Archive for the ‘ Levant News ’ Category

Israel’s Gantz slams Netanyahu, unveils hawkish foreign policy

January 30, 2019

The head of the Israel Resilience (Hosen L’Yisrael) Party, Benny Gantz, has ruled out joining a coalition with incumbent Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu if the latter is indicted for corruption.

Delivering his first campaign speech yesterday, Gantz argued that “a prime minister cannot preside over Israel when an indictment has been filed against him,” adding: “Netanyahu is no king, his government sows division and incitement.”

Gantz did not hold back on attacking Netanyahu, though stopped short of mentioning the prime minister by name. “The government we [the Israel Resilience Party] will form will be a national government and not a monarchy. This will be a government without masters and servants, no obscene gifts and no court clowns,” he said, in a thinly-veiled reference to the ongoing corruption cases against Netanyahu in which he stands accused of bribery and receiving lavish gifts from businessmen.

Gantz continued: “Our government will not see ferocious attacks against the chief of staff, the commissioner and the attorney general. There will be no incitement against the judicial, cultural and media institutions.”

Netanyahu has made attacking Israel’s media, judiciary and police a central part of his election campaign in recent weeks, using the blanket term “the left” to lambast anyone who calls for a verdict on his indictment to be released before the general election on 9 April. Netanyahu has been engaged in fervent talks with Israel’s Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, to try postpone the verdict, though Mandelblit has not wavered in his commitment to publish his recommendation.

In contrast, Gantz yesterday sought to portray himself as the candidate of “hope”, a breath of fresh air not involved in the political infighting that has thus far characterized election season. Gantz explained:

[quote] “The struggle between left and right rips us apart. Quarrels between religious and secular split us. The tension between Jews and non-Jews threatens us. The mutual guarantee of a shared society is crumbling. Politics is ugly, and the public arena has become poisoned.”

However, onlookers should not make the mistake of thinking that Gantz is a dovish candidate; on foreign policy, Gantz’ message to regional foes was clear. Addressing Iran, Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Hamas in turn, Gantz warned each country or movement’s leader that he would take a hawkish position against them were he to be elected prime minister.

“[Iranian] President Rouhani – I will thwart your plots […] to harm Israel”; “[Secretary General of Hezbollah] Hassan Nasrallah – we will not tolerate a threat to Israeli sovereignty”; “[head of Hamas in Gaza] Yahya Sinwar – I suggest you not test me again,” he said in yesterday’s speech.

Since Gantz announced the formation of his party and joined the election race in December, he has maintained a calculated silence about many of his opinions and campaign pledges. Though many thought he could run on a center-left platform – buoyed by his promise to “fix” the Nation-State Law – his campaign video released earlier this month raised eyebrows for boasting that, during his time as the Israeli Army’s Chief of Staff, he had bombed the already-besieged Gaza Strip “back to the stone age”.

Earlier this week Gantz revealed that he has agreed to run on a joint ticket with another former Chief of Staff and Defense Minister, Moshe Ya’alon. Speaking for the first time since the alliance was revealed, Ya’alon yesterday said that he wouldn’t support a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Ya’alon has a long history of positions such as this, opposing Israel’s “disengagement” from the Gaza Strip in 2005 and opposed US-led peace talks.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190130-israels-gantz-slams-netanyahu-unveils-hawkish-foreign-policy/.

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Israel leader scorned for wooing Holocaust-distorting allies

January 30, 2019

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s warm welcome to Lithuania’s prime minister marks his latest embrace of an eastern European leader who has offered strong political support while promoting a distorted image of the Holocaust.

Lithuania is among a slew of former communist nations swept up in a wave of World War II-era revisionism that seeks to diminish their culpability in the Holocaust while making heroes out of anti-Soviet nationalists involved in the mass killing of Jews. In Israel, established in the wake of the Nazi genocide of 6 million Jews, many say Netanyahu is cynically betraying the victims’ memory.

Lithuania, for instance, has been a leading force behind creating a joint memorial day for all victims of totalitarianism, blurring the distinction between the crimes of the Nazis and the communists who fought them.

It also has pushed for legislation to prohibit the sale of books that “distort Lithuanian history” by citing the rampant, documented collaboration of the local population with Nazis. Most recently it has resisted calls to remove the various plaques commemorating anti-Soviet fighter Jonas Noreika, despite recent revelations by his own granddaughter, Silvia Foti, that he was a fierce anti-Semite who had a role in the murder of thousands of Jews.

