Trump shift on Israeli settlements fulfills wish list of evangelical base

By Maria Caspani and Matt Spetalnick

NEW YORK/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – A U.S. decision effectively backing Israel’s building of settlements in the occupied West Bank, long a cherished item on conservative Christians’ wish list, is expected to strengthen evangelicals’ support for Donald Trump as he seeks re-election in 2020, according to a leader of the president’s evangelical advisory group.

While Palestinians and Arab governments condemned the Trump administration’s declaration on Monday that Jewish settlements in occupied territory are not “inconsistent with international law,” the reversal of four decades of U.S. policy drew praise from evangelicals, an important part of his base.

Trump had already tightened his bond with his pro-Israel constituency by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, moving the U.S. embassy to the holy city in 2018 and then endorsing Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Though an intense push by evangelicals set the stage for Trump’s Jerusalem moves, Mike Evans – Texas-based founder of Friends of Zion Museum in Jerusalem – said evangelicals felt no need to mount a similar campaign with the administration over settlements, one of the core issues of the decades-old Middle East conflict.

“There was virtually no lobbying for the policy shift because he (Trump) knows us, he knows what we believe,” Evans told Reuters in New York.

U.S. policy makers, however, were widely known to have consulted regularly with evangelical leaders – as well as some of Israel’s Jewish American supporters – in crafting a series of pro-Israel initiatives that have thrilled most Israelis but angered Palestinians since Trump took office in 2017.

The latest move could nevertheless undermine Trump’s efforts to resolve the conflict through a peace plan that has been in the works for more than two years but has drawn widespread skepticism even before its release.

Evans, an informal adviser and member of Trump’s Faith Initiative, said he was given advance word on the announcement and was personally briefed by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo immediately after he unveiled it in Washington.

‘HE WILL GET 100% OF THIS BASE’

Evangelicals have been a core base for Trump since the 2016 election. Many are also staunch supporters of Israel, feeling a religious connection with the Jewish people and the Holy Land.

The West Bank, which Israel seized in a 1967 war and Palestinians want as part of their future state, holds special importance to evangelicals who see a divine hand in the modern-day return of Jews to a Biblical homeland.

Pompeo – along with Vice President Mike Pence – is himself an evangelical, telling an interviewer in Israel in March that “the Lord was at work here” in Trump’s Israel policies.

U.S. officials denied the announcement was timed to help right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is struggling to remain in power following two inconclusive Israeli elections and faces possible criminal prosecution over corruption charges, which he denies.

The U.S. legal determination on settlements had been “a long time in the making” and only just came to fruition, according to a person familiar with the matter.

But Evans said Trump appeared to be trying to give Netanyahu a boost. “Donald Trump trusts Benjamin Netanyahu and there’s a chemistry between them,” he said. “He was sending a signal.”

Asked about Trump’s own re-election prospects, he said: “I have 68 million Facebook followers. When the president blesses Israel, they feel strongly that God is going to bless us … He won’t get 90%; he will get 100% of this base.”

Jack Graham, pastor of 40,000-plus-member Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas, was quoted by the Christian Broadcasting Network as saying the Trump administration “once again has demonstrated why evangelical Christians have been unwavering in their support.”

The settlement announcement could also help lay part of the legal groundwork for Trump’s long-delayed peace plan, which Pompeo said he hoped would be rolled out “before too long,” after a new Israeli government is formed.

While details have been kept under wraps, it is widely expected to call for Israel to keep the vast majority of its settlements. The international community mostly considers them illegal, an assertion disputed by Israel.

But a U.S. official told Reuters: “Nothing in yesterday’s announcement should be read as previewing the content of the White House’s vision for peace.”

(Writing by Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Mary Milliken and Cynthia Osterman)

Syrian Kurds accuse Turkey of violations, Russia says peace plan on track

Syrian Kurds accuse Turkey of violations, Russia says peace plan on track
By Tom Perry and Maria Kiselyova

BEIRUT/MOSCOW (Reuters) – The Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF) accused Turkey on Thursday of launching a large land offensive targeting three villages in northeast Syria despite a truce, but Russia said a peace plan hammered out this week was going ahead smoothly.

Under the plan, agreed by presidents Tayyip Erdogan and Vladimir Putin, Syrian Kurdish forces are to withdraw more than 30 km (19 miles) from the Turkish border, a goal Russia’s RIA news agency, quoting an SDF official, said was already achieved.

Russia said it was sending more military policemen and heavy equipment to help implement the deal, which has already prompted U.S. President Donald Trump to lift sanctions against Turkey and has drawn lavish praise for Erdogan in the Turkish media.

Ankara views the Kurdish YPG militia, the main component in the SDF, as terrorists linked to Kurdish insurgents in southeast Turkey. It launched a cross-border offensive against them on Oct. 9 after Trump ordered U.S. forces out of northeast Syria.

The deal agreed with Putin, which builds on and widens a previous U.S.-brokered ceasefire, helped end the fighting.

But the SDF said in its statement on Thursday that Turkish forces had attacked three villages “outside the area of the ceasefire process,” forcing thousands of civilians to flee.

