U.S. says ready to talk Mideast peace; Abbas calls for conference

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner seen with United States Ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Nikki Haley, and lawyer Jason Greenblatt (R) before a meeting of the UN Security Council at UN headquarters in New York, U.S., February 20, 2018. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States is “ready to talk” Middle East peace with the Palestinians, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said on Tuesday in remarks directed at Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a meeting of the U.N. Security Council.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner, and U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, who are working on a new peace plan, sat behind Haley. Speaking after Abbas made a rare address to the 15-member council, Haley gave no details of the U.S. plan.

“Our negotiators are sitting right behind me, ready to talk. But we will not chase after you. The choice, Mr. President, is yours,” Haley said. Abbas did not stay in the council chamber to listen to her.

White House spokesman Josh Raffel said Washington would present a peace plan “when it is done and the time is right.”

The Palestinians no longer view the United States as a neutral negotiator, and Abbas on Tuesday called for an international Middle East peace conference to be convened later this year.

The Palestinians are furious over the Trump administration’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and its decision to cut U.S. funding for the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees (UNRWA).

“It has become impossible today for one country or state alone to solve a regional or international conflict,” Abbas said. “It is essential to establish a multilateral international mechanism emanating from an international conference.”

Abbas, who shunned a visit by U.S. Vice President Mike Pence to the region last month, said the conference should include the Palestinians, Israel, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – the European Union and the United Nations.

French U.N. Ambassador Francois Delattre told the council: “We are open to studying the development of the ways of international accompaniment for the peace process.” Deputy British U.N. Ambassador Jonathan Allen described U.S. leadership on the issue as “indispensable.”

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Danny Danon told the Security Council that Abbas was part of the problem, not the solution, and that the “only way to move forward is direct negotiations” between Israel and the Palestinians.

Russian U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia said the so-called Quartet – made up of the United Nations, the United States, Russia and the EU – and the League of Arab States could play a role in kick-starting the stalled peace process.

(Additional reporting by Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Paul Simao)

Prime Minister Netanyahu says Israel could act against Iran’s ’empire’

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the dedication ceremony of a new concourse at the Ben Gurion International Airport, near Lod, Israel February 15, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvu

By Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt

MUNICH (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that Israel could act against Iran itself, not just its allies in the Middle East, after border incidents in Syria brought the Middle East foes closer to direct confrontation.

Iran mocked Netanyahu’s tough words, saying Israel’s reputation for “invincibility” had crumbled after one of its jets was shot down following a bombing run in Syria.

In his first address to the annual Munich Security Conference, which draws security and defense officials and diplomats from across Europe and the United States, Netanyahu held up a piece of what he said was an Iranian drone that flew into Israeli airspace this month.

“Israel will not allow the regime to put a noose of terror around our neck,” he said. “We will act if necessary not just against Iran’s proxies but against Iran itself.”

For his part, Iran’s Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, called Netanyahu’s presentation “a cartoonish circus, which does not even deserve a response”.

“What has happened in the past several days is the so-called invincibility (of Israel) has crumbled,” Zarif, who addressed the conference hours after Netanyahu, said, referring to the downing of the Israeli F-16, which crashed in northern Israel after a strike on Syrian air defenses.

“Once the Syrians have the guts to down one of its planes it’s as if a disaster has happened,” Zarif said, accusing Israel of using “aggression as a policy against its neighbors” by regularly carrying out incursions into Syria and Lebanon.

Israel has accused Tehran of seeking a permanent military foothold in Syria, where Iranian-backed forces support Syrian President Bashar al-Assad in civil war entering its eighth year.

Netanyahu said that as the Islamic State militant group has lost ground, Iran and its allies were surging into territory, “trying to establish this continuous empire surrounding the Middle East from the south in Yemen but also trying to create a land bridge from Iran to Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Gaza.”

The tough words on both sides at the international event come as Israel is increasingly seeking to cooperate with Sunni Arab states that share its worries about Shi’ite Iran. For months, Netanyahu has touted what he describes as unprecedented levels of behind-the-scenes cooperation.

