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)

Pandemic pace slows worldwide except for southeast Asia, eastern Mediterranean: WHO

By Stephanie Nebehay

GENEVA (Reuters) – The COVID-19 pandemic is still expanding, but the rise in cases and deaths has slowed globally, except for southeast Asia and the eastern Mediterranean regions, the World Health Organization (WHO) said.

In its latest epidemiological update, issued on Monday night, it said that the Americas remains the hardest-hit region, accounting for half of newly reported cases and 62% of the 39,240 deaths worldwide in the past week.

More than 23.65 million people have been reported to be infected by the coronavirus globally and 811,895​ have died, according to a Reuters tally on Tuesday.

“Over 1.7 million new COVID-19 cases and 39,000 new deaths were reported to WHO for the week ending 23 August, a 4% decrease in the number of cases and (a 12% decrease) in the number of deaths compared to the previous week,” the WHO said.

Southeast Asia, the second most affected region, reported a jump accounting for 28% of new cases and 15% of deaths, it said. India continues to report the majority of cases, but the virus is also spreading rapidly in Nepal.

In WHO’s eastern Mediterranean region, the number of reported cases rose by 4%, but the number of reported deaths has consistently dropped over the last six weeks, the WHO said. Lebanon, Tunisia and Jordan reported the highest increase in cases compared to the previous week.

The number of cases and deaths reported across Africa decreased by 8% and 11% respectively in the past week, “primarily due to a decrease in cases reported in Algeria, Kenya, Ghana, Senegal and South Africa”, it said.

“In the European region, the number of cases reported has consistently increased over the last three weeks,” it said. “However, only a slight decrease (1%) was reported in the most recent week, and the number of deaths have continued to decrease across the region.”

In WHO’s western Pacific region, the number of new cases dropped by 5%, driven by less spread in Japan, Australia, Singapore, China and Vietnam. South Korea reported an 180% jump in cases, “mainly due to an increase in cases associated with religious gatherings”.

(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Egypt, France, Germany, Jordan warn Israel on annexation

BERLIN (Reuters) – Egypt, France, Germany and Jordan warned Israel on Tuesday against annexing parts of the Palestinian territories, saying that doing so could have consequences for bilateral relations.

In a statement distributed by the German Foreign Ministry, the countries, which include two of Israel’s leading partners in the Middle East, said their foreign ministers had discussed how to restart talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.

They, along with most other European countries, oppose Israeli plans that envisage annexing parts of the occupied West Bank as part of a deal being promoted by U.S. President Donald Trump’s administration.

The Palestinian Authority, which wants the West Bank for a future Palestinian state, opposes the move. The United States has yet to give its approval to the annexation plans.

“We concur that any annexation of Palestinian territories occupied in 1967 would be a violation of international law and imperil the foundations of the peace process,” the European and Middle Eastern foreign ministers said after their video conference.

“We would not recognize any changes to the 1967 borders that are not agreed by both parties in the conflict,” they added. “It could also have consequences for the relationship with Israel.”

Israel declined to comment. But in a separate statement, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said he had told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Monday that he was committed to Trump’s “realistic” plan for the region.

“Israel is prepared to conduct negotiations on the basis of President Trump’s peace plan, which is both creative and realistic, and will not return to the failed formulas of the past,” Netanyahu’s statement said.

(Reporting by Michelle Martin; additional reporting by Dan Williams; editing by Thomas Escritt and Gareth Jones)

U.S. halts sending bomb-sniffing dogs to Jordan, Egypt as seven die

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. State Department said on Monday it has stopped sending explosive-detecting dogs to Jordan and Egypt over concerns of deaths of deployed dogs from causes like heat stroke and poisoning.

The decision came after the State Department’s Office of Inspector General identified in September the deaths of two dogs sent to Jordan, the largest recipient of the dogs. A second report released last Friday put the total deaths at seven.

Some 135 dogs are in the Antiterrorism Assistance Program, which helps eight countries with border and aviation security. Dogs already working in Jordan and Egypt will remain there while U.S. authorities demand measures to improve the animals’ conditions and handling, a State Department official told reporters.

