Russian, Turkish presidents meet as Syria violence continues

March 05, 2020

MOSCOW (AP) — The Turkish and Russian presidents are set to hold talks in Moscow aimed at ending hostilities in northwestern Syria involving their forces along with proxies that threaten to pit Turkey against Russia in a direct military conflict

Before the latest crisis, President Vladimir Putin and his Turkish counterpart President Recep Tayyip Erdogan had managed to coordinate their interests in Syria even though Moscow backed Syrian President Bashar Assad while Ankara supported its foes throughout Syria’s nine-year war. Both Russia and Turkey appear eager to avoid a showdown, but the sharply conflicting interests in Idlib province make it difficult to negotiate a mutually acceptable compromise.

A Russia-backed Syrian offensive to regain control over Idlib — the last opposition-controlled region in the country — has pushed nearly a million Syrians toward Turkey. Erdogan responded by opening Turkey’s gateway to Europe in an apparent bid to coerce the West to offer more support to Ankara.

Turkey has sent thousands of troops into Idlib to repel the Syrian army, and clashes on the ground and in the air that have left dozens dead on both sides. Russia, which has helped Assad reclaim most of the country’s territory, has signaled it wouldn’t sit idle to see Turkey rout his troops.

After Turkey had downed several Syrian jets, Moscow warned Ankara that its aircraft would be unsafe if they enter Syrian airspace — a veiled threat to engage Russian military assets in Syria. Russian warplanes based in Syria have provided air cover for Assad’s offensive in Idlib.

Opposition activists in Idlib blamed Russian aircraft for Thursday’s strike on a rebel-held village which they said killed at least 15 people, including children, and wounded several others. The Russian military had no immediate comment on the claim, but it has staunchly denied similar previous claims insisting it hasn’t targeted residential areas.

The fighting in Idlib comes as the most severe test to Russia-Turkey ties since the crisis triggered by Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane near the Syrian border in November 2015. Russia responded with an array of sweeping economic sanctions, cutting the flow of its tourists to Turkey and banning most Turkish exports — a punishment that eventually forced Turkey to back off and offer apologies.

Turkey can’t afford a replay of that costly crisis, far less a military conflict with a nuclear power, but it has a strong position to bargain with. Moscow needs Ankara as a partner in a Syrian settlement and Russia’s supply routes for its forces in Syria lie through the Turkish Straits.

Moscow also hopes to use Ankara in its standoff with the West. Last year, Turkey became the first NATO country to take delivery of sophisticated Russian air defense missile systems, angering the United States. Turkey has put its deployment on hold amid the crisis in Idlib.

The talks in Moscow will mark the 10th encounter in just over a year between Putin and Erdogan, who call each other “dear friend” and have polished a fine art of bargaining. Last October, they reached an agreement to deploy their forces across Syria’s northeastern border to fill the void left by President Donald Trump’s abrupt withdrawal of U.S. forces. Prior to that they had negotiated a series of accords that saw opposition fighters from various areas in Syria move into Idlib and in 2018 carved out a de-escalation zone in Idlib.

They blamed one another for the collapse of the Idlib deal, with Moscow holding Ankara responsible for letting al-Qaida linked militants launch attacks from the area and Turkey accusing Moscow of failing to rein in Assad.

A possible compromise on Idlib could see Assad retain control over the key M5 highway, which his forces claimed in the latest offensive. The road that spans Syria linking Damascus with Aleppo, the country’s commercial capital, is essential for Assad to consolidate his rule.

In a sign that the Kremlin firmly intends to secure control of the M5, earlier this week Russian military police have deployed to a strategic town of Saraqeb sitting on the highway to ward off any Turkish attempt to retake it.

In return, Putin could accept the presence of Turkey-backed militants in the areas alongside the border and put brakes for now on Assad’s attempts to claim full control over Idlib.