“The fact that we have this newfound relationship with the Arab countries – something that … I would not have imagined in my lifetime – this is not what they call a spin,” Netanyahu said, during a question and answer session after his speech.

“This is real, it’s deep, it’s broad: it doesn’t necessarily cross the threshold of a formal peace, and I doubt that would happen until we get some formal progress with the Palestinians – so the two are linked,” he added.

Israel has formal peace agreements with just two Arab countries, Egypt and Jordan. Others have said a pre-condition of any such treaty is an Israeli deal with the Palestinians.

“WE HAVE FRIENDS”

Among Israel’s main concerns is Lebanon, where the heavily armed Iran-backed Shi’ite militia Hezbollah is part of a coalition government. Israel last fought a war against Hezbollah in 2006. Tension between Israel and Lebanon has increased as Hezbollah has gained strength fighting in Syria, and the two countries also have a maritime border dispute.

Israel has carried out air strikes in Syria against suspected Iranian arms shipments to Hezbollah and has accused Tehran of planning to build missile factories in Lebanon.

Lebanon’s Defense Minister, Yacoub Riad Sarraf, who spoke after Netanyahu, warned against intervention: “Watch out, we will defend ourselves … we also have friends.”

Netanyahu also reiterated his view, shared by U.S. President Donald Trump, that world powers needed to scrap or rewrite the 2015 nuclear accord with Tehran that curbs Iran’s nuclear weapons ambitions in return for economic sanctions’ relief.

“It’s time to stop them now,” Netanyahu said. “They’re aggressive, they are developing ballistic missiles, they’re not inspecting, they have a free highway to massive (uranium) enrichment,” he said of the fuel needed for nuclear weapons.

France, Britain, Germany, Russia and China, which signed the nuclear deal along with Iran and the United States, say the accord is working and Iran is allowing inspections.

Russian senator Aleksey Pushkov said scrapping the agreement was akin to choosing between war and peace. John Kerry, the former U.S. secretary of state who helped clinch the agreement, said it was wrong to assume Iran would obtain a nuclear weapon as soon as the 15-year scope of the deal ends.

“If your house is on fire, are you going to refuse to put it out because you are concerned it will light on fire again in 15 years? Or are you going to put it out and use the intervening time to prevent to ever catching fire again?” Kerry said.

(Reporting by Robin Emmott and Thomas Escritt; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Peter Graff)

Trump tells Israel peace means compromise; U.S. envoy under fire

An Israeli flag is seen near the Dome of the Rock, located in Jerusalem's Old City on the compound known to Muslims as Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount December 6, 2017.

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump told Israel on Friday that it too would need to make “significant compromises” for peace with the Palestinians, even as they accused one of his Middle East envoys of bogging down diplomacy with what they see as pro-Israel bias.

The Palestinians were outraged by Trump’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, a move overturning decades of U.S. reticence on the city’s status, and say they are looking at additional world powers as potential mediators.

In an interview with an Israeli newspaper that was excerpted ahead of its full publication on Sunday, Trump described his Jerusalem move as a “high point” of his first year in office.

The language of Trump’s announcement did not rule out a presence in Jerusalem for the Palestinians, who want the eastern part of the city – captured by Israel in a 1967 war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally – as their own capital.

“I wanted to make clear that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. Regarding specific borders, I will grant my support to what the two sides agree between themselves,” he told the conservative Israel Hayom daily, in remarks published in Hebrew.

“I think that both sides will have to make significant compromises in order for achieving a peace deal to be possible,” Trump added, without elaborating.

The interview coincided with fresh strains between the Palestinians and the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, following the killing by a Palestinian of a Jewish settler.

After the settler was stabbed to death on Monday, Friedman tweeted that he had previously donated an ambulance to the slain man’s community and that he was praying for the next-of-kin, adding: “Palestinian ‘leaders’ have praised the killer.”

That drew a rebuke from the Palestinian administration.

“The American ambassador’s statements make us wonder about his relationship with the occupation,” Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for President Mahmoud Abbas, said in a statement. “Is he representing America or Israel?”

