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Media Summary

Omani novelist becomes first Arabic writer to win Booker Prize

Reuters reports that the US sees signs the Syrian government may be using chemical weapons, including an alleged chlorine attack on Sunday in northwest Syria, the State Department said on Tuesday, warning that Washington and its allies would respond “quickly and appropriately” if this were proven. “Unfortunately, we continue to see signs that the Assad regime may be renewing its use of chemical weapons, including an alleged chlorine attack in northwest Syria on the morning of May 19,” State Department spokesperson Morgan Ortagus said in a statement. “We are still gathering information on this incident, but we repeat our warning that if the Assad regime uses chemical weapons, the United States and our allies will respond quickly and appropriately,” she said. Ortagus said the alleged attack was part of a violent campaign by Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s forces violating a ceasefire that has protected several million civilians in the greater Idlib area. There was no immediate comment from the Syrian government on the US statement.

The Guardian and BBC report that the Iran “threat” has diminished, according to the US Defense Secretary. The acting US Defence Secretary has claimed that the alleged threat from Iran has receded as the result of an American show of force in the Middle East. “We’ve put on hold the potential for attacks on Americans,” Patrick Shanahan told reporters before briefing Congress on the situation in the Persian Gulf and the military deployments that the US said were a response to a danger of imminent attack. Asked what he meant by saying that the threat was “on hold”, the acting Defence Secretary said: “There haven’t been any attacks on Americans. I would consider that a hold. “That doesn’t mean that the threats that we’ve previously identified have gone away,” Shanahan added. “Our prudent response, I think, has given the Iranians time to recalculate. I think our response was a measure of our will and our resolve that we will protect our people and our interests in the region”.

The Guardian and BBC report that Jokha Alharthi has won the 2019 Man Booker International prize for her book “Celestial Bodies”. She is the first female Omani novelist to be translated into English and her book becomes the first book written in Arabic to win the prize. She will share the £50,000 prize fund with her translator, Marilyn Booth. Celestial Bodies is set in the Omani village of al-Awafi and follows the stories of three sisters: Mayya, who marries into a rich family after a heartbreak; Asma, who marries for duty; and Khawla, waiting for a man who has emigrated to Canada. Chair of Judges, historian Bettany Hughes, said: “We felt we were getting access to ideas and thoughts and experiences you aren’t normally given in English. It avoids every stereotype you might expect in its analysis of gender and race and social distinction and slavery. There are surprises throughout. We fell in love with it.”

The Guardian’s Today in Focus podcast reports on National Security Adviser John Bolton and whether he is trying to drive Trump to war with Iran. The Guardian’s world affairs editor, Julian Borger speaks to Anushka Asthana about how the standoff could get out of control.

The BBC reports that the UN is appealing to Yemen rebels over ‘diverted aid’. The UN says food aid is being diverted by some corrupt and uncooperative officials in Houthi-held areas of Yemen, where millions of people are believed to be on the verge of famine. David Beasley, head of the World Food Programme, told the BBC the agency’s efforts to reach people in need were being repeatedly blocked. He said he hoped “good Houthi leaders” would prevail over the corrupt ones.

The Times  reports that Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani is digging in for a long “economic war” with the US. President Rouhani told Iran’s clerics that he would seek expanded powers to tackle threats posed by the US as his Foreign Minister said that America was “playing a very, very dangerous game”. Describing President Donald Trump’s sanctions as an “economic war”, Rouhani said he needed unspecified new powers, which could mimic those granted to Iran’s wartime supreme council during the country’s conflict with Iraq in the 1980s. He said that the US had tried to instigate a new dialogue on eight occasions over recent months but Tehran would not be drawn. “Today is not the time of negotiation at all, but resistance and steadfastness,” he said.

The Times reports that ISIS has double the fighters the US thinks it has in Afghanistan, claims Russia. Russia has claimed that 5,000 militants affiliated to Islamic State are active in northern Afghanistan, at least double the US estimate for the group’s fighters in the whole country. Alexander Bortnikov, director of the Federal Security Service, told a conference in Dushanbe, the capital of Tajikistan, that there was a “redeployment of terrorist groups to the northern provinces of Afghanistan”, many of them militants from former Soviet states who had fought in Syria. The US military says there are 600 to 2,000 ISIS fighters in Afghanistan.

The Independent reports that Iran has quadrupled its production of enriched uranium amid rising tensions with Trump, nuclear officials have said. Iranian officials stressed the uranium would only be enriched to the 3.67 per cent limit set by the 2015 nuclear deal, making it suitable for civilian nuclear power generation but well below the 90 per cent purity required to make atomic bombs. However, by increasing production Iran will soon exceed the stockpile limit of 300kg. “This is part of Iran’s pushback strategy against the Trump administration’s maximum pressure campaign,” Sanam Vakil, a Chatham House expert on Iran, told the Independent. “This is their effort at building up various portfolios that can then be used as leverage or bargaining positions if and when they come back to the negotiating table.”