“Despite our forces’ commitment to the ceasefire decision and the withdrawal of our forces from the entire ceasefire area, the Turkish state and the terrorist factions allied to it are still violating the ceasefire process,” it said.

“Our forces are still clashing,” it said, urging the United States to intervene to halt the renewed fighting.

Turkey’s defense ministry did not comment directly on the SDF report but said five of its military personnel had been wounded in an attack by the YPG militia around the border town of Ras al Ain, near where the three villages are located.

Turkey has previously said it reserves the right to self-defense against any militants who remain in the area despite the truce, a pledge repeated by Erdogan on Thursday.

“If these terrorists don’t pull back and continue their provocations, we will implement our plans for a (new) offensive there,” he said in a speech to local administrators.

‘EVERYTHING IS BEING IMPLEMENTED’

Russia, which as a close ally of President Bashar al-Assad has emerged as the key geopolitical player in Syria, has begun deploying military policemen near the Turkish border as part of the deal agreed on Tuesday in the Russian city of Sochi.

“We note with satisfaction that the agreements reached in Sochi are being implemented,” Interfax news agency quoted Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Vershinin as saying.

“Everything is being implemented,” he said.

RIA, citing an SDF official, said the Kurdish fighters had already withdrawn to 32 km (20 miles) away from the border. It also said the Kurds were ready to discuss joining the Syrian army once the crisis in Syria has been settled politically.

Russia will send a further 276 military policemen and 33 units of military hardware to Syria in a week, RIA news agency cited a defense ministry source as saying.

Next Tuesday, under the terms of the Sochi deal, Russian and Turkish forces will start to patrol a 10 km strip of land in northeast Syria where U.S. troops had for years been deployed along with their former Kurdish allies.

The arrival of the Russian police marks a shift in the regional balance of power just two weeks after Trump pulled out U.S. forces, in a move widely criticized in Washington and elsewhere as a betrayal of the Americans’ former Kurdish allies.

The Russian deployments have also further highlighted increasingly close ties between Russia and NATO member Turkey.

U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, speaking in Brussels on Thursday ahead of a NATO meeting, said Turkey – which annoyed Washington this year by buying Russian-made S400 missile defense systems – was moving in the wrong direction.

“We see them spinning closer to Russia’s orbit than in the Western orbit and I think that is unfortunate,” Esper said.

‘SUPER-POWER OF PEACE’

Despite Trump’s lifting of sanctions on Turkey, distrust persists between Ankara and Washington, and a top Erdogan aide on Thursday criticized U.S. politicians for treating SDF commander Mazloum Kobani as a “legitimate political figure.”

The aide, Fahrettin Altun, told Reuters that Mazloum was a senior leader of the outlawed Kurdistan Workers Party (PKK), which has waged a decades-long insurgency in southeast Turkey and which Ankara’s Western allies also deem a terrorist group.

Republican and Democratic U.S. senators urged the State Department on Wednesday to quickly provide a visa to Mazloum so he can visit the United States to discuss the situation in Syria.

The Turkish public has shown strong support for the military operation, encouraged by an overwhelmingly pro-government media.

“The super-power of peace, Turkey,” said the main headline in Thursday’s edition of the pro-government Sabah newspaper.

An opinion poll published by pollster Areda Survey last week showed more than three quarters of Turks supported the so-called Operation Peace Spring.

However, the incursion has deepened a sense of alienation among Turkey’s Kurds, which is also being fueled by a crackdown on the country’s main pro-Kurdish party.

Kurds make up some 18% of Turkey’s 82 million people.

Turkey’s military operation was widely condemned by its NATO allies, which said it was causing a fresh humanitarian crisis in Syria’s eight-year conflict and could let Islamic State prisoners held by the YPG escape and regroup.

(Additional reporting by Tuvan Gumrukcu and Orhan Coskun in Ankara and Daren Butler in Istanbul; Writing by Gareth Jones; Editing by Jonathan Spicer)

U.S. peace plan conference is blip on Israel’s radar as political, Iran crises swirl

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A U.S.-led conference in Bahrain designed to drum up investment in the Palestinian economy and pave a path to peace with Israel has gone largely unremarked by Israelis preoccupied with a political crisis and their arch-foe Iran.

Palestinians, who view the Trump administration as biased towards Israel, boycotted this week’s meeting in Manama.

It was also held without an official Israeli delegation.

Organizers said privately this was due to worry about a further dent to the event’s credibility after an election in Israel in April election failed to produced a new coalition government.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits with his ministers and former Israel's Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the plenum at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sits with his ministers and former Israel’s Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman at the plenum at the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, in Jerusalem May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

With Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu facing proliferating challengers in a new election due in September, and beset by corruption scandals, the hazier-than-ever peacemaking horizon with the Palestinians drew scant discussion in Israeli media.

Economy Minister Eli Cohen went as far as to suggest that Bahrain may have closed the door on further diplomacy.

“We saw that, even in an economic conference where the Palestinians were meant to come and get money, to come and get tools and inducements, to come and develop their economy, they did not come,” he told Israel’s Reshet 13 TV.

