Biden seeking to ‘build trust’ as first step towards Israeli-Palestinian peace: experts

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Updated 27 May 2021

Biden seeking to ‘build trust’ as first step towards Israeli-Palestinian peace: experts

  • State Department official tells ‘Ray Hanania Radio Show’ that Washington is determined to address ‘root causes’ of conflict in an effort to move forward
  • Academic says the status quo for the Palestinians is not tolerable, and questions whether Secretary of State Antony Blinken ‘fully grasps that reality’

CHICAGO: US President Joe Biden wants to help build trust between the Israelis and Palestinians as a first step towards an enduring peace that might end the 73-year-old conflict, a State Department spokesman said on Wednesday.

This is Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s priority during his first official visit to the Middle East this week, according to Chris Hodges, the deputy assistant secretary for assistance coordination and press and public diplomacy at the State Department’s Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs.

He said that Blinken intends to meet with leaders on both sides of the conflict, and other Arab leaders in the region, to “create an environment” in which peace is achievable.

The secretary of state arrived in Jerusalem on Monday and announced a series of steps designed to restore trust, including an aid package worth more than $360 million and the reopening of the US consular offices in East Jerusalem that were the primary point of contact with Washington for the Palestinians until it was closed in 2018 by the Trump administration.

Speaking on Wednesday during an appearance on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show,” Hodges said there is an acceptance on both sides of the conflict that action is needed to create an environment in which trust can be built and peace efforts enhanced.

“It is a difficult environment right now in which to build trust,” he said. “That is something that doesn’t happen overnight.

“But the first step in building that trust, that understanding and that dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is avoiding any action on either side that would be destabilizing or provocative. And that (includes) settlement expansion, evictions, incitement of violence. That (includes) the payment of money to the families of prisoners who are in jail for attacking, and in many cases killing, innocent civilians.

“Those things, on both sides, are issues that need to be addressed — and we need to and want to and are working with both sides to try to address those (issues) and build that trust and rapport that can help bring those two sides together.”

The $360 million US aid package includes $38 million in new funding to support humanitarian efforts in the West Bank and Gaza, nearly $33 million for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East in support of its operations in the territories, and an additional $5.5 million for humanitarian partners. 

“This critical assistance will support humanitarian organizations to provide emergency shelter, food, relief items and health care, as well as mental health and psycho-social support for those who have experienced trauma,” Blinken said when he announced the details.

“The secretary has said on a couple of occasions … that Israelis and Palestinians equally have a right to live in security, enjoy prosperity, and freedom and stability,” Hodges said. “A big part of what we are trying to do is to emphasize that, not just on the Israeli side but the Palestinian side, too.”

He added that the Biden administration is determined to address the “root causes” of the conflict in an effort to move forward.

“The first (step) is to meet with leaders on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and meet with regional leaders in Cairo and Amman, to make sure the ceasefire that was brokered some days ago continues to hold,” Hodges said. “I think that beyond that it is trying to address the root causes of this conflict, the things that cause this conflict and the exchange of hostilities to spark up in the first place.

“And I think as part of that effort, what the Secretary wants to do is to reaffirm our commitment to addressing those causes and trying to create an environment that is conducive for a more sustainable peace to take hold. And, not least, to signal our re-engagement and our connection to the Palestinian people.”

He added: “It’s not just about to getting the ceasefire to hold, although that is important. It is about addressing some of these underlying issues and it is about working slowly and deliberately because these are tough issues. (It is) about working toward an environment where Palestinians can really access that equal right to security and stability and prosperity.

“As of (today) we are not there but we want to try to get there — and there is a lot of work to do on that front. But as someone who was on the ground for five years working on these issues, I can tell you there is a cadre of dedicated folks out there, and here (in the US), who understand (the situation) and engage with Palestinians every day and who are committed to trying to get this done.”

