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)

Newsmaker: The anti-Netanyahu? Ex-general Gantz poised for top office

By Rami Ayyub

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Benny Gantz has little of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s worldly polish or flair as a showy ideologue – and that may be exactly why so many weary Israelis want the ex-general in top office.

A towering and laid-back former military chief, Gantz appears to have edged out the conservative Netanyahu in a Tuesday election, but not enough to win a governing center-left majority in parliament led by his Blue and White party.

A weakened Netanyahu, whose right-wing Likud party also fell short of victory, called on Gantz, 60, on Thursday to join him a broad, unity government. Gantz insists he will not enter an alliance with Netanyahu.

Earlier, Netanyahu was wont to point out that Gantz is a political greenhorn whose foreign policy pedigree is a stint as defense attache at the Israeli embassy in Washington – a resume unlikely to impress world leaders like President Donald Trump.

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

Where Netanyahu envisages annexing the Jordan Valley, part of occupied West Bank land, Gantz has spoken less concretely of Israel maintaining security control of the strategic corridor.

To his critics, that kind of haziness shows indecisiveness and lack of principle. Gantz, who was raised on a collective farm and spent some of his school years in a religious Jewish seminary, describes himself as having more grit than varnish.

“You know I’m not strong with words,” he told a Jerusalem conference earlier this month. “I say honestly – I’m not a politician. A leader? I hope that (I am that), yes.”

“ROLE MODEL”

Gantz, who is married with four children, has acknowledged his easy-going appeal, telling reporters on Wednesday that he aspired to enter a “good, desirable unity government, so the country can relax a little”.

But he has also shown steel. He launched his political career earlier this year with a bombastic ad campaign that claimed credit for hundreds of “terrorist” kills in Gaza – a reference to wars he oversaw against Hamas Islamists, and whose civilian Palestinian toll drew international condemnation.

Indeed, as Israelis voted on Tuesday, a Dutch Palestinian who lost six relatives to Israeli forces in Gaza in 2014 sought war crimes damages against Gantz at The Hague. Gantz fired back defiantly that Israel has “the most moral army in the world”.

But in making Blue and White Israel’s largest party in parliament – just edging past Likud, according to near-complete results – many Israelis evidently felt overtaxed by more than a decade of Netanyahu rule.

Netanyahu, Israel’s longest-serving leader, faces possible indictment in three corruption cases in which he denies any wrongdoing. During his decade in power, internal divisions and diplomatic stalemate with the Palestinians have deepened.

“When I look at Gantz, I see someone I can trust, who is honest and sincere. He is a role model,” Tami Golan, a 46-year-old Tel Aviv property manager, told Reuters.

“He gives me hope we can be united as a country,” the mother of two said.

Netanyahu has accused Gantz of being gunshy when it came to a potential military confrontation with arch-foe Iran. Gantz says that he prepared a plan for attacking Iranian nuclear sites but that it was Netanyahu who failed to green-light it.

As top general, Gantz says, he was guided by his late mother, a Holocaust survivor. While she supported Israel’s fight against Hamas, he recounted in later media interviews, she exhorted him to “keep the food coming in” to impoverished Gaza.

Among factors that could decide if Gantz forms the next government, assuming a partnership with Netanyahu does not materialize, is whether he gets a nod from a party list that represents Israel’s Arab minority.

While some Arab politicians have voiced misgivings about Gantz’s record in uniform, others have hinted they may grudgingly back him as an antidote to Netanyahu.

The Palestinians have not ruled Gantz out as peace partner.

“We do respect (the) democratic outcome of elections in Israel. Whoever will form the government – we are ready to sit with him or her to restart the negotiations,” Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyad al-Maliki said at a news conference in Oslo on Wednesday.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Editing by William Maclean)

Explainer: Israel’s election – will Netanyahu survive?

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote next week for the second time in less than six months in an election that could see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win a record fifth term – or end his decade-long dominance of Israeli politics.

He faces new and formidable challengers to his reign and, after the vote, possible criminal charges in three corruption cases. Recent polls have shown Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party tied with the centrist Blue and White. They also show that neither party will secure an outright majority.