“We see, really, that they do not want a peace accord. They simply don’t want us here…Again, the Palestinians’ true face has been exposed.”

The Palestinians, who have shunned the United States since it recognized disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in late 2017, suspected the conference sought to lure them into surrendering their statehood goal in return for global financial relief.

It is not clear whether a peace plan promised by the Trump administration will call for a “two-state solution” sought by the Palestinian Authority and backed internationally, which involves creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Netanyahu voiced conditional acceptance in 2009 of a future demilitarized Palestinian state. He has since said its creation would not happen on his watch and that he plans to annex some Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, communities many countries view as illegal.

Stalled since 2014, peacemaking has been on a backburner for some Israelis, while others feel a need to work for coexistence.

FILE PHOTO: White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Handout via REUTERS

FILE PHOTO: White House senior adviser Jared Kushner speaks at the “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Handout via REUTERS

“This is a matter that’s important to me. We need an end to this situation,” said Jerusalem chef Israel Bachar, 45.

“It’s a little odd that the Americans held this (Bahrain) conference without convening the two main parties involved. I don’t think it’s helpful to try to impose things from outside.”

Netanyahu described the Bahrain gathering as part of a U.S. effort “to bring about a better future and solve the region’s problems”.

Two days before it opened, he toured the strategic Jordan Valley, the eastern-most part of the West Bank that borders Jordan, with U.S. National Security Adviser John Bolton and said Israel must retain a presence there in any peace deal.

Israeli journalists were at Bahrain, a rarity for a Gulf state that does not formally recognize Israel. The resulting coverage focused as much on wider Israeli-Arab contacts and Bahrain’s tiny Jewish community as on the Palestinian no-shows.

Cohen, a member of Netanyahu’s security cabinet, said Arab delegates saw Bahrain as a chance to close ranks with Israel on bilateral commerce and in the face of a common adversary.

“This was, in fact, a regional summit against Iran,” he said. “We see here a coalition in the Middle East…They (Arab powers) understand that their security threat is Iran.”

Washington and Tehran have exchanged threats and heated rhetoric in recent weeks, with a U.S. increasing sanctions on Iran and Iranian forces shooting down a U.S. drone in the Gulf.

The Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University gave a cautious welcome to the initiatives announced in Manama, including a global investment fund for the Palestinians. But it said these could not trump statecraft.

“While a willingness to earmark huge investments in economy, infrastructure, education, health, and welfare in the West Bank and Gaza Strip should be good news…what is also required is a political plan that is both creative and beneficial to the Palestinians,” INSS scholars Tomer Fadlon and Sason Hadad wrote.

Israel captured the West Bank and Gaza in the 1967 Middle East war. It pulled its troops and settlers out of Gaza in 2005 and Hamas Islamists, who have called for Israel’s destruction, now rule the enclave. Palestinians seek both territories for a future state.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

Palestinians reject U.S. peace plan as Kushner keeps silent on political details

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner gives a speech at the opening of the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019 in this still image taken from a video. Peace And Prosperity conference pool/Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Matt Spetalnick

MANAMA (Reuters) – Palestinians poured scorn on the Trump administration’s much-touted peace plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Wednesday, saying its framework for a trade and investment boost ignored their political aspirations for statehood.

Gulf states attending an international meeting in Bahrain, orchestrated by the plan’s architect, U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, gave it qualified support.

But they also stressed that any peace settlement must be based on two-state solution.

Kushner told reporters his team would release the plan’s political details, which remain secret, “when we’re ready”, adding: “We’ll see what happens”.

He said a peace deal would happen when both sides are ready to say “yes”. He acknowledged that they may never get there.

Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments are attending the meeting, which takes place amid a years-long stalemate in other international efforts to resolve a conflict that has lasted more than 70 years.

Senior Palestine Liberation Organisation official Hanan Ashrawi, speaking in the West Bank city of Ramallah, said the Manama conference was “quite disingenuous”.

“It is totally divorced from reality. The elephant in the room is the (Israeli) occupation itself,” she told a news conference.

Several thousand Palestinians demonstrated in the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip and burned posters of Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. “No to the conference of treason, no to the conference of shame” read one banner.

The chief of the Islamist Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, criticized the plan as a ruse against the Palestinian people.

“This money must not come at the expense of our enduring rights, or at the expense of Jerusalem or the right of return or at the expense of sovereignty and resistance,” he said.

The foreign minister of Bahrain said the plan, nearly two years in the making, was an “opportunity not to be missed”.

He reiterated the need for a two-state solution, which has underpinned every peace plan for decades, but Trump’s team has consistently refused to commit to it.

“I think if we take this matter seriously it could be a very important game-changer,” Sheikh Khalid bin Ahmed al-Khalifa told Israeli public broadcaster Kan in English.

Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, has said Israel was open to the economic proposals.

But many Arab states, including Lebanon, stayed away from the event while others including Jordan and Egypt, the two Arab nations that have reached peace agreements with Israel, sent deputy ministers.

The Lebanese government and parliament both oppose the U.S. plan, Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri said on Wednesday.

