US imposes sanctions on Iran’s Foreign Minister
BBC News, the Independent and Reuters report the Israeli cabinet has backed the construction of 6,000 new homes for Jewish settlers and 700 homes for Palestinians in Area C of the West Bank. It is not clear whether the Palestinian housing units will be new construction or legal approval for 700 existing units. The Palestinian leadership has dismissed the announcement, saying it rejected any Israeli construction or controls over Palestinian construction in the West Bank. The announcement coincides with a visit by US President Donald Trump’s Middle East envoy Jared Kushner this week to discuss the administration’s Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.
BBC News, the Guardian, Times, Financial Times and Reuters report that the US Treasury has imposed sanctions against Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif. The sanctions freeze assets Zarif may have in the US: “Javad Zarif implements the reckless agenda of Iran’s Supreme Leader (Ayatollah Ali Khamenei)”, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said. Zarif tweeted the decision was made because the US considered him as a threat to its agenda and that it “has no effect on me or my family, as I have no property or interest outside of Iran”.
Reuters reports that German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas has declared that Germany will not participate in a US-led naval mission in the Strait of Hormuz. In Germany, there is opposition within Chancellor Angela Merkel’s coalition, especially from her Social Democrat (SPD) partners, to joining any US-led mission. “Germany will not take part in the sea mission presented and planned by the United States,” said Maas, adding that everything should be done to avoid an escalation in the region. “There is no military solution.”
The Independent reports that an official seven-person delegation from the UAE met with Iranian counterparts in Tehran on Tuesday to discuss a range of maritime issues including border security, illegal crossings, fishing rights, and shipping through the narrow Strait of Hormuz. This has fuelled speculation about the possibility of rapprochement in the region. Reuters reports that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif has been quoted saying that Iran is prepared for dialogue with Saudi Arabia. “If Saudi Arabia is ready for dialogue, we are always ready for dialogue with our neighbours,” Zarif was quoted as saying. “We have never closed the door to dialogue with our neighbours and we will never close the door to dialogue with our neighbours.”
The Financial Times reports that the US will extend waivers allowing Russia, China and European countries to continue working with Tehran on civil nuclear projects, national security adviser John Bolton confirmed on Wednesday. In an interview with Fox, Bolton said that the US would extend the waivers for 90 days, and continued to watch Iran’s nuclear activities “very, very closely”. The waivers allow private companies to work across several Iranian nuclear sites, including the Bushehr plant, Fordow enrichment facility, Arak nuclear complex and Tehran Research Reactor.
The Times reports that senior figures at the UN agency for Palestinian refugees have been accused of serious ethical abuses. “Credible and corroborated” allegations were made in a confidential internal ethics report about the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. The review included accusations of “nepotism, retaliation, discrimination and other abuses of authority, for personal gain, to suppress legitimate dissent, and to otherwise achieve their personal objectives”.
Reuters reports that Iranian Defence Minister Brigadier General Amir Hatami has claimed that it was “normal” for countries to test missiles as part of their defence research, after Washington said Tehran had test-fired a medium-range missile last week. A US defence official said last week that Iran had launched a medium-range ballistic missile that travelled 1,000 km (620 miles).
Reuters reports that Facebook has defeated an appeal by US victims of Hamas attacks in Israel, who sought to hold the company liable for providing the group a platform for its propaganda. The 2nd US Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan said the Communications Decency Act (1996) shielded Facebook from civil liability. The plaintiffs sought $3bn (£2.47bn) in damages from Facebook for allowing Hamas to use its platform to encourage terrorist attacks in Israel.
BBC News and the Times report that Hamza Bin Laden, the son of al-Qaeda founder Osama Bin Laden, has died in an air strike. The Pentagon has not issued a statement on the incident. Bin Laden had released audio and video messages calling for attacks on the US and other countries. As recently as February 2019, the US government offered $1m (£825,000) for information leading to his capture.
Reuters reports that the IDF has shot and killed a Palestinian after he crossed the border from Gaza and fired at Israeli troops. During the incident, a military statement said, an Israeli tank targeted a post belonging to Hamas, the Palestinian armed group that runs the Gaza Strip. There were no immediate reports of any Palestinian casualties as a result of the tank fire. In the statement, the military said an “assailant fired at the troops” after he infiltrated through Israel’s security fence along the Gaza frontier.
The Telegraph reports that the Russian embassy in Syria’s Twitter account has been suspended by the social media company after it posted claims that “White Helmet” civil defence rescuers faked images of an air strike on a vegetable market in the Maarat al-Numan neighbourhood of rebel-held Idlib, which left at least 38 civilians dead and 100 wounded. The Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Moscow has yet to offer an official statement, however the Russian embassy in South Africa called Twitter the “thought police” for banning the account.
