Iran trying to build port in Syria, PM warns Moscow
Amid international efforts to strike a diplomatic arrangement in Syria, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow on Thursday to stress Israel’s unequivocal objection to a permanent Iranian presence there.
After their meeting, Netanyahu told reporters that Putin had “internalized” his warning.
“There is a reason that I came to this meeting with the head of the IDF Military Intelligence Directorate,” Netanyahu said. “I wanted to tell President Putin that we see a turning point, with things [in Syria] possibly shifting from hostilities to an arrangement. It’s not over yet, and it’s unclear whether the fighting has ceased, but this is now being discussed in Kazakhstan; and that is why it was important for me to convey several critical points from the perspective of Israel’s security.”
“We discussed at length the matter of Iran, its objectives and intentions in Syria, and I clarified that there cannot be a peace deal in Syria when Iran is there and declares its intention to destroy Israel,” Netanyahu said. “They say it in the clearest terms possible; they engrave it into their ballistic missiles.”
Iran is “seeking to build its military forces, military infrastructure, in order to establish itself in Syria, including an attempt to build a seaport there,” the prime minister said.
“There cannot be peace when they continue the war and therefore [the Iranians] have to be removed,” he said. “If the goal here is to create a peaceful border or a peaceful arrangement, it runs contrary to the idea of a country that is trying to destroy us from inside Syria.”
On the matter of Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights, Netanyahu said he told Putin that Israel will never withdraw from the area. “He already knows this issue,” the prime minister said, indicating the two leaders have already discussed the matter.
The prime minister also thanked Putin for Russia’s role in the fight against radical Islam.
“Of course, in the past year, there was significant progress in the fight against the radical Sunni Islamic terrorism led by [Islamic state] and al-Qaida,” Netanyahu said. “Russia has made a very important contribution.”
“Naturally,” he added, “we do not want this terrorism to be replaced by the radical Shiite Islamic terrorism, led by Iran.”
Incidentally, Netanyahu’s remarks on the Iranian threat came on the same day that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps announced it had successfully test-fired a naval missile earlier in the week.
The Iranian-built Hormuz 2, according to reports in the Iranian press, is capable of destroying moving targets at sea at ranges of up to 300 kilometers (200 miles).
“The naval ballistic missile called Hormuz 2 this week has successfully destroyed a target which was 250 kilometers [160 miles] away,” commander of the IRGC’s Aerospace Force, Amir Ali Hajizadeh, said Thursday.
The missile test is the latest event in a long-running rivalry between Iran and the United States in and around the Strait of Hormuz, which guards the entrance to the Persian Gulf. About 20% of the world’s oil passes through the waterway, which is less than 40 kilometers (25 miles) wide at its narrowest point.
According to Netanyahu, Putin also promised to give a portion of the grant it provides Russian veterans of V-Day, which it marks May 9, to Russian World War II veterans living in Israel.
Also discussed in the meeting were the fates of two IDF soldiers, St. Sgt. Oron Shaul and Lt. Hadar Goldin, whose bodies are still being held captive by Hamas in Gaza, along with civilian Avera Mengistu, who errantly crossed the Israel-Gaza border in 2014. (Israel Hayom)
Israel said to be worried about IS terror, chemical attacks in Europe
Israel is concerned that Islamic State terrorists facing defeat in the Middle East are heading back to their home countries and may try to carry out attacks in the near future, including a possible chemical attack in Europe, Channel 2 TV news reported Thursday.
The report said Israel’s Counter-Terrorism Bureau is poised to issue a series of travel warnings ahead of next month’s Passover holiday calling on Israelis traveling to Western Europe, India and Thailand to exercise extreme caution.
The TV report stressed that warnings have not yet been issued.
Sources in the bureau told Channel 2 that the Islamic State’s recent defeats in Iraq and Syria are causing many jihadis to return to their countries of origin.
These well-trained fighters could attempt to carry out vehicle-ramming attacks similar to the truck attack in Berlin that killed 12 people, including Israeli Dalia Elyakim, on Christmas.
Officials particularly fear terrorists may attempt to carry out a chemical attack against civilians, using widely available substances. Chemical bombs can be manufactured from products readily available in supermarkets, the report noted.
The bureau will soon formally call on Israelis traveling abroad to be alert, especially in crowded locations, and to pay attention to anything unusual, the report said.