 

Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO, AT&T is seen during the "Peace to Prosperity" conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Handout via REUTERS

Randall Stephenson, Chairman and CEO, AT&T is seen during the “Peace to Prosperity” conference in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. Peace to Prosperity Workshop/Handout via REUTERS

HARD SELL

Washington hopes the wealthy Gulf states will bankroll the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute $50 billion to Palestinian and neighboring Arab state economies.

Saudi Finance Minister Mohammed al-Jadaan said the kingdom would support whatever brings prosperity to the region but that it was important that it was driven by the private sector.

UAE Minister of State for Financial Affairs Obaid Humaid al-Tayer said: “We should give this initiative a chance”.

Riyadh said on the eve of the conference that any peace deal should be based on a Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war.

It also envisages a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return – points rejected by Israel.

It is not clear whether the Trump team plans to abandon the two-state solution, which is backed by the United Nations and most countries. Kushner has said the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative.

Any solution must settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, Israel’s security concerns, Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory where Palestinians want to build that state.

Palestinian leaders are refusing to engage with the White House, accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Breaking with the international consensus, Trump in 2017 recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating the Palestinians and other Arabs.

SOUND POLITICS

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair also emphasized the need for a two-state solution and said peace required both political and economic tracks.

“It’s absolutely foolish to believe you can have economics without sound politics, but it’s likewise completely futile to think politics will work without economics buttressing it,” he told the gathering.

International Monetary Fund managing director, Christine Lagarde, said generating economic growth in conflict-riven countries can be a struggle.

The IMF puts unemployment at 30% in the West Bank and 50% in Gaza, which has suffered years of Israeli and Egyptian blockades and recent foreign aid cuts and sanctions by the Palestinian Authority, Hamas’ rival in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“Gaza right now is feeling a lot of pain because of bad leadership and the sanctions that have been imposed on them because of it,” Kushner said.

“So the question that (Hamas)leadership has to ask themselves is…do they hate their neighbor in Israel more than they love their citizens and their people?”

The 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects in the plan include a $5 billion transportation corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza, which has been floated before and stalled for lack of underlying political or security agreements.

Palestinian businessman Ashraf Jabari, chairman of the Palestinian Business Network, told the gathering it was difficult to build an economy with a “siege and unstable situation”.

“Frankly, we demand an independent Palestinian state on the territories occupied by Israel in 1967,” said the businessman from Hebron, who has co-founded a trade group to boost business between Palestinians and Israeli settlers.

(Story was refiled to remove extraneous words from headline)

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Manama, Dan Williams in Jerusalem, Rami Ayyub in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Davide Barbuscia, Lisa Barrington, Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nafisa Taher, Hadeel AlSayegh and Alexander Corwnwell in Dubai; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. seeks funds for Middle East peace plan but details are vague and Palestinians unhappy

Palestinians burn a picture of U.S. President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and representations of Israeli flags during a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. Middle East peace plan, in Gaza City, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mohammed Salem

By Matt Spetalnick

MANAMA (Reuters) – The Trump administration prepared to launch its $50 billion economic formula for Israeli-Palestinian peace in Bahrain on Tuesday but the Palestinian leadership reiterated its disdain for the plan and Saudi Arabia, envisaged as one of its main bank-rollers, also indicated some reservations.

Bahraini armoured vehicle takes up position on bridge leading to Manama’s Four Seasons hotel for first day of U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

Bahraini armoured vehicle takes up position on bridge leading to Manama’s Four Seasons hotel for first day of U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

The two-day international meeting, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior advisor Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s broader political blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

But the political details of the plan, which has been almost two years in the making, remain a secret. Neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in Manama, which Lebanon and Iraq are staying away from.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success.

“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important.”

Washington will be hoping that attendees in Manama such as wealthy Gulf states will show a concrete interest in the plan, which expects donor nations and investors to contribute $50 billion to Palestinian territories, Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon.

Saudi Arabia – a close U.S. ally which shares a common foe with Israel in Iran – voiced support on Tuesday for “international efforts aimed at improving prosperity, investment and economic growth in the region”.

But Riyadh reiterated that any peace deal should be based on the Saudi-led Arab peace initiative that has been the Arab consensus on the necessary elements for a deal since 2002.

That plan calls for a Palestinian state drawn along borders which predate Israel’s capture of territory in the 1967 Middle East war, as well as a capital in East Jerusalem and refugees’ right of return – points rejected by Israel.

Kushner said the plan would not adhere to the Arab initiative. “It will be somewhere between the Arab Peace Initiative and between the Israeli position,” he told Al Jazeera TV in an interview to air on Tuesday.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said Kushner is “committed to the initiatives of Israel’s colonial settlement councils.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, said Israel was open to the plan. “We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” he said on Sunday.

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama's Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted "Peace to Prosperity" conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

White House senior adviser Jared Kushner and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin arrive at Manama’s Four Seasons hotel, the venue for the U.S.-hosted “Peace to Prosperity” conference, in Manama, Bahrain, June 25, 2019. REUTERS/Matt Spetalnick

Expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes the economic plan – billed “Peace to Prosperity” – will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.

