Trump to host Israel-United Arab Emirates deal-signing ceremony on Sept 15

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump will hold a Sept. 15 signing ceremony for a groundbreaking Middle East agreement normalizing relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, a senior White House official said on Tuesday.

As part of the deal, announced at the White House on Aug. 13 following what officials said were 18 months of talks, the Gulf state agreed to normal relations with Israel, while Israel agreed to continue with plans to suspend its annexation of the West Bank.

The senior White House official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed al-Nahyan would lead the two delegations to the ceremony.

“I am proud to embark next week to Washington, at the invitation of President Trump, to take part in the this historic ceremony at the White House for the foundation of the peace treaty between Israel and the United (Arab) Emirates,” Netanyahu wrote on Twitter.

Trump and other administration officials have said they expect Saudi Arabia and other countries to follow suit in recognizing Israel.

Trump senior adviser Jared Kushner and other top administration officials accompanied an Israeli delegation last week on the first flight from Israel to the United Arab Emirates to celebrate the agreement.

Iran has dismissed the agreement, which also served to firm up opposition to Tehran, a regional power seen by the UAE, Israel and the United States as the main threat in the Middle East.

The deal falls short of any grand Middle East peace plan to resolve decades of conflict between Israel and the Palestinians despite Trump’s pledge to do so.

The White House hope is that more such deals between Israel and the Gulf states will emerge, prompting the Palestinians to join negotiations.

Trump proposed a peace plan in January that heavily favored the Israelis, but it has not advanced in any significant way.

The Palestinian leadership initially called the accord “betrayal” and a “stab in the back of the Palestinian cause,” but has curbed its criticism, according to a draft resolution ahead of an Arab League meeting in Cairo on Wednesday.

The draft, seen by Reuters, does not include a call to condemn, or act against, the Emirates over the U.S.-brokered deal.

The United Arab Emirates is planning to make its first official visit to Israel on Sept. 22, a source familiar with the provisional itinerary said on Monday.

(Reporting by Steve Holland, additional reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Franklin Paul and Howard Goller)

Israel, UAE to normalize relations in shift in Mideast politics, West Bank annexation on hold

By Maha El Dahan, Jeffrey Heller and Steve Holland

DUBAI/JERUSALEM/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced on Thursday that they will normalize diplomatic ties and forge a broad new relationship, a move that reshapes the order of Middle East politics from the Palestinian issue to Iran.

Under the accord, which U.S. President Donald Trump helped broker, Israel has agreed to suspend its planned annexation of areas of the occupied West Bank. The agreement also firms up opposition to regional power Iran, which the UAE, Israel and the United States view as the main threat in the conflict-riven Middle East.

Israel had signed peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994. But the UAE, along with most other Arab nations, did not recognize Israel and had no formal diplomatic or economic relations with it until now. The UAE becomes the first Gulf Arab country to reach such a deal with the Jewish state.

The agreement was the product of lengthy discussions between Israel, the UAE and the United States that accelerated recently, White House officials said.

A joint statement said Trump, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed Bin Zayed had “agreed to the full normalization of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates”.

“This historic diplomatic breakthrough will advance peace in the Middle East region and is a testament to the bold diplomacy and vision of the three leaders and the courage of the United Arab Emirates and Israel to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region,” the statement said.

In a separate statement, the crown prince stressed that the agreement would stop further Israeli annexation of Palestinian territories, which Israel has said had been awaiting a green light from Washington.

The agreement, to be known as the Abraham Accords, also gives Trump a foreign policy accomplishment as he seeks re-election on Nov. 3.

“HUGE breakthrough today! Historic Peace Agreement between our two GREAT friends, Israel and the United Arab Emirates,” Trump wrote on Twitter.

In the White House Oval Office, Trump said similar deals are being discussed with other countries in the region.

The UAE said it would remain a strong supporter of the Palestinian people and that the agreement maintained the viability of a two-state solution to the longstanding Israel-Palestinian conflict. There was no immediate reaction from the Palestinians, who hope to create an independent state in the occupied West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu said the agreement represented a “historic day” for his country. It could also be a personal boost to Netanyahu, who is on trial for alleged corruption and whose domestic popularity has dropped over his handling of the coronavirus pandemic.

A senior Israeli official said applying Israeli sovereignty to areas of the West Bank was still on the agenda, adding, “The Trump administration asked us to temporarily suspend the (sovereignty) announcement so that the historic peace agreement with the UAE can be implemented.”