NATO urges Syria, Russia to halt airstrikes as migrants move

February 29, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO on Friday called on Syria and Russia to halt their airstrikes following the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in northeastern Syria, as scores of migrants seeking entry into Europe gathered at Turkey’s border with Greece

With Turkey signalling that it would let migrants leave, Greece and neighboring Bulgaria bolstered border security. The European Union warned that the fighting in northern Syria could degenerate into open war and that it stood ready to protect its security interests.

After chairing emergency talks between NATO ambassadors, Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg called on Syria and Russia “to stop their offensive, to respect international law and to back U.N efforts for a peaceful solution.”

“This dangerous situation must be de-escalated and we urge an immediate return to the 2018 cease-fire to avoid the worsening of the horrendous humanitarian situation in the region,” Stoltenberg said. Turkey’s allies also expressed their condolences over the deaths, but no additional NATO support was offered during the meeting.

Apart from providing some aerial surveillance over Syria, NATO plays no direct role in the conflict-torn country, but its members are deeply divided over Turkey’s actions there, and European allies are worried about the arrival of any new waves of refugees.

The air strike by Syrian government forces marks the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since it first intervened in Syria in 2016. It’s a major escalation in a conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has raged since early February.

Omer Celik, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, said Turkey was “no longer able to hold refugees” following the Syrian attack — reiterating Erdogan’s longstanding warning that his country cannot cope with more people fleeing the conflict.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the EU agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then, Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates,” playing on European nervousness about a new surge.

The Turkish DHA news agency reported that some 300 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Pakistanis were gathering at the border with Greece, while others massed at beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast.

Early Friday, Turkish broadcaster NTV showed images of dozens of people — carrying rucksacks, suitcases and plastic bags — crossing fields towards the Greek frontier. Near the Pazarkule border crossing with Greece, Turkish police stopped some 150 refugees about 1 kilometer (half a mile) from the border, preventing them from going further.

A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s Evros region, shouting “open the borders.” Police and military border patrols on the Greek side readied to prevent people crossing without authorization.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak on the record to the press. In Bulgaria, Prime Minister Boyko Borissov said that “army units, national guard and border police staff have been urgently deployed at the border with Turkey to beat off a possible migrant influx.”

Borissov said that large groups of migrants were gathering by the border near the Turkish city of Edirne. He expressed concern that Turkish border police were moving away from the border. But EU spokesman Peter Stano said the bloc was waiting for an official analysis of reports about migrant movements before acting. He said Turkey had not officially signaled that it was changing its migrant policy.

“We expect Turkey to uphold its commitments,” Stano said. Meanwhile, EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warned that “there is a risk of sliding into a major open international military confrontation. It is also causing unbearable humanitarian suffering and putting civilians in danger.”

In a tweet, Borrell called for the escalation around Idlib to “stop urgently,” and underlined that “the EU will consider all necessary measures to protect its security interests. We are in touch with all relevant actors.”

Turkey’s invasion of the north of the conflict-torn country — along with the criticism and threats of sanctions brandished by fellow allies at Ankara over the offensive — has come close to sparking a major crisis at NATO.

France in particular has tried to launch a debate on what Turkey’s allies should do if Ankara requests their assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — which requires all allies to come to the defense of another member under attack — but that discussion has not happened.

The allies are extremely reluctant to be drawn into a conflict of Turkey’s making.

Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece. Veselin Toshkov in Sofia, Bulgaria, contributed.

NATO in urgent talks after 33 Turkish troops killed in Syria

February 28, 2020

BRUSSELS (AP) — NATO envoys were holding emergency talks Friday at the request of Turkey following the killing of 33 Turkish soldiers in northeast Syria, as scores of migrants gathered at Turkey’s border with Greece seeking entry into Europe.

NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said in a statement that Friday morning’s meeting of ambassadors would be held under Article 4 of NATO’s founding treaty, which allows any ally to request consultations if it feels its territorial integrity, political independence or security is threatened.

