Archive for March 22, 2019

Pompeo: U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah, Iran are working

March 22, 2019

Source: Pompeo: U.S. sanctions on Hezbollah, Iran are working – Middle East – Jerusalem Post

“Our pressure on Iran is simple. It’s aimed at cutting off the funding for terrorists and it’s working,” Pompeo said. “We believe that our work is already constraining Hezbollah’s activities.”

 MARCH 22, 2019 19:28
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo meets with Lebanon's President Michel Aoun

BEIRUT – US sanctions on Iran and its Lebanese ally Hezbollah are working, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said on Friday on a visit to Beirut, calling on Lebanon to stand up to the Shi’ite group which he accused of “criminality, terror and threats.”

Lebanese politicians who met Pompeo, including President Michel Aoun, Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri and Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil — all political allies of Hezbollah — said they had told him the group was part and parcel of Lebanese politics.

“From our side, we confirmed as far as we are concerned Hezbollah is a Lebanese party — not terrorist — with MPs elected by the Lebanese people and with a lot of popular support,” Bassil said as he stood alongside Pompeo after their meeting.

Pompeo, who is touring the Middle East to drum up support for Washington’s harder line against Iran, cited a speech by Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah this month asking the group’s supporters for funds as evidence US pressure was working.

“Our pressure on Iran is simple. It’s aimed at cutting off the funding for terrorists and it’s working,” Pompeo said. “We believe that our work is already constraining Hezbollah’s activities.”

Pompeo said Iran gave Hezbollah as much as $700 million a year.

The heavily armed Hezbollah has a large militia that has participated in Syria’s civil war alongside President Bashar al-Assad’s government, but it also has elected members of parliament and positions in Lebanon’s national unity government.

The group’s influence over Lebanese state institutions has expanded in the last year. Together with allies that view its arsenal as an asset to Lebanon, it won more than 70 of parliament’s 128 seats in an election last year.

The group has taken three of the 30 portfolios in the government formed in January by Western-backed Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, including the health ministry — the first time it has held a ministry with a significant budget.

Pompeo said he shared concerns about “external and internal pressures on the government, including coming from some of its own members, which do not serve an independent thriving Lebanon.”

The United States would continue to use “all peaceful means” to choke off financing that “feeds Iran and Hezbollah terror operations,” he said, pointing to “smuggling, criminal networks and the misuse of government positions.”

“Lebanon faces a choice: bravely move forward as an independent and proud nation, or allow the dark ambitions of Iran and Hezbollah to dictate your future,” he said.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun earlier told Pompeo that Hezbollah was a Lebanese party with popular support, the Lebanese presidency said.

“Preserving national unity and civil peace is a priority for us,” Aoun told Pompeo, the presidency said on its Twitter feed.

Speaker Berri said earlier in a statement that he had told Pompeo that Hezbollah’s “resistance” against Israel was a result of continuing Israeli occupation of Lebanese territory.

Israel, the closest US ally in the Middle East, regards Iran as its biggest threat and Hezbollah as the main danger on its borders.

Bassil said Lebanon was committed to calm in the south, which borders Israel, adding that the country had the natural right to defend itself and “to resist any occupation of its land … this is a holy right.”

Hezbollah’s al-Manar television reported in its afternoon news broadcast that Pompeo was in Beirut “to incite Lebanese against each other.”

Appearing to give an upbeat assessment of US mediation efforts to resolve a maritime border dispute between Lebanon and Israel, Bassil said Beirut had an opportunity to recover its rights with a “political and diplomatic victory.”

“We will make the necessary efforts with all parties internally to reach an honorable agreement for Lebanon that preserves its rights,” he said.

Beirut has an unresolved maritime border dispute with Israel over a sea area extending along the edge of three of Lebanon’s southern energy blocks.

Lebanon has also previously warned its Mediterranean neighbors that a planned EastMed gas pipeline from Israel to the European Union must not be allowed to violate its maritime borders.

During his meeting with Berri, Pompeo “expressed hope that Lebanon would be able to join the other states of the Eastern Mediterranean in developing offshore resources in a manner of benefit to all the people of Lebanon,” a state department spokesman said.

Bassil called on American companies to take part in forthcoming energy tenders in Lebanon.


In first, EU states vote against permanent anti-Israel item at UN rights council

March 22, 2019

Source: In first, EU states vote against permanent anti-Israel item at UN rights council | The Times of Israel

( All these countries changed their vote because the realized they actually NEEDED Israel… – JW )

European countries, together with Japan and Brazil, take a stand against item 7, the only permanent item on the agenda singling out any one nation

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas is seen on a TV screen while speaking during a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 27, 2017 in Geneva, Switzerland (AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas is seen on a TV screen while speaking during a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council on February 27, 2017 in Geneva, Switzerland (AFP/Fabrice Coffrini)

JTA — In a major policy reversal by Western members of the United Nations Human Rights Council, all its European Union member states voted against a permanent item singling out Israel.

