Netanyahu orders more settler homes built

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered construction plans advanced on Monday for some 800 Jewish settler homes in the occupied West Bank, anchoring the projects in the final days of the pro-settlement Trump administration.

Palestinians condemned such construction as illegal. The timing of the move appeared to be an attempt to set Israel’s blueprint in indelible ink.

Moving ahead with the projects could help shore up support for Netanyahu from settlers and their backers in a March 23 election, Israel’s fourth in two years, in which the conservative leader faces new challenges from the right.

An announcement by Netanyahu’s office said about 800 homes would be built in the settlements of Beit El and Givat Zeev, north of Jerusalem, and in Tal Menashe, Rehelim, Shavei Shomron, Barkan and Karnei Shomron in the northern West Bank. It gave no starting date for construction.

The Trump administration has effectively backed Israel’s right to build West Bank settlements by abandoning a long-held U.S. position that they break international law. Trump has also delighted Israeli leaders and angered Palestinians by recognizing contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. Embassy there.

Gayil Talshir, a political scientist at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, said Netanyahu wants the settlement move “to be set in stone before the Biden administration comes into office, and maybe changes Israeli-American tacit understandings on settlements that existed under Trump.”

Netanyahu also wants to tell voters he is “the only leader who can stand up to Biden and make sure he doesn’t dictate our policy in the (Palestinian) territories,” Talshir said.

Palestinians seek to establish a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital, all land captured by Israel in a 1967 war.

Most countries view Israeli settlements as violating international law. Israel disputes this, citing historical, political and biblical links to the West Bank, where more than 440,000 Israeli settlers now live among 3 million Palestinians who have limited self rule under Israeli occupation.

As vice president under Barack Obama, Biden was put in an uncomfortable position during a visit to Israel in 2010 when Israel announced plans for a settlement in a West Bank area annexed to Jerusalem. Arriving 90 minutes late for dinner with Netanyahu, Biden condemned the decision as undermining U.S.-Israeli trust.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub, Ali Sawafta and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Peter Graff)

Iran vows “decisive response” to any Israeli move against it

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran said on Tuesday it would deliver a “decisive response” to any Israeli move against it, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would not allow Tehran to develop nuclear weapons, a news agency close to the Revolutionary Guards said.

On Monday, Iran said it resumed 20% uranium enrichment at a nuclear facility, a move that coincides with rising tensions with the United States. The decision is the latest of several Iranian breaches of a 2015 nuclear accord with world powers.

Netanyahu said the move was aimed at developing nuclear weapons and Israel would never allow Tehran to build them. Iran says it has never sought nuclear weapons.

Iran’s Nour News quoted an unnamed security official as saying: “This regime (Israel) should be aware that any aggression against Iran’s interests and security from any side and in any way, whether (Israel) admits or denies responsibility, will face a decisive response from Iran against this regime.”

The statement was widely carried by Iranian news agencies and state media.

Separately, Iran on Tuesday gave more details about its enrichment decision by saying it had the capacity to produce up to 9 kg of 20% enriched uranium per month.

“At present, we produce 17 to 20 grams of 20% uranium every hour,” Ali Akbar Salehi, head of Iran’s Atomic Energy Organization, said according to state media. “We have a monthly production capacity of 8 to 9 kg to reach the 120 kg stipulated by the law.”

The decision to enrich to 20 percent purity was one of many moves mentioned in a law passed by Iran’s hardline-dominated parliament last month in response to the killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.

Tehran started violating the accord in 2019 in a step-by-step response to Trump’s withdrawal from the nuclear accord in 2018 and the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions lifted under the deal.

(Reporting by Dubai newsroom, Editing by William Maclean)

Iran resumes 20% uranium enrichment amid rising tensions with U.S

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) -Iran has resumed 20% uranium enrichment at an underground nuclear facility, the government said on Monday, breaching a 2015 nuclear pact with major powers.

Benjamin Netanyahu, prime minister of Iran’s arch foe Israel, said the move was aimed at developing nuclear weapons and Israel would never allow Tehran to build them.

