Media Summary

Foreign Secretary says Assad will be around ‘for a while’

The Financial Times, Independent, Times  and BBC report that the trial of 11 Saudis accused of killing Jamal Khashoggi began in Riyadh on Thursday as the authorities sought the death penalty for five of the suspects. The Financial Times reports that the accused and their lawyers, who attended the hearing, requested more time to respond to the charges. The trial is central to the kingdom’s effort to quell an international outcry over the killing, a crime that has badly damaged the reputation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman as he attempts to push an ambitious economic and social reform programme in the country. The investigation is ongoing and there are a number of other suspects, according to a statement by the attorney-general published by the official Saudi Press Agency. The statement added that Saudi Arabia was still waiting for Turkey to provide evidence and information related to the case after having made five requests to authorities there, most recently on December 17. Saud al-Qahtani and Ahmed Assiri, two senior aides to the Crown Prince, were previously identified by the attorney-general as having been involved in the killing, but it is unclear if they are among the suspects facing trial. The names of the suspects have not been published, in accordance with the Saudi law of criminal procedures.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told  Sky News that Syrian President Bashar al-Assad will remain in place for “a while”, reversing Britain’s long-held position to reflect the new reality on the ground in Syria. The Telegraph reports that Hunt commented: “The British long-standing position is that we won’t have lasting peace in Syria with that (Assad-led) regime”. The Foreign Secretary added: “regretfully we do think he’s going to be around for a while and that is because of the support that he’s had from Russia. Russia may think that it’s gained a sphere of influence. What we would say to them is: Yes – and you’ve also gained a responsibility.”

Journalist Simon Jenkins writes in the Guardian this morning, arguing that, “for all his antics on the Mexican border, the US president is right to be withdrawing troops from Syria”.

The BBC reports that scientists have found the most likely source of Yemen’s cholera epidemic, which is the worst in recorded history. Using genomic sequencing, researchers at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and Institut Pasteur concluded the strain of cholera originated in eastern Africa and was carried to Yemen by migrants. They hope the data will help estimate the risk of future outbreaks and be used to better target interventions. Since 2016 the epidemic has affected a million people and caused 2,770 deaths.

The Telegraph and Independent report that Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, the British-Iranian charity worker in prison in Tehran on espionage charges, is to go on a hunger strike in protest at the “inhuman” denial of medical care. The Telegraph  reports that Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe, writing from Evin prison, said she intends to go on a three-day hunger strike later this month alongside prominent human rights activist Narges Mohammadi to demand access to a doctor. In a letter published by Tehran-based charity Defenders of Human Rights Centre, Mrs Zaghari-Ratcliffe said both women were banned from receiving medical treatment despite “frequent requests”. “In protest to this illegal, inhuman and unlawful behaviour, and to express our concerns for our health and survival at this denial of specialist treatment, despite taking daily medicines, we will go on hunger strike from 14.01.2019 to 16.01.2019,” the letter said, adding; “We announce that in the event of the authority’s failure to address these concerns and them further endangering our health, we will take further action.”

The Independent and Reuters report on escalating violence in north-west Syria. The Independent reports that extremist groups are trying to consolidate their control in northern Syria, attacking rival opposition fighters and putting a fragile ceasefire at risk in the process. Dozens have been killed over the past three days in fighting between al-Qaeda-linked rebels and a coalition of groups backed by Turkey. Hayat Tahrir al-Sham, which was once a part of al-Qaeda and still espouses the same ideology, has captured several villages in Idlib and western Aleppo. More than 40 fighters and six civilians have been killed, according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Reuters reports that the United States issued a pre-emptive warning to Iran on Thursday against pursuing three planned space rocket launches that it said would violate a UN Security Council resolution because they use ballistic missile technology. Iran rejected the warning, issued by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, saying its space vehicle launches and missile tests were not violations. Pompeo said Iran planned to launch three rockets, called Space Launch Vehicles (SLV), that he said incorporate technology “virtually identical” to intercontinental ballistic missiles. “The United States will not stand by and watch the Iranian regime’s destructive policies place international stability and security at risk,” Pompeo said in a statement, adding; “we advise the regime to reconsider these provocative launches and cease all activities related to ballistic missiles in order to avoid deeper economic and diplomatic isolation.”

