Trump shift on Israeli settlements fulfills wish list of evangelical base

By Maria Caspani and Matt Spetalnick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘HE WILL GET 100% OF THIS BASE’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christian evangelicals harvest land in settlements Israel hopes to annex

By Maayan Lubell and Elana Ringler

SHILO, West Bank (Reuters) – It’s harvest time in vineyards atop the hills of Shilo settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But it’s not Jewish settlers picking the grapes, it’s evangelical Christians.

They are volunteers for the devout U.S. evangelical group HaYovel which brings Christians to help Jewish farmers in settlements that Israel has built on land that Palestinians seek for a state.

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

The West Bank holds special importance to evangelicals who see a divine hand in the modern-day return of Jews to a biblical homeland – and who call the territory by its Hebrew Old Testament name, Judea and Samaria.

The founder of HaYovel, Tommy Waller, is fond of quoting a passage from the book of Jeremiah, which reads: “Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel…Thou shalt yet plant vines upon the mountains of Samaria.”

But that land is also at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is the heartland of what the Palestinians see as a future state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

For the Tennessee-born Waller, helping the Jewish settlers cultivate the land means taking part in the fulfillment of a prophecy. “As a Christian, as a person who believes in the bible, it was an amazing thing to get to a place where my faith was touchable,” Waller said.

“We share a commonality between Christianity and Judaism and that’s our bible, our scripture,” said Waller at a vineyard on the outskirts of Har Bracha, another settlement whose farmers his volunteers assist.

ANNEXATION

Most of the international community regards the Israeli settlements as illegal, a view that Israel disputes.

Israeli hawks, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claim the West Bank is vital to Israel’s security. Relinquishing it to the Palestinians could put large swaths of Israel under threat of militant attacks, they say. Palestinians say there can be no viable Palestinian state without it.

In the run-up to Israel’s election next Tuesday, Netanyahu has renewed his pledge to annex parts of the West Bank if he wins. [L5N2615TB]

It’s a position that the politically powerful U.S. evangelicals have embraced.

“Evangelicals believe Judea and Samaria is bible land, because it is,” said Mike Evans, the Texas-based founder of ‘Friends of Zion Museum’ which sits in Jerusalem. “Do we think giving up Judea and Samaria is going to bring peace? No way,” said Evans, who is a member of Trump’s Faith Initiative.

The prospect of annexation has alarmed the Palestinians, who fear that Netanyahu is likely to have Trump’s backing.

“We are worried about losing our lands,” said Izzat Qadous, a retired school teacher from the Palestinian village Irak Burin, across the way from Har Bracha.

“The same way they have annexed Jerusalem, they want to annex the West Bank and soon we will hear of Trump acknowledging the annexation of the West Bank.”

About 2.9 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, according to official Palestinian figures and more than 400,000 Israeli settlers live there, according to the Israeli statistics bureau.

Evangelical leaders lobbied Trump earlier in his presidency for his 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his relocation of the U.S. Embassy to the holy city in 2018.

“He (Trump) is rewarding moral clarity and I believe the Jewish people should be rewarded for moral clarity with recognizing more of their land,” said Evans, referring to the West Bank.

“ROCK STAR”

Trump’s administration includes evangelicals at some top positions – his vice president Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in an interview to the Christian Broadcast Network in March said that “the Lord was at work here” in respect to Trump’s Israel policies.

Evangelical support for Israel goes back decades, with political lobbying, fundraising and organized tours to the Holy Land. But some see the ties growing far stronger under both Trump and Netanyahu.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the evangelical base “has been wielding unprecedented and enormous influence within the United States for the sake of the “fulfillment of the prophecy,” thereby giving Israel a free hand to carry out its most hardline and destructive policies against the Palestinian people.”

Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said Netanyahu began cultivating ties with evangelicals during his first stint as prime minister in the 1990s.

“The Prime Minister has a keen sense of trendlines in the U.S.,” said Gold.

That effort may have paid off. “Benjamin Netanyahu among the evangelicals of the world is a rock star,” Evans said.

Critics, however, say Netanyahu has alienated many liberal American Jews by embracing Christian conservatives. Even in Israel’s settlements, the evangelicals are sometimes greeted with suspicion.

Some Israelis there fear that the Christians may have a missionary agenda – seeking to convert them. Evans said his mission in life is to defend the Jewish people.

Others are nervous about some evangelical readings of the scriptures in which the Jews’ return to the biblical land is instrumental in bringing about the end of the world, at which point those who do not accept Jesus Christ will not be saved.

