Politics Trump takes ‘unprecedented’ action against Iran
Hunter Walker White House Correspondent,•U.S. designates elite Iranian force as terrorist organization WASHINGTON — The Trump administration announced on Monday that it would officially designate Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as a terrorist organization. Officials acknowledged the decision to label a part of a foreign government a terrorist organization was “unprecedented” but framed it as a necessary response to Iranian aggression.“The Iranian regime is the leading state sponsor of terror. It exports dangerous missiles, fuels conflicts across the Middle East, and supports terrorist proxies,” President Trump said in a statement released by the White House. Critics, including some within the Trump administration, have suggested the step could place U.S. troops or intelligence agents in danger of facing similar designations or other forms of retaliation. Indeed, shortly after the designation was announced, Russian state-owned media reported that the Iranian Foreign Ministry asked the country’s president to brand U.S. Central Command as a terrorist organization. It is also unclear how the move could affect businesses in European countries that still engage with Iran.Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who is taking the lead on this action, announced the move in a news conference Monday morning. He said the designation would take effect “one week from today.”President Trump; Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (Photo illustration: Yahoo News; photos: AP, Ay-Collection/Sipa/REX/Shutterstock) “The Iranian regime’s use of terror as a tool of statecraft makes it fundamentally different from any other government,” Pompeo said, adding, “This historic step will deprive the world’s leading state sponsor of terror the financial means to spread misery and death around the world.”Pompeo cited several examples of “Iran-backed terror incidents” including the 1996 Khobar Towers bombing that targeted U.S. Air Force personnel in Saudi Arabia and an alleged 2011 plot to kill the Saudi ambassador in Washington D.C. The secretary of state pointed to Iran’s “wrongly detaining U.S. persons including some who remain in custody.” Additionally, Pompeo noted Iranian support for other groups that America has labeled as terrorist organizations: Islamic Jihad and Hamas in the Palestinian Territories, and Hezbollah in Lebanon.A senior administration official who discussed the terror group designation on a press conference call with reporters described it as a longtime goal for Trump.“President Trump has always believed the threat from the Islamic Republic goes beyond its nuclear and missile programs, as deadly as they are,” said the official, who declined to be named.Both Pompeo and the officials on the press call also described the decision as an extension of Trump’s “maximum-pressure campaign” on Tehran, which has included sanctions and the decision to pull out of the multilateral nuclear accord with Iran.The Trump administration has been mulling designating the IRGC a terror group for months, with Pompeo a strong supporter of the move while other officials were concerned it could expose U.S. troops to fallout and retaliation. When asked about this concern, the officials on the call emphasized that the move came after an interagency process that included the evaluation of security concerns. They also said curbing the IRGC would benefit U.S. forces abroad.“What endangers American troops, among other things, is an IRGC that operates with impunity and never has its ambitions checked in the Middle East,” an official said.Pompeo also addressed whether the move could lead to financial consequences for European allies.Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks at a news conference to announce the Trump administration’s plan to designate Iran’s Revolutionary Guard a „foreign terrorist organization.” (Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP) “If you’re the general counsel for a European financial institution today, there is more risk. It is absolutely the case that the IRGC amounts to a significant piece of the Iranian economy through pure kleptocracy. And it is also the case that it is sometimes difficult to know whether the IRGC is involved,” Pompeo said, adding, “I think this will require more diligence be done by every business that is considering doing things that are even now second and third orders removed from what you might think of as a traditional connection to the Iranian economy.”Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif has suggested the Trump administration was considering this move to benefit Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a close ally and staunch opponent of Iran who is facing a tight election on Tuesday. The U.S. official emphasized Trump had hoped to make this designation for some time prior to the announcement.“Our willingness … to give them plausible deniability just came to a close,” the official said of Iran. “This is something the president has long wanted to enact.”
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates (AP) — Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, designated a „foreign terrorist organization” by the Trump administration on Monday, evolved from a paramilitary, domestic security force with origins in the 1979 Islamic Revolution to a transnational force that has come to the aid of Tehran’s allies in the Mideast, from Syria and Lebanon to Iraq.
The force answers only to Iran’s supreme leader, operates independently of the regular military and has vast economic interests across the country.
Here are key things to know about the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, or IRGC:
The Revolutionary Guard was created in parallel to the country’s existing armed forces to consolidate power under Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
The following year, it was called upon to defend Iran and its clerical leadership in a ruinous war with Iraq that would last eight years and strengthen the guard’s ideological, economic and security footprint at home.
The group is estimated to have between 125,000 and 150,000 members today, but it’s unclear how many of those include the Quds Force, an elite wing of the IRGC that oversees foreign operations. The group, enshrined in the constitution, answers only to Iran’s supreme leader.
The IRGC oversees the country’s ballistic missile program and has conducted several tests since the landmark 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers. While the accord does not specifically ban those tests, U.S. officials have said they violate the spirit of the deal. President Donald Trump last year pulled America out of the deal and re-imposed tough economic sanctions on Iran.
Additionally, the guard runs a massive construction company called Khatam al-Anbia, with 135,000 employees handling civil development, the oil industry and defense issues. Firms operated by the IRGC also build roads, man ports, run telecommunication networks and even offer laser eye surgery. The IRGC has deployed in rescue efforts during Iran’s recent devastating floods, which killed at least 70 people across the country.