The air strike by Syrian government forces marks the largest death toll for Turkey in a single day since it first intervened in Syria in 2016. It’s a major escalation in a conflict between Turkish and Russia-backed Syrian forces that has raged since early February.

At least 54 Turkish troops have now been killed in Idlib in that time. Omer Celik, spokesman for President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party, said Turkey was “no longer able to hold refugees” following the Syrian attack — reiterating a longstanding warning from Erdogan that his country can no longer cope with the arrival of people fleeing the conflict.

Turkey hosts some 3.6 million Syrians and under a 2016 deal with the European Union agreed to step up efforts to halt the flow of refugees to Europe. Since then Erdogan has repeatedly threatened to “open the gates” in several disputes with European states.

DHA news agency reported that some 300 Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis, Moroccans and Pakistanis were gathering at the border with Greece, while others massed at beaches facing Greek islands off Turkey’s western coast.

A Greek police official said dozens of people had gathered on the Turkish side of the land border in Greece’s northeastern Evros region shouting “open the borders.” Greek police and military border patrols were deployed on the Greek side to prevent anyone trying to cross without authorization.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity as they were not authorized to speak to the press on the record. Apart from providing some aerial surveillance over Syria, NATO plays no direct role in the conflict-torn country, but its members are deeply divided over Turkey’s actions there, and European allies are worried about any new wave of refugees arriving.

Turkey’s invasion of the north of the conflict-torn country — along with the criticism and threats of sanctions brandished by fellow allies at Ankara over the offensive — has come close to sparking a crisis at the military alliance.

France in particular has tried to launch debate on what Turkey’s allies should do if Ankara requests their assistance under Article 5 of the Washington Treaty — which requires all allies to come to the defense of another member under attack — but that discussion has not happened.

The allies are extremely reluctant to be drawn into a conflict of Turkey’s making, and particularly because Erdogan has used up a lot of good will by testing his fellow NATO members’ patience for quite a while.

The Syria offensive comes on top of tensions over Turkey’s purchase of Russian-made S400 missiles, which threaten NATO security and the F-35 stealth jet. Erdogan also purged thousands of Turkish military officers following the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 and some have sought, and been granted, asylum in Europe.

But despite high political-military tensions, Turkey is too important to eject from the 29-member alliance. Turkey is of great strategic importance to NATO. The large, mainly Muslim country straddles the Bosporus Strait, making it a vital bridge between Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia. It’s also the only waterway in and out of the Black Sea, where Russia’s naval fleet is based.

NATO allies also rely on the Incirlik air base in southeastern Turkey as a staging point for access to the Middle East. The alliance runs aerial surveillance operations from Incirlik and the United States has nuclear weapons stationed there.

Kantouris reported from Thessaloniki, Greece.

Virus fears bring tough new restrictions in Israel, Italy

March 09, 2020

SOAVE, Italy (AP) — The battle to halt the coronavirus brought new restrictions Monday, with Israel ordering all visitors quarantined just weeks before Passover and Easter, Italy shutting down its ski lifts and Ireland even canceling St. Patrick’s Day parades.

While many of Beijing’s white-collar workers returned to their jobs as new infections subsided in China, about 16 million people under a widespread lockdown in northern Italy struggled to navigate the new rules of their mass isolation.

Global oil prices suffered their worst percentage losses since the start of the 1991 Gulf War, and U.S. stocks dropped so quickly in the first few minutes after markets opened that it triggered a 15-minute halt in trading. At the Milan Stock Exchange, investors’ fears drove stocks down by 11 percent.

“Now that the virus has a foothold in so many countries, the threat of a pandemic has become very real,” said World Health Organization chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The great advantage we have is the decisions we all make as governments, businesses, communities, families and individuals can influence the trajectory of this epidemic.”

More than 113,000 people have tested positive for the disease and over 3,900 people with the virus have died, most of them in China. More than 62,000 people have already recovered. But Italy’s struggles to halt the virus’ spread are emerging as a cautionary tale.