Nearly all of Lithuania’s 200,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust. When Netanyahu, who has Lithuanian roots, visited Vilnius last year, he praised Prime Minister Saulius Skvernelis for taking “great steps to commemorate the victims of the Holocaust” and for fighting modern-day anti-Semitism.

“It’s unforgivable. Netanyahu is giving them a green light,” said Efraim Zuroff, the chief Nazi-hunter of the Simon Wiesenthal Center. “It’s like praising the Ku Klux Klan for improving racial relations in the South.”

“We have to say the truth. We owe it to the victims,” he added. In a meeting with Israeli President Reuven Rivlin on Tuesday, Skvernelis said “Lithuania has been learning the lessons of the past” and was “improving the life of the Jewish community and restoring historical sites.”

At Tuesday’s meeting, Netanyahu treaded cautiously. He referred to the “tragedies of the past” but steered clear of any criticism of modern Lithuania, praising the “spirit of friendship” and “a bridge from the past to a future.”

Skvernelis’ visit comes a week after Netanyahu similarly rolled out the red carpet for President Petro Porochenko of Ukraine, whose parliament just designated the birthday of Ukrainian wartime collaborator Stepan Bandera a national holiday. A regional legislature declared 2019 “the year of Stepan Bandera.”

Bandera’s forces fought alongside the Nazis and were implicated in the murder of thousands of Jews. As Porochenko was visiting Israel, another memorial was being erected in Kiev for Symon Petliura, whose troops are linked to pogroms that killed as many as 50,000 Jews after World War I.

Netanyahu’s outreach in eastern Europe is part of his larger strategy of forging alliances to counter the criticism Israel faces in the United Nations and other international forums over its treatment of the Palestinians.

Critics consider it a deal with the devil. They say Netanyahu — who often invokes the Holocaust when inveighing against archrival Iran — turns a blind eye when it comes to like-minded allies. “It’s a specific maneuver that legitimizes anti-Semitism and borders on Holocaust denial,” said Tamar Zandberg, leader of the dovish Meretz party.

The prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment. Under communist rule, the Holocaust was not seriously dealt with and, upon independence, the newfound eastern and central European nations sought to canonize nationalist icons who resisted the Soviets, while largely ignoring their crimes alongside the Nazis. Domestic academics who have challenged the false narrative have been shamed, and external criticism has often been met with new anti-Semitic outbursts.

For countries like Lithuania and Ukraine, the warm embrace of the Israeli leader provides a strong defense against accusation of anti-Semitism while also strengthening ties with a close U.S. ally. Netanyahu has also formed a close alliance with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has lavished praise on Miklos Horthy, Hungary’s World War II-era ruler, who introduced anti-Semitic laws and collaborated with the Nazis. Orban has also employed anti-Semitic tropes against the Jewish Hungarian-American billionaire philanthropist George Soros and backed a state-funded museum that experts say plays down the role of Hungarian collaborators.

Netanyahu also struck a deal with Polish leaders over their country’s controversial Holocaust speech law, which would have criminalized blaming the Polish nation for crimes committed against Jews during World War II.

Israeli Holocaust historians slammed the agreement, which seemed to accept a Polish narrative that they were only victims of the Nazis. Scholars say anti-Semitism was deeply rooted in pre-war Poland and Poles might have either killed or helped Germans kill up to 200,000 Jews.

Still, Netanyahu has invited Orban and Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki — who last year equated Polish perpetrators in the Holocaust to supposed “Jewish perpetrators” — to Israel in February for a summit with the leaders of the Czech Republic and Slovakia.

Yair Lapid, leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party and the son of a Holocaust survivor, called on Netanyahu to cancel the meeting, saying one prime minister has “published anti-Semitic content” and another “passed a law desecrating the memory of Holocaust victims.”

In an annual report Sunday, Israel’s Ministry of Diaspora Affairs said 2018 saw a record number of worldwide anti-Semitic attacks, with most carried out by neo-Nazis in Europe and white supremacists. But at his Cabinet meeting later in the day, Netanyahu singled out “Islamic anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitism of the extreme left, which includes anti-Zionism.”

Israel’s Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial, which hosts all visiting foreign dignitaries, has been thrust into the controversy. While it says it will never disqualify anyone wishing to visit, Yad Vashem insists it will “forcefully” address any denial or distortion. Yad Vashem said the Lithuanian leader received a comprehensive explanation of the Holocaust, including details about “the murder of Jews of Lithuania by the Nazis and their Lithuanian collaborators.”

Israel company admits spying on Emir of Qatar

January 14, 2019

The CEO of Israeli spyware company NSO Group has admitted that its software was used to spy on the Emir of Qatar.

