Israeli parties agree on March 2 election if no government formed

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s two biggest parties agreed on Monday on a March 2 election date, barring a last-minute power-sharing deal, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for political survival under criminal indictment.

A 21-day period in which parliament can nominate a legislator with majority support to try to put together a ruling coalition expires at 2200 GMT on Wednesday, triggering the legislature’s dissolution and an election within 90 days.

It would be Israel’s third national ballot in less than a year. Recent opinion polls have predicted no dramatic shifts among voters since inconclusive elections in April and September.

Neither Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party nor the centrist Blue and White party led by his main rival, former military chief Benny Gantz, won enough seats in parliament for a governing majority in the previous two contests.

Both men were delegated the task of forming a coalition, but failed, throwing the ball into parliament’s court. Their parties have been deadlocked in talks on a “unity” administration in which Netanyahu and Gantz would take turns as prime minister.

The two parties, which disagree over which man would serve first and for how long, announced they had agreed on the March 2 election date. The date needs parliament’s approval but the two parties dominate the assembly so it is sure to pass.

The political disarray and a long-running corruption investigation have threatened to curtail Netanyahu’s decade-long hold on power. Last month, Netanyahu, 70, was charged with bribery, breach of trust and fraud.

Denying any wrongdoing, he has accused Israel’s legal authorities of attempting a “coup” aimed at ousting a popular right-wing leader. Critics alleged that Netanyahu was trying to undermine the rule of law and set an election campaign theme portraying himself as the victim of “deep state” conspiracy.

As prime minister, Netanyahu is under no legal obligation to resign following the indictment. A caretaker premier remains in the post until a new government is formed – a process that could stretch months past a March ballot if coalition-building is taken into account.

Before the national poll, Netanyahu would face an internal Likud leadership election. No date has been announced and only one challenger has emerged, former cabinet minister Gideon Saar, with no signs of any broad party revolt to oust Netanyahu.

In a speech on Sunday, Netanyahu said he hoped to avoid another election, “but if one is forced upon us, we will win big.”

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Prosecution in Israel lines up over 300 witnesses in Netanyahu case

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An indictment submitted to Israel’s parliament on Monday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu names more than 300 prosecution witnesses, including wealthy friends and former aides, in three graft cases against him.

By formally sending the indictment to the legislature, after announcing charges of bribery, breach of trust and fraud on Nov. 21, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit set the clock ticking on a 30-day period in which Netanyahu can seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Such protection seems unlikely, with Israeli politics in disarray after inconclusive elections in April and September and the failure of Netanyahu and his main challenger, Benny Gantz, to secure a ruling majority in the legislature.

Netanyahu, in office for the past decade, has denied any wrongdoing, saying he is a victim of an attempted “coup” waged by legal authorities trying to unseat a popular right-wing leader.

As prime minister, he is under no legal obligation to resign after being charged. No date has been set for the opening of the trial, with three judges presiding in Jerusalem District Court.

The indictment submitted to parliament listed 333 witnesses for the prosecution. Legal experts said the long roster meant proceedings could go on for years.

They include U.S. casino mogul Sheldon Adelson and his wife Miriam, Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan, Australian billionaire James Packer and retired Israeli security chiefs, and several former aides who will be state witnesses against him.

Netanyahu poured scorn on the length of the witness list.

“When an accusation is true, you don’t need 333 witnesses,” he wrote on Twitter. “When the accusation is untrue, not even 333 witnesses will help.”

TALKS DEADLOCKED

In one case, Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully requesting and accepting expensive gifts, including champagne and cigars, from Milchan and Packer. Neither has been charged with any wrongdoing.

Another case focuses on allegations that Netanyahu promised the owner of Israel’s best-selling newspaper to push for regulations on its main competitor, owned by Adelson.

Netanyahu also is accused of granting regulatory favors worth about 1.8 billion shekels ($500 million) to Bezeq Telecom Israel <BEZQ.TA> in return for positive coverage on a website owned by its former chairman.

Talks between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party on a “national unity” government are deadlocked.