Inmates at more than two dozen Italian prisons rioted against restrictions on family visits and other containment measures, and six died after they broke into the infirmary and overdosed on anti-psychotic medicine.

Travelers at Milan’s main train station had to sign police forms self-certifying that they are traveling for “proven work needs,’’ situations of necessity, health reasons or to return home. They also needed to provide identity documents, contact numbers and an exact reason for travel from the financial hub.

Both Milan and the popular tourist city of Venice were among the places under the lockdown. Across Italy, museums and archaeological sites were closed, weddings were canceled and restaurants were told to keep patrons a meter (more than 3 feet) apart. Officials ordered ski lifts across the country to close, even those outside the quarantine zone, after students whose classes were canceled began organizing trips to winter resorts.

Italy reported a big jump in the number of people who have tested positive for the virus, bringing the total to 9,172 cases and 463 deaths, more than any country except China. Pope Francis celebrated Mass alone at the Vatican hotel where he lives, live-streaming the event, but he did resume some meetings.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said his government has decided to quarantine anyone arriving from overseas for 14 days. The decision comes barely a month before Easter and Passover, typically a busy travel period.

In Ireland, officials canceled all St. Patrick’s Day parades in a bid to slow the virus’ spread, including the one on March 17 in Dublin that typically draws half a million to its streets. Trying to send a message of confidence in the economy, French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife walked on Paris’ Champs-Elysees avenue but kept a one-meter security distance from passersby. “I’m shaking hands using my heart,” he said as he waved to people from a distance.

He called for a proportionate government response. “We cannot shut down the country but we need to protect the most fragile people,” he said. China’s slow re-emergence from weeks of extreme travel restrictions offered a grim sense of the longer-term effects the virus can have on a country’s economy.

“Our business is one-fifth of what it was before,” said Cheng Sheng, who helps run a stand in Beijing that sells sausages and noodles. “There’s much less foot traffic. There are no people.” Infections were reported in more than half the world’s countries, and flashpoints were erupting around the globe.

“We are working for valuable time, time in which scientists can research medicines and a vaccine” and in which governments can help stock up on protective equipment, said German Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose country has reported over 1,100 cases and, as of Monday, its first two deaths.

In Iran, state television said the virus had killed another 43 people, pushing the official toll to 237, with 7,161 confirmed cases. But many fear the scope of illness is far wider there. In the United States, where more than 600 infections have been reported, the Grand Princess cruise ship docked in Oakland, California, after days idling at sea while dozens of those aboard were tested.

Fleets of buses and planes were ready to whisk the more than 2,000 passengers to military bases or their home countries for a 14-day quarantine. At least 21 people aboard have been confirmed to have the infection.

In Florida, passengers disembarked from the Regal Princess after it received clearance to dock. Two crew members eyed as possible carriers tested negative for the virus. The Caribbean Princess cruise ship, meanwhile, cut short a Fort Lauderdale-Mexico cruise because crew members had been on another ship where people were infected.

In Washington, the Capitol’s attending physician’s office said “several” members of Congress had contact with a person who attended a recent political conference and subsequently developed COVID-19. They “remain in good health,” the office said. Two members of Congress, Sen. Ted Cruz and Rep. Paul Gosar, said they are isolating themselves after determining they had contact with the person.

Countries showed a willingness to take tough steps to try to stop the virus’ spread. After earlier closing its land borders, Saudi Arabia cut off air and sea travel to and from Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Italy, Kuwait, Lebanon, South Korea, Syria and the United Arab Emirates. All Saudi schools and universities closed beginning Monday.

Qatar cut off travel to 15 countries and said it would shut down schools and universities beginning Tuesday. The Czech Republic banned visits to hospitals and retirement homes and began random checks on vehicles arriving at border crossings, including taking the temperatures of occupants.

Organizers of the annual Holocaust remembrance march in southern Poland postponed it this year due to coronavirus fears, and soccer authorities said at least four major matches — in France, Germany and Spain — would take place with no fans.

