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Trump says Netanyahu win gives US peace plan ‘better chance’

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Washington: President Donald Trump has said that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory improved the chances of a forthcoming US peace plan, despite deep skepticism from the Palestinians.

Trump, who had enthusiastically backed the right-wing premier’s bid for a fifth mandate, said that he telephoned Netanyahu to offer congratulations as results gave Netanyahu a narrow parliamentary majority.

“The fact that Bibi won, I think we’ll see some pretty good action in terms of peace,” Trump told reporters, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “Everybody said you can’t have peace in the Middle East with Israel and Palestinians. I think we have a chance and I think we now have a better chance,” he added.

 

Centrist challenger Benny Gantz, a former military chief, conceded defeat with Netanyahu poised to form a coalition of hawkish and religious parties to become Israel’s longest-serving prime minister.

Trump had welcomed Netanyahu to the White House just two weeks before the election to offer his latest landmark gesture of support – US recognition of Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in 1967.

Palestinian leaders are deeply skeptical of the US peace plan and have ruled out Trump as an honest broker after he recognized bitterly contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The peace plan is being developed by Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, an Orthodox Jew whose close family ties to Netanyahu have heightened Palestinian suspicions on whether the US administration can serve as an honest broker.

US officials have only revealed vague outlines of what the plan might propose, but Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has suggested it could break abruptly with precedent. In two days of testimony before Senate committees, Pompeo declined to say whether the United States stood by its longstanding support for an independent Palestinian state.

“For decades now, there have been all these wonderful experts that have tried to resolve this crisis in the Middle East, the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people, and they have each failed,” Pompeo told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday.

“So the old set of ideas isn’t worth retreading. They have simply not succeeded,” he said. Pressed by Democratic Senator Tim Kaine – who described himself as “kind of shocked” that Pompeo would not reaffirm US support for a two-state solution — the top US diplomat said the United States wanted “good things” for the Palestinians but that a solution had to be acceptable to both sides.

“I would argue that millions of man-hours have been spent to try and build out a two-state solution. It hasn’t worked to date. It may work this afternoon, but it hasn’t worked yet,” Pompeo said.

Pompeo said the peace plan would come out “before too long” and also include ideas aimed at Gulf Arab states, which have found increasing common ground with Israel in their hostility to Iran. Pompeo repeatedly declined to weigh in on Netanyahu’s election-eve vow to annex Jewish settlements built in the Israeli-occupied West Bank – a move that would seek to formalise Israeli control over parts of the supposedly future Palestinian state.

Such a move would previously have been almost unthinkable, leaving Israel diplomatically isolated. But some analysts believe that Washington’s relatively less controversial Golan Heights recognition may have paved the way.

In another sign of Israel’s current feeling of strength, Netanyahu insisted last week that he would refuse removal of any Jewish settlements built inside occupied Palestinian land as part of any peace plan.

Netanyahu said he told Trump “there shouldn’t be the removal of even one settlement.” Since taking office, Trump has also closed the Palestinians’ office in Washington, pulled the United States from UN bodies accused of anti-Israel bias and cut off funding for the UN agency that provides schooling and other services to Palestinian refugees.

While Trump has rallied behind Netanyahu, the Israeli leader has seen growing disdain among Democrats. Beto O’Rourke, a Democratic candidate for president, called Netanyahu “a racist” for his alliance with a far-right party and for warning about voting by Israel’s Arab citizens.

Candidate Bernie Sanders, who is Jewish, has called Netanyahu “extreme right-wing” and said Trump needed to show “good faith” in brokering a peace deal.


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International

51 dead as rainstorm lashes South Africa

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Durban: South African authorities said that at least 51 people were killed, including two Zambian minors aged six and nine, after a rainstorm lashed the provinces of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal here.

Scores have been wounded and more than 1,000 have been displaced, according to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“We want to commend rescue services at all levels of government for their rapid response. Resources have been mobilized and our teams on the ground have saved lives. More than 1000 people have been displaced and the government is providing shelter and support to those in need,” he tweeted.

 

“We thank the communities and individuals who risked their own lives to save loved ones, neighbours or strangers. We also thank the NGOs who are helping those in need by providing shelter, food and ablution facilities. I’ll be going to EC to assess the situation there as well,” he added.

The city of Durban was amongst the most affected areas, which faced flash floods and rainstorm.