Here are a number of possible scenarios for how the Sept. 17 election could play out:

1. NETANYAHU WINS CONTROL OF MAJORITY OF KNESSET SEATS

Likud, together with the three right-wing and religious parties that have already declared their support for him, win a majority. With at least 61 lawmakers, Netanyahu would have relatively little trouble assembling a coalition similar to his outgoing cabinet, which supported his hawkish position on Iran and its 2015 nuclear deal and took a tough stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu has vowed to annex the settlements Israel has built in the occupied West Bank – land the Palestinians want for a state. Such a move would delight Netanyahu’s far-right allies.

2. NO CLEAR WINNER AND NETANYAHU UNITY GOVERNMENT

After election day, Israel’s president consults with party leaders, asking them who they would support for prime minister. President Reuven Rivlin then asks the candidate he believes has the best chance to try and form a government. Netanyahu had his opportunity after the previous election in April but failed within the allocated 42 days. Rather than risk Rivlin appointing someone else to try, Netanyahu opted for a second election.

If he is again chosen, and again faces a stalemate, Netanyahu could go outside his bloc of right-wing and Jewish religious parties to form a so-called “national unity” government with those who are not his natural allies.

That would likely mean his strongest rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White. But Gantz has said he would not join a Netanyahu-led government, citing looming possible corruption indictments against Netanyahu. But Israeli politics are famously fluid, with ever-shifting fealties.

3. NO CLEAR WINNER, CENTER-RIGHT GOVERNMENT FORMED WITHOUT NETANYAHU

If Netanyahu again fails again to form a government, his own party could oust him to pave the way for a governing coalition between Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White, leaving Netanyahu in the political wilderness.

So far, no one in Likud has publicly broached such an idea. But that could change if Netanyahu again comes up short in coalition talks.

4. NETANYAHU CLEARLY DEFEATED, CENTER-LEFT GOVERNMENT

If the center and left-wing parties garner a majority in parliament, Gantz would head a government that could include his own party as well as the Labour Party and the newly-formed, environmentalist and secularist Democratic Camp, without needing an alliance with the right. It would be the first time since the 1990s that the left controlled parliament although, with an electorate shifting steadily toward the right, polls are not showing much likelihood of such a scenario. However, if a left-leaning coalition were ultimately formed, it would likely pursue peace talks with the Palestinians and be more open to concessions toward them as part of a lasting peace accord. It could also be more accepting of the nuclear deal struck between world powers and Iran.

5. NO CLEAR WINNER, NEW ELECTIONS

If no candidate can form a government, Israel would head to another snap election. But lawmakers are likely to do all they can to avoid a third this year.

HOW DOES THE ISRAELI ELECTION WORK?

The 120 Knesset seats are allocated by proportional representation to party lists. In order to win seats, a party must get at least 3.25 percent of the national vote, equivalent to 4 seats. In the election in April, Likud and Blue and White came out on top, tied at 35 seats each. No one party has ever won an outright majority of the 120-seat Knesset (parliament) in 71 years of nationhood. This makes post-election coalitions the key to victory, and negotiations can stretch on for weeks.

WHO’S THE KINGMAKER?

According to the polls, it’s Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish ex-defense minister. Polls suggest the ultra-nationalist settler will double his seats from five to around 10. Lieberman, head of the Israel Beitenu party, has said he would only join a unity government comprised of Likud and Blue and White.

However, Lieberman is something of a wild card and has made unpredictable moves in the past.

WHAT ABOUT NETANYAHU’S LEGAL WOES?

Israel’s attorney-general, who has announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in three corruption investigations, is expected to decide whether to formally charge him by the end of 2019 after a pre-trial hearing in October, during which Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, can argue against indictment.

A majority in the Knesset could grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution until the end of his term. Some of his prospective allies signaled they would support such a move, but it would probably draw a public outcry and legal challenges at the Supreme Court. Yet even if indicted, Netanyahu would not be under strict legal obligation to step down. His right-wing and religious allies are not expected to pressure him to resign, even if he is charged.

WHAT ABOUT TRUMP’S “DEAL OF THE CENTURY”?

