Israel sees Iranian atomic bomb in five years, deal or no deal

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Iran is five years away from developing a nuclear weapon, and international talks due to restart next week will do nothing to slow it down, Israel said on Tuesday, adding it reserved the right to act to protect itself.

Indirect negotiations to revive the 2015 accord, under which Iran agreed to curbs on its nuclear program in return for the lifting of international sanctions, are due to resume in Vienna next Monday after a five-month pause.

Israel long opposed the nuclear deal, but Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government, in power since June, had previously said it could be open to a new deal with tougher restrictions. In remarks on Tuesday to a security forum, however, he sounded less accommodating.

Bennett described Iran, which denies it is pursuing nuclear arms, as being at “the most advanced stage” of a nuclear weapons program.

“In any event, even if there is a return to a deal, Israel is of course not a party to the deal and Israel is not obligated by the deal,” he told the conference, hosted by Reichman University.

Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman said: “With or without an agreement, Iran will be a nuclear state and have a nuclear weapon within five years, tops.”

Israel, itself widely believed to have nuclear weapons, has long argued that the 2015 deal was too weak to prevent Iran from pursuing a bomb. Former U.S. President Donald Trump abandoned the deal in 2018, describing it as too soft, and Iran responded by violating some of the deal’s restrictions. President Joe Biden’s administration aims to revive it.

Israel has also complained that the nuclear agreement does nothing to rein in Iran’s missile program, or hostile activity by Iranian-backed militia.

“The Iranians have encircled the State of Israel with missiles while they sit safely in Tehran,” Bennett said. “To chase the terrorist du jour sent by the (Iranian covert) Qods Force does not pay off anymore. We must go for the dispatcher.”

Speaking separately, the chief of Israel’s air force offered cooperation with Gulf Arab partners against Iranian-made attack drones, a rare public airing of the possibility of joint operations.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Britain outlaws Palestinian militant group Hamas -interior minister

By Stephen Farrell and Alistair Smout

JERUSALEM/LONDON (Reuters) -Britain’s interior minister Priti Patel on Friday said she had banned the Palestinian militant group Hamas in a move that brings the UK’s stance on Gaza’s rulers in line with the United States and the European Union.

“Hamas has significant terrorist capability, including access to extensive and sophisticated weaponry, as well as terrorist training facilities,” Patel said in a statement.

“That is why today I have acted to proscribe Hamas in its entirety.”

The organization would be banned under the Terrorism Act and anyone expressing support for Hamas, flying its flag or arranging meetings for the organization would be in breach of the law, the interior ministry confirmed. Patel is expected to present the change to parliament next week.

Hamas has political and military wings. Founded in 1987, it opposes the existence of Israel and peace talks, instead advocating “armed resistance” against Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Until now Britain had banned only its military arm — the Izz al-Din al-Qassam Brigades.

Hamas political official Sami Abu Zuhri said Britain’s move showed “absolute bias toward the Israeli occupation and is a submission to Israeli blackmail and dictations”.

“Resisting occupation by all available means, including armed resistance, is a right granted to people under occupation as stated by the international law,” said Hamas in a separate statement.

The Palestinian Mission to the United Kingdom, which represents President Mahmoud Abbas’s Western-backed Palestinian Authority, also condemned the move.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed the decision, saying on Twitter: “Hamas is a terrorist organization, simply put. The ‘political arm’ enables its military activity.”

Hamas and Israel clashed most recently in a deadly 11-day conflict in May. During the second Palestinian uprising two decades ago, Hamas suicide bombers killed hundreds of Israelis, a campaign publicly backed by its political wing.

‘STRENGTHENING TIES’

In 2017 Patel was forced to resign as Britain’s international development secretary after she failed to disclose meetings with senior Israeli officials during a private holiday to the country, including then-opposition leader Yair Lapid.

Lapid, now Israel’s foreign minister, hailed the decision on Hamas as “part of strengthening ties with Britain”.

Hamas is on the U.S. list of designated foreign terrorist organizations. The European Union also deems it a terrorist movement.

Based in Gaza, Hamas won the 2006 Palestinian parliamentary election, defeating its nationalist rival Fatah. It seized military control of Gaza the following year.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem and Aistair Smout in London; Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Toby Chopra)

Israeli ‘wargame’ sees kids suffering vaccine-resistant COVID strain

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and senior aides holed up in a nuclear command bunker on Thursday to simulate an outbreak of a vaccine-resistant COVID-19 variant to which children are vulnerable, describing such an eventuality as “the next war.”