Jordan and Egypt, the only Arab states to have reached peace with Israel, are sending deputy finance ministers. Kushner’s plan has hit a political nerve in Jordan, home to millions of citizens of Palestinian refugee origin.

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates want to move on from a Palestinian conflict they believe has held back the Arab world. Other Gulf states such as Kuwait, Qatar and Oman have not said who they are sending to the conference.

“If there is a one percent chance we do something good here, we should get together and try,” billionaire Mohamed Alabbar, one of Dubai’s most prominent businessmen, said after arriving at the venue in Manama and embracing two American rabbis.

POLITICAL PLAN?

It is not clear whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution,” which involves creation of an independent Palestinian state living side by side with Israel.

The United Nations and most nations back the two-state solution and it has underpinned every peace plan for decades.

But Trump’s team has consistently refused to commit to it, keeping the political stage of the plan a secret.

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres urged the pursuit of “peace efforts to realize the vision of two States, Israel and Palestine, living side by side in peace and security”.

Any such solution would have to settle long-standing issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, satisfying Israel’s security concerns and Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory in Palestinians want to build that state.

In Gaza, businesses closed doors in a general strike called by the ruling Islamist Hamas group and other factions.

In the West Bank on the outskirts of Ramallah, where a small crowd of protesters was dispersed by Israeli troops firing tear gas, Palestinian lawmaker Mustafa Barghouti said: “There can be no economic solution as a substitute for our freedom.”

The workshop is being held in Bahrain, home of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, at a time of heightened tension between Tehran and Washington and its Gulf allies. Trump on Monday imposed sanctions on Iran’s Supreme Leader and other officials after Iran downed an U.S. drone last week.

Palestinian leaders have boycotted the conference, and are refusing to engage with the White House – accusing it of pro-Israel bias. Breaking with international convention, Trump in 2017 recognized disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a move that infuriated the Palestinians and other Arabs.

Seven Palestinian businessmen gathered in the lobby of the Four Seasons hotel, the conference venue. They estimated that 15 to 20 Palestinian business representatives would be present.

“The politicians will not bring us anywhere,” said conference attendee Shlomi Fogel, an Israeli entrepreneur. “We, the business people, should be able to show them there might be another way.”

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah; Writing by Ghaida Ghantous; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

U.S. to unveil ‘economy first’ approach to Mideast peace at Bahrain conference

FILE PHOTO: A footbridge leads from the Western Wall to the compound known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as Temple Mount, in Jerusalem's Old City June 2, 2015. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

By Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell

MANAMA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The first stage of President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan will be launched in Bahrain on Tuesday at a conference the White House touts as a bid to drum up $50 billion in investment but which Palestinians deride as an “economy first” approach doomed to fail.

The two-day international meeting, led by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, has been billed as the first part of Washington’s long-delayed broader political blueprint to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to be unveiled at a later date.

But neither the Israeli nor Palestinian governments will attend the curtain-raising event in the Bahraini capital Manama.

And there will be close scrutiny as to whether attendees such as Saudi Arabia and other wealthy Gulf Arab states show any interest in making actual donations to a U.S. plan that has already elicited bitter criticism from Palestinians and many others in the Arab world.

Bahrain, a close American ally and home to the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, has been making preparations for weeks.

Though the event is supposed to focus on economics, Gulf Arab states hope it will also be used to show their solidarity with the Trump administration over its hard line against Iran, a senior Gulf diplomat said on condition of anonymity.

Under the plan, donor nations and investors would contribute about $50 billion to the region, with $28 billion going to the Palestinian territories – the Israeli-occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip – as well as $7.5 billion to Jordan, $9 billion to Egypt and $6 billion for Lebanon.

Among 179 proposed infrastructure and business projects is a $5 billion transport corridor to connect the West Bank and Gaza.

“I laugh when they attack this as the ‘deal of the century’,” Kushner told Reuters, referring to the lofty nickname that Trump’s peace plan has assumed over the last two years.

“This is going to be the ‘opportunity of the century’ if they have the courage to pursue it.”

Kushner, a senior Trump adviser who like his father-in-law comes from the world of New York real estate, is presenting his plan in a pair of slick pamphlets filled with graphs and statistics that resemble an investment prospectus; in fact, he has repeatedly called it a “business plan.”

PEACE TO PROSPERITY

Expectations for success are low. The Trump team concedes that the economic plan – billed “Peace to Prosperity” – will be implemented only if a political solution to one of the world’s most intractable conflicts is reached.

Any such solution would have to settle longstanding issues such as the status of Jerusalem, mutually agreed borders, satisfying Israel’s security concerns and Palestinian demands for statehood, and the fate of Israel’s settlements and military presence in territory in Palestinians want to build that state.

Hanging over the entire initiative are persistent questions about whether the Trump team plans to abandon the “two-state solution” – the long-standing international formula to bring about peace by creating an independent Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel.

The United Nations and most nations back the two-state solution and it has underpinned every peace plan for decades.