“These people are pursuing God like we’re pursuing God,” said Waller. “Obviously we have our own messianic belief, but those are future things, in the kingdom to come.”

On the other hand, some settlers see the evangelicals as helping them out in fulfilling their own vision.

Nir Lavi, the owner of Har Bracha winery, says Hayovel’s contribution to his business has been more than financial.

“We are grateful,” said Lavi. “It’s a totally different phase of our own journey – the Jewish people’s redemption in their land.”

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Angus MacSwan)

Palestinians warm to Netanyahu rival, citing signs of compromise

FILE PHOTO: Benny Gantz, a former Israeli armed forces chief and head of Israel Resilience party, delivers his first political speech at the party campaign launch in Tel Aviv, Israel January 29, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

By Stephen Farrell and Dan Williams

RAMALLAH, West Bank/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinians warmed on Wednesday to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s toughest election rival, a former top general who said Israel should not maintain its dominion over them.

With both a general election and the unveiling of a U.S. peace initiative on the horizon, the centrist candidate, Benny Gantz, has been signaling an openness to territorial compromise in the occupied West Bank. That marks a contrast with the right-wing Netanyahu, who has ruled out withdrawing settlements.

The secret U.S. proposal for breaking a five-year diplomatic deadlock is widely expected to be unveiled after Israel’s April 9 ballot. Pollsters see Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party winning around 30 of parliament’s 120 seats, setting him up for a fifth term.

In an interview on Wednesday with Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper, Gantz was asked about prospects for accommodation with the Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“We need to find a way not to have dominion over other people,” Gantz said.

Gantz, whose new Resilience party is gaining ground against Netanyahu’s Likud with as many as 24 projected seats, has said he wanted to strengthen settlement blocs in the West Bank.

But he has not mentioned what might happen in any future peace deal to isolated settlements that are not incorporated into Israel if Palestinians are given a separate state.

Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, praised “the signs coming from Gantz about settlements”, calling them a step in the right direction should he win the election and prove “willing and ready” for peace.

“It’s encouraging, if he succeeds and he sticks to this opinion,” Abu Rudeineh told Reuters.

Most world powers consider Israeli settlements on land captured in a 1967 war to be illegal under the Geneva conventions. Israel disputes this, citing historical ties to the land, and has expanded the settlement population steadily, including during the past decade under Netanyahu.

Palestinians say settlements must be removed from their future state in any final agreement, although some could be ceded to Israel as part of an agreed swap for other land. The last peace talks collapsed in 2014, in part over the issue of settlements, and Abbas is boycotting the Trump administration, accusing it of being biased toward Israel.

In a statement, Likud said Gantz was planning to form a “leftist government” sympathetic to the Palestinians.

Gantz’ Resilience party said “no unilateral decision will be made on settlement evacuation” and that he would “maintain … non-negotiable security protections”.

Netanyahu cites the example of Gaza — where Israel unilaterally pulled out its settlements in 2005 and the Islamist group Hamas soon took control — as proof that removing settlements from the West Bank would be dangerous.

Gantz described the Gaza withdrawal as well executed, telling Yedioth: “We need to take the lessons and apply them elsewhere.”

The Trump administration has wavered over whether it would endorse a Palestinian state, saying the final outcome will be up to the sides to determine, but both may need to compromise.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Peter Graff)

Assad’s property law hits hope of return for Syrian refugees in Germany

People wait at the Syrian embassy in Berlin, Germany, June 7, 2018. Picture taken June 7, 2018. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

By Joseph Nasr

BERLIN (Reuters) – Husam Idris dreams of returning to his bakery in the Syrian city of Aleppo. But three years after escaping the war, he worries that a new law allowing the Syrian government to seize homes for redevelopment will scupper his plans.

“I grew up in the bakery. I can’t imagine losing it,” said Idris, a 37-year-old father of three who now lives in Germany.

While Syria’s Law 10, or Decree 10, has yet to be applied, rights groups and governments hosting Syrian refugees say they risk becoming permanent exiles if they lose their properties because it would remove a major incentive to return one day.

Idris is at the Syrian embassy in Berlin trying to arrange power of attorney for his mother back home so she can stake a claim to his bakery and apartment in the Kallaseh neighborhood of Aleppo, recaptured from rebels two years ago.

He is not alone. The new law has prompted a rush of visitors to the embassy.