“Friedman’s recommendations and advice, which do not aim to achieve a just peace on the basis of international legitimacy, are what led to this crisis in American-Palestinian relations,” Abu Rdainah said.

Friedman, among the top Trump advisers who promoted the Jerusalem move, is a former contributor to settler causes.

In addition to East Jerusalem, Palestinians want the occupied West Bank for a future state and see Israel’s Jewish settlements there as a major obstacle. Israel disputes this.

Most world powers deem the settlements illegal, but the Trump administration has taken a softer tack.

A liberal Israeli newspaper, Haaretz, published a column criticizing Friedman’s stance and dubbing the settlement he had supported as “a mountain of curses” – a play on its Hebrew name, Har Bracha, which means “Mount Blessing”.

The ambassador took the unusual step of firing back at the daily in another tweet on Friday: “Four young children are sitting shiva (Jewish mourning rite) for their murdered father …. Have they (Haaretz) no decency?”

Haaretz’s publisher, Amos Shocken, responded over the platform with a critique that echoed Palestinian complaints.

“As long as the policy of Israel that your Government and yourself support is obstructing (the) peace process … there will be more Shivas,” Shocken tweeted.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

Timing of Trump peace plan depends on Palestinians: Pence

U.S. Vice President Mike Pence touches the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest prayer site, in Jerusalem's Old City January 23, 2018.

By Jeff Mason

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. Vice President Mike Pence said on Tuesday the timing of a long-awaited U.S. Middle East peace initiative depended on the return of Palestinians to negotiations.

President Donald Trump’s advisers have been working on the outlines of a plan for some time. But Palestinians ruled out Washington as a peace broker after the U.S. president’s Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The White House has been working with our partners in the region to see if we can develop a framework for peace,” Pence told Reuters in an interview in Jerusalem on the last leg of a three-day Middle East trip. “It all just depends now on when the Palestinians are going to come back to the table.”

Trump’s Jerusalem move angered the Palestinians, sparked protests in the Middle East and raised concern among Western countries that it could further destabilize the region. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as capital of a future state.

A White House official told reporters he hoped the plan would be announced in 2018.

“It’ll come out both when it’s ready and when both sides are actually willing to engage on it,” said the White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official acknowledged that the United States and the Palestinian leadership had not had any direct diplomatic contact since Trump’s Jerusalem declaration.

Pence said in the interview that he and the president believed the decision, under which the United States also plans to move its embassy to Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, would improve peacemaking prospects.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official at the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), said the Trump administration had dealt a death blow to any prospect for peace.

“The extremist positions of this U.S. administration and the biblical messianic message of Pence not only disqualified the U.S. as a peace broker but created conditions of volatility and instability in the region and beyond,” Ashrawi said in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

Pence discussed the Jerusalem issue during talks with Egypt’s President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Saturday and Jordan’s King Abdullah on Sunday. He said the two leaders had agreed to convey to the Palestinians that the United States was eager to resume peace talks.

“We want them (the Palestinians) to know the door is open. We understand they’re unhappy with that decision but the president wanted me to convey our willingness and desire to be a part of the peace process going forward,” Pence said.

Asked if the Egyptians and Jordanians had agreed to pressure the Palestinians to return to talks, Pence said: “I wouldn’t characterize it as that.”

SUPPORTER OF NETANYAHU

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the Israeli-occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip with East Jerusalem as its capital.

Israel captured East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed it in a move not recognized internationally. It says the entire city is its eternal and indivisible capital.

Pence said the U.S. State Department would spell out details in the coming weeks about a plan to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem by the end of 2019.

Israeli media have speculated that a 2019 embassy move could help Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win reelection in a vote scheduled for November of that year.

Pence said he admired Netanyahu’s leadership and appreciated his friendship. Asked if he hoped for the prime minister’s reelection, Pence said: “I’m a strong supporter of Benjamin Netanyahu, but I don’t get a vote here.”

Pence toured Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial with Netanyahu on Tuesday before visiting the Western Wall, one of Judaism’s holiest sites. He stood solemnly with his hand on the wall and left a note, as people who pray there traditionally do.

