Analysis-Biden poised to pivot U.S. arms deals toward security, human rights

By Mike Stone

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Ninety minutes before President Joe Biden took office on January 20th, the United States signed a $23 billion dollar deal to sell F-35 jets, drones and advanced missiles to the United Arab Emirates.

It was part of flurry of last minute deals President Donald Trump had told Congress were coming in his last two months in office, forcing the Biden administration to make quick decisions on whether or not to stick with the geopolitically sensitive weapons sales.

To the surprise of some Democratic allies, Biden has so far kept the lion’s share of Trump’s more controversial agreements. Executives at five large defense contractors who requested anonymity to speak freely were also surprised by the speed of the Biden administration’s deliberations.

Longer-term, however, those executives and five more people in and around the administration told Reuters that Biden’s policy will shift to emphasize human rights over Trump’s more commercial approach to exporting military equipment.

Biden’s posture towards arms exports – specifically around reducing weapons used to attack others – could shift sales at Boeing Co, Raytheon Technologies Corp and Lockheed Martin Corp. That means fewer bullets, bombs and missiles, while security products like radars, surveillance equipment and defenses against attacks get the green light.

In an interview last week, Raytheon’s CFO Neil Mitchill said that offensive munitions exports, “going forward, the kinds of sales that we were talking about have been declining,” adding there has been a multi-year downward trend of offensive weapon sales to foreign customers.

Boeing and Lockheed declined to comment.

In the early days of the Biden administration, officials paused weapons sales to Middle East allies, including sales of Raytheon’s and Boeing-made precision guided munitions to Saudi Arabia.

Eventually a determination was made to only sell the Kingdom “defensive” arms, while limiting weapons that could be used to attack out of concern over casualties in Saudi Arabia’s war with Yemen.

Biden’s team ultimately decided to stick with the massive UAE deal. The move spurred criticism from the human rights group Amnesty International which immediately bashed the decision and drew complaints from lawmaker Robert Menendez, Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

One former U.S. official familiar with the Biden transition team’s thinking noted that many aspects of the F-35 sale still need to be negotiated, giving them leverage as the Abraham Accords between UAE and Israel are implemented. The F-35 sale was a side deal to the accords.

PIVOT TO DEFENSE

But arms deals like Trump’s UAE agreement, and others with governments that have poor records on human rights records look far less likely from the Biden White House.

“While economic security will remain a factor” when reviewing weapons sales, the Biden Administration will “reprioritize” other factors including U.S. national security, human rights and nonproliferation, a U.S. official has told Reuters.

“I’m hopeful that as we hear statements that support human rights as being front and center in arms transfer deliberations, we’ll see that play out through actual decisions, and not just words,” Rachel Stohl, vice president at the Stimson Center in Washington said.

During the transition period from election day in November to Biden’s inauguration, Trump’s team sent notification of $31 billion of foreign arms sales to Congress. Congressional notifications occur for most foreign military sales before a contract can be signed to sell a weapon.

On average, foreign military sales under Trump amounted to $57.5 billion per year, versus an average of $53.9 billion per year for the eight years under his predecessor Barack Obama, in 2020 dollars, according to Bill Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the Center for International Policy think tank.

Biden’s approval of several late-Trump deals will ease the political and diplomatic transition from one administration to another, according to a State Department official. In the case of the UAE deal, the official said, it helps the two nations “meet our mutual strategic objectives to build a stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partnership.”

As Lockheed’s CEO Jim Taiclet put it to Reuters late last year, “alliances are really important… Foreign Military Sales are part and parcel of that.”

The Biden administration inherited a backlog of more than 500 weapons export deals teed up by the Trump administration, one person briefed on the State Department’s backlog said.

Going forward, the Stimson Center’s Rachel Stohl said Biden’s State Department team is “looking at countries, at individual weapons systems, as well as individual sales.” But as more appointees take their posts at the State Department she said there could be a “paradigm shift on the way in which arms sales are considered as part of holistic efforts to develop and build partnerships and capacity.”