Despite the restoration of aid and other services to the Palestinians, many remain skeptical about whether the Biden administration can make any progress in the peace process. They question whether the president can succeed where his predecessors failed, and many feel he is more critical of the Palestinians and must be tougher in denouncing the actions of the Israeli authorities.

“The fact is the status quo for the Palestinians is not a tolerable status quo, so restoring the calm of the status quo is a problem there and I wonder to what extent the secretary of state fully grasps that reality,” said Brad Roth, a professor of political science and law at Wayne State University in Detroit.

“The peace process has been fetishized so that it becomes sort of an end in itself. And, in some sense, for the State Department I think maybe it is an end in itself, because what they want is calm and what they want is to avoid distraction and they want to be able to focus their attention safely on other things. And that is a luxury that Palestinians don’t have.”

Despite some concerns, however, Roth said he welcomes the recent developments.

“It’s encouraging that there is discussion about what security means for Palestinians as well as what it means for Israelis,” he said.

“On the other hand, biting down on these distractions, like payments to (families of) people who are jailed by Israel, is kind of a sign of the willingness of the administration to allow itself to be derailed from any serious critique of the foundational problems that exist.”

* The Ray Hanania Radio Show is broadcast live every Wednesday morning on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Washington D.C. on WDMV AM 700. The show is also live streamed on the Arab News Facebook Page at Facebook.com/ArabNews. Visit ArabNews.com/RayRadioShow for more information and to listen to current and previous shows.

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Egypt officials: Cairo apartment building collapses; 1 dead

Updated 27 July 2021

Egypt officials: Cairo apartment building collapses; 1 dead

  • The woman spent over 5 hours buried under rubble of the four-story building
  • Rescuers managed to locate and speak with the woman and passing her a bottle of water

CAIRO: An apartment building in the Egyptian capital of Cairo collapsed on Tuesday, killing a man while rescue workers hours later pulled his wife alive from under the rubble, officials said.
The woman spent more than five hours buried under the rubble of the four-story building in the city’s Waraq neighborhood, officials said. She was taken to hospital. No other residents were believed to be inside the building at the time of the collapse.
Earlier, the rescuers had managed to locate and speak with the woman — even passing her a bottle of water, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Prosecutors opened an investigation, the state-run MENA news agency reported.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the collapse but such incidents are common in Egypt, where shoddy construction is widespread in shantytowns, poor city neighborhoods and rural areas.
Last month, at least five women died when an apartment building collapsed in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Another building in Cairo collapsed in March, leaving at least 25 dead.
With real estate at a premium in big cities such as Cairo and Alexandria, developers seeking bigger profits frequently violate planning permits. Extra floors often, for example, are sometimes added without proper government permits.
The government recently launched a crackdown on illegal construction across the country, jailing and fining violators, and in many cases demolishing the buildings.

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Lebanon’s new PM-designate bids to form much-delayed government

Lebanon's new Prime Minister-Designate Najib Mikati, talks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 26, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 27 July 2021

Lebanon’s new PM-designate bids to form much-delayed government

  • The government of Hassan Diab resigned following a deadly port explosion in Beirut last August
  • Basic rights like access to food and medicine have turned into demands, says leader

BEIRUT: Lebanon's new Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati on Tuesday held consultations with political parties that he said “unanimously” agreed on the need to put together a government quickly to rescue the crisis-hit country.

Mikati listened to lawmakers’ demands about the new government and said he wanted to form one comprising non-partisan specialists to implement a French initiative and also oversee the next parliamentary elections.

Under the French initiative, the new government would take steps to tackle corruption and implement the reforms needed to release billions of dollars of international aid.

Mikati said there were “international and American guarantees that Lebanon will not collapse” and that  his government’s priority would be addressing the electricity crisis and setting up power plants.

“Lebanon is an Arab country and we do not want it to be a conduit for conspiracy against any other Arab country,” he added.

The EU stressed the need for a “credible and accountable government” to be formed in Lebanon without any delay, while a spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry stressed the “urgent need to form a competent government” able to implement the reforms that were crucial for the country’s recovery. The spokesperson also urged Lebanese leaders to “assume their responsibility.”