The enrichment decision, Iran’s latest contravention of the accord, coincides with increasing tensions between Iran and the United States.

Tehran started violating the accord in 2019 in a step-by-step response to Trump’s withdrawal from it in 2018 and the re-imposition of U.S. sanctions lifted under the deal.

The agreement’s main aim was to extend the time Iran would need to produce enough fissile material for a nuclear bomb, if it chose to, to at least a year from roughly two to three months. It also lifted international sanctions against Tehran.

“A few minutes ago, the process of producing 20% enriched uranium has started in Fordow enrichment complex,” government spokesman Ali Rabiei told Iranian state media.

The U.N. nuclear watchdog confirmed that Iran had started the process of enriching uranium to 20% purity at its Fordow site.

“Iran today began feeding uranium already enriched up to 4.1 percent U-235 into six centrifuge cascades at the Fordow Fuel Enrichment Plant for further enrichment up to 20%,” the IAEA said in a statement on a report that was sent to member states.

The step was one of many mentioned in a law passed by Iran’s parliament last month in response to the killing of the country’s top nuclear scientist, which Tehran has blamed on Israel.

“Our measures are fully reversible upon FULL compliance by ALL (parties to the deal),” tweeted Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif.

Tehran insists it can quickly reverse its breaches if U.S. sanctions are removed.

NUCLEAR WATCHDOG

The White House National Security Council had no comment, and referred queries to the U.S. State Department, which did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Tehran’s move could further hinder efforts to salvage the pact as its breaches have increasingly worried some of the deal’s other parties, which have urged Iran to act responsibly.

In Brussels, a European Union Commission spokesperson said that the “move, if confirmed, would constitute a considerable departure from Iran’s commitments”.

On Jan 1, the IAEA said Tehran had told the watchdog it planned to resume enrichment up to 20% at the Fordow site, which is buried inside a mountain.

“The process of gas injection to centrifuges has started a few hours ago and the first product of uranium hexafluoride (UF6) gas will be available in a few hours,” Rabiei said.

Iran had earlier breached the deal’s 3.67% limit on the purity to which it can enrich uranium, but it had only gone up to 4.5% so far, well short of the 20% level and of the 90% that is weapons-grade.

U.S. intelligence agencies and the IAEA believe Iran had a secret, coordinated nuclear weapons program that it halted in 2003. Iran denies ever having had one.

In Jerusalem, Netanyahu said Iran’s enrichment decision could be explained only as a bid to “continue to carry out its intention to develop a military nuclear program.” “Israel will not allow Iran to produce nuclear weapons,” he added

(Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed in Washington, Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem, Michael Shields and Francois Murphy in Vienna and Marine Strauss in Brussels Writing by Parisa Hafezi; Editing by William Maclean)

Israel speeds vaccines, locks down in hope of February exit from pandemic

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel began what officials hope will be its last coronavirus lockdown on Sunday as they ramp up vaccinations to a pace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said may allow an emergence from the pandemic in February.

If realized, that could help Netanyahu’s re-election hopes after missteps that include lifting a first lockdown with a premature declaration of victory in May, inconsistent enforcement of curbs and sluggish economic relief.

Since beginning vaccinations a week before Sunday’s European Union roll-out, Israel’s centralized health system has administered 280,000 shots, the world’s fastest rate.

The opening of 24/7 vaccination stations is under consideration. Netanyahu wants the daily rate doubled to 150,000 shots by next weekend.

That would enable, by the end of January, administering both first and follow-up shots to the elderly and other vulnerable groups that make up a quarter of Israel’s 9 million citizens and have accounted for 95% of its COVID-19 deaths, Netanyahu said.

“As soon as we are done with this stage … we can emerge from the coronavirus, open the economy and do things that no country can do,” he said in a televised address.

Sunday’s lockdown – the country’s third – will last at least three weeks and aims to tamp down contagions that are currently doubling in scale every two weeks, the Health Ministry said.