Netanyahu has said he expects U.S. President Donald Trump to release his long-delayed plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace soon after the election. If Netanyahu wins and forms a right-wing cabinet, he would have a hard time getting his far-right allies to sign on to any peace plan involving concessions to the Palestinians. This could either destabilize the government or bury the Trump plan. A cabinet with Gantz in it would likely be more open to give-and-take negotiations with the Palestinians.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Israel bars visit by U.S. Democratic lawmakers

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-MN) holds a news conference to discuss legislation creating "a federal grant program to help local governments invest in waste reduction initiatives", at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, U.S., July 25, 2019. REUTERS/Mary F. Calvert/File Photo

By Rami Ayyub and Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israel will bar a visit by two of its sharpest critics in the U.S. Congress, Democrats Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, who planned to tour the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the country’s deputy foreign minister said on Thursday.

“The decision has been made, the decision is not to allow them to enter,” Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzipi Hotovely told Israel’s Reshet Bet Radio.

U.S. President Donald Trump had earlier urged Israel on Thursday not to allow the visit by Tlaib and Omar, the first two Muslim women elected to Congress and members of the Democratic party’s progressive wing.

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) questions Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on "Trump Administration's Child Separation Policy" on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Rep. Rashida Tlaib (D-MI) questions Acting Homeland Security Secretary Kevin McAleenan as he testifies before the House Oversight and Reform Committee on “Trump Administration’s Child Separation Policy” on Capitol Hill in Washington, U.S., July 18, 2019. REUTERS/Joshua Roberts/File Photo

The pair have voiced support for the pro-Palestinian Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement. Under Israeli law, backers of the BDS movement can be denied entry to Israel.

Trump has vented in recent months against Omar, Tlaib and two other Democratic congresswomen of color, accusing them of hostility to Israel in what has widely been seen as a drumming up of Republican votes for his 2020 reelection bid.

“It would show great weakness if Israel allowed Rep. Omar and Rep.Tlaib to visit,” he tweeted on Thursday. “They are a disgrace!”

No date had been formally announced for the congresswomen’s trip, but sources familiar with the planned visit said it could begin at the weekend.

Israel’s ambassador in the United States, Ron Dermer, said last month Tlaib and Omar would be let in, out of respect for the U.S. Congress and the U.S.-Israeli relationship.

Political commentators said a reversal of Israel’s original intention to approve the legislators’ entry likely stemmed from a desire to mirror Trump’s hard line against them.

An Israeli official said earlier on Thursday that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other senior members of his cabinet held consultations on Wednesday on a “final decision” about the visit.

Denying entry to elected U.S. officials could further strain relations between Netanyahu, who has highlighted his close ties with Trump in his current re-election campaign, and the Democratic leadership in Congress.

HOLY SITE

A planned tour by the two lawmakers of the holy compound in Jerusalem that houses al-Aqsa mosque, and which is revered by Jews as the site of two biblical Jewish temples, turned into an issue of contention, according to sources familiar with preparations for the visit.

The flashpoint site is in an area of Jerusalem that Israel captured along with the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move not recognized internationally.

An official in Israel’s internal security ministry said any visit by Tlaib and Omar to the complex, revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and by Jews as the Temple Mount, would require Israeli security protection.

Violence erupted there on Sunday between Israeli police and Palestinians amid tensions over visits by Jewish pilgrims on a day when the Muslim holiday of Eid al-Adha and the Jewish fast day of Tisha B’Av overlapped.

Tlaib, 43, who was born in the United States, draws her roots to the Palestinian village of Beit Ur Al-Fauqa in the West Bank. Her grandmother and extended family live in the village.

Omar, who immigrated to the United States from Somalia as a child, represents Minnesota’s fifth congressional district.

In February, Omar, 37, apologized after Democratic leaders condemned remarks she made about the pro-Israel lobby in the United States as using anti-Semitic stereotypes.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Makini Brice in Washington; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Hugh Lawson and Frances Kerry)

Netanyahu passes threshold for nomination as Israel’s premier

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures during a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, April 14, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president said on Tuesday a majority of parliament members had advised him to have Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu form a government after the April 9 election, effectively ensuring his nomination.

In office for the past decade, Netanyahu won a fifth term despite an announcement by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s in February that he intends to charge the prime minister in three corruption cases. Netanyahu has denied wrongdoing.

