Trump’s Mideast peace plan in limbo as Netanyahu visits

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is to meet his "true friend" Donald Trump in Washington on March 5, 2018 during a visit that will take him away from swirling accusations of personal corruption and a government crisis roiling the Israeli scene. (AFP)
Updated 05 March 2018
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Trump’s Mideast peace plan in limbo as Netanyahu visits

WASHINGTON: There’s much to celebrate but plenty of cause for trepidation, too, as President Donald Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meet Monday at the White House.
For all his talk about brokering the “ultimate deal” between Israelis and Palestinians, Trump’s long-awaited peace plan has yet to arrive, even as Palestinians and other critics insist it will be dead on arrival. And although Israel’s government is overjoyed by Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital — with a US embassy set to open in the holy city in May — misgivings are percolating under the surface over Iran, where Israel sees Trump’s efforts to date to crack down on Israel’s arch-enemy as lacking.
One major, growing concern: that the United States is acquiescing to Iran’s growing presence in Syria and influence in Lebanon — two Israeli neighbors.
“If we don’t come up with a strategy against Iran, we’re going to make Israel go to war here pretty soon,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said Sunday on ABC’s “This Week.”
Swirling legal investigations distracting both leaders at home, and a stunning fall from grace for Trump’s son-in-law and would-be peace negotiator, Jared Kushner, have added to the mix of politics, personalities and historical grievances that have always hindered Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. An already volatile situation now looks even more combustible than normal.
Netanyahu arrived in the United States over the weekend as Washington was gearing up for the annual conference of AIPAC, the powerful pro-Israel lobby. He planned to hold a meeting and working lunch with Trump on Monday before speaking at the conference later in the week. Top-ranking US officials including Vice President Mike Pence and UN Ambassador Nikki Haley will also address the conference.
In a poignant reminder of his troubles back home, Netanyahu and his wife were questioned separately by police for hours on Friday before the prime minister left the next day for Washington. Those interviews were part of an investigation into a corruption case involving the country’s telecom giant, and police have recommended indicting Netanyahu on corruption charges in two other cases as well.
The Trump family has legal problems of its own. Kushner, Trump’s point-man for the Mideast, is under intense scrutiny over his business dealings as special counsel Robert Mueller barrels forward with his Russia probe. Kushner has also been stripped of his top security clearance in another blow to his credibility as an international negotiator.
Kushner’s peace proposal is near completion, US officials have said, but Palestinians have already written off Trump’s administration as a viable mediator following his decision last year to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. A ribbon-cutting for an interim facility is being planned to coincide with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s independence.
Israeli Ambassador Ron Dermer, speaking at AIPAC on Sunday, said that the Jewish people will “forever” remember Trump’s decision.
But while the visit may give Trump a chance to bask in Israel’s delight, Netanyahu also comes with serious concerns to raise about the president’s broader approach on the Middle East.
Israel is increasingly worried that Trump is backsliding on a pledge to “fix” or dismantle the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. Of particular concern is that Trump may push new restrictions to prevent Iran from developing intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of hitting the US, but will allow Iran to keep developing medium-range ballistic missiles that could strike Israel.
The Europeans have balked at the possibility of medium-range missile restrictions, arguing that existing UN resolutions on Iran only focus on longer-range projectiles. US officials negotiating with Britain, France and Germany appear to agree with the Europeans, prompting the Israeli concern.
At least publicly, Israel is still giving Trump some political cover, while gently reminding the president that he’s long vowed to scrap the deal if it can’t be sufficiently strengthened.
“I have no doubt whatsoever that this president is willing to walk away,” Dermer said.


Masked attackers kill five Syria rescuers: White Helmets

Updated 33 min 5 sec ago
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Masked attackers kill five Syria rescuers: White Helmets

  • The White Helmets said armed men stormed the Al-Hader center in a pre-dawn attack and fired on the first responders inside.
  • Four volunteers were killed on the spot and a fifth died later in hospital.

BEIRUT: Five Syrian rescue workers were killed in an attack by masked assailants Saturday on one of their centers in the northern province of Aleppo, the White Helmets said.
The White Helmets said armed men stormed the Al-Hader center in a pre-dawn attack and fired on the first responders inside.
Four volunteers were killed on the spot and a fifth died later in hospital, it wrote on Twitter.
Founded in 2013, the White Helmets are a network of first responders who rescue wounded in the aftermath of air strikes, shelling or blasts in rebel-held territory.
The Al-Hader center lies in a part of Aleppo province controlled by Hayat Tahrir Al-Sham (HTS), an extremist organization whose main component was once Al-Qaeda’s affiliate in Syria.
“At around 2:00 am, an armed group stormed the Al-Hader center, blindfolded the staff members who were on the night shift, and killed five of them,” said Ahmad Al-Hamish, who heads the center.
“Two others were wounded and another two were able to flee. The attackers were masked and escaped after stealing some equipment and generators,” he said.
It was unclear whether the attack was a robbery-gone-wrong or if the center and its crew had been specifically targeted.
More than 200 White Helmets rescuers have been killed in Syria’s seven-year war, usually in bombing raids or shelling on their centers.
While attacks like the one on Saturday are rare, they have happened before.
In August, seven White Helmets members were killed in a similar attack in the town of Sarmin, in neighboring Idlib province.
Most of Idlib is held by HTS, as well as a part of Aleppo and the adjacent province of Hama.
Tensions are on the rise there, with a wave of intra-opposition assassinations and clashes leaving at least 20 rebels dead in 48 hours, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.
“You cannot separate the Al-Hader incident from the assassinations and other killings that have been happening more and more in recent weeks in areas under HTS control,” said Observatory head Rami Abdel Rahman.
The population of Idlib province has swelled to more than two million people as a result of massive transfers of rebels and civilians from onetime opposition zones elsewhere in the country.
The killings come as the White Helmets are facing a “freeze” on funding from the United States, which is still reviewing over $200 million earmarked for stabilization in Syria.