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Thursday
Feb162017

Israeli right-wing buoyed by Netanyahu's visit to Washington

iStock/Thinkstock(JERUSALEM) — A day after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Trump met in Washington and both declined to commit to a two-state solution, the Israeli right declared a symbolic victory.

"Trump is good for the Jews" trumpeted the front page of the free daily Israel Hayom, a right-wing paper supported by Trump donor and Netanyahu patron Sheldon Adelson.

There were some murmurs that a U.S. president who campaigned steadfastly in support of Israel had, perhaps surprisingly, chosen to publicly bring up the question of settlements during Wednesday's press conference.

"Trump: I'd like you to 'hold back' on settlements," read the cover of Thursday’s right-of-center Jerusalem Post, while the left-of-center Haaretz, Israel's oldest daily newspaper, chose: "Trump declines to endorse two-state solution, calls on PM to 'hold back on settlements'."

After the press conference, Netanyahu told Israeli reporters that "if there's a request from the [U.S.] president to examine this issue of construction in the settlements then I think it is in our national interest to reach an understanding."

But with Wednesday’s meeting, Netanyahu's right-wing coalition has chalked up his first visit with Trump as an unqualified success.

The prime minister's arch rival and leader of the far-right, pro-settlement Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett, heaped praise on Netanyahu.

“This is the end of an era,” he said. "The Palestinian flag has come down and has been replaced by the Israeli flag. The prime minister displayed leadership and daring and strengthened Israel’s security.”

Last week, Bennett threatened that the "earth will shake" if Netanyahu mentioned the two-state solution or uttered the word Palestine. And to Bennett's great satisfaction, Netanyahu did not commit to a two-state solution in his meeting with Trump.

That satisfaction comes on the heels of the previous three weeks of Trump's presidency, where Netanyahu dramatically accelerated settlement expansion in a nod to his right-wing coalition. He announced the approval of more than 6,000 housing units in the occupied Palestinian territories, in addition to the first new settlement since the 1990s.

While settlements have long put the U.S. and Israel at odds, the Trump White House has largely kept quiet, issuing only a mild warning last week. Foreshadowing his press conference comments, last weekend Trump told Israel Hayom that he was "not somebody that believes that going forward with these settlements is a good thing for peace."

For Palestinians and parts of the Israeli center and left, however, Wednesday’s meeting was largely viewed as a dangerous policy shift, albeit for different reasons.

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog, leader of the center-left Zionist Union party, said “it was sad and embarrassing to see Netanyahu avoid the concept of separating from the Palestinians via the two-state solution.” He decried a policy that he thought would ultimately weaken Israel’s ability to retain its Jewish character.

Fellow Zionist Union member Erel Margalit echoed that sentiment, saying Wednesday night that “the extreme Right won tonight, and the State of Israel lost."

Left-wing party Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On issued a starker warning, saying that turning away from the two-state solution would “guarantee that we [Israel] will become an apartheid state" with two laws for two peoples.

The leader of Israel’s Arab-dominated Joint List and a Palestinian citizen of Israel, Ahmad Tibi, said Netanyahu’s meeting had left the path forward in some ways more clear.

“If Netanyahu and Trump decide they want a one-state solution, there will have to be equality and a right to vote for all.” He told CNN that if that's the case, he will run for prime minister. “All Palestinians will vote for me. Some Israeli Jews will vote for me and Netanyahu will be the loser," he said.

For more than two decades, U.S. policy has unequivocally pushed the two-state solution.

While Prime Minister Netanyahu opposed the Oslo peace process which enshrined the two-state paradigm, in a 2009 speech Bar Ilan University he declared support for a version of two independent states for two peoples, with Israel still retaining a security presence in the West Bank.

But many on the Israeli right have criticized his support of two states, and the election of Trump has left Netanyahu with more room to maneuver with those on his right flank.

Meanwhile, for the Palestinian leadership in the West Bank, Thursday’s meeting marked a major turning point for the worse.

