Media Summary

Pompeo says US does not want war with Iran

The Independent reports that according to newly obtained official data, Israel increased spending in West Bank settlements following the election of Donald Trump as US President. Investment on roads, schools and public buildings in the territory increased 39 per cent in 2017. Both supporters and opponents of the settler movement have previously referred to a “Trump effect” – with claims the president’s friendlier approach to settlements is paving the way for additional West Bank construction. The new figures – obtained by the Associated Press in a freedom of information request – appear to provide evidence of this impact, although they do not prove a direct connection. Hagit Ofran, a researcher with the anti-settlement monitoring group Peace Now, said Israel’s government was “not shy anymore with what they are doing”. “They feel more free to do whatever they want” she said.

BICOM CEO James Sorene writes in the Jewish News on the soon to be published US peace plan, arguing we should brace for its impact. In his piece James writes: “The timing is terrible and the impact of another failed initiative could be disastrous given the heightened tensions and multiple conflicts in the region. But Donald Trump has other ideas.”

The BBC and Guardian report that the UN has said Houthi rebels have pulled out of three key Red Sea ports in Yemen, in a partial implementation of a ceasefire deal agreed six months ago. The BBC reports that Hudaydah, Salif and Ras Issa were handed over to the coast guard. The UN said work was still needed to remove trenches, barriers and mines – and to implement the rest of the deal. The Houthis and pro-government forces, which are backed by a Saudi-led coalition, agreed to leave the ports to allow in vital humanitarian aid. However, the BBC’s Lyse Doucet says some Yemenis are sceptical about the latest pull-out and accuse the Houthis of leaving fighters in the ports disguised as coast guard personnel. Yemen’s government has previously warned that the withdrawal would be a rebel “ploy”.

The BBC reports that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has said the United States does not seek a war with Iran, amid rapidly growing tensions between the two countries. Speaking in Russia, Pompeo said the US was looking for Iran to behave like a “normal country” but would respond if its interests were attacked. Meanwhile, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has also said there will be no war with the US. Pompeo, who held talks with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov in the Russian city of Sochi, said the US “fundamentally” did not seek a conflict with Iran. “We have also made clear to the Iranians that if American interests are attacked, we will most certainly respond in an appropriate fashion.”

The Guardian and Independent report that the top British general in the US-led coalition against ISIS has said there is no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq or Syria, directly contradicting US assertions used to justify a military build-up in the region. The Guardian reports that hours later however, his assessment was disowned by US Central Command in an extraordinary rebuke of an allied senior officer. A spokesman insisted that the troops in Iraq and Syria were on a high level of alert due to the alleged Iranian threat. The conflicting versions of the reality on the ground added to the confusion and mixed signals in a tense part of the Middle East. Maj Gen Christopher Ghika, who is a deputy commander of Operation Inherent Resolve (OIR), the coalition conducting counter-terrorist operations against Isis in Iraq and Syria, was repeatedly questioned by reporters about the threat from Shia militias in Syria and Iraq. “No – there’s been no increased threat from Iranian-backed forces in Iraq and Syria,” Ghika said in a videolink briefing. “We’re aware of that presence, clearly. And we monitor them along with a whole range of others because that’s the environment we’re in. We are monitoring the Shia militia groups. I think you’re referring to carefully and if the threat level seems to go up then we’ll raise our force protection measures accordingly.”

The Times and Telegraph report that US President Donald Trump has said he was prepared to deploy 120,000 troops or “a hell of a lot more” in the event of war with Iran amid warnings that Washington was in danger of stumbling towards a military confrontation in the Gulf. The Times reports that Trump was responding to reports that the Pentagon had drawn up plans for an expeditionary force of that size at the behest of his hawkish national security adviser, John Bolton, as tensions grow over the unravelling Iranian nuclear agreement. “Now, would I do that? Absolutely. But we have no plans for that,” he told reporters outside the Oval Office. “Hopefully we are not going to have to plan for that. And if we did that we would send a hell of a lot more troops than that.”

The Independent reports that one of Tehran’s most senior diplomats has charged that America is getting “dragged into a dangerous military confrontation” with Iran by an alliance of malign states in the Middle East and hawks in the Trump administration. The leaders of Israel, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the US President’s National Security Advisor were singled by the Iranian ambassador to Britain as those supposedly attempting to orchestrate a conflict. Hamid Baedinejad, the Iranian ambassador said: “Unfortunately there are people in the region advising Donald Trump,  those our ministers call the ‘B team’, who have adopted a policy of confrontation and initiatives to drag the US into a confrontation with Iran in collaboration with John Bolton.

The Times lead with an editorial on US-Iranian relations. The two powers, they argue, risk sliding into an accidental war amid rising tensions in the Gulf. Tehran should accept President Trump’s offer and pick up the phone.

In the Financial Times, David Gardner writes: “Iran and the US risk igniting the Middle East tinderbox”, with Tehran suspected of using pinprick assaults as a warning to the US and its allies.