The vaccines mean “there is a very high chance that this is our final lockdown,” Sharon Alroy-Preis, acting head of the ministry’s public health services division, told Army Radio.

Israel has logged almost 400,000 COVID-19 cases and 3,210 deaths.

(Editing by Kirsten Donovan, Larry King)

Israel imposing third national COVID-19 lockdown

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will impose a third national lockdown to fight surging COVID-19 infections, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday, as the country pursues a vaccination campaign.

The restrictions will come into effect on Sunday evening and last for 14 days, pending final cabinet approval, a statement from Netanyahu’s office said.

They include the closure of shops, limited public transport, a partial shutdown of schools and a one-kilometer (two-thirds of a mile) restriction on travel from home, except for commuting to workplaces that remain open, and to purchase essential goods.

Such measures will cost Israel’s economy about three billion shekels ($932.6 million) a week, the Finance Ministry said.

The economy is expected to shrink 4.5% in 2020, though the Bank of Israel has said the contraction could reach 5% should the COVID-19 crisis prompt more curbs. In November, the jobless rate stood at 12%. The economy is projected to grow as much as 6.5% in 2021 and possibly faster – if the pandemic is contained.

With a population of nine million, Israel has so far reported more than 385,000 cases of COVID-19 and 3,150 deaths.

The number of daily infections approached 4,000 on Wednesday, rising from around 1,000 at the end of a month-long lockdown imposed in September that followed one that ran from late March to early May.

On Wednesday, the Health Ministry said it had found four people infected with the new variant of the coronavirus that has emerged in Britain.

With regard to Israel’s Christian minority, the Health Ministry said that during Christmas, prayers at houses of worship would be limited to gatherings of 10 people in closed spaces and 100 people in open areas.

The new lockdown comes with Israel’s vaccination drive already underway. Health workers and people over the age of 60 are the first groups to be inoculated in a campaign which the health minister said he expected to be completed within months.

But public anger has risen over the government’s perceived inconsistent handling of the crisis, and Israel will hold an election on March 23, its fourth in two years, after constant infighting in Netanyahu’s coalition.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Additional reporting by Steven Scheer and Rami Amichay; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Israel to halt sweeping COVID-19 cellphone surveillance next month

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will next month halt its cellphone tracking of coronavirus cases except for carriers who refuse epidemiological questioning or in the event of a surge in contagions, a government ministry said.

Used on and off since March in efforts to curb COVID-19, the Shin Bet counter-terrorism agency’s surveillance technology checks confirmed carriers’ locations against other cellphones nearby to determine with whom they came into contact.

The method has faced challenges in courts and parliament because of privacy concerns and questions about its efficacy. Some Israelis avoid using listed cellphones in public in the hope of not being contact-traced and ordered into quarantine.

A cabinet panel that reviewed the tracking decided it would not be extended beyond Jan. 20, when a law allowing its use expires, the Intelligence Ministry said.

“The tool will serve as a safety net, to be applied regarding coronavirus carriers who do not cooperate with the epidemiological investigation and in the event of a significant rise in morbidity,” it said in a statement.

The surveillance alone had accounted for 7% of case detections in Israel, with questioning by Health Ministry investigators accounting for the rest, it said.

Israel, which has a population of 9 million, has reported 365,042 coronavirus cases and 3,034 deaths. After two national lockdowns, the country may soon reimpose curbs on towns where contagions are resurgent, officials said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will on Saturday be the first person in Israel to receive the COVID-19 vaccine made by Pfizer and BioNTech, shipments of which began arriving last week.

Officials say Israel will have enough vaccines by the end of this year for the most vulnerable people and predict a return to relative normalcy by March. Polls found that some two-thirds of Israelis want to be vaccinated.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Israel approves first new settler homes since suspending annexation, NGO says

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel approved more than 1,300 new settler homes in the occupied West Bank on Wednesday, the Peace Now settlement-monitoring group said, in the first such go-ahead since it suspended annexation plans in the territory.