The vice president also pressed European leaders to heed Trump’s call to forge a follow-up agreement to the Iran nuclear deal established under President Barack Obama’s administration.

“At the end of the day, this is going to be a moment where the European community has to decide whether they want to go forward with the United States or whether they want to stay in this deeply flawed deal with Iran,” he said.

Asked if he thought the United States would succeed in getting that kind of agreement with its European allies, Pence said: “We’ll see.”

Trump said earlier this month the United States would withdraw from the agreement unless its flaws were fixed.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Ralph Boulton)

Palestinian killed in anti-U.S. protests after U.N. vote on Jerusalem

A Palestinian demonstrator uses a slingshot to hurl stones towards Israeli troops during clashes at a protest as Palestinians call for a "Day of Rage" in response to U.S. President Donald Trump's recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital, in the West Bank city of Hebron December 22, 2017.

By Nidal al-Mughrabi

GAZA (Reuters) – Palestinians launched more anti-U.S. protests on Friday, and at least one demonstrator was killed in the Gaza Strip, a health official said, after the U.N. General Assembly rejected Washington’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Smoke billowed from burning tires at a demonstration in Bethlehem, in the occupied West Bank, two days before Christmas celebrations in the biblical town.

Israeli gunfire killed a 24-year-old Palestinian and wounded 10 other protesters during a stone-throwing demonstration in the southern Gaza Strip, a spokesman for the Palestinian Health Ministry there said. The Israeli military said it was checking the report.

One of the wounded, part of a crowd that approached the border fence chanting that U.S. President Donald Trump was a “fool” and a “coward”, was dressed as Santa Claus, witnesses said.

Protests erupted in all of the West Bank’s seven cities and in East Jerusalem. Health officials said at least five Palestinians were wounded by rubber bullets fired by Israeli security forces, who also used tear gas.

Defying the United States on Thursday, the U.N. General Assembly approved a resolution calling for the United States to drop its Dec. 6 recognition of Jerusalem, a city revered by Jews, Muslims and Christians, as Israel’s capital.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in a Christmas message, condemned Trump’s reversal of a decades-old U.S. policy on Jerusalem “an insult to millions of people worldwide, and also to the city of Bethlehem”.

“HOUSE OF LIES”

Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital. Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state to be in the city’s eastern sector, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.

Most countries regard the status of Jerusalem as a matter to be settled in an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, although that process is now stalled.

Nine countries voted against the U.N. resolution and 35 abstained. Twenty-one countries did not cast a vote.

Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists, called the U.N. vote a defeat for Trump, while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejected it as “preposterous” and branded the U.N. a “house of lies”.

But Michael Oren, Israel’s deputy minister for diplomacy, seemed to play down the support for the resolution shown by many countries Israel considers friends.

“We have an interest in tightening our bilateral relations with a long list of countries in the world, and expect and hope that one day, they will vote with us, or for us in the United Nations,” Oren said on Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM.

“But I am not prepared to suspend all cooperation with important countries, such as India,” he said. Netanyahu, who hosted Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi in July, is due to visit New Delhi next month.

Palestinians have protested daily since Trump’s Jerusalem announcement, throwing stones at Israeli security forces. Gaza militants have also launched sporadic rocket fire.

Friday’s death in Gaza raised to nine the number of Palestinians killed by Israeli gunfire during the demonstrations, Palestinian health officials said, and dozens have been wounded. Two militants were killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza after a rocket attack. There have been no Israeli fatalities or significant injuries.

“EXCESSIVE FORCE”

Amnesty International on Friday called on Israeli authorities to stop using “excessive force”.

“The fact that live ammunition has been used during protests in Gaza and the West Bank is particularly shocking,” it said.

In the run-up to the U.N. vote, Trump threatened to cut off financial aid to countries that supported the resolution. His warning appeared to have some impact, with more countries abstaining and rejecting the document than usually associated with Palestinian-related resolutions.

But most of the European Union, Israel’s biggest trading partner, and countries such as Greece, Cyprus and India, with which Netanyahu has pursued closer relations and economic ties, backed the resolution.

