U.S. senators offer bill to rein in Biden war powers after Syria strike

By Patricia Zengerle

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. senators introduced bipartisan legislation on Wednesday to repeal decades-old authorizations for the use of military force used to justify years of attacks in the Middle East, an effort to shift back the authority to declare war to Congress from the White House.

The measure, led by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine and Republican Senator Todd Young, would repeal 1991 and 2002 Authorizations for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq, citing the “strong partnership” between Washington and the government in Baghdad.

Under the Constitution, Congress, not the president, has the right to authorize war.

But those AUMFs – and a third one, from 2001, for the fight against al Qaeda – have been used to justify strikes by both Democratic and Republican presidents since they were passed. They have been criticized as allowing “forever wars” that have kept U.S. forces fighting overseas for decades.

The bill’s introduction came a week after Democratic President Joe Biden’s administration carried out air strikes against facilities belonging to Iranian-backed militia in Syria that renewed questions about whether a president should be able to conduct such actions without congressional approval.

Tensions have been rising with Iran, after strikes in the region blamed on Tehran.

“Last week’s airstrikes in Syria show that the Executive Branch, regardless of party, will continue to stretch its war powers,” Kaine said in a statement.

Members of Congress from both parties have sought repeatedly to repeal the AUMFs in recent years, but efforts have fallen short.

The other sponsors of the new measure include Democratic Senators Tammy Duckworth, Chris Coons and Dick Durbin, as well as Republican Senators Mike Lee, Chuck Grassley and Rand Paul.

(Reporting by Patricia Zengerle; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

Analysis: What will survive of U.S.-Middle East policy under Biden?

By Maayan Lubell and Rami Ayyub

TRUMP HEIGHTS, Occupied Golan Heights (Reuters) – Trump Heights, Trump Square, Trump train terminal: Israel isn’t shy about honoring Donald Trump, who is widely admired among Israelis for his staunch support of their country.

But in the Palestinian territories, no U.S. president was openly reviled as much as Trump, or depicted in such unflattering terms in portraits and effigies across the Gaza Strip and the occupied West Bank.

In four years, Trump overturned decades of U.S. policy in the Middle East. Joe Biden will want to undo many of those changes during his presidency, but his freedom for maneuver will be limited.

At his Senate confirmation hearing on Tuesday, Biden’s choice for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, signaled that countering Iran would be central to Biden’s Middle East agenda.

But Blinken said the United States was “a long way” from rejoining the 2015 pact with Iran – restraining Tehran’s nuclear program – which the United States quit under Trump.

Biden and his team have said they will restore ties with the Palestinians that were cut by Trump, resume aid and reject unilateral actions, such as construction of Israeli settlements on occupied territory.

But Blinken said the U.S. embassy in Israel would remain in Jerusalem, which Trump recognized as Israel’s capital.

Four Trump-brokered diplomatic deals between Israel and Arab states are also likely to remain – they have bipartisan support in Washington and brought a strategic realignment of Middle East countries against Iran.

So too is Trump’s acceptance of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, which Israel captured from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

Biden’s challenge will be how to walk back not just Trump-era policy – and the polarization triggered by the man who said he had “done a lot for Israel” – without being accused of retreating altogether from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“He will try to project an image of fairness and balance,” Michele Dunne, Director of the Middle East Program at the U.S. based Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, told Reuters.

“There is no question that Biden’s policies towards the Middle East will be quite different from those of Trump; the question is how different they will be from those of (former President Barack) Obama… I doubt that Biden sees the conflict as ripe for U.S. diplomacy right now.”

TRUMP AND NETANYAHU

Trump was broadly in lockstep on Middle East policy with his closest ally in the region, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

As well as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, Trump backed Israeli settlements in the West Bank, territory that the Palestinians seek for a state.

Israel’s investment in its West Bank settlements between 2017-2019 increased by almost half against the last three years in office of Obama, according to official Israeli data provided to the U.S. State Department and seen by Reuters.

One day before Biden’s inauguration, Israel issued tenders for more than 2,500 settlement homes in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, on top of hundreds more announced by Netanyahu last week.

Relations with the Palestinians reached a new low after Trump cut off $360 million annual funding to UNRWA, the United Nations agency dealing with Palestinian refugees, reduced other aid to the Palestinians and shuttered the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington D.C.