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei last year ordered the guard to loosen its hold on the economy and privatize some of its vast economic holdings. Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani has tried unsuccessfully to further restrict the group’s expansive powers at home.
The Revolutionary Guard recruits and trains thousands of fighters abroad through its Quds Force, headed by Gen. Qassem Soleimani, a shadowy but prominent figure whose fighters have fought alongside Syrian President Bashar Assad’s forces and against Islamic State militants who view Shiites as heretics.
U.S. officials say the IRGC under Soleimani taught Iraqi militants how to manufacture and use deadly roadside bombs against American troops after the 2003 invasion of Iraq, a charge Iran denies.
The group also oversees the Basij, a volunteer force of several million that draws its members from among the poor, uneducated young men from rural areas and city outskirts. The Basij model has been exported abroad, with tens of thousands of Shiites recruited from countries like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon and Iraq to fight in Tehran’s proxy wars in Syria and elsewhere.
One of those young Shiite men, who joined a wave of Afghans recruited and trained to fight in support of Assad’s government in Syria, recently spoke with The Associated Press about the experience, saying he was driven by poverty and not by ideology or loyalty to Iran.
The IRGC backs a number of Shiite militias across the Middle East, as well as the Fatimiyoun Brigade in Afghanistan. Chief among them is Hezbollah, the IRGC’s oldest and most experienced force in the region, established following Israel’s invasion of Lebanon in 1982. The militia, led by Hassan Nasrallah, publicly joined Syria’s civil war in mid-2013, securing a string of hard-won victories in defense of Syria’s Iranian-backed government.
IRGC-backed Iraqi militias also fought in Syria in support of Assad’s forces and against the Islamic State group in northern and central Iraq. Some of the armed groups in Iraq backed by Iran include the powerful Kataeb Hezbollah, Haraket Hezbollah al-Nujaba and Asaib Ahl al-Haq.
In Pakistan, the Zeinabiyoun Brigade is mostly comprised of Shiite fighters who have also fought in Syria. Many of the group’s fighters are trained and funded by IRGC.
Yemen’s Houthi rebels are also allied with Iran. Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, the United States and other countries have accused the guard of supplying the Houthis with long-range missiles, a charge it denies. A Saudi-led coalition, backed by the U.S. and Britain, has been at war with the Houthis since March 2015.
Mroue reported from Beirut.
Forces loyal to Libya’s internationally recognised Government of National Accord, which is seeking to fend off an offensive by strongman Khalifa Haftar
Tripoli (AFP) – UN chief Antonio Guterres on Monday appealed for an immediate halt to fighting in Libya, after strongman Khalifa Haftar’s forces claimed an airstrike on Tripoli’s only functioning airport.
Thousands have fled violence in the capital city, according to the United Nations, since Haftar launched a surprise assault last week which has left dozens dead.
Secretary-General Guterres „urges the immediate halt of all military operations in order to de-escalate the situation and prevent an all-out conflict,” said a UN statement late Monday.
He „strongly condemns the military escalation and ongoing fighting in and around Tripoli, including the aerial attack today by a Libyan National Army (LNA) aircraft against Mitiga airport.”
The oil-rich northern African country has been rocked by violent power struggles between an array of armed groups since the NATO-backed overthrow of dictator Moamer Kadhafi in 2011.
The UN-backed Government of National Accord (GNA) controls the capital, but its authority is not recognized by a parallel administration in the east of the country, backed by Haftar.
The strongman has defied international calls to halt his advance on Tripoli, including from the UN Security Council and the United States.
„I make a very strong appeal to Libyan leaders and in particular to Haftar to stop all military activities… and to return to the negotiation table”, the EU’s foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini said after talks with EU foreign ministers.
The GNA said French President Emmanuel Macron spoke with its leader Fayez al-Sarraj of his „total opposition to the offensive against the capital and the endangering of civilian lives”.
The French presidency confirmed the call took place, without releasing details of the discussion.
Ahmad al-Mesmari, a spokesman for Haftar’s self-styled Libyan National Army, claimed Monday’s air strike against Mitiga airport, east of the capital which targeted a MiG-23 military plane and a helicopter.
A security source at the airport said the strike hit a runway without causing casualties.
„This attack constitutes a serious violation of international humanitarian law which prohibits attacks against civilian infrastructure,” said the UN’s envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame.
A spokesman for national carrier Libyan Airlines said the civil aviation authority decided „to suspend aerial traffic until further notice”.
An airport source, who did want to be named, confirmed the suspension.
– ‘Immediate halt’ –
Haftar is a former Kadhafi military chief who has emerged as a major player in Libya’s political struggle.
Having seized control of much of eastern Libya — and buoyed by a series of victories in the desert south — he turned his sights on Tripoli, vowing to „cleanse” it of „terrorists and mercenaries”.
His offensive threatens to plunge the country into a full-blown civil war and once again thwart diplomatic efforts to find a solution to Libya’s woes.
Fierce clashes Sunday near Tripoli saw Haftar’s fighters and other powerful western Libyan armed groups exchanging fire including air strikes.
Forces backing the GNA then announced a counteroffensive dubbed „Volcano of Anger”.
After a pause, fighting resumed Monday around the capital’s destroyed main airport, some 30 kilometres (18 miles) south of Tripoli, and the rural area of Wadi Rabi further east.
The US has appealed for an „immediate halt” to combat operations and the UN Security Council has called on Haftar’s forces to stop their advance.