If no agreement is reached within 10 days – the end of a three-week period in which legislators can nominate a candidate to try to form a government – Israel is likely to hold a new election.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Netanyahu’s Likud to hold party leadership vote: challenger

By Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will hold a leadership vote, a Likud challenger said on Sunday, as pressure mounted on the veteran leader to step aside after his indictment on corruption charges.

Israeli media reported the Likud primary would be held in six weeks. A party spokesman was not reachable to confirm the timeline.

Gideon Saar, a Likud lawmaker who has challenged Netanyahu, wrote on Twitter that he “welcomes the prime minister’s agreement to hold primaries for party leadership.”

Netanyahu’s indictment last Thursday came amid political disarray in Israel, after neither Netanyahu nor his main challenger in the general election, centrist Benny Gantz, secured a majority in parliament in April and September votes.

Netanyahu has denied the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and said he would stay in office and defend himself.

The four-term conservative leader projected business as usual on Sunday, touring the country’s northern frontier and ramping up rhetoric about Iranian threats.

Israel’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition by a watchdog group to force Netanyahu to step aside.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel had said in its court filing that the first criminal charges against a sitting prime minister constituted “the crossing of a red line and a grave blow to public trust in ruling institutions”.

The court dismissed the petition to force Netanyahu to resign or temporarily recuse himself from office. It said the watchdog had not yet exhausted other avenues, such as petitioning Netanyahu directly and Israel’s attorney general.

For his part, Netanyahu kept his focus on security and toured the Golan Heights with top military brass.

“I am doing everything needed to carry out government work, Cabinet work … in all necessary ways, to ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and the things that are crucial for Israel,” he said in a video statement.

He reiterated concerns over Iran’s attempt to entrench itself militarily in a number of Middle East countries and said Israel “will act to prevent Iran’s attempt to make Iraq and Yemen bases for rocket and missile launches against Israel.”

POLITICAL CHALLENGE

But Israeli news coverage remained focused on the political challenge. Commentators said other court petitions could follow.

Gantz’s mandate to form a government – after an unsuccessful attempt by Netanyahu to do so – expired on Wednesday. The next day, Israel’s president declared a three-week period in which lawmakers can nominate one of their own to try to put together a ruling coalition.

Should that fail, a new election – Israel’s third in a year – will be triggered.

Netanyahu’s hope of securing that parliamentary nomination was challenged by Saar.

“There is only one way in which we can save the country, extricate it from the crisis and ensure the Likud’s continued rule – and that is if we go to snap primaries today, within these 21 days,” Saar told Israel’s Channel 12 television.

A less adversarial proposal was launched by a second Likud lawmaker, Nir Barkat, who called for nominating a deputy to Netanyahu who would take his place should he be forced to take a leave of absence.

Saar previously said he would consider running for the top Likud slot.

While voicing appreciation for Netanyahu’s record-long term and noting he was innocent until proven otherwise, Saar criticised the premier’s attempts to cast his criminal prosecution as a “coup attempt” involving police, prosecutors and the media.

“Not only is it wrong to say that, it’s also irresponsible to say that. It’s completely out of touch,” Saar said.

The Likud party spokesman earlier in the day dismissed the challenge.

“It is sad to see that while Prime Minister Netanyahu keeps Israel safe on all fronts and works to preserve Likud rule, Gideon Saar, as is his wont, is displaying zero loyalty and maximum subversion,” the spokesman said.

(Reporting by Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jane Merriman and Peter Cooney)

Israel’s Netanyahu faces calls to quit but is defiant in crisis

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced calls to resign over a corruption scandal on Friday, as senior government colleagues publicly declared support after some signs of cracks in party loyalty.

Netanyahu said he would not quit after he was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust by Israel’s attorney general on Thursday night.

The 70-year-old right-wing Likud Party leader denies all wrongdoing and denounced the indictment – the first against a sitting Israeli prime minister – as an “attempted coup.”

But his ability to lead a country mired in political crisis, after two inconclusive elections this year that failed to produce a government, is being questioned.

The centrist Blue and White Party headed by Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, issued a statement calling on him to “immediately resign from all ministerial positions in the government”.

