Trump, Netanyahu to speak as Israel pushes ahead with settlements

A general view shows the Israeli settlement of Ramot in an area of the occupied West Bank that Israel annexed to Jerusalem on Saturday. (REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun)
Updated 22 January 2017

Trump, Netanyahu to speak as Israel pushes ahead with settlements

JERUSALEM: US President Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak Sunday for the first time since his inauguration, with Israel already taking advantage of his support by pushing through settlement plans.
Netanyahu said he was to speak with the billionaire businessman turned president later in the day, while Israeli officials also approved hundreds of new settler homes that had been put on hold in the final months of President Barack Obama’s administration.
Beyond that, hard-line Israeli ministers were pushing a plan to unilaterally annex a large Jewish settlement near Jerusalem in the occupied West Bank, a move many say could badly damage prospects for a two-state solution.
One minister was reportedly promoting his own plan to annex a number of other settlements in the Jerusalem area.
“This evening there will be a telephone conversation between President Trump and myself,” Netanyahu said at the start of a cabinet meeting.
“There are many issues between us, including the Israeli-Palestinian issue, the situation in Syria and the Iranian threat.”
Trump has pledged strong support for Israel and vowed during his campaign to recognize Jerusalem as the country’s capital despite the city’s contested status.
Israeli right-wing politicians have welcomed his election, with hard-liners who oppose a Palestinian state hoping it will allow them to move forward with their long-held goal of annexing most of the West Bank.
Obama’s administration repeatedly criticized Israeli settlement building and declined to veto a December 23 UN Security Council resolution condemning it.
Trump called for the resolution to be vetoed.
The United States is Israel’s most important ally, providing it with more than $3 billion per year in defense aid.

566 new settler homes
In an initial move following Trump’s inauguration, Israeli officials on Sunday approved building permits for 566 settler homes in annexed east Jerusalem.
“The rules of the game have changed with Donald Trump’s arrival as president,” Jerusalem Deputy Mayor Meir Turjeman told AFP.
“We no longer have our hands tied as in the time of Barack Obama. Now we can finally build.”
A draft bill to annex the Maale Adumim settlement was also expected to be discussed by ministers on Sunday.
Netanyahu however was reportedly seeking to delay a vote on the measure by a panel of ministers, arguing Trump’s team had indicated no unilateral moves should be taken so soon.
Annexing the settlement unilaterally would set off alarm bells globally, with many warning that it would be another step toward dividing the occupied West Bank between north and south, making a contiguous Palestinian state difficult to achieve.
But for some Israeli ministers, that is precisely the point. Key members of Netanyahu’s coalition oppose a Palestinian state.
“We have to tell the American administration what we want and not wait for orders from the administration,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked of the Jewish Home party told Israel’s army radio on Sunday.
“There is no reason for us not to take unilateral steps that we believe are correct.”

Land swaps
Maale Adumim, in a strategic location east of Jerusalem, includes some 37,000 residents.
Some previous peace proposals have envisioned Maale Adumim becoming part of Israel in land swaps agreed with the Palestinians, but not in a unilateral move.
It was unclear whether the proposal would also apply to another key area referred to as E1, located between the settlement and east Jerusalem.
The Palestinians see east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, while Israel views the entire city as its capital.
Settlement watchdog Ir Amim said “the annexation of Maale Adumim and E1 will block east Jerusalem on its eastern side, swallow up its last development reserves and deepen the detachment from the West Bank.
“Given Maale Adumim’s critical location in the heart of the West Bank, the international community has for years been following with special concern all developments in this area, seen as a touchstone for the viability of a two-state solution.”
Israel occupied the West Bank and east Jerusalem in 1967. It later annexed east Jerusalem in a move never recognized by the international community.
Some 400,000 Israeli settlers live in the West Bank, with another 200,000 in east Jerusalem. In comparison, some 2.9 million Palestinians live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem.
Settlements are viewed as illegal under international law and major stumbling blocks to peace efforts as they are built on land the Palestinians see as part of their future state.


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 15 October 2019

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues
  • Trump's fresh sanctions fail to halt Turkish advance

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.