But the Trump team – led by Kushner, Trump’s Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman – has consistently refused to commit to it, keeping the political stage of the plan a tightly guarded secret.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close Trump ally, has his own domestic problems, facing an election, and possible corruption charges after a long-running police investigation. He denies any wrongdoing.

“We’ll hear the American proposition, hear it fairly and with openness,” Netanyahu said on Sunday. Although no Israeli government ministers will attend, an Israeli business delegation is expected.

But Palestinian leaders have boycotted the workshop, and are refusing to engage with the White House – accusing it of pro-Israel bias after a series of recent Trump decisions. Kushner told Reuters “some” Palestinian businessmen would be present but declined to name them.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, was scathing about its prospects of success.

“Money is important. The economy is important. But politics are more important. The political solution is more important,” he said.

Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls Gaza, has found itself in rare agreement with its arch-rival Abbas.

“The Palestinian people only and no one else can represent the Palestinian cause,” Hamas official Mushir al-Masri said.

He said the Trump approach “seeks to turn our political cause into a humanitarian cause, and to merge the occupation into the region.”

Kushner said that even without the Israeli and Palestinian governments represented, the presence of Israeli businessmen and journalists with their counterparts from the Arab world would be significant at a time of rising tensions with Iran.

“People realize that the real threat to that region is Iran and their aggression, and Israel and a lot of the other Arab states have a lot more in common today than they did before,” he said.

David Makovsky, a Washington-based Middle East expert, agreed that although the principal focus of the event was the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, “Iran is higher on the chain of interest right now.”

But Makovsky, who the White House has invited as an observer, said the Trump/Kushner plan would ultimately succeed or fail on how it addressed the big underlying issues, not the money. “No one believes you can solve this thing economically without addressing the political issues.”

(Writing by Stephen Farrell. Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah.)

Palestinians rally against Kushner’s economic peace plan

A Palestinian boy hurls stones at Israeli forces during clashes at a protest against Bahrain's workshop for U.S. peace plan, near Hebron, in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 24, 2019. REUTERS/Mussa Qawasma

By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Rami Ayyub

GAZA/RAMALLAH (Reuters) – Palestinians burned portraits of President Donald Trump as they protested in both the Gaza Strip and the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Monday against U.S.-led plans for a conference on their economy in Bahrain.

Many Palestinian business groups have said they will boycott the June 25-26 event, billed as part of Washington’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan and spearheaded by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner.

“Down with Bahrain, down with Trump, down with the Manama conference,” chanted crowds in Gaza, which is ruled by the armed Islamist group Hamas. Some burned large paintings of Trump marked with the words: “Deal of the devil”.

Leaders in both territories have accused Washington of pro-Israel bias and railed against the conference’s focus on economics, rather than their aspirations for an independent state.

Kushner told Reuters on Saturday the plan would create a million jobs, halve Palestinian poverty and double the Palestinians’ GDP.

In the West Bank, hundreds marched through Ramallah’s main squares, waving posters in support of President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Western-backed Palestinian Authority exercises limited self-rule in the territory.

Protesters there burned posters of both Trump and Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa.

The rallies marked a moment of political unity against the Bahrain conference, despite a 12-year political feud between Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas.

“A WEDDING WITHOUT THE BRIDE”

“The Manama conference is a comedy show, a wedding without the bride (the Palestinians) … it will not succeed,” said a protester who gave her name as Siham in Gaza City.

The Bahrain conference will be attended by Gulf Arab states as well as Jordan and Egypt. Israel is expected to send a business delegation but no government officials.

Mahmoud Barhoush, 25, said he didn’t know whether to laugh or cry at what he called Arab states’ “treasonous” participation.

“Enough of your running into the arms of Trump and (Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu,” he said at the Ramallah protest.

Other demonstrators criticized the lone Palestinian businessman named as an expected attendee in Bahrain, Ashraf Jabari. A U.S. official told Reuters that at least 15 Palestinians were expected to attend.

“Whoever attends is not a Palestinian and is not welcomed in Palestine. There should be measures taken against them,” said Maisoon Alqadoomi, 32, a Fatah activist from Ramallah.

Palestinian leaders on Monday renewed their calls for a boycott of the conference.

“This workshop is simply a political laundry for settlements and a legitimization of occupation,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh told journalists ahead of a cabinet meeting.

In Gaza, Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem said: “They (Palestinians) will not sell out their rights for all treasures on earth”.

(Reporting by Nidal Almughrabi in Gaza and Rami Ayyub in Ramallah; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Arab League head warns no Mideast peace deal without Palestinian state

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saudi Arabia and Egypt are its most influential members.

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

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

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

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

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

Palestinians say U.S. ‘deal of the century’ will finish off their state

FILE PHOTO: Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas meets with White House senior advisor Jared Kushner in the West Bank City of Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank June 21, 2017. Thaer Ghanaim/PPO/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Samia Nakhoul

BEIRUT (Reuters) – The U.S. blueprint to end the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, still in draft form after almost two years, is seen by Palestinians, and by some Arab officials and politicians, as a plan to finish off the Palestinian cause.

The initiative, driven by Jared Kushner, Donald Trump’s son-in-law and White House adviser, was billed by the U.S. president as the “deal of the century”.