The party – which has 33 of parliament’s 120 seats to Likud’s 32 – said its lawyers had formally approached the prime minister and attorney general’s offices saying it was “imperative” that Netanyahu step down.

Under Israeli law, as prime minister he is under no obligation to do so. But with Israel heading towards a likely third election in less than a year, Netanyahu could soon find himself in the difficult position of trying to win an election while preparing to be prosecuted.

The support of his Likud party colleagues is likely to be crucial to Netanyahu’s chances of staying in power.

Two Likud lawmakers publicly broached holding a party leadership contest on Thursday, but even such mild expressions of disloyalty upset loyalists.

Senior ministers issued public statements declaring their support, and Justice Minister Amir Ohana said he was proud of his fellow Likud parliamentarians for standing by Netanyahu, adding pointedly: “Except for two of them.”

Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition partner Bezalel Smotrich, the transport minister, also offered sympathy for Netanyahu over the charges against him, announced by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday.

Smotrich said in a tweet that planned street protests in support of the prime minister were aimed at preventing “a predatory, violent and dangerous judicial dictatorship”.

After a national televised address on Thursday night Netanyahu himself kept a low profile on Friday, posting a tweet with heart and an Israeli flag emojis saying: “Thank you for your support and love. Shabbat Shalom.”

ELECTION SCHEDULE

But Israel’s election schedule could work against Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister after 10 successive years in power plus three years in office in the 1990s.

President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday set a three-week deadline for lawmakers to nominate a new candidate from their own ranks to try to form a new government after Netanyahu and Gantz both failed to do after April and September elections.

If that also fails to produce a government, an election will be triggered in three months.

A source close to Rivlin said he expected appeals to disqualify Netanyahu as a candidate because of the indictment. If the president does so, Netanyahu could be ejected by Likud.

“Netanyahu’s great fear is that, amid the extraordinary constitutional crisis has been created, and amid the political and legal synchronization, he will emerge as the only member of parliament who cannot do this (form a government),” wrote Tal Shalev, political commentator for Israel’s Walla news site.

Two of the three cases involve news media outlets whose bosses allegedly received inducements from Netanyahu in return for more favourable coverage on his policies and personal conduct.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Tova Cohen and Nidal al-Mughrabi. Editing by XX)

Netanyahu charged in corruption cases, deepening Israeli political disarray

By Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges on Thursday, heightening uncertainty over who will ultimately lead a country deep in political disarray after two inconclusive elections this year.

The decision announced by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was the first of its kind against a serving Israeli prime minister and represented Netanyahu’s gravest crisis of his lengthy political career.

He was charged with breach of trust and fraud in all three corruption cases against him, as well as bribery in one of the investigations, according to a charge sheet released by the Justice Ministry.

Netanyahu, in power since 2009, has dominated Israeli politics for a generation and is the country’s longest-serving leader. He has denied wrongdoing in the three corruption cases, saying he is the victim of a political witch hunt.

He is under no legal obligation to resign after being charged. The opening of a trial could be delayed for months by a new election and any moves by the right-wing prime minister to seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu, 70, was due to make a statement from his official residence at 2030 GMT.

Earlier, during one of the most unusual days in Israeli political history, the country’s president told lawmakers to name a candidate to form a new government after right-winger Netanyahu and centrist challenger Benny Gantz both failed, a development that probably sets the stage for a third election within a year.

“These are harsh dark days in the annals of the State of Israel,” President Reuven Rivlin said as he announced that Gantz had not mustered enough support for a stable coalition.

Police recommended in February that Mandelblit file criminal charges against Netanyahu in the long-running investigations dubbed Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.

Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000 worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and of dispensing favors in alleged bids for improved coverage by Israel’s biggest selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, and the Walla website.

Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum 3-year term for fraud and breach of trust.

Even though he was under suspicion, that was not enough to dissuade most of his traditional allies from sticking with him in coalition negotiations, effectively blocking Gantz’s path to the premiership.

But the two elections that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz won exposed a rare political vulnerability in the prime minister after a decade in office.

The prolonged political stalemate comes at a tricky time for Israel and its most prominent statesman on the domestic and international fronts.