Under law, President Reuven Rivlin chooses a party leader whom he judges has the best prospect of putting together a ruling coalition. He will announce his candidate on Wednesday.

In broadcast remarks on Tuesday, the second day of Rivlin’s public consultations with political parties on their preferences for prime minister, he said Netanyahu “now has a majority of Knesset members” behind him.

“Any room I had for maneuver has effectively been removed at this moment,” the president said.

Netanyahu’s nomination had been a foregone conclusion after his right-wing Likud party captured the largest number of seats in the Knesset in last week’s ballot and his closest rival, centrist Benny Gantz, conceded defeat.

Netanyahu has said he intends to build a coalition with five far-right, right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that would give the Likud-led government 65 seats, four more than the outgoing administration he heads.

Representatives of all of those parties told Rivlin at the meetings, broadcast live on the Internet, that they recommended Netanyahu get the nod.

Gantz, a former military chief of staff whose Blue and White party won 35 parliamentary seats, would likely be next in line to try to assemble a government if Netanyahu fails to do so within 42 days of being chosen by Rivlin.

Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign if indicted. He can still argue, at a pre-trial hearing with Mandelblit whose date has not been set, against the formal filing of bribery and fraud charges against him.

The Israeli leader, whose supporters hail his tough security policies and international outreach, is set to become the country’s longest-serving prime minister in July.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Israel’s president starts consultations on prime minister nomination

FILE PHOTO: Israeli President Reuven Rivlin talks during a press conference at the Presidential Palace in Nicosia, Cyprus February 12, 2019. REUTERS/Yiannis Kourtoglou

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president began post-election consultations on Monday with political parties that will lead to his appointment of a candidate to form a government.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s nomination seemed virtually ensured after his right-wing Likud won the largest number of parliamentary seats in the April 9 ballot, and his closest rival, Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White party, conceded defeat.

President Reuven Rivlin said he would announce his choice on Wednesday after meeting with all of the parties that captured seats in the 120-member Knesset.

Under Israeli law, after consultations with the parties the president taps a legislator whom he believes has the best chance of forming a government, delegating 28 days, with a two-week extension if necessary, to complete the task.

Netanyahu said he intends to build a coalition with five far-right, right-wing and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that would give a Likud-led government 65 seats, four more than the outgoing administration he heads.

All of those parties have now said they will back Netanyahu, with the last to hold out, former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, pledging support late on Monday.

“The country has decided and we need to honour the decision,” Lieberman said in a speech to party supporters. “Tomorrow at the president’s, we will recommend Benjamin Netanyahu as the candidate to form the government.”

Gantz, a former military chief of staff whose party won 35 parliamentary seats, would likely be next in line to try to put together a government if Netanyahu fails.

For the first time, Rivlin’s consultations with the parties were being broadcast live as part of what he described as a display of transparency in what has historically been a closed-door process in Israel.

At the meeting with Likud representatives, Culture Minister Miri Regev noted Netanyahu had won re-election despite Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s announcement in February that he plans to charge the prime minister in three graft cases.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing. He can still argue, at a pre-trial hearing with Mandelblit whose date has not been set, against the filing of bribery and fraud charges against him.

The Israeli leader is under no legal obligation to resign if indicted.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by David Holmes/Mark Heinrich)

Trump signs decree recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Golan Heights

U.S. President Donald Trump gestures next to Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a ceremony to sign a proclamation recognizing Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights in the Diplomatic Reception Room at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump signed a decree on Monday at the start of a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying the United States recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory that Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

The decree formalized Trump’s statement on March 21 saying it was time for the United States “to fully recognize” Israeli sovereignty over the Golan. The move appeared to give Netanyahu a boost ahead of the closely contested April 9 Israeli elections.

(Reporting by Jeff Mason; Writing by David Alexander; Editing by Tim Ahmann)

Britain’s Prince William, in Jerusalem, honors Holocaust victims, meets Netanyahu

Britain's Prince William pays his respects during a ceremony commemorating the six million Jews killed by the Nazis in the Holocaust, in the Hall of Remembrance at Yad Vashem World Holocaust Remembrance Center in Jerusalem, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prince William honoured Holocaust victims and met descendants of Jews hidden from the Nazis by his great-grandmother, in a somber start on Tuesday to the first official British royal visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Wearing a black skullcap, William laid a wreath in the Hall of Remembrance at Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, where an eternal flame flickers and the names of extermination and concentration camps are engraved in the floor.

