Inaugurating embassy in UAE, Israel tells region: “We’re here to stay”

By Lisa Barrington

DUBAI (Reuters) -Israel’s new foreign minister inaugurated its embassy in the United Arab Emirates on Tuesday and offered an olive branch to other former adversaries, saying: “We’re here to stay.”

Yair Lapid’s two-day visit is the first to the Gulf state by an Israeli cabinet minister since the countries established ties last year. He was due to sign a bilateral agreement on economic cooperation and open an Israeli consulate in Dubai on Wednesday.

The trip is also an opportunity for the two-week-old Israeli government of Naftali Bennett, a nationalist who heads an improbable cross-partisan coalition, to make diplomatic inroads despite long-stymied talks with the Palestinians.

“Israel wants peace with its neighbors – with all its neighbors. We aren’t going anywhere. The Middle East is our home,” Lapid said during the ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Abu Dhabi high-rise office serving as a temporary embassy.

“We’re here to stay. We call on all the countries of the region to recognize that and to come to talk to us,” he said.

Brought together by shared worries about Iran and hopes for commercial boons, the UAE and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel last year under so-called “Abraham Accords” crafted by the administration of then U.S.-President Donald Trump. Sudan and Morocco have since also moved to establish ties with Israel.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken, welcoming Lapid’s visit, said Washington “will continue to work with Israel and the UAE as we strengthen all aspects of our partnerships and work to create a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous future for all the peoples of the Middle East”, the State Department said.

The regional rapprochement was deplored by the Palestinians, who want their demands for statehood free of Israeli occupation addressed first.

President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the accords as “an illusion” and asserted that colonial powers had “implant(ed) Israel as a foreign body in this region in order to fragment it and keep it weak,” according to a report on Tuesday by the official Palestinian news service WAFA.

Tuesday’s agreement will be the 12th between Israel and the UAE, Lior Haiat, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said. Lapid is also set to visit the site of Expo 2020 Dubai, a world fair opening in October where Israel has built a pavilion.

Lapid’s plane transited through Saudi airspace. Riyadh, although not having normalized relations with Israel, last year opened its skies to Israel-UAE flights.

The UAE formally opened its embassy in Israel, temporarily located in the Tel Aviv stock exchange, this month.

Israel’s Abu Dhabi embassy still has only three diplomats and a head of mission, Eitan Na’eh, who has yet to be confirmed as full ambassador. The consulate in Dubai is similarly located in temporary premises.

Lapid was conciliatory toward former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose attempts to organize a trip to the UAE while in office were scotched by COVID-19 restrictions and who has sought to cast his ouster by Bennett as illegitimate.

Thanking Netanyahu as “the architect of the Abraham Accords,” Lapid said: “This moment is his, no less than it is ours.”

(Reporting by Ari Rabinovitch and Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Nidal Al-Mughrabi’Writing by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, John Stonestreet, Nick Macfie, William Maclean)

Spy phones ‘in gangsters’ back pockets’ betray hundreds to police

By Colin Packham and Toby Sterling

CANBERRA/AMSTERDAM (Reuters) -A global sting in which organized crime gangs were sold encrypted phones that law enforcement officials could monitor has led to more than 800 arrests and the confiscation of drugs, weapons, cash and luxury cars, officials said on Tuesday.

The operation by the U.S. Federal Bureau of Investigation, Australian and European police ensnared suspects in Australia, Asia, Europe, South America and the Middle East involved in the global narcotics trade, the officials said.

Millions of dollars in cash were seized in raids around the world, along with 30 tonnes of drugs including more than eight tonnes of cocaine.

Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the operation had “struck a heavy blow against organized crime – not just in this country, but … around the world”.

Operation Greenlight/Trojan Shield, conceived by Australian police and the FBI in 2018, was one of the biggest infiltrations and takeovers of a specialized encrypted network.

It began when U.S. officials paid a convicted drug trafficker to give them access to a smartphone that he had customized, on which he was installing ANOM, also styled An0m, a secure encrypted messaging app. The phones were then sold to organized crime networks through underworld distributors.

The FBI helped to infiltrate 12,000 devices into 300 criminal groups in more than 100 countries, Calvin Shivers of the FBI’s Criminal Investigative Division told reporters in The Hague.

COCAINE IN FRUIT

In a pattern repeated elsewhere, one Australian underworld figure began distributing phones containing the app to his associates, believing their communications were secure because the phones had been rebuilt to remove all capabilities, including voice and camera functions, apart from ANOM.

As a result, there was no attempt to conceal or code the details of the messages – which police were reading.

“It was there to be seen, including ‘we’ll have a speedboat meet you at this point’, ‘this is who will do this’ and so on,” Australian Federal Police Commissioner Reece Kershaw said.

“We have been in the back pockets of organized crime … All they talk about is drugs, violence, hits on each other, innocent people who are going to be murdered.”

The phones were such a hit that Italian mafiosi, Asian triads, biker gangs and transnational drug syndicates all began using them, providing the FBI and its partner forces around the world with a trove of 27 million messages.

Shivers said the FBI had been able to see photographs of “hundreds of tons of cocaine that were concealed in shipments of fruit”.

PRINTERS FOR GUN PARTS

Australian police said they had arrested 224 people, including members of outlawed motorcycle gangs, and disrupted 21 murder plots.

On Monday alone, they seized 104 firearms, including a military-grade sniper rifle, as well as almost A$45 million ($35 million) in cash, including A$7 million from a safe buried under a garden shed in a suburb of Sydney.