(Reporting by Mike Stone in Washington; editing by Chris Sanders and Edward Tobin)

Kushner launches group to promote Arab states’ new ties with Israel

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Jared Kushner is forming a group to promote relations between four Arab states and Israel, normalized under agreements he helped broker as a top adviser to his father-in-law former President Donald Trump, the group said on Wednesday.

Kushner is founding the “Abraham Accords Institute for Peace,” to work on deepening agreements Israel reached last year with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

Kushner, who is married to Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, is writing a book about his experience in helping broker the deals. He will be joined in the new group by former U.S. envoy Avi Berkowitz and ambassadors to the United States from Bahrain, the UAE and Israel.

Israeli-American businessman Haim Saban, a contributor to Democratic causes, was also listed as part of the effort in a statement by the group, which described itself as non-partisan. The founders “intend to add additional Democrats to the group as well as international advisers from the region”, it said.

The Arab countries’ agreements with Israel were opposed by the Palestinians, who say they violate pledges from Arabs not to make peace until Israel withdraws from occupied lands.

President Joe Biden, a Democrat who defeated the Republican Trump in an election in November, has said he aims to strengthen and expand the agreements, a position he repeated on Tuesday in a phone call with the UAE’s powerful crown prince of Abu Dhabi.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Peter Graff)

Gaza gravediggers and medics stretched as COVID spikes during Ramadan

By Rami Ayyub and Mohammed Salem

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The sick and dying are rapidly pushing Gaza’s hospitals close to capacity amid a surge in COVID-19 cases in the impoverished Palestinian territory, health officials said.

Palestinians fear a combination of poverty, medical shortages, vaccine skepticism, poor COVID-19 data and mass gatherings during Ramadan could accelerate the increase, which began before the start of the Muslim holy month on April 13.

Gaza health officials said around 70% of intensive care unit beds were occupied, up from 37% at the end of March. There were 86 deaths over the past six days, an increase of 43% over the week before.

“The hospitals are almost at full capacity. They’re not quite there yet, but severe and critical cases have increased significantly in the last three weeks, which is a concern,” said Dr Ayadil Saparbekov, head of the World Health Organization’s Health Emergencies Team in the Palestinian Territories.

Gaza’s daily positivity rate reached as high as 43% this week, although Saparbekov said that number could be inflated because a shortage of tests meant they were mostly given to people already showing symptoms.

Saparbekov also said Gaza does not have the capacity to identify highly infectious COVID-19 variants when testing, meaning there is little data on them.

‘NO TRUCE’

Graveyards are also feeling the strain. In Gaza City, gravedigger Mohammad al-Haresh told Reuters he had been burying up to 10 COVID-19 victims per day, up from one or two a month ago.

“Wartime was difficult, but the coronavirus has been much harder for us,” said Haresh, who dug graves throughout the 2014 Israel-Gaza war.

“In war, we would dig graves or bury the dead during a truce or ceasefire. With the coronavirus, there is no truce.”

Densely populated and home to 2 million Palestinians, Gaza has for years had limited access to the outside world because of a blockade led by Israel and supported by Egypt.

Both countries cite security concerns over Hamas, the Islamist militant group that controls the Gaza Strip, saying they want to stop money and weapons entering.

Palestinians say the blockade amounts to collective punishment and that it has crippled Gaza’s economy and medical infrastructure, with shortages of critical supplies and equipment hampering their ability to tackle the pandemic.

The situation in Gaza is a stark contrast to Israel, where a world-beating vaccination rollout has led to more than 53% of Israelis being fully vaccinated.

RAMADAN LOCKDOWN

Amid growing concern, Hamas will on Thursday begin a week of nightly curfews, shutting down mosques that host hundreds of worshippers for Ramadan evening prayers.

But with around 49% of Gazans unemployed and parliamentary elections slated for May 22, Hamas has held back from more drastic measures that could further damage the economy.