On Sunday Russia, a key supporter of Haftar, along with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, blocked the council from adopting a formal statement against the strongman.
Instead the Kremlin on Monday urged „all sides to reject actions that could provoke bloodshed in battle and the deaths of civilians”.
– Civil war fears –
The unity government’s health ministry on Monday put the death toll at 35. Haftar’s forces have said 14 of their fighters have died.
The UN said the fighting has displaced some 3,400 people, up from an earlier estimate of 2,800.
„Clashes with heavy weapons are affecting residential areas, and an unknown number of civilians are unable to flee these locations,” UN spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York on Monday.
„We have no positive news to report on our call for a humanitarian truce.”
Haftar launched his offensive just days ahead of a planned UN conference aimed at uniting Libya’s rivals and paving the way for elections.
The UN’s Salame has insisted the international community is „determined” to go ahead with the April 14-16 conference.
The UN mission in Libya said on Twitter that Salame met Monday with Sarraj in Tripoli to discuss how to „assist at this critical and difficult juncture”.
By Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli
TRIPOLI/BENGHAZI, Libya (Reuters) – A warplane attacked Tripoli’s only functioning airport on Monday as eastern forces advancing on the Libyan capital disregarded international appeals for a truce in the latest of a cycle of warfare since Muammar Gaddafi’s fall in 2011.
Casualties were mounting in fighting that also threatens to disrupt oil supplies, fuel migration to Europe and wreck U.N. plans for an election to end rivalries between parallel administrations in the country’s east and west.
The eastern Libyan National Army (LNA) forces of Khalifa Haftar – a former general in Gaddafi’s army – said 19 of its soldiers died in recent days as they closed in on the internationally recognized government in Tripoli.
A spokesman for the Tripoli-based Health Ministry said fighting in the south of the capital had killed at least 25 people, including fighters and civilians, and wounded 80.
Mitiga airport, in an eastern suburb, was bombed and closed, authorities said. The U.N. envoy to Libya, Ghassan Salame, condemned the air strike as a „a serious violation of humanitarian law”.
A spokesman for the LNA confirmed the strike, saying his force had not targeted civilian planes, only a MiG parked at Mitiga.
The closure left Misrata airport, 200 km (125 miles) to the east down the coast, as the closest option for Tripoli residents.
Haftar’s LNA, which backs the eastern administration in Benghazi, took the oil-rich south of Libya earlier this year before advancing fast through largely unpopulated desert regions toward Tripoli.
Seizing the capital, however, is a much bigger challenge. The LNA has conducted air strikes on the south of the city as it seeks to advance along a road from a disused former international airport.
Witnesses said on Monday afternoon the LNA had lost control of the old airport and withdrawn from positions on the airport road. Forces allied to the Tripoli administration were seen inside the airport, while clashes with the eastern forces were raging south of the airport, a Reuters reporter at the scene and residents said.
On Sunday evening, LNA forces had moved up from the airport, coming as close as 11 km (7 miles) from the city center before retreating, residents said.
MACHINE GUNS ON PICKUPS
The government of Prime Minister Fayez al-Serraj, 59, is seeking to block the LNA with the help of allied armed groups who have rushed to Tripoli from Misrata in pickup trucks fitted with machine guns.
A Reuters correspondent in the city center could hear gunfire in the distance southwards.
Serraj has run Tripoli since 2016 as part of a U.N.-brokered deal boycotted by Haftar.
U.N. envoy Salame met Serraj in Tripoli on Monday to discuss „ways the U.N. can assist with this critical and difficult juncture”, U.N. spokesman Stephane Dujarric told reporters in New York.
Dujarric said 3,400 people had been displaced by violence in and around Tripoli, emergency services had been blocked from reaching casualties and civilians, and electricity lines had been damaged.
“We’re calling for a temporary humanitarian truce to allow for the provision of emergency services and a voluntary passage of civilians, including those wounded, from the areas of conflict,” Dujarric said.
The violence has jeopardized a U.N. plan for an April 14-16 conference to plan elections and end anarchy that has prevailed since the Western-backed toppling of Gaddafi.
As well as the United Nations, the European Union, United States and G7 bloc have all urged a ceasefire, a halt to Haftar’s advance and return to negotiations.
Haftar casts himself as a foe of extremism but is viewed by opponents as a new dictator in the mold of Gaddafi, whose four-decade rule was marked by torture, disappearances and assassinations.
MIGRANTS AND MILITANTS
Since NATO-backed rebels ousted Gaddafi, Libya has been a transit point for hundreds of thousands of migrants trekking across the Sahara in hope of reaching Europe across the sea.
Migrants and refugees held in detention are especially vulnerable in the current fighting, said aid agencies MSF (Doctors without Borders) and the International Rescue Committee.
The LNA says it has 85,000 men, but this includes soldiers paid by the central government that it hopes to inherit. Its elite Saiqa (Lightning) force, numbers some 3,500, while Haftar’s sons also have well-equipped troops, LNA sources say.
Analysts say Haftar has swelled his ranks with Salafist fighters and tribesmen as well as Chadians and Sudanese from over the southern borders, claims dismissed by the LNA.
France, which has close links to Haftar, said it had no prior warning of his push for Tripoli, a diplomatic source said.
France established close relations with Haftar under the Socialist government of former President Francois Hollande and his defense minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian.