The vote Friday was the first time that EU members states, Brazil and Japan voted against Item 7 — a recurrent draft resolution that is the only permanent item on the agenda singling out any one nation. The draft resolution passed despite the Western opposition to it, with 26 in favor and 16 in opposition, including Australia and several other nations.

Whereas European nations have in recent years by and large abstained in votes on Item 7 at Human Rights Council sessions, all of this year have taken a joint decision to vote against the item, citing its “imbalance,” as the representative of Bulgaria said in a statement representing the bloc as a whole.

Five nations on the council abstained in the vote Friday.

It was also the first time that Brazil voted against Item 7, which it has tended to support.

The Palestinian representative told the Council: ‘If you protect Israel, it will destroy you all.” He also said Israel’s character as a Jewish state is “shameless racism.”

In an earlier vote, all EU countries on the Council except the United Kingdom voted against adopting a UN report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza. The British delegate abstained along with India and Iceland, two nations who in the past have voted in favor of critical resolution singling out Israel. Ukraine, Brazil and Australia were among the eight countries that voted against the resolution, which passed thanks to a majority of 23 yes votes and 15 abstentions. Israel dismissed the report as factually incorrect and displaying “clear evidence of political bias ” against it.

Palestinians burn tires and hurl rocks during a demonstration near the fence along the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on February 22, 2019. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

Last year, the United States pulled out of the Human Rights Council. Nikki Haley, then US envoy to the UN, called the Council a “cesspool of political bias.”

Item 7 comprises four resolutions. One of them states the Council is “deeply concerned at the suffering of the Syrian citizens in the occupied Syrian Golan due to the systematic and continuous violation of their fundamental and human rights by Israel since the Israeli military occupation of 1967.” It does not mention the wholesale slaughter of Syrians by their government and other forces involved in fighting in Syria.

Another “calls upon Israel, the occupying Power, to immediately end its occupation of the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.” It does not mention Palestinian terrorism.

The third expresses “grave concern at the continuing violations of international humanitarian law and the systematic violation of the human rights of the Palestinian people by Israel, the occupying Power.”

The fourth, titled, “Human rights situation in Palestine and other occupied Arab territories,” does mention terrorism, but only by “extremist Israelis.”


23 to 8, UN rights council adopts report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza 

March 22, 2019

Source: 23 to 8, UN rights council adopts report accusing Israel of war crimes in Gaza | The Times of Israel

( Antisemitism uber ales… JW )

Foreign Ministry vows Jerusalem ‘will not cooperate with this mockery,’ says ‘moral majority’ of states did not vote in favor of measure

A picture taken on June 18, 2018, in Geneva, Switzerland, shows a general view during the opening of the 38th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. (AFP/Alain Grosclaude)

A picture taken on June 18, 2018, in Geneva, Switzerland, shows a general view during the opening of the 38th session of the United Nations Human Rights Council. (AFP/Alain Grosclaude)

The United Nations Humans Rights Council voted Friday to adopt a report accusing Israel of crimes against humanity for its handling of violent protests on the border with Gaza Strip.

Twenty-three countries voted to in favor of the measure, with eight opposing it. Another 15 countries abstained, while one was absent.

The countries that voted against adopting the report were Australia, Austria, Brazil, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Fiji, Hungary, Togo and Ukraine.

The decision was condemned by the Foreign Ministry, which claimed that a “moral majority” did not vote in favor of the measure.

“Dictatorships and hypocrites vote in favor of the singling out, absurd pro Hamas pro terror report,” ministry spokesman Emmanuel Nahshon wrote on Twitter.

“We will not cooperate with this mockery and will keep protecting Israel and Israelis,” he added.

Israel’s Ambassador to UN agencies in Geneva Aviva Raz Schechter (Elma Okic/UN Photo)

Aviva Raz Schecter, the Israeli ambassador to UN institutions in Geneva, said ahead of the vote that the report “was born in sin” and accused it of ignoring the role of the Gaza-ruling Hamas group in the clashes. An Islamist terror organization, Hamas seeks to destroy Israel

“The commission’s report will only serve to encourage Hamas’s use of the civilian population as shields and as a tool in its efforts to attack Israel, and increase the danger to civilians on both sides,” she told the Human Rights Council.

Raz Schechter also defended Israel’s track record of investigating suspicions against Israeli soldiers.