“Terrifying,” William said, viewing a display at the memorial’s museum of shoes taken by the Nazis from Jews at Majdanek death camp. “(I’m) trying to comprehend the scale.”

Britain's Prince William speaks with officials as he arrives to the residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Britain’s Prince William speaks with officials as he arrives to the residence of Israeli President Reuven Rivlin in Jerusalem, June 26, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Tens of thousands of Jews and other victims were killed at the camp, near Lublin in what is now Poland.

After the tour, the prince – second in line to the British throne – was greeted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife, Sara, at their official residence in Jerusalem against the backdrop of British and Israeli flags.

At the residence, the prince met relatives of the late Rachel Cohen, who was hidden from the Gestapo, along with two of her five children, by Princess Alice, the mother of Britain’s 97-year-old Prince Philip, in her palace in Greece.

The Greek royal family – Princess Alice was married to Prince Andrew of Greece – had been acquainted with Cohen’s late husband, Haimaki, a former member of Greece’s parliament.

“You must be very proud of your great-grandmother, who saved defenseless Jews,” Netanyahu told William.

Princess Alice was recognized as one of the “righteous among nations”, gentiles who rescued Jews, by Yad Vashem in 1993. A devout Christian, she is buried on the slopes of Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. William is due to visit her tomb on Thursday.

At a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, the prince, on a visit described by Britain as non-political, said he hoped “peace in the area can be achieved”. Israeli-Palestinian peace talks collapsed in 2014.

During the four-day visit, William is also scheduled to meet Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Palestinian youngsters in the occupied West Bank.

“I had a very moving tour around Yad Vashem this morning, which really taught me quite a lot more than I thought I already knew about the true horrors of what happened to the Jews

over the war,” William said at the meeting with Rivlin.

The prince also spoke at Yad Vashem with two men who survived the Nazi genocide through British intervention.

Henry Foner, 86, and Paul Alexander, 80, were among thousands of Jewish children taken in by Britain as part of the 1930s “Kindertransport” from a continental Europe that was falling to German conquest.

“I said to his Royal Highness that this is a unique opportunity for me to express my thanks to the British people for opening their homes to me and to the other 10,000 children who came,” Alexander said.

Later in the day, William, sporting sunglasses, strolled along the Tel Aviv shore, chatting with beach-goers and quipping, “I should have brought my swimming trunks”. At a youth soccer event in nearby Jaffa, he admonished journalists crowding around the youngsters to move back.

“Guys, will you give us some space, there are children here,” said the prince, who from his earliest years experienced crowds of journalists and photographs hounding his mother, the late Diana, Princess of Wales. She died in a car crash in Paris in 1997 as paparazzi chased her vehicle.

William’s trip is at the behest of the British government. Until now it had been British policy not to make an official royal visit until the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was resolved. British officials have given no detailed explanation for the change in policy.

(Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Matthew Mpoke Bigg)

Cash or custody: Israel kicks off deportation of African migrants

African migrants wait in line for the opening of the Population and Immigration Authority office in Bnei Brak, Israel February 4, 2018. Picture taken February 4, 2018

By Maayan Lubell and Elana Ringler

TEL AVIV (Reuters) – Israel has started handing out notices to 20,000 male African migrants giving them two months to leave the country or risk being thrown in jail.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is offering the migrants, most of whom are from Sudan and Eritrea, $3,500 and a plane ticket to what it says is a safe destination in another country in sub-Saharan Africa.

The fate of some 37,000 Africans in Israel is posing a moral dilemma for a state founded as haven for Jews from persecution and a national home. The right-wing government is under pressure from its nationalist voter base to expel the migrants, while others are calling for them to be taken in.

The government says the migrants are “infiltrators” looking for work rather than asylum, but there is a growing liberal backlash against the plan, including from rabbis, a small group of survivors of the Nazi Holocaust and ordinary people who say Israel should show greater compassion to the migrants.