The decision drew an angry response from Palestinians, who seek to establish a state in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

“We urge the international community to intervene immediately to stop this settlement madness, which destroys any chance for a genuine peace process,” said Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

The construction could help mute criticism of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from settler leaders, who are traditional allies.

They had bristled at the annexation suspension that helped pave the way for last month’s deals to forge diplomatic ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

Peace Now said a planning committee in Israel’s Civil Administration in the West Bank gave final approval for building 1,357 housing units in several settlements.

A spokesman for the administration could not immediately confirm the numbers.

A statement from Beit El settlement said 350 new housing units would be built there. It hailed the committee’s decision as “a tremendous achievement for Beit El”.

The forum, which last held such a hearing eight months ago, was due to reconvene on Thursday to advance additional construction projects in settlements and give final approval for others.

Peace Now said the committee was set to move forward with projects comprising at least 4,430 new settler homes.

Most countries view settlements Israel has built in territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war as illegal and as an obstacle to peace with the Palestinians. The United States and Israel dispute this.

Israel cites historical and biblical links to the West Bank and around 450,000 of its settlers live there, among 3 million Palestinians.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller and Ali Sawafta; Editing by Maayan Lubell and Mike Collett-White)

Israel opposes any F-35 sale to UAE despite their warming ties

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel would oppose any U.S. F-35 warplane sales to the United Arab Emirates despite forging relations with the Gulf power, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Tuesday, citing a need to maintain Israeli military superiority in the region.

The statement followed a report in Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper that the Trump administration planned a “giant” F-35 deal with the UAE as part of the Gulf country’s U.S.-brokered move last week to normalize ties with Israel.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem and representatives of the UAE government did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

Under understandings dating back decades, Washington has refrained from Middle East arms sales that could blunt Israel’s “qualitative military edge” (QME). This has applied to the F-35, denied to Arab states, while Israel has bought and deployed it.

“In the talks (on the UAE normalization deal), Israel did not change its consistent positions against the sale to any country in the Middle East of weapons and defense technologies that could tip the (military) balance,” Netanyahu’s office said.

This opposition includes any proposed F-35 sale, it added.

The Trump administration has signaled that the UAE could clinch unspecified new U.S. arms sales after last Thursday’s normalization announcement.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, an observer in Netanyahu’s security cabinet, noted that past U.S. administrations had “against our wishes” sold the UAE more advanced F-16 warplanes than Israel possesses as well as F-15 warplanes to Saudi Arabia.

Even were Washington to sell F-35s to the UAE, Steinitz told public radio station Kan that they would be unlikely to pose a danger to Israel as the distance between the countries is more than twice the jet’s range without refueling.

“I would like to offer us reassurance. Any F-35 that ends up, ultimately, in the United Arab Emirates – not that we would be happy with this, as we always want to be the only ones (with such arms) in the region – threatens Iran far more than it does us,” he said, citing a foe common to Israel and many Gulf Arabs.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alex Richardson, Angus MacSwan and Mike Collett-White)

Coronavirus resurgence sidelines Israel’s annexation planning

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A coronavirus resurgence in Israel and divisions within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have sidelined its plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, officials said.

Although the conservative Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, his centrist coalition partner, agreed the government could begin moving on annexation as of July 1, there has been “close to zero” cabinet-level discussion on the issue, one senior minister told Reuters.

And with no agreement with Washington yet on the modalities of the move under a peace proposal announced by President Donald Trump, any step soon to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank seems unlikely.

The Palestinians have rejected the Trump plan. European and Arab powers have warned of diplomatic blow-back if Israel unilaterally annexes land Palestinians seek for a state.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is preoccupied with new coronavirus transmissions that aides said could necessitate renewed lockdowns. Unemployment has hit a record 21% and anti-government protests have turned increasingly violent.

A poll by the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute on Tuesday found only 29.5% of the public trust Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis.

There has been open opposition from Gantz’s Blue and White party, which makes it hard to persuade Washington that any annexations would enjoy sweeping Israeli support.