The vote came after the so-called Commission of Inquiry on the Protests in the Occupied Palestinian Territory on Monday presented a 250-page report alleging that Israel may have committed “crimes against humanity” by using live ammunition against Palestinians protesters who participated in the so-called Great March of Return.

Intentionally killing civilians who are not “directly participating in hostilities” is a war crime, the report stressed. “The commission found reasonable grounds to believe that individual members of the Israeli security forces, in the course of their response to the demonstrations, killed and gravely injured civilians who were neither directly participating in hostilities nor posing an imminent threat.”

Israel had at its disposal “less lethal alternatives,” the document went on, positing that the use of the live ammunition against protesters was disproportionate and unlawful.

A Palestinian holds a Palestinian flag as he uses a slingshot to hurl rocks at Israeli troops during clashes near the border with Israel, east of Gaza City, on October 26, 2018. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

According to the probe, Israeli security forces shot more than 6,000 Palestinians who participated in protests along the Gaza border between March and December 2018, killing 183 people, including 32 children.

Israel says the protests were organized by Hamas and were aimed at breaching the border fence with the specific aim of killing Israelis.

According to the commission of inquiry, fewer than 30 of those killed were “members of Palestinian organized armed groups,” adding that Israeli troops’ use of live fire was only justified in very few cases in which they faced an immediate threat to life.

Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of those killed were its members.

The report accused Israel of having “consistently failed to meaningfully investigate and prosecute commanders and soldiers for crimes and violations committed against Palestinians.” While it acknowledged that the army has opened several internal army inquiries into the shootings of apparently uninvolved civilians, it doubted the government’s willingness to honestly scrutinize its policies and actions.

“Israel’s record for investigating deaths of Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank is dismal,” the report asserted.

Illustrative: Masked Palestinians calling themselves the ‘night confusion units’ hold incendiary devices attached to balloons to be flown toward Israel, near the border with Israel east of Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip, on September 26, 2018. (AFP Photo/Said Khatib)

At the same time, the commission of inquiry also said it believes that Hamas “encouraged or defended demonstrators’ use of incendiary kites and balloons, causing fear and significant material damage in southern Israel,” and that the group failed to stop the use of these “indiscriminate devices.”

There are “reasonable grounds” to believe that Israeli troops tasked with fending off Gazan protesters “killed and gravely injured civilians who were neither directly participating in hostilities nor posing an imminent threat,” the report alleged.

The panel said it was mandated to “identify those it deemed responsible for the violations” allegedly committed by Israel.

“It does so by placing the relevant information in a confidential file to be handed over to the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights,” the report stated.

Israel rejected the report outright, denouncing it two weeks ago, when the commission published a brief summary of it.

Raphael Ahren contributed to this report.


EU says it will not follow Trump in recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Golan

March 22, 2019

Source: EU says it will not follow Trump in recognizing Israeli sovereignty over Golan | The Times of Israel

( The EU is a “coming attraction” for what will happen to the US if the Democrats get in power… – JW )

Syria, Russia, Iran and Turkey condemn US president’s surprise announcement, warn it could destabilize region

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini gives a joint press conference during a Foreign Affairs Ministerial meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on January 21, 2019. (John Thys/AFP)

High Representative of the European Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Federica Mogherini gives a joint press conference during a Foreign Affairs Ministerial meeting at the EU headquarters in Brussels on January 21, 2019. (John Thys/AFP)

The European Union will not recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights in the wake of US President Donald Trump’s declaration that Washington would do so, a spokesperson for the EU said Friday morning.

“The European Union, in accordance with international law, does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories it occupied since July 1967, including the Golan Heights, and does not consider them as part of Israeli territory,” Maya Kosyanchich, a spokeswoman for EU foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, said in a statement carried by several news outlets.

Her comments came as Trump’s move was condemned strongly by Syria and its allies Russia and Iran, as well as by the president of Turkey.

In signature fashion, Trump made the announcement in a tweet Thursday, reversing over 50 years of US policy since Israel’s capture of the strategic plateau from Syria during the 1967 Six Day War.

Syria’s official SANA news agency, quoting an unnamed foreign ministry official, slammed the decision as “irresponsible” and a violation of United Nations resolutions concerning the territory’s status.

“Syria strongly condemns the irresponsible declaration of the American president, which again proves the US’s blind tendency in favor of the Zionist entity and its unreserved support for its aggression,” the official said. “The Syrian people remain committed to the liberation of the Golan Heights by all means at its disposal.”

The source added that Trump’s statement won’t change “the fact that the Golan was and will remain Arab and Syrian.”