When President Emmanuel Macron named Le Drian his foreign minister, Paris increased support for Haftar, in close alignment with Egypt and the United Arab Emirates, which see him as a bulwark against Islamists and have supported him militarily, according to U.N. reports.
France’s stance has created tensions with Italy, which has sought a leading role to end the turmoil in its former colony.
Serraj received a phone call from Macron on Monday, the Tripoli-based government said, adding they discussed security developments.
(Reporting by Ahmed Elumami and Ayman al-Warfalli; Additional reporting by Hani Amara in Tripoli, Ulf Laessing in Cairo, Tom Miles in Geneva, Robin Emmott in Luxembourg, Marine Pennetier in Paris and Michelle Nichols in New York; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne and Frances Kerry; Editing by Kevin Liffey, Alison Williams and Catherine Evans)
A woman and an ultra-Orthodox Jewish man walk past a billboard displaying Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem
Jerusalem (AFP) – Israelis decide in a high-stakes election Tuesday whether to extend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s long right-wing tenure or to replace him with an ex-military chief new to politics.
The vote is expected to be close and will likely lead to frantic negotiations to form a coalition government once results are in.
Opinion polls have shown Netanyahu best placed to cobble together an alliance, despite corruption allegations against him.
But ex-military chief Benny Gantz has mounted a strong challenge to the veteran prime minister by brandishing his security credentials.
He has also pledged to undo damage he says Netanyahu has inflicted on the country through divisive politics.
The election will in many ways be a referendum on the 69-year-old leader who has built a reputation as guarantor of the country’s security and economic growth, but whose populism and alleged corruption have left many ready for change.
Netanyahu has engaged in populist rhetoric throughout the acrimonious campaign that critics say amounts to the demonisation of Arab Israelis and others.
True to form, Netanyahu made a deeply controversial pledge only three days before the election, saying he planned to annex settlements in the occupied West Bank in the event of victory.
Extending Israeli sovereignty on a large-scale in the West Bank could be the death knell to already fading hopes for a two-state solution with the Palestinians.
It is a move long-sought by Israel’s far-right.
– ‘Need for change’ –
Netanyahu has also sought to portray himself as Israel’s essential statesman.
He met with his close ally US President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro in the run up to the vote.
He has highlighted Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israel’s claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights, while also saying the US leader is aware of his annexation plans.
„Who else can do this? Who can do this? Come on. Honestly,” Netanyahu said in an interview on Sunday with local news site Arutz Sheva.
„Who can stand in front of the world? Who can stand in front of the American Congress? Who can move public opinion in that direction?”
At the same time, he has used Trump-like tactics, calling the corruption investigations a „witch hunt” and denouncing journalists covering them.
Gantz, a 59-year-old former paratrooper who has formed a centrist alliance to challenge Netanyahu, has invoked the corruption allegations against the premier to make his case that it is time for change.
He has called Netanyahu’s annexation pledge an „irresponsible” bid for right-wing votes.
As for his position on the issue, Gantz says he favours a „globally backed peace agreement” that sees Israel hold on to the large settlement blocs in the West Bank and maintain security control over the territory.
He opposes any unilateral moves.
„There’s a need for change and an opportunity for change,” Gantz told Israel’s army radio on Monday.
„Israel needs to choose a direction of unification, connection and hope — or of extremity.”
Gantz has sought to overcome Netanyahu’s experience and achievements by allying with two other former military chiefs of staff and ex-finance minister Yair Lapid to form the Blue and White alliance.
– Neck-and-neck –
Opinion polls have given Netanyahu’s Likud and Blue and White a similar number of seats in the 120-seat parliament.
Under those polls, both would fall far short of an outright majority — with around 30 seats each — and would need to pull together a coalition.
If polling trends hold, Netanyahu would be best placed to build a coalition thanks to smaller right-wing parties close to him.
But there have been repeated warnings about opinion polls’ historical unreliability and the fact that many voters say they remained undecided.
Should Netanyahu win, he will be on track to surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving prime minister later this year.
He has been premier for a total of more than 13 years, entrenching himself so firmly at the top that some have labelled him „King Bibi,” using his nickname since childhood.
But if he does triumph, he faces the prospect of becoming the first sitting prime minister to be indicted.
The attorney general has announced he intends to indict Netanyahu for bribery, fraud and breach of trust pending an upcoming hearing.
The premier is not required to step down if indicted; only if he is convicted with all appeals exhausted.
Israelis are used to seeing their prime minister of the past decade, Benjamin Netanyahu, pull rabbits out of a seemingly bottomless hat to keep himself and his Likud party in power.
Four years ago, to mobilize his base, he warned that Arab voters were swamping the polls, later apologizing for playing what critics decried as the race card.
But this year, trailing in the polls to a new centrist alliance, facing indictments for fraud, bribery, and breach of trust, and pressed from rivals on the far right, his election eve vow to annex portions of the West Bank has crossed a new line.
If pursued, it would effectively bury prospects for peace with the Palestinians and lead to an Israel that many analysts say could no longer be considered democratic.
As Israeli voters head to the polls Tuesday they are now faced with more than just a referendum on the hard-line Mr. Netanyahu, as this election had already been portrayed. More clearly than ever before, they are being presented with a choice between keeping alive the possibility of a two-state solution to solve the centurylong Israeli-Palestinian conflict or bidding it farewell by granting Israel eventual control over some or all of the West Bank.