The BBC reports that the UN has called for an independent investigation into the death of a detainee in Lebanon last week. Hassan Dika, 44, is alleged to have been tortured following his arrest last November on drug-related charges, and subsequently denied due process and deprived of timely medical care. UN human rights chief Michelle Bachelet said Dika’s death highlighted what appeared to be several serious failings in Lebanon’s legal and prison systems.

The Financial Times reports that Saudi Arabia have said two of its oil pumping stations were hit by drone attacks on Tuesday, heightening concerns about the security of the kingdom’s energy infrastructure 48 hours after two of its tankers were struck. Yemeni Houthi rebels claimed responsibility for the assault on the stations, which came amid escalating tensions between the US, its Arab allies and Iran. Khalid al-Falih, the Saudi energy minister, said the attacks on the pumping stations “prove again that it is important for us to face terrorist entities, including the Houthi militias in Yemen that are backed by Iran”.

In the Guardian, New York writer, Aaron Freedman writes: “Hatred of Jews terrifies me. So do false accusations of antisemitism”. When the term antisemitism is cheapened by false usage on the right, he argues, it gives cover to the real anti-Semites.

Maariv reports that Israeli security officials are tense ahead of Nakba Day events on the border with the Gaza Strip. The IDF has deployed reinforcements in the lead-up to expected protests. The IDF is preparing for scenarios in which tens of thousands of Palestinians will participate in disturbances on the Gaza border. However, the prevailing assessment is that the Palestinian demonstrations will not result in an escalation in violence.

Alex Fishman in Yediot Ahronoth writes about the potential Iranian-American clash in the Persian Gulf and the threat facing Israel from Western Iraq. “It seems likely that the first stage [of such a clash] will focus on pinpoint Iranian activity – a signal as to what is liable to happen – against the oil shipping routes and the oil producers in the Persian Gulf…In the second phase of escalation, the Iranians are likely to act against the interests of the United States and its allies. This is where Israel comes into the picture. The Iranians will leave a direct military conflict with the United States for the last phase. The Israeli assessment is that there are at least four scenarios of possible Iranian attacks on Israel. The most likely scenario is missile fire from Iraq. The second scenario involves missile fire and the use of armed unmanned aerial vehicles from Syria, coupled with terrorist activity along the border fence. The third scenario, which involves military activity by Hezbollah from Lebanon, is less likely… The fourth possible scenario is the one that least worries Israel: the use of Islamic Jihad to attack Israel from the Gaza Strip. Every one of the above scenarios might be incorporated into the other scenarios, depending on the severity of the crisis. Fishman writes that the missiles in the hands of Shiite militias in Iraq have a range of between 700 and 1,000 kilometres and have all of Israel within range.

Haaretz and Maariv report that the Prime Minister’s Defence Attorney has finally collected evidence from the Attorney General. Maariv reports on alleged information in the investigation files that state that Netanyahu placed an order for cigars with the billionaire, Arnon Milchan, on Memorial Day eve in 2016. On another occasion, while the IDF was conducting an air strike in Gaza, Netanyahu made time to get his son’s friend a job from another billionaire, James Packer. In addition, while the IDF was conducting an air strike on Gaza when Netanyahu, his wife Sara and his son Yair were guests at Packer’s house, [Netanyahu] asked [Packer] to give a job to his son’s friend. Kan Radio reports that Netanyahu’s attorneys are expected to ask Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit for an extension of several months to prepare for the hearing due to the scope of material in the case files.

Maariv reports former Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi’s inaugural speech in the Knesset in which he attacked plans to introduce legislation that would provide “immunity for suspected criminals” as part of the coalition agreements. “No one is above the law. No one. Even if he’s the prime minister. It is our duty to ensure that Prime Minister Netanyahu doesn’t succeed in passing his package of anti-democratic legislation and in creating for himself a city of refuge. We mustn’t allow the coalition agreements to include immunity for people who are suspected of crimes. No one is above the law. Not everything is politics.”

Maariv also reports that Supreme Court President Esther Hayut called to preserve the judicial independence of the court. In an address to a conference of the Israeli-German Lawyers Association in Nuremberg, Hayut said: “Judicial independence and the independence of the judges on an ethical and personal level are one of the important guarantees that individuals will have somewhere to go for the purpose of defending their rights. Maintaining the principle of the independence [of the courts] and the judges is, therefore, the cornerstone of any democratic regime.”

Yediot Ahronoth and Israel Hayom report on continued coalition talks with Yediot Ahronoth believing that coalition negotiations have snagged after none of the prospective partners have been willing to sign an agreement before seeing what the other partners have received. However, it states that the inherent tensions in the coalition negotiations process notwithstanding, the prevailing assumption is that Netanyahu will successfully cobble together a coalition by the May 28 deadline.

Yediot Ahronoth, Maariv and Israel Hayom report on the beginning of the Eurovision Song Contest with 17 countries performing in Tel Aviv hoping to make it to the next round. Ten countries made it through to the final — Greece, Belarus, Serbia, Cyprus, Estonia, Czech Republic, Australia, Iceland, San Marino and Slovenia.