Blinken returned to long-standing, pre-Trump, diplomatic norms at his senate hearing.

“The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution,” Blinken said.

But he added: “Realistically it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that.”

In Gaza, UNRWA Commissioner-General Philippe Lazzarini was optimistic of change, and that things might ease up for the Palestinian refugees that his agency cares for.

“We indeed have informal contact with the incoming new administration. We heard all the messages we are receiving that there are intentions to resume the partnership,” he told Reuters.

THE TRUMP BRAND

For many Israelis, the Trump brand has not been tarnished by the Capitol Hill riot on Jan. 6.

In Trump Heights, a tiny Golan Heights settlement, work is underway to house 20 new families who will move in by the summer. A giant black and gold sign at the gate has been restored after vandals stole the ‘T’.

“We are keeping the name Trump Heights, we are proud of the name. President Trump deserves gratitude for all the good deeds he did for us,” Golan Regional Council Head Haim Rokach told Reuters.

An Israeli cabinet minister this week reaffirmed his support for Trump’s name to adorn a future train terminus near Jerusalem’s Western Wall, and at Trump Square roundabout in Petah Tikva he remains popular. “We will miss him,” said Alon Sender. “He was good for Israel.”

(Additional reporting by Rami Amichay, Adel Abu Nimeh, Nidal al-Mughrabi, Dan Williams and Ali Sawafta, Writing by Maayan Lubell and Stephen Farrell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Iran launches missile drill amid rising tensions with U.S

DUBAI (Reuters) – Iran’s military launched a short-range naval missile drill on Wednesday, Iranian state TV reported, at a time of high tension between arch foes Tehran and Washington.

Iran has one of the biggest missile programs in the Middle East, regarding such weapons as an important deterrent and retaliatory force against U.S. and other adversaries in the event of war.

The West sees Iran’s missiles both as a conventional military threat to regional stability and a possible delivery mechanism for nuclear weapons should Tehran develop them.

The Iranian-made warship Makran, which state media described as Iran’s biggest warship with a helicopter pad, and a missile-launching ship called Zereh (armor) were taking part in the two-day exercise in the Gulf of Oman.

Tensions between the United States and Iran have risen since 2018, when President Donald Trump abandoned the 2015 nuclear deal. The United States restored harsh sanctions to pressure Iran into negotiating stricter curbs on its nuclear program, ballistic missile development and support for regional proxy forces.

In recent years, there have been periodic confrontations between Iran’s military and U.S. forces in the Gulf, where Tehran holds annual exercises to display the Islamic Republic’s military might to confront “foreign threats.”

Last week, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps seized a South Korean-flagged tanker in Gulf waters and detained its crew amid tensions between Tehran and Seoul over Iranian funds frozen in South Korean banks due to U.S. sanctions.

In early 2019, Iran heightened tensions in the world’s busiest oil waterway by seizing British-flagged tanker Stena Impero two weeks after a British warship had intercepted an Iranian tanker off the coast of Gibraltar.

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by Nick Macfie)

Kushner to lead U.S. delegation to Israel, Morocco

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House senior adviser Jared Kushner will lead a U.S. delegation to Israel and Morocco next week for discussions on the normalization deal the two Middle East countries reached last week, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.

The U.S. delegation and an Israeli team will join together and take the first direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat as a sign of progress after the Israel-Morocco deal that Kushner helped broker, the official told Reuters.

Kushner, Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and Adam Boehler, chief executive officer of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, will leave for Israel on Monday.

While in Jerusalem, Kushner, who is U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is to hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the official.

El Al is expected to be the airliner for the first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat that the Kushner team and a delegation led by Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat will take, the official said.

The Israel-Morocco deal was the fourth that the United States helped broker, following similar agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Kushner and his team are still holding talks with other countries from the Arab and Muslim world.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller)

Saudis seek buffer zone with Yemen in return for ceasefire, sources say

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has told Yemen’s Houthis in high-level back channel talks it would sign a UN proposal for a nationwide ceasefire if the Iran-aligned group agrees to a buffer zone along the kingdom’s borders, three sources familiar with the matter said.

If a deal is struck, it would mark the biggest breakthrough in efforts to reach a political settlement since the conflict – widely seen as a proxy war between arch-enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran – began in 2014.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden pledged in his election campaign to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest buyer of American weapons, to pressure Riyadh to end the war that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

But the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and its biggest populated areas, may be less willing to cooperate with Saudi Arabia if President Donald Trump carries out threats to designate them as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) before leaving office, the sources said.