Its conflict with arch-foe Iran has deepened – Israeli warplanes hit Iranian targets in Syria on Wednesday after rockets were fired toward Israel – while fighting with Palestinian militants in Gaza flared last week.

The introduction of criminal charges could further complicate the eventual rollout of the U.S. administration’s long-delayed Middle East peace plan by imperiling the political future of one of the key players whose support is needed.

(Editing by Stephen Farrell and Giles Elgood)

‘Dark days’ in Israel after PM and rival fail to form government, election looms

A combination picture shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel November 17, 2019, and leader of Blue and White party Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, Israel November 20, 2019. REUTERS/Nir Elias, Amir Cohen

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president told lawmakers on Thursday to name a candidate to form a new government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz both failed, a move that probably sets the stage for a third election within a year.

“These are harsh dark days in the annals of the State of Israel,” President Reuven Rivlin said as he announced that the centrist Gantz had failed to muster enough support for a stable coalition following an unsuccessful attempt by the conservative Netanyahu.

During a 21-period mandated by law, Knesset legislators can nominate anyone in the 120-seat assembly to form a government.

If that fails, an election is triggered within 90 days, sending voters back to the polls for the third time within a year after inconclusive elections in April and September.

The prolonged stalemate comes at a tricky time for Israel on the domestic and international fronts.

Its conflict with arch foe Iran has deepened – Israeli warplanes hit Iranian targets in Syria on Wednesday after rockets were fired toward Israel – while the Palestinian issue remains unresolved as violence has flared anew.

Netanyahu’s caretaker cabinet has been unable to plug a gaping hole in government finances and the deficit has swelled over the past year. Relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority, and those between secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews are also at issue.

For Netanyahu, not securing another term as prime minister also has legal implications. It may increase his vulnerability to possible indictment on corruption charges. Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have to step down if charged.

Gantz and Netanyahu had looked at a power-share within a national unity government after they came neck-and-neck in both elections. But disputes about details, such as the timeline for rotating the premiership between them, were not resolved.

Turning to lawmakers on Thursday, Rivlin said: “In the coming 21 days, there will be no ‘bloc’ or ‘party’. Each and every person will sit alone with their conscience and will have to answer one question: What is my duty toward the State of Israel?”

But a new and successful candidate emerging from Israel’s fractious party system looked unlikely.

LEADERSHIP CONTEST

Within Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party there were stirrings of internal dissent, with two of its 32 lawmakers saying they would now favour a leadership contest.

Many citizens voiced resignation and rancour at a deadlock that has deepened worries over economic and national security matters.

“We’ve had enough of you! Let us know when you make a decision,” read the top headline on the mass-circulation Israel Hayom, alongside pictures of Netanyahu and Gantz as well as Avigdor Lieberman, a far-right political kingmaker.

Israel’s attorney-general is due to announce soon whether Netanyahu – Israel’s longest-serving prime minister – will be formally charged in three corruption cases. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.

“It’s all about Bibi (Netanyahu) trying to escape jail and you know, we are all in trouble because of his personal problem,” said Nahum Tevet, a 72-year-old Tel Aviv artist.

“He should just step out and leave us alone, to be a normal state again, to have a normal government, to take care of all the problems – the social problems, political problems, economic problems – and God help us.”

(Writing by Dan Williams, editing by Stephen Farrell and Angus MacSwan)

Trump shift on Israeli settlements fulfills wish list of evangelical base

By Maria Caspani and Matt Spetalnick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘HE WILL GET 100% OF THIS BASE’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

U.S. support for Israeli settlements renews focus on core issue in Mideast conflict

U.S. support for Israeli settlements renews focus on core issue in Mideast conflict
By Stephen Farrell and Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s ruling right-wing government on Tuesday moved swiftly to embrace Washington’s backing for Israeli settlements, even as Palestinians and Arab leaders said it was a threat to the international rule of law.

Monday’s announcement by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo abandoned the position that settlements in Israeli-occupied territory were “inconsistent with international law”, reversing a position taken by the United States under President Jimmy Carter in 1978.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lost no time in making political capital out of the announcement, as he struggles to remain in power following two inconclusive Israeli elections and possible criminal prosecution over corruption charges, which he denies.