That could some day put the Jewish state in charge of some 2.7 million Palestinians, which brings its own fateful choice: grant them full rights, and Israel ultimately loses its Jewish character; deny them rights, and Israel ceases to be a democracy.
Many analysts, voters, and politicians dismiss Mr. Netanyahu’s unprecedented annexation pledge as a ploy. But their warnings are grave.
“For the Palestinians, any sign of annexation will be the end of the Oslo agreements and especially the end of security coordination with Israel,” says Shaul Arieli, a retired colonel who took part in negotiations under former Labor prime ministers Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Barak. He and other experts predict the Palestinian Authority would collapse soon after any kind of annexation.
The Palestinians have long argued it would be impossible to establish a contiguous state if it is formed around swaths and patches of Jewish settlements on what they and the international community say is occupied land.
“It will be the end of the Zionist vision of a democratic and Jewish state,” Dr. Arieli says. “We don’t know how many years it will take, but it’s like a domino effect. You start with annexation of Maale Adumim [a sprawling settlement near Jerusalem], which is part of the Israeli consensus, and at the end of the process there will be one state, and it will be an Arab state or apartheid.”
According to polls, most Israelis value the Jewish and democratic nature of Israel and oppose annexation. But after years of political deadlock, calls for full or partial annexation to include what’s called „Area C” (under the Oslo Accord) have been gaining traction on the right. That area is home to most of the large Jewish settlement blocs plus as many as 300,000 Palestinians in a hodgepodge of enclaves within it.
Such a step, however, could trigger serious violence that could stretch for years, experts warn.
Kobi Michael, a former deputy director general and head of the Palestinian desk at the Ministry for Strategic Affairs, calls Mr. Netanyahu a “political magician” but says “he will do anything to ensure he will continue to be prime minister. He does not stop at the red lights.”
Annexing Area C “could increase the chance for something like a third intifada, something that is very serious,” adds Dr. Michael, now a senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies, an Israeli think tank.
Neither the specter of international condemnation, security warnings, or even his own usually cautious approach to stoking potential unrest deterred Mr. Netanyahu from breaking with his previous aversion to unilateral moves like annexation.
Pressed in an interview Saturday night with an Israeli television station, Mr. Netanyahu said that if the Likud won, Israel would annex part of the West Bank. He was vague – experts say purposefully so – but he was very clear on one point: No Jewish settlements would be left behind, from the large blocs that abut large Israeli cities to the small and isolated ones.
THE TRUMP FACTOR
The consensus in Israel seems to be annexation is not necessarily something Netanyahu plans to truly carry out or even could carry out if he wants to. But political realities have been shifting, especially with regard to the United States.
Under any previous president, the notion of annexation would have been a non-starter. Past U.S. administrations sought to fashion themselves as “fair brokers” negotiating the fragile Israeli-Palestinian relationship in coordination with both sides.
But as Mr. Netanyahu returned home from a meeting with President Donald Trump two weeks ago, there were hints from within his entourage that he may have received a green light from the White House to pursue some form of annexation. A senior source on the plane said Mr. Trump’s formal U.S. recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights – itself seen as another pro-Netanyahu election “goodie” to persuade voters – was a precedent for recognizing other captured territory.
“I think everyone understands it’s part of Netanyahu’s propaganda and not more than that,” says Dr. Arieli, “But still, the outcome will depend on the results of the election.”
If the Likud wins and Mr. Netanyahu as its leader forms a coalition with the far-right parties, they will demand that he fulfills this commitment.
“This is about internal political games, not about geopolitics, but he is inviting pressure on to himself along with the chances of sparking unrest and international condemnation,” says Dr. Michael.
Among the possible diplomatic casualties of such an approach would be Israel’s improving ties with Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Arab states. And Israel’s ties with American Jews, many of them long-standing champions of the two-state solution, would no doubt be further compromised, especially amid withering criticism of Israel from progressive Democrats.
According to Zipi Israeli, a research fellow who heads the public opinion department of the Institute for National Security Studies, for the past 30 years Israelis have consistently been in favor of some form of separation from the Palestinians, with recent polls indicating 55% of Jewish Israelis support a two-state solution.
What has also remained consistent, she says, is that the majority of Jewish Israelis fear the kind of binational state that annexation of the West Bank, or parts of it, could bring because one of their primary concerns is maintaining a Jewish majority in Israel.
A civics teacher who wanted to be identified as only Daniel and plans to vote for Meretz, a small left-wing party, says the two-state solution “is almost impossible right now, but it is the only valid option for the long run.”
In some ways he sees Mr. Netanyahu coming out in favor of annexation as a relief. “It takes down the ‘mask’ that ‘We are for peace; we will negotiate with the Palestinians,’” he says. “It’s always better to know the true thoughts and beliefs of our leaders. Now Netanyahu can no longer ‘sell’ that he is for the two-state solution.”
Yaara O., who works in the high-tech field in Tel Aviv, grew up in Alfei Menashe, a West Bank settlement that is part of a large settlement bloc. She does not believe there is currently a partner for peace in the Palestinian Authority leadership and welcomes the idea of annexing the major settlement blocs but not the smaller, more remote ones that are scattered throughout the West Bank.
“My view is that we do need to be more aggressive,” she says, “but I also want to see a Palestinian state one day.”