A mock road sign for Damascus, the capital of Syria, and a cutout of a soldier, are displayed at an old outpost in the Golan Heights near the border with Syria, May 10, 2018. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Russia, which has long been a key backer of Syria and is fighting alongside forces loyal to President Bashar Assad in the Syrian civil war, condemned Trump’s declaration as a violation of UN decisions.

“Russia, as you know, takes a principled position on the issue of the Syrian Arab Republic’s ownership of the Golan Heights… Our assessment of the unlawful nature of Israel’s decision to extend its sovereignty to the Golan Heights remains unchanged,” foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova was quoted as saying by state-sponsored Sputnik News.

“Changing the status of the Golan Heights bypassing the Security Council is in direct violation of UN decisions,” Zakharova added.

Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov also responded to Trump’s announcement, telling media on Friday that “such calls may considerably destabilize the already strained situation in the Middle East.”

“At the moment it’s just a call. May it remain so,” Peskov added, according to the TASS news agency.

Iran, another key ally of the Assad regime, said the move was a violation of international law.

“This illegal and unacceptable recognition does not change the fact that it belongs to Syria,” foreign ministry spokesman Bahram Qasemi said, according to Reuters.

And France added its voice, saying the Golan had been “occupied by Israel since 1967” and it did not recognize Israel’s control.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan warned that the US announcement could throw the region into turmoil.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan sings his election song before delivering a speech at an election rally in Istanbul’s Kasimpasa district, on March 5, 2019 (Ozan Kose/AFP)

“Yesterday US President Trump’s unfortunate statement about the Golan Heights brings the region to the edge of a new crisis,” Erdogan told an emergency meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) in Istanbul.

“We will never allow the occupation of the Golan Heights to be made legitimate,” he added.

Trump’s recognition caught officials in Israel and the United States off-guard, according to the McClatchy news agency.

“We all found out by tweet,” an Israeli official was quoted as saying. “We’ve been lobbying for this for a long time, but it was not the product of one phone call. There were hints, but we weren’t given advance notice.”

Another Israeli source told the news agency that Israeli leaders were informed of the decision only shortly beforehand, as with Trump’s abrupt announcement in December that he would pull all US forces out of Syria.

According to the report, Trump’s Middle East peace negotiators and the State Department were also surprised by the move, with US officials having expected an announcement when Trump hosts Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the White House next week.

Netanyahu appeared overjoyed while praising the decision in a press conference in Jerusalem Thursday alongside US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who The New York Times noted “looked caught off-guard.”

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) welcomes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to his residence in Jerusalem on March 21, 2019. (Jim Young/Pool/AFP)

While the timing of Trump’s decision was unexpected, there were a number of hints at a coming US policy shift, including the State Department’s defining of the Golan Heights as “Israeli-controlled” instead of “Israeli-occupied” for the first time, in a human rights report released last week.

Trump’s tweet was not preceded by a policy review, according to McClatchy, and it was not clear if the US president would follow up the announcement with a more official recognition such as an executive order.

It was also unclear if Israel would respond with a move of its own, as it never formally annexed the Golan Heights despite having extended Israeli law to the territory in 1981, in a move never recognized internationally.

US National Security Adviser John Bolton visits the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem, January 6, 2019. (Ziv Sokolov/US Embassy Jerusalem)

Quoting unnamed White House officials, the news agency said Trump’s National Security Adviser John Bolton was a key force behind the move following his visit to Israel in January, seeing it as a signal the US remained committed to Israel in the wake of Trump’s announcement of the US troop pullout.

US Ambassador David Friedman also reportedly pushed for the recognition on the same grounds.

Israel in recent years has warned that its arch-enemy Iran is trying to establish a military presence in Syria that could threaten the Jewish state, and has carried out hundreds of strikes on targets there linked to Iran.

“It was an ask,” an Israeli official told McClatchy. “Because of the timing — it suddenly became a relevant issue about Iran.”

Agencies contributed to this report.


2 said killed in riots on Gaza border, fire balloons cause blazes in Israel 

March 22, 2019

Source: 2 said killed in riots on Gaza border, fire balloons cause blazes in Israel | The Times of Israel

Rioters try and damage fence, throwing rocks and explosive devices at soldiers; 55 Palestinians said wounded

Palestinians riot on the border fence with Israel east of Gaza City on March 22, 2019. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Several thousand Palestinians were protesting along the Gaza Strip border on Friday, throwing explosive devices and rocks at soldiers who were responding with tear gas and occasional live fire. Palestinians said two people were killed.