“I prefer we have tight bilateral relations over a situation in which we don’t have close bilateral relations, and they vote in our favor in the United Nations,” Oren said, describing India’s vote as “certainly disappointing”.

Asked if Israel wanted the United States to cut aid to countries that endorsed the resolution, Oren said: “I prefer … that if there’s room for revenge, it be directed towards the United Nations and not the U.N.’s members.”

He said he supported cutting U.S. contributions to the U.N. and perhaps relocating its New York headquarters, noting it occupies “some of the most valuable real estate in New York”.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Michelle Nichols at the U.N.; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Andrew Roche)

Israel’s Netanyahu calls U.N. ‘house of lies’ before Jerusalem vote

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem December 17, 2017

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described the United Nations as a “house of lies” ahead of a vote on Thursday on a draft resolution calling on the United States to withdraw its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“The State of Israel totally rejects this vote, even before (the resolution’s) approval,” Netanyahu said in a speech at a hospital dedication in the port city of Ashdod.

The 193-member U.N. General Assembly will hold a rare emergency special session on Thursday at the request of Arab and Muslim countries to vote on the draft resolution, which the United States vetoed on Monday in the 15-member U.N. Security Council.

Generating outrage from Palestinians and the Arab and Muslim world, and concern among Washington’s Western allies, President Donald Trump abruptly reversed decades of U.S. policy on Dec. 6 when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Palestinians have protested daily in the occupied West Bank and in the Gaza Strip since Trump’s announcement, throwing stones at security forces and burning tires. Gaza militants have also launched sporadic rocket fire.

Eight Palestinians have been killed by Israeli gunfire during the demonstrations and dozens wounded, Palestinian health officials said. Two militants were killed in an Israeli air strike in Gaza after a rocket attack.

Trump threatened on Wednesday to cut off financial aid to countries that vote in favor of the U.N. draft resolution, and his ambassador to the world body, Nikki Haley said the United States “will be taking names”.

Netanyahu, in his speech, thanked Trump and Haley for “their brave and uncompromising stance”. He repeated his prediction that other countries would eventually follow Washington’s lead in pledging to move their embassies from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.

“The attitude towards Israel of many countries, on all continents, outside the walls of the United Nations, is changing and will ultimately permeate into the U.N. – the house of lies,” he said.

Most countries regard the status of Jerusalem as a matter to be settled in an eventual Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, although that process is now stalled.

Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital and wants all embassies based there. Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state to be in the city’s eastern sector, which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East War and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.

Several senior diplomats said Haley’s warning was unlikely to change many votes in the General Assembly, where such direct,public threats are rare. Some diplomats brushed off the warning as more likely aimed at impressing U.S. voters.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Ori Lewis and Angus MacSwan)

U.S. vetoes U.N. call for withdrawal of Trump Jerusalem decision

U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley speaks during the United Nations Security Council meeting on the situation in the Middle East, including Palestine, at U.N. Headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S., December 18, 2017.

By Michelle Nichols

UNITED NATIONS (Reuters) – The United States was further isolated on Monday over President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital when it blocked a United Nations Security Council call for the declaration to be withdrawn.

The remaining 14 council members voted in favor of the Egyptian-drafted resolution, which did not specifically mention the United States or Trump but which expressed “deep regret at recent decisions concerning the status of Jerusalem.”

“What we witnessed here in the Security Council is an insult. It won’t be forgotten,” U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley said after the vote, adding that it was the first veto cast by the United States in more than six years.

“The fact that this veto is being done in defense of American sovereignty and in defense of America’s role in the Middle East peace process is not a source of embarrassment for us; it should be an embarrassment to the remainder of the Security Council,” Haley said.

The U.N. draft resolution affirmed “that any decisions and actions which purport to have altered the character, status or demographic composition of the Holy City of Jerusalem have no legal effect, are null and void and must be rescinded in compliance with relevant resolutions of the Security Council.”

Trump abruptly reversed decades of U.S. policy this month when he recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, generating outrage from Palestinians and the Arab world and concern among Washington’s western allies.