The secretary-general of the PLO and veteran Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said the alternative to two states is "a single democratic secular state for Jews, Muslims and Christians" where everyone has full rights.

But he suggested this was far from the Israeli leader’s conception of what one state would look like.

"What Netanyahu is thinking about, the one state-two systems, the military government imposed on Palestinians, is apartheid.”

He added, "I don't think they can sustain it, not in the 21st century."

In a statement, Palestinian President Abbas echoed Erekat, saying the Palestinian Authority "affirmed its continuing commitment to the two-state option, international law and legitimacy, which should ensure the end of the Israeli occupation, the establishment of an independent Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, living in peace and security next to the State of Israel on the June 1967 borders."

Abbas added that he was ready “to deal positively with the Donald Trump administration to make peace.”

But President Trump's refusal to endorse the two-state solution sets him far apart from other international actors here in Jerusalem, including the European Union and the United Nations.

"There is no alternative solution for the situation between the Palestinians and Israelis," U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres said, "other than the solution of establishing two states, and we should do all that can be done to maintain this."

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Thursday
Feb162017

Russian spies eye golden prize: a White House source

ABC News(WASHINGTON) — It’s every Russian spy’s dream: to recruit a source inside the White House — or any place of power inside Washington.

According to U.S. intelligence officials, there’s no dispute that the Russians are indeed making great efforts to get close to Trump and the people around him, whether those targeted know it or not.

“They always targeted political figures,” David Major, a retired FBI counterintelligence agent explained to ABC News. “They want to know who is a mover and shaker in our society, who affects it.”

And today as questions continue to mount over what contacts Trump campaign aides may have had with Russian intelligence operatives, the White House continues to dispute media reports that any of the president’s associates had such contact while on the campaign trail.

U.S. intelligence officials say that the Russians are engaged in a massive campaign to infiltrate and disrupt American politics. It has gone on for decades, originally with the Cold War goal of placing a mole inside the White House, a retired KGB officer who once ran spy operations in Washington told ABC News.

A senior intelligence official told ABC News Wednesday night that no evidence gathered by the FBI so far suggests Trump associates knew they were talking to Russian intelligence officers. Those contacts being scrutinized by the FBI were first reported by the New York Times on Wednesday.

"These are not all sophisticated people but they should have assumed or considered their Russian contacts might be spy service agents too," the official briefed on the investigation said.

The current version of Russia's espionage and political influence program has likely included so-called “cut outs” and front men — people and organizations that can extract prized intelligence, gain influence or create upheaval without the targeted American ever knowing who they’re really dealing with.

Sen. Mark Warner, D-Virginia, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, told ABC News: “This is a theory of war, a 21st Century theory of war that includes false information, that includes cyber hacking, that includes, you know, in effect, sowing chaos.”

His committee is currently investigating Russian efforts to meddle in the recent election, and — as part of that bipartisan investigation — whether anyone in the Trump campaign was involved.

“I think this investigation is maybe the most serious thing that I’ll take on in my public career,” Warner said. “To me what the Russians did in terms of their blatant interference in our election is unprecedented.”

The White House remains under fire over the ouster of National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, who was seen in a video in Moscow in December 2015 seated next to Russian President Vladimir Putin at a celebration for a Russian propaganda station. At the time, Flynn was about to become the senior foreign policy adviser for Trump.

On Monday, Flynn was fired by Trump after media reports suggested the top security advisor had likely had inappropriate conversations with the Russian ambassador over U.S.-imposed sanctions on Russia before he was appointed to his official government role. Some officials said Flynn almost certainly won't face criminal charges for anything, though he may not have been completely forthcoming in an FBI counterintelligence interview, two officials said.

The Defense Intelligence Agency, which Flynn once led before former President Obama had him dismissed over management issues, suspended the retired three-star Army general's security clearance Wednesday. The DIA held his Top Secret/Sensitive Compartmented Information clearance and it is not uncommon for a clearance to be temporarily suspended during an investigation.