Washington and Riyadh see the Yemeni group as an extension of Iranian influence in the region.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis’ spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Recently the two parties, holding virtual discussions, raised the level of representation in the talks, with Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, and a more senior Saudi official, two of the sources said.

Riyadh has demanded more security assurances from the Houthis, including a buffer zone along the borders with northern Yemen until a U.N.-backed transitional government is formed, the sources said.

Riyadh wants Houthi forces to leave a corridor along the Saudi borders to prevent incursions and artillery fire.

In exchange, the kingdom would ease an air and sea blockade as part of the U.N. proposal for a ceasefire, which already includes an end to cross-border attacks.

Last year, Riyadh launched indirect talks with the Houthis, as it seeks a way out of the conflict that has drawn criticism from Biden, killed tens of thousands of people and tarnished the reputation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The talks have stalled over the last two months, the sources said, as fighting escalated in the gas-rich region of Marib, where the Houthis have launched an offensive to drive out Saudi-backed forces.

Marib is the last stronghold of the internationally-recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which was ousted from power in the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis in late 2014.

That prompted the Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, to intervene.

Complicating matters, the fighting fragmented, spawning a multi-layered war that has lasted nearly six years.

‘CONSULTATIONS ON IRAN’

Trump’s administration, to support the Saudis, has exerted pressure on the Houthis by threatening to designate the group as a terrorist organization, said two of the three sources, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Any decision by Washington to blacklist the Houthis, part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, would be “devastating” after years of peace efforts led by U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and other Western ambassadors, they added.

One of the sources said that experts in the U.S. administration have advised Trump against an FTO designation.

The State Department did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The discreet talks between the kingdom and the Houthis have dragged on for more than a year, in parallel with Griffiths’ efforts to reach an agreement on a ceasefire.

The U.N. is working to secure a face-to-face meeting before the end of the year, as well as an agreement on a joint declaration that would halt all air, ground and naval hostilities, two of the sources said.

Europe would be a logical venue for them to meet, one of the sources said, as the U.N. seeks neutral grounds for the talks. Griffith’s office declined to comment.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S. approves $23.37 billion advanced arms sale to UAE, Pompeo says

By Matt Spetalnick and Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration told Congress on Tuesday it had approved the U.S. sale of more than $23 billion in advanced weapons systems, including F-35 fighter jets and armed drones, to the United Arab Emirates, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

The formal notification followed a U.S.-brokered agreement in September in which the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel, becoming the first of three Arab states to make such a move in recent months.

“This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran,” Pompeo said in a statement.

The $23.37 billion package includes up to 50 F-35 Lighting II aircraft, up to 18 MQ-9B Unmanned Aerial Systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, the State Department said.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees – whose members have criticized UAE’s role in civilian deaths in Yemen’s civil war – review major weapons sales before the State Department sends its formal notification to the legislative branch.

Any deal the United States makes to sell weapons in the Middle East must satisfy decades of agreement with Israel that it must not impair Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors.

The announcement came just days after Democratic challenger Joe Biden won enough states needed to take the presidency from Trump, a Republican who made pro-Israel policies part of his re-election campaign.

Israel initially balked at the prospective sale of F-35 warplanes, valued at $10.4 billion, but dropped its opposition after what it described as U.S. guarantees that Israel’s regional military superiority would be preserved.

The UAE, one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies, has long wanted the stealthy jets and was promised a chance to buy them in a side deal when it agreed to normalize relations with Israel, part of a strategic regional realignment against Iran.

In the past, the F-35 has been denied to Arab states while Israel has about 24 of the jets. Israel is currently slated to purchase 50 of the fighters.

“The proposed sale will make the UAE even more capable and interoperable with U.S. partners in a manner fully consistent with America’s longstanding commitment to ensuring Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge,” Pompeo said.

The $2.97 billon sale of armed drones would mark the first such export since the Trump administration reinterpreted a Cold War-era arms agreement between 34 nations to allow U.S. defense contractors to sell more drones to allies.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Pete Schroeder; additional reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by David Gregorio and Paul Simao)

As Arab Gulf starts opening to Israel, Palestinians face a reckoning

By Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s rapprochement with Gulf Arab states has left the Palestinians feeling abandoned by traditional allies and clutching an old playbook in a rapidly changing Middle East, analysts and critics say.