“It’s a matter of right plan, wrong time,” a senior Blue and White minister said. “We are in the middle of the biggest crisis Israel has seen in decades…and it would be irresponsible and insensitive to tend to anything else at the moment.”

Gantz has predicted the crisis could last until late 2021.

Another official, who requested anonymity, said more than a week had passed since Israeli delegates last spoke to U.S. envoys on annexation under the Trump blueprint, which envisages Israeli sovereignty over up to 30% of West Bank land.

Asked for comment, Netanyahu’s office said it had “no updates at this time”.

Several ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party want the move implemented now. Some privately voice concern that Trump’s attention will drift as the November presidential election approaches, and that presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden has come out against annexation.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Israel’s Netanyahu clings to power as coalition talks loom

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced Israeli media headlines on Friday suggesting power is slipping from his grasp after an election in which he trails his main rival with nearly all votes counted.

The right-wing leader failed on Tuesday, for the second time in five months, to secure a clear election victory and the centrist Blue and White party led by ex-armed forces chief Benny Gantz rebuffed his calls to join a unity government on Thursday.

Near-final results released on Friday by the Knesset’s election committee showed Blue and White will be the largest single party in the new parliament with 33 of the 120 seats, with Netanyahu’s Likud winning 31 seats, three less than it had before.

GRAPHIC: Seat projections in Israel’s election – https://graphics.reuters.com/ISRAEL-ELECTION/0100B2B21D9/ISRAEL-ELECTIONS.jpg

Israeli newspapers and commentators depicted the 69-year-old leader as in a weakened position, with headlines such as: “Himself Alone” and “Political Death Spasms”.

President Reuven Rivlin will on Sunday start consultations with the parties about choosing a leader to put together a coalition.

There were only narrow differences in the two main parties’ campaigns on many important issues, and an end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran or the Palestinian conflict.

PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared to see Israel’s coalition drama as an opportunity for his government in the occupied West Bank to announce election plans.

Abbas told reporters outside Norway’s parliament that he would issue a decree for elections across the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem when he returns to the Palestinian Territories following the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Despite a long rift with Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, Abbas said his Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, would be ready to accept a Hamas victory “because Hamas is a part of our people, we cannot exclude Hamas. They have a right to vote and to nominate themselves.”

Some political analysts said Abbas was unlikely to follow through on his election pledge, pointing to difficulties holding a national vote across Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, each of which has a different ruling entity.

There have not been any national Palestinian elections for 13 years. Abbas was elected president in 2005 and Hamas won a 2006 parliamentary election, plunging Palestinian politics into a bitter power struggle from which it has not emerged.

PEACE PLAN

One uncertainty is the timing of U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-delayed Middle East peace plan, which was expected soon after Israel’s election, but could unsettle a weakened Netanyahu if released during complex coalition negotiations.

On Friday, Netanyahu met Trump’s outgoing Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, a chief architect of the plan.

Many political analysts are waiting to see how Netanyahu tries to prolong his political survival, not least to claim a public mandate in the face of possible corruption charges that prosecutors may bring within months. He denies wrongdoing, accusing his critics of mounting a witch-hunt.

In his election campaign, Netanyahu pledged to annex large swaths of the West Bank, territory Israel captured in a 1967 war where Palestinians seek a state along with Gaza and East Jerusalem. The move drew condemnation from world leaders as detrimental to achieving a lasting peace accord.

Gantz has urged redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians but stopped short of any commitment to the statehood they seek. He has spoken less concretely of Israel maintaining security control of the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu and Gantz will now seek potential coalition allies, prominent among whom is the far-right former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman. He secured eight seats for his Yisrael Beitenu party, making him a potential kingmaker.

Increased turnout by Israel’s 21-percent Arab minority saw the Arab-dominated Joint List coalition grouping win 13 seats, making it the third largest grouping.

The religious parties representing Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox communities, known as Haredim, remain a significant force, with Shas winning nine seats and United Torah Judaism eight seats.

The right-wing Yamina won seven seats, the leftist Labor-Gesher six, and the Democratic Union five. The full official results will be published next Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Editing by Timothy Heritage)