Flynn did not respond to a message left for him on Wednesday.

Now the question for Senate investigators and the FBI is why the Russians may have been courting Flynn going back as far as 2015 after his retirement, and how he reacted to that effort.

“If by his actions, implied or implicit, there was an effort to undermine American foreign policy, that bothers me a great deal,” Warner said.

But Flynn isn’t the only one who is being examined.

Carter Page, a former Trump campaign foreign policy advisor, is also under the investigator's magnifying glass.

Page, claims he’s done major business deals in Russia and defends its leaders — moves that raise the eyebrows of American intelligence officials.

Asked by ABC News’ Brian Ross whether he agreed that Putin was a “thug,” Page said that he “thoroughly” disagreed.

Page is named as a central figure in the now-infamous dossier that makes unsubstantiated allegations that the Trump campaign and the Russians were in cahoots.

In an interview with ABC News in January, Page called allegations that he was meeting with Kremlin officials on behalf of the campaign to coordinate the release of damaging information on Trump’s opponents, “so ridiculous that it’s completely false and laughable.”

And then there is Paul Manafort, a former Trump campaign manager, who once worked for pro-Russian politicians in Ukraine.

He too denies knowingly talking with anyone in Russian intelligence during the campaign, telling ABC News, “How am I supposed to know who is a Russian spy?”

The intrigue heightened late Wednesday when the Wall Street Journal picked up claims that U.S. intelligence officers were withholding intelligence from the 45th president over eroded trust because of his associates' Russian contacts and the FBI scrutiny of the White House.

But numerous officials said that was absurd.

"Any suggestion that the U.S. Intelligence Community is withholding information and is not providing the best possible intelligence to the President and his national security team is not true," the Director of National Intelligence public affairs office said in a statement.

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Thursday
Feb162017

$100,000 in cash found stashed in old TV at Canadian recycling plant

Ingram Publishing/Thinkstock(BARRIE, Ontario) — A 68-year-old Canadian man got a pleasant surprise when authorities returned more than $100,000 CAD ($76,560 USD approx.) in cash to him after it was discovered inside of an old television set, reports ABC News partner CTV News.

A GEEP recycling plant worker found the money last month as the TV was dismantled for processing, according to CTV News. The electronics recycling firm — located in Barrie, Ontario, about 60 miles north of Toronto — said it contacted the police immediately.

Authorities say the money was the man’s lost inheritance.

“There was like, four stacks of $50 bills, and I knew it was a large amount of money,” Rick Deschamps, general manager for GEEP told CTV News' Barrie affiliate.

The money was hidden inside of a cash box along with documents — which authorities used to find the owner.

 

 

When located, the man told police that he had forgotten about the cash box when he gave the TV to a friend, according to the CTV News report.

The money, which he says he stashed away some 30 years ago, was intended to be passed down to his family members as an inheritance.

The recycling plant said it praises the employee for her honesty.

“She’s representative of all our employees and it’s what we stand for and this kind of behavior is really what we would expect from everyone here,” Lew Coffin, GEEP vice president of operations, told CTV News.


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Thursday
Feb162017

Trump urges Venezuelan government to release 'political prisoner' Lopez

ABC News(WASHINGTON) — President Trump on Wednesday evening called on the Venezuelan government to release imprisoned opposition leader Leopoldo Lopez, who is serving a 14-year sentence for allegations that he incited anti-government violence during protests in 2014.

Tweeting a picture of himself alongside Vice President Mike Pence, Senator Marco Rubio, R-Florida, and Lopez's wife Lilian Tintori, the president wrote that Venezuela should "immediately" release "political prisoner" Leopoldo Lopez.

 

 

The president and the first lady later hosted Rubio along with his wife Jeanette at the White House for dinner.