The Israeli warning would echo guidance issued by the US State Department on Tuesday telling travelers worldwide to be especially careful of less-sophisticated terror attacks as well and warning of an growing likelihood of non-conventional attacks.
“Terrorists are increasingly using less sophisticated methods of attack to more effectively target crowds,” said the warning, “including the use of edged weapons, pistols, and vehicles as weapons.”
The State Department also warned that terrorist groups “including ISIS, al-Qa’ida, their associates, and those inspired by such organizations, are intent on attacking US citizens wherever they are.”
“Extremists may use conventional or non-conventional weapons,” it said, and cautioned that potential “soft” targets include “high-profile public events (sporting contests, political rallies, demonstrations, holiday events, celebratory gatherings, etc.); hotels, clubs, and restaurants; places of worship; schools; parks; shopping malls and markets; tourism infrastructure; public transportation systems and airports.” (the Times of Israel)
‘The time has come to make a deal,’ Trump tells Abbas
A comprehensive agreement settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would advance peace across the region and the world, US President Donald Trump told Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in a phone call on Friday, according to a readout of the conversation released by the White House.
In his first call with the Palestinian leader, Trump said: “Peace is possible and that the time has come to make a deal,” underscoring that an agreement must be negotiated directly between the two parties.
“The United States will work closely with Palestinian and Israeli leadership to make progress toward that goal,” the White House said.
“The president noted that the United States cannot impose a solution on the Israelis and Palestinians, nor can one side impose an agreement on the other.”
Trump invited Abbas to visit Washington for consultations “very soon,” Abbas’s spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeinah told Wafa, the official PA news site.
A Palestinian source, who was present during the phone call, said the call lasted 10 minutes and was cordial.
The source added that the topics of settlement construction and the American embassy were not discussed.
According to Abu Rudeinah, Abbas stressed his firm belief “in peace as a strategic choice to establish a Palestinian state alongside the State of Israel.”
Abbas called Jordan’s King Abdullah II shortly before and after his conversation with Trump, amid reports that the US president’s team is eyeing a regional approach to a new Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
PA representatives and Trump administration officials have only met twice since the president assumed office, while two top Israeli officials including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have already made official visits.
In early February, PA General Intelligence chief Majid Faraj and National Security Council officials met in the US capital. A week later, Abbas and CIA Director Mike Pompeo met in Ramallah, a day before Netanyahu arrived in Washington to hold talks with Trump.
Trump cast doubt on the US’s longtime commitment to the two-state solution, speaking at a press conference on February 15 when Netanyahu visited Washington. “I’m looking at two-state and one-state, and I like the one that both parties like… I can live with either one,” Trump said.
Friday’s call comes a week before Jason Greenblatt, Trump’s adviser for international negotiations, plans to visit the Middle East. Greenblatt is slated to visit Jerusalem and Ramallah to discuss a variety of issues pertaining to the peace process. (Jerusalem Post)
David Friedman to be named US ambassador to Israel
The U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 12-9 on Thursday to approve President Donald Trump’s nominee David Friedman as ambassador to Israel.
The vote was largely along party lines, a contrast with strong bipartisan support for past ambassadors to Israel. Democratic Senator Robert Menendez joined all 11 committee Republicans in backing Friedman, despite concerns that Friedman lacks the temperament for such a critical diplomatic post. The committee’s other nine Democrats opposed the choice.
Friedman, who has no diplomatic experience, is a long-time friend of Trump who has worked for the New York businessman as a bankruptcy lawyer.
Trump’s selection of Friedman reflects his shift in policy toward Israel after years of friction between former U.S. President Barack Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Unlike Obama, Trump has wavered on the U.S. commitment to a two-state solution, long a bedrock of Washington’s Middle East policy, and backed the embassy’s relocation from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, of which Friedman is a proponent.
Republican Senator Bob Corker, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, praised Friedman as an “impassioned advocate” for strong U.S.-Israeli ties.
“He understands the complexity of issues at stake for the United States and the necessity to support a democratic ally in an important and unstable part of the world,” Corker said.
Menendez, the lone Democrat on the committee to back Friedman, said in a statement that it is critical to maintain bipartisan support in Congress for the U.S.-Israel relationship. He added that it’s “vitally important we enjoy open channels of communication with our ambassador.”
The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Friedman has been a fervent supporter of the Judea and Samaria settlement enterprise and a staunch defender of Israel’s government. He also runs a nonprofit that raises millions of dollars for Beit El, a Jewish community in the Binyamin region of Samaria.
