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Media Summary

Home Office Minister says Cantlie is alive

The BBC, Telegraph and Guardian report on a Home Office Minister’s statement saying that a British photojournalist, who was taken captive by ISIS in Syria in 2012, is believed to be alive. The BBC reports that Ben Wallace said John Cantlie, a photojournalist from Hampshire, kidnapped in Syria in 2012, is believed to be alive. After his kidnap in 2012, he escaped, but was recaptured again several months later. He was seen in an IS video published in March 2016. BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner said the news was a surprise to Mr Cantlie’s next of kin. Previous statements by UK officials had hinted that the Briton was probably dead, and the Security Minister has not explained why he believes Mr Cantlie is still a captive. In a statement, a Home Office spokesperson said: “We do not discuss individual kidnap cases and speculation is unhelpful.” The Telegraph reports that Wallace has been accused on Tuesday night of being “genuinely irresponsible” for the claims, with senior Whitehall sources saying the Security Minister may have put John Cantlie’s life in jeopardy by commenting on his status.

The Independent reports that an investigation by CNN has revealed that the White House’s closest Persian Gulf allies have been handing out sophisticated American weapons to al Qaeda and dangerous groups in Yemen in violation of US arms export rules. According to an investigation by the broadcaster, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, the two countries now leading a disastrous four-year war against Iranian-backed Houthi rebels in Yemen, have been doling out American weapons to local allies that include groups tied to al Qaeda and other armed extremists hostile to the US. Occasionally, the weapons have also fallen into the hands of vocally anti-Western Houthi rebels, a consequence of battlefield chaos in Yemen. Separately, The Independent has seen an investigation by Amnesty International, set to be released today (Wednesday), alleging that the UAE has distributed advanced weaponry it has received from dozens of countries to Yemeni militias with little accountability or oversight. The Amnesty report documents the distribution of US armoured vehicles equipped with heavy machine guns  into the hands of several militias allied with the UAE.

Reuters reports that in response to US President Donald Trump’s State of the Union speech,  Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said in a Twitter post Wednesday that the United States supports “dictators, butchers and extremists” in the Middle East. “US hostility has led it to support dictators, butchers & extremists, who’ve only brought ruin to our region,” Zarif wrote in the Twitter post. Trump called Iran “the world’s leading state sponsor of terror” during his speech and said his administration had acted decisively to confront it, according to a video of the speech posted on the official White House website. “It is a radical regime. They do bad, bad things,” Trump said. “We will not avert our eyes from a regime that chants ‘death to America’ and threatens genocide against the Jewish people.” Zarif responded by saying that Iran, including its Jewish community, was commemorating progress as it prepares to celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Islamic revolution on Monday. “Iranians—including our Jewish compatriots—are commemorating 40 yrs of progress despite US pressure, just as @realDonaldTrump again makes accusations against us @ #SOTU2019” Zarif wrote on Twitter, referring to the State of the Union address.

BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme included a package from Israel this morning at 08:40 about the Likud primaries and the police investigations into Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The Guardian reports that the US military commander overseeing American troops in the Middle East has told a Senate hearing that he was not consulted ahead of Donald Trump’s surprise decision in December to pull US troops out of Syria. “I was not consulted,” said Gen Joseph Votel, head of the US military’s Central Command, who warned that Islamic State will continue to pose a threat following a US withdrawal. Votel said on Tuesday that the militant group retained leaders, fighters, facilitators and resources that will continue to fuel a menacing insurgency. The remarks represent the latest warning by current and former US officials about the risk of an ISIS resurgence after US troops are withdrawn. “We do have to keep pressure on this network … They have the ability of coming back together if we don’t,” Votel told a Senate hearing. He added that territory under ISIS control had been reduced to less than 20 sq miles (5,180 hectares) and would be recaptured by US-backed forces prior to the US withdrawal, which he said would be carried out in a “deliberate and coordinated manner”.

