US President-elect Joe Biden on Tuesday held his first talks since his victory with the prime ministers of Israel and India, allies of Donald Trump who has not conceded defeat.
Biden told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who had a notoriously rocky relationship with the last Democratic president, Barack Obama, that he was determined “to ensure that the US-Israel relationship is strengthened and enjoys strong bipartisan support.”
Biden “reiterated his steadfast support for Israel’s security and its future as a Jewish and democratic state,” the president-elect’s office said in a statement.
The office of Netanyahu, who had vigorously challenged the 2009-2017 Obama-Biden administration over its diplomacy with Iran and push for Palestinian rights, said he had a “warm” conversation with the president-elect.
Biden also spoke to President Reuven Rivlin, whose position is largely ceremonial.
“I said that as an old friend of Israel he knows our friendship is based on values beyond partisan politics,” Rivlin wrote on Twitter.
Biden separately voiced optimism about working with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who had heaped praise on Trump in two giant joint rallies in Texas and Gujarat.
India enjoys support across party lines in Washington but Democratic lawmakers have increasingly voiced concern about human rights under the Hindu nationalist Modi, including his championing of a controversial citizenship law and revocation of autonomy in Muslim-majority Kashmir.
Biden said he hoped to cooperate with Modi on common challenges including the Covid pandemic, regional security, climate change and, in a delicate choice of words, on “strengthening democracy at home and abroad.”
The Indian foreign ministry said Modi for his part called for cooperation on promoting access to affordable vaccines and also conveyed greetings to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, whose mother was born in India.
Trump has refused to concede defeat two weeks after the election but the leaders of virtually all countries have congratulated Biden except Russia, Mexico, Brazil, North Korea, and Slovenia.
Biden’s first calls took place with US allies who had tense ties with Trump including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Israeli warplanes struck Syria Wednesday, hitting Iranian targets and killing 10 Syrian and foreign fighters in what the Israeli army called a retaliatory attack after explosive devices were found near one of its bases on the occupied Golan Heights.
The airstrikes came hours before US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was to land in Israel for talks including on Iran, in what was likely to be his last visit to the staunch American ally before President Donald Trump leaves office.
An Israeli army statement said its fighter jets had overnight hit “military targets belonging to the Iranian Quds Force and the Syrian armed forces”. The elite Quds Force is the main foreign operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
The targets included “storage facilities, headquarters, and military compounds” as well as “Syrian surface-to-air missile batteries,” it said.
Syrian state news agency SANA said the strikes had killed three of its soldiers and wounded another.
The monitoring group Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 10 people were killed, including foreign fighters as well as Syrian soldiers.
The foreigners included five fighters who were “likely Iranian and belonging to the Quds force” as well as two pro-Iran fighters of undetermined nationality, the Britain-based monitor said.
Israel has carried out hundreds of air and missile strikes on Syria since civil war broke out there in 2011, targeting Iranian and Lebanese Hezbollah forces as well as government troops.
– Retaliatory strikes –
The Jewish state rarely acknowledges individual strikes but has done so when responding to what it describes as aggression inside Israeli territory.
Israel’s military said it had discovered improvised explosive devices (IEDs) on its side of the armistice line on the Golan Heights on Tuesday.
“We are talking about three connected Claymore anti-personnel charges that were planted close to an IDF position,” army spokesman Jonathan Conricus told reporters Wednesday.
“This was another attempt led by Iranian Quds forces. The actual planting of the IEDs was by Syrian locals but the guidance, instruction and control was by Iranian Quds forces,” he said.
Most Arab residents of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights retain Syrian citizenship, having spurned the offer of Israeli papers.
Conricus said Israel had carried out retaliatory strikes against eight separate targets inside Syria, from the armistice line on the Golan all the way to the southern outskirts of the capital Damascus.
He said they included three Iranian command centres — a headquarters in the Damascus airport, a Quds Force base in the headquarters of Syria’s seventh army division, and a “secret military site which served as a hosting facility for senior Iranian delegations”.
“We hope now that the message is clear — that it is unacceptable that the Syrian regime allows and tolerates and facilitates the use by Iranian forces of Syria as a launchpad for attacks against Israel.”
Israel and Syria, still technically at war, have a border along the Golan Heights, which the Jewish State has occupied since the Six-Day War of 1967.
Iran has been a key ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime throughout the civil war that erupted after the brutal repression of anti-government protests and has killed more than 380,000 people.
– Pompeo visit –
The airstrikes came hours before Pompeo was to land in Israel, for talks on Iran that are likely to focus on Israeli fears of a softer policy towards Iran after the Trump administration hands over to Democrat Joe Biden in January.
Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who called Trump his country’s strongest-ever ally in the White House, has heaped praised on the administration for its hardline approach towards Iran.
Trump’s so-called “maximum pressure” campaign against the Islamic Republic has included sanctions and scrapping of the nuclear deal agreed between Tehran and world powers during Barack Obama’s presidency.
Israeli experts have said Netanyahu is concerned that the president-elect, Obama’s former vice president, will seek to re-engage Iran diplomatically, possibly by restoring the 2015 nuclear deal Trump pulled the US out of.
Bahraini Foreign Minister Abdellatif al-Zayani was also due in Israel for the first visit by a senior official of the Gulf Arab state since it signed a normalisation deal with Israel on September 15.
The deal was condemned as a betrayal by Iran and its regional allies.
Lebanon and Israel said Thursday they will hold US-brokered negotiations on their disputed land and maritime borders, the first talks in decades between two countries technically still at war.
The United States will act as a facilitator during the talks to be held in the southern Lebanon border town of Naqoura, Lebanon’s Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri told a news conference in Beirut, without giving a date.
In Israel, Energy Minister Youval Steinitz said in a statement the “direct negotiations” would be held after the Jewish feast of Sukkot that ends October 10.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hailed what he a called a historic agreement between the two countries to discuss their disputed borders, a “result of nearly three years of intense diplomatic engagement.”
Berri said a framework agreement had been reached to start the negotiations, and read out a September 22 copy of it.
“The United States were asked by both sides, Israel and Lebanon, to act as a mediator and facilitator to draw up the maritime borders, and it is ready to do this,” he quoted it as saying.
“On the issue of (the) maritime border, continuous talks will be held at the UN headquarters in Naqoura under UN sponsorship,” he said.
“The US representatives and the US special coordinator for Lebanon are prepared to provide meeting minutes together that they will sign and present to Israel and Lebanon to sign at the end of each meeting,” he added.
The UN peacekeeping force patrolling the shared border welcomed the news.
UNIFIL “welcomes today’s announcement of a framework agreement to launch negotiations between Lebanon and Israel on maritime border demarcation between the two countries,” it said.
The talks between Lebanon and Israel, which are still technically at war, follow two years of indirect contacts via the US administration, Steinitz’s office said.
Israel and Lebanon’s Hezbollah movement fought a devastating war in 2006.
At the time, then Lebanese prime minister Fouad Siniora said that Lebanon would be the “last Arab country to make peace with Israel”.
US envoy David Schenker on September 8 said he hoped to come to Lebanon and sign a framework agreement towards starting discussions “in the coming weeks”.
The issue of the maritime border is particularly sensitive due to the possible presence of hydrocarbons in the Mediterranean.
In February 2018, Lebanon signed its first contract for offshore drilling in two blocks in the Mediterranean for oil and gas with a consortium comprising energy giants Total, ENI and Novatek.
Lebanon in April said initial drilling in Block 4 had shown traces of gas but no commercially viable reserves.
Exploration of the other one, Block 9, has not started and is more controversial as ownership is disputed.
Israeli Health Minister Yuli Edelstein said Tuesday that there was “no way” the country’s second nationwide coronavirus lockdown would be lifted after three weeks as originally planned.
“There’s no way that in 10 days we’ll be lifting all the restrictions and saying it’s all over, everything is fine,” he told public broadcaster Kan.
Israel imposed its second lockdown on September 18 after the coronavirus infection rate soared. It was originally scheduled to end on October 10.
On Friday, the measures were tightened after the initial eight days failed to bring down the world’s highest infection rate per capita.
Beyond shuttering schools and cultural events, the lockdown has closed the vast majority of workplaces, markets and places of worship.
Parliament was meanwhile due to debate a regulation limiting demonstrations, which could curb weekly protests that have been held against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s leadership for months.
Convoys of vehicles were meanwhile heading to Jerusalem to protest the possible restrictions on demonstrations.
On Saturday night, Netanyahu acknowledged “mistakes” in the reopening of Israel’s educational system and economy following the first lockdown earlier this year.
“There might be some changes for the better, but this time, as part of the the learning process from what happened in April, we’ll exit (the lockdown) gradually, responsibly,” Edelstein said.
“The opening of the economy and our lives will be gradual and slow.”
Israel has recorded more than 233,000 infections and 1,507 deaths in a population of nine million.
According to military intelligence, not only does Israel have the world’s highest weekly infection rate per capita, its daily death rate per capita has passed that of the world’s hardest-hit country, the United States.