Also Friday, a balloon carrying an incendiary device launched from Gaza set a blaze between homes in the nearby Israeli kibbutz of Nir Am. The fire was extinguished and there were no reports of injuries. Another blaze was started near Kibbutz Be’eri.

In riots along the barrier, Palestinians tried to destroy the border fence in several places, but were pushed back by the IDF. The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry said two Palestinians, an 18-year-old and a 29-year-old, were killed by live fire and 55 wounded.

On Thursday, an Israeli tank struck a Hamas military post in the southern Gaza Strip, hours after an airborne explosive device apparently launched from the Palestinian enclave exploded in Israel.

The Israel Defense Forces said the tank strike was in response to “exceptional” violent rioting by Palestinians along the border fence, as well as the launching of incendiary balloons and explosive devices toward Israel throughout the day.

Israel as a policy holds Hamas responsible for all violence coming from Gaza, which the Islamist terror group seized from the West Bank-based Palestinian Authority in 2007.

A photo released by the Sha’ar Hanegev Regional Council showed the remains of a rubber tube that had contained the explosive material. The improvised bomb is believed to have detached from the balloons and exploded upon hitting the ground.

A police sapper was called to the scene and disposed of the device.

A screenshot from Channel 13 showing a cluster of balloons with what appears to be a warhead, Match 9, 2019.

There were no reports of injuries or damage.

The launch of incendiary and explosive devices into Israel tied to kites and helium-filled balloons became a common tactic in violent protests along the Gaza border over the past year. Such attacks decreased in frequency since an unofficial truce came into effect in November, but have seen an uptick in recent weeks.

So far, no Israelis have been injured by the recent balloon attacks, though damage was caused to a home in the Eshkol region in February. Over the summer of 2018 balloon attacks caused fires in Israel that burned thousands of acres of farmland and nature reserves, as well as causing the deaths of livestock and other animals.

The border clashes are part of the March of Return protests, which call for the right of the descendants of Palestinians displaced in the 1948 Independence War to return to their homes and for an end to the Israeli-Egyptian blockade on the enclave. The protests have taken place weekly along the border since last March and have periodically escalated into major flare-ups between the Israeli military and Gaza-based terror groups.

Last week was the first time in nearly a year that there were no Gaza protests.

In response to the two rockets fired at Tel Aviv, which did not hit residential areas and caused no direct injury, Israeli war planes hit over 100 Hamas targets in the Gaza Strip overnight Thursday-Friday.

The sky above buildings in the Gaza Strip glows orange during an Israeli air strike in Gaza City early on March 15, 2019 after 2 missiles were fired at Tel Aviv. (Mahmud Hams/AFP)

The rocket fire was thought to have been mistakenly launched by low-level Hamas members.

Hamas, which seeks to destroy Israel, is planning a major march on Saturday, March 30 to mark one year since the start of the protests, amid Israeli concerns over potential major violence.


Pompeo says Trump may have been sent by God to save Jews from Iran

March 22, 2019

Source: Pompeo says Trump may have been sent by God to save Jews from Iran | The Times of Israel

Asked by Christian media about current relevance of Purim story, US secretary of state says he is ‘confident that the Lord is at work here’

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo during a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo during a press conference with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 20, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo suggested in an interview that President Donald Trump may have been sent by God to save the Jewish people, and said he was “confident that the Lord is at work here.”

In a sit-down with the Christian Broadcasting Network on Thursday, interviewer Chris Mitchell noted that Israel was celebrating the Purim holiday.

“Jews worldwide and here in Jerusalem are talking about the fact that Esther 2,500 years ago saved the Jewish people with God’s help from Haman,” he said, mentioning the Persian villain of the megillah.

“And now 2,500 years later there’s a new Haman here in the Middle East that wants to eradicate the Jewish people just like Haman did: the state of Iran,” Mitchell went on. “Could it be that President Trump right now has been sort of raised for such a time as this, just like Queen Esther, to help save the Jewish people from the Iranian menace?”

Pompeo replied that “as a Christian I certainly believe that’s possible.” He then went on to describe his visit to the Western Wall earlier in the day, during which he toured the ancient Western Wall Tunnels.

“We could see 3,000 years ago, and 2,000 years ago… see the remarkable history of the faith in this place and the work that our administration’s done to make sure that this democracy in the Middle East, that this Jewish state remains,” he said. “I am confident that the Lord is at work here.”

Pompeo was in Israel to discuss regional threats — Iran in particular.

Trump has ramped up the pressure on Iran since taking office, quitting the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers last May and renewing American sanctions, which had been eased in exchange for curbs on Tehran’s nuclear program.

On Friday the administration hit Iran with new sanctions, targeting 31 Iranian scientists, technicians and companies involved in the country’s nuclear and missile research and development programs.