Rubio has advocated for a forceful U.S. foreign policy against the current Venezuelan government of President Nicholas Maduro, who launched a crackdown amid civil unrest in 2014.

 

 

Lopez, a popular opposition politician, had called for peaceful protests during that wave of unrest but was arrested by the government under accusations that he supported violence.

The Trump administration on Monday slapped sanctions against Venezuela's vice president over drug trafficking charges.

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Wednesday
Feb152017

Life in limbo: diary of a Syrian mom affected by travel ban

Bestgreenscreen/iStock/Thinkstock(NEW YORK) -- ABC News will be chronicling the experience of Alaa Ali Alali, a 48-year-old single mother who fled war-torn Aleppo in 2012 with her 14-year-old son, as she tries to navigate her way
to the U.S. as a Syrian refugee following President Donald Trump's executive order, which banned Syrian refugees indefinitely from entering the country. She had been cleared to come to the U.S. in
February, but the executive order threw that into limbo. She will share her journey through videos, text messages and phone calls.

Alaa Ali Alali had been vetted for nearly two years before her asylum application was approved.

Feb. 15

Once again, Alali's travel to the U.S. has been postponed. She said the International Organization for Migration had told her to prepare for travel tomorrow, but today the organization informed her
that she will not be traveling as planned. IOM declined to comment. A spokesperson for the U.S. State Department told ABC News the department was not able to provide information on specific
resettlement cases to the media.

"The travel was postponed again until the 21st of this month," she told ABC News in Arabic over the phone. "Today I spent four to five hours waiting in the street outside the U.S. Embassy while
case workers from the International Organization for Migration were inside trying to fix the problem. The U.S. has a list of names of who is able to travel tomorrow and apparently my name is not on
it. My son Mohammad and I had been so happy because we were finally going to the U.S. We had made a deal that we were going to the Pyramids today. It was going to be our last memory from Egypt. Our
bags are ready. I have prepared everything and weighed the bags. Now I'm crying and my son is upset. I don't know if I should unpack or not. My family in the U.S. had been so happy and was
expecting us. My son was so happy. He's very attached to his granddad who's in the U.S. He's like a father to him."

Alali said she had paid around $300 to change her son's plane ticket after their scheduled trip on Feb. 9 was cancelled. She has to purchase his plane ticket herself because he's not part of the
refugee program like his mother due to his dual Canadian and Syrian citizenship.

"I don’t know if I should still send him to the U.S. tomorrow or not," Alali said. "Currently I can't send him to school here. I took him out of school because I thought we were leaving and I have
to pay to send him back to school and I don't know what to do. If I could be sure that he'd be able to enter the country with no problems I'd do it. But I'm afraid they’ll stop him in the airport
and ask him why he's traveling alone and how old he is. I spoke to the travel agency and they told me that the fee for changing the ticket would probably be higher this time, but that they'll get
back to me. My son really wants to go, but at the same time he wants to be with me. He's afraid like me. I'm afraid they’ll keep postponing the travel until the American president will be able to
make a new decision that will stop me from traveling."

Feb. 8

Alali was supposed to board a plane headed to the U.S. on Feb. 9. But today she received a call from the International Organization for Migration, informing her that she will not be traveling after
all.

"They told me that they would call me back with a new date. They postponed my travel. Others will be traveling tomorrow, but not me. They told me that they don’t know why my travel was postponed
and that they will call me back soon to set a new date," she told ABC News in Arabic.

Alali's son was born in Canada and is a dual Syrian and Canadian citizen, meaning that he is not part of the refugee program like his mother. After Alali learned that she was flying tomorrow, she
booked a ticket for her son on the same flight. Now, she says she doesn’t know if she should let him travel alone.

“I begged them [to let me travel tomorrow] because I already booked a ticket for my son. I don’t know what to do now. I’m very distressed. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to travel at all. My son
is very upset. He doesn’t want to leave me.”