One worker at the mission, who declined to give his name, said that since the law came into effect in April, 10 to 15 Syrians had come each day to request power of attorney for relatives at home, up from a handful beforehand.

According to the U.N.’s refugee agency, 6 million Syrians have been displaced within the country and there are nearly 5.5 million refugees outside Syria.

Germany hosts some 650,000 Syrians, the most of any Western country, and it is particularly worried about the law.

Berlin’s fear is that President Bashar al-Assad could use Law 10 to bulldozer former opposition bastions seized by the government and replace them with new property developments populated by government supporters.

“Decree 10 is designed to expropriate refugees,” a senior German government official said.

“It is pretty clear that Assad’s goal is to replace the old population with a new one,” said the official, who was briefed on talks between German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin about the issue.

The Syrian government has dismissed concerns about the law as a “disinformation campaign”. It says it needs to rebuild areas destroyed in the war and regulate illegal settlements.

“This law comes within the framework of the Reconstruction Program, and has an organizational character aimed at regulating slum areas in Syria, especially in light of the destruction of many of the areas that were controlled by terrorists,” Syria’s mission to the United Nations in Geneva said last month.

SECURITY COUNCIL

What started out as protests against Assad in 2011 turned into a civil war that has often pitted the country’s Sunni majority against Assad’s minority Alawites and Shi’ite allies. Russia intervened militarily in 2015 to help swing the conflict in favor of Assad.

Within the region, Turkey is home to 3.5 million Syrian refugees and there are nearly 1 million living in Lebanon, which has also expressed concern Law 10 could discourage the mainly Sunni refugees there from returning.

Law 10 originally gave proprietors 30 days to prove ownership or lose their rights. The Syrian government extended the period to one year earlier this month to allay fears refugees and the displaced could lose their homes.

Besides Russia, Germany has raised concerns about the Syrian legislation with its European Union partners and has managed to get the issue onto the U.N. Security Council’s agenda.

“The fact that the U.N. Security Council has taken note of the decree is a good starting point,” said a second German official. “But clearly effective pressure on Assad not to implement the decree has to come from Russia.”

While Law 10 says relatives in Syria can stake claims, Syrian lawyers say in practice power of attorney still needs to be given to an individual so the authorities know which relative is the chosen legal agent. Lawyers and rights groups also say anyone making a property claim needs to have security clearance.

They say this could lead to Syrians who fled former opposition strongholds being disenfranchised.

“The regime has a history of arbitrary expropriations to serve its economic and security interests and unfair land expropriations was one of the triggers of the rebellion,” Syrian human rights lawyer Anwar al-Bunni said.

“Who is going to dare claim property in an opposition area that the regime turned into rubble because it views its inhabitants as Sunni terrorists? Even if they dared, they will not get clearance if the regime wants the land,” he said.

 

LAW 66

Human rights groups, Syrian lawyers and refugees said a previous law pitched by the government as necessary for redevelopment had been applied in opposition areas to force out inhabitants perceived as dissenters.

They said Law 66, approved by Assad in 2012 to redevelop slums in Damascus, was applied in neighborhoods southwest of the capital where anti-Assad protests erupted at the start of the rebellion in 2011, including in Basateen al-Razi.

Local authorities used land there expropriated under Law 66 for a luxury residential project of 12,000 housing units which Assad inaugurated in 2016. Now, some Syrian refugees fear Law 10 will be used in a similar way nationwide.

“The problem is not in the law itself. The problem is how and where it’s going to be implemented,” said Sinan Hatahet, a Syria expert at Al Sharq Forum think-tank.

“If you lived in a bombed-out opposition area you’re most likely not going to get security clearance so your right to ownership is automatically gone,” he said.

France said the law was a serious obstacle to a lasting political solution to the Syrian conflict as it allowed refugees’ property to be plundered.

“This is a new stage in the brutal strategy of crowding out entire sections of the Syrian population that the Damascus regime has been implementing for several years,” Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Agnes Von der Muhll said in response to Reuters’ questions.

 

‘FORGET THE PAST’

At the Syrian embassy in Berlin, refugees queue in a room with three counters for consular services, a picture of Assad over the middle counter looking out on about 50 people waiting their turn.

Of the handful of Syrians who agreed to talk to Reuters about Law 10 most asked to be identified by nicknames, saying they feared for their safety and that of loved ones in Syria.

One man who goes by the nickname Abu Ahmed was at the embassy to give power of attorney to his brother, so he can stake a claim to Abu Ahmed’s depot in Yarmouk, a district of Damascus established as a Palestinian refugee camp in 1957.