The first eviction notices were handed out on Sunday and job advertisements for immigration inspectors to implement the deportation plan have been posted on government websites.

Rights groups advocating on behalf of the migrants say many fled abuse and war and their expulsion, even to a different country in Africa, would endanger them further.

“I don’t know what to do. Rwanda, Uganda are not my countries, what will a third country help me?” said Eritrean Berihu Ainom, after receiving an eviction notice on Sunday.

The deportation notices do not name the country migrants will be flown to but Netanyahu has said it will be a safe destination. Rights groups have named Uganda and Rwanda as possible host countries.

In a poor neighborhood in the south of Tel Aviv that has attracted thousands of African migrants, shops are dotted with signs in Tigrinya and other African languages while abandoned warehouses have been converted into churches.

“I came to Israel to save my life,” said Eritrean Afoworki Kidane, sitting on a street bench.

He said he would rather go to jail than take the cash and plane ticket on offer to leave the country that has been his home for nine years.

BACKLASH BUILDING

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said Israel’s first obligation was to its own citizens, rather than the migrants.

“They are not numbers, they are people, they are human and I am full of compassion and mercy,” Deri told Army Radio. “But the small state of Israel cannot contain such a vast number of illegal infiltrators.”

But opposition to the plan has been building and some Israelis are now offering to take migrants at risk of expulsion into their homes.

On Thursday, a group of 36 Holocaust survivors sent a letter to Netanyahu asking him not to deport the migrants. The U.S.-based Anti Defamation League has also urged Israel to reconsider the plan, citing “Jewish values and refugee heritage”.

Rabbi Israel Meir Lau, chairman of the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial and a Holocaust survivor, said in a statement the issue required “as much compassion, empathy and mercy that can possibly be marshalled. The experiences of the Jewish people over the ages underscore this commitment.”

Rabbi Susan Silverman has launched a campaign called Miklat Israel (Israel Shelter) for Israelis to take migrants into their homes.

“It’s unconscionable for the Jewish state to deport people to harrowing vulnerability,” she said.

Miklat Israel’s Rabbi Tamara Schagas said 600 Israeli families had already signed up and the organization would begin to connect migrants with potential hosts this week.

MORAL COMPASS

The Supreme Court ruled in August that Israeli authorities can hold illegal migrants for up to 60 days in custody.

Immigration officials have said women, children and men with families in Israel were allowed to stay for now, as was anyone with outstanding asylum requests.

Out of 6,800 requests reviewed so far, Israel has granted refugee status to 11 migrants. It has at least 8,000 more requests to process.

Israeli authorities have said Israeli officials will keep in touch with migrants accepted in a third country to oversee their progress. Rwanda has said it will only accept migrants who have left Israel of their own free will.

Nonetheless, the U.N.’s refugee agency has urged Israel to reconsider, saying migrants who have relocated to sub-Saharan Africa in the past few years were unsafe and ended up on the perilous migrant trail to Europe, some suffering abuse, torture and even perishing on the way.

Rights groups in Israel say the government is simply ridding itself of people it should be recognizing as refugees in Israel and that there was no real guarantee for their safety.

A fence Israel has built over the past few years along its border with Egypt has all but stopped African migrants from entering the country illegally. Beginning in the previous decade, when the border was porous, a total of 64,000 Africans made it to Israel though thousands have since left.

Emmanuel Asfaha from Eritrea crossed into Israel in 2011 with his wife and baby son. His second child was born in Israel.

A narrow grocery store stockroom stacked with bags of flour leads to their two-room apartment in Tel Aviv, a poster of Jesus hanging on the cracked walls above his son’s bed. Asfaha is concerned Israel will eventually deport families too.

“I am worried about the situation,” he said while cooking Shiro, a traditional stew. “Tomorrow it will be for me also.”

A few kilometers away, in a hip, upscale part of Tel Aviv, Ben Yefet, a 39-year-old stockbroker, said he had signed up with Miklat Israel to house two or three migrants in his two-room apartment.

“As Israelis and Jews we are obligated. We have a moral compass, we just have to do it,” he said.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; editing by Jeffrey Heller and David Clarke)