The Guardian and Independent report that a gig at a Lebanese music festival by one of the Middle East’s most popular bands, Mashrou’ Leila, whose frontman is openly gay, has been cancelled following pressure from Christian groups. The Lebanese quartet were due to play the Byblos international festival, but the set has been cancelled “to prevent bloodshed and preserve security” according to the organisers, after critics of the band on social media threatened to attack the concert.
In the Financial Times, David Gardiner examines the “long march of autocracy across the Middle East”: “Rulers in the Arab world do nest-feathering not nation-building and put regime maintenance ahead of reform. And for the most part world powers – sponsors of and supplicants to these tyrants – do not care”.
In the Guardian, Daniel Trillling examines “how the media frame[s] the way we see the migrant crisis” arguing: “The effect, all too often, was to frame these newly arrived people as others; people from ‘over there’, who had little to do with Europe itself and were strangers, antagonistic even, to its traditions and culture”.
In the Israeli media Army Radio reports comments by Benny Gantz that the Likud party – without Netanyahu – are Blue and White’s natural coalition partners. Gantz added “we won’t go to a third election cycle and we won’t sit with Netanyahu under indictments”
Israel Hayom reports that Blue and White has decided to campaign heavily in the Arab sector with senior officials intending to invest time courting the Arab vote. The party has established several dozen campaign headquarters in advance of the upcoming elections, a course of action it refrained from taking in the run-up to the last elections. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz gave his first-ever interview this week to an Arab media outlet, Hala TV. Gantz said in the interview that he couldn’t rule out the possibility that Blue and White might have an Arab MK.
Haaretz reports that with Knesset lists due to be submitted by tonight, final efforts are underway to merge the right wing. Maariv reports on tension within the right wing over whether Jewish Power will join with the United Right (comprised of the New Right, Jewish Home and National Union). The Kahanist party’s representative, Itamar Ben Gvir, took pains to make it clear that members of the United Right did not really want or intend to include him and his party in the joint list. The offer that the United Right made to Itamar Ben Gvir was to secure spots 8 and 13 for him and for another member of Jewish Power, and to promise that the four ministers of the merged party would resign from the Knesset after being appointed so that in the event that the party were to win nine seats, as the polls project, a second member of Jewish Power would become an MK. The problem, as they see it, is that Ben Gvir is insisting on fifth place. Jewish Power’s complaints have been directed primarily against Bennett, whom they accuse of preventing giving fifth place to one of their representatives.
Israel Hayom calls for Otzma Yehudit (Jewish Power) to be included in the United Right. Whereas Gantz and Lapid’s bloc is preparing for that battle and has merged in a way to ensure that all its components will cross the electoral threshold even if the smaller parties take a blow, the right-wing bloc is heading into this battle with not just one party, but two that are beneath the electoral threshold: one is Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut that, since it has already registered with the Central Elections Committee, cannot now merge with another party. The second is Otzma Yehudit headed by Itamar Ben Gvir, which is still waiting for an offer to join the right wing party of the Jewish Home, the National Union and the New Right. Otzma Yehudit voters will stick with it all the way, even to its political doom. Not a single poll has shown that the right-wing bloc is projected to win 61 seats without Lieberman. Otzma Yehudit’s seats might be able to tip the scales.
Chemi Shalev in Haaretz reflects on Avigdor Lieberman. “Lieberman’s Russian fans, many of them aficionados of sweeping historical melodramas, came from far and wide to witness the bio-political miracle: The metamorphosis of Lieberman from a sectorial leader who is shackled to the right and hovering near the threshold of political extinction into the ultimate kingmaker, with double digits in the polls, who has also become, hard as it is to digest, the great white hope of the Israeli center-left… A stranger who might have happened on the festive meeting would be hard put to place Lieberman and his acolytes on any conventional political spectrum. His hawkish statements on security as well as the free market jargon on the lips of his accepted deputy, Oded Forer, put Lieberman on the hard, capitalist right. But his demand for a social safety net for immigrants from the former Soviet Union – and everyone else, if there’s no other choice – is classic social democracy. And his newfound enmity to the ultra-Orthodox and religious coercion cast Lieberman as the current standard bearer for the secular centre.”
Haaretz and Maariv report that the IDF this week completed its preparations for a possible military conflagration in the Gaza Strip with a military exercise that was held by the Gaza Division. The objective that was set [for the troops] was to deal a significant blow to Hamas’s military capabilities within a limited period of time. The exercise, which lasted four days, summed up a series of actions, training and plans that was defined as being the top priority by Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi when he first assumed his duties at the beginning of the year.