U.S. to merge Jerusalem consulate in to new embassy

FILE PHOTO: U.S. marines take part in the dedication ceremony of the new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, May 14, 2018. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States will merge the U.S. Consulate General, which serves Palestinians, with its new embassy into a single diplomatic mission in Jerusalem, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Thursday.

“This decision is driven by our global efforts to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of our operations,” Pompeo said in a statement. “It does not signal a change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip.”

The consulate-general in Jerusalem is the top mission for Palestinians, who want East Jerusalem for their capital.

“We will continue to conduct a full range of reporting, outreach, and programming in the West Bank and Gaza as well as with Palestinians in Jerusalem through a new Palestinian Affairs Unit inside U.S. Embassy Jerusalem,” Pompeo said.

He said the Trump administration was committed to a peace effort between Israel and the Palestinians.

U.S. President Donald Trump outraged the Arab world and stoked international concern by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December and moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in May.

The status of Jerusalem is one of the thorniest disputes between Israel and the Palestinians and Palestinian leaders accused Trump of sowing instability by overturning decades of U.S. policy.

Palestinians, with broad international backing, seek East Jerusalem as the capital of a state they want to establish in the occupied West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Israel regards all of the city, including the eastern sector it captured in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed, as its “eternal and indivisible capital,” but that is not recognized internationally. The Trump administration has avoided that description, and noted that the city’s final borders should be decided by the parties.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by Frances Kerry)

North Korea newspaper blasts ‘double-dealing’ U.S. after Pompeo’s trip canceled

People and soldiers gather to offer flowers to the statues of state founder Kim Il Sung and former leader Kim Jong Il on the Day of Songun at Mansu hill, Pyongyang, North Korea, in this undated photo released by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) on August 26, 2018. KCNA via REUTERS

(Reuters) – North Korea’s state-controlled newspaper on Sunday accused the United States of “double-dealing” and “hatching a criminal plot” against Pyongyang, after Washington abruptly canceled a visit by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo.

Negotiations have been all but deadlocked since U.S. President Donald Trump’s summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un in Singapore in June.

Pompeo has pressed for tangible steps toward North Korea’s abandonment of its nuclear arsenal while Pyongyang is demanding that Washington first make concessions of its own.

North Korea’s Rodong Sinmun newspaper said U.S. special units based in Japan were staging an air drill aimed at “the infiltration into Pyongyang”, citing a South Korean media outlet.

“Such acts prove that the U.S. is hatching a criminal plot to unleash a war against the DPRK and commit a crime which deserves merciless divine punishment in case the U.S. fails in the scenario of the DPRK’s unjust and brigandish denuclearisation first,” the paper said.

“We cannot but take a serious note of the double-dealing attitudes of the U.S. as it is busy staging secret drills involving man-killing special units while having a dialogue with a smile on its face,” it noted.

A spokesman at the U.S. Embassy in Seoul said he had no information on the drill alleged in the newspaper. The U.S. military spokesman in South Korea was not immediately available to comment.

The editorial, which did not mention the Pompeo visit, urged Washington to give up the “pointless military gamble” and implement the Singapore agreement, in which the leaders pledged to work towards a complete denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

Since the summit, the two sides have struggled to narrow differences over the North’s nuclear weapons program.

Pyongyang is calling for a declaration of peace as part of security guarantees designed to encourage it to abandon its nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles, while the Trump administration says a peace deal and other concessions will only come after more progress on denuclearization.

In part to reassure North Korea, Trump canceled or delayed joint military drills with South Korea, but smaller exercises continue.

Trump partly blamed China for the lack of progress with North Korea and suggested that talks with Pyongyang could be on hold until after Washington resolved its bitter trade dispute with Beijing. China expressed “serious concern” about Trump’s comments, which it called “irresponsible”.

(Reporting by Hayoung Choi, Josh Smith; Editing by Alison Williams)

Americans in UK warned to keep ‘low profile’ during Trump visit

Temporary signs indicate road closures around the U.S. ambassador's residence, where special fences have been erected prior to the U.S. presidential visit at the end of the week, in Regent's Park in London, Britain, July 10, 2018. REUTERS/Henry Nicholls

By Michael Holden

LONDON (Reuters) – The U.S. Embassy in London issued an alert on Tuesday to Americans in the British capital, warning them to keep a low profile during President Donald Trump’s visit later this week in case protests against him turn violent.