“We may impose additional measures, but we do not expect at this phase to go into a full lockdown,” Hamas spokesman Eyad Al-Bozom said.

Health officials say the factors that led to the current spike include the flouting of guidelines for mask-wearing and social distancing and the opening in February of Gaza’s border with Egypt, which may have allowed in new variants.

Suspicion of vaccines also runs deep. A majority of Gazans – 54.2% – said they would not take the vaccine, against 30.5% who said they would and 15.3% who were undecided, according to an April 21 survey by the Jerusalem Media and Communications Center.

Just 34,287 people have been vaccinated, even though the enclave has received 109,600 doses since February donated by Russia, the United Arab Emirates and the global COVAX program.

“(The) reluctance of many, including medical staff, to be vaccinated remains a key concern,” the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs said in an April 12 report.

One Palestinian eligible for Gaza’s initial round of vaccines, Qasem Abdul Ghafoor, said he decided to get the jab to protect himself and his family.

“The situation here is horrific. We took it lightly before, but I assure you, it should not be taken lightly,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Ali Sawafta in Ramallah and Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Mike Collett-White)

Morocco hosts Israeli envoys, Kushner to hammer out new ties

By Ahmed Eljechtimi

RABAT (Reuters) – Israeli envoys arrived in Morocco on Tuesday to meet its king and hammer out an upgrade of ties that was forged by the White House in a foreign policy push by U.S. President Donald Trump.

Led by National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, the Israeli delegation was accompanied by Jared Kushner, Trump’s son-in-law and architect of pan-Arab rapprochement with Israel.

They took El Al Israel Airlines in the first direct flight by a commercial plane from Tel Aviv to Rabat. Both countries anticipate a surge in tourism aboard such connections, mainly among the hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan descent.

Morocco followed the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan in moving toward normal relations with Israel. Palestinians have censured the U.S.-brokered deals, seeing a betrayal of a long-standing demand that Israel first meet their statehood goals.

As the Trump administration has sought to isolate Iran, the deals have been sweetened with promises of business opportunities or economic aid. Israel’s new partners have also enjoyed bilateral benefits from Washington – in Rabat’s case, U.S. recognition of its sovereignty over the Western Sahara.

“This type of agreement (with Israel) will help have a better interaction between communities and people,” Moroccan Tourism Minister Nadia Fettah Alaoui told I24 television.

During the visit, Ben-Shabbat and Kushner will see Morocco’s King Mohammed VI, Israeli officials said. Moroccan and Israeli officials are also scheduled to sign accords on linking up aviation and financial systems, on visas and water management.

The delegates’ plane, painted with the Hebrew, Arabic and English words for “peace” and a Maghreb good-luck talisman, had a low-key reception at Rabat airport. Moroccan officials describe their deal with Israel as a restoration of mid-level ties that Rabat cooled in 2000 in solidarity with Palestinians.

Israel and Morocco now plan to reopen mutual “liaison offices.” Israel hopes these will be upgraded to embassies.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens and Mark Heinrich)

Kushner to lead U.S. delegation to Israel, Morocco

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House senior adviser Jared Kushner will lead a U.S. delegation to Israel and Morocco next week for discussions on the normalization deal the two Middle East countries reached last week, a senior administration official said on Tuesday.

The U.S. delegation and an Israeli team will join together and take the first direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat as a sign of progress after the Israel-Morocco deal that Kushner helped broker, the official told Reuters.

Kushner, Middle East envoy Avi Berkowitz and Adam Boehler, chief executive officer of the U.S. International Development Finance Corporation, will leave for Israel on Monday.

While in Jerusalem, Kushner, who is U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law, is to hold talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the official.

El Al is expected to be the airliner for the first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Rabat that the Kushner team and a delegation led by Israeli national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat will take, the official said.