“In the wake of the decision of the United States … the situation has become more tense with an increase in incidents, notably rockets fired from Gaza and clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces,” U.N. Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov told the Security Council ahead of the vote.

EMERGENCY GENERAL ASSEMBLY SESSION

Trump also plans to move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv. The draft U.N. resolution had called upon all countries to refrain from establishing diplomatic missions in Jerusalem.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked Haley and Trump for the veto in a video clip posted on his Facebook page.

Israel considers Jerusalem its eternal and indivisible capital and wants all embassies based there. Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state to be in the city’s eastern sector, which Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.

Following the U.S. veto, Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said Arab states, which had agreed earlier this month to seek a Security Council resolution, would meet to evaluate the situation to determine what their next steps might be.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said the Palestinians would seek a rare emergency special session of the 193-member U.N. General Assembly on Trump’s decision.

Under a 1950 resolution, an emergency special session can be called for the General Assembly to consider a matter “with a view to making appropriate recommendations to members for collective measures” if the Security Council fails to act.

Only 10 such sessions have been convened, and the last time the General Assembly met in such a session was in 2009 on Israeli actions in occupied Palestinian territories. Any outcome of such a session is non-binding, but carries political weight.

(Additional reporting by Arwa Gaballa in Cairo and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem; Editing by Will Dunham and James Dalgleish)

President Trump recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital

U.S. President Donald Trump gives a statement on Jerusalem, during which he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, as he appears with Vice President Mike Pence in the Diplomatic Reception Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., December 6, 2017.

By Steve Holland and Miriam Berger

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – President Donald Trump reversed decades of U.S. policy on Wednesday and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in defiance of warnings from around the world that the gesture risks creating further unrest in the Middle East.

In a speech at the White House, Trump said his administration would begin a process of moving the U.S. embassy in Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, which is expected to take years.

The status of Jerusalem — home to sites holy to the Muslim, Jewish and Christian religions — is one of the thorniest obstacles to reaching a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians.

“I have determined that it is time to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel,” Trump said. “While previous presidents have made this a major campaign promise, they failed to deliver. Today, I am delivering.”

Israel considers the city its eternal and indivisible capital and wants all embassies based there. Palestinians want the capital of an independent Palestinian state to be in the city’s eastern sector, which Israel captured in a 1967 war and annexed in a move never recognized internationally.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed Trump’s announcement as a “historic landmark” and urged other countries also to move their embassies in Israel to Jerusalem.

He said any peace deal with Palestinians must include Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. This would be a non-starter for Palestinians if it means the entire city would be under Israeli control.

The Palestinians have said Trump’s move would mean the “kiss of death” to the two-state solution, envisaging a Palestinian state in territory – the Gaza Strip, the West Bank and East Jerusalem – that Israel took in 1967.

Ahead of Trump’s announcement, Washington’s allies in the region warned of dangerous repercussions.

Pope Francis called for Jerusalem’s status quo to be respected, saying new tension would further inflame world conflicts. China and Russia expressed concern the plans could aggravate Middle East hostilities. A Palestinian envoy said the decision was a declaration of war in the Middle East.

Trump said his move is not intended to tip the scale in favor of Israel and that any deal involving the future of Jerusalem would have to be negotiated by the parties.

He said he remained committed to the two-state solution between the Israelis and Palestinians if they parties want one.

Amid warnings of potential unrest in the Middle East, the president called on the region to take his message calmly and with moderation.

“There will of course be disagreement and dissent regarding this announcement—but we are confident that ultimately, as we work through these disagreements, we will arrive at a place of greater understanding and cooperation,” Trump said.

His announcement fulfills a core pledge of his election campaign last year

Trump said his move reflected the reality of Jerusalem as the center of Jewish faith and the fact that the city is the seat of the Israeli government.

Trump’s decision is likely to please his core supporters – Republican conservatives and evangelical Christians who comprise an important share of his political base.

He acted under a 1995 law that requires the United States to move its embassy to Jerusalem. His predecessors, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama, had consistently put off that decision to avoid inflaming tensions in the Middle East.