In Europe, there were 49 arrests in the Netherlands, 75 in Sweden and over 60 in Germany, where authorities seized hundreds of kilograms of drugs, more than 20 weapons and over 30 luxury cars and cash.

Finnish police not only detained almost 100 suspects and seized 500 kg of narcotics but also found a warehouse with 3-D printers used to manufacture gun parts.

The operation also revealed that gangs were being tipped off about police actions, which prompted “numerous high-level public corruption cases in several countries,” according to an affidavit from an FBI agent.

Kershaw said the Australian underworld figure, who had absconded, had “essentially set up his own colleagues” by distributing the phones, and was now a marked man.

“The sooner he hands himself in, the better for him and his family.” ($1 = 1.2893 Australian dollars)

(Additional reporting by Joseph Menn, Tom Allard, Jonathan Barrett, Essi Lehto, Riham Alkousaa and Caroline Copley; Writing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Philippa Fletcher; Editing by Stephen Coates and Kevin Liffey)

Blinken announces U.S. aid to Gaza, pledges to reopen Jerusalem consulate

By Ali Sawafta and Jeffrey Heller

RAMALLAH, West Bank/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Secretary of State Antony Blinken pledged on a Middle East mission on Tuesday that Washington would provide new aid to help rebuild Gaza as part of efforts to bolster a ceasefire between its Hamas Islamist rulers and Israel.

Hoping to reverse a move taken by former President Donald Trump that angered Palestinians, Blinken said the United States would advance the process of re-opening the Jerusalem consulate that had served as its diplomatic channel to the Palestinians.

Speaking alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Blinken said the United States would provide an additional $75 million in development and economic aid to the Palestinians in 2021, $5.5 million in immediate disaster relief for Gaza and $32 million to U.N. Palestinian aid agency.

But Blinken reiterated that Washington intended to ensure that Hamas, which it regards as a terrorist organization, did not benefit from the humanitarian aid – a potentially difficult task in an enclave over which it has a strong grip.

Blinken began his regional visit in Jerusalem, where he held talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader, speaking to reporters with the top U.S. diplomat at his side, threatened a “very powerful response” if Hamas renewed cross-border rocket strikes.

The truce, brokered by Egypt and coordinated with the United States, began on Friday after 11 days of the worst fighting between Palestinian militants and Israel in years. Now in its fifth day, it has been holding.

“We know that to prevent a return to violence we have to use the space created to address a larger set of underlying issues and challenges,” Blinken said.

“And that begins with tackling the grave humanitarian situation in Gaza and starting to rebuild.”

Blinken will be in the region through Thursday, and will also travel to Egypt and Jordan. In tandem with his visit, Israeli authorities allowed fuel, medicine and food earmarked for Gaza’s private sector to enter the territory for the first time since the hostilities began on May 10.

Blinken said re-opening the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem would be “an important way for our country to engage with and provide support to the Palestinian people”.

The Trump administration merged the consulate with the U.S. Embassy in Israel in 2019, two years after recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and later moving the embassy there from Tel Aviv.

Those moves broke with long-standing U.S. policy and infuriated Palestinians, who seek East Jerusalem as capital of future state.

Israel deems all of Jerusalem, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed in a move not recognized internationally, as its undivided capital.

Biden has no plans to reverse the embassy relocation but has moved in the early months of his term to repair relations with Palestinians. In April, Biden restored hundreds of millions of dollars in Palestinian aid cut by Trump.

Speaking alongside Blinken, Abbas thanked the U.S. “for its commitment to the two-state solution (and maintaining) the status quo on the Haram al-Sharif,” a Jerusalem compound holy to Muslims and Jews that contains Al-Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third-holiest site.

Abbas also thanked Blinken for what he called American support “for the preservation of (Palestinian) residents of … Sheikh Jarrah,” an East Jerusalem neighborhood where the potential evictions of Palestinian families helped spark the Israel-Gaza fighting.

TWO STATES

Negotiations between Israel and Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which has limited self-rule in the West Bank, collapsed in 2014.

While Biden has said a two-state solution was the only answer to resolving the Israel-Palestinian conflict, U.S. officials have suggested it was too early for wider peace talks.

Israel is in political flux after four inconclusive elections in two years, and the Palestinians are divided by enmity between Hamas and Abbas, who holds sway in the West Bank.

Blinken said he and Netanyahu discussed “other steps” that need to be taken by leaders on both sides to set “a better course” for Israelis and Palestinians.

“As President Biden said, we believe that Palestinians and Israelis equally deserve to live safely and securely, to enjoy equal measures of freedom, opportunity and democracy, to be treated with dignity,” Blinken said.

At least 254 people were killed in Gaza and more than 1,900 wounded, Palestinian health authorities said, during the fighting that saw hundreds of Israeli air strikes.

The Israeli military put the death toll in Israel at 13, with hundreds treated for injuries after rocket salvoes caused panic and sent people as far away as Tel Aviv rushing into shelters.

Commercial buildings, residential towers and private houses across the Gaza Strip, where two million people live, were damaged or destroyed by the time the ceasefire was announced.

In Gaza, Palestinian officials estimated reconstruction costs at tens of millions of dollars. Israel has blockaded the territory since 2007, in what Palestinians condemn as collective punishment. Egypt also maintains restrictions on its border with Gaza. Both countries cite security concerns for the measures.

Israel says air strikes hit legitimate military targets and that it did its utmost to avoid civilian casualties, including giving prior warnings when it was about to strike residential buildings that it said also had a military use.

(Additional reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by William Maclean)

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)