Earlier in the day, before her travel was cancelled, Alali had a meeting with the IOM. She said she was happy but worried -- the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals still hadn’t made a decision on
whether President Trump’s travel ban should be reinstated.

“We have to be at the airport tomorrow at 6 am. And God willing we will depart at 10:30,” she said following the meeting.

“We are going to New York tomorrow. I’m going to buy a suitcase now and then go home. I’ve already weighed my bags so I just need to move things to the new bag and then I’ll be ready. I’m very
happy, but I’m also a little afraid. The court still hasn’t made a decision. I’m scared that something I haven’t expected will happen, that the ban will come back into effect. But I’m very happy

because I’m going to see my brothers that I haven’t seen for about 10 years and my dad who I haven’t seen for almost five years. My son is also happy that he might get a better life. My dad is
happy because he needs me.”

Feb. 6

The decision by a federal judge to place a temporary restraining order on Trump’s ban has failed to allay Alali’s fears.

"As a single mother without any kind of support, loneliness and fear accompanies me for now, but I still trust the people and I hope things will change because justice and mercy are what makes us
humans. I think this cruel decision will face refusal by the court. But the process will take a long time. Now, I'm waiting for a call from IOM [The International Organization for Migration] to set
a new date for departure. They promised to do the best they could before 'The Ban' starts once again. So I'm in terror of what's next to come."

UPDATE:

Later in the day, Alali sent ABC News the following message in Arabic:

"The IOM just called me and told me that they booked me a flight on Feb. 9. So that's in three days. They told me that if anything happens or if they cancel the flight, they will let me know.

UPDATE 2:

The International Rescue Committee was assigned Alali’s case in January and is involved in the planning of her arrival in the U.S. Karen Ferguson, IRC executive director in northern California,
told ABC News on Wednesday:

“This is a perfect example of how timing will determine the fate of the unification of this family. It would never have occurred to me that all of a sudden this family’s case would be interrupted.
Isn’t she the exact type of person we would want here? She’s a dentist, she’s a survivor. She ran her own clinic in Syria. She fled terrorism. She has family here who’s willing to support her. And
this is the person we’re going to bar?”

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Wednesday
Feb152017

Like a spy movie:' In Seoul, assassination of Kim Jong Un’s brother captivates, but doesn’t amaze

iStock/Thinkstock(SEOUL, South Korea) — The assassination of Kim Jong Nam is presumed to have been based on North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s “paranoia” about his half-brother, according to South Korea’s top spy agency. Kim Jong Nam was poisoned to death by two Asian women at Malaysia's Kuala Lumpur International Airport on Tuesday.

Public reactions in Seoul are of shock and horror, if not amazement.

“We all know how brutal and psychotic Kim Jong Un is, but news every hour has been more like a spy movie,” said Park Choon Ho, a 60-year-old taxi driver.

“Kim Jong Un is cruel and cold-blooded but this [assassination] only shows how insecure his political power stands,” noted Kim Do Yeon, a college student.

Getting rid of the eldest son of the late Kim Jong Il has been a long “standing order” from Pyongyang, said South Korea’s national intelligence chief Lee Byung Ho at a briefing to the National Assembly.

North Korean agents had actually attempted to assassinate Kim in early 2012, which led Kim to write a letter to his younger half brother, asking for mercy for him and his family.

“I ask for you to cancel the punishment order on me and my family. We have nowhere to go and nowhere to hide. We clearly know that the only way to run away is to commit suicide,” the letter said.

Kim Jong Nam's first legitimate wife and eldest son, Kim Han Sol, are residing in Beijing. His second wife and their son and daughter have been living in Macao. The family members are under protection by the Chinese government, the spy agency confirmed.

The South Korean government has doubled the number of security guards protecting North Korean defectors who have held senior political positions in Pyongyang.

The national military also announced plans to spread the news to North Korean residents who are completely blinded from outside information by resuming news broadcasts on dozens of loudspeakers facing the North along the inter-Korean border.