It is unclear how Lebanese lawmakers will facilitate Mikati’s task and if he will face the same obstacles that stymied his predecessor Saad Hariri, who stepped down after nine months of trying to form a government.

Mikati said following the Tuesday meetings: “All parliamentary blocs and lawmakers agreed on the urgent need to form a government to restore the role of the state that has been absent for a long time, to reassure the Lebanese and make them feel like someone is there for them amid these difficult circumstances, where basic rights like access to electricity, fuel, bread and medicine have turned into demands. That is what we are seeking to provide if we manage to form a government.”

He added that he would visit President Michel Aoun “to exchange points of view and reach an agreement over the formation of a government as soon as possible.”

Lawmakers from the Lebanese Forces party on Monday told Mikati they would not join the government. But the Future Movement’s lawmakers urged him to hold tight to and protect the principles set by former prime ministers.

The parliamentary bloc of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri demanded the amendment of a current electoral law that has divided the Lebanese and increased sectarian tension.

Gebran Bassil MP, who heads the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc, said his party had informed Mikati of its wish “not to take part in the government and not to interfere in the formation process,” but reminded Mikati “of his belief in the idea of a full constitutional partner.”

The political disputes between Bassil and Hariri started when Aoun insisted on naming the Christian ministers in the government and Hariri was accused of breaching the president’s powers.

Hariri insisted on not granting Aoun the blocking third and considered the presidential wish to name the ministers a violation of the constitution.

The Hezbollah bloc said it required Mikati to address the matter of “naming ministers, especially those who will handle the finance, economy and education ministries.”

It demanded that these people “be field experts, and not only good in offices and with numbers.”

Mikati’s efforts to form a government come ahead of the first anniversary of a devastating explosion that rocked Beirut on Aug. 4, with politicians under pressure to break the deadlock.

The country has been under the spotlight regarding the ongoing blast investigation and the vows of Lebanese officials to hold the criminals and the corrupt accountable.

Hariri said his bloc insisted on knowing the truth about the Beirut blast and the truth about the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

He told the press: “People have the right to know who stored the tons of ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut, why they were seized and who was behind the explosion.”

Hariri accused some people of trying to “distort” his position over the blast by claiming that Future Movement lawmakers had “abandoned their pursuit of truth and justice” in Hariri’s assassination and were calling for the protection of ministers, lawmakers and the defendants in the blast probe.

He suggested the suspension of all constitutional and legal articles that granted immunity or special treatment to try the president, the prime minister, ministers, representatives, judges, officials and even lawyers, in order to reach the truth.

 


Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day

Updated 27 July 2021

Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day

  • The previous record of 31,814 infections had been set only a day earlier
  • The alarming spread of the variant prompted new anti-virus restrictions last week

TEHRAN: Iran recorded over 34,900 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, setting the nation’s single-day record for cases as vaccinations lag, public complacency deepens and the country’s outbreak spirals further out of control.
The previous record of 31,814 infections had been set only a day earlier, providing a sense of how quickly Iran’s latest surge, fueled by the contagious delta variant, is mounting. Health authorities recorded 357 COVID-19 fatalities on Tuesday, bringing the total death toll to 89,479 — the highest in the Middle East.
The alarming spread of the variant prompted new anti-virus restrictions last week. The government ordered the closure of state offices, public places and non-essential businesses in the capital of Tehran. But as with previous government measures, the lockdown looked very little like a lockdown at all. Tehran’s malls and markets were busy as usual and workers crowded offices and metro stations.
Iranian authorities have avoided imposing heavy-handed rules on a population that can little afford to bear them. The country, which has suffered the worst virus outbreak in the region, is reeling from a series of crises: tough US sanctions, global isolation, a heat wave, the worst blackouts in recent memory and ongoing protests over water shortages in the southwest.
Now, health officials warn that hospitals in the capital are overwhelmed with breathless COVID patients too numerous to handle. Fewer than 3 percent of Iranians have been fully vaccinated in the sanctions-hit country. Many front-line medical workers have been vaccinated with Iran’s locally produced shots or the Chinese state-backed Sinopharm vaccine that may be less effective than other inoculations.
Iran’s government announced that its homemade vaccine provides 85 percent protection from the coronavirus, without disclosing data or details. Iran also imports Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, as well as the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot through the United Nations-backed COVAX program.