Israel would brief foreign leaders next week on the findings of the drill, he said, citing Britain’s Boris Johnson as among counterparts with whom he is in contact.

Bennett said that, to enhance the challenge of the one-day exercise, he had been kept unaware of specific scenarios of an imagined 10-week crisis that starts over the December holidays.

The script sees a fictitious strain, “Omega,” bypassing the vaccines which Israel rolled out at record pace this year. Omega also sickens children – largely spared by the actual virus – prompting mass hospitalizations and school closures.

“What I’ve learned is if you prepare for the next war and not for the previous war, the next pandemic and not the previous pandemic, that means that you are going to be better prepared,” Bennett told Reuters from the facility in the Jerusalem hills.

“The main lesson is: Move fast, move hard.”

As part of the simulation, Bennett said he had ordered Israeli children – including his own four – confined to their homes while the government sealed off the borders and conferred with the Palestinian Authority, Gaza officials and Jordan.

“Unlike a war-wargame, a pandemic wargame is not secret. Quite the contrary, we want to share the information,” he said.

Israel built the bunker, known as the “National Management Center,” more than a decade ago because of concern about Iran’s nuclear program and missile exchanges with Lebanon and Gaza.

Bennett said he and his aides could manage Israel “indefinitely” from the bunker in any major crisis.

(Writing by Dan Williams, Editing by Timothy Heritage and Giles Elgood)

Israeli rightist seeks to outlaw opening of U.S. Palestinian mission in Jerusalem

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli right-wing opposition legislator is seeking to outlaw the planned reopening of a U.S. mission in Jerusalem that has traditionally been a base for diplomatic outreach to the Palestinians.

Israel’s new cross-partisan government led by nationalist Prime Minister Naftali Bennett also opposes the re-inauguration of the consulate, potentially buoying Likud lawmaker Nir Barkat’s effort to scupper the move, though it would strain relations with Washington.

The consulate was subsumed into the U.S. Embassy that was moved to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv in 2018 by then-U.S. President Donald Trump, steps hailed by Israel and condemned by Palestinians.

With an eye towards repairing U.S. relations with the Palestinians, and rebuilding mutual trust, President Joe Biden’s administration says it will reopen the consulate while leaving the embassy in place.

Barkat’s legislation, filed in parliament last month and with voting as yet unscheduled, would outlaw opening a foreign mission in Jerusalem without Israel’s consent.

“I think that the current Israeli government is weak. It depends on the left, it depends on radicals on our side,” he told Reuters. “We must do everything we can to maintain the unity of the city of Jerusalem.”

Israel regards all of Jerusalem as its capital. Palestinians want East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in a 1967 war along with the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as capital of the state they seek.

Ahmed Al-Deek, adviser to the Palestinian foreign ministry, said Barkat “represents the position of far-right parties in Israel which seek to block any chance of reaching a two-state solution”.

Barkat said polling showed some 70% public support for the bill – enough to garner votes from within the coalition. Asked for Bennett’s position, his spokesman cast the bill as a PR stunt, saying: “We don’t comment on trolling.”

U.S. officials have been largely reticent on the issue, saying only that the reopening process remains in effect.

Asked whether precedent existed in U.S. diplomacy for opening a mission over objections of a host country, the State Department’s Office of the Historian declined comment.

Barkat’s bill recognizes that there are a handful of countries with Jerusalem missions, like the former consulate, that predate Israel’s founding in 1948.

In what may signal a bid to persuade Israel to reconsider the former mission as a candidate to rejoin that group, Thomas Nides, Biden’s pick for ambassador, noted in his Sept. 22 confirmation hearing: “That consulate has existed, in one form or another, for almost 130 years.”

Barkat was unmoved, saying: “We respect what happened before 1948 (but) never did we give anybody consent to open up a diplomatic mission for Palestinians in the city of Jerusalem.”

(Additional by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

At U.N., Israeli PM Bennett says Iran has crossed all nuclear “red lines”

By Michelle Nichols, Matt Spetalnick and Stephen Farrell

NEW YORK (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said on Monday that Iran had crossed “all red lines” in its nuclear program and vowed that Israel would not allow Tehran to acquire a nuclear weapon.

In his first speech before the United Nations General Assembly, Bennett said Iran sought to dominate the Middle East under a “nuclear umbrella” and urged a more concerted international effort to halt Iran’s nuclear activities.