The Times reports that President Trump’s plans to pull US troops out of Syria and Afghanistan have been dealt a blow by Republican senators, who voted overwhelmingly to oppose one of his main foreign policies before his state of the union address. In December the Senate, which has a Republican majority, voted to withdraw US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen. On Monday Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, drafted an amendment to the Middle East Act, a bill introduced by the Republicans, stating that Islamic State and al-Qaeda still posed a “serious threat” to US security in Syria and Afghanistan. The amendment was passed by 70 votes to 26; four Republicans voted against and three abstained. The vote does not have the power to block Mr Trump from withdrawing troops — such a move can only be made with the agreement of the House and his signature — but served as a reminder of unease in his party as he prepared to address the nation and claim victory in destroying the Isis “caliphate”. Senators called on the president to certify that ISIS had suffered “enduring defeat” before any significant US withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan.

The Financial Times reports that Turkey’s ruling party has “turned to economic tricks” as a set of local election polls loom. When previous elections have got tough, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rarely hesitated to throw money at voters. But as a difficult set of local polls looms, the hands of the Turkish president and his lieutenants are tied. Chafing under strict fiscal constraints imposed after last year’s painful currency crisis, the government has been forced to resort to more creative attempts to stimulate the economy and give a morale boost to the electorate. “Traditional means of doling out the pork are out,” said Atilla Yesilada, an Istanbul-based analyst at the consultancy GlobalSource partners. “Instead we see tricks.” Those tricks have ranged from leaning heavily on the country’s state banks to pressing retailers to hold down their prices. But some analysts wonder whether such an approach will last, or whether a nervous president will eventually revert to more conventional spending tactics — to win whatever the cost. Erdogan’s ruling Justice and Development party (AKP) is nervous about the mayoral and municipal elections due on March 31, which will take place amid a sharp economic slowdown. The race in the capital city of Ankara, in particular, is expected to be tight and a loss there would be a huge blow for the Turkish president.

David Gardner writes in the Financial Times this morning, that “Pope Francis fights a losing battle in the Middle East” with the unchecked continuation of a mass flight of Christians from the region. With regards to Pope Francis’s visit to the UAE this week, he says: “Given that much-hyped changes in the Gulf are often about rebranding rather than reform, and against a backdrop of Mohammed bin Zayed’s muscular authoritarianism that has stamped out virtually all dissent and criticism, this was a propaganda coup for the UAE. It received the charismatic Argentine pontiff as a royal and a rock star.” The Vatican’s priorities, says Gardner, are to expand freedom of worship in the Arabian Peninsula and to staunch the exodus of Arab Christians from the Levant or northern Arabia. However, writes Gardner: “It is hard to conceive of a policy that does all this — in effect to ensure Christianity survives in the lands of its birth — and the Vatican does not seem to have one.”

The Times reports that The Pope has held the first papal Mass in the Arabian peninsula for a congregation of mostly migrant workers in Abu Dhabi. At the Zayed Sports City stadium yesterday morning he addressed an estimated 180,000 people, some of whom watched on big screens that had been erected outside. It is thought to be the largest act of Christian worship in the region, whose native populations are overwhelmingly Muslim but which also hosts large communities of non-Muslim expatriates. Most of those taking part were Catholic immigrants from Asian countries such as the Philippines who had come to the United Arab Emirates to work. Many migrants leave their families in their home countries while they take on low-paid menial jobs to send money back. There are estimated to be a million practising Catholics living in the UAE. “It is most certainly not easy for you to live far from home, missing the affection of your loved ones, and perhaps also feeling uncertainty about the future. But the Lord is faithful and does not abandon his people,” the Pope told the crowd.

In the Independent, Kareem Fahim asks whether the controversy surrounding Saudi Arabia over the killing of journalist, Jamal Khashoggi, will quell the Kingdom’s attempted tourism push.

All the Israeli media report on the Likud primaries that were held yesterday.  The papers went to print before the results were known. Yediot Ahronoth reports the highlights from the election day that started with the spat between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Gideon Saar and note, for the first time that the Prime Minister and his wife, Sara, voted at a special polling station that was set up for them in the Prime Minister’s office. During a meeting with the Austrian President, Netanyahu said: “I don’t take back even a single syllable of what I said about Gideon Saar. But I do have one request from the registered Likud member — go vote.” Saar chose to display restraint in his public comments.