“I admit that I am very moved,” Netanyahu said as he visited the Etzion bloc of settlements in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“The Trump administration has corrected a historic injustice,” Netanyahu said. “This is a very great day for the State of Israel and an achievement that will stand for generations.”

Some Israeli analysts said the announcement had little practical effect – with settlement building already in evidence under a Netanyahu government, as it had been since the area was captured from Jordan in the 1967 war.

In Geneva, the U.N. human rights office said the settlements remain in breach of international law, echoing a position taken by the International Court of Justice in an advisory opinion in 2004.

Israel disputes this, and Netanyahu has cited historical and biblical links to the West Bank in supporting Jewish settlement.

Palestinians say settlements jeopardise their goal of a state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“HOLD BACK”

Although President Donald Trump told Netanyahu in early 2017 that he would “like to see you hold back on settlement for a little bit”, the intervening period has seen repeated postponement of the White House’s “Deal of the Century” peace plan.

Trump has also made a succession of pro-Israeli initiatives.

These include U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017, moving the U.S. embassy to the city in 2018 and cuts in U.S. aid to Palestinians. In March, Trump recognised Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Hagit Ofran, Settlements Watch Director of the left-wing Israeli group Peace Now, said there were 430,000 settlers in the West Bank and 200,000 in East Jerusalem, living in 132 settlements and 121 unofficial settlement outposts. About 3 million Palestinians live throughout the West Bank.

“If you want to know what the Deal of the Century plan was, we know what it is now,” said Ofran after Pompeo’s announcement. “It is to say to the Palestinians ‘you are not going to get any of your basic demands and rights’.”

INTERNATIONAL LAW

The speed and consistency of the response by Palestinian officials suggested they are familiar with headline-grabbing Trump initiatives and have decided to frame them in a wider context.

“The bias of the Trump administration towards the most extreme in Israel blinds it from seeing the basic principles of international law and consensus,” said Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh on Twitter.

Palestinian Ambassador to the United Nations Riyad Mansour said he was consulting other nations at the Security Council to “lobby a unified international position to confront the American illegal announcement regarding settlements”.

Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the U.S. decision had been decades in the making.

“Each U.S. administration, since Reagan, has pandered to Israel on settlements,” she told Reuters.

“I get the sense from the Palestinian leadership’s responses that they believe this issue has to be framed as not just about ‘us’ but about the world order that people believe in… when you go down this path it isn’t just about Palestine, this affects Crimea and other places around the world.”

FACTS ON THE GROUND

David Friedman, the Trump-appointed U.S. Ambassador to Israel, said on Twitter that Pompeo’s announcement would “advance the cause of peace” by creating a “level playing field” for future talks.

To many Israeli settlers, the U.S. move simply recognised the status of settlements they regard as permanent.

“From the sea to the Jordan River, it belongs to the people of Israel,” said Zomi Osi, a settler speaking near the new settlement neighbourhood Ramat Givat Zeev, which is expanding along a valley in the West Bank.

But yards away in Beit Ijza, overlooking Ramat Givat Zeev and an Israeli highway built through the West Bank, retired Palestinian villager Mahmoud Salem said nothing could change the fact that the land was Palestinian.

“He (Trump) doesn’t own it, he has no right to give it to anybody and he can’t force its owners to leave it,” he said.

GAZA AND ARAB WORLD

In Gaza, where Israeli withdrew soldiers and settlers in 2005, Palestinian student Fatima Attallaa stood outside a building that was once part of the Israeli settlement Neve Dekalim, saying she looked forward to the day when the West Bank was also free of settlers.

“The American decision is void,” she said. “Settlements will be removed. We are at a university that was once a settlement and today it is Al-Aqsa University.”

Wider Arab and Muslim reaction was equally condemnatory.

Arab League Secretary General Ahmed Aboul Gheit said such an “unfortunate change” in the American position would not bring Israel security, peace or normal relations with Arab countries. Egyptian state news agency MENA quoted him as saying it would “push the legions of Israeli settlers to practise more violence and brutality against the Palestinian population.”

Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said on Twitter: “No country is above international law” and “fait accompli style declarations” had no validity.