The Israel-Morocco deal was the fourth that the United States helped broker, following similar agreements between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Kushner and his team are still holding talks with other countries from the Arab and Muslim world.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Howard Goller)

Saudi Arabia agrees to allow Israeli commercial planes to cross its airspace: senior Trump official

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia agreed on Monday to let Israeli airliners cross its airspace en route to the United Arab Emirates after talks between Saudi officials and White House senior adviser Jared Kushner, a senior Trump administration official said.

Kushner and Middle East envoys Avi Berkowitz and Brian Hook raised the issue shortly after they arrived in Saudi Arabia for talks. “We were able to reconcile the issue,” the official told Reuters.

The agreement was hammered out just hours before Israel’s first commercial flight to the UAE was planned on Tuesday morning. The Israir flight was at risk of being canceled with no overflight agreement.

The direct flights are an offshoot of normalization deals Israel reached this year with the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan.

“This should resolve any issues that should occur with Israeli carriers taking people from Israel to the UAE and back and to Bahrain,” the official said.

Kushner and his team were to meet Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman later this week, as well as the emir of Kuwait. One goal of the trip is to try to persuade Gulf Cooperation Council countries to end a three-year blockade of Qatar.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; Editing by Jonathan Oatis and Dan Grebler)

Saudis seek buffer zone with Yemen in return for ceasefire, sources say

By Aziz El Yaakoubi

DUBAI (Reuters) – Saudi Arabia has told Yemen’s Houthis in high-level back channel talks it would sign a UN proposal for a nationwide ceasefire if the Iran-aligned group agrees to a buffer zone along the kingdom’s borders, three sources familiar with the matter said.

If a deal is struck, it would mark the biggest breakthrough in efforts to reach a political settlement since the conflict – widely seen as a proxy war between arch-enemies Saudi Arabia and Iran – began in 2014.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden pledged in his election campaign to halt arms sales to Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s biggest buyer of American weapons, to pressure Riyadh to end the war that has caused the world’s worst humanitarian crisis.

But the Houthis, who control northern Yemen and its biggest populated areas, may be less willing to cooperate with Saudi Arabia if President Donald Trump carries out threats to designate them as a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) before leaving office, the sources said.

Washington and Riyadh see the Yemeni group as an extension of Iranian influence in the region.

A spokesman for the Saudi-led coalition and the Houthis’ spokesman did not respond to requests for comment.

Recently the two parties, holding virtual discussions, raised the level of representation in the talks, with Mohammed Abdulsalam, the Houthis’ chief negotiator, and a more senior Saudi official, two of the sources said.

Riyadh has demanded more security assurances from the Houthis, including a buffer zone along the borders with northern Yemen until a U.N.-backed transitional government is formed, the sources said.

Riyadh wants Houthi forces to leave a corridor along the Saudi borders to prevent incursions and artillery fire.

In exchange, the kingdom would ease an air and sea blockade as part of the U.N. proposal for a ceasefire, which already includes an end to cross-border attacks.

Last year, Riyadh launched indirect talks with the Houthis, as it seeks a way out of the conflict that has drawn criticism from Biden, killed tens of thousands of people and tarnished the reputation of Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The talks have stalled over the last two months, the sources said, as fighting escalated in the gas-rich region of Marib, where the Houthis have launched an offensive to drive out Saudi-backed forces.

Marib is the last stronghold of the internationally-recognized government of Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi, which was ousted from power in the capital, Sanaa, by the Houthis in late 2014.

That prompted the Saudi-led coalition, which also includes the United Arab Emirates, to intervene.

Complicating matters, the fighting fragmented, spawning a multi-layered war that has lasted nearly six years.

‘CONSULTATIONS ON IRAN’

Trump’s administration, to support the Saudis, has exerted pressure on the Houthis by threatening to designate the group as a terrorist organization, said two of the three sources, who declined to be named because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Any decision by Washington to blacklist the Houthis, part of its “maximum pressure” campaign against Tehran, would be “devastating” after years of peace efforts led by U.N. Special Envoy Martin Griffiths and other Western ambassadors, they added.