China reported 40 new cases of the virus, its lowest number since Jan. 20. More than three-quarters of the country’s surviving virus patients have been released from treatment. South Korea reported 165 more cases, bringing its total to 7,478.

Albania and Brunei announced their first cases of COVID-19, and the president of the Philippines declared a public health emergency.

Hinnant reported from Paris. Associated Press writers Matt Sedensky in Bangkok; Ken Moritsugu in Beijing; Tong-hyung Kim in Seoul, South Korea; Maria Cheng and Carlo Piovano in London; Adam Geller in New York; Nicole Winfield in Rome; and Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, contributed.

Trump peace plan delights Israelis, enrages Palestinians

January 29, 2020

WASHINGTON (AP) — President Donald Trump unveiled his long-awaited Mideast peace plan Tuesday alongside a beaming Benjamin Netanyahu, presenting a vision that matched the Israeli leader’s hard-line, nationalist views while falling far short of Palestinian ambitions.

Trump’s plan envisions a disjointed Palestinian state that turns over key parts of the West Bank to Israel. It sides with Israel on key contentious issues that have bedeviled past peace efforts, including borders and the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements, and attaches nearly impossible conditions for granting the Palestinians their hoped-for state.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas dismissed the plan as “nonsense” and vowed to resist it. Netanyahu called it a “historic breakthrough” equal in significance to the country’s declaration of independence in 1948.

“It’s a great plan for Israel. It’s a great plan for peace,” he said. He vowed to immediately press forward with his plans to annex the strategic Jordan Valley and all the Israeli settlements in occupied lands. Netanyahu said he’d ask his Cabinet to approve the annexation plans in their next meeting on Sunday, an explosive move that could trigger harsh international reaction and renewed violence with the Palestinians.

“This dictates once and for all the eastern border of Israel,” Netanyahu told Israeli reporters later. “Israel is getting an immediate American recognition of Israeli sovereignty on all the settlements, without exceptions.”

Given the Palestinian opposition, the plan seems unlikely to lead to any significant breakthrough. But it could give a powerful boost to both Trump and Netanyahu who are both facing legal problems ahead of tough elections.

Trump called his plan a “win-win” for both Israel and the Palestinians, and urged the Palestinians not to miss their opportunity for independence. But Abbas, who accuses the U.S. of unfair bias toward Israel, rejected it out of hand.

“We say 1,000 no’s to the Deal of the Century,” Abbas said, using a nickname for Trump’s proposal. “We will not kneel and we will not surrender,” he said, adding that the Palestinians would resist the plan through “peaceful, popular means.”

The plan comes amid Trump’s impeachment trial and on a U.S. election year, and after Netanyahu was indicted on counts of fraud, breach of trust and bribery in three separate cases. The longtime Israeli leader, who denies any wrongdoing, also faces a March 2 parliamentary election, Israel’s third in less than a year. He hopes to use the plan, and his close ties with Trump, to divert attention from his legal troubles.

The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank and east Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for an independent state and the removal of many of the more than 700,000 Israeli settlers from these areas.

But as details emerged, it became clear that the plan sides heavily with Netanyahu’s hard-line nationalist vision for the region and shunts aside many of the Palestinians’ core demands. Under the terms of the “peace vision” that Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner has been working on for nearly three years, all settlers would remain in place, and Israel would retain sovereignty over all of its settlements as well as the strategic Jordan Valley.

“The Israeli military will continue to control the entire territory,” Netanyahu said. “No one will be uprooted from their home.” The proposed Palestinian state would also include more than a dozen Israeli “enclaves” with the entity’s borders monitored by Israel. It would be demilitarized and give Israel overall security control. In addition, the areas of east Jerusalem offered to the Palestinians consist of poor, crowded neighborhoods located behind a hulking concrete separation barrier.