While its precise outlines have yet to be revealed, Palestinian and Arab sources who have been briefed on the draft plan say Kushner has jettisoned the two-state solution – the long-standing U.S. and international formula that envisages an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza.

After several postponements, Washington plans a first formal outing of the economic components of the plan at a “Peace for Prosperity” workshop in June in Bahrain.

The plan faces possible delays due to political upheaval in Israel, where Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu must fight another election after failing to form a government.

Kushner and Trump, with backgrounds in real estate rather than diplomacy, seem to be approaching this hitherto insoluble conflict as a transaction, three Arab officials briefed on the plan said.

If the politics keep failing, the reasoning seems to be, then try dangling tens of billions of dollars before the Palestinians and Israel’s Arab neighbors and do a deal that could unlock prosperity for the Palestinians and security for Israel, these officials said.

Politically, the deal envisages an expansion of Gaza into part of northern Egypt, under Egyptian control, Palestinian officials briefed on the plan told Reuters. Palestinians would be left with a smaller share of the West Bank and some areas on the outskirts of Jerusalem and no control over their borders. Western and Arab sources confirmed the outline of the plan.

Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s Middle East envoy, said “rumors” about an expansion into Egypt’s Sinai desert were false. He declined to give details of the political plan before it is released.

On the decision not to use the term “two-state solution”, Grenblatt said: “We believe that using certain phrases and labels is not helpful because they lack detail and nuance – they mean different things to different people. The detailed plan, once released, will show what we think may be best solution for the two parties.”

NOT BUYING IT

The Palestinians are not buying it.

“What we’re seeing from the plan is that it will blow up the Palestinians,” one Arab official told Reuters. “The plan doesn’t give justice to the Palestinians.”

“The Palestinian cause is being liquidated – no Jerusalem (as capital), no right of return for refugees, no sovereign state. That is why this American project is dangerous,” one senior Palestinian leader told Reuters.

The deal as outlined so far has been dismissed by President Mahmoud Abbas’ western-backed Palestinian Authority in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

Abbas has boycotted political dealings with the Trump administration for 18 months. This followed Trump’s decisions in 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv.

    Since then, the Trump administration has curtailed aid to the Palestinian Authority, shuttered the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) delegation in Washington and cut off finance to UNRWA, the U.N. agency supporting Palestinian refugees. Washington meanwhile endorsed Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

“In practice, they have already started implementing ‘the deal of the century’,” the senior Palestinian leader said, “on the ground, step by step”. “Today, the two-state solution has been scuttled”.  Abbas is not alone in his view of the U.S. deal.

It was rejected by the Islamist Hamas movement, which does not recognize Israel’s right to exist and has only given conditional consent to a state in the occupied Palestinian territories.

The PLO has dismissed the Kushner effort as an attempt to bribe Palestinians into accepting Israeli occupation of the West Bank, a prelude to Israel annexing about half their territory and leaving them with scattered cantons.

Hanan Ashrawi, a moderate Palestinian leader, tweeted that the Kushner plan and the Bahrain conference were just “a handout to make our captivity palatable”.

Palestinian businessmen have opposed the Bahrain gathering despite a plea by Washington to attend, saying their political demands must be addressed in any peace plan.

Qatar said economic prosperity cannot be achieved without political solutions acceptable to Palestinians. Oman said anything that precludes the establishment of a Palestinian state will not be acceptable.

“We are not proposing an economic peace,” Greenblatt said. “We know that is not acceptable to the Palestinians. We’ve been very clear that the full plan includes a political component as well. But the economic plan is an essential component to the full plan.”

MOVING ON

Robert Satloff, executive director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an influential think-tank and supporter of Israel, wrote after interviewing Kushner this month that the deal is a political disaster that should be abandoned.

He said positive economic proposals could be lost by the attempt to skirt around Palestinian rights.

“The only way to protect the long-term viability of the plan’s best aspects is to kill it,” he said.

Satloff wrote that “unlike a real estate transaction in which one party gets the property and the other party gets the cash, a Middle East peace deal starts and ends with the two parties as neighbors, stuck with each other sharing a duplex for eternity”.

Kushner meanwhile visited the Middle East this week seeking support for the June 25-26 Bahrain conference.

The meeting is to talk about the cash. The U.S. plan expects almost all of this  “$50 billion to $70 billion” to be put up by Gulf Arab allies, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, Palestinian sources said. Yet even that is now moot.

Saudi Arabia, under Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, and the UAE, under Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed, want to move on from a Palestinian conflict they believe has held back the Arab world.

That means uniting with Israel against Iran and concentrating on domestic challenges such as economic reforms and confronting Islamist radicals.

The Saudi crown prince maintains close ties with Kushner. But his father, King Salman, has twice said there will be no deal unless Israel meets Palestinian rights to a state.

“Kushner has been taken by surprise in his meetings in Riyadh recently, where there has definitely been a change in tone – in private and in public – by the Saudis,” said a senior western diplomat.