Like many of the buildings in Yarmouk, Abu Ahmed’s depot used for storing and selling light bulbs was built illegally. The only proof of ownership he has are certificates from a notary.

“My wife thinks I’m crazy to obsess about the depot. The whole camp has been turned into rubble and we are lucky to be alive,” said the 47-year-old trader.

He has little hope the government will grant his brother security clearance should Yarmouk be redeveloped.

“We are marked because we lived in Yarmouk. The moukhabarat (secret police) will never give us security clearance but I have to try,” said Abu Ahmed, who now lives in Berlin.

The Norwegian Refugee Council estimates that about half of Syrian’s pre-war population of 22 million lived in urban areas with about a third of those in slums.

“They don’t need laws to steal our properties. They do as they please and no one can stop them,” said Um Ahmed, standing by her husband. “I keep telling Abu Ahmed, ‘forget the past,’ but he can’t. He still dreams of a return.”

Outside the embassy in Berlin, Idris wonders if asking his mother to act as agent for his Aleppo bakery was the right decision.

“She is old, ill and probably won’t live much longer,” he said. “My brothers and sisters are in Turkey so my cousins are the only other option. But they’ve lost everything and have no income. They’ve been selling land they own outside Aleppo for peanuts to survive. They’ll probably sell my property too.”

(Additional reporting by Angus McDowall in Beirut, John Irish in Paris, Stephanie Nebehay and Tom Miles in Geneva; editing by David Clarke)

As Israeli settlement growth slows, some drift away

The West Bank Jewish settlement of Ofra is photographed as seen from the Jewish settler outpost of Amona in the occupied West Bank, October 20, 2016. The Palestinian village of Silwad is seen in the background.

By Maayan Lubell

BEITAR ILLIT, West Bank (Reuters) – After five years, Batsheva Reback couldn’t take living in an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank any longer.

Despite renting a house with a garden for far less than it would cost in Israel itself, it didn’t make sense. Her new apartment in Israel may be small, but unlike where she used to live it has a supermarket and a clinic nearby, it’s a quicker commute to work and she feels her children are safer.

“It’s easier to get things done,” said the 26-year-old kindergarten assistant, adding that the decision was not based on expedience alone. “I started feeling uncomfortable living in a settlement. Personally, I don’t think building more and more settlements is going to help bring peace.”

To the world, the narrative on settlements often reads one way: more of them being built, with more settlers moving in. But there are cracks in the picture, and signs Reback’s perspective is not uncommon – settlers are getting fed up.

Statistics show the population continues to rise, having now reached around 400,000 in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem.

But behind the figures lies a different story. Although the population may have risen by nearly two-thirds in the past decade, the rate of increase has slowed sharply, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics.

A decade ago, for every 1,000 settlers already living in occupied territory, 20 more arrived each year. Now the expansion rate is just six per 1,000.

“The settlement enterprise is waning and what is left is being artificially kept alive by the government pouring money in,” said Shaul Arieli, an analyst at the Economic Cooperation Foundation, a think-tank that advocates for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Since capturing the West Bank in the 1967 Middle East war, successive Israeli governments have helped establish more than 120 settlements, spending billions of dollars to build tens of thousand of homes and the infrastructure to support them: roads, electricity, gas, water and communications.

There are scores more informal settler outposts, some of which have also received government funding.

While Israel’s right-wing government is in talks with the Trump administration about limiting expansion, it has also promised to build thousands more units this year to accommodate what it calls “natural growth” – families having more children.

Yet while population growth in the settlements is higher than the national average, its rate is also falling: In 1995, it stood at 10 percent. By 2015, it had dropped to 4 percent.

Leaders of the settler movement acknowledge the decline but say it does not reflect falling popularity. While the downturn is a concern, they say it stems from government curbs on construction: people aren’t moving to the settlements because there aren’t enough homes to house them.

“The pioneering settlement spirit, the desire to return to those places where the people of Israel have always been, is just getting stronger,” said Yigal Dilmoni, deputy head of the Yesha Council, the settlers’ main representative body.

That is what concerns the international community, which views settlements on occupied land as a breach of international law and an obstacle to peace between Israelis and Palestinians, who seek a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

Israel disputes the view that the settlements are illegal, and argues that it has biblical and historical ties to the land. Some right-wing members of the Israeli government want to annex up to 60 percent of the West Bank and massively ramp up the settlement enterprise.