Trump acknowledged that he has done a lot for Israel, but he said he wanted the deal to be a “great deal for the Palestinians.” The plan would give the Palestinians limited control over an estimated 70% of the West Bank, nearly double the amount where they currently have limited self-rule. Trump said it would give them time needed to meet the challenges of statehood.

The only concession the plan appears to demand of Israel is a four-year freeze on the establishment of new Israeli settlements in certain areas of the West Bank. But Netanyahu clarified later that this only applied to areas where there are no settlements and Israel has no immediate plans to annex, and that he considered the plan to impose no limitations on construction.

Thousands of Palestinians protested in Gaza City ahead of the announcement, burning pictures of Trump and Netanyahu and raising a banner reading “Palestine is not for sale.” Trump said he sent a letter to Abbas to tell him that the territory that the plan has set aside for a new Palestinian state will remain open and undeveloped for four years.

“It’s going to work,” Trump said, as he presented the plan at a White House ceremony filled with Israeli officials and allies, including evangelical Christian leaders and wealthy Republican donors. Representatives from the Arab countries of Bahrain, Oman and the United Arab Emirates were present, but there were no Palestinian representatives.

“President Abbas, I want you to know, that if you chose the path to peace, America and many other countries … we will be there to help you in so many different ways,” he said. “And we will be there every step of the way.”

The 50-page plan builds on a 30-page economic plan for the West Bank and Gaza that was unveiled last June and which the Palestinians have also rejected. It envisions a future Palestinian state consisting of the West Bank and Gaza, connected by a combination of roads and tunnels. It also would give small areas of southern Israel to the Palestinians as compensation for lost West Bank land.

But the many caveats, and ultimate overall Israeli control, made the deal a nonstarter for the Palestinians. Netanyahu and his main political challenger in March elections, Benny Gantz, had signed off on the plan.

“Mr. President, because of this historic recognition and because I believe your peace plan strikes the right balance where other plans have failed,” Netanyahu said. “I’ve agreed to negotiate peace with the Palestinians on the basis of your peace plan.

The Jordan Valley annexation is a big part of Netanyahu’s strategy and a key promise meant to appeal to his hard-line nationalist base, which mostly applauded the Trump plan. U.S. officials, speaking on condition of anonymity ahead of the plan’s release, said they expected negative responses from the Palestinians, but were hopeful that Jordan and Egypt, the only two Arab nations to have peace treaties with Israel, would not reject it outright.

Jordan gave the plan a cool reaction, saying it remained committed to a two-state solution based on Israel’s pre-1967 lines. It also said it rejected any unilateral move by Israel, referring to the annexation plan.

The reaction of Jordan, which would retain its responsibilities over Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa Mosque under the plan, is particularly significant. Located next to the West Bank, Jordan also is home to a large Palestinian population.

Egypt, the first Arab country to reach a peace deal with Israel, urged Israelis and Palestinians to carefully study the plan. The European Union also said it needed to study it more closely. Saudi Arabia, another key Arab country, said it appreciated the Trump administration’s efforts and encouraged the resumption of direct talks between Israel and the Palestinians “under the auspices of the United States.”

U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said the United Nations supports two states living in peace and security within recognized borders, on the basis of the pre-1967 borders, according to his spokesman.

The Palestinians see the West Bank as the heartland of a future independent state and east Jerusalem as their capital. Most of the international community supports their position, but Trump has reversed decades of U.S. foreign policy by siding more blatantly with Israel. The centerpiece of his strategy was recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the American Embassy there. He’s also closed Palestinian diplomatic offices in Washington and cut funding to Palestinian aid programs.

Those policies have proven popular among Trump’s evangelical and pro-Israel supporters. But the Palestinians refuse to even speak to Trump and they called on support from Arab leaders.

Associated Press writer Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed.