As the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain prepare to sign normalization accords with Israel at a White House ceremony on Tuesday, Palestinian leaders face calls to overhaul their strategy to avoid becoming marginalized in a region where Israel and most Sunni Arab regimes share a fear of Iran.

The Palestinian approach to securing freedom from Israeli occupation has for years relied on a longstanding pan-Arab position that called for Israeli withdrawal from the occupied West Bank and Gaza and Israel’s acceptance of Palestinian statehood, in return for normal relations with Arab countries.

But the Palestinians last week failed to persuade the Arab League to condemn nations breaking ranks.

Tuesday’s ceremony, hosted by U.S. President Donald Trump, will be “a black day in the history of Arab nations”, Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Monday.

Shtayyeh said the Palestinians are now discussing whether to “adjust Palestine’s relationship with the Arab League.”

But critics say the proposed move is too little too late, with President Mahmoud Abbas facing mounting criticism for their increasingly isolated position.

“There is very little indication that the (Palestinian) leadership is contemplating a break from its approach,” Tareq Baconi, an analyst with the International Crisis Group, told Reuters.

The Palestinians’ strategy centers on holding Israel to account in international legal tribunals, and trying to break the United States’ dominance over the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Baconi said.

“Arab and European support in that strategy is crucial, but it is questionable that the Palestinians will be able to secure either to the level required to ensure a just peace.”

TWO-STATE SOLUTION

Despite signs of shifting Arab support, Saeb Erekat, Secretary General of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said the underlying Palestinian strategy for achieving a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza would not change.

“To stay on the grounds of international law, international legality, to seek peace based on ending Israeli occupation and a two-state solution … we cannot depart from these squares,” he told Reuters.

While conceding difficulties faced by a Palestinian leadership under Israeli occupation, analysts nevertheless say Abbas does have some options.

After years of in-fighting between the two main Palestinian factions, Abbas’s Fatah and Islamist Hamas, long-overdue elections would refresh the president and parliament’s mandate and boost their leverage abroad by increasing their legitimacy at home, analysts say.

“We need to … rebuild the PLO’s institutions from the ground up and cement relations between Palestinians here and in the diaspora,” Gaza analyst Talal Okal said.

Over six million diaspora Palestinians, he said, “can influence the communities they live in so the Palestinian cause has a place on the agendas of their host governments.”

TRUMP BOYCOTT

One area where Abbas has widespread public support – 70% in recent polls – is his two-year boycott of the Trump administration, which he accuses of pro-Israel bias over its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and endorsement of Israel’s West Bank settlements.

Frustrated by the Palestinians’ refusal to take part in Trump-led talks, the White House has sought to bypass Abbas and his team, apparently hoping they will see the deals with the UAE and Bahrain as incentives to return to negotiations.

For more than two years Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner has tried sidestepping Abbas to appeal to Palestinians directly, telling Al-Quds newspaper in 2018: “The world has moved forward while you have been left behind. Don’t allow your grandfather’s conflict to determine your children’s future.”

That has had little apparent success. And the Palestinian leadership at first engaged with the Trump administration. Until, said Erekat, they concluded that “these people want to dictate a solution, not negotiate a solution … they’re the ones who are departing from international law.”

Dennis Ross, who served as a Middle East adviser under Republican and Democratic administrations, had cautionary words for both sides.

While the Gulf deals served notice that Palestinians “don’t have a veto on normalization as regional dynamics shift” the Israelis, he said, “cannot wish the Palestinians away — and standing pat also means increasing the risk of one state for two peoples.”

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Adel Abu Nemeh in Jericho and Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Stephen Farrell, William Maclean)

After UAE and Bahrain deals, is Saudi Arabia softening its stance on Israel?

By Marwa Rashad and Aziz El Yaakoubi

RIYADH/DUBAI (Reuters) – When one of Saudi Arabia’s leading clerics called this month for Muslims to avoid “passionate emotions and fiery enthusiasm” towards Jews, it was a marked change in tone for someone who has shed tears preaching about Palestine in the past.