Yediot Ahronoth publishes part of their exclusive interview with Benny Gantz.  The interview was conducted by Shlomo Artzi, the musician who writes a weekend column in the paper, and commentator Hanoch Daum. The full interview will run this weekend. Gantz was asked to respond to criticism of Operation Protective Edge in 2014, when he was IDF Chief of Staff, and accusations that he risked soldiers’ lives so as not to hurt innocent bystanders.  Gantz said: “Are you willing for me to level a hospital on top of the people inside? Answer me as a Jew, as an Israeli, as an IDF combatant. If I do want to level it, I need to ensure that there’s no one inside. Ostensibly, that poses a risk. So I tell the troops from Golani to see if it’s empty, because we’re about to raze the hospital. That process takes time. After we confirmed that there was nobody there, within six minutes the hospital was levelled. I bear the duty to protect my nation, to strike at my enemy, to do that the best I can with as few uninvolved casualties possible—I can’t reach zero—and with minimum risk to the lives of our soldiers. That is why anyone who is playing with that story, I’m telling you, is playing a political game.” Asked to respond to Moshe Yaalon’s position that the Oslo Accords was a terrible catastrophe and that there isn’t a Palestinian partner, Gantz said: “The central question is a security question. It needs to safeguard the State of Israel in terms of its security. Now we have here the question of interest. We — and Bibi said so as well in the Bar Ilan speech — aren’t looking for dominion over anyone else. We need to find the way in which we don’t have dominion over other people.”

Israel Hayom reports that former IDF Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi could soon join a political party but hasn’t yet decided on which one or when. Yesterday Ashkenazi referred to the possibility of uniting with the centre-left bloc, and said that he was “working on it”. However, according to various sources, the Israel Resilience Party and Yesh Atid have rejected the idea of a Prime Minister rotation between Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid. The assessment in Gantz’s camp is reportedly that if there is no progress on the issue of a merger, Ashkenazi will decide to unite with Gantz, causing a further rise in support for the Israeli Resilience Party at the expense of Yesh Atid. This may put even more pressure on Lapid to join the newly united party. The emerging arrangement is a party led by four people: Gantz, Lapid, Yaalon and Ashkenazi. If indeed such a decision is made, the quartet will appear on the party banners, and the campaign will emphasise that the party is led by four leaders.

Haaretz includes more details from their latest polling that shows 47 per cent of Israelis do not want Netanyahu as their next Prime Minister, whilst 35 per cent do and 18 per cent don’t know. They also break down the support for Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, asking who did they vote for in 2015. The poll reveals 39 per cent voted for the Zionist Union, 15 per cent for Yesh Atid, 13 per cent for Kulanu and 12 per cent for the Likud. They also asked a series of questions relating to the suitability of Netanyahu v Gantz. On ‘Who is better suited to handle foreign policy,’ Netanyahu received 60 per cent to Gantz’s 20 per cent. On ‘Who is better suited to handle economic issues,’ Netanyahu got 54 per cent to Gantz’s 20 per cent. On ‘Who is better suited to handle security issues’ 40 per cent said Netanyahu and 39 per cent said Gantz.

Maariv reports on comment by Ali Shamkhani, secretary of the Supreme National Security Council of Iran, who warned Israel of a “deterrence” attack by Iran if it continues the attacks in Syria. “If the Israeli attacks in Syria continue,” Shamkhani said, “we will take a number of well-thought-out steps for deterrence purposes and a solid response, which will teach the criminal and lying leaders of Israel a lesson”. The paper notes that this is not the first time that the Iranians have threatened to respond to attacks on its soldiers and military infrastructures in Syria. However, other than a missile being launched at Mount Hermon and intercepted, no real reactions to the Israeli attacks have been recorded.

Haaretz includes a report from defence officials to the security cabinet that in the event of another conflict with Hamas, the Gaza health system could collapse, making it difficult for the Israeli army to fight in the Strip for long and could lead to intense international intervention. “The ministers were told, for example, that wounded civilians – who would presumably comprise most of the casualties in a military clash – would not be able to receive initial medical care.” The paper notes: “Israel has already received a report on the health situation from an international medical agency, which entered the Strip to assess the condition of Gazans wounded by shooting. That document was also sent to international agencies, some of which are helping mediate the contacts between Israel and Hamas. The report given to the security cabinet shows that around 6,000 people with bullet wounds are still awaiting urgent operations. Most of the wounded are not receiving proper medical care and a quarter have developed bone infections that if untreated will lead to amputations. At this point there is no agency that could treat those thousands of people.”