Reuters reports that Iran’s health minister has resigned over proposed budget cuts, the official news agency IRNA reported, amid an economic crisis wrought by the reimposition of US sanctions on Tehran. IRNA said on Thursday President Hassan Rouhani accepted the resignation of Hassan Ghazizadeh Hashemi, widely seen as the key official behind the 2014 launch of an ambitious plan for universal medical insurance sometimes dubbed “Rouhanicare”. Hashemi had repeatedly complained about delays in payments of budgeted funds in the past and about cuts in his ministry’s budget under the new state spending plans, IRNA said.

The BBC reports that a “mysterious” smell in Tehran is “not a cause for concern”, according to Iranian officials. City officials held emergency meetings on Wednesday as thousands took to social media to complain about the “smelly,” “sulphur-like” and “fishy” odour. The source of the smell, which made front page headlines in Iran, has not yet been identified. Some reports suggested a burst sewage pipe in Enghelab (Revolution) Square might be the source of the odour. But according to the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency this was denied by Samim Rouzbahani, spokesperson for the Crisis Management Department of Tehran Municipality. Hashtags translating as “smell”, “mysterious smell” and “unpleasant smell” trended on Twitter in Persian. Many were angered by a deputy governor’s claim that there was “nothing special” about the smell.

Yediot Ahronot and Kan Radio report Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s statements that it is ‘unthinkable’ to begin a hearing before the elections if it cannot be completed by the elections. He said that the ‘thuggish and inhuman pressure applied to the attorney general by the left-wing demonstrators and the media was peaking now` and that they `were trying to force the attorney general to intervene crudely in the elections.’ Netanyahu said that this was an’attempt to oust a prime minister by a drumhead court-martial, and to steal the elections’.

Opposition Chairwoman Shelly Yachimovich said that Netanyahu’s statements were no different from the statements made by any other person facing severe criminal suspicions, but as prime minister he holds the power to bring down with him the institutions [upholding] the rule of law. Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid said that a prime minister who was confident that there is nothing should have demanded that the attorney general issue his recommendations as quickly as possible.

Yediot Ahronoth reports that the Prime Minister’s statements followed a speech by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit at a conference in Haifa. where he said: “Millions [of people] will not accept Netanyahu’s prosecution? That is an irresponsible statement.” It was clear he was referring to comments by Coalition Chairman David Amsalem, who is a close associate of Netanyahu. The attorney general also said that attacks voiced against the justice system “seek to undermine the deepest foundations of the rule of law.”

A poll in Maariv says Likud will win the election with 30 seats, followed by the Joint List with 13 seats and Yesh Atid and the Israeli Resilience Party with 12 seats each, and the New Right with 11. The poll also examined a scenario in which the attorney general decides to indict Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, pending a hearing, before the elections. In that case, the Likud would lose two seats that would go to Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right, but it would still remain the largest party in the Knesset. When asked which of the two is better suited to be prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu or Benny Gantz 49% of those polled said Netanyahu, compared to 26% for the former chief of staff.

Kan Radio reports that Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan will announce by noon whether he will appoint a permanent police commissioner and who it will be. The leading candidate is Maj. Gen. Roni Numa, the former head of IDF Central Command.

Haaretz and Kan Radio reports that Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi confirmed that the Egyptian army operated with Israel against terrorists in northern Sinai and referred to this as extensive cooperation with Israel.

Haaretz reports that Netanyahu accused his military secretary of failing to relay an order to prevent the removal of two temporary homes in Amona.

Israel Hayom and Maariv report that following the removal of the temporary homes in the Amona outpost, Ministers Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked, the leaders of the New Right, attacked Netanyahu. “We call on the prime minister to remove, today, the illegal Arab construction in Khan al-Ahmar. The law is the law is the law. Selective enforcement against Jews only in Amona, contrasted with the fear of removing rampant and illegal Arab construction in Khan al-Ahmar, projects weakness and the Israeli government’s vacillation toward the Palestinians and undermines the State of Israel’s deterrence.” Yesh Atid Chairman Yair Lapid attacked the “lawbreakers in Amona,” and tweeted: “Anyone who lifts a hand and attacks the security forces, attacks the State of Israel”.