‘NIGHTMARE’ FOR IRAN

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is on a trip to Central European countries, said: “This is an enormous, historic step forward. Peace is the right path forward.”

Trump’s special envoy Brian Hook called the deal a “nightmare” for Iran.

There was no immediate response from the Iranian government but the Tasnim news agency, affiliated with Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards, called the accord “shameful”.

Iran and Israel are arch foes. Israel is particularly concerned about suspected Iranian efforts to develop nuclear weapons, which Tehran denies. Iran is also involved in proxy wars from Syria to Yemen, where the UAE has been a leading member of the Saudi-led coalition opposing Iran-aligned forces there.

With a population of less than 10 million but the Arab world’s second-largest economy thanks to oil, the UAE has exerted growing commercial and military clout in the Gulf and the wider region over the past two decades, much of it aimed at confronting Islamist militants and the influence of Iran.

U.S. lawmakers have tried to rein in Trump administration plans for arms sales, particularly to Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for use in the war in Yemen.

MORE DEALS IN PIPELINE?

Delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates will meet in the coming weeks to sign agreements regarding investment, tourism, direct flights, security, telecommunications and other issues, the statement said.

The two countries, which agreed in June to cooperate in the fight against the coronavirus in a sign of closer ties, are expected soon to exchange ambassadors and embassies.

The joint statement said that “as a result of this diplomatic breakthrough and at the request of President Trump with the support of the United Arab Emirates, Israel will suspend declaring sovereignty” over areas of the West Bank that were envisioned in a U.S. plan announced by Trump in January.

A signing ceremony including delegations from Israel and the United Arab Emirates is due to be held at the White House in the coming weeks.

“Everybody said this would be impossible,” Trump said. “After 49 years, Israel and the United Arab Emirates will fully normalize their diplomatic relations.”

Trump added, “This deal is a significant step towards building a more peaceful, secure and prosperous Middle East. Now that the ice has been broken, I expect more Arab and Muslim countries will follow the United Arab Emirates’ lead.”

This was already being discussed with other states, he said.

The agreement envisions giving Muslims greater access to the Al-Aqsa Mosque in the Old City of Jerusalem by allowing them to fly from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, White House officials said.

United Nations Secretary-General Antonio Guterres welcomed “any initiative that can promote peace and security in the Middle East region,” a U.N. spokesman said.

Guterres had urged Israel in June to abandon plans to annex settlements in the West Bank, warning that this threatened prospects for peace with the Palestinians.

(Reporting By Maha El Dahan and Lisa Barrington, Steve Holland in Washington; Jeff Heller in Jerusalem, Writing by Angus MacSwan; Editing by Will Dunham)

Netanyahu ally wants West Bank ‘cultivation’ now, not annexation

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top coalition partner wants Israel to shelve planned West Bank annexations and instead focus on improving conditions for Jewish settlers and Palestinians in the occupied territory, two cabinet ministers said on Friday.

Centrist ex-general Benny Gantz and the conservative Netanyahu agreed to begin discussing annexations as of July 1, but the plan — already dogged by diplomatic blow-back — has been sidelined by a resurgence of coronavirus.

Gantz says the health crisis should take precedence over any West Bank moves that may inflame conflict with the Palestinians. The Israeli-occupied West Bank is part of territory Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Netanyahu could go it alone in declaring Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank settlements and strategic Jordan Valley. But Gantz’s misgivings have complicated Israeli efforts to present a united front on annexations and how they might fit with U.S. President Donald Trump’s plan for Middle East peace.

While Gantz — whose popularity has plunged since he broke with an opposition alliance to join Netanyahu in March — has limited political clout, his role as defense minister also puts him directly in charge of civilian activities in the West Bank.

Alon Schuster, Israel’s agriculture minister and a member of Gantz’s Blue and White party, said he was working to achieve “cultivation and not annexation, now” for West Bank farmers.

“We need to bring water to the Jordan Valley — for both the Israelis and the Palestinians who live there, by the way — and to improve electricity,” Schuster told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM. “Why quarrel and waste time? … I hope we expend our national resources on this.”

Another Blue and White minister said this was also Gantz’s approach, and that the party leader believed working on West Bank infrastructure shared by settlers and Palestinians would “enable coexistence in accordance with the Trump plan”.

Asked to respond, Netanyahu’s office declined comment.