CCTV footage from the domestic check-in area at the airport showed two young Asian women approaching Kim. One woman was wearing a white T-shirt emblazoned with the block letters “LOL.” Jong Nam had complained to a ground attendant that someone had covered his nose and mouth with a piece of cloth and that his eyes burned. He died in the ambulance on the way to the hospital. Police in Malaysia have arrested an alleged 29-year-old female secret agent traveling on Vietnamese documents.

An autopsy of Kim Jong Nam's body has been completed at a morgue in the presence of the North Korean ambassador to Malaysia, Kang Chol, but the results are still unknown.

ABC News' Hong Yoo, from Seoul, and Maureen Jeyasooriar, from Kuala Lumpur, contributed to this report.

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Wednesday
Feb152017

Russian spy ship 30 miles from US Navy sub base

U.S. Navy photo by John Narewski (RELEASED) (NEW LONDON, Conn.) -- A Russian spy ship is now 30 miles south of New London, Connecticut, where a U.S. Navy submarine base is located.

The Viktor Leonov, a Russian intelligence gathering ship, had been making its way north along the East Coast of the United States. On Monday, the vessel was 70 miles off the coast of Delaware.

U.S. officials have said that the spy ship was likely headed to a location near Connecticut in international waters where it could be close to the submarine base in New London. U.S. territorial waters extend 12 miles from shore to the vessel.

According to a U.S. official, the Leonov is currently "loitering" about 30 miles south of New London.

The Leonov is equipped with communications and signal intelligence gathering equipment.

In recent years, Russian spy ships have been spotted operating near King's Bay, Georgia, the Navy's other submarine base along the East Coast.

The Leonov was in the mid-Atlantic about a month ago, apparently headed to the Caribbean.

In early February, the ship made a port of call in Kingston, Jamaica, before taking a path that took it north to the United States.

If the ship follows past Russian practice, it will head back to Cuba after completing its mission in the Northeast.

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Wednesday
Feb152017

Four themes to watch as Trump hosts Netanayhu

iStock/Thinkstock(JERUSALEM) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will meet face-to-face with President Trump on Wednesday, setting the tone for what both leaders hope to be the dawn of a new era for the U.S.-Israel relationship. Analysts say that the meeting will hope to project a public theme of unity between the two governments on topics including Iran, Israeli settlements and the fate of the peace process.

"Both President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu have a very big stake in wanting to demonstrate that whatever the problems were with the last administration, they're now gone," Dennis Ross, a diplomat and former special Middle East coordinator under Clinton, told reporters on a call this week.

While close security and economic ties between the U.S. and Israel continued and expanded during the previous U.S. administration, Netanyahu and then-President Obama often sparred on a number of key issues, particularly over the contours of an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and the U.S.-brokered Iranian nuclear deal, which the Israeli leader forcefully denounced.

"There's a strong presumption [now] to send a message how close things are between the two leaders ... to demonstrate that the U.S. and Israel are on the same page strategically and practically," Ross added.

Analysts say that while Iran is likely to figure at the top of Netanyahu's agenda, Israeli settlements, the location of the U.S. Embassy and the peace process are also likely to factor in.

Iran


"The Prime Minister probably comes in with an agenda very heavily focused on Iran," Ross said.

Much of that focus concerns Iranian policy in the region and the nuclear agreement signed in 2015 between Tehran and the so-called P5+1, which Netanyahu opposed.

During his campaign, Trump voiced strong opposition to the Iran nuclear deal and in recent weeks has taken to Twitter to directly threaten Iran. While the administration has thus far continued U.S. participation in the agreement, Trump has expressed an interest in re-negotiating its terms.

Ross said Netanyahu is unlikely to demand a scrap to the agreement altogether, in part because he is determined to work well with Trump out of the gate.

"I think what he [Netanyahu] wants is some understanding -- and awareness not just about enforcement of the deal but that more needs to be done to deter the Iranians," Ross said.