Israel toughened its coronavirus measures on Thursday as a second nationwide lockdown failed to bring down the world’s highest infection rate a week after it was imposed.
The new rules will close the vast majority of workplaces, shutter markets and further limit prayers and demonstrations.
“Over the past two days, we’ve heard from experts that if we don’t take immediate and harsh measures, we’ll reach an abyss,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said late Wednesday, at the start of a cabinet meeting to thrash out the new measures.
The government’s latest move comes as Israel is poised to enter the second week of a three-week lockdown imposed last Friday, which included the closure of schools and restrictions on work and leisure.
Under the new measures set to be approved in parliament later Thursday, synagogues will only be allowed to open on Yom Kippur, a Jewish holiday which begins Sunday afternoon.
At other times, only outdoor prayer will be allowed with a maximum of 20 people attending. The same restrictions have been applied to demonstrations.
“To save the lives of Israel’s citizens we need to impose a full lockdown now for two weeks,” Netanyahu said.
“This is also necessary for the economy. Whoever thinks we can work with a raging pandemic, with death and infections rising, without it affecting the economy, is wrong.”
A decision on whether to close Ben Gurion international airport outside Tel Aviv would be made later on Thursday, the government said.
Israel has the world’s highest coronavirus infection rate as a proportion of its population, according to an AFP tally of the past fortnight.
More than 200,000 coronavirus cases have been recorded, with 1,335 deaths, out of a population of nine million.
– ‘Massive destruction’ –
Hagai Levine, chairman of the Israeli Association of Public Health Physicians, said Netanyahu’s rush to ease the lockdown set in place during the first wave caused the current crisis.
“Once the rates went lower, Prime Minister Netanyahu told the public to go and have a good time,” said Levine, an epidemiologist who is part of the country’s anti-coronavirus taskforce.
“This is a wrong concept. Dealing with the current pandemic is like a marathon, and in a marathon you need to keep pace all the time,” he said.
Levine also accused Netanyahu of basing his pandemic decisions on “political” rather than “professional reasoning”, which had a damaging effect.
“When there is no plan, no logic, the public loses its trust,” he said.
The health expert warned that allowing synagogues to open during Yom Kippur would cause the virus to spread on a large scale.
“We are going to have massive destruction,” he said.
Netanyahu has also faced fierce criticism from opposition politicians, who accuse him of tightening the rules to put an end to weeks of protests outside his Jerusalem residence.
Ayelet Shaked, a lawmaker with the far-right Yamina party, said the new rules were “destructive and unreasonable”.
“Because of the demonstrations, they’re pushing hundreds of thousands of people to unemployment and crushing the economy,” she said in a statement.
Shaked said she would push to change the measures when they come before a parliamentary committee for approval later on Thursday.
Israel’s health ministry registered 6,808 new coronavirus cases on Wednesday, out of 54,364 tests processed.
Some hospitals have reached capacity and are having to turn people away, with some patients forced to wait for hours in ambulances, according to the emergency medical service Magen David Adom.
Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani said on Wednesday that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain will be responsible for any “consequences” resulting from their normalisation of relations with Tehran’s arch-foe Israel.
The remarks came a day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the foreign ministers of Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates signed agreements establishing full diplomatic ties at a ceremony at the White House.
Speaking at a cabinet meeting, Rouhani said Israel was “committing more crimes in Palestine every day”.
“Some of the region’s countries, their people are pious Muslims but their rulers neither understand religion nor (their) debt… to the nation of Palestine, to their brothers speaking their language,” he said in televised remarks.
“How could you reach out your hands to Israel? And then you want to give them bases in the region? All the severe consequences that would arise from this are on you.”
US President Donald Trump said similar Washington-brokered deals were close between Israel and several Arab countries, including Iran’s regional rival Saudi Arabia.
“After decades of division and conflict we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” Trump said.
An aide to Iran’s supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said on Wednesday that some Gulf states had become “puppets” of the US and Israel in the “vain hope” of getting their support.
“They have pinned their hopes on nothing and built a house on water, and they will pay for this cowardly act,” foreign affairs adviser Ali Akbar Velayati was quoted as saying by Tasnim news agency.
The remarks were made during a meeting of the council of the “International Society for the Islamic Awakening”, Tasnim said.
Iran had previously warned Bahrain that its deal made it a partner to Israel’s “crimes” and accused the UAE of betraying the Muslim world.
In 2016, Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Iran and the UAE downgraded relations amid rising tensions between Saudi Arabia and the Islamic republic.
Sunni-ruled Bahrain has faced long-running unrest among its large Shiite community that it has consistently blamed on Iran.