The Palestinians have rejected the Trump plan, which envisages them gaining statehood in 70% of the West Bank, as a non-starter. European powers worry unilateral Israeli territorial moves could kill off long-moribund peacemaking.

Senior ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party have urged annexation now. Some privately worry that Trump’s interest will wane as the U.S. election in November nears, and that should he lose, that would close a window of opportunity for annexation.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Catherine Evans)

Coronavirus resurgence sidelines Israel’s annexation planning

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A coronavirus resurgence in Israel and divisions within Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government have sidelined its plans to annex parts of the occupied West Bank, officials said.

Although the conservative Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz, his centrist coalition partner, agreed the government could begin moving on annexation as of July 1, there has been “close to zero” cabinet-level discussion on the issue, one senior minister told Reuters.

And with no agreement with Washington yet on the modalities of the move under a peace proposal announced by President Donald Trump, any step soon to extend Israeli sovereignty to Jewish settlements and the Jordan Valley in the West Bank seems unlikely.

The Palestinians have rejected the Trump plan. European and Arab powers have warned of diplomatic blow-back if Israel unilaterally annexes land Palestinians seek for a state.

Netanyahu, meanwhile, is preoccupied with new coronavirus transmissions that aides said could necessitate renewed lockdowns. Unemployment has hit a record 21% and anti-government protests have turned increasingly violent.

A poll by the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute on Tuesday found only 29.5% of the public trust Netanyahu’s handling of the crisis.

There has been open opposition from Gantz’s Blue and White party, which makes it hard to persuade Washington that any annexations would enjoy sweeping Israeli support.

“It’s a matter of right plan, wrong time,” a senior Blue and White minister said. “We are in the middle of the biggest crisis Israel has seen in decades…and it would be irresponsible and insensitive to tend to anything else at the moment.”

Gantz has predicted the crisis could last until late 2021.

Another official, who requested anonymity, said more than a week had passed since Israeli delegates last spoke to U.S. envoys on annexation under the Trump blueprint, which envisages Israeli sovereignty over up to 30% of West Bank land.

Asked for comment, Netanyahu’s office said it had “no updates at this time”.

Several ministers from Netanyahu’s Likud party want the move implemented now. Some privately voice concern that Trump’s attention will drift as the November presidential election approaches, and that presumptive Democratic candidate Joe Biden has come out against annexation.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Palestinians hope Biden would roll back Trump’s embrace of Israel

By Rami Ayyub

RAMALLAH, West Bank (Reuters) – Palestinian leaders hope Democrat Joe Biden will tone down Washington’s pro-Israel policies if he becomes U.S. president, and Palestinian-Americans have been pressing his campaign for a change, sources familiar with the efforts said.

So far, their efforts have had little impact, the sources said.

U.S. President Donald Trump has recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moved the U.S. Embassy to the city and made peace proposals envisaging Israeli sovereignty over parts of the occupied West Bank, territory Palestinians seek for a state.

Trump’s moves — including aid cuts to the Palestinian Authority that exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank — have prompted Palestinian officials to sever ties with Washington.

“If Mr. Biden (is) elected in November, we hope that it will be a totally different dynamic,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said last week during a virtual conference with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Biden is the presumptive Democratic challenger in November’s election. He is on record as challenging plans by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to extend sovereignty to Jewish settlements in the West Bank — de facto annexation of territory Israel seized in a 1967 war.

“Biden opposes any unilateral action by either side that makes the prospects of a two-state solution less likely – including annexation, which Biden opposes now, and would continue to oppose as President,” campaign spokesman Michael Gwin said in a statement for Reuters.

Gwin did not address what action Biden might take if he were president and Israel annexed West Bank land.

Netanyahu’s proposed move, under Trump’s peace blueprint, has been criticized by Arab and European nations. The Israeli leader is awaiting the green light from Washington.

PROGRESSIVE SUPPORT

Buoyed by support from progressives in the Democratic party, Palestinian diaspora activists want Biden to take a more critical look at Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.

More than 120 prominent Palestinian-Americans have signed a “Statement of Principles” that they say determine their community’s support for candidates for federal office.

They include making aid to Israel conditional on it ending “practices that violate Palestinian rights and contravene international law”, and revoking any potential U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty in occupied territory.

“We want to see Biden embrace the party’s progressives, who have recognized the shared struggle between Palestinians living under military occupation, and Black and brown Americans who face police brutality, systemic racism and injustice,” said Zeina Ashrawi Hutchison, a delegate to the Democratic National Convention in August.

