Israel-Gaza ceasefire takes hold after two-day flare-up

GAZA (Reuters) – A ceasefire brokered by Egypt and the United Nations took hold on the Israel-Gaza border on Tuesday after two days of fighting between Israel and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group.

Islamic Jihad had fired 80 rockets towards Israeli communities along the Gaza border since Sunday, an Israeli military spokeswoman said, while Israel attacked sites in Gaza and Syria that killed three members of the militant group.

No casualties were reported on the Israeli side of the frontier and many of the rockets were intercepted by Israel’s Iron Dome missile system.

The violence came a week before an Israeli election in which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking a fifth term in office after two inconclusive votes.

A Palestinian militant walks as he surveys an Islamic Jihad site that was targeted in an Israeli air strike in the southern Gaza Strip February 25, 2020. REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa

The frontier fell quiet early on Tuesday, after a Palestinian official said Israel and Islamic Jihad had reached a “reciprocal and simultaneous ceasefire” mediated by Egypt and the United Nations.

“This round is over and Palestinian resistance promised its people that every act of aggression by the Zionist occupation would be met by a reaction from the resistance,” Khader Habib, a senior Islamic Jihad official, told Reuters.

The Israeli military said it reopened roads near the Gaza border on Tuesday that it had closed when the fighting began and that train services would resume in the area.

But citing security concerns, the military kept Israel’s border crossings with Gaza closed, except for humanitarian cases, and banned Palestinian fisherman from heading to sea.

The violence erupted on Sunday when Israeli troops killed an Islamic Jihad member who the military said was trying to plant explosives near Israel’s border fence with the Gaza Strip.

Video widely shared on social media showed what appeared to be a lifeless body of the militant dangling from an Israeli military bulldozer as it removed the corpse.

The images created an uproar in Gaza, prompting calls for retaliation that were followed by rockets launched by Islamic Jihad.

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Netanyahu announces plans for 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he was reviving a plan for the construction of 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem, a project effectively frozen after international opposition.

Netanyahu’s announcement, during an election campaign in which he has sought to shore up support from pro-settlement voters, was condemned by the Palestinians as another blow to their hopes for an independent state.

He has pledged to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the area’s Jordan Valley as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump last month. Palestinians have rejected Trump’s blueprint as biased towards Israel.

Opponents of the project, in the Givat Hamatos area adjacent to the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa, said it would sever parts of East Jerusalem from the nearby Palestinian town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

Construction of 2,610 housing units for Jews in Givat Hamatos was approved by a Jerusalem planning committee in 2014. The Israeli government effectively put the project on hold after the United States and the European Union criticized the plan.

Visiting an area overlooking the Israeli settlement of Har Homa on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Thursday, Netanyahu said in a video he posted on social media: “Today I approved the construction in Givat Hamatos” of 3,000 homes for Jews, of which 1,000 would be marketed soon.

He said some 1,000 housing units would be built for Arabs in Beit Safafa. No construction date was announced for either area.

In a separate project, Netanyahu said another 2,200 housing units would be built in Har Homa, located like Givat Hamatos in an area of the West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the area’s capture in the 1967 Middle East war.

“Netanyahu’s insistence on building thousands of settlement units is the systematic destruction of the two-state solution and the implementation of the Trump plan,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said after the Israeli leader’s announcement.

Palestinians and much of the world view Israel’s settlements in areas seized in the 1967 conflict as illegal under international law, but the United States and Israel dispute this.

 

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. warns Israel against ‘unilateral’ West Bank moves

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A U.S. envoy warned Israel on Sunday not to declare sovereignty over West Bank land without Washington’s consent, pushing back against calls for immediate action by ultra-nationalists within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, unveiled on Jan 28, envisages Israel keeping key swathes of the occupied territory where Palestinians seek statehood. But the question of timing has opened up a rare rift between the allies.

Netanyahu initially pledged a speedy “application of Israeli law” – de facto annexation – to Jewish settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, delighting his religious-rightist base ahead of Israel’s March 2 election, where he hopes to win a fifth term.

But he was forced to backpedal after the White House made clear it wanted a U.S.-Israeli mapping process – likely to take weeks or more – completed first.

A demonstrator holds a Palestinian flag as the Jewish settlement of Modiin Illit is seen in the background, during a protest against the U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, in the village of Bilin in the Israeli-occupied West Bank February 7, 2020. Picture taken February 7, 2020. REUTERS/Mohamad Torokman

The Palestinians, for their part, have rejected the Trump plan as a non-starter.