Trump arrives in Britain on Thursday after a NATO summit and thousands of protesters are expected to join demonstrations during his visit, including plans to fly a blimp over parliament portraying Trump as an orange, snarling baby.

While Britain regards the United States as its closest ally, some Britons see Trump as crude, volatile and opposed to their values on a range of issues. His comments on militant attacks in Britain and his re-tweeting of anti-Muslim videos posted by a leader of a far-right UK party sparked anger.

More than 50,000 people have signed up to demonstrate in London on Friday against his visit although a counter-gathering to welcome him is also planned.

“Numerous demonstrations are being planned for July 12 to 14, 2018, surrounding the visit of the President of the United States to the United Kingdom,” the U.S. embassy said in the alert on its website.

“Several of the events are expected to attract large crowds and there will be road closures in connection with those events.”

Its advice to U.S. citizens was to “keep a low profile” and “exercise caution if unexpectedly in the vicinity of large gatherings that may become violent”.

Trump arrives in Britain on Thursday after the NATO summit in Belgium and will stay overnight at the central London residence of the U.S. ambassador where a high metal security fence was erected outside.

He will hold talks with Prime Minister Theresa May at her 16th-century manor house, meet Queen Elizabeth at Windsor Castle and attend a black-tie dinner at the home of former World War Two leader Winston Churchill – all outside London.

The U.S. president is also due to travel to Scotland where he owns two golf courses and Scotland’s interim police chief has said more than 5,000 officers would be needed for to cover the trip, including specialist riot and armed officers.

Ahead of his visit, Trump said Britain was currently “in somewhat turmoil” as Prime Minister May grappled with a political crisis after two top ministers quit over her plans for trade ties with the European Union after Britain leaves the bloc next March.

“I have NATO, I have the UK, which is in somewhat turmoil, and I have (Vladimir Putin),” Trump said as he set off on his trip to Europe which includes a meeting with the Russian President in the Finnish capital Helsinki.

“Frankly, Putin may be the easiest of them all. Who would think?”

Relations between Britain and Russia are at a post-Cold War low since May blamed the Kremlin for the poisoning of former Russian agent Sergei Skripal with a Soviet-era military nerve agent in March.

(Editing by Guy Faulconbridge)

Cuba says cause of illness in U.S. diplomats remains a mystery

A vintage car passes by in front of the U.S. Embassy in Havana, Cuba, January 12, 2017. REUTERS/Alexandre Meneghini

HAVANA (Reuters) – Cuba said on Sunday it remained baffled by health issues affecting U.S. diplomats, after the U.S. State Department reported two Cuba-based functionaries had symptoms similar to previous cases that began in late 2016.

The State Department said on Friday the cases were similar to those of 24 diplomats and family members taken ill through 2017, leading to a drawdown of personnel in Havana to a skeleton staff and the expulsion of 17 Cuban diplomats from Washington.

The United States also issued a travel warning for its citizens.

Sunday’s foreign ministry statement termed those actions politically motivated, pointing out that “after more than a year of investigations by Cuba and the United States … there are no credible hypotheses nor scientific conclusions that justify the actions taken by the U.S. government against Cuba.”

The statement said Cuba was informed of one case in late May where “a functionary of the (U.S.) embassy on the 27th of the same month had reported health symptoms as a result of ‘undefined sounds’ in her residence.”

The statement said an exhaustive search of the area around the residence had turned up nothing out of the ordinary and its specialists had been denied access to the functionary.

Cuba said it remained ready to work with the United States to determine what, if anything, was causing the illnesses after its own investigation had uncovered no evidence of foul play.

U.S. experts have yet to determine who or what is behind the mysterious illnesses.

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, which has partly rolled back a detente with Cuba, first charged diplomats were the victims of “sonic attacks” and Cuba as the host country was at a minimum responsible for their safety.

Symptoms suffered by the diplomats have included hearing loss, tinnitus, vertigo, headaches and fatigue, a pattern consistent with “mild traumatic brain injury,” State Department officials have said.

In April, Canada, whose personnel were also stricken, said it would remove families of diplomats posted at its embassy in Cuba as information from medical specialists has raised concerns of a new type of brain injury.

The U.S. State Department said on Wednesday it has brought a group of diplomats home from Guangzhou, China, over concern they were suffering from a mysterious malady that resembles a brain injury and has already affected U.S. personnel in Cuba.