The sermon by Abdulrahman al-Sudais, imam of the Grand Mosque in Mecca, broadcast on Saudi state television on Sept. 5, came three weeks after the United Arab Emirates agreed a historic deal to normalize relations with Israel and days before the Gulf state of Bahrain, a close Saudi ally, followed suit.

Sudais, who in past sermons prayed for Palestinians to have victory over the “invader and aggressor” Jews, spoke about how the Prophet Mohammad was good to his Jewish neighbor and argued the best way to persuade Jews to convert to Islam was to “treat them well”.

While Saudi Arabia is not expected to follow the example of its Gulf allies any time soon, Sudais’ remarks could be a clue to how the kingdom approaches the sensitive subject of warming to Israel – a once inconceivable prospect. Appointed by the king, he is one of the country’s most influential figures, reflecting the views of its conservative religious establishment as well as the Royal Court.

The dramatic agreements with the UAE and Bahrain were a coup for Israel and U.S. President Donald Trump.  But the big diplomatic prize for an Israel deal would be Saudi Arabia, whose king is the Custodian of Islam’s holiest sites, and rules the world’s largest oil exporter.

Marc Owen Jones, an academic from the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter, said the UAE and Bahrain’s normalization has allowed Saudi Arabia to test public opinion, but a formal deal with Israel would be a “large task” for the kingdom.

“Giving the Saudis a ‘nudge’ via an influential imam is obviously one step in trying to test the public reaction and to encourage the notion of normalization,” Jones added.

In Washington, a State Department official said the United States was encouraged by warming ties between Israel and Gulf Arab countries, viewed this trend as a positive development and “we are engaging to build on it.”

There was no immediate response to a request by Reuters for comment from the Saudi government’s media office.

Sudais’ plea to shun intense feelings is a far cry from his past when he wept dozens of times while praying for Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque – Islam’s third-holiest site.

The Sept. 5 sermon drew a mixed reaction, with some Saudis defending him as simply communicating the teachings of Islam. Others on Twitter, mostly Saudis abroad and apparently critical of the government, called it “the normalization sermon”.

Ali al-Suliman, one of several Saudis interviewed at one of Riyadh’s malls by Reuters TV, said in reaction to the Bahrain deal that normalization with Israel by other Gulf states or in the wider Middle East was hard to get used to, as “Israel is an occupying nation and drove Palestinians out of their homes”.

MUTUAL FEAR OF IRAN

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the kingdom’s de-facto ruler often referred to as MbS, has promised to promote interfaith dialogue as part of his domestic reform. The young prince previously stated that Israelis are entitled to live peacefully on their own land on condition of a peace agreement that assures stability for all sides.

Saudi Arabia and Israel’s mutual fear of Iran may be a key driver for the development of ties.

There have been other signs that Saudi Arabia, one of the most influential countries in the Middle East, is preparing its people to eventually warm to Israel.

A period drama, “Umm Haroun” that aired during Ramadan in April on Saudi-controlled MBC television, a time when viewership typically spikes, centered around the trials of a Jewish midwife.

The fictional series was about a multi-religious community in an unspecified Gulf Arab state in the 1930’s to 1950’s. The show drew criticism from the Palestinian Hamas group, saying it portrayed Jews in a sympathetic light.

At the time, MBC said that the show was the top-rated Gulf drama in Saudi Arabia in Ramadan. The show’s writers, both Bahraini, told Reuters it had no political message.

But experts and diplomats said it was another indication of shifting public discourse on Israel.

Earlier this year, Mohammed al-Aissa, a former Saudi minister and the general secretary of the Muslim World League, visited Auschwitz. In June, he took part in a conference organised by the American Jewish Committee, where he called for a world without “Islamophobia and anti-Semitism”.

“Certainly, MbS is intent on moderating state-sanctioned messages shared by the clerical establishment and part of that will likely work towards justifying any future deal with Israel, which would have seemed unthinkable before,” said Neil Quilliam, associate fellow with Chatham House.

ISOLATED PALESTINIANS

Normalization between the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, which will be signed at the White House on Tuesday, has further isolated the Palestinians.

Saudi Arabia, the birthplace of Islam, has not directly addressed Israel’s deals with the UAE and Bahrain, but said it remains committed to peace on the basis of the long-standing Arab Peace Initiative.

How, or whether, the kingdom would seek to exchange normalization for a deal on those terms remains unclear.