The Yesha Council, the umbrella organization of municipal councils of Jewish settlements in Judea and Samaria, congratulated Friedman on securing the committee’s approval.
“Friedman is a true friend of Israel that has a deep understanding of the reality on the ground and he will be a great asset to Israeli-American relations,” Oded Revivi, the council’s chief foreign envoy, said.
Friedman is known for using inflammatory language against those with whom he has political disagreements. Democrats said his approach could risk security.
“The region is incredibly volatile. The last thing we need in this position is someone who has a penchant for over-the-top, hyperbolic, and even false statements,” Democratic Senator Tim Kaine said.
Kaine said Friedman’s contentious history is regrettable because he has such a deep knowledge of Israel and the Middle East. Kaine, echoing the sentiment of other Democrats, said.
“While it is clear that David Friedman is committed to the U.S.-Israel relationship, his history of inflammatory rhetoric is poorly matched for this role,” Kaine said.
The left-wing Jewish lobby J Street and the Jewish Reform movement are among the groups who oppose Friedman’s nomination.
Dylan Williams, J Street’s vice president for government affairs, said that it was “by far the most contested vote on a nominee for U.S. ambassador to Israel ever.” The small margin of approval, Williams added, “is a clear signal that he is a completely inappropriate and disastrous choice for such an important position.”
Last month, the Union for Reform Judaism urged senators to reject Friedman, citing his dearth of professional foreign policy experience. The group, which is the largest association of synagogues in America, said it has never before opposed the nomination of an ambassador to Israel, but Friedman’s background and temperament make it more likely he’ll “inflame divisions” rather than bridge divides.
Five former U.S. ambassadors to Israel, who served Democratic and Republican presidents, called Friedman unfit for the post in a February letter to members of the committee.
Senator Ben Cardin, the committee’s ranking Democrat, said Friedman was also problematic because he did not explicitly back a two-state solution.
Friedman will next be considered by the full Senate, where Trump’s fellow Republicans control a slim majority. He is expected to be confirmed despite continued Democratic opposition. (Israel Hayom)
Finance minister: 2016 was one of Israeli economy’s best years
Israel’s economy grew by 4% annually in 2016, exceeding the growth rate of other Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member states, which averaged 1.7%, the Central Bureau of Statistics said Thursday.
Israel’s gross national product stood at 2.5% in 2015 and 3.2% in 2014.
The business sector also performed well in 2016, marking 4.2% annual growth, compared to 2.3% in 2015, the report said.
The data further indicated that gross domestic product per capita has also grown: Private consumption of fixed-price goods and services increased by 6.3% in 2016, having grown by 4.3% in both 2015 and 2014. Overall, 2016 saw a 2% rise in fixed prices, which are unaffected by inflation rates, compared to a 0.5% growth the previous year.
Economic growth was also indicated by import and export figures: The import of goods and services in 2016 climbed 9.5%, following a 0.5% drop in 2015; and exports grew by 3%, after a 4.3% slump the previous year.
Imports in the diamond industry noted a 21.8% spike in 2016, the report noted.
The data also showed that in 2016, the government sector’s deficit came to 13.8 billion shekels ($3.75 billion), or 1.1% of the GDP.
“It is safe to say that 2016 will be remembered as one of Israeli economy’s best years,” Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon said Thursday.
“The actions we have taken over the past two years have proven that there is no contradiction between having a free, responsible economy and helping the lower socio-economic echelons and the middle class. It used to be said that one can only do one or the other. Today we see that it is possible to do both,” he said. (Israel Hayom)
British Royal ‘to become family’s first member to make state visit to Israel later this year
The first state visit by a British Royal to Israel will go ahead this year, Whitehall sources have suggested.
The Royal Family has historically always rejected Israeli invitations for official state visits, although individual members have visited the country in a personal capacity, and attended state funerals.
Reuven Rivlin, the Israeli President, extended the invitation via Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson at a meeting in Jerusalem earlier this week.
The proposed visit would coincide with the 100th anniversary of the Balfour Declaration, a historic statement of commitment by the British government to support the establishment of a Jewish state in the Middle East.
“This is a very important year in the history of the relations between Israel and the United Kingdom,” Mr Rivlin said.
Theresa May recently told a meeting of the Conservative Friends of Israel that the Government would be actively celebrating the centenary of the Declaration.