Jordan’s foreign minister, Ayman Safadi, said a U.S. change of position on settlements would have “dangerous consequences”. Calling the settlements illegal, he said they killed prospects for a Palestinian state existing side-by-side with Israel.

But in U.S.-allied Saudi Arabia, the state news agency did not mention the issue after a cabinet meeting, focusing on criticism of Israeli air raids in Gaza.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Ali Sawafta in Beit Ijza,; Yousef Saba in Cairo, Suleiman al-Khalidi in Amman, Jonathan Spicer in Istanbul, Dahlia Nehme in Dubai; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms

Tenuous truce in Gaza as Islamic Jihad, Israel differ on terms
By Nidal al-Mughrabi and Dan Williams

GAZA/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad and Israel declared a halt to hostilities across the Gaza Strip border on Thursday but a lasting ceasefire appeared tenuous as they differed on terms.

Islamic Jihad said an Egyptian-mediated truce went into effect at 0330 GMT, about 48 hours after Israel triggered the exchange of fire by killing the Iranian-backed faction’s top Gaza commander in an air strike, deeming him an imminent threat.

Occasional rocket fire from Gaza broke the calm that ensued, but the ceasefire largely held as night fell.

Gaza medical officials have put the total death toll from the two days of fighting at 34 Palestinians, almost half of them civilians and including eight children and three women.

Hundreds of rocket launches by militants had paralyzed much of southern Israel and reached as far north as Tel Aviv, sending entire communities to shelters. Dozens of Israelis were hurt.

Hamas, Gaza’s dominant faction, appeared to have stayed out of this round of fighting. That may have helped stem escalation.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said the military operation was drawing to a conclusion with its goals met. “Our enemies got the message – we can reach anyone,” Netanyahu said, as he visited soldiers at a missile interception battery.

Islamic Jihad said Israel had accepted its demand to stop both the targeted killing of militants and sometimes lethal army gunfire at weekly Palestinian protests on the Gaza border.

“The ceasefire began under Egyptian sponsorship after the Occupation (Israel) submitted to the conditions set by Islamic Jihad on behalf of Palestinian resistance factions,” Islamic Jihad spokesman Musab Al-Braim said.

But Israel said it would observe only a limited quid pro quo. “Quiet will be answered with quiet,” Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Army Radio.

MISSILE STRIKE

In the deadliest incident of the two-day hostilities, eight members of a Gaza family were killed by an Israeli missile strike shortly before the truce took hold, said medical officials and residents.

They said all were civilians. But Israeli military spokesman Lieutenant-Colonel Avichay Adraee said the head of the family, Rasmi Abu Malhous, who was among the dead, was the commander of Islamic Jihad rocket crews in the central Gaza Strip.

Neighbors left their homes to help rescue workers pull out the bodies of the family, some of which were completely buried in sandy earth. Civilians tried to test the pulse of one body before pulling it out.

Israel’s allegation about Rasmi Abu Malhous could not immediately be confirmed by Reuters. Islamic Jihad did not claim him as a member.

Neither the hostilities nor efforts to halt them shifted the dynamics of the underlying core conflict.

While Hamas has been open to long-term truces, like Islamic Jihad it refuses to accept permanent co-existence with Israel.

Gazans are seeking to end years of an Israeli-led blockade. Refugees from the 1948 war of Israel’s founding and their descendents make up most of the 2 million Palestinians in Gaza and want the right to return to their families’ former lands.

Israel rejects this as demographic suicide and sees no means of making peace as long as Hamas and Islamic Jihad are armed.

Katz said there would be no change to Israeli military policy in Gaza, contradicting the assertion of Islamic Jihad.

Targeted killings “will not cease”, he said, and “the open-fire policy for which the Israel Defence Forces is responsible (at the Gaza border) will not change”.

Markets in Gaza reopened as life returned to normal, though people expressed mixed feelings about the truce.

“We responded and made clear our blood was not shed in vain. Also a truce is good because we don’t want our people to suffer more under the blockade,” said one resident, Mohammad Al-Smairi.