Prompted by a hotline complaint after the September report, the Inspector General found that two more dogs sent to Jordan had died, one of heat stroke and another of poisoning from insecticide sprayed in or near the kennel.

Three of the 10 dogs sent to Egypt under the program also died: one of lung cancer, one from a ruptured gall bladder and the other from heat stroke, the report found.

The September report said Zoe, a 2-year-old Belgian Malinois, had died in 2017 from heat stroke while working at the Syrian border. Mencey, a 3-year-old Belgian Malinois, was euthanized in the United States in 2018 after he had been returned from Jordan for treatment of a tick-borne disease.

According to the September report, a veterinarian told the Inspector General’s office that “heat injuries are cases of negligence and improper care and are not accidental” and that dogs who die of heat stroke “suffer a terrible death.”

The Inspector General found that dogs were sent to the foreign partners without signed written agreements outlining standards of care and that there were no adequate follow-up checks on dogs’ wellbeing.

“Improving health and welfare is something that’s continual and gradual. It will not happen overnight, and that’s why improving kennel conditions, improving how many times they check on the canines – those are all things we’re actively working on,” another State Department official said.

(Reporting by Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Mary Milliken and Sandra Maler)

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets

Seven countries issue Iran-related sanctions on 25 targets
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States and six other countries imposed sanctions on Wednesday on 25 corporations, banks and people linked to Iran’s support for militant networks including Hezbollah, the U.S. Treasury Department said in a statement.

The targets were announced by the Terrorist Financing Targeting Center (TFTC) nations – which also include Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates – as Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin was on a Middle East trip to finalize details of an economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

All 25 targets were previously sanctioned by the United States.

“The TFTC’s action coincides with my trip to the Middle East, where I am meeting with my counterparts across the region to bolster the fight against terrorist financing,” Mnuchin said in the Treasury statement.

In Jerusalem on Monday, Mnuchin said the United States would increase economic pressure on Iran over its nuclear program, making the pledge during a Middle East trip that includes visits to U.S. allies Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Sanctions reimposed on Tehran by President Donald Trump after he withdrew the United States from world powers’ 2015 nuclear pact with Tehran have dried up Iranian oil revenues and cut Iranian banks’ ties to the financial world.

Twenty-one of the targets announced Wednesday comprised a vast network of businesses providing financial support to the Basij Resistance Force, the Treasury said.

It said shell companies and other measures were used to mask Basij ownership and control over multibillion-dollar business interests in Iran’s automotive, mining, metals, and banking industries, many of which have operate across the Middle East and Europe.

The four individuals targeted were Hezbollah-affiliated and help coordinate the group’s operations in Iraq, it said.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu and Daphne Psaledakis; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump says he will likely release Mideast peace plan after Israel elections

FILE PHOTO: A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag and a cane during a protest against the Israeli demolitions of Palestinian homes in the village of Sur Baher which sits on either side of the Israeli barrier in East Jerusalem and the Israeli-occupied West Bank July 26, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Sunday he would likely wait until after Israel’s Sept. 17 elections to release a peace plan for the region that was designed by White House senior adviser Jared Kushner.

Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law, is the main architect of a proposed $50 billion economic development plan for the Palestinians, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon that is designed to create peace in the region.

(Reporting by Ginger Gibson; Editing by Peter Cooney)

Israeli spymaster sees ‘one-time’ chance for peace with Arabs sharing Iran worries

FILE PHOTO: Mossad director Joseph (Yossi) Cohen gestures as he addresses a budgeting conference hosted by Israel's Finance Ministry in Jerusalem October 22, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Dan Williams

HERZLIYA, Israel (Reuters) – Israel and U.S.-aligned Arab countries have a unique chance to forge a regional peace deal given their shared worries about Iran, the chief of Israel’s Mossad spy service said on Monday.

In a rare public appearance, Joseph (Yossi) Cohen said his agency had formed a task force designed to spot peacemaking opportunities in a region where only two Arab states, Egypt and Jordan, have full diplomatic relations with Israel.

