to Bethlehem from Rome.

But the town remains wary. Bethlehem enjoyed good times until the outbreak of the second Palestinian uprising in 2000, which saw years of mutual blood-letting between Israelis and Palestinians, leading tourism to collapse.

Scars remain – most visibly Israel’s high concrete wall that towers over the northern entrance to Bethlehem, and separates it from Jerusalem.

Palestinians call Israel’s military barrier a land grab. Israel says the cordon of fences, ditches and walls has drastically reduced attacks on its citizens.

The manager of the Alexander Hotel in Bethlehem, Joey Canavati, said his family had nearly given up on the town during the lean years, but now had bookings through to 2021. The hotel plans to nearly double in size from 58 to 110 rooms.

“Business has been booming, we have never seen it like this ever before,” he said. “(With) the number of tourists that have been coming in this year we have a huge lack of rooms here in Bethlehem.”

But he added a familiar note of caution: “It’s always about stability.”

(Writing by Stephen Farrell, additional reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Trump shift on Israeli settlements fulfills wish list of evangelical base

By Maria Caspani and Matt Spetalnick

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. decision effectively backing Israel’s building of settlements in the occupied West Bank, long a cherished item on conservative Christians’ wish list, is expected to strengthen evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump as he seeks re-election in 2020, according to a leader of the president’s evangelical advisory group.

While Palestinians and Arab governments condemned the Trump administration’s declaration on Monday that Jewish settlements in occupied territory are not “inconsistent with international law,” the reversal of four decades of U.S. policy drew praise from evangelicals, an important part of his base.

Trump had already tightened his bond with his pro-Israel constituency by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, moving the U.S. embassy to the holy city in 2018 and then endorsing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Though an intense push by evangelicals set the stage for Trump’s Jerusalem moves, Mike Evans – Texas-based founder of Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem – said evangelicals felt no need to mount a similar campaign with the administration over settlements, one of the core issues of the decades-old Middle East conflict.

“There was virtually no lobbying for the policy shift because he (Trump) knows us, he knows what we believe,” Evans told Reuters in New York.

U.S. policy makers, however, were widely known to have consulted regularly with evangelical leaders – as well as some of Israel’s Jewish American supporters – in crafting a series of pro-Israel initiatives that have thrilled most Israelis but angered Palestinians since Trump took office in 2017.

The latest move could nevertheless undermine Trump’s efforts to resolve the conflict through a peace plan that has been in the works for more than two years but has drawn widespread skepticism even before its release.

Evans, an informal adviser and member of Trump’s Faith Initiative, said he was given advance word on the announcement and was personally briefed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately after he unveiled it in Washington.

‘HE WILL GET 100% OF THIS BASE’

Evangelicals have been a core base for Trump since the 2016 election. Many are also staunch supporters of Israel, feeling a religious connection with the Jewish people and the Holy Land.

The West Bank, which Israel seized in a 1967 war and Palestinians want as part of their future state, holds special importance to evangelicals who see a divine hand in the modern-day return of Jews to a Biblical homeland.

Pompeo – along with Vice President Mike Pence – is himself an evangelical, telling an interviewer in Israel in March that “the Lord was at work here” in Trump’s Israel policies.

U.S. officials denied the announcement was timed to help right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to remain in power following two inconclusive Israeli elections and faces possible criminal prosecution over corruption charges, which he denies.

The U.S. legal determination on settlements had been “a long time in the making” and only just came to fruition, according to a person familiar with the matter.

But Evans said Trump appeared to be trying to give Netanyahu a boost. “Donald Trump trusts Benjamin Netanyahu and there’s a chemistry between them,” he said. “He was sending a signal.”

Asked about Trump’s own re-election prospects, he said: “I have 68 million Facebook followers. When the president blesses Israel, they feel strongly that God is going to bless us … He won’t get 90%; he will get 100% of this base.”

Jack Graham, pastor of 40,000-plus-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, was quoted by the Christian Broadcasting Network as saying the Trump administration “once again has demonstrated why evangelical Christians have been unwavering in their support.”

The settlement announcement could also help lay part of the legal groundwork for Trump’s long-delayed peace plan, which Pompeo said he hoped would be rolled out “before too long,” after a new Israeli government is formed.

While details have been kept under wraps, it is widely expected to call for Israel to keep the vast majority of its settlements. The international community mostly considers them illegal, an assertion disputed by Israel.

But a U.S. official told Reuters: “Nothing in yesterday’s announcement should be read as previewing the content of the White House’s vision for peace.”

(Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)

U.S. support for Israeli settlements renews focus on core issue in Mideast conflict

U.S. support for Israeli settlements renews focus on core issue in Mideast conflict
By Stephen Farrell and Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s ruling right-wing government on Tuesday moved swiftly to embrace Washington’s backing for Israeli settlements, even as Palestinians and Arab leaders said it was a threat to the international rule of law.

Monday’s announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abandoned the position that settlements in Israeli-occupied territory were “inconsistent with international law”, reversing a position taken by the United States under President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost no time in making political capital out of the announcement, as he struggles to remain in power following two inconclusive Israeli elections and possible criminal prosecution over corruption charges, which he denies.

“I admit that I am very moved,” Netanyahu said as he visited the Etzion bloc of settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“The Trump administration has corrected a historic injustice,” Netanyahu said. “This is a very great day for the State of Israel and an achievement that will stand for generations.”