AFFORDABILITY

Palestinians see any expansion of settlements as part of an Israeli project to deny them a state.

“They are building settlements at a rate of construction that is politically motivated,” Xavier Abu Eid, spokesman for the Palestinian Authority’s Negotiations Affairs Department. “Settlements and the incentives given to settlers are part of the Israeli government’s agenda. The two-state solution is clearly not.”

Settlement population growth is now largely driven by a handful of settlements built for the ultra-Orthodox community, whose families on average have six children.

Over the past two decades, the two main ultra-orthodox settlements, Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit, have grown from comprising about 10 percent of the West Bank settler population to making up nearly a third of it.

Unlike many of the hardline, ideological settlements deep in the West Bank, Beitar Illit and Modiin Illit are adjacent to Israel and would probably be incorporated in any peace deal with the Palestinians. Their cramped apartment blocs stand in stark contrast to the red-roofed, spacious houses with gardens that identify most settlements built on West Bank hilltops.

Ultra-Orthodox residents say they moved here because it’s cheap. The conflict with the Palestinians and settling the land are not on their minds. Any place that enables their often poor and close-knit community to live together is fine.

“Politically I’m not bothered. All those global considerations are not something the average ultra-Orthodox family can afford,” said 37-year-old Motti Hizkiyahu, standing outside a discount store in Modiin Illit.

GETTING OUT

While the rate of people moving to settlements and the growth within them has tapered, there are also signs of a generational shift in some of the most established, ideological settlements that spearheaded the movement in the 1970s.

Itzik Fleger, a real-estate agent in Beit-El settlement, said the founding generation is beginning to get older, their children have grown up and some have moved away.

It took Ruchi Avital two years of deliberations until she left the settlement of Ofra, her home of 30 years, to be closer to her children, all of whom moved out of the West Bank. She is a still an ardent supporter of the settlement enterprise, but a desire to be closer to her children overrode ideology.

Pictures of her former two-storey house and garden are affixed to her refrigerator in her new Jerusalem apartment, which she said is double the price and half the size.

While Ofra has seen more people leave than arrive in recent years, Avital, 64, believes it still has a future.

“It’s reached a critical mass, it’s mature enough now that it can handle people coming and leaving,” she said, adding that a family with children had moved into her old home.

Arieli, of the Economic Cooperation Foundation, says the reality is different. While the settlements are numerous, with vast state infrastructure to support them, the enterprise is not big enough to sustain itself, he argues.

“The settlement movement has failed in creating the physical conditions for annexation,” he said, referring to the push to annex the area where nearly all settlements are located. “The two-state solution is still strong and viable.”

(Additional reporting by Lee Marzel and Luke Baker; editing by Luke Baker and Peter Graff)

Trump to welcome Netanyahu as Palestinians fear U.S. shift

Benjamin Netanyahu

By Luke Baker

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump prepared to host Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday for talks that could shape the contours of future Middle East policy, as Palestinians warned the White House not to abandon their goal of an independent state.

For decades, the idea of creating a Palestine living peacefully alongside Israel has been a bedrock U.S. position, though the last negotiations broke down in 2014.

But in a potential shift, a senior White House official said on Tuesday that peace did not necessarily have to entail Palestinian statehood, and Trump would not try to “dictate” a solution.

As Trump and Netanyahu prepared to meet, a senior Palestinian official disclosed that on Tuesday, CIA director Mike Pompeo held talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian government in the occupied West Bank.

“(It was) the first official meeting with a high-profile member of the American administration since Trump took office,” said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity and declined to disclose details of the discussion.

Netanyahu committed, with conditions, to the two-state goal in a speech in 2009 and has broadly reiterated the aim since. But he has also spoken of a “state minus” option, suggesting he could offer the Palestinians deep-seated autonomy and the trappings of statehood without full sovereignty.

Palestinians reacted with alarm to the possibility that Washington might ditch its support for an independent Palestinian nation.

“If the Trump Administration rejects this policy it would be destroying the chances for peace and undermining American interests, standing and credibility abroad,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said in response to the U.S. official’s remarks.

“Accommodating the most extreme and irresponsible elements in Israel and in the White House is no way to make responsible foreign policy,” she said in a statement.

Husam Zomlot, strategic adviser to Abbas, said the Palestinians had not received any official indication of a change in the U.S. stance.

“NO GAPS”

For Netanyahu, the talks with Trump will be an opportunity to reset ties after a frequently combative relationship with Democrat Barack Obama.