World leaders rally in Jerusalem against anti-Semitism

January 23, 2020

JERUSALEM (AP) — Dozens of world leaders descended upon Jerusalem on Thursday for the largest-ever gathering focused on commemorating the Holocaust and combating modern-day anti-Semitism. Russian President Vladimir Putin, French President Emmanuel Macron, Britain’s Prince Charles, Vice President Mike Pence and the presidents of Germany, Italy and Austria were among the more than 40 dignitaries attending the World Holocaust Forum, which coincides with the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp.

Pence and Putin arrived Thursday morning within less than an hour of each other and both were scheduled to meet Israeli leaders before and after the main event. The three-hour-long event at Jerusalem’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial — called “Remembering the Holocaust: Fighting Antisemitism” — looks to project a united front in commemorating the genocide of European Jewry amid a global spike in anti-Jewish violence in the continent and around the world.

But the unresolved remnants of World War II’s politics have permeated the solemn assembly over the differing historical narratives of various players. Poland’s president, who’s been criticized for his own wartime revisionism, has boycotted the gathering since he wasn’t invited to speak while Putin was granted a central role even as he leads a campaign to play down the Soviet Union’s pre-war pact with the Nazis and shift responsibility for the war’s outbreak on Poland, which was invaded in 1939 to start the fighting.

On the eve of the gathering, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin implored world leaders assembled for a dinner at his official residence to “leave history for the historians.” “The role of political leaders, of all of us, is to shape the future,” he said.

The event marks one of the largest political gatherings in Israeli history, as a cascade of delegations including European presidents, prime ministers and royals, as well as American, Canadian and Australian representatives, arrived at Ben-Gurion Airport. More than 10,000 police officers were deployed in Jerusalem and major highways and large parts of the city were shut down ahead of the event.

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu it offered another opportunity to solidify Israel’s diplomatic standing and boost his profile as he seeks re-election on March 2. He was hoping to use his meetings with world leaders to bolster his tough line toward Iran and rally opposition to a looming war crimes case against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

“Iran openly declares every day that it wants to wipe Israel off the face of the earth,” he told Christian broadcaster TBN. “I think the lesson of Auschwitz is, one, stop bad things when they’re small … and, second, understand that the Jews will never ever again be defenseless in the face of those who want to destroy them.”

For historians, though, the main message is one of education amid growing signs of ignorance and indifference to the Holocaust. A comprehensive survey released this week by the Claims Conference, a Jewish organization responsible for negotiating compensation for victims of Nazi persecution, found that most people in France did not know that 6 million Jews were killed during World War II. Among millennials, 45% said they were unaware of French collaboration with the Nazi regime and 25% said they weren’t even sure they had heard of the Holocaust.

The World Holocaust Forum is the brainchild of Moshe Kantor, the president of the European Jewish Congress, an umbrella group representing Jewish communities across Europe. The group recently reported that 80% of European Jews feel unsafe in the continent.

Kantor established the World Holocaust Forum Foundation in 2005 and it has held forums before in Auschwitz, the Ukrainian killing fields of Babi Yar and at the former concentration camp Terezin. Thursday’s event is the first time it is convening in Israel. The official commemoration marking the 75th anniversary of Auschwitz’s liberation will be held next week at the site itself in southern Poland.

Organizers of the Jerusalem event have come under criticism for not sufficiently including Holocaust survivors and instead focusing on the panoply of visiting dignitaries. In response, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy tweeted on Thursday that his delegation was giving up its seats to allow more survivors to attend.

Simmy Allen, a spokesman for Yad Vashem, said “some 100” survivors were expected among the 780 attendees. “Of course we would like as may Holocaust survivors as possible to attend, but we’re also dealing with 48 delegations from all around the world,” he said.

The gathering comes amid an uptick in anti-Semitic violence. Tel Aviv University researchers reported last year that violent attacks against Jews grew significantly in 2018, with the largest reported number of Jews killed in anti-Semitic acts in decades. They recorded 400 cases, with the spike most dramatic in western Europe. In Germany, for instance, there was a 70% increase in anti-Semitic violence. In addition to the shooting attacks, assaults and vandalism, the research also noted increased anti-Semitic vitriol online and in newspapers, as extremist political parties grew in power in several countries.