KAMPALA, Uganda (AP) — U.S. President Donald Trump on Monday urged Uganda to find the kidnappers of an American tourist who has been freed amid conflicting reports over whether a ransom was paid for her release.
Kim Endicott of Costa Mesa, California, was released by her abductors over the weekend and was to be turned over to the U.S. ambassador Monday, Ugandan police said.
Endicott and her Ugandan driver were both safe after the five-day ordeal. They were taken from Queen Elizabeth National Park across the border to Congo, according to Ugandan authorities.
Trump pressed Uganda’s government to capture the culprits Monday.
„Uganda must find the kidnappers of the American Tourist and guide before people will feel safe in going there. Bring them to justice openly and quickly!” he tweeted.
Over the weekend, Trump tweeted that he was pleased the tourist and guide had been released.
Ugandan police spokesman Fred Enanga said he did not believe a ransom had been paid.
„I have indicated to you that we don’t do ransom,” he said Monday at a news conference in the Ugandan capital of Kampala.
A Uganda-based tour official said, however, that a ransom was paid to secure Endicott’s freedom. The tourist was released, „not rescued,” after money was paid „otherwise she wouldn’t be back,” said the tourism professional with knowledge of Endicott’s trip.
He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the press.
Many officials, including from the U.S. Embassy, were involved in efforts to secure the release of the kidnapping victims, he said. He couldn’t say how much was paid or who paid.
Ugandan officials have said the kidnapping victims were rescued from armed kidnappers who are still at large.
Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni said on Twitter that the security forces „shall deal with these isolated pockets of criminals.”
The kidnappers had demanded a $500,000 ransom after grabbing Endicott and her driver from a group of tourists on an evening game drive on April 2, police said.
„It’s completely shocking,” Sandy Benton, a friend of Endicott’s in Southern California, said Monday. „I never thought anything like this would happen to her.”
Benton called Endicott an adventure seeker and world traveler, saying it wasn’t surprising that she would travel to Uganda on her own.
„I just prayed for her and hoped for safe return,” Benton said. „I’m glad to hear she’ll be on her way home soon. I can’t imagine how traumatic that was for her. She had to be terrified.”
Megan Barth, a longtime client and friend of Endicott’s who lives in Las Vegas, said Endicott is an animal lover who long dreamed of traveling to Africa to see gorillas in the wild.
„It was definitely on the bucket list for her,” Barth said. „She’s a wanderlust, and she’s always been a wanderlust. She always was wanting to travel and experience different cultures.”
Barth said she’s been overcome with worry since Endicott was kidnapped.
„Over the past week, I’ve just been praying — praying in the shower, praying while I’m driving, praying while having my cup of coffee,” she said. „My whole entire day was consumed by her because I knew she was in such an awful, traumatic place.”
Benton and Barth said they hope Endicott isn’t too scarred by the experience and is touched by those worldwide who have reached out to her family while she was held.
„Hopefully she just feels a lot of love,” Benton said.
Barth said if anyone can make it through such an experience, it’s Endicott.
„She’s such a lovely, warm-hearted, beautiful spirit,” she said. „She will somehow turn this traumatic experience into something that is not only a healing experience for her, but an experience she can use to help others.”
Endicott, who has a small skin care shop in Costa Mesa, is in her 50s and has a daughter and granddaughter, according to Phoenix resident Rich Endicott, who told The Associated Press that he hadn’t spoken with his cousin since a family reunion several years ago.
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said last week at an event for families of U.S. citizens held captive overseas that he understands some people want to do anything to get their loved ones back but paying ransom would just lead to more kidnappings.
Queen Elizabeth National Park, which is near the porous border with Congo, is Uganda’s most popular safari destination. Its attractions include groups of tree-climbing lions.
Myers reported from Los Angeles.
By Elias Biryabarema
KAMPALA (Reuters) – An American tourist and her guide who were abducted in Uganda last week were released after a „negotiated settlement” was reached with the kidnappers, the firm that organized her safari told Reuters on Monday.
Amid fears the incident could deter tourists from visiting the East African country, U.S. President Donald Trump called on Twitter for the kidnappers to be found.
Ugandan authorities said on Sunday that Kimberley Sue Endecott, 35, and her driver, Jean Paul, had been rescued unharmed after being seized by gunmen in Queen Elizabeth National Park, near the border with Democratic Republic of Congo, on April 2. The kidnappers later demanded a ransom of $500,000 for Endecott’s release.
The acknowledgement of negotiations with the captors follows reports in several local media outlets, including state-owned daily New Vision, that a ransom was paid before the two were freed.
„A negotiated settlement was arranged with the assistance of the American government,” a spokesman for the tour firm, Wild Frontiers Safaris Uganda, told Reuters. „I don’t have details of the final settlement”
New Vision reported on Monday, citing undisclosed sources, that a ransom of $30,000 had been paid.
In Washington, a State Department official said the United States maintains a „no concessions” policy that covers ransoms for Americans taken captive.
„We firmly believe that making concessions increases the risks for Americans and others traveling abroad,” the official said, adding that the United States had worked closely with Ugandan authorities for the release of Endecott. „We cannot get into the details of this case, but can confirm that we worked closely with our Ugandan counterparts,” the official added.
Uganda Police spokeswoman Polly Namaye said she could not confirm whether a ransom had been paid.