The prime minister, under investigation at home over allegations of abuse of office, spent much of Tuesday huddled with advisers in Washington preparing for the talks. Officials said they wanted no gaps to emerge between U.S. and Israeli thinking during the scheduled two-hour Oval Office meeting.

Trump, who has been in office less than four weeks and has already been immersed in problems including the forced resignation of his national security adviser, brings with him an unpredictability that Netanyahu’s staff hope will not impinge on the discussions.

During last year’s election campaign, Republican candidate Trump was relentlessly pro-Israel in his rhetoric, promising to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, backing David Friedman, an ardent supporter of Jewish settlements, as his Israeli envoy and saying that he would not put pressure on Israel to negotiate with the Palestinians.

That tune, which was music to Netanyahu’s ears and to the increasingly restive right-wing within his coalition, has since changed, making Wednesday’s talks critical for clarity.

Trump appears to have put the embassy move on the backburner, at least for now, after warnings about the potential for regional unrest, including from Jordan’s King Abdullah.

And rather than giving Israel free rein on settlements, the White House has said building new ones or expanding existing ones beyond their current borders would not be helpful to peace.

That would appear to leave Israel room to build within existing settlements without drawing U.S. condemnation, in what is the sort of gray area the talks are expected to touch on.

For the Palestinians, and much of the rest of the world, settlements built on occupied land are illegal under international law. Israel disputes that, but faces increasing criticism over the policy from allies, especially after Netanyahu’s announcement in the past three weeks of plans to build 6,000 new settler homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

(Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Steve Holland in Washington and Maayan Lubell and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Mark Trevelyan)

Israel interprets U.S. settlements statement as green light

rainbow over Israeli settlement

By Luke Baker

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli officials welcomed on Friday what they took as U.S. consent to expand existing settlements, after the White House reversed a long-standing policy of condemning building on occupied land.

In its first substantive announcement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Trump administration said it did not see existing settlements hampering peace with the Palestinians, although it recognized that “expansion of existing settlements beyond their current borders may not be helpful in achieving that goal.”

At one level, that appeared to be an attempt to rein in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has announced wide-ranging settlement expansion plans since the Jan. 20 inauguration, including around 6,000 new homes.

But on closer reading, the statement was a softening of policy from the Obama administration and even that of George W. Bush, because it does not view settlements as an obstacle to peace or rule out their expansion within existing blocs.

“Netanyahu will be happy,” a senior Israeli diplomat said in a text message. “Pretty much carte blanche to build as much as we want in existing settlements as long as we don’t enlarge their physical acreage. No problem there.”

Israel’s deputy foreign minister, Tzipi Hotovely from the right-wing of Netanyahu’s Likud party, interpreted it in a similar way, saying construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians want for their own state together with Gaza, would go on unhindered.

“It is also the opinion of the White House that settlements are not an obstacle to peace and, indeed, they have never been an obstacle to peace,” she said. “Therefore, the conclusion is that more building is not the problem.”

Israel seized the West Bank and East Jerusalem in the 1967 Middle East war. The 50th anniversary of the occupation, which Israel marks as a reunification of Jerusalem, is in June.

There was no immediate comment from the Palestinians.

DOUBLE BENEFITS

Since taking office, President Trump has largely kept quiet on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, making no comment in response to Netanyahu’s announcements for thousands more settler homes, a silence interpreted as endorsement. During the campaign, Trump said he would not interfere or push Israel to negotiate on a two-state solution to the conflict.

He has nominated David Friedman as ambassador to Israel, a religious Jew who has raised money for the settlements and supports moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump supported that idea during the election campaign, but it has been put on the back-burner in recent weeks.

Under Barack Obama, the White House maintained a firm anti-settlements line, calling them illegitimate and an obstacle to peace. Most of the world considers settlements illegal under international law, a position Israel rejects.

The European Union and Britain issued statements this week criticizing Netanyahu’s settlement plans, which they see as further breaking up the West Bank and undermining the possibility of a contiguous Palestinian state ever emerging.

Netanyahu, who will visit Trump in Washington on Feb. 15, may see the White House statement as doubly beneficial.

As well as not ruling out building within existing blocs, which Israel hopes to retain in any final agreement with the Palestinians, it may allow him to silence far-right voices in his own coalition calling for much greater settlement growth and annexation of parts of the West Bank.