On his visit to the Wall Thursday, Pompeo was joined by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the first time that Washington’s top diplomat has visited Jerusalem’s contested Old City accompanied by a senior Israeli official. The Western Wall, a retaining wall of the Biblical Temple compound, is beneath the Temple Mount and is the holiest place where Jews are allowed to pray.

The visit could be seen as tacit American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the contested Jewish holy site and a shift in US policy. The two men were also accompanied by US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

After signing a guestbook, the three men stepped up to the wall, placing their right hands on the ancient stones before bowing their heads in prayer.

Netanyahu and Pompeo placed notes into the wall, a longstanding tradition.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) and US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo (L) at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on March 21, 2019, during the second day of Pompeo’s visit as part of his five-day regional tour of the Middle East. (Kobi Gideon/GPO)

Pompeo and Netanyahu then toured the Wall and the adjacent tunnels, which are located underneath the Old City’s Muslim Quarter. At a visitors center, the two men viewed a virtual reality recreation of the Jewish temple that once stood on the Temple Mount.

Embedded video

The international community does not recognize Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem, including the Old City, and so visiting foreign dignitaries generally refrain from going there in the company of Israeli officials.

Those who do want to tour the holy site usually do so in a private capacity, though in recent months an increasing number of foreign leaders have defied standard protocol and allowed Israeli diplomats to join them at the wall.

Pompeo said he thought it was important to visit the Western Wall with the Israeli leader as a show of support for Israel.

“I think it’s symbolic that a senior American official go there with a prime minister of Israel,” he said ahead of the visit. “It’s a place that’s important to many faiths and I’m looking forward to it. I think it will be very special.”

When US President Donald Trump visited the site in May of 2017 but did so without official Israeli accompaniment. Later that year, Trump formally recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, but stressed that he was not taking a position on the “specific boundaries of the Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem, or the resolution of contested borders.”

US President Donald Trump visits the Western Wall, May 22, 2017, in Jerusalem. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

In January of 2018, US Vice President Mike Pence also briefly visited the wall. Like Trump, he was accompanied by employees of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation but without Israeli diplomatic officials.

As Pompeo visited Thursday, Trump announced on Twitter that he supported US recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, to much rejoicing by Israeli leaders.

Since his inauguration, Trump has been well received in Israel, where he has won plaudits for recognizing Jerusalem as the city’s capital and pulling out of the 2015 nuclear deal meant to limit Iran’s nuclear program, which Netanyahu strongly opposed.

While in Israel, Pompeo frequently referenced the US and Israel’s shared commitment to countering Iran.

Raphael Ahren and agencies contributed to this report.


US hits Iran with new sanctions while Pompeo visits Lebanon

March 22, 2019

Source: US hits Iran with new sanctions while Pompeo visits Lebanon | The Times of Israel

Measures are based on files recovered by Israel that show Iran preserved and stored early nuclear weapons work; sanctions target 31 scientists, technicians, companies

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says proves Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives a speech on files obtained by Israel he says proves Iran lied about its nuclear program, at the Defense Ministry in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration hit Iran with new sanctions on Friday while Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was denouncing Iran’s growing influence on a visit to Lebanon.

The Treasury Department said the sanctions target 31 Iranian scientists, technicians and companies affiliated with Iran’s Organization for Defense Innovation and Research, which had been at the forefront of the country’s former nuclear weapons program.

Officials said those targeted continue to work in Iran’s defense sector and form a core of experts who could reconstitute that program. Fourteen people, including the head of the organization, and 17 subsidiary operations are covered by the sanctions.

The sanctions freeze any assets that those targeted may have in US jurisdictions and bar Americans from any transactions with them. But, officials say the move will also make those targeted “radioactive internationally” by making people of any nationality who do business with them subject to US penalties under so-called secondary sanctions.

US secondary sanctions apply to foreign businesses and individuals and can include fines, loss of presence in the American economy, asset freezes and travel bans. Officials said the threat of such sanctions will significantly limit the ability of those designated to travel outside of Iran, participate in research conferences or be hired for other jobs.

Screen capture from video showing Ali Akbar Salehi, the head of Iran’s nuclear agency, right, and three Iranian-produced uranium enrichment centrifuges in the background. (YouTube)

“Individuals working for Iran’s proliferation-related programs — including scientists, procurement agents and technical experts — should be aware of the reputational and financial risk they expose themselves to by working for Iran’s nuclear program,” the State Department said in a statement.

The move is unusual because the sanctions are not being imposed based on what those targeted are currently doing.