U.N. mediator Nickolay Mladenov said the Gaza situation remained fragile, tweeting: “All must show maximum restraint and do their part to prevent bloodshed. The Middle East does not need more wars.”

(Reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones and Alex Richardson)

Gaza death toll reaches 23 in second day of escalation

Gaza death toll reaches 23 in second day of escalation
By Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi

JERUSALEM/GAZA (Reuters) – Israeli air strikes killed 13 Palestinians in Gaza on Wednesday, medical officials said, raising the Palestinian death toll to 23 over a two-day escalation in violence since Israel launched strikes to kill an Islamic Jihad commander.

From early morning Gaza militants fired rockets into Israel and the Israeli military struck from the air, resuming after an overnight lull. There were reports of injuries but no deaths inside Israel, where the military said it shot many of the rockets down with air defenses.

The bodies of six people were brought to Gaza’s Shifa hospital in taxis and ambulances early Wednesday, as relatives wept and screamed. Medics and witnesses said they were civilians who lived in densely populated neighborhoods.

In the north of Gaza City, family members said Rafat Ayyad and his two sons Islam, 25, and Ameer, aged 9, were killed by Israeli fire while rushing to hospital to visit another son who had earlier been injured in a separate attack.

“I got wounded and I called my father. He was coming to see me in hospital and two of my brothers were with him on the motorcycle when they were hit by Israel,” Loay Ayyad, 18, told Reuters during the funeral.

The Israeli military said that it had struck at least five rocket squads on Wednesday morning. Other targets included a rocket warhead manufacturing facility, an Islamic Jihad headquarters and a weapons storage site. Islamic Jihad confirmed that two of its militants were killed in separate strikes.

DIPLOMATIC EFFORTS

The fighting, the worst in months, erupted on Tuesday after Israel killed Baha Abu Al-Atta, a senior commander of the Iran-backed Islamic Jihad militant group, accusing him of masterminding and planning attacks against Israel.

In response to the killing of Atta and his wife, Islamic Jihad fired about 200 rockets into Israel on Tuesday, resuming on Wednesday morning.

“We will not allow the enemy to return to the policy of cowardly assassination under any circumstances,” said a statement by the ‘Joint Command’ of Palestinian armed factions.

The joint command includes Hamas, the much larger Islamist group that controls Gaza. But while Hamas appeared to be giving the green light for Islamic Jihad to continue, the larger group did not appear to be launching rockets itself, a decision that could reduce the likelihood of the violence escalating further.

Hamas and Israel have managed to defuse previous confrontations and to avoid a full-scale conflict for the past five years, following three wars from 2008-2014. In the past Israel has held Hamas responsible for rockets fired by any group in Gaza, but this time it appeared to be avoiding Hamas targets.

U.N. Middle East peace envoy Nickolay Mladenov said he was “very concerned about the ongoing and serious escalation between Palestinian Islamic Jihad and Israel, following the targeted killing of one of the group’s leaders inside Gaza yesterday.

“The indiscriminate launching of rockets and mortars against population centers is absolutely unacceptable and must stop immediately,” he said.

SIRENS AND EXPLOSIONS

The rockets from Gaza sent Israelis rushing to shelters in towns near the Gaza border and deeper in the country, with air raid sirens going off as far north as Tel Aviv and missiles striking Israeli highways and towns.

The Israeli military assembled armored vehicles along the border with Gaza, though a ground incursion into the territory seemed unlikely at this stage.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that Israel, having killed the Islamic Jihad commander, was not interested in a broader conflict.

“We don’t want escalation, but we are responding to every attack against us with a very sharp attack and response. Islamic Jihad best understand that now rather than when it’s too late for it,” Netanyahu said.

In Gaza, schools and most government offices remained closed for a second day, as were schools in much of southern Israel.

Israel captured Gaza in a 1967 war and withdrew troops and settlements in 2005. The territory has been controlled since 2007 by Hamas while under an Israeli security blockade, also backed by Egypt. The blockade has wrecked Gaza’s economy, and the United Nations says its 2 million residents have only limited access to electricity, clean water and medicine.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell and Nidal al-Mughrabi; Editing by Clarence Fernandez, Robert Birsel and Peter Graff)