But he also hinted at the potential for Israel to act on its own against Iran, something it has repeatedly threatened in the past.

“Iran’s nuclear program has hit a watershed moment, and so has our tolerance,” Bennett said. “Words do not stop centrifuges from spinning.”

Bennett, a far-right politician who ended Benjamin Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister in June, wants U.S. President Joe Biden to harden his stance against Iran, Israel’s regional arch-foe. He opposes the new U.S. administration’s efforts to revive the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Biden’s White House predecessor, Donald Trump, abandoned in 2018.

Indirect U.S.-Iran talks in Vienna have stalled as Washington awaits the next move by Iran’s new hardline president, Ebrahim Raisi.

Bennett struck a less combative tone before the United Nations than Netanyahu, who often relied on props and visual aids to dramatize his accusations against Iran, an approach that critics derided as political stunts.

But Bennett has been just as adamant as Netanyahu was in pledging to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat, from building a nuclear weapon. Iran consistently denies it is seeking a bomb.

“Iran’s nuclear weapons program is at a critical point. All red lines have been crossed, inspections ignored,” Bennett said. “They’re getting away with it.”

(Reporting by Michelle Nichols at the UN, Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Stephen Farrell in London, additional reporting by Zainah El-Haroun and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Israel opposes Biden plan to reopen U.S. Palestinian mission in Jerusalem

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israel said on Wednesday that a U.S. plan to reopen its consulate in Jerusalem that has traditionally been a base for diplomatic outreach to Palestinians is a “bad idea” and could destabilize Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s new government.

The prior administration of President Donald Trump signaled support for Israel’s claim on Jerusalem as its capital by moving the U.S. embassy there from Tel Aviv. It later subsumed the consulate, in west Jerusalem, in that mission.

It was among several moves that incensed the Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem as capital of a hoped-for, future state.

President Joe Biden has pledged to restore ties with the Palestinians, back a two-state solution and move forward with reopening the consulate. It has been closed since 2019, with Palestinian affairs handled by the embassy.

“We think it’s a bad idea,” Foreign Minister Yair Lapid told a news conference when asked about the reopening. “Jerusalem is the sovereign capital of Israel and Israel alone, and therefore we don’t think it’s a good idea.

“We know that the (Biden) administration has a different way of looking at this, but since it is happening in Israel, we are sure they are listening to us very carefully.”

Wasel Abu Youssef, a senior Palestine Liberation Organization official, told Reuters that the Israeli rejection of the consulate’s opening was expected, adding: “They are trying to maintain the status quo and block any political solution”.

Asked about Lapid’s remarks, a U.S. Embassy spokesperson said: “As Secretary Blinken announced in May, the United States will be moving forward with the process to reopen our consulate in Jerusalem. We do not have additional information to share at this time.”

The spokesperson said the United States was not reversing its decision to move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem nor its recognition of the city as Israel’s capital.

Israel captured the city’s east, along with the occupied West Bank and Gaza, in the 1967 Middle East war.

It deems all of Jerusalem as its undivided capital – a status not recognized internationally. In recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, Trump said he was not taking a position on “any final-status issues, including the specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem”.

Bennett, a nationalist atop a cross-partisan coalition, opposes Palestinian statehood. Reopening the consulate could unsettle Bennett’s government, which ended long-term premier Benjamin Netanyahu’s tenure in June, Lapid said.

“We have an interesting and yet delicate structure of our government and we think this might destabilize this government and I don’t think the American administration wants this to happen,” he said.

Divisions among Palestinians also cast doubt about the prospects for diplomacy, Lapid said. “I am a devoted believer in the two-state solution … but we’ll have to admit the fact this is not feasible in the current situation.”

(Writing by Rami Ayyub;Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Jonathan Oatis)

Biden, Israeli PM begin talks in shadow of Afghan attack

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Matt Spetalnick

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett began their first White House meeting on Friday, with Iran topping the agenda, even as the U.S. leader grappled with the aftermath of a deadly suicide bombing in Kabul during the chaotic U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan.

After a one-day delay due to the Islamic State attack that killed 13 U.S. troops and 72 Afghans, Biden and Bennett met to reset the tone of U.S.-Israeli relations and search for common ground on Iran despite differences on how to address Tehran’s nuclear program.

Tensions complicated relations between Bennett’s predecessor, Benjamin Netanyahu, who was close to former President Donald Trump, and the last Democratic administration led by Barack Obama with Biden as his vice president.