Instead, they were imposed because of their past work on nuclear weapons development and the potential that they would be at the forefront of any Iranian attempt to restart that program. Iran pledged not to resume atomic weapons work under the 2015 nuclear deal and the UN’s atomic watchdog says Iran continues to comply with the agreement.

The US, however, pulled out of the agreement last year, saying it was fatally flawed and allowed Iran to gradually begin advanced atomic work over time. The Trump administration has re-imposed US sanctions that were eased under the terms of the deal and is continuing to impose new ones as part a pressure campaign to force Iran to renegotiate the agreement.

Officials said the decision to move ahead with the sanctions was in part based on Israel’s recovery of what it and the US call a “secret archive” of documents from Iran that they say shows Iran deliberately preserved and stored its early nuclear weapons work, known as the “Amad plan,” with the intent to someday resume development of a bomb.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu exposes files that prove Iran’s nuclear program in a press conference in Tel Aviv, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“As the world has learned from the recently-discovered secret Iranian nuclear archive — which revealed the names of some of the individuals sanctioned today — unanswered questions remain regarding Iran’s undisclosed past nuclear-related activities under the Amad plan, including activities related to the development of a nuclear payload for a missile,” the State Department said in a statement.

The announcement came as Pompeo was in Beirut warning Lebanese officials to curb the influence of the Iran-backed Hezbollah movement. He says Hezbollah is a terrorist organization and should not be allowed to set policies or wield power despite its presence in Lebanon’s parliament and government.


5 Democratic presidential hopefuls say they would rejoin Iran deal

March 22, 2019

Senators Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris among the candidates to say they would reenter accord

In this file photo from March 2, 2019 US Senator Bernie Sanders arrives for a rally to kick off his 2020 US presidential campaign, in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Johannes Eisele/AFP)

WASHINGTON (JTA) — Five Democratic presidential candidates said they would re-enter the Iran nuclear deal that US President Donald Trump abandoned last year.

Al-Monitor, a Middle East news site, solicited the Democratic candidates about whether they would rejoin the deal. The five are senators Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Kamala Harris of California; Wayne Messam, a South Florida mayor; and Marianne Williamson, a New Age writer. Sanders and Williamson are Jewish.

Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey said it was too early to say, and another 10 candidates did not reply. Al-Monitor noted that former vice president Joe Biden, who is expected to announce his candidacy soon, sharply criticized Trump last year when he withdrew from the deal.

The deal, forged in 2015 between Iran and five major powers, is still in effect, as the other parties — Russia, China, Britain and Germany — have resisted Trump administration pressure to also pull out of the agreement, which provides trade sanctions relief for Iran’s rollback of its nuclear program. The Trump administration has reimposed sanctions on entities dealing with Iran.

Trump, backed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, said the deal did not adequately address the dangers Iran posed to the region.

Iran leader dismisses Europe trade mechanism as ‘bitter joke’ 

March 22, 2019

Source: Iran leader dismisses Europe trade mechanism as ‘bitter joke’ | The Times of Israel

Khamenei rips system meant to bypass renewed US sanctions, curses Western politicians as suit-wearing ‘savages’

In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with a group of the air force staff in Tehran, Iran, February 8, 2019. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

In this picture released by an official website of the office of the Iranian supreme leader, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei attends a meeting with a group of the air force staff in Tehran, Iran, February 8, 2019. (Office of the Iranian Supreme Leader via AP)

TEHRAN, Iran — Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on Thursday dismissed a trade mechanism launched by European countries to bypass renewed US sanctions as a “bitter joke” and said Europe could not be trusted.

“This financial channel they recently set up resembles a joke, a bitter joke,” Khamenei told a thousands-strong congregation in a televised address at a shrine in the northeastern city of Mashhad, where he speaks every year to mark the Iranian New Year.

Britain, France and Germany launched the special payment system called INSTEX — Instrument in Support of Trade Exchanges — in late January after US President Donald Trump abruptly quit the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers in May last year.

The three countries were the European signatories to the deal, also signed by the US, Russia and China, that curbed Tehran’s nuclear ambitions in return for sanctions relief.

London, Paris and Berlin launched the device in the hope it will help save the deal by allowing Tehran to keep trading with European companies despite Washington reimposing sanctions.

European Union foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif, French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas and then British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson pose for a photo during a meeting of the foreign ministers at the Europa building in Brussels, on May 15, 2018. (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys, Pool)

“The difference between what they are obligated to do and what they are proposing is as far as the earth is from the sky,” Khamenei said.

“We should completely forego [any hope] of help or cooperation from Westerners in strengthening our economy, we shouldn’t wait for them,” he said.