Some Israeli analysts said the announcement had little practical effect – with settlement building already in evidence under a Netanyahu government, as it had been since the area was captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said the settlements remain in breach of international law, echoing a position taken by the International Court of Justice in an advisory opinion in 2004.

Israel disputes this, and Netanyahu has cited historical and biblical links to the West Bank in supporting Jewish settlement.

Palestinians say settlements jeopardise their goal of a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“HOLD BACK”

Although President Donald Trump told Netanyahu in early 2017 that he would “like to see you hold back on settlement for a little bit”, the intervening period has seen repeated postponement of the White House’s “Deal of the Century” peace plan.

Trump has also made a succession of pro-Israeli initiatives.

These include U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, moving the U.S. embassy to the city in 2018 and cuts in U.S. aid to Palestinians. In March, Trump recognised Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Hagit Ofran, Settlements Watch Director of the left-wing Israeli group Peace Now, said there were 430,000 settlers in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem, living in 132 settlements and 121 unofficial settlement outposts. About 3 million Palestinians live throughout the West Bank.

“If you want to know what the Deal of the Century plan was, we know what it is now,” said Ofran after Pompeo’s announcement. “It is to say to the Palestinians ‘you are not going to get any of your basic demands and rights’.”

INTERNATIONAL LAW

The speed and consistency of the response by Palestinian officials suggested they are familiar with headline-grabbing Trump initiatives and have decided to frame them in a wider context.

“The bias of the Trump administration towards the most extreme in Israel blinds it from seeing the basic principles of international law and consensus,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Twitter.

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour said he was consulting other nations at the Security Council to “lobby a unified international position to confront the American illegal announcement regarding settlements”.

Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the U.S. decision had been decades in the making.

“Each U.S. administration, since Reagan, has pandered to Israel on settlements,” she told Reuters.

“I get the sense from the Palestinian leadership’s responses that they believe this issue has to be framed as not just about ‘us’ but about the world order that people believe in… when you go down this path it isn’t just about Palestine, this affects Crimea and other places around the world.”

FACTS ON THE GROUND

David Friedman, the Trump-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Israel, said on Twitter that Pompeo’s announcement would “advance the cause of peace” by creating a “level playing field” for future talks.

To many Israeli settlers, the U.S. move simply recognised the status of settlements they regard as permanent.

“From the sea to the Jordan River, it belongs to the people of Israel,” said Zomi Osi, a settler speaking near the new settlement neighbourhood Ramat Givat Zeev, which is expanding along a valley in the West Bank.

But yards away in Beit Ijza, overlooking Ramat Givat Zeev and an Israeli highway built through the West Bank, retired Palestinian villager Mahmoud Salem said nothing could change the fact that the land was Palestinian.

“He (Trump) doesn’t own it, he has no right to give it to anybody and he can’t force its owners to leave it,” he said.

GAZA AND ARAB WORLD

In Gaza, where Israeli withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005, Palestinian student Fatima Attallaa stood outside a building that was once part of the Israeli settlement Neve Dekalim, saying she looked forward to the day when the West Bank was also free of settlers.

“The American decision is void,” she said. “Settlements will be removed. We are at a university that was once a settlement and today it is Al-Aqsa University.”

Wider Arab and Muslim reaction was equally condemnatory.

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said such an “unfortunate change” in the American position would not bring Israel security, peace or normal relations with Arab countries. Egyptian state news agency MENA quoted him as saying it would “push the legions of Israeli settlers to practise more violence and brutality against the Palestinian population.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter: “No country is above international law” and “fait accompli style declarations” had no validity.

Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said a U.S. change of position on settlements would have “dangerous consequences”. Calling the settlements illegal, he said they killed prospects for a Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel.

But in U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia, the state news agency did not mention the issue after a cabinet meeting, focusing on criticism of Israeli air raids in Gaza.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Beit Ijza,; Yousef Saba in Cairo, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul, Dahlia Nehme in Dubai; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Mystery martyr’s church unearthed in the Holy Land

Mystery martyr’s church unearthed in the Holy Land
By Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A Byzantine-era church built in honor of an unnamed martyr has been unearthed near Jerusalem after a three-year excavation, Israeli researchers said on Wednesday.

The dig uncovered floors decorated with vast mosaics depicting birds, fruit and plants, colorful frescoes, and a curious Greek inscription that has baffled the researchers.

“We found one inscription in the courtyard of the church which dedicates the site in the memory of a ‘glorious martyr,'” said Benyamin Storchan, who directed the excavation. “The martyr is unnamed and it’s still a mystery.”

The Israel Antiquities Authority (IAA) dates the shrine, located about 10 miles west of Jerusalem, to the 6th century.

An underground crypt found below the main part of the church is believed to have housed the martyr’s remains. “This is the holiest place in the church,” said Storchan, adding that pilgrims likely frequented the site.

Though the martyr in question is unknown, Storchan said the lavishness of the complex may indicate this person was an important figure. Another inscription showed Byzantine emperor Tiberius II Constantinus had helped fund the church’s later expansion.

“We know of a few hundred churches in the Holy Land but this church by far surpasses most of them by its state of preservation and the imperial involvement which funded it,” said Storchan.

(Reporting by Ronen Zvulun; Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by David Holmes)

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

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

By Dan Williams

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STATECRAFT

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But the two leaders cut two very different figures.

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

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