In an interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this weekend, Shalev Hulio admitted that his company’s product was used to spy on Emir Tamim Bin Hamad Al-Thani, as well as Qatari Foreign Minister Mohammed Bin Abdulrahman Al-Thani.

The interview disclosed that NSO’s “Pegasus” software – which can be used to remotely infect a target’s mobile phone and then relay back data accessed by the device – was used to intercept phone calls and text messages made by both the Qatari foreign minister and the Emir. These conversations reportedly concerned “hundreds of millions of dollars in ransom to Iran and Hezbollah for the release of several Qataris,” some of which was allegedly sent to the commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ Quds Force, Qasem Soleimani.

This spying was seemingly undertaken at the behest of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Hulio revealed that the Israeli Defense Export Control Agency (DECA) authorized three deals with the UAE for the sale of NSO software, despite the fact that DECA is only supposed to give authorization for the “purpose of fighting terrorism and crime”.

These deals – allegedly mediated by former senior Israeli defense officials with close ties to a senior Emirati official – raised a total of $80 million in revenue for NSO.

NSO’s Pegasus software has come under increasing scrutiny in recent months after the product was revealed to be complicit in the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Though Hulio stressed in the interview with Yedioth Ahronoth this weekend that “Khashoggi was not targeted by any NSO product or technology, including listening, monitoring, location tracking and intelligence collection,” it appears that Saudi Arabia used NSO software to spy on many of Khashoggi’s friends and associates.

US whistle-blower Edward Snowden has been at the forefront of these claims, telling the Israeli newspaper: “I do not pretend that NSO is involved in hacking [directly] into Khashoggi’s phone, so their denial does not take us to a different conclusion. The evidence shows that the company’s products were involved in hacking into the phones of [Khashoggi’s] friends Omar Abdel Aziz, Yahya Assiri, and Ghanem Al-Masarir.”

The UAE is also known to have been using NSO’s software for some time. In 2016, Citizen Lab and Apple revealed there were attempts to infect an iPhone owned by the Emirati human rights activist Ahmed Mansoor. Mansoor had raised the alarm after receiving suspicious text intended to “bait to get him to click on a link, which would have led to the infection of his Apple iPhone 6 and control of the device through a spy software created by the NSO Group”.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190114-israeli-company-admits-spying-on-emir-of-qatar/.

Italy’s far-right minister visits Israel, drawing criticism

December 12, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — One of Europe’s most divisive political figures, Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini, opened his visit to Israel Tuesday with warm words of support for his hosts, condemning Hezbollah as a “terrorist” organization and denouncing rising waves of anti-Semitism in Europe.

Salvini is in Israel for a two-day visit that has prompted criticism over his far-right policies and anti-migration views. He kicked off his trip with a tour of Israel’s northern border with Lebanon, where the Israeli army has uncovered tunnels it says were built by Hezbollah for attacks. He told a gathering of journalists in Jerusalem on Tuesday that no country would tolerate enemy tunnels infiltrating its territory.

“I call terrorists what they are, which is terrorists,” he said. He said he was “very proud” of the Italian soldiers serving in UNFIL, the U.N. peacekeeping force in Lebanon, which is headed by an Italian general.

Salvini, best known for bashing the European Union and cracking down on African and Arab asylum-seekers, said his government “fights anti-Semitism in every way and every form wherever it is.” He blamed Europe’s resurgent anti-Semitism on “immigration from Islamic countries.”

The leader of Italy’s populist League party, Salvini exploded onto the scene just months ago, but already exerts outsized influence on Italy’s prime minister and dominates the political conversation. Opinion polls show him surging in popularity as he stokes anti-immigrant anxiety and positions himself at the forefront of the nationalist movements sweeping Europe. In recent months, Salvini has made international headlines by tightening criteria for humanitarian protection and refusing to allow rescue boats packed with African migrants to dock at Italy’s ports.

Salvini is set to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday and tour the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial. Pro-refugee activists rejecting his tough stance on migrants are expected to protest at the memorial during his visit.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin turned down a meeting with Salvini, his office said, citing a full schedule and declining further comment. Opposition lawmakers have praised Rivlin’s decision, interpreting it as a rebuke of Salvini’s views.