EU calls for quick return to ‘stability’ in Tunisia

Updated 50 min 58 sec ago

EU calls for quick return to ‘stability’ in Tunisia

  • Borrell pointed to the “considerable support” given by the EU to help with a financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic

BRUSSELS: The European Union on Tuesday called for a speedy return to political stability in Tunisia after the country plunged into turmoil following the president’s ousting of the prime minister.
“The European Union is following developments in Tunisia with the greatest attention,” the bloc’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell said in a statement.
“We call for the restoration of institutional stability as soon as possible, and in particular for the resumption of parliamentary activity, respect for fundamental rights and an abstention from all forms of violence.”
Borrell insisted that “the preservation of democracy and the stability of the country are priorities,” and pointed to the “considerable support” given by the EU to help with a financial crisis and the Covid-19 pandemic.
The young North African democracy, the cradle of the Arab Spring uprisings a decade ago, was thrust into a constitutional crisis on Sunday after President Kais Saied dismissed premier Hichem Mechichi and ordered parliament closed for 30 days, a move the biggest political party Ennahdha decried as a “coup.”
Saied then sacked the defense minister and justice minister.
The crisis follows months of deadlock between the president, the premier and Ennahdha chief Rached Ghannouchi, which has crippled the Covid response, as deaths have surged to one of the world’s highest per capita rates.


Israel defense minister to visit France to discuss spyware firm, Iran

Updated 27 July 2021

Israel defense minister to visit France to discuss spyware firm, Iran

  • Israel’s Defense Ministry oversees commercial exports of spyware and cyber-surveillance technologies
  • Pegasus had been used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists

JERUSALEM: Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz will travel to France this week to discuss spyware sold by Israeli cyber firm NSO that was allegedly used to target French President Emmanuel Macron.
Macron’s phone was on a list of targets that were possibly under surveillance by Morocco, which used NSO Group’s Pegasus software, according to France’s Le Monde newspaper. The French leader has called for an investigation.
Gantz will meet French Defense Minister Florence Parly on Wednesday, an official Israeli statement said.
“Gantz will discuss the crisis in Lebanon and the developing agreement with Iran. He will also update the minister on the topic of NSO,” it said.
Israel’s Defense Ministry oversees commercial exports of spyware and cyber-surveillance technologies like Pegasus.
A global investigation published last week by 17 media organizations, led by the Paris-based non-profit journalism group Forbidden Stories, said Pegasus had been used in attempted and successful hacks of smartphones belonging to journalists, government officials and human rights activists.
Israel has since set up a senior inter-ministerial team to assess any possible misuse of the spyware.
NSO rejected the reports, saying it was “full of wrong assumptions and uncorroborated theories.” Pegasus is intended for use only by government intelligence and law enforcement agencies to fight terrorism and crime, the company said.
Gantz’s trip was planned before the NSO affair and was meant to focus on the growing economic crisis in Lebanon, which shares a border with Israel, and on world powers’ efforts to resume a nuclear deal with Iran, Israeli media said.
Israel is concerned a revival of the deal may eventually allow its arch-foe Tehran to acquire atomic weapons. Iran denies seeking the bomb. Attempts to revive the 2015 accord, after then-President Donald Trump abandoned it in 2018, have been slow to make progress.
France’s foreign ministry said on Monday that Iran was endangering the chance of concluding an accord with world powers over reviving the deal if it did not return to the negotiating table soon.