“The Mossad today espies a rare opportunity, perhaps for the first time in Middle East history, to arrive at a regional understanding that would lead to a comprehensive peace accord,” he told the Herzliya Conference, an annual international security forum near Tel Aviv.

“Common interests, the fight against rivals such as Iran and jihadist terrorism, the close relations with the White House, and channels of communication with the Kremlin all combine to create what might be a one-time window of opportunity,” he said.

The United States convened Arab and other dignitaries in Bahrain last week to encourage investment in the Palestinian economy that might help renew peace talks with Israel. 

The Palestinians, seeing a pro-Israel bias in the Trump administration and a ruse to deny them their goal of full statehood, boycotted the Manama meeting. Israel, which sent only a non-official delegation, saw in the event a chance to bolster its wider ties to the Arab world.

Cohen, whose speech alluded to the Palestinians only in the context of threats against Israel from the armed factions, said many Arab countries “cannot stand Iran’s thuggish behavior”.

He cited Iran’s nuclear program, assistance for guerrillas in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and elsewhere, and alleged responsibility for a recent spate of sabotage strikes on oil tankers in the Gulf. Iran denies any role in those incidents.

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Cohen said Israel’s warming of relations with Oman, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited last October, followed “a lengthy covert effort by the Mossad” to seek out closer ties.

He pointed to what he termed “an expanding group of responsible, serious countries” – which he did not name – in the region that have channels of communication with Israel despite no formal relations, and cooperate with it in various ways.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz made a rare visit to Abu Dhabi, which does not have officials ties with Israel, for a two-day U.N. climate meeting on Sunday and Monday. While there, he met with an unnamed Emirati official to discuss bilateral ties as well as the Iranian threat, his office said.

Iran announced on Monday it had amassed more low-enriched uranium than permitted under its 2015 deal with major powers, its first major step in violation of the deal since the United States pulled out of it more than a year ago.

Cohen reaffirmed Israel’s policy that it would not allow its arch-foe to get a bomb. ”The Mossad or the State of Israel did not sign the nuclear deal (and) will do everything to ensure that Iran will never have nuclear weaponry,” he said.

Iran denies ever seeking to acquire a nuclear bomb.

“Currently, it’s about uranium enrichment at a relatively low percentage, and in amounts that are not large. The threat is to step up enrichment and increase the amounts,” Cohen said, speaking before news of the enrichment breach.

“Just imagine what will happen if the material stockpiled by the Iranians becomes fissionable, at military-enrichment grade, and then an actual bomb. The Middle East, and then the entire world, will be a different place. Therefore, the world must not allow this to happen.”

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller, William Maclean and Andrew Cawthorne)

Arab League head warns no Mideast peace deal without Palestinian state

FILE PHOTO - Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul Gheit attends the Arab League's foreign ministers meeting to discuss unannounced U.S. blueprint for Israeli-Palestinian peace, in Cairo, Egypt April 21, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany

CAIRO (Reuters) – The head of the Arab League warned on Monday that attempts to solve the Israel-Palestinian conflict will be in vain without the establishment of a Palestinian state on all territories occupied by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war.

Ahmed Aboul Gheit’s comments appeared directed at a still unpublished peace plan that U.S. President Donald Trump has dubbed the “deal of the century”. As part of the plan, a U.S.-led conference will be held next week in Bahrain on proposals for the Palestinian economy.

The Palestinian leadership is boycotting the conference, saying Trump’s peace plan is likely to be heavily weighted in favor of Israel and to quash their aspirations for statehood in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip.

While the precise outlines of the draft plan have yet to be revealed, Palestinian and Arab sources who have been briefed on it say it jettisons the two-state solution.

“Whatever is rejected by the Palestinian or the Arab side is unacceptable,” Aboul Gheit said during an event at the Arab League.

“What is acceptable from our side as Arabs as a solution is the establishment of a Palestinian state on the June 4, 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital,” he added.

Based in Egypt, the Arab League is often seen as a talking shop rendered ineffective by regional rivalries, but it remains the main forum for Arab opinion on international matters.