One of the sources said that experts in the U.S. administration have advised Trump against an FTO designation.

The State Department did not respond to a Reuters request for comment.

The discreet talks between the kingdom and the Houthis have dragged on for more than a year, in parallel with Griffiths’ efforts to reach an agreement on a ceasefire.

The U.N. is working to secure a face-to-face meeting before the end of the year, as well as an agreement on a joint declaration that would halt all air, ground and naval hostilities, two of the sources said.

Europe would be a logical venue for them to meet, one of the sources said, as the U.N. seeks neutral grounds for the talks. Griffith’s office declined to comment.

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi; Additional reporting by Jonathan Landay; Editing by Mike Collett-White)

U.S. approves $23.37 billion advanced arms sale to UAE, Pompeo says

By Matt Spetalnick and Pete Schroeder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Trump administration told Congress on Tuesday it had approved the U.S. sale of more than $23 billion in advanced weapons systems, including F-35 fighter jets and armed drones, to the United Arab Emirates, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said.

The formal notification followed a U.S.-brokered agreement in September in which the UAE agreed to normalize relations with Israel, becoming the first of three Arab states to make such a move in recent months.

“This is in recognition of our deepening relationship and the UAE’s need for advanced defense capabilities to deter and defend itself against heightened threats from Iran,” Pompeo said in a statement.

The $23.37 billion package includes up to 50 F-35 Lighting II aircraft, up to 18 MQ-9B Unmanned Aerial Systems and a package of air-to-air and air-to-ground munitions, the State Department said.

The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations and House of Representatives Foreign Affairs committees – whose members have criticized UAE’s role in civilian deaths in Yemen’s civil war – review major weapons sales before the State Department sends its formal notification to the legislative branch.

Any deal the United States makes to sell weapons in the Middle East must satisfy decades of agreement with Israel that it must not impair Israel’s “qualitative military edge” over its neighbors.

The announcement came just days after Democratic challenger Joe Biden won enough states needed to take the presidency from Trump, a Republican who made pro-Israel policies part of his re-election campaign.

Israel initially balked at the prospective sale of F-35 warplanes, valued at $10.4 billion, but dropped its opposition after what it described as U.S. guarantees that Israel’s regional military superiority would be preserved.

The UAE, one of Washington’s closest Middle East allies, has long wanted the stealthy jets and was promised a chance to buy them in a side deal when it agreed to normalize relations with Israel, part of a strategic regional realignment against Iran.

In the past, the F-35 has been denied to Arab states while Israel has about 24 of the jets. Israel is currently slated to purchase 50 of the fighters.

“The proposed sale will make the UAE even more capable and interoperable with U.S. partners in a manner fully consistent with America’s longstanding commitment to ensuring Israel’s Qualitative Military Edge,” Pompeo said.

The $2.97 billon sale of armed drones would mark the first such export since the Trump administration reinterpreted a Cold War-era arms agreement between 34 nations to allow U.S. defense contractors to sell more drones to allies.

(Reporting by Matt Spetalnick and Pete Schroeder; additional reporting by Mike Stone; Editing by David Gregorio and Paul Simao)

Lebanon and Israel, long-time foes, to start talks on disputed waters

By Dominic Evans and Ari Rabinovitch

BEIRUT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Lebanon and Israel, formally still at war after decades of conflict, launch talks on Wednesday to address a long-running dispute over their maritime border running through potentially gas-rich Mediterranean waters.

The U.S.-mediated talks follow three years of diplomacy by Washington and were announced weeks after it stepped up pressure on allies of Lebanon’s Iran-backed Hezbollah.

They also come after the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain agreed to establish full relations with Israel, under U.S.-brokered deals which realign some of Washington’s closest Middle East allies against Iran.

Hezbollah, which last fought a war with Israel in 2006, says the talks are not a sign of peace-making with its long-time enemy. Israel’s energy minister also said expectations should be realistic.