Bel Trew writes in the Independent on “why Israel has been silent amid growing US-Iran tensions”. She notes that now that Eurovision fans have flown home, there is nothing left to distract from the question of Iran and the spectre of a possible armed confrontation between Tehran, Israel’s biggest foe, and Washington, its closest ally. But “Israel does not want anyone to go to war with Iran, and it does not want to be blamed if a conflict does erupt.”

The I reports on whether it is safe to travel to Egypt. The report notes that like many countries in the world, the people of Egypt live under the threat of terrorism but much of the country, especially the most popular destinations, are not considered as likely to be targeted as other parts of the country.

The Jewish Chronicle reports that Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that drafts of the country’s Declaration of Independence cannot be sold privately, declaring them to be state property. The court’s decision has ended a four year legal battle between the Israeli State and the sons of Mordechai Beham, the Jerusalem lawyer who was charged by Pinchas Rosen, the future justice minister of Israel, with drafting the declaration in 1948.

Richard Ferrer writes in Jewish News on the 10 things we learned from Israel’s Eurovision Song Contest.

David Gardner writes in the FT that Syria is braced for new spasms of violence. The Idlib rebel stronghold faces an onslaught from Assad’s forces, aided by Russia and Turkey. Gardner writes that “While concern is growing internationally at the dangerous game of brinkmanship playing out in the Gulf between the US and Iran, Syria, where both countries supposedly confront each other, is catching fire again.”

The Daily Mail analyses: “How Iran can strike US targets in the Middle East: Missiles, sea mines, drones and battle-hardened jihadist militias stand ready throughout the region amid mounting tensions.”

Yediot Ahronoth, Maariv and Haaretz all report on the Immunity Law and the assessment in Likud that Benjamin Netanyahu will focus on curtailing the powers of the Supreme Court and drop the Immunity Law. Kan Radio reports that senior Likud figures said the Immunity Law would be proposed in the next few weeks but that there was no intent to complete the legislative process. It is believed that an agreement will be reached among the coalition members on immunity for the Prime Minister based on existing law.

Yediot Ahronoth quotes Likud ministers who believe that Netanyahu had reached the conclusion that a new immunity law, to give him automatic immunity, would be more harmful than beneficial. They explained that the Prime Minister had decided that he would prefer to make do with the existing Immunity Law, which is good enough to prevent him from being prosecuted. They said that if his cases ever reached the point of indictment, Netanyahu would ask the House Committee to grant him immunity. He has a majority on the committee and will easily overcome this hurdle. However, after the House Committee, a vote will be held in the plenum, and there Netanyahu’s situation might not be as good. Likud sources said that Netanyahu has instead decided to pursue a bill to limit the power of the Supreme Court. Netanyahu believes that if the Knesset grants him immunity, petitions will immediately be submitted to the High Court of Justice, arguing that the Knesset’s decision is unconstitutional. If the override clause is passed into legislation, Netanyahu will be able to override the High Court of Justice ruling and his immunity will remain intact.

Maariv reports that MK Shelly Yachimovich (Labour) wrote on Twitter: “This is clear testimony that the paramount goal of the coalition negotiations is to allow the corrupt prime minister to evade justice, while destroying Israeli democracy. Every clean-handed person has to enlist to save the country from the man who is trampling it to save his own skin.” MK Yair Lapid (Blue and White) wrote on Twitter: “‘I’m not dealing with immunity, but the closest MK to me, who does nothing without receiving direct orders from me, introduced an immunity bill supposedly all on his own.’ That’s Netanyahu version. The war on democracy has begun. We won’t allow Israel to be turned into Turkey.”

Kan Radio reports comments by Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman of UTJ who claimed his party was not scared of holding new elections if the party were to be dissatisfied with the outcome of the coalition negotiations with the Likud. He said that those negotiations were at a sensitive stage but were not in a state of crisis.

In Haaretz, Amos Harel writes that Jordan could be the weak link in Trump’s deal. “In contrast to the relatively positive — if cautious — initial reactions from some of the Gulf states, Jordan’s King has good reason to sweat. A rift between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and the Trump administration over Palestinian objections to the pro-Israel package Washington is forging could affect the Palestinians living in Jordan, especially if the PA decides to reignite the protests at the Temple Mount and elsewhere in Jerusalem. Going by the preliminary leaks, the Americans have no intention of even approaching the Palestinian demands regarding Jerusalem, not even in the political segment of the plan, if the Americans ever present it. There is therefore a scenario in which Jordan turns out to be the weakest link in the U.S. peace plan, both because of the king’s refusal to push the deal and possible unrest in Jordan after the plan is unveiled.”