Trump has effectively set a limit on how far-ranging settlement-building can be, so Netanyahu will be able to tell the far-right their ambitions are out of the question.

At the same time, Netanyahu may have to curtail some of the plans he himself has announced in recent days.

While most of the 6,000 settler homes he has promised are in existing blocs, many are not and may have to be scrapped if he wants to adhere to the White House line. He may also have to rethink a pledge this week to build the first new West Bank settlement since the 1990s.

(Additional reporting by Ori Lewis; Editing by Tom Heneghan and Robin Pomeroy)

Israel wraps up illegal outpost evacuation, promises new settlement

An Israeli settler touches the floor of a synagogue after it was evacuated during the second day of an operation by Israeli forces to evict the illegal outpost of Amona in the occupied West Bank

By Rami Amichay

AMONA, West Bank (Reuters) – Israeli police dragged nationalist youths out of a barricaded synagogue on Thursday, completing the forced evacuation of an illegal outpost in the West Bank even as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu promised to build evicted families a new settlement.

Some 100 youngsters protesting against the removal of some 300 settlers from Amona, an outpost built without Israeli government authorization, kicked at police who used a high-pressure hose and a wooden pole to batter down sheet metal and furniture blocking the entrances to the synagogue.

The teenagers painted a Nazi swastika on a synagogue wall next to a slogan denouncing the police.

The evacuation began on Wednesday, when most of the families that settled in Amona were removed. But the youths holed up in the synagogue overnight.

Police, announcing that Amona had been cleared, said some 60 officers were slightly hurt in the two-day operation. Hospitals reported that at least four protesters had been treated for injuries.

Amona, built in 1995, was the largest of scores of outposts erected in the West Bank without formal approval. Israel’s Supreme Court ruled last November that it must be evacuated because it stands on privately-owned Palestinian land.

NETANYAHU PLEDGE

In a statement late on Wednesday and again in a speech in the West Bank on Thursday, Netanyahu said a new settlement would be built for Amona’s families and that a committee would be set up to locate a site.

“We will work to have it happen as soon as possible,” he said, speaking in the West Bank settlement of Ariel.

Once constructed, it will be the first new settlement built in the West Bank since 1999. Construction in existing settlements has raised to 350,000 the number of Israelis living in the territory, which was captured in the 1967 Middle East war. Another 200,000 Israelis live in East Jerusalem, also seized in that conflict.

Most countries consider all Israeli settlements to be illegal. Israel disagrees, citing historical and political links to the land – which the Palestinians also assert – as well as security interests.

Since Donald Trump took office as U.S. president on Jan. 20, Israel has announced plans for almost 6,000 more settlement homes in the West Bank, drawing European and Palestinian condemnation but no criticism from the White House.

Trump, a Republican, has signaled he could be more accommodating toward settlements than his Democratic predecessor Barack Obama.

Palestinians want to establish a state in the West Bank and in the Gaza Strip, which Israeli forces and settlers left in 2005, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

(Writing by Ori Lewis; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Israeli parliament to vote on bill legalizing settlement outposts

Jewish settlers preparing for eviction

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s parliament is widely expected to vote into law on Monday a bill retroactively legalizing about 4,000 settler homes built on privately-owned Palestinian land, a measure the attorney-general has said is unconstitutional.

Passage of the legislation, backed by the right-wing government and condemned by Palestinians as a blow to statehood hopes, may be largely symbolic, however, as it goes against Israeli Supreme Court rulings on property rights. Critics and some legal experts say it will not survive judicial challenges.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had privately opposed the bill, which won preliminary parliamentary approval in November amid international denunciations and speculation in Israel it would subsequently die a quiet death in committee.

But the far-right Jewish Home party, a member of the governing coalition looking to draw voters from the traditional base of Netanyahu’s Likud, pressed to revive the legislation.

With Netanyahu under criminal investigation over allegations of abuse of office, and Likud slipping in polls, the right-wing leader risked alienating supporters and ceding ground to Jewish Home if he opposed the move. He has denied any wrongdoing.

While the measure seems certain to stoke further international condemnation of Israeli settlement policies – the Obama White House described the first vote two months ago as “troubling” – Netanyahu could get a more muted response from Republican President Donald Trump.

An Israeli announcement last week of plans for 2,500 more settlement homes in the West Bank caused no discernable waves with the new U.S. administration, whose spokesman responded to by describing Israel as a “huge ally”.

The government sought parliamentary approval of the bill despite Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit’s description of it as unconstitutional and in breach of international law since it allows the expropriation of private land in territory Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war.