Salvini brushed off the backlash Tuesday, saying, “I smile when I hear criticism from the left in Italy and in Israel,” and that whoever is bothered by his visit “will have to get over it.” Salvini’s remarks frequently drawn outrage from the Italian Jewish community. The president of Italy’s Union of Jewish Communities, Noemi Di Segni, criticized the minister’s move to abolish an anti-racism law last summer, expressing concern at the government’s “radicalization.” The Jewish Union has also slammed Salvini over his announcement that he would conduct a census of Roma in Italy, saying he was awakening memories of racial hatred and fascist tendencies during World War II.

Emmanuel Navon, senior fellow at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategic Studies, said Israel’s embrace of Salvini and “rebellious European governments” allows it to gain leverage over Western European powers, which have traditionally sympathized with the Palestinians, pressed for renewed peace talks and sought to block recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in the European Union.

“Israel needs to take advantage of this big divide in Europe right now,” Navon said. “People are uncomfortable with it, but this is in Israel’s national interest.” Netanyahu has recently welcomed a string of contentious nationalist leaders to Israel, including Hungary’s authoritarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, whose past remarks have been interpreted as anti-Semitic, and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, widely accused of committing human rights abuses. Netanyahu has also promised to participate in the swearing-in ceremony of hard-right Brazilian president-elect Jair Bolsonaro.

Israel protests Jordanian minister’s walk over its flag

Monday 31/12/2018

JERUSALEM/AMMAN – Israel protested to Jordan on Sunday after the spokeswoman for the government in Amman was photographed stepping on the Israeli flag during a meeting with trade unionists.

Jumana Ghunaimat, Jordan’s minister for media affairs and communications and the government spokeswoman, on Thursday walked over an Israeli flag painted on the floor of the headquarters of Jordan’s professional unions in Amman.

She was on her way to attend a meeting between Jordanian Prime Minister Omar al Razzaz and union representatives. Razzaz, however, entered the building through a rear door, avoiding having to walk over the flag.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement on Sunday deploring the flag “desecration”, and said it had summoned acting Jordanian ambassador Mohammed Hmaid for a reprimand and that the Israeli embassy in Amman had also issued a “sharp protest”.

The flag was painted on the floor of the building several years ago to encourage passers by to tread on it, a mark of disrespect, unions said at the time.

Despite the neighbours’ 1994 peace deal and commercial and security ties, many Jordanians resent Israel and identify with the Palestinian struggle against it.

Jordan’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Majed al-Qatarneh confirmed in a statement issued via state media that the Israeli embassy in Amman had asked for clarifications over the incident and that Israel had called in the Jordanian charge d’affaires in Tel Aviv to “discuss” the matter.

Qatarneh said that Jordan respects its peace treaty with Israel and that Ghunaimat had entered a private building by its main entrance to attend an official meeting.

The flag had been painted at a time when the unions were controlled by Jordan’s mainly Islamist opposition, fierce ideological foes of Israel. They have since lost influence and Jordan’s professional unions are mostly now run by nationalist and secular parties that avoid party activism.

Still, some union members were unhappy that union leaders had allowed Razzaz to avoid the flag.

“The unions took a cowardly stance by allowing the prime minister to enter from a back door and his aides no doubt told him of the presence of the flag at the entrance,” Masira Malaas, a leading union activist, said.

Source: Middle East Online.

Link: https://middle-east-online.com/en/israel-protests-jordanian-minister%E2%80%99s-walk-over-its-flag%C2%A0.

Russian and Turkish ministers meet for Syria talks

December 29, 2018

MOSCOW (AP) — Russian and Turkish foreign and defense ministers met in Moscow on Saturday to discuss northern Syria as U.S. forces prepare to withdraw and Turkey threatens to launch a military operation against U.S.-backed Kurdish forces controlling nearly a third of the country.

Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said before the talks began that they would focus on the situation in and around Idlib, as well as “what can and should be done” when the U.S. withdraws from Syria.

After the meeting, Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov told reporters that much of the discussion focused on the pending U.S. withdrawal, and that Russia and Turkey managed to agree on coordinating their steps in Syria “to ultimately eradicate the terrorist threat.”

Turkey’s official Anadolu news agency said the meeting lasted an hour and a half. Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said only that “we will continue our close cooperation with Russia and Iran on Syria and regional issues.”

The Syrian military said it entered the Kurdish stronghold of Manbij on Friday as part of an apparent agreement between the two sides. The Kurds are looking for new allies to protect against a threatened Turkish offensive as U.S. forces prepare to leave.

With President Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw troops earlier this month, Turkey announced it will pause a threatened offensive against Kurdish militants. It has, however, continued amassing troops at the border as it monitors the situation.