(Reporting by Marc Frank; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

U.S., Canada urge delay in vote on Vietnam’s cybersecurity bill

A man uses an iPad device in a coffee shop in Hanoi, Vietnam May 18, 2018. REUTERS/Kham

By Mai Nguyen

HANOI (Reuters) – The United States and Canada urged Vietnam on Friday to delay a vote on a proposed cybersecurity law, the U.S. Embassy said, amid widespread concern the law would cause economic harm and stifle online dissent in the communist-ruled country.

Vietnamese lawmakers are set to vote on the proposed cybersecurity legislation this month. It aims to impose new legal requirements on internet companies and intensifies policing of online dissent.

Facebook, Google and other global companies are pushing back hard against provisions outlined by the bill that would require them to store personal data locally on users in Vietnam and open offices in the country.

“The United States and Canada urge Vietnam to delay the vote on the draft law to ensure it aligns with international standards,” the U.S. Embassy said in a statement.

“We find the draft cyber law … may present serious obstacles to Vietnam’s cybersecurity and digital innovation future, and may not be consistent with Vietnam’s international trade commitments,” it said.

Trade and foreign investment are key to Vietnam’s export-driven economic growth, while its leaders have been promoting technology for growth.

The Vietnam Digital Communication Association (VCDA) had said of the latest draft that it could reduce Vietnam’s gross domestic product by 1.7 percent and wipe off 3.1 percent of foreign investment if it comes into effect.

The proposed law has also raised fears among activists about tougher restrictions on the voicing of dissent online.

“This bill, which squarely targets free expression and access to information, will provide yet one more weapon for the government against dissenting voices,” Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

The rights group urged Vietnam to revise the draft law and bring it into compliance with international legal standards.

If passed, the law would require social media companies in Vietnam to remove offending content from their platforms within one day of receiving a request from the Ministry of Information and Communications, and Vietnam’s Ministry of Security, the government body tasked with dealing with dissent.

(Reporting by Mai Nguyen; Editing by Robert Birsel)

Inmates revolt at Venezuela detention center, Utah man pleads for help

Relatives of inmates react outside a detention center of the Bolivarian National Intelligence Service (SEBIN), where a riot occurred, according to relatives, in Caracas, Venezuela May 16, 2018. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

By Luc Cohen and Alexandra Ulmer

CARACAS (Reuters) – Inmates at a crowded Caracas detention center revolted on Wednesday, with jailed opponents of Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro and a Mormon missionary from Utah begging for freedom and medical attention in postings on social media.

There was no official information on the incident, but in videos posted on social media men identifying themselves as prisoners said they had taken over the headquarters of intelligence agency Sebin, known as the Helicoide, where hundreds of people are held.

“This has been taken over peacefully by all the political prisoners and all the prisoners who are abducted here, who are tortured daily,” a man said in one of the videos. He said tear gas and weapons had been fired at detainees but they were holding out to demand freedom.

Reuters was unable to independently confirm the origin of the videos or circumstances under which they were made.

Venezuela’s Information Ministry did not respond to a request for comment.

Chief Prosecutor Tarek Saab tweeted, “In the face of the events that happened today in the Sebin headquarters at the Helicoide, we sent a commission of the prosecutor’s office to the facility. That delegation spoke to a representative of the prisoners to respond to their requests.”

In a midafternoon Facebook post, Joshua Holt, a U.S. citizen and missionary whose family has said he was framed on weapons charges while in Venezuela for his wedding, said, “Helicoide the prison where I am at has fallen the guards are here and people are trying to break in my room and kill me. WHAT DO WE DO?”

In a video seen on Twitter late on Wednesday Holt said, “I’m here to show you that I am not being kidnapped. The only people who are kidnapping me is the government of Venezuela. We need the people to help us.” He was flanked by three other men.

He said all four of them were being detained without trial and that some detainees were being denied medical attention.

His mother Laurie Holt told Reuters that she did not know the sequence of the videos and was unable to confirm Holt’s current situation.

Activists said the incident had been precipitated by the beating of activist Gregory Sanabria from the state of Tachira. He appeared with a bruised face in pictures on social media.

Rights groups and Maduro opponents have said several hundred political prisoners have been unfairly jailed. Maduro has said all jailed activists were being held on legitimate charges of violence and subversion.

The U.S. embassy in Caracas said it was “very worried” about the situation at the Helicoide.