Asked for comment, the White House referred to its earlier official statement on Kushner’s February meeting with the crown prince and the king which said they discussed “increasing cooperation” and efforts to facilitate peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

NEW REALITY

The Palestinian official said it is clear that Israel “is creating a new reality on the ground” with the Trump administration’s help – not least by paving the way for the annexation of Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

The Palestinian and Arab officials briefed on the Kushner- Trump plan said its political contours, as explained to them, look like non-starters unless there is a peace deal.

The essential part is Gaza: where 2 million Palestinians are shut into a strip between Israel and Egypt. The idea is to expand it into the north of Egypt’s Sinai peninsula, creating an area where Palestinians can live and work under Egyptian control.

“The plan envisions Gaza stretching from Rafah (its southern border) to El Arish and some parts of Sinai. This area will be a Palestinian expansion in which Palestinians can reside,” the Palestinian leader said.

Big projects, such as an airport, a seaport, an industrial zone and power stations are envisaged, Palestinian sources briefed on the plan said.

On the West Bank, the plan is for Israel to annex and join up the settlements, take the Jordan valley and make it the Israeli border with Jordan, and leave the Palestinians a bit less than half as “an autonomous mini-state under some form of self-government”, the senior Palestinian leader said.

As for Jerusalem, Palestinians would get neighborhoods on the outskirts such as Abu Dis and Beit Hanina and Silwan: “not the real Jerusalem (but) they will tell them this is your Jerusalem”, the Palestinian leader added.

Western diplomats and intelligence sources worry about how the plan might affect Egypt and Jordan. However much money is offered, these sources question whether Egyptians would happily relinquish territory.And Jordan fears a Trump-backed Israel is returning to an old theme: Jordan is Palestine and that is where the Palestinians of the West Bank should go, they say.

 

(Additional reporting by Ghaida Ghantous, Eric Knecht, Suleiman Al-Khalidi and Matt Spetalnick; Editing by Giles Elgood)

U.S. to encourage investment in Palestinian areas as first part of peace plan

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump boards Air Force One for travel back to Washington, DC at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, New York, U.S., May 17, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis

By Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The White House will unveil the first part of President Donald Trump’s long-awaited Israeli-Palestinian peace plan when it holds an international conference in Bahrain in late June to encourage investment in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, senior U.S. officials said on Sunday.

The “economic workshop” will bring together government officials and business leaders in an effort to jump-start the economic portion of the peace initiative, which is also expected to include proposals for resolving thorny political issues at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the officials said.

Trump has touted the coming plan as the “deal of the century,” but Palestinian officials have rebuked the U.S. effort, which they believe will be heavily biased in favor of Israel.

Trump’s Middle East team, led by his son-in-law Jared Kushner and regional envoy Jason Greenblatt, appears intent on focusing initially on potential economic benefits, despite deep skepticism among experts that they can succeed where decades of U.S.-backed efforts have failed.

“We think this is an opportunity to take the economic plan that we’ve worked on for a long time now and present it in the region,” a senior Trump administration official said.

The participants in the June 25-26 conference in Manama, the first phase of the peace plan’s rollout, are expected to include representatives and business executives from Europe, the Middle East and Asia, including some finance ministers, the administration official said.

A second U.S. official declined to say whether Israeli and Palestinian officials were likely to take part.

“Our position is clear: we will neither participate in the economic segment nor in the political segment of this deal,” said PLO senior official Wasel Abu Youssef.

The Palestinian Authority has boycotted the U.S. peace effort since late 2017 when Trump decided to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, reversing decades of U.S. policy.

But the senior U.S. official said several Palestinian business leaders “have shown a lot of interest” in the conference.

A spokesman for Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said: “We have not yet received an invitation.”

INVESTMENT IN GAZA?

U.S. officials had said earlier the peace plan would be rolled out after the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan, which ends in early June. But the announcement of the investors’ workshop appears to set the stage for a sequenced release of the plan, starting with the economic plan, and later, at some time not yet clear, the political proposals.

The senior U.S. official said the conference would show the people of Gaza, which is controlled by the Palestinian militant group Hamas, that “there are donor countries around the world willing to come in and make investments.”

The Trump administration has sought to enlist support from Arab governments. The plan is likely to call for billions of dollars in financial backing for the Palestinians, mostly from oil-rich Gulf states, according to people informed about the discussions.

Saudi Arabia has assured Arab allies it would not endorse any U.S. plan that fails to meet key Palestinian concerns.

Though the plan’s authors insist the exact contents are known only to a handful of insiders, Trump’s aides have disclosed it will address the major political issues such as the status of Jerusalem.

They have said they expect Israelis and Palestinians will both be critical of some of the proposals.

Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki told a recent meeting at the United Nations attended by Greenblatt that the United States seemed to be crafting a plan for a Palestinian surrender to Israel and insisted “there’s no amount of money that can make it acceptable.”

Chief among the Palestinians’ concerns is whether the plan will meet their core demand of calling for them to have an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — territory Israel captured in the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Kushner has declined to say whether the plan includes a two-state solution, a central goal of other recent peace efforts that is widely endorsed internationally.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland; additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Chris Reese and Sandra Maler)