“It demonstrates Britain’s vital role in creating a homeland for the Jewish people. And it is an anniversary we will be marking with pride”, Ms May said.
The Declaration was written by Liberal Foreign Secretary Minister Arthur Balfour, and committed the British Government to “[favour] the establishment in Palestine of a national home for the Jewish people.”
However, the document also stated: “Nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.
This remains a point of contention for the Palestinian community.
At the time of the declaration, Palestinians made up around 90 per cent of the population in what is now the state of Israel. After the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948, an estimated 700,000 people fled or were expelled from their homes.
Pro-Palestinian academics have called on the British government to apologise for the “disastrous” role of the Balfour declaration, calling it “the biggest social injustice of our time”.
Ben Jamal, Director of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, said:
“It is grossly inappropriate for the royal family to make an official visit to Israel 100 years after the Balfour declaration.
The consequences of this dispossession are still experienced by Palestinians today, whether living as unequal citizens within the state of Israel, as refugees or under military occupation.
The British government should be reflecting on its complicity in these events, offering an apology to the Palestinian people and putting pressure on Israel to abide by international law.”
Prince Charles attending the funeral of Israeli President Shimon Peres in 2016
(Note his kippa bearing the insignia of the Prince of Wales)
If a Royal visit does take place, the Queen is unlikely to be able to make the journey, as she has she cut back on most overseas travel for health reasons.
The Prince of Wales is more likely to make the trip, given his attendance at former Israeli President Shimon Peres’ funeral last year.
A spokesperson for Clarence House, the official residence of the Prince of Wales, told The Independent that the Prince of Wales’ overseas visits are only made at the request of the government.
They could not confirm whether the Prince would be visiting Israel.
However, they did point to the Prince’s “strong and growing relationship with the Jewish community”.
The Israeli Embassy in London declined to comment on the proposed visit. (The Independent)
Bereaved families celebrate life at Purim costume party
Dozens of bereaved families across the country attended a Purim costume party in Jerusalem held by the OneFamily organization on Wednesday.
Among the families who arrived at the festivities was Renana Meir, the daughter of Dafna Meir who was murdered in her home by a Palestinian about a year ago. “It’s very hard, but I’m also engaged, so there is something to celebrate,” Said Meir. “Coping is daily and difficult, I’m not going to lie.”
Meir then praised OneFamily, saying that the event is an “amazing place, it gives me hope and lets another smile enter my day. Outside of here we sometimes feel abnormal, but when we come here we can all be ourselves, laugh about silly memories and cry about the touching ones. Everyone here has dealt with the same thing, so its gives happiness a sense of normalcy.”
Miriam Peretz, who lost both her sons, IDF soldiers Uriel and Eliraz, explained how complex it could be. “Our ability to get up, get dressed, put on makeup, and come here to enjoy ourselves, is the real victory for us,” she summarized, adding that “the history of the Jewish people teaches us that we can turn grief into joy. We can cry for the ones we lost, but also gather ourselves, rise again and celebrate.”
Bracha and Shlomo Kopinsky, parents of Rabbi Aryeh Kopinsky who was killed at a terrorist attack in a synagogue in Har Nof, said that “our son volunteered to help children cross the road every Purim, dressed as a clown and handed out candy. So we carried on his tradition,” they said, both dressed in costume.
“Last year we fell into despair. Getting help from OneFamily completely changed our outlook. It gave us strength to care for his widow and children,” they said.
OneFamily CEO Chantal Belzbeg said that the organization is there to aid the bereaved families throughout the year, adding that “we invited them to come and celebrate Purim, even though we know it is very hard, and a lot of them couldn’t find the strength for it. They say that there is no need for costumes or masks, because they have to wear one every day of the year.” (Ynet News)
No rushing the peace process
The Palestinian-Israel conflict cannot be resolved anytime soon
by Clifford D. May The Washington Times
JERICHO, WEST BANK | This palm-fringed oasis in the Jordan Valley has been continuously inhabited for 10,000 years. That justifies it billing itself as the “oldest city in the world.”
Officers of the Palestinian National Security Force ( NSF) headquartered here will proudly tell you that it’s now among the safest places in the Arab Middle East, and that their paramilitary organization is an important reason why. They’re also grateful for the training, arms, ammunition, equipment and even buildings being provided by American taxpayers.