“Joshua Holt and other U.S. citizens are in danger. The Venezuelan government is directly responsible for their security and we will hold them responsible if anything happens to them,” the embassy tweeted in Spanish.

Todd Robinson, the chargé d’affaires at the U.S. embassy, went to the Venezuelan Foreign Ministry for information, the embassy added. “No response from the government.”

(Additional reporting by Leon Wietfeld and Vivian Sequera; Writing by Alexandra Ulmer; Editing by Toni Reinhold)

Most foreign envoys absent as Israel, U.S. launch embassy festivities

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claps after handing U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman a letter of appreciation, during a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Ori Lewis

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel launched celebrations on Sunday for the U.S. Embassy’s relocation to Jerusalem, a move whose break with world consensus was underscored by the absence of most envoys to the country from a reception hosted by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Monday’s slated opening of the new embassy follows U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition in December of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, a decision he said fulfilled decades of policy pledges in Washington and formalized realities on the ground.

The Palestinians, who want their own future state with its capital in east Jerusalem, have been outraged by Trump’s shift from previous administrations’ preference for keeping the U.S. Embassy in Tel Aviv pending progress in peace efforts.

Those talks have been frozen since 2014. Other major powers worry that the U.S. move could inflame Palestinian unrest in the occupied West Bank and on the Gaza Strip border, where Israel reinforced troops in anticipation of the embassy opening.

Most countries say Jerusalem’s status should be determined in a final peace settlement, and say moving their embassies now would prejudge any such deal.

Senior White House Advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump attend a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Senior White House Advisers Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump attend a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

Addressing dignitaries at the Foreign Ministry, including U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and the president’s daughter and son-in-law, Ivanka Trump and Jared Kushner, the Israeli prime minister urged others to follow Washington’s lead.

“Move your embassies to Jerusalem because it’s the right thing to do,” Netanyahu said. “Move your embassies to Jerusalem because it advances peace, and that’s because you can’t base peace on a foundation of lies.”

Netanyahu said that “under any peace agreement you could possibly imagine, Jerusalem will remain Israel’s capital”.

Jerusalem, which is sacred to Jews, Muslims and Christians, was decorated with roadside flowerbeds in the design of the U.S. flag and posters reading “Trump make Israel great again”.

“Tragically, the U.S. administration has chosen to side with Israel’s exclusivist claims over a city that has for centuries been sacred to all faiths,” the general delegation of the Palestine Liberation Organisation to the United States said.

The U.S. Embassy move “gives life to a religious conflict instead of a dignified peace,” it said in a statement.

Israel said all 86 countries with diplomatic missions in Israel were invited to the event, and 33 confirmed attendance. Among those present were delegates from Guatemala and Paraguay, which will open their own Jerusalem embassies later this month.

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

U.S. Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin speaks during a reception held at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Jerusalem, ahead of the moving of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, May 13, 2018. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

EUROPEAN RIFT

Attending the Foreign Ministry gathering were representatives from Hungary, Romania and the Czech Republic, but none from western European Union states – suggesting a rift within the bloc over Trump’s Jerusalem move.

No-show nations withheld comment on Sunday.

The EU mission in Israel tweeted on Friday that the bloc would “respect the international consensus on Jerusalem … including on the location of their diplomatic representations until the final status of Jerusalem is resolved”.

Outside Jerusalem’s ancient Damascus Gate, Israelis danced in another celebration on Sunday, marking the capture of the Old City from Arab forces in the 1967 Middle East War.

Hundreds of Israeli rightists entered Al Aqsa mosque compound, an icon of Palestinian nationalism and a vestige of ancient Jewish temples. Witnesses said some prostrated themselves in Jewish prayer, violating religious restrictions at the site and sparking scuffles with Muslim worshippers.

Israeli police said several people were forcibly removed and questioned.

The U.S. Treasury secretary called the embassy relocation “a sign of the enduring friendship and partnership between our two countries” and also referred to the U.S. withdrawal last week from the Iran nuclear deal, a move welcomed by Israel and some U.S. Arab allies in the Gulf but lamented by other world powers.

The Palestinians plan to demonstrate against Monday’s inauguration from Arab districts abutting the Jerusalem site.

On the border with Gaza, Palestinians have also held protests as Israel prepares to mark 70 years since its creation, an event Palestinians call the Nakba, or Catastrophe, when hundreds of thousands of them were displaced from their homes.

More than 40 Palestinians have been killed in the latest violence.