The National Bank of Dubai, the largest banking group in the emirate, signed a memorandum of understanding Monday with Israel’s Bank Hapoalim, on the eve of the UAE-Israel normalisation accord signing.
“It is a great honour to be the first bank to sign such an agreement that will contribute to the establishment of the relationship between the two countries,” Bank Hapoalim’s CEO, Dov Kotler, said in a statement issued by NBD.
It said the MoU was “part of a broader engagement between the UAE and Israel to further peace, dialogue and stability and establish cooperation to promote sustainable development”.
An Israeli business and banking delegation arrived in Dubai last Tuesday on the first such visit since the August 13 announcement of a normalisation of ties between the Jewish state and the United Arab Emirates, of which Dubai is a member.
On Tuesday in Washington, both the UAE and fellow Gulf state Bahrain are to sign normalisation accords with Israel.
Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi on Friday hailed the “historic” normalisation deal between Israel and Bahrain.
“I hail this important step aimed at consolidating stability and peace in the Middle East, which will achieve a just and permanent solution to the Palestinian cause,” Sisi said in a tweet.
Sisi also thanked “all those who helped achieve this historic step”. Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace deal with Israel in 1979, followed by Jordan in 1994, while the UAE announced it was normalising ties with the Jewish state on August 13.
US President Donald Trump announced Friday a peace deal between Israel and Bahrain, which becomes the second Arab country to settle with its former foe over the last month, reinforcing an ambitious White House push to redraw the conflicts of the Middle East.
Calling it a “truly historic day,” Trump said Israel and Bahrain were establishing full diplomatic and commercial relations.
“They will exchange embassies and ambassadors, begin direct flights between their countries and launch cooperation initiatives across a broad range of sectors, including health, business, technology, education, security and agriculture,” he told reporters in the White House.
Bahrain said in a joint statement it had agreed to formalize the deal with Israel at a ceremony next Tuesday in the White House, where the United Arab Emirates will also sign off on its own thaw with Israel announced in mid-August.
According to the statement, Bahrain’s King Hamad bin Isa Al-Khalifa, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Trump talked earlier Friday before announcing the new breakthrough.
Bahrain said that during the phone call, the king “stressed the need to reach a just and comprehensive peace as a strategic option, in accordance with the two-state solution and relevant resolutions of international legitimacy.”
A senior official in Manama, the capital of Bahrain, said the deal would boost regional “security, stability, prosperity.”
Until now, Israel has been able to strike only two similar peace accords with Arab countries — Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 — and Trump is hoping that the diplomatic successes will give him badly needed momentum going into the November 3 presidential election.
At the White House, Trump celebrated, calling the progress “very, very important for not only the Middle East, but for the world.”
He said it was “so interesting” that he was able to make the announcement on the anniversary of the September 11, 2001 attacks against the United States.
“When I took office the Middle East was in a state of absolute chaos,” Trump said.
In Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hailed the agreement.
“Citizens of Israel, I am moved to be able to tell you that this evening, we are reaching another peace agreement with another Arab country, Bahrain. This agreement adds to the historic peace with the United Arab Emirates,” Netanyahu said in a Hebrew-language statement.
In the UAE, Hend Al Otaiba, director of strategic communications at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, sent congratulations to Bahrain and Israel.
“Today marks another significant and historic achievement which will contribute enormously to the stability and prosperity of the region,” she said.
Trump redraws the lines
Trump said more Arab nations could also open their doors to Israel.
“I am very hopeful that there will be more to follow. I can tell you there’s tremendous enthusiasm on behalf of other countries to also join,” Trump said.
The Republican businessman has styled himself as the most pro-Israeli US president in history.
He has taken a string of decisions highly beneficial to Israel, from recognizing disputed Jerusalem as the country’s capital to tearing up an international accord meant to end Iran’s isolation in return for verified controls to prevent militarization of its nuclear industry.
At the same time, Trump has pushed to wind down the United States’ own military footprint after decades of bloody entanglements in Iraq and elsewhere. His earlier success in getting an Israel-UAE normalization prompted a right-wing Norwegian member of parliament to nominate him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
The UAE’s announcement broke with years of Arab League policy on the Middle East conflict, prompting angry pushback from the Palestinians and Iran, who both termed the deal a betrayal.
The Palestinians, who see Arab support as crucial to their limited power in resisting Israeli occupation, quickly condemned the Israel-Bahrain deal as well.
The agreement was “a stab in the back of the Palestinian cause and the Palestinian people,” Ahmad Majdalani, social affairs minister in the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority, told AFP.
Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, said it was an “aggression” that dealt “serious prejudice” to the Palestinian cause.
Trump, who has made crushing sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Israel’s arch foe Iran a priority of his administration, predicted however that there would be a “very positive” development in the standoff with Tehran.
“I can see a lot of good things happening with respect to the Palestinians,” he added, arguing that the Palestinians would end their conflict with Israel once enough Arab countries had taken the initiative.
“As more countries normalize relations with Israel, which will happen quite quickly we believe, the region will become more and more stable, secure and prosperous,” he said.
“In the meantime, we’re pulling our soldiers out, so we’re doing it the opposite way. They were doing it with nothing but fighting and blood all over the place,” Trump said. “The sand was loaded up with blood. And now we can see that a lot of that sand is going to be loaded up with peace.”
A US-Israeli delegation including White House advisor Jared Kushner took off Monday on a historic first direct commercial flight from Tel Aviv to Abu Dhabi to mark the normalisation of ties between the Jewish state and the UAE.
The word “peace” was written in Arabic, English and Hebrew on the cockpit of the plane of Israel’s national carrier El Al that took off around 11:20 am (0820 GMT) and was expected to land in the Emirates in the afternoon.
“While this is a historic flight, we hope that it will start an even more historic journey in the Middle East and beyond,” Kushner, who is President Donald Trump’s son-in-law and a key architect of his Middle East policy, said before boarding.
“The future does not have to be predetermined by the past. This is a very hopeful time.”
The flight number El Al 971 is a reference to the UAE’s international dialling code, and the return flight, set to leave Abu Dhabi on Tuesday morning, is El Al 972, matching Israel’s dialling code.
The Israel-UAE agreement to normalise ties was announced by Trump on August 13, making the UAE the first Gulf country and only the third Arab nation to establish relations with Israel.
Unlike Egypt, which made peace with its former battlefield enemy in 1979, and Jordan, which followed in 1994, the UAE has never fought a war with Israel.
The unprecedented flight also passed through Saudi airspace, according to data from the specialist website FlightRadar24, and marked the most concrete sign yet that Israel’s thaw with major Arab powers is taking hold.
Israeli National Security Advisor Meir Ben-Shabbat, who was also on the flight to the UAE, said “our goal is to achieve a joint working plan to advance relations in a very broad range of areas.
“This morning, the traditional blessing ‘go in peace’ receives special meaning for us,” he was quoted as saying in an English-language government statement.
– ‘Sparks fly’ –
The talks in Abu Dhabi aim to boost cooperation between the two regional economic powerhouses in areas including aviation, tourism, trade, health, energy and security.
An Israeli government statement said there would be “working meetings of joint teams on a range of issues ahead of the signing of cooperation agreements in the civil and economic spheres”.
The visit will also include a trilateral meeting between Kushner, Ben-Shabbat and UAE National Security Advisor Sheikh Tahnoun bin Zayed, it said.
Israel’s health ministry had late Sunday updated its list of “green countries” with low coronavirus infection rates to include the UAE and eight other countries.
The change meant the Israeli officials and journalists travelling to Abu Dhabi would be exempted from a 14-day quarantine upon return.
Since the agreement between the UAE and Israel was unveiled, there have been phone calls between their ministers, and on Saturday the Emirates in a new milestone repealed a 1972 law boycotting Israel.
“It will be permissible to enter, exchange or possess Israeli goods and products of all kinds in the UAE and trade in them,” read a decree issued by UAE President Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al-Nahyan.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, speaking alongside Kushner in Jerusalem on Sunday, praised “the swift pace of normalisation” between his country and the UAE.
Noting the UAE’s Saturday move, Netanyahu said it “opens the door” for “unbridled trade, tourism, investments, exchanges between the Middle East’s two most advanced economies”.
“You will see how the sparks fly on this. It’s already happening,” he said, predicting that “today’s breakthroughs will become tomorrow’s norms. “It will pave the way for other countries to normalise their ties with Israel.”
“There are many more unpublicised meetings with Arab and Muslim leaders to normalise relations with the state of Israel,” Netanyahu said without naming any countries.
As part of the normalisation agreement, Israel agreed to suspend its planned annexations in the occupied West Bank, although Netanyahu quickly insisted the plans remained on the table in the long run.
The Palestinians dubbed the UAE’s agreement with Israel a “stab in the back” as it opens parts of the Arab world to the Jewish state while their own conflict remains unresolved.
Saudi Arabia, in keeping with decades of policy by most Arab states, says it will not follow the UAE’s example until Israel has signed a peace deal with the Palestinians establishing an independent Palestinian state.