Netanyahu in hot water over praise of Trump’s wall

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu listens to his Croatian counterpart Andrej Plenkovic (unseen) as they deliver joint statements in Jerusalem, in this January 24, 2017 photo. (REUTERS)
Updated 30 January 2017
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Netanyahu in hot water over praise of Trump’s wall

JERUSALEM: When Benjamin Netanyahu sent a tweet in support of President Donald Trump's plan for a wall along the Mexican border, the Israeli prime minister can barely have expected it would be retweeted 40,000 times and cause a backlash at home and abroad.
Already under arguably the greatest pressure he has faced in his 11 years as prime minister, with police questioning him in two criminal probes into abuse of office, aligning himself with Trump may further undermine his standing.
The tweet, sent from his personal account shortly before the Jewish sabbath officially ended on Saturday, was very clear: "President Trump is right. I built a wall along Israel's southern border. It stopped all illegal immigration. Great Success. Great idea," Netanyahu wrote, appending pictures of the Israeli and US flags alongside each other.
Netanyahu was referring to a steel fence Israel has built along its border with Egypt, mainly to keep out migrants fleeing conflicts in Africa, including Somalis, Sudanese and Eritreans.
Israel has also built a steel-and-concrete barrier along its border with the occupied West Bank, which it says is to prevent militants crossing into Israel. Palestinians see the barrier, which has drawn international condemnation, as a land grab.
On the one hand, Trump's election as president was seen as a blessing for Netanyahu, the first time in four terms as prime minister that he would have a Republican in the White House.
As well as the Republicans being more ideologically aligned with Netanyahu's right-wing coalition, Trump has already shown a willingness to turn a blind eye to Israel's settlement building in the West Bank, which Barack Obama's administration frequently criticized, casting a pall over US-Israeli ties.
On the other hand, Trump is an unpredictable actor who in just nine days in office has sewn division across the US and shocked capitals around the world with a series of executive actions that are overturning decades of US policy.
The adverse reaction to Netanyahu's tweet, which was retweeted by Trump and drew far more attention than Netanyahu's tweets usually do as a result, appeared to be an early sign of the danger Netanyahu faces with aligning himself with Trump.
The Mexican government was outraged that he would involve himself in what it regards as a bilateral issue.
"The Foreign Ministry expressed to the government of Israel, via its ambassador in Mexico, its profound astonishment, rejection and disappointment over Prime Minister Netanyahu's message," the ministry said in a statement.
"Mexico is a friend of Israel and should be treated as such by its prime minister."
Dan Shapiro, who served as ambassador to Israel under Obama until nine days ago and still lives in the country, ditched diplomacy to question Netanyahu's motives in sending the tweet.
"Hard to explain this intervention on a hotly debated issue in domestic US politics. Unless this endorsement is Trump's demand of Netanyahu for something Netanyahu wants," he wrote on Twitter, suggesting it may be linked to Trump's promise to move the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
"To me, it looks like Trump is already squeezing Netanyahu hard."
Opposition politician Yair Lapid, who is ahead of Netanyahu in recent opinion polls, was also scathing. Whereas Lapid has shied away from criticizing Netanyahu over the police investigations into him, this time he didn't hold back: "A serious mistake by Netanyahu," Lapid tweeted in Hebrew.
"It is a needless declaration of war on Mexico and Hispanics and a rupture with the Democrats (including the majority of US Jews). It doesn't matter what we think of the wall, don't we have enough troubles of our own?"
Though Netanyahu has not deleted the tweet, Israel's Foreign Ministry immediately sought to nuance its content.
The prime minister was referring to Israel's "specific security experience", the Foreign Ministry spokesman said, adding: "We do not express a position on US-Mexico relations."


Iran-backed militias accused of reign of fear in Iraqi Basra

Iraqi activist Hajjar Youssif hands out masks to protesters for a demonstration last week in Basra. (AP)
Updated 27 min 59 sec ago
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Iran-backed militias accused of reign of fear in Iraqi Basra

  • Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospitals

BASRA: Hajjar Youssif was on her daily commute to work, staring at her phone and flicking through her Instagram account when she looked up to find herself in an unusual location. The taxi driver had turned into an alley. When she questioned the driver, he sped up.
“I started to feel uneasy and knew that something bad was going to happen,” said the 24-year-old office administrator, who had taken part in protests over lack of clean water, frequent power cuts and soaring unemployment in her hometown of Basra, Iraq’s oil capital and main port.
She yelled and tried to open the door, but the driver had locked it. The taxi swerved into a courtyard where three masked men were waiting.
“They immediately told me, ‘We’ll teach you a lesson. Let it be a warning to other protesters’,” Youssif said in an interview several days after the incident.
The men slapped and beat her and pulled off her Islamic headscarf, she said. “At the end, they grabbed me by my hair and warned me not to take part in the protests before blindfolding me and dumping me on the streets,” she said, her cheeks still bruised.
Youssif believes the attack was part of what she and other activists describe as a campaign of intimidation and arbitrary detentions by powerful Iranian-backed Shiite militias and political groups that control Basra, a city of more than 2 million people in southern Iraq’s Shiite Muslim heartland.
Angry Basra residents have repeatedly taken to the streets in recent weeks to protest failing government services, including water contamination that sent thousands to hospitals.
Earlier this month, protests turned violent when demonstrators attacked and torched government offices, the headquarters of the Iranian-backed militias and the Iranian Consulate in Basra — in a show of anger over what many residents perceive as Iran’s outsized control over local affairs.
The events in Basra reflect the growing influence of the militias, which played a major role in retaking Iraqi territory from Daesh militants, who are Sunni Muslims.
Shortly after IS militants captured much of northern and western Iraq in 2014, tens of thousands of Shiite men answered a call-to-arms by the top Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani.
Many volunteers were members of Iran-backed militias active since the 2003 US-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, while others formed new groups. These fighters are credited with helping government forces defeat the extremists. But during the war, the militiamen were also accused by Sunnis and rights groups of abuses against the Sunni community, including killings, torture and destruction of homes.
Buoyed by victory against IS, some of the most feared Shiite militias took part in the May national elections and their list — Fatah — won 48 seats in the 329-seat Parliament.
Fatah and other factions formed a wider Iran-backed coalition in Parliament earlier this month and will likely be tasked with forming the new government.
In Basra, some alleged the militias were working with local authorities to quell the protests — a charge denied by Bassem Al-Khafaji, head of Sayyed Al-Shuhada, one of several Basra militias.
He said threats and intimidation of protesters were “individual acts,” but not the result of a central directive.
“Our order for all the factions in Basra ... is not to confront the protesters who burned down the offices of the militias,” Al-Khafaji said, arguing that the militias are trying to prevent more bloodshed.
He accused infiltrators of turning the protests violent and said the alleged saboteurs must be dealt with by the security agencies.
Some militia leaders in Basra accused protesters of colluding with the US, which has long worked to curb Iranian influence in Iraq.
A local leader of a prominent militia vowed to retaliate.
“We have pictures of those who burned down our headquarters and they will pay dearly,” he said on condition of anonymity in line with his group’s rules for speaking to the media. “We will not let them attack us again and if they do we’ll open fire. That’s what we’ve agreed on, all of us.”
The government has said protesters’ demands are legitimate, but claims infiltrators were behind the violence.
A senior official in the Interior Ministry’s intelligence service said dozens have been arrested since the protests began. He acknowledged that others may be held by political parties and their militias, but said his office has no way of tracking that. He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to the media.