In a recorded speech released on Sunday, al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahri criticized Trump’s decision on the embassy, as well as the leaders of Muslim countries he said had sold out the Palestinians. He also said Israel’s Tel Aviv was Muslim land.

The Trump administration has sought to keep the door open to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy by saying the embassy move did not aim to prejudge Jerusalem’s final borders. The U.S. consulate in the city, tasked with handling Palestinian ties, will remain.

Washington has not asked Israel to initiate peace moves in exchange for the embassy relocation, U.S. Ambassador David Friedman told reporters on Friday: “There was no give and take with Israel with regard to this decision.”

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza, Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Warren Strobel in Washington; Editing by Edmund Blair and Daniel Wallis)

Israel fast-tracks wall, escape route for new U.S. embassy in Jerusalem

FILE PHOTO: View of the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem February 24, 2018. REUTERS/Ammar Awad/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has expedited construction permits to enable temporary quarters for the U.S. Embassy to open in Jerusalem as planned in May, the Finance Ministry said on Tuesday.

U.S. President Donald Trump in December broke with other world powers by recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announcing the U.S. Embassy would be moved there from Tel Aviv.

Trump’s reversal of decades of U.S. and broad international policy was welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “historic decision”. But it drew criticism from around the world and outraged Palestinians, who want a capital for their own future state in eastern parts of the city.

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and Israeli Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon attend the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem December 24, 2017. REUTERS/Amir Cohen/File Photo

Israel has said the Embassy will be opened on May 14, the 70th anniversary of its founding. A U.S. official said it would be located at a provisional site in Jerusalem that now houses a U.S. consular section.

Building a permanent embassy could take several years.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said in a statement that he would empower the Jerusalem municipality to waive the permits that would have been required for a wall and an escape route at the interim site.

“We will not allow needless bureaucracy to hold up the transfer of the American embassy to Jerusalem, Israel’s eternal capital,” Kahlon said.

“This is a strategic diplomatic move for the State of Israel and the planning agencies under me will do whatever is necessary to accommodate the schedule being demanded.”

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat had voiced concern about the timeline, telling Israel Radio on March 9: “I hope their (Americans’) schedule will be kept.”

The Israeli planning permit waiver for the Embassy will be good for three years, the Finance Ministry statement said.

“Initially, the interim Embassy in (the Jerusalem neighbourhood of) Arnona will contain office space for the Ambassador and a small staff,” said a U.S. Embassy official in Tel Aviv.

“By the end of next year, we intend to open a new Embassy Jerusalem annex on the Arnona compound that will provide the Ambassador and his team with expanded interim office space,” he said, adding that a search for site for the construction of a permanent embassy had begun.

Most countries do not recognise either side’s sovereignty in Jerusalem and have embassies to Israel in the Tel Aviv area.

Netanyahu has described Jerusalem as “the capital of the Jewish people for 3,000 years”, and Trump said the embassy move was “a long overdue step to advance the peace process”.

Palestinian leaders said Washington’s decision meant it was no longer an honest broker in efforts to revive peace talks, which collapsed in 2014.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Raissa Kasolowsky)

Turkey detains four Iraqi nationals for planning attack on U.S. Embassy

FILE PHOTO: People wait in front of the visa application office entrance of the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, Turkey, October 9, 2017. REUTERS/Umit Bektas

ISTANBUL (Reuters) – Turkish police detained four Iraqi nationals on Monday on suspicion of planning an attack on the U.S. Embassy in Ankara, the state-run Anadolu Agency said, hours after the mission temporarily closed due to a security threat.

Police detained four Iraqis residing in the Black Sea province of Samsun who had been preparing for an attack on the embassy, Anadolu said.

The embassy said it was closed to the public on Monday due to a security threat was only providing emergency services would be provided. It did not specify the nature of the security threat. It will also be closed on Tuesday.

It advised U.S. citizens in Turkey to avoid large crowds, the embassy building, and to be aware of their own security when visiting tourist sites and crowded places.

While relations between the United States and Turkey – both NATO allies and members of the coalition against Islamic State – have been strained in recent months, Turkey said the embassy closure was not political.

“The decision to close the American embassy is not a political one, it was taken on security grounds. The embassy has shared intelligence with the Turkish intelligence service and security forces,” Deputy Prime Minister Bekir Bozdag, the government’s main spokesman, told a news conference.