The homes covered by the legislation are in outposts built deep in the West Bank without Israeli government approval.

The new law would allow settlers to hold on to land if, as stated by the bill, they “innocently” took it – ostensibly without knowing the tracts were owned by Palestinians – or if homes were built there at the state’s instruction. Palestinian owners would receive financial compensation from Israel.

Supporters say it will enable thousands of settlers to live without fear their homes could be demolished at the order of courts responding to petitions by Palestinians or Israeli anti-settlement organizations. Palestinians see it as a land grab.

Most countries view all Israeli settlement in occupied territory as illegal. Israel disputes this.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Andrew Heavens)

Israel plans more than 2,500 new settler homes to start Trump era

Palestinian man next to Israeli settlement

By Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel announced plans on Tuesday for 2,500 more settlement homes in the occupied West Bank, the second such declaration since U.S. President Donald Trump took office signaling he could be more accommodating toward such projects than his predecessor.

A statement from the Israeli Defence Ministry, which administers lands Israel captured in a 1967 war, said the decision was meant to fulfil demand for new housing “to maintain regular daily life”.

Most of the construction, it said, would be in existing settlement blocs that Israel intends to keep under any future peace agreement with the Palestinians. However, a breakdown provided by the prime minister’s office showed large portions of the planned homes would be outside existing blocs.

Trump spoke by phone on Sunday with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. On Tuesday, the new president’s chief spokesman refrained from stating a position on the settlement announcement but said the two leaders would discuss settlement building when they meet in Washington next month.

Asked whether Trump supports the latest settlement announcement, White House press secretary Sean Spicer told reporters: “Israel continues to be a huge ally of the United States. He wants to grow closer with Israel.” Pressed again on the issue, he said: “We’ll have a conversation with the prime minister.”

The muted response from the Trump White House, which has promised an approach more aligned with Israel’s government, was a clear departure from Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama, whose aides routinely criticized settlement construction plans.

U.N. Middle East envoy Nikolay Mladenov is due to brief the U.N. Security Council behind closed doors on Wednesday at the request of council member Bolivia, diplomats said.

About 350,000 settlers live in the West Bank and a further 200,000 in East Jerusalem, which Israel seized in the 1967 Middle East war. Beyond the major blocs, most of which are close to the border with Israel, there are more than 100 settlement outposts scattered across hilltops in the West Bank.

Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, condemned the Israeli announcement and said it would have “consequences”. The West Bank and East Jerusalem are home to more than 2.6 million Palestinians.

“The decision will hinder any attempt to restore security and stability, it will reinforce extremism and terrorism and will place obstacles in the path of any effort to start a peace process that will lead to security and peace,” he said.

Palestinians want the West Bank and Gaza Strip for an independent state, with its capital in East Jerusalem. Israeli troops and settlers withdrew from Gaza in 2005.

OBSTACLE TO PEACE

The European Union said Israel’s settlement plans “further seriously undermine the prospects for a viable two-state solution”.

Most countries consider settlements illegal and an obstacle to Israeli-Palestinian peace as they reduce and fragment the territory Palestinians need for a viable state.

Israel disagrees, citing biblical, historical and political connections to the land – which the Palestinians also assert – as well as security interests.

During the U.S. election campaign, Trump indicated he would dispense with Obama’s opposition to settlement building, a stance that delighted Netanyahu’s government. He was sworn in on Friday.

On Sunday, Israel announced plans for hundreds of new homes in East Jerusalem, and the right-wing Netanyahu told senior ministers he was lifting restrictions on settlement construction across the board.

“We can build where we want and as much as we want,” an official quoted Netanyahu as telling the ministers.

Following Tuesday’s announcement, the prime minister’s office listed some of the West Bank areas scheduled for new construction. Not all were in settlement blocs.

“I have agreed with the defense minister to build 2,500 new homes in Judea and Samaria (the West Bank) – we are building and will continue to build,” Netanyahu wrote in a tweet. Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman is himself a settler.

The Defence Ministry statement said 100 of the new homes would be in Beit El, a settlement which has received funding from the family of Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, now a White House adviser.

David Friedman, Trump’s choice for ambassador to Israel and a staunch supporter of settlers, has served as president of the American Friends of Beit El, a group that raises funds for the settlement.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Matt Spetalnick in Washington and Michelle Nichols at the United Nations; writing by Ori Lewis; editing by Mark Heinrich, Howard Goller and Andrew Hay)