Those positions have failed to gain traction with Biden’s team, three people familiar with the campaign’s thinking said.

“The progressives want a full-throttle platform change — a pro-Palestinian flank, an anti-annexation flank — but there just isn’t appetite in the campaign so far,” one of the sources said.

(Additional reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt in New York, Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Timothy Heritage)

Israeli foreign minister says annexation move unlikely Wednesday

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s foreign minister said a move toward the proposed annexation of occupied West Bank land was unlikely on Wednesday, the start date set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for discussing such a move.

“It seems unlikely to me that this will happen today,” Gabi Ashkenazi, a member of the centrist Blue and White party that is a coalition partner of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, told Israel’s Army Radio.

“I reckon there will be nothing today, regarding (the extension of Israeli) sovereignty.”

Netanyahu and his senior coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz are at odds over the timing of any unilateral annexation move.

After meeting U.S. envoys on Tuesday to discuss annexation within the framework of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, Netanyahu said such talks would continue for several days.

Trump’s proposal calls for Israeli sovereignty over about 30% of the West Bank – land on which Israel has built settlements for decades – as well as creation of a Palestinian state under strict conditions.

“There are very robust conversations with Israel on the Trump plan,” a U.S. official told Reuters after White House adviser Avi Berkowitz concluded his trip to Israel.

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and have rejected Trump’s plan, saying it would deny them a viable state.

Most world powers view Israel’s settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this, citing historical and biblical ties to the West Bank, as well as security needs.

In an editorial published in Israel’s largest selling newspaper on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for any annexation plans to be scrapped.

“Annexation would represent a violation of international law,” Johnson wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, echoing remarks he made in parliament on June 16. “I profoundly hope that annexation does not go ahead. If it does, the UK will not recognize any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties.”

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Michael Perry and Timothy Heritage)

Major West Bank annexation move not imminent, Israeli minister signals

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli minister played down on Tuesday the likelihood of major moves to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank on July 1, the planned start date for cabinet debate on the issue.

Zeev Elkin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, said Israel still did not have the green light it seeks from Washington to begin extending its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, territory Palestinians seek for a state.

Netanyahu said in a speech he had met U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and White House adviser Avi Berkowitz to discuss “the sovereignty question,” adding: “We are working on it in these very days and will continue working on it in the coming days.”

Palestinian leaders, the United Nations, European powers and Arab countries have all denounced any annexation of land that Israeli forces captured in a 1967 war.

“Whoever painted a picture of everything happening in one day on July 1, did so at their own risk,” Elkin, minister of higher education, told Army Radio when asked what would happen on Wednesday. “From tomorrow, the clock will start ticking.”

No cabinet session for Wednesday has been announced.

Friedman and Berkowitz are in Israel as part of the White House’s efforts to win consensus within its government for annexation as envisioned in an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan announced by U.S. President Donald Trump in January.

The proposal calls for Israeli sovereignty over about 30% of the West Bank – land on which Israel has built settlements for decades – as well as creation of a Palestinian state under strict conditions.

Palestinians say the blueprint would make the state they seek in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem unviable. Most world powers view Israel’s settlements as illegal. Netanyahu says the Jewish people have a legal, historic and moral claim to the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu and his main coalition government partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, are at odds over annexation, which the right-wing prime minister has promoted.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell and Timothy Heritage)

In West Bank, Israeli settler leaders complicate annexation plan

By Dan Williams

ITAMAR, West Bank (Reuters) – Jewish settler leaders who resist the creation of a Palestinian state are complicating Israel’s plans to annex scores of settlements in the occupied West Bank under U.S. President Donald Trump’s peace blueprint.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s cabinet is due next month to discuss the annexation plan, under which Israel would apply sovereignty over 30% of the West Bank – in areas where most of its about 130 settlements are located.

The plan is opposed by the Palestinians, who seek a state in all of the West Bank, as well as in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as a capital. Most world powers agree.

The plan also faces resistance from settler leaders who oppose Trump’s calls for a future Palestinian state that would envelop at least 15 Jewish settlements – despite U.S. guarantees of protection for, and access to, the future “enclaves”.

“We’re talking about strangling a community,” said Hananel Elkayam, mayor of Itamar settlement, one of the 15 named in the plan.

In misgivings echoed in the other 14, Elkayam predicted residents would be unable to commute to jobs through territory that would be in a new Palestinian state, would by denied construction and would be at greater risk of attack than now.