This arrangement was agreed to by the Israelis who, in 1994, gave the Palestinian Authority administrative control over Jericho and other West Bank cities.
Could the next step be a “two-state solution” to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict? Count me among those who see that as unlikely anytime soon no matter how energetic, determined and skillful the diplomacy of the Trump administration turns out to be.
The Middle East, always a bloody corner of the world, has become bloodier over recent years. Historians will debate the extent to which President Obama’s policies contributed to that result. But given this reality, Israeli leaders from Labor on the left to Likud on the right are convinced that the withdrawal of their military forces from the West Bank would leave a vacuum and that jihadis would fill it.
Consider the precedents. In 2005, every Israeli soldier and settler was pulled out of Gaza. Within two years, Hamas had taken control and begun launching missiles at Israeli villages and cities. A series of small wars followed, as has the incessant digging of terrorist tunnels into Israel.
Five years earlier, the Israelis withdrew from southern Lebanon. That strengthened Hezbollah, Iran’s proxy, with whom other wars had to be fought, the last in 2006. Since then, Hezbollah has installed more than 150,000 missiles in homes, schools and mosques all aimed at Israel.
Back in 1982, as part of a historic peace agreement signed a few years earlier, Israelis handed the Sinai Peninsula over to Egypt. Today, a branch of the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, wages an insurgency there.
Despite all that, and contrary to some reports, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has never ruled out the possibility of a “land for peace” deal with the Palestinians. But in return for relinquishing the West Bank (seized from Jordan in a defensive war nearly 50 years ago), he is adamant that the Jewish state receive a verifiable Palestinian commitment to peaceful coexistence.
Hamas, which controls Gaza and has cells throughout the West Bank, unequivocally rejects that idea. Hamas believes that Islamic law obligates Muslims to fight non-Muslims who control lands that were, at any time in the past, conquered by Muslims.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, who turns 82 this month, does not appear to share Hamas’ religious convictions. But were he to end his long career by shaking Mr. Netanyahu’s hand on the White House lawn, he’d be labeled a traitor, not just by Hamas but also by those seeking to succeed him in the West Bank, as well as the Islamic Republic of Iran which, as a direct result of Mr. Obama’s policies, is currently the ascendant power in the Middle East.
You’ll hear it argued that in the absence of a two-state solution there will have to be a “one-state solution,” meaning Israeli annexation of the West Bank and Gaza. At that point, Israelis would face a Catch-22: refuse to grant citizenship to Palestinians living in those territories, in which case Israel ceases to be democratic, or become a minority in their own country.
There is no mystery about what the latter choice would mean. Jewish communities have been persecuted in and expelled from many lands, not least Muslim-majority lands. Nor can we say that was in the past and, since then, attitudes have changed. There are more than 20 countries that call themselves Arab and more than 50 that self-identify as Islamic. Minorities enjoy equal rights in few if any. (By contrast, Arabs and Muslims constitute about 20 percent of Israel’s population and they enjoy more freedom, rights and benefits than do Arabs and Muslims in any Arab or Muslim country.)
All this suggests now is not the time for dramatic diplomatic initiatives. Significant changes will occur once Mr. Abbas passes from the scene. American policymakers should be getting ready.
Meanwhile, it’s worth prodding the Palestinians to develop the institutions like the NSF that both define and sustain true statehood. Lacking that, they will remain dependent on the “donor community” indefinitely. Worse, a Palestinian state could arise, achieve recognition and then fail. Who would benefit from that?
The lives of West Bank Palestinians, in Jericho and elsewhere, can be made better. They are in dire need of more jobs with better pay and benefits. Israelis are willing to assist, willing to expand economic cooperation. But first Palestinian leaders must end both their opposition to “normalization” with Israelis and their support for BDS (Boycott, Divest and Sanction), a campaign that seeks to drive away Israeli investors, businesses and employers.
Finally, a little perspective would be helpful. Palestinian resentment of the Israeli military presence in the West bank is understandable, as is bitterness over the fences and walls that separate the West Bank from Israel. But both were a response to conventional and terrorist attacks that killed thousands of Israelis they were not the cause.
In recent days, the artist who calls himself Banksy has generated quite a lot of media attention by opening a hotel next to a section of wall in Bethlehem, proclaiming that it has “the worst view in the world.” Is there no reporter with spine enough to ask him why he considers the bombed-out ruins of Aleppo, Mosul and Sana’a more scenic?