But the meeting, the first since the two men took office this year, was eclipsed by Thursday’s attack outside Kabul airport during a U.S. withdrawal that has posed the biggest crisis of Biden’s young presidency.

U.S. forces helping to evacuate Afghans desperate to flee new Taliban rule were on alert for more attacks on Friday.

Biden called the Israeli leader and “thanked (him) for his understanding of the change in time of their meeting, in light of the events in Afghanistan,” Bennett’s office said in a statement.

He said Israel shared America’s sorrow over the deaths.

The delay means that Bennett, an Orthodox Jew who does not travel on the Sabbath, will remain in Washington until after sundown on Saturday.

Iran, one of the thorniest issues between the Biden administration and Israel, was expected to be the main focus of their talks.

Bennett, a far-right politician who ended Netanyahu’s 12-year run as prime minister in June, intended to press Biden to harden his approach to Iran and back out of negotiations to revive an international nuclear deal with Tehran that Trump abandoned.

Biden was expected to tell Bennett that he shares Israel’s concern that Iran has expanded its nuclear program but remains committed for now to diplomacy with Tehran, a senior administration official said earlier.

Bennett has sought to move on from Netanyahu’s combative style and instead manage disagreements behind closed doors.

But he has been just as adamant as Netanyahu was in pledging to do whatever is necessary to prevent Iran, which Israel views as an existential threat, from building a nuclear weapon. Iran consistently denies it is seeking a bomb.

The visit gave Biden an opportunity to demonstrate business as usual with a key partner while contending with the volatile situation in Afghanistan.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Biden and Bennett are also far apart. Biden has renewed backing for a two-state solution after Trump distanced himself from that longstanding tenet of U.S. policy. Bennett opposes Palestinian statehood.

(Additional reporting by Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Editing by Howard Goller)

Biden and Israeli PM set to discuss Iran strategy at meeting next week

By Trevor Hunnicutt and Maayan Lubell

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Stalled nuclear talks with Iran will be at the top of the agenda when U.S. President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meet next week.

“The President and Prime Minister Bennett will discuss critical issues related to regional and global security, including Iran,” said White House press secretary Jen Psaki in a statement announcing the leaders’ first in-person meeting at the White House on Aug. 26.

Talks between Tehran and six world powers to revive the nuclear pact ditched three years ago by Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump have stalled since they began in April.

The Israeli leader, a nationalist atop a cross-partisan coalition who took office in June, opposes the deal being revived. It views a nuclear-armed Iran as an existential threat.

Tehran denies seeking the bomb, though a U.N. atomic watchdog report on Tuesday seen by Reuters showed the country accelerating its enrichment of uranium to near weapons-grade.

Regional tensions rose over a July 29 attack on an Israeli-managed tanker off the coast of Oman that Israel, the United States and Britain blamed on Tehran. Iran denied any involvement in the suspected drone strike in which two crew members were killed.

Conflict has also flared between Israel and Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah movement.

The White House meeting will come less than three weeks after U.S. Central Intelligence Agency Director William Burns held talks in Israel with Bennett on Iran.

Bennett said at a news conference that the meeting “will focus on Iran” but the White House also touted “an opportunity for the two leaders to discuss efforts to advance peace, security, and prosperity for Israelis and Palestinians.”

The Israeli leader said he planned to come to the meeting “very focused with a policy of partnership that aims to curb Iran’s destabilizing, negative regional activity, its human rights abuses, terrorism and preventing its nearing nuclear breakout.”

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in Washington and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by David Holmes and Marguerita Choy)

Firefighters evacuate towns outside Jerusalem as wildfire blazes

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Firefighters battling a wildfire in wooded hills outside Jerusalem evacuated more small communities on Monday as planes and crews fought flames for a second day.

The blaze some 10 km (six miles) west of Jerusalem sent clouds of smoke billowing east but there appeared to be little danger the fire would reach the city. No serious injuries have been reported.

Israel’s Fire and Rescue Authority said 45 crews and eight planes were battling the blaze, which the country’s internal security minister said burned around 4,200 acres (17,000 hectares) on Sunday, forcing hundreds to evacuate.

Several more communities were evacuated on Monday afternoon, the Fire and Rescue Authority wrote on Twitter, while others were given evacuation orders. The authority’s commissioner announced a general mobilization for personnel to help stop the blaze.

In a meeting with fire and rescue officials late on Sunday, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he was concerned the blaze could reach Jerusalem’s western localities, including the area of Ein Kerem, home to Israel’s Hadassah Medical Center.