In advance of the forum, an anthology of statements from world leaders sending delegations to Jerusalem was published to project a newfound commitment to quelling a climate some said was reminiscent of that before World War II.

“I express my fervent hope that by continued vigilance and positive education, the iniquities perpetrated during one of the darkest periods in our history will be eliminated from the face of the earth,” Pope Francis wrote.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau specifically mentioned “the scourge of antisemitism and hatred that is becoming all too common once again.” “The murder of six million Jews by the brutal and antisemitic Nazi regime started with a slow erosion of rights, and the normalization of discrimination,” he wrote. “We cannot permit the passage of time to diminish our resolve never to allow such horrors to happen again.”

Greece, Israel, Cyprus sign deal for EastMed gas pipeline

January 02, 2020

ATHENS, Greece (AP) — Greece, Israel and Cyprus signed a deal Thursday to build an undersea pipeline to carry gas from new offshore deposits in the southeastern Mediterranean to continental Europe. The 1,900-kilometer (1,300-mile) EastMed pipeline is intended to provide an alternative gas source for energy-hungry Europe, which is largely dependent on supplies from Russia and the Caucasus region.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who attended the signing ceremony with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades, said the pipeline will offer Europe “better flexibility and independence in its energy sources.”

The pipeline would run from Israel’s Levantine Basin offshore gas reserves to Cyprus, the Greek island of Crete and the Greek mainland. An overland pipeline to northwestern Greece and another planned undersea pipeline would carry the gas to Italy.

The project could also accommodate future gas finds in waters off Cyprus and Greece, where exploration is under way. The project, with a rough budget of $6 billion, is expected to satisfy about 10% of the European Union’s natural gas needs. But it is fraught with political and logistical complexities.

The race to claim offshore energy deposits in the southern Mediterranean has created new tensions between Greece and Cyprus, on one side, and historic rival Turkey. Ankara has raised the stakes with recent moves to explore waters controlled by the two EU member countries. Cyprus and Greece are particularly disturbed because Turkey sent warship-escorted drill ships into waters where Cyprus has exclusive economic rights.

Cyprus’ Anastasiades said the pipeline affirms that Greece and Cyprus have sovereign rights in waters assigned to them under international law. “This cooperation that we have developed … isn’t directed against any third country,” he said. “On the contrary, whichever country wishes is welcome to join, on the understanding of course that it adopts the basic principles of international law and fully respects the sovereign rights and the territorial integrity of independent states.”

Alluding to Turkey’s stance, Anastasiades said cooperation is the only approach in an unstable region instead of embarking on a course of “self-isolation.” Netanyahu said Israel is set to become a “powerhouse in terms of energy” with its offshore gas reserves. He added that the three countries have established ”an alliance of great importance” that will bolster regional stability.

Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz has said the EastMed pipeline would take up to seven years to build and that its advantages include being less vulnerable to sabotage and not crossing many national borders to reach markets.

Cyprus is divided into a Greek Cypriot south, where the island nation’s internationally recognized government is located, and a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north backed by Turkey. The split followed a 1974 Turkish invasion after an aborted coup aiming to bring Cyprus under Greek rule.

Turkey doesn’t recognize Cyprus as a state and claims much of Cyprus’ exclusive economic zone as falling within its own continental shelf. Turkey is also laying claim to large tracts under Greek control in the Aegean Sea and off Crete. Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has said no project can proceed without his country’s consent following a maritime border agreement that Ankara signed with the Libya’s Tripoli-based government.

The Cypriot government has licensed Italian energy company Eni, France’s Total, ExxonMobil and Texas-based Noble Energy to carry out exploratory hydrocarbons drilling in the country’s offshore economic zone.

Hadjicostis contributed from Nicosia, Cyprus.