Trump signed a waiver delaying the embassy move from Tel Aviv since the United States does not have an embassy structure in Jerusalem to move into. A senior administration official said it could take three to four years to build one.

(Additional reporting by Roberta Rampton, Matt Spetalnick and John Walcott in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations, Michael Nienaber in Berlin, Costas Pitas in London, Philip Pullella in Vatican City, Babak Dehghanpisheh in Beirut, Dmitry Solovyov in Moscow; Editing by Mark Heinrich and Alistair Bell)

U.S. pressure delays Israel’s ‘Greater Jerusalem’ bill

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walks on a road in the Israeli settlement of Beitar Illit in the occupied West Bank

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – U.S. pressure delayed an Israeli ministerial vote on Sunday on a proposed bill that Washington fears entails annexation of Jewish settlements near Jerusalem, an Israeli lawmaker said.

The “Greater Jerusalem” legislation would put some settlements in the occupied West Bank, built on land Palestinians seek for a future state and viewed as illegal by most countries, under the jurisdiction of Jerusalem’s municipality.

The bill, proposed by a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, was to have been submitted for approval on Sunday to a ministerial committee on legislation, a first step before a series of ratification votes in parliament.

But Likud lawmaker David Bitan, chairman of Netanyahu’s coalition in parliament, said a vote by the cabinet committee would be delayed because Washington told Israel the bill’s passage could impede U.S. efforts to revive peace talks that collapsed in 2014.

“There is American pressure that claims this is about annexation and that this could interfere with the peace process,” Bitan told Army Radio.

“The prime minister doesn’t think this is about annexation. I don’t think so either. We have to take the time to clarify matters to the Americans. Therefore, if the bill passes in a week, or in a month, it’s less problematic,” he said.

Proponents of the legislation say it falls short of formal land annexation to Israel but will enable some 150,000 settlers to vote in Jerusalem city elections. Intelligence Minister Israel Katz, a supporter of the bill, has said this would “ensure a Jewish majority in a united Jerusalem”.

Israel’s claim to all of Jerusalem as its capital, including the eastern sector it captured along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip in a 1967 Middle East war, has not won international recognition. Palestinians want East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they seek to establish in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Israeli media reports said the U.S. ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, had conveyed misgivings about the legislation, under which the large Maale Adumim and Beitar Illit settlements would become part of a Greater Jerusalem municipality.

Israel’s Haaretz newspaper quoted Netanyahu as telling cabinet ministers on Sunday: “The Americans turned to us and inquired what the bill was all about. As we have been coordinating with them until now, it is worth continuing to talk and coordinate with them.”

A U.S. embassy spokeswoman declined immediate comment.

Some 500,000 Israelis live in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, areas home to more than 2.6 million Palestinians. Israel disputes that its settlements are illegal, citing historical, Biblical and political links to the territory, as well as security considerations.

 

 

(Editing by Catherine Evans)

 

Trump says giving Mideast peace ‘an absolute go’

U.S. President Donald Trump meets with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York, U.S., September 18, 2017. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Monday he believed “we really have a chance” to make peace between Israel and the Palestinians.

Trump has faced deep skepticism at home and abroad over the chances for him to achieve any quick breakthrough, not least because his administration has yet to articulate a strategy for restarting a moribund peace process.

Trump has described peace between Israelis and Palestinians as “the ultimate deal.”

“Peace between the Palestinians and Israel would be a fantastic achievement, and we are giving it an absolute go. I think there’s a good chance that it could happen. Most people would say ‘there’s no chance whatsoever,’” Trump said as he began a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in New York ahead of the U.N. General Assembly’s meeting.

“I think Israel would like to see it. I think the Palestinians would like to see it. I can tell you the Trump administration would like to see it. So we’re working very hard on it; we’ll see what happens. Historically, people say it can’t happen. I say it can happen.”

Trump is also to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas later this week.

 

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Writing by Arshad Mohammed and Yara Bayoumy; editing by Grant McCool and Dan Grebler)