“Once again the Europeans have stabbed us in the back, they have betrayed us,” Khamenei said, cursing Western politicians as “savages.”

“They wear suits, they put on ties and eau de cologne and carry Samsonite briefcases, but they are savages,” Khamenei said.

“What I am saying does not mean [Iran] should cut Western ties, not at all… there is no problem in having relations with them, but trusting them is a mistake, don’t trust them,” he said.

Iran on Tuesday registered a parallel structure to INSTEX called the Special Trade and Finance Institute or STFI, the semi-official ISNA news agency reported.

The Iranian Central Bank (photo credit: CC BY-SA Ensie & Matthias, Flickr)

The Iranian Central Bank in Tehran. (CC BY-SA Ensie & Matthias, Flickr)

“With the registration of STFI, we expect that, in cooperation with INSTEX, it would facilitate trade between Iran and Europe and be influential in countering limitations caused by US sanctions,” said Iran’s central bank governor Abdolnaser Hemmati.

Earlier on Thursday, Khamenei called the economic difficulties of Iranians the most urgent problem facing the country.

“Specially in recent months the difficulties for people’s livelihoods have increased,” Khamenei said in a prerecorded message to mark the March 21 start of the New Year.

“The economy is the country’s urgent problem, it’s the country’s [most] serious and primary problem,” he said, pointing to the rial’s devaluation, decline in purchasing power and falling production.


Off Topic:  Multiple 2020 Democrats say they won’t attend AIPAC summit 

March 22, 2019

Source: Multiple 2020 Democrats say they won’t attend AIPAC summit | The Times of Israel

Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Beto O’Rourke and Kamala Harris are among those staying away, after liberal group MoveOn calls on them to skip next week’s conference

Democratic Presidential candidate US Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to supporters at Brooklyn College on March 2, 2019 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images/AFP)

WASHINGTON (AP) — Multiple Democratic presidential candidates said Thursday that they won’t attend the American Israel Public Affairs Committee’s annual conference in Washington next week.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, former US Rep. Beto O’Rourke, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Sen. Kamala Harris of California are among the 2020 contenders who have decided not to attend. Former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz, who is considering an independent bid for president, will also avoid the AIPAC conference.

It comes as the liberal advocacy group MoveOn has called on Democratic presidential candidates to skip this year’s policy conference, saying AIPAC had tried to thwart the Iran nuclear deal and had employed “anti-Muslim and anti-Arab rhetoric.” By not attending, the Democratic candidates can demonstrate their progressive bona fides in an increasingly crowded 2020 field.

No declared presidential candidates were scheduled to speak at the conference, and AIPAC’s policy is that presidential candidates are invited to speak only in election years. However, candidates have in past years circulated at the conference and have held private parlors to meet with activists

But it also gives President Donald Trump an opportunity to highlight his ties to the Israeli government. As the Democrats distance themselves from AIPAC, Trump said Thursday that it is time for the United States to recognize Israel’s control over the Golan Heights.

AIPAC declined to comment on the 2020 candidates but noted that presidential candidates have attended the conference in the past. Indeed, several Democrats seeking the presidency, including Harris, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Sen. Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota, have spoken at the group’s annual conference before.

Senator Amy Klobuchar (D-MN) is interviewed on stage at the 2018 AIPAC conference. (Screencapture)

Sanders’ policy director Josh Orton confirmed his plans and said Sanders is “concerned about the platform AIPAC is providing for leaders who have expressed bigotry and oppose a two-state solution.”

Gillibrand’s senior adviser, Glen Caplin, said, “Senator Gillibrand was not planning to speak at the policy conference and will not be attending. As she does every year, she will meet separately with her New York constituents.”

The intense differences among the Democratic ranks over the US-Israeli relationship came to a head last month when freshman Democratic Rep. Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, one of the first Muslim women in Congress, insinuated that lobbyists with AIPAC were paying lawmakers to support Israel. Her remark drew bipartisan criticism and a rebuke from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Omar ended up apologizing for her comments.

One 2020 Democratic candidate, John Delaney, a former Maryland congressman, said he would not attend AIPAC because of a scheduling conflict, and an aide said he was “disappointed” to miss it.

“He’s attended the conference every year since he’s been in Congress, and he very much looks forward to being back next year,” said deputy press secretary Ahmed Elsayed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu plans to visit the White House next week, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is currently in Jerusalem.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks at the 2018 American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) policy conference, at the Washington Convention Center, March 6, 2018, in Washington, DC. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Netanyahu is to appear at this year’s conference, as are a number of Democratic political leaders, including Pelosi, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer. Top Republicans are also expected to participate.

JTA contributed to this report