Writing on Facebook on Jan. 30 after an Iranian ballistic missile test, Netanyahu said that “Iranian aggression must not go unanswered,” pledging to discuss with Trump “the renewal of sanctions against Iran in this context and in other contexts.”

In retaliation to the ballistic missile test, the Trump administration on Feb. 3 announced sanctions against Iran, a narrowly tailored action that did not alter the terms of the nuclear agreement that saw Iran receive sanctions relief in exchange for curbs to Tehran’s nuclear program.

Embassy moves


On the campaign trail, Trump pledged to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a move opposed by past U.S. administrations because both Israelis and Palestinians claim it as their capital. The U.S. has long maintained that the status of the city should be determined in final status negotiations between the two parties.

Still, there have been some suggestions that Trump has slightly softened his stance.

"His policy seems to be settling back into the mean," former U.S. Ambassador to Israel under President Obama, Daniel B. Shapiro, told Israeli TV channel i24, "which is to support efforts to a two-state solution, to support efforts to limit settlements and not to do things that might be disruptive and moving the embassy might fall into that category."

"It's not an easy decision," Trump said last weekend to the Israeli right-wing newspaper Israel Hayom, a free daily which is supported by Trump donor and Netanyahu patron Sheldon Adelson. "It's been discussed for so many years. No one wants to make this decision, and I'm thinking about it seriously."

But Netanyahu has long supported the move, and is likely to again bring it up.

“Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and it is proper that not only should the American Embassy be here, but all embassies should come here,” Netanyahu said in January.

Settlements


Since Trump took office on Jan. 20, Netanyahu has ratcheted up settlement expansion, a signal that the White House is far less critical of building in the occupied Palestinian territories than past administrations.

In the last three weeks, Netanyahu announced the approval of more than 6,000 housing units and the first new settlement since the 1990s. The United Nations considers settlements illegal, and they have long been a bone of contention between the U.S. and Israel.

But Trump's pick for U.S. Ambassador to Israel, David Friedman, is an ardent supporter of Israeli settlements and has opposed the two-state solution.

Nonetheless, Trump in the same interview with Israel Hayom seemed to moderate past statements, saying settlements were an obstacle to peace.

"There is limited remaining territory. Every time you take land for a settlement, less territory remains," he told the newspaper. "No, I'm not someone who believes that advancing settlements is good for peace."

Peace negotiations


President Trump has called reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace the "ultimate deal," and has identified his son-in-law and senior adviser the president Jared Kushner as the man for the job.

"I think we can reach an agreement and that we need to reach an agreement," Trump told Israel Hayom. "I want Israel to act reasonably in the peace process,” he added.

Briefing reporters Tuesday night, a White House official said that the peace process was a priority, but would not commit to pushing the two-state solution which has been the cornerstone of U.S. policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for decades.

"Maybe, maybe not," the official said in response to a question about the two-state solution. "It's something the two sides have to agree to. It's not for us to impose that vision."

The official added: "We're looking at the two sides to come together to make peace together and we'll be there to help them."

When asked by a reporter on the tarmac leaving Tel Aviv this week if he stands by a two-state solution, which he has at various times opposed or supported, Netanyahu responded: “Come with me, you will hear very clear answers, very clear answers."
 
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Tuesday
Feb142017

US will not insist on two-state solution in Middle East: White House official

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- In what would be a major shift from the policy position held by the Obama administration, a White House official said Thursday night that the United States will not “impose” a two-state solution in the Middle East in an attempt to settle the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"Maybe, maybe not," said the official when asked at a White House briefing whether peace equaled a two-state solution. "It's something the two sides have to agree to. It's not for us to impose that vision. But I think we'll find out more about that tomorrow."

President Donald Trump is scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday at the White House.

"A two-state solution that doesn't bring peace is not our goal that anybody wants to achieve," the official said. "Peace is the goal, whether it comes in the form of a two-state solution if that's what the parties want or something else, if that's what the parties want, we're going to help them."