That initiative offers normalized ties in return for a statehood deal with the Palestinians and full Israeli withdrawal from territories captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

However, in another eye-catching gesture of goodwill, the kingdom has allowed Israel-UAE flights to use its airspace. Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, who has a close relationship with MbS, praised the move last week.

A diplomat in the Gulf said that for Saudi Arabia, the issue is more related to what he called its religious position as the leader of the Muslim world, and that a formal deal with Israel would take time and is unlikely to happen while King Salman is still in power.

“Any normalization by Saudi will open doors for Iran, Qatar and Turkey to call for internationalizing the two holy mosques,” he said, referring to periodic calls by critics of Riyadh to have Mecca and Medina placed under international supervision.

(Additional reporting by Davide Barbuscia, Alexander Cornwell in Dubai and Humeyra Pamuk in Washington; editing by Maha El Dahan, Michael Georgy and William Maclean)

Pompeo says Trump administration eager for end to Gulf rift

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo pressed on Monday for a solution to the three-year rift between the Gulf state of Qatar and Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt, saying the Trump administration was eager to see it resolved.

Speaking at a State Department meeting with Qatari Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani, Pompeo said it was important to concentrate on countering Iranian activity in the Middle East.

“To keep our focus on this work and to close the door to increased Iranian meddling, it’s past time to find a solution to the Gulf rift,” Pompeo said.

“The Trump administration is eager to see this dispute resolved and to reopen Qatar’s air and land borders currently blocked by other Gulf states. I look forward to progress on this issue.”

Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Egypt cut diplomatic and trade links with Qatar in June 2017, accusing it of backing terrorism. Qatar denies the charge and has accused its neighbors of seeking to curtail its sovereignty.

Kuwait and the United States have tried to mediate the rift, which has undermined Washington’s efforts to confront Iran, which is struggling for regional supremacy with Saudi Arabia.

The boycotting nations have set 13 demands for lifting the boycott, including closing Al Jazeera television, shuttering a Turkish military base, reducing ties with Iran and cutting links to the Muslim Brotherhood.

The State Department’s top diplomat for the Middle East, David Schenker, said last week there could be some progress within weeks in resolving the rift, citing signs of “flexibility” in negotiations.

With Trump’s facing re-election on Nov. 3, he is eager to show foreign policy successes in the Middle East, and last month the UAE agreed to normalize ties with Israel under a U.S.-brokered deal scheduled to be signed at a White House ceremony on Tuesday. Bahrain joined the UAE in agreeing to normalize relations with Israel on Friday.

(Reporting by David Brunnstrom and Daphne Psaledakis; Editing by Tom Brown)

Trump to host Israel-United Arab Emirates deal-signing ceremony on Sept 15

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will hold a Sept. 15 signing ceremony for a groundbreaking Middle East agreement normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, a senior White House official said on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, announced at the White House on Aug. 13 following what officials said were 18 months of talks, the Gulf state agreed to normal relations with Israel, while Israel agreed to continue with plans to suspend its annexation of the West Bank.

The senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan would lead the two delegations to the ceremony.

“I am proud to embark next week to Washington, at the invitation of President Trump, to take part in the this historic ceremony at the White House for the foundation of the peace treaty between Israel and the United (Arab) Emirates,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

Trump and other administration officials have said they expect Saudi Arabia and other countries to follow suit in recognizing Israel.

Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner and other top administration officials accompanied an Israeli delegation last week on the first flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates to celebrate the agreement.

Iran has dismissed the agreement, which also served to firm up opposition to Tehran, a regional power seen by the UAE, Israel and the United States as the main threat in the Middle East.

The deal falls short of any grand Middle East peace plan to resolve decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians despite Trump’s pledge to do so.

The White House hope is that more such deals between Israel and the Gulf states will emerge, prompting the Palestinians to join negotiations.

Trump proposed a peace plan in January that heavily favored the Israelis, but it has not advanced in any significant way.

The Palestinian leadership initially called the accord “betrayal” and a “stab in the back of the Palestinian cause,” but has curbed its criticism, according to a draft resolution ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Wednesday.

The draft, seen by Reuters, does not include a call to condemn, or act against, the Emirates over the U.S.-brokered deal.

The United Arab Emirates is planning to make its first official visit to Israel on Sept. 22, a source familiar with the provisional itinerary said on Monday.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Franklin Paul and Howard Goller)