“Both the intelligence service and security forces have taken extra measures, and important results have been achieved,” he said, without elaborating.

The United States suspended visa services at its missions in Turkey in October after two local employees were held on suspicion of ties to the failed 2016 coup. Ankara reciprocated and visa restrictions between the two were not lifted until the end of December.

The embassy said it would make an announcement when it was ready to reopen.

(Reporting by Mert Ozkan; Writing by Ezgi Erkoyun and Ece Toksabay; Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Trump threatens to pull aid to Palestinians if they don’t pursue peace

U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during the World Economic Forum (WEF) annual meeting in Davos, Switzerland January 25, 2018

By Steve Holland and Yara Bayoumy

DAVOS, Switzerland (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump threatened on Thursday to withhold aid to the Palestinians if they did not pursue peace with Israel, saying they had snubbed the United States by not meeting Vice President Mike Pence during a recent visit.

Trump, speaking after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the World Economic Forum, said he wanted peace. However, his remarks could further frustrate the aim of reviving long-stalled Israeli-Palestinian talks.

Palestinians shunned Pence’s visit to the region this month after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and vowed to begin moving the U.S. embassy to the city, whose status is at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump’s endorsement in December of Israel’s claim to Jerusalem as its capital drew universal condemnation from Arab leaders and criticism around the world. It also broke with decades of U.S. policy that the city’s status must be decided in negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

“When they disrespected us a week ago by not allowing our great vice president to see them, and we give them hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and support, tremendous numbers, numbers that nobody understands — that money is on the table and that money is not going to them unless they sit down and negotiate peace,” Trump said.

The United States said this month it would withhold $65 million of $125 million it had planned to send to the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees. The UNRWA agency is funded almost entirely by voluntary contributions from U.N. states and the United states is the largest contributor.

A spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the United States had taken itself “off the table” as a peace mediator since it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

“Palestinian rights are not up to any bargain and Jerusalem is not for sale. The United States can’t have any role unless it retreats its decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital,” spokesman Nabil Abu Rdainah told Reuters by phone from Jordan.

Abbas has called Trump’s Jerusalem declaration a “slap in the face” and has rejected Washington as an honest broker in any future talks with Israel. Abbas left for an overseas visit before Pence arrived.

Abbas has said he would only accept a broad, internationally backed panel to broker any peace talks with Israel. The U.S. Ambassador to the U.N., Nikki Haley also criticized Abbas.

Israel’s government regards Jerusalem as the eternal and indivisible capital of the country, although that is not recognized internationally. Palestinians see East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

Speaking in Davos, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said only the United States could broker a peace deal.

“I think there’s no substitute for the United States. As the honest broker, as a facilitator, there’s no other international body that would do it,” Netanyahu said.

Trump said Palestinians had to come to the negotiating table.

“Because I can tell you that Israel does want to make peace and they’re going to have to want to make peace too or we’re going to have nothing to do with them any longer,” Trump said.

Trump said his administration had a peace proposal in the works that was a “great proposal for Palestinians” which covers “a lot of the things that were over the years discussed or agreed on”, without providing specifics.

Trump said his declaration on Jerusalem took it off the negotiating table “and Israel will pay for that”, adding “they’ll do something that will be a very good thing” without elaborating.

Earlier at the World Economic Forum, Jordanian King Abdullah said Jerusalem had to be part of a comprehensive solution.

He said Trump’s decision had created a backlash, frustrating Palestinians who felt there was no honest broker.

But he added: “I’d like to reserve judgment because we’re still waiting for the Americans to come out with their plan.”

King Abdullah’s Hashemite dynasty is the custodian of the Muslim holy sites in Jerusalem, making Jordan particularly sensitive to any changes of status there.

The last talks collapsed in 2014, partly due to Israel’s opposition to an attempted unity pact between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, and because of Israeli settlement building on occupied land that Palestinians seek for a state, among other factors.

Palestinians want the West Bank for a future state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. Most countries consider as illegal the Israeli settlements built in the territory which Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Israel denies its settlements are illegal and says their future should be determined in peace talks.

The United States has said it would support a two-state solution if the Israelis and Palestinians agreed to it.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in RAMALLAH, Ari Rabinovitch in JERUSALEM, Michelle Nichols at the UNITED NATIONS and Noah Barkin and Dmitry Zhdannikov in DAVOS; Writing by Yara Bayoumy; Editing by Mark Bendeich)