With Defence Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli ultra-nationalists urging an immediate cabinet vote on sovereignty in the West Bank, the U.S. ambassador intervened.

“Israel is subject to the completion (of) a mapping process by a joint Israeli-American committee. Any unilateral action in advance of the completion of the committee process endangers the Plan & American recognition,” envoy David Friedman tweeted.

In a separate speech, Friedman elaborated that his message was “a little bit of patience, to go through a process, to do it right, is not something which we think is too much to ask for”.

‘POTENTIALLY ADVERSE’

“With the news out that the (Israeli) cabinet was about to be pushed in a direction that was potentially adverse to our view of the process, we just let people know where we stand,” he told the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs (JCPA) think-tank.

“It was not a threat.”

In parallel, Netanyahu invoked the White House position.

“The (U.S.) recognition is the main thing and we don’t want to endanger that,” the premier told his cabinet on Sunday.

At the JCPA, Friedman said the mapping process was unlikely to be completed before March 2. But he held out the possibility of implementation even if the election does not produce a clear winner, as was the case twice in the last year.

Asked if Washington first wanted a permanent Israeli government – as opposed to a caretaker government of the kind Netanyahu has headed by default for months – in place, Friedman said: “We have not made that demand.”

Most countries consider Israeli settlements on land captured in the 1967 Middle East war to be a violation of international law. Trump has changed U.S. policy to withdraw such objections and the prospect of Israeli annexations have drawn widespread condemnation.

Palestinians say the settlements make a future state unviable. Israel cites security needs as well as biblical and historical ties to the land on which they are built.

“Any unilateral step is rejected whether it is taken before or after the election,” said Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “Facts can’t be created on the ground and they will never become a reality.”

“The only thing we can accept is the Palestinian map on the 1967 borders,” Abu Rdainah added.

On Saturday, Netanyahu told an election rally that the mapping process with the Americans was already under way. “We’ve been waiting since 1967 and some people are making a big deal out of a few weeks,” he said, alluding to rightist rivals.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Mark Potter)

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)

Trump to unveil long-stalled Middle East peace plan ahead of Israeli leaders’ visit

By Jeff Mason and Maayan Lubell

MIAMI/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday he will release details of his long-delayed peace plan for the Middle East before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his election rival Benny Gantz visit the White House next week.

The political aspects of the peace initiative have been closely guarded. Only the economic proposals have been unveiled.

Trump discussed the timing of the plan’s release with two architects of the plan, senior advisers Jared Kushner and Avi Berkowitz, on Air Force One while returning to Washington from Switzerland on Wednesday.

Speaking to reporters on Air Force One en route to the Miami area for a political event, Trump said Palestinians might react negatively to his plan at first, but that “it’s actually very positive for them.”

“It’s a great plan,” said Trump, who will meet with Netanyahu at the White House on Tuesday. “It’s a plan that really would work.”

Vice President Mike Pence, on a visit to Jerusalem, extended an invitation to Netanyahu and Gantz to make the visit. It was not immediately clear whether Trump would meet the two leaders separately or together.

The Trump Middle East peace proposal is a document, dozens of pages long, that addresses in detail the thorny political issues between Israel and the Palestinians, such as the status of Jerusalem.

U.S. officials made no mention of inviting the Palestinians, and Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “We warn Israel and the U.S. administration not to cross any red lines.”

Trump indicated his administration had spoken “briefly” to the Palestinians and would speak to them again “in a period of time.”

Netanyahu said he had accepted the U.S. invitation. His office said he would fly to the United States on Sunday. A Gantz spokesman did not respond when asked whether Gantz had accepted Trump’s invitation.

Netanyahu, a veteran right-wing Israeli leader, faces political and legal troubles at home – he is heading for his third election in less than a year, and was indicted on criminal charges in November. He denies any wrongdoing.

Israeli political analysts viewed Trump’s invitation as a boost to Netanyahu, his right-wing ally.

Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival Gantz, a centrist former general, this week lifted his objection to having the peace plan be published before Israel’s March election. He had previously objected to it as interference in the vote.

LONG-DELAYED PLAN

The launch of Trump’s plan to end the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been delayed numerous times over the last two years.

A source familiar with the peace team’s thinking said bringing both Netanyahu and Gantz in on the details is aimed at defusing any suggestion that Trump might be favoring one Israeli candidate over another.