The two Zambian children lost their lives after the roof of the house they were sleeping in collapsed, reports Xinhua. Their father sustained injuries and is currently receiving treatment, according to the Zambian embassy in South Africa.

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Sri Lanka troops join hunt for bomb attack suspects

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Colombo: Sri Lanka deployed thousands of additional troops countrywide overnight to help police hunt for suspects in the Easter Sunday suicide blasts that killed nearly 360 people, a spokesman said on Thursday.

Brigadier Sumith Atapattu said the army increased its deployment by 1,300 to 6,300, with the navy and airforce also deploying 2,000 more personnel.

“We are armed with powers to search, seize, arrest and detain under emergency regulations,” Atapattu told AFP.

 

“We are involved in static guard duties, patrolling and helping with cordon-and-search operations.”

The government also announced a ban on all drone flights and said licences issued to all commercial operators were suspended with immediate effect.

Police said they arrested another 16 suspects overnight with alleged ties to the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) extremist group accused of the blasts at three churches and three luxury hotels.

Police said about 75 people were now being interrogated in connection with the deadliest attack against civilians in the country’s history.

Sri Lankan authorities are also investigating a security failure to act on prior information about the impending Easter bombings by the NTJ.

President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the minister of defence and law and order, on Tuesday vowed a major security shake up with pledges to remove the heads of the police and armed forces “within 24 hours”, but there were no changes by Thursday morning.

Recriminations have flown since Sunday’s attacks and the country remained tense with many shops and offices closed and motorists staying off the roads.

Sirisena is due to meet with leaders of all political parties as well as religious leaders in two separate meetings on Thursday to discuss the situation.

Sunday’s bomb attacks were the first in the country since the Tamil insurgency ended almost 10 years ago in May 2009.

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Aafia Siddiqui does not want to return to Pakistan: FO

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Islamabad: Dr Aafia Siddiqui “does not want to come back to Pakistan” and reports of her possible repatriation are “mere chatter”, according to Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr Mohammad Faisal.

Dr Faisal, in an interview with Independent Urdu, said that “she (Dr Aafia) will not come back. She does not want to come back herself, as per the information I have.”
The FO spokesperson said that the only way the possibility of Dr Aafia’s return could arise is if Prime Minister Imran Khan and US President Donald Trump met in the future.

In that case, “the exchange of Aafia Siddiqui for Shakeel Afridi could come under discussion,” he added.

 

Dr Aafia’s sister Dr Fouzia contested the FO spokesperson statement, telling Independent Urdu that “if anyone says that Aafia herself does not want to come to Pakistan, it is completely untrue.” She also confirmed that the consulate office in Houston had met Aafia last month.

Dr Fouzia further said that “at one point it had seemed as if Aafia was going to come to Pakistan any moment.” She said that she had been reassured by the government that negotiations with the US were ongoing and that “there will be a good news between January and March, but now silence has set in again.”

“Aafia told me on the phone that she is ready to sign any document, and that she only wants to get out of jail somehow,” Dr Fouzia was quoted as saying.

It is pertinent to mention here that last year, Dr Aafia’s sister, Dr Fouzia, had requested Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to take up the matter with the US.

The foreign minister had said that the issue of Dr Aafia’s repatriation was “being considered”, following which Consul General in Houston Aisha Farooqui had met Dr Aafia and urged the US to “respect her human and legal rights”.

When asked about Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman who was acquitted by the Supreme Court over blasphemy allegations last year, Dr Faisal said that “she is still in Pakistan but could leave soon”.

“It is inaccurate to say that she has already left,” he said. “She is at a safe location in Pakistan but when there is a court order in her favour, she should leave. In my opinion, she will leave soon.”

The FO spokesperson was also asked whether “the foreign policy is influenced by politics or other departments”.

Dr Faisal, in his response, maintained that the foreign policy is formed at the office of foreign affairs. “But the foreign policy is a combination of all policies, including financial, commercial and security issues,” he said. “This happens world over. A country’s security is linked with its foreign policy.”

In response to a question regarding the future of Pakistan- India relations, Dr Faisal said: “Pakistan has kept a positive attitude with India even in difficult times. Whatever new government is formed in India, Pakistan would like to move forward with peace talks.

“We wrote to the Indian prime minister in September 2018, and invited them for peace talks but have not received a response yet. Hopefully the newly elected government will reply to the letter.”

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