The movements follow days of equipment transfers across the border into a Turkish-held area of northern Syria near Manbij. Turkish-backed Syrian opposition fighters said they have started moving along with Turkish troops to front-line positions near the town as a show of readiness.

A statement released by the rebels said they are ready to “begin military operations to liberate the city in response to calls by our people in the city of Manbij.” Turkish news agency IHA showed video of at least 50 tanks arriving at a command post in Sanliurfa province early Saturday. The province borders Kurdish-held areas east of the Euphrates river in Syria.

The Russian side was represented in Saturday’s talks by Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Defense Minister Shoigu, and Kremlin foreign affairs aide Yuri Ushakov. The Turkish delegation includes Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu, presidential spokesman Ibrahim Kalin, intelligence chief Hakan Fidan and Defense Minister Hulusi Akar.

Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on Saturday that, in addition to the foreign and defense ministers of each country, the meeting was attended by intelligence chiefs from both sides.

Presidents Vladimir Putin and Recep Erdogan did not attend the meeting. Peskov said the two would later schedule a separate meeting.

Bilginsoy reported from Istanbul. Associated Press writer Bassem Mroue contributed from Beirut.

Pentagon withdrawing all U.S. forces from Syria

DEC. 19, 2018

By Clyde Hughes and Danielle Haynes

Dec. 19 (UPI) — The U.S. military is preparing for a full withdrawal from Syria, in a move that will pull about 2,000 service members from the country and signal a major Middle East policy shift.

U.S. troops have been training local forces to combat Islamic State militants in Syria, also known by the acronyms ISIS and ISIL. The withdrawal will be “full” and “rapid,” CNN reported.

White House spokeswoman Sarah Sanders acknowledged the pullout in a statement Wednesday.

“Five years ago, ISIS was a very powerful and dangerous force in the Middle East, and now the United States has defeated the territorial caliphate,” she said. “These victories over ISIS in Syria do not signal the end of the Global Coalition or its campaign.

“We have started returning United States troops home as we transition to the next phase of this campaign. The United States and our allies stand ready to re-engage at all levels to defend American interests whenever necessary, and we will continue to work together to deny radical Islamist terrorists’ territory, funding, support, and any means of infiltrating our borders.”

Partners in northeast Syria have been told of the withdrawal, a senior administration official told reporters. The Pentagon, though, will maintain about 5,000 troops in neighboring Iraq and the ability to launch attacks into Syria, if needed. The Syrian government has long called for U.S. forces to leave the country.

The official said about 1 percent of the Islamic State remains active in Syria, a figure the United States believes can be eliminated by regional partners.

“We are under no illusions that ISIS at large or the scourge of Sunni tyranny has gone away,” the administration official said.

The official offered no timeline for how quickly troops will be removed from Syria or how many have already left.

The announcement appeared to indicate a sudden shift in U.S. policy toward the Middle East. Earlier this month, the U.S.-led coalition said there were no plans for a change.

“Any reports indicating a change in the U.S. position with respect is false and designed to sow confusion and chaos,” the coalition said in a statement.

News of a U.S. pullout comes a day after Russia, Iran and Turkey agreed that a panel to draw up a new Syrian Constitution will meet next month.

Diplomats from the three countries agreed at the end of a meeting in Switzerland on Tuesday the 150-body committee will convene for the first time in January.

“We have agreed to take efforts aimed at convening the first session of the Syrian constitution committee early next year,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said in a statement after the meeting.

“These steps will lead to the launch of a viable and lasting Syrian-owned, Syrian-led, U.N.-facilitated political process.”

The three nations, which support the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, failed to agree on the makeup of the committee, however.

The body was expected to have 50 representatives from the Syrian government, 50 representatives from the opposition, and 50 “independent” delegates picked by the United Nations. The Syrian government, though, pushed back on the independent candidates’ portion and objected outright to some of the U.N. delegates.

The creation of a new Constitution for Syria is at the center of the country’s seven-year civil war and a political struggle by Assad. The United States has rejected any proposed peace deal that leaves him in power.

Assad said a new Syrian Constitution is not needed and the existing law only needs tweaking, The New Arab reported. The United Nations and United States believe a new Constitution is needed to guarantee free elections.

Syria’s civil war has lasted for seven years and has killed more than 500,000 people. Millions more have fled their homes in the war-ravaged country.

“Slowly, we are reaching a conclusion,” Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu said. “We have reached an important step in our work toward the Syrian constitutional committee.”

Source: United Press International (UPI).

Link: https://www.upi.com/Top_News/US/2018/12/19/Pentagon-withdrawing-all-US-forces-from-Syria/6051545224890/.

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