“Fire brigades are preparing a defensive position there,” Bennett said, warning that while he was hopeful crews would bring the blaze under control, “fires and winds have a capricious dynamic.”

An investigation has been launched into the cause of the fires, the Fire and Rescue Authority said.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Living with COVID-19: Israel changes strategy as Delta variant hits

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Four weeks ago, Israel was celebrating a return to normal life in its battle with COVID-19.

After a rapid vaccination drive that had driven down coronavirus infections and deaths, Israelis had stopped wearing face masks and abandoned all social-distancing rules.

Then came the more infectious Delta variant, and a surge in cases that has forced Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to reimpose some COVID-19 restrictions and rethink strategy.

Under what he calls a policy of “soft suppression,” the government wants Israelis to learn to live with the virus – involving the fewest possible restrictions and avoiding a fourth national lockdown that could do further harm to the economy.

As most Israelis in risk groups have now been vaccinated against COVID-19, Bennett is counting on fewer people than before falling seriously ill when infections rise.

“Implementing the strategy will entail taking certain risks but in the overall consideration, including economic factors, this is the necessary balance,” Bennett said last week.

The main indicator guiding the move is the number of severe COVID-19 cases in hospital, currently around 45. Implementation will entail monitoring infections, encouraging vaccinations, rapid testing and information campaigns about face masks.

The strategy has drawn comparisons with the British government’s plans to reopen England’s economy from lockdown, though Israel is in the process of reinstating some curbs while London is lifting restrictions.

The curbs that have been reinstated include the mandatory wearing of face masks indoors and quarantine for all people arriving in Israel.

Bennett’s strategy, like that of the British government, has been questioned by some scientists.

Israel’s Health Ministry advocates more of a push for stemming infections, Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health at Israel’s Health Ministry, told Kan Radio on Sunday.

“It’s possible that there won’t be a big rise in the severely ill but the price of making such a mistake is what’s worrying us,” she said.

But many other scientists are supportive.

“I am very much in favor of Israel’s approach,” said Nadav Davidovitch, director of the school of public health at Israel’s Ben Gurion University, describing it as a “golden path” between Britain’s easing of restrictions and countries such as Australia that take a tougher line.

THE VIRUS ‘WON’T STOP’

Israel’s last lockdown was enforced in December, about a week after the start of what has been one of the world’s fastest vaccination programs.

New daily COVID-19 infections are running at about 450. The Delta variant, first identified in India, now makes up about 90% of cases.

“We estimate that we won’t reach high waves of severe cases like in previous waves,” the health ministry’s director-general, Nachman Ash, said last week. “But if we see that the number and increase rate of severe cases are endangering the (health) system, then we will have to take further steps.”

Around 60% of Israel’s 9.3 million population have received at least one shot of the Pfizer/BioNtech vaccine. On Sunday, the government began offering a third shot to people with a compromised immune system.

Ran Balicer, chair of the government’s expert panel on COVID-19, said Israel had on average had about five severe cases of the virus and one death per day in the last week, after two weeks of zero deaths related to COVID-19.

Noting the impact of the Delta variant, he said the panel was advising caution over the removal of restrictions.

“We do not have enough data from our local outbreak to be able to predict with accuracy what would happen if we let go,” Balicer said.

Some studies have shown that though high, the Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine’s effectiveness against the Delta variant is lower than against other coronavirus strains.

Drawing criticism from some scientists, Pfizer and BioNTech SE have said they will ask U.S. and European regulators to authorize booster shots to head off increased risk of infection six months after inoculation.

Israel is in no rush to approve public booster shots, saying there is no unequivocal data yet showing they are necessary. It is offering approval only to people with weak immune systems on a case-by-case basis.

Authorities are also considering allowing children under 12 to take the vaccine on a case-by-case basis if they suffer from health conditions that put them at high risk of serious complications if they were to catch the virus.

Only “a few hundred” of the 5.5 million people who have been vaccinated in Israel have later been infected with COVID-19, Ash said.

Before the Delta variant arrived, Israel had estimated 75% of the population would need to be vaccinated to reach “herd immunity” – the level at which enough of a population are immunized to be able to effectively stop a disease spreading. The estimated threshold is now 80%.

Such data ensure doctors remain concerned.

“…the virus won’t stop. It is evolving, it’s its nature. But our nature is to survive,” said Dr. Gadi Segal, head of the coronavirus ward at Sheba Medical Centre near Tel Aviv.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Timothy Heritage)