“I would tell (Trump): Thanks very much for the plan, thanks very much for the great affection for the Jewish people (but) we’ll set our own destiny,” Elkayam said.

KEEPING DOOR TO DIPLOMACY OPEN

U.S. officials will this week discuss whether to give Israel the green light for annexation moves seen by the Palestinians and many other countries as illegal land-grabs.

Israel’s West Bank settlements were built by successive governments on land captured in a 1967 war. More than 400,000 Israelis now live there, with another 200,000 in East Jerusalem, which was also taken in 1967.

A Direct Poll survey last week found 56.8% of settlers support the Trump plan, more than the Israeli average.

Elkayam and other settler leaders say that backing is for annexation – on condition that plans for Palestinian statehood are scrapped.

Israeli and U.S. officials want to be seen as keeping a door open to diplomacy. Where that door might lead worries Yochai Damri, head of a regional council that includes four of the 15 listed settlements.

Damri sees Palestinian statehood becoming more likely if the Republican president is defeated by Democrat Joe Biden in November’s U.S. election, and if, or when, Netanyahu is succeeded by centrist Benny Gantz, the Israeli premier’s partner in a fragile unity government.

The Trump plan says residents of the future enclaves can stay put “unless they choose otherwise”. Damri and other settlers hear in that a hint that they should quit to make way for Palestinian territorial contiguity.

(Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Timothy Heritage)

U.S. church group heads back from Holy Land after virus scare: Palestinian mayor

By Mustafa Abu Ganeyeh

BEIT JALA, West Bank (Reuters) – Thirteen Americans were heading home from the Holy Land on Monday after they were cleared in a coronavirus scare, the mayor of the Palestinian town where they were quarantined said.

The group, from the 3Circle Church in Fairhope, Alabama, was placed in quarantine at the Angel Hotel in Beit Jala on Wednesday after several hotel staff there tested positive.

Beit Jala is in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, near the biblical city of Bethlehem.

The Americans’ quarantine ended after they tested negative for coronavirus on Sunday.

Beit Jala Mayor Nicola Khamis told Reuters they left on Monday for Israel’s Ben Gurion Airport, outside Tel Aviv, to fly on to the United States. A Reuters witness saw the group, at least one of them wearing a surgical mask, boarding a van in Beit Jala.

Twenty-five Palestinians in the West Bank have been confirmed as infected with coronavirus, 24 of them in the Bethlehem area.

Under a 30-day state of emergency declared by the Palestinian Authority, foreigners have been turned back at checkpoints and schools, colleges, kindergartens and national parks ordered closed.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Heavens)

Netanyahu announces plans for 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday he was reviving a plan for the construction of 3,000 new settler homes near East Jerusalem, a project effectively frozen after international opposition.

Netanyahu’s announcement, during an election campaign in which he has sought to shore up support from pro-settlement voters, was condemned by the Palestinians as another blow to their hopes for an independent state.

He has pledged to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank and the area’s Jordan Valley as part of an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan presented by U.S. President Donald Trump last month. Palestinians have rejected Trump’s blueprint as biased towards Israel.

Opponents of the project, in the Givat Hamatos area adjacent to the Palestinian neighborhood of Beit Safafa, said it would sever parts of East Jerusalem from the nearby Palestinian town of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank.

Construction of 2,610 housing units for Jews in Givat Hamatos was approved by a Jerusalem planning committee in 2014. The Israeli government effectively put the project on hold after the United States and the European Union criticized the plan.

Visiting an area overlooking the Israeli settlement of Har Homa on the outskirts of Jerusalem on Thursday, Netanyahu said in a video he posted on social media: “Today I approved the construction in Givat Hamatos” of 3,000 homes for Jews, of which 1,000 would be marketed soon.

He said some 1,000 housing units would be built for Arabs in Beit Safafa. No construction date was announced for either area.

In a separate project, Netanyahu said another 2,200 housing units would be built in Har Homa, located like Givat Hamatos in an area of the West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem after the area’s capture in the 1967 Middle East war.

“Netanyahu’s insistence on building thousands of settlement units is the systematic destruction of the two-state solution and the implementation of the Trump plan,” Nabil Abu Rudeineh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said after the Israeli leader’s announcement.

Palestinians and much of the world view Israel’s settlements in areas seized in the 1967 conflict as illegal under international law, but the United States and Israel dispute this.

 

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah; Editing by Angus MacSwan)