Trump is facing his own political clock, preoccupied with his bid for re-election in November, and could ill afford to wait for months for Israel to decide who its next prime minister will be, the source said.

“If we waited we could be in the same position four months from now and never put out the plan,” the source said.

The political proposal is the product of three years of work by Kushner, Berkowitz and former envoy Jason Greenblatt. Kushner proposed a $50 billion economic plan for the Middle East last July at a conference in Bahrain.

Kushner and Berkowitz had been scheduled to visit Israel and Saudi Arabia after attending the World Economic Conference in Davos, Switzerland, this week, but opted instead to discuss the issue with Trump on his flight home, the source said.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014 and Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water, even before its publication, citing what they see as his pro-Israel policies.

The Trump administration has reversed decades of U.S. policy on the conflict, refraining from endorsing the two-state solution – the longtime international formula which envisages a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel.

It has also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there. More recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in November that the United States no longer viewed Israel’s settlements on West Bank land as “inconsistent with international law”.

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal under international law. Israel disputes this, citing historical, biblical and political ties to the land, as well as security needs.

Netanyahu announced during an election campaign last September that he intends to annex the Jordan Valley, a large swathe of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 war and Palestinians, who signed interim peace deals with Israel in the 1990s, seek to make the area part of a future state.

Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, has publicly refused to engage politically with the Trump administration.

They fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Trump, who will seek a second term in a Nov. 3 election, faces his own problems at home with Democrats seeking to oust the Republican president on impeachment charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason in Miami and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Ali Sawafta in Bethlehem, and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Howard Goller)

Netanyahu, his rival to meet Trump on Mideast peace next week: Pence

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump has invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his election rival Benny Gantz to Washington next week to discuss the White House Middle East peace plan, Vice President Mike Pence said on Thursday.

“President Trump asked me to extend an invitation to Prime Minister Netanyahu to come to the White House next week to discuss regional issues as well as the prospect of peace here in the Holy Land,” Pence said after meeting Netanyahu at the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem.

There was no mention of the Palestinians, and Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said: “We warn Israel and the U.S. administration not to cross any red lines.”

Netanyahu said he had accepted the U.S. invitation. His office said he would fly to the United States on Sunday.

The veteran right-wing Israeli leader faces political and legal troubles at home – he is heading for his third election in less than a year, and he was indicted on criminal charges in November. He denies any wrongdoing.

Israeli political analysts viewed Trump’s invitation as a boost to his right-wing ally.

Netanyahu’s principal domestic political rival Gantz, a centrist former general, this week lifted his objection to having the peace plan be published before Israel’s March election. He had previously objected to it as interference in the vote.

LONG-DELAYED PLAN

The launch of Trump’s plan to end the decades-long conflict between Israel and the Palestinians has been delayed numerous times since it was first mooted more than two years ago.

Prospects for a breakthrough appear dim and details of the plan have been kept under wraps. But a source familiar with the situation said U.S. officials would “most likely” share some details of the plan with Netanyahu and Gantz.

Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014 and Palestinians have called Trump’s proposal dead in the water, even before its publication, citing what they see as his pro-Israel policies.

The Trump administration has reversed decades of U.S. policy on the conflict, refraining from endorsing the “two-state solution” – the longtime international formula which envisages a Palestinian state co-existing with Israel.

It has also recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moved its embassy there. More recently, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced in November that the United States no longer viewed Israel’s settlements on West Bank land as “inconsistent with international law”.

Palestinians and most of the international community view the settlements as illegal under international law. Israel disputes this, citing historical, biblical and political ties to the land, as well as security needs.

Netanyahu announced during an election campaign last September that he intends to annex the Jordan Valley, a large swathe of the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Israel captured the West Bank in a 1967 war and Palestinians, who signed interim peace deals with Israel in the 1990s, seek to make the area part of a future state.

Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, has publicly refused to engage politically with the Trump administration.

They fear the plan will dash their hopes for an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.

Trump, who will seek a second term in a Nov. 3 U.S. election, faces his own problems at home with Democrats seeking to oust the Republican president on impeachment charges of abusing power and obstructing Congress.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Ali Sawafta in Bethlehem, and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Howard Goller)

Netanyahu wins party vote in boost ahead of Israeli election

By Dan Williams and Rami Ayyub

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu easily won a vote to keep the Likud party helm, the party said on Friday, in a boost ahead of what is likely to be a hard-fought general election in March.