It remains unclear who was responsible for the abduction, which took place in an area once roamed by fighters belonging to the Allied Democratic Forces (ADF), an anti-Kampala rebel group that is now mostly dormant. The group is still believed to have camps in eastern Congo.
„Uganda must find the kidnappers of the American Tourist and guide before people will feel safe in going there,” Trump tweeted on Monday. „Bring them to justice openly and quickly!”
Tourism is a key source of foreign exchange for Uganda and there are concerns the incident might raise safety fears and discourage visitors.
In a tweet on Monday, President Yoweri Museveni promised to „deal with these isolated pockets of criminals.”
„I want to reassure the country and our tourists that Uganda is safe and we shall continue to improve the security in our parks. Come and enjoy the Pearl of Africa,” he wrote.
The last attack on tourists in a Ugandan park was in 1999. An American couple, four Britons and two New Zealanders were killed along with four Ugandan guides after being ambushed by gunmen in the Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, a few kilometers south of the Queen Elizabeth park.
Queen Elizabeth National Park is one of most visited in the East African country, with tourists flocking there to see lions, hippos, crocodiles and various types of antelope.
(Reporting by Elias Biryabarema; Additional reporting by Lesley Wroughton in Washington; Editing by Catherine Evans and Leslie Adler)
CANBERRA, Australia (AP) — A security adviser to an Australian prime minister said he warned a Chinese-Australian writer not to travel to China before the blogger and critic of China’s Communist Party was detained on arrival at a Chinese airport in January.
John Garnaut was commissioned in 2016 by then-Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to write a classified report on Chinese influence on Australian politics, leading to sweeping laws in 2018 banning covert foreign political interference and a diplomatic rift between Australia and China, its biggest trading partner.
Garnaut told Australian Broadcasting Corp. in an interview broadcast on Monday that he advised spy novelist and friend Yang Hengjun not to travel to China after Yang revealed he had been questioned by a Chinese government official in Sydney in 2018 about Garnaut’s investigation.
„He was asked about me, what was the nature of our relationship, what was I doing. What was I working on,” Garnaut said.
Yang, a 53-year-old visiting scholar at Columbia University in New York and a former Chinese diplomat, did not take Garnaut’s advice and flew to China with his wife, Xiaoliang Yuan, and his 14-year-old stepdaughter.
Yuan said she had not seen her husband since they were separated by Chinese officials when they landed at Guangzhou Airport on Jan. 19.
Foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said in January that Yang was „suspected of engaging in criminal activities endangering China’s national security.” He is being held in Beijing, where the Australian Embassy has been allowed consular access to him. ABC reported that Yang had yet to be formally charged.
The Australian government has urged China to treat Yang transparently and fairly.
Yuan is living in Shanghai. She said she is not allowed to leave China and her husband has not seen a lawyer.
„I have absolutely no idea whether he is well or even if he is alive or not,” she said through an interpreter.
„It gets harder as time passes, mainly because I can’t see him. I would have felt better if the lawyers could see him and verify that he is all right,” she added.
A friend of Yang, University of Technology Sydney academic Feng Chongyi, was detained for two weeks in 2017 while visiting China to research human rights lawyers.
Feng told ABC that he had been questioned for an entire day in detention about Garnaut’s investigation. Feng said his interrogators had known Garnaut was working for the prime minister.
„They knew a lot about him. During the interrogation, they did not hide that they were angry with him,” Feng said.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Lu Kang said he had not seen the ABC report. But Lu said the Chinese government had always opposed any interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
„As for activities carried out by Chinese embassies and consulates in other countries, these activities aim at promoting mutual understanding between China and the regions or countries where the diplomatic mission are based, and enhancing mutual understanding and friendship among the people, including serving as the bridge of cooperation between the business community of each other,” Lu said.
„I did not see any difference between the activities carried out by Chinese embassies and consulates in other countries and those conducted by foreign diplomatic missions in China,” he added.
Associated Press writer Christopher Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.
BOGOTA (Reuters) – Armed groups had planned an attack on Colombian President Ivan Duque when he meets on Tuesday with leaders of indigenous communities, the country’s attorney general said.
Duque is set to meet with the leaders following the negotiated end to a 27-day blockade by indigenous groups that caused food and gasoline shortages in some cities in Colombia’s southwest.
The government reached a deal on Saturday to invest more than $250 million in indigenous communities and end the protest, which is referred to as a „minga” in Colombia.
„We have trustworthy information that on the occasion of his meeting with the leaders of the Cauca minga, some organized armed groups which have infiltrated this social and indigenous movement wanted to carry on a terrorist act that could have affected the security of the president,” Attorney General Nestor Humberto Martinez told journalists late on Monday.
„We are corroborating all of the evidence in a criminal investigation,” Martinez said. „The information that we have obtained is about a high-precision weapon.”
He did not elaborate on the suspected plot or if the conspirators had been apprehended.
Duque will go ahead with the meeting in Caldono, Defense Minister Guillermo Botero told journalists late on Monday, but only in a location decided by his security staff.
The government has said the protests were being infiltrated by members of the ELN rebel group and former members of the FARC guerrillas who did not demobilize under a 2016 peace deal.
Indigenous communities blocked a section of the Pan-American highway in Cauca province to demand the government comply with previously agreed social investment.
A police officer and an indigenous protester were killed during the blockade, while eight other people in the area died in an explosion that security sources said was caused by bomb-making materials.