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are its most influential members.

Aboul Gheit said that Israel’s acceptance of an Arab Peace Initiative drawn up by Saudi Arabia in 2002, which offers Israel normal ties in return for withdrawal from territory captured in 1967, was the only acceptable solution for Arab states.

“If (Israel) chooses the only reasonable and accepted way from our side as Arabs, which is the establishment of a Palestinian state … it will be accepted in the region as a normal regional partner,” he said.

Last week, a White House official said Egypt, Jordan and Morocco planned to attend the Bahrain conference.

Palestinians urged Egypt and Jordan to reconsider their attendance at the U.S.-led conference in Bahrain, voicing concern it would weaken any Arab opposition to Washington’s coming peace plan.

(Reporting by Mahmoud Mourad and Ahmed Tolba, Editing by Aidan Lewis and Toby Chopra)

U.S. withdrawal from Syria does not jeopardize efforts to counter Iran, Pompeo says

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) holds a news conference with Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi at the start of a Middle East tour in Amman, Jordan, January 8, 2019. Andrew Caballero-Reynolds/Pool via REUTERS

MMAN (Reuters) – The U.S. decision to withdraw troops from Syria will not jeopardize Washington’s efforts to counter threats in the region, which come from Iran and Islamic State, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Tuesday.

Pompeo was in Jordan, making his first visit to the Middle East since President Donald Trump’s abrupt announcement that he will pull the 2,000 U.S. troops from Syria, which caused alarm among U.S. allies in the region and prompted the resignation of Defense Secretary Jim Mattis.

The U.S. troops in Syria have been fighting against Islamic State and also served as a counterweight to the Syrian government, which is backed by Iran and Russia.

Many of Trump’s domestic and international critics have said that withdrawing the troops abruptly could expose Washington’s Kurdish allies to repression from Turkey, and also allow Iran to solidify its influence in Syria.

But Pompeo said Washington was not stepping down from its efforts to challenge Iran. American policymakers were “redoubling not only our diplomatic but our commercial efforts to put real pressure on Iran,” he said.

“There is enormous agreement on the risk that Iran poses to Jordan and other countries in the region,” Pompeo added.

Jordan, which has expressed worries in the past about Iranian influence, particularly near the Jordanian border in southern Syria, said Tehran should refrain from meddling in the affairs of its neighbors Syria and Iraq.

“We all have problems with Iran’s expansionist policies in the region,” Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said.

(Reporting By Suleiman al-Khalidi; Editing by Catherine Evans)

At least 18 people, mostly children, die in flash flood in Jordan

A child survivor is helped as residents and relatives gather outside a hospital near the Dead Sea, Jordan October 25, 2018. REUTERS/Muhammad Hamed

DEAD SEA Jordan (Reuters) – At least 18 people, mainly schoolchildren and teachers, were killed on Thursday in a flash flood near Jordan’s Dead Sea that happened while they were on an outing, rescuers and hospital workers said.

Thirty-four people were rescued in a major operation involving police helicopters and hundreds of army troops, police chief Brigadier General Farid al Sharaa told state television. Some of those rescued were in a serious condition.

Many of those killed were children under 14. A number of families picnicking in the popular destination were also among the dead and injured, rescuers said, without giving a breakdown of numbers.

Hundreds of families and relatives converged on Shounah hospital a few kilometers from the resort area. Relatives sobbed and searched for details about the missing children, a witness said.

King Abdullah canceled a trip to Bahrain to follow the rescue operations, state media said.

Israel sent search-and-rescue helicopters to assist, an Israeli military statement said, adding the team dispatched at Amman’s request was operating on the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea.

Civil defense spokesman Captain Iyad al Omar told Reuters the number of casualties was expected to rise. Rescue workers using flashlights were searching the cliffs near the shore of the Dead Sea where bodies had been found.

A witness said a bus with 37 schoolchildren and seven teachers had been on a trip to the resort area when the raging flood waters swept them into a valley.

(Reporting by Suleiman Al-Khalidi; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg and Alison Williams)