Netanyahu won 72.5% of votes in Thursday’s party ballot, against 27.5% for challenger Gideon Saar, who conceded, tweeting that he would now back the incumbent “for the sake of a Likud victory in the (general) election”.

The challenge by Saar, a former education and interior minister, had added to pressures on the four-term premier, who is under indictment and fighting for political survival.

Netanyahu declared victory in a speech at Likud’s campaign headquarters near Tel Aviv, telling supporters: “The future is in our hands”.

“The sweeping decision in the primaries was a major expression of confidence in my path, in our path,” Netanyahu said, adding: “Now is the time to bring a sweeping victory to Likud and the right in the elections.”

In November, Netanyahu was charged with corruption in three criminal cases and he has twice failed to form a government in the wake of inconclusive national ballots in April and September.

Netanyahu’s rival in those elections, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, was also unable to form a coalition, leading to political deadlock and a third election on March 2.

Netanyahu has cast the legal case against him as a political witch-hunt by the media and an Israeli left hoping to oust him.

Gantz, who will be Netanyahu’s main challenger again in March, sought to draw a distinction between his centrist party and Likud under Netanyahu, who he said was “seeking to break down the rule of law”.

“As Likud continues to by led by a defendant in bribery, fraud and breach of trust, we will choose unity, statehood and reconciliation, leading Israel on a new path,” Gantz said on Twitter.

Though the troubles of “King Bibi”, as his fans call him, do not seem to have dented the loyalty Netanyahu commands among his supporters, some Likud members have said it is time for fresh leadership.

Netanyahu had played down Saar’s challenge, talking up his own security credentials and international prowess. Saar had argued that Likud was unlikely to regain power in March unless Netanyhu steps aside.

(Reporting by Dan Williams and Rami Ayyub; Editing by Stephen Coates and Giles Elgood)

With Netanyahu’s fate in question, Israel heads to new election

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel headed on Wednesday toward a third national election in less than a year with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing the fight of his life for political survival after a criminal indictment.

A midnight deadline, the last of a series of set to allow for the formation of a new government after a September election, passed unmet. That triggered another election within three months. Under an earlier agreement between the two main parties, March 2 was the date to be set for the new election.

What had once seemed nearly impossible to many Israelis – a third visit to polling stations after the inconclusive ballots of April and September – carries a heavy economic price: it will be well into 2020 before a new budget is passed, which will mean months of cutbacks that will weigh on growth.

Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party nor the centrist Blue and White party led by his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, won enough seats in the Knesset for a governing majority in the previous two contests.

Both men were delegated the task of forming a coalition, but failed. Each has blamed the other for the impasse, in which neither could agree on the terms for a “rotating” premiership.

Wednesday’s deadline marked the end of a final three-week period in which Israel’s president gave Knesset lawmakers an opportunity to find a new candidate from within their ranks.

In the two previous national elections, Netanyahu’s opponents focused on the three corruption investigations against him that included allegations he dispensed favors to media barons in a push for more favorable media coverage.

But this time, Israel’s longest-serving leader is running under the cloud of a criminal indictment announced last month.

Denying any wrongdoing, Netanyahu, 70, has accused legal authorities of attempting a “coup” aimed at ousting a popular right-wing leader. Critics alleged that Netanyahu was trying to undermine the rule of law and set an election campaign theme portraying himself as the victim of “deep state” conspiracy.

As prime minister, Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign as a result of the indictment, and while in office he can ask the legislature to grant him immunity from prosecution.

As caretaker premier, Netanyahu would remain in the post until a new government is formed – a process that could stretch months past a March ballot if what is likely to be tortuous coalition-building is taken into account.

“There are only three reasons for this election – bribery, fraud and breach of trust,” Blue and White lawmaker Yair Lapid told the Knesset, alluding to the charges against Netanyahu.

Vowing to “win big” at the polls, Netanyahu has described himself as best-placed to deal with Israel’s many security threats. He has cited U.S. backing for proposed Israeli annexation of occupied land where Palestinians seeks statehood as a reason for Gantz to partner up with him in government.

“They (Blue and White) want to hide the fact that they did everything to avoid creating a national-unity government that would have annexed the Jordan Valley and applied Israeli sovereignty to the settlements of Judea and Samaria (West Bank),” Netanyahu said in video statement on social media.

“It was they who imposed a new election on us.”