(Reporting by Julia Symmes Cobb; Editing by Peter Cooney)
Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, law professor Benny Tai and sociology professor Chan Kin-man arrive at court on Tuesday
Hong Kong (AFP) – Leading Hong Kong democracy campaigners vowed to continue their fight even if they are jailed by a court later Tuesday following a trial that has sparked renewed alarm over shrinking political freedoms under an assertive China.
Nine activists are awaiting verdicts in a trial that deployed rarely-used colonial-era public nuisance charges for their participation in the 2014 Umbrella Movement protests, which called for free elections for the city’s leader.
The charges carry steep jail terms of up to seven years.
Among the most prominent members of the group on trial are sociology professor Chan Kin-man, 60, law professor Benny Tai, 54, and Baptist minister Chu Yiu-ming, 75.
The trio founded the pro-democracy „Occupy Central” movement in 2013, which joined the student-led Umbrella Movement a year later that brought parts of the city to a standstill for months.
The nine defendants struck a note of defiance as they greeted a large crowd of supporters outside the courthouse in Hong Kong’s Kowloon district on Tuesday morning.
„No matter what happens today, I have the confidence many people today will be together and continue to strive for Hong Kong democracy. We will persist on and do not give up,” Tai told media and supporters.
„I still believe in the power of love and peace. I have no regret for what I have done,” Chan Kin-man added.
Hong Kong’s Justice Department only brought charges against the group leaders more than two years after the protest ended.
The Occupy trio face three charges each of conspiracy to cause public nuisance, incitement to cause public nuisance and incitement to incite public nuisance. The remainder face one or two public nuisance charges each.
– ‘Silence debate’ –
Human rights groups, including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have described the prosecutions as politically motivated, saying the use of vaguely worded public nuisance laws against protesters will have a chilling effect on free speech in Hong Kong.
„If prosecutors are successful, there is a real danger that more and more people will face charges for peaceful activism. The authorities appear intent on trying to silence any debate about sensitive issues in Hong Kong, especially those relating to democracy and autonomy,” said Man-kei Tam, Amnesty’s Hong Kong director.
The city enjoys rights unseen on the Chinese mainland, which are protected by the 50-year handover agreement between Britain and China, but fears are growing that those liberties are being eroded as Beijing flexes its muscles.
At the trial, prosecutors argued that the mass protests had caused a „common injury done to the public”, who had been affected by the blockage of major roads, and that the leaders of the movement deserved to be punished.
On Saturday, more than 200 supporters, including outspoken Cardinal Joseph Zen, gathered for a service ahead of the verdict where the crowd prayed, sang songs and hugged.
The venue — Kowloon Union Church — was where the trio first announced their „Occupy Central” manifesto six years ago.
„What we are facing is the most powerful autocracy in human history and we have to take back our democratic rights from its hand,” a tearful Tai told his supporters, referring to China’s increasingly assertive control over the city.
Chan, who retired last year ahead of the trial, said he felt calm and grateful that he was able to spend more time with his family, especially his father, who recently passed away.
He had previously told AFP he became a marathon runner to prepare for the physical and mental challenges of a possible jail sentence.
The Occupy movement highlighted widespread frustration, especially among the young, over Hong Kong’s direction but failed to win any reforms or concessions from Beijing.
Since then, many activists have been prosecuted, with some jailed, while a string of pro-democracy lawmakers have been barred.
(Bloomberg) — Estonia moved closer to forming a government that includes an anti-immigrant party, potentially strengthening the hand of nationalists before May’s European Union elections.
While a pro-European liberal won Slovakia’s presidential vote this month — denting a populist expansion in the bloc’s eastern wing — Estonia’s EKRE holds euroskeptic views similar to those of ruling parties in Hungary and Poland. Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban is threatening to walk away from the EU parliament’s mainstream bloc.
EKRE is set to be a junior partner in Estonia’s new coalition, which will be led by Prime Minister Juri Ratas’s Center party. Ratas outmaneuvered the opposition Reform Party, which won the most votes in the Baltic country’s March election, by reneging on pledges to shun EKRE. His three-party alliance, commanding a 56-seat majority in parliament, signed a coalition agreement on Monday.
EKRE’s inclusion “may make partners more cautious with respect to Estonia,” said Kristi Raik, head of the Estonian Foreign Policy Institute in Tallinn. But “it will be simple for the government to assume a bit more of a euroskeptic position than average without actually bringing any meaningful changes.”
The coalition pact doesn’t include a shift in Estonia’s orientation, envisaging a “foreign and security policy based on EU and NATO membership.” Estonians worry more than other EU members about immigration, though more than half say they “tend to trust” the bloc.
While EKRE members have publicly used racial epithets, the party dropped demands to scrap same-sex partnerships and state funding of abortion. The government will pursue a controversial revamp of the pension system while a long-delayed Baltic rail project opposed by EKRE will depend on the level of EU aid. EKRE’s five ministerial portfolios will include those of finance and external trade.
“Our wish is a coherent, strong Estonian society,” Ratas said at the signing on Monday. “We want no one to be left behind, and for all 1.3 million residents to be ‘our’ people.”
The coalition must wait at least another week for Ratas’s turn to form a government after President Kersti Kaljulaid on Friday offered Reform the first attempt, though it’s almost sure to fail.
(Updates with premier’s comment at signing of coalition pact in penultimate paragraph.)
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