“We are not talking about negotiations for peace and normalization, rather an attempt to solve a technical, economic dispute that for 10 years has delayed the development of offshore natural resources,” minister Yuval Steinitz tweeted.

Still, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has described the decision to go ahead with the talks as historic, and said Washington looked forward to separate talks later over disagreements on the land border.

Wednesday’s meeting will be hosted by the United Nations peacekeeping force UNIFIL, which has monitored the land boundary since Israel’s withdrawal from south Lebanon in 2000, ending a 22-year occupation.

A Lebanese security source says the two sides will meet in the same room in UNIFIL’s base in south Lebanon, but will direct their talks through a mediator.

LEBANON CRISIS

Disagreement over the sea border had discouraged oil and gas exploration near the disputed line.

That may be a minor irritation for Israel, which already pumps gas from huge offshore fields. For Lebanon, yet to find commercial reserves in its own waters, the issue is more pressing.

Lebanon is desperate for cash from foreign donors as it faces the worst economic crisis since its 1975-1990 civil war. The financial meltdown has been compounded by the COVID-19 pandemic and by an explosion that wrecked a swathe of Beirut in August, killing nearly 200 people.

Struggling to form a new government to tackle the multiple crises, some Lebanese politicians even argued this week over the formation of their negotiating team, with the prime minister’s office complaining it was not consulted by the presidency.

“The Lebanese negotiator will be much fiercer than you can imagine because we have nothing to lose,” caretaker Foreign Minister Charbel Wehbe said.

Hezbollah’s political ally, the Amal party, has also come under pressure. Last month the United States sanctioned Amal leader Nabih Berri’s top aide for corruption and financially enabling Hezbollah, which it deems a terrorist organization.

David Schenker, the U.S. assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs, who landed in Beirut on Tuesday, has said more sanctions remained in play.

For Hezbollah and Amal, the decision to start the border talks is a “tactical decision to neutralize the tensions and the prospect of sanctions ahead of the U.S. elections,” said Mohanad Hage Ali, a fellow at the Carnegie Middle East Center.

Berri, a Shi’ite leader who led the border file, has denied being pushed into the talks.

In 2018 Beirut licensed a group of Italy’s Eni, France’s Total and Russia’s Novatek to carry out long-delayed offshore energy exploration in two blocks. One of them contains disputed waters.

(Reporting by Ellen Francis and Dominic Evans in Beirut, and Ari Rabinovitch in Jerusalem, Editing by William Maclean and Gareth Jones)

Most executives seek work-life balance after experiencing pandemic blues: survey

(Reuters) – Nearly eight out of 10 corporate executives have experienced poor mental health during the coronavirus crisis, prompting a number of them to re-evaluate and improve work-life balance, a survey showed on Monday.

Many top company officials in France and Egypt were most likely to have recalibrated their lives after experiencing the pandemic blues, followed by those in the United Arab Emirates, the United States and Britain, according to a survey of about 2,000 high net-worth individuals by health insurer Bupa Global.

The COVID-19 crisis has forced a vast majority of people, including top executives, to work remotely as governments imposed sweeping measures to curb the spread of the pandemic, putting a strain on physical and mental well-being.

Executives plan to exercise more regularly, eat a better diet, make time for meditation and spend more time with family and friends, the survey said.

“With the pandemic impacting mental health so heavily, it’s really important that business leaders work to address any issues both personally and at their organizations,” Bupa’s medical director Luke James said

The survey also found that less than a third of the participants intend to keep working from home primarily, and a quarter of them planned to trim working hours.

Women were more likely than men to opt for working from home, it showed, although those with children were less likely to take that option.

“Anyone who has been working from home around young children or trying to juggle work and home-schooling will know it can be challenging,” Bupa Managing Director Sheldon Kenton said.

As the line between work and personal space blurs, about a fifth of the high net-worth individuals surveyed said they would work remotely from their holiday homes as travel and face-to-face meetings decline.

(Reporting by Yadarisa Shabong in Bengaluru; Editing by Anil D’Silva)