An opinion poll on Israel’s Channel 13 news on Tuesday forecast Blue and White would win 37 seats to Likud’s 33 in the 120-member parliament, increasing the one-seat advantage it gained in the last election.

But it also indicated that both parties could still struggle to secure enough allies for a majority coalition.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich and Tom Brown)

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)

Will ‘The Prince’ dethrone ‘King Bibi’? Israel’s ex-military chief aims at premiership

Will ‘The Prince’ dethrone ‘King Bibi’? Israel’s ex-military chief aims at premiership
By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Confronted by a right-wing heckler while campaigning for last month’s parliamentary election in Israel, Benny Gantz grabbed the man by the lapels and glared down at him.

“No one’s doing anything wrong by you,” Gantz, who leads the centrist Blue and White Party, told him. “We only want what’s good for you.”

The encounter was part embrace, part menace, and highly ambiguous. So is much else about Gantz, who will try to form a government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to abandon his own attempts to put together a new coalition.[

President Reuven Rivlin turned to Netanyahu first after the Sept. 17 election, in which no party won a majority. Gantz, was next in line after Blue and White won 33 seats in parliament, one more than Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud.

The 60-year-old general, nicknamed “The Prince” as he rose through army ranks, now has the chance to dethrone Netanyahu, who is sometimes referred to as “King Bibi” after dominating Israeli politics for more than a decade as prime minister.

As chief of the Israeli military between 2011 and 2015, Gantz was a consensus figure. He has tried to retain his broad appeal as head of Blue and White, a newly formed party named after the national colors.

But what he would do in power is not completely clear as he had avoided committing himself on some important issues.

Gantz casts himself as more diplomatically accommodating than Netanyahu, urging redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians, but has stopped short of any commitment to the statehood they seek.

Supporters see Gantz’s reticence as an attempt to calm the political scene after two elections this year – Netanyahu also failed to form a government after an April ballot. They say Gantz would rather keep his own counsel than sap his credibility with promises that voters know will never be delivered.

As top general, Gantz orchestrated two Gaza wars in which around 2,300 Palestinians were killed.

“We don’t differentiate between either Gantz or Netanyahu,” said Moussa Abu Mazouk of Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists.

The more moderate Palestinian Authority has said it is open to talking to any Israeli leader. But Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, also said before the September election that Gantz was no different from Netanyahu.QUESTIONS OF CHARACTER

 

Gantz, who is 6 foot 3 inches (1.91 meters) tall, was brought up on a collective farm founded by Holocaust survivors including his parents, and had a stint in a religious school. He is married to an ex-paratrooper with whom he has four children.

Throughout the election he attacked Netanyahu over corruption allegations that have dogged the prime minister for years, and which the veteran leader denies.

Netanyahu’s counter-charge that a suspected Iranian hack of Gantz’s cellphone may have opened him up to blackmail by Israel’s enemy did not appear to dent the challenger’s image.

A more earthy orator than Netanyahu, he makes occasional scriptural word play and is given to reminding listeners of his military background. When his party won more seats than Netanyahu, he spoke of having fulfilled his “mission” and of his rival having failed in his.

Netanyahu has cast Gantz as a “weak leftist” who was gun-shy on Iran and the Palestinians while in uniform.

It was, however, Netanyahu who appointed Gantz as Israel’s top general and, at the time, praised him as “an officer and a gentleman … a warrior and a human being”.

As a brigadier-general in 1999, Gantz took over a liaison unit to Lebanese allies. By the following year, when Israel withdrew from south Lebanon, Gantz was a media darling.

He went on to serve a relatively short period in the West Bank, where a Palestinian revolt raged. Gantz later commanded forces on the Lebanese border but was reassigned before the inconclusive 2006 war with Hezbollah, so was spared much of the after-action blowback from an Israeli inquest.

How he won the nickname “The Prince” is unclear. Some say it stemmed from his assured rise through the ranks, others from what critics call his sense of entitlement.

Gantz has dismissed suggestions he lacks the stomach to fight. Referring to a Hamas military commander whom he ordered assassinated in 2012, he said in January: “The heads of the terrorist groups need to know that Ahmed Jaabari was not the first, nor may he be the last.”

Retired U.S. general Martin Dempsey, who as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff between 2011 and 2015 was Gantz’s counterpart, recalled him as a “superb leader” in that role.

Gantz has made no secret of learning on the job, and is leaning on his partners in the Blue and White leadership, who include two other former military chiefs of staff, a former defense minister and a former finance minister.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)