President Obama’s administration emphasized the importance of two states to achieving lasting peace.

At the final news conference of his presidency on Jan. 18, Obama said that he did not see how, as the situation currently stands, “this issue gets resolved in a way that maintains Israel as both Jewish and a democracy.”

“Because if you do not have two states, then in some form or fashion you are extending an occupation, functionally you end up having one state in which millions of people are disenfranchised and operate as second class residents,” said Obama.

In late December, the U.S. abstained from a United Nations vote calling for the end of the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, a move that received criticism from Israel, which sought the U.S.’s veto, as well as Trump.

“This resolution reflects trends that will permanently destroy the two-state solution if they continue on their current course,” said then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power.

Trump, as president-elect in December, warned via Twitter that a change would be coming on policy related to the region, specifically referencing the U.N. vote and saying, “things will be different.”

 

 

Later that week in December, Obama's secretary of state, John Kerry, made the policy a centerpiece of remarks on Middle East peace.

“The two-state solution is the only way to achieve a just and lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Kerry. “It is the only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace and security with its neighbors. It is the only way to ensure a future, freedom and dignity for the Palestinian people and it is an important way of advancing the United States’ interests in the region.”

The Trump official at Tuesday evening’s briefing insinuated that the policy hinged on a clearer definition of the proposal, saying “If I ask five people what a two-state solution is, I get eight different answers.”

As to whether Trump and Netanyahu would use the term at their meeting Wednesday, the official demurred.

"We're looking at the two sides to come together to make peace together and we'll be there to help them," the official said.

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Tuesday
Feb142017

Russian aircraft buzzed US Navy ship 3 times in a day

iStock/Thinkstock(WASHINGTON) -- The Pentagon says Russian aircraft flew low and fast above an American destroyer in the Black Sea last week in an "unsafe and unprofessional" manner and a Russian intelligence vessel has been detected heading north along the eastern coast of the United States.

On Feb. 10, the Navy destroyer USS Porter noted three “unsafe and unprofessional” encounters with Russian military aircraft while in the Black Sea. In each of the incidents Russian aircraft approached the destroyer at an unspecified "low altitude" and some were at "high speed".

The Russian aircraft did not have their transponders on and did not respond when the destroyer's crew hailed the planes on radio.

“Such incidents are concerning because they can result in accident or miscalculation,” said Lt. Colonel Michelle Baldanza, a Pentagon spokesman.

Russia's Defense Ministry denied any incidents occurred on Feb. 10 between Russian aircraft and the USS Porter. "All flights of our aircraft are done and have been done in neutral waters of the Black Sea in accordance with the international rights and security demands" said Igor Konashenkov, a Defense ministry spokesman.

Last April Russian fighters repeatedly buzzed an American destroyer in the Baltic Sea, with one pass coming as close as 30 feet to the USS Donald Cook. That incident was one of several close encounters between the U.S. and Russian militaries in 2016, but officials have said recently that such encounters had become infrequent.

At the time of the incident Baldanza said the destroyer was "conducting routine maritime operations in international waters in the Black Sea following the conclusion of Exercise Sea Shield."

According to Baldanza the first encounter involved a Russian Ilyushin 38, a maritime patrol and anti-submarine aircraft. The plane "flew in an unsafe and unprofessional manner due to the unusually low altitude" above the USS Porter.

The second incident involved two SU-24 fighters and the third a different Su-24. A U.S. official said that on one pass one of the fighters flew 300 feet above the USS Porter.

Meanwhile American officials are not expressing concern about the presence of a Russian intelligence gathering ship headed northward along the East Coast. The White House deferred comment to the Defense Department on this issue.

According to a U.S. official, the Russian intelligence vessel Viktor Leonov was located 70 miles off the coast of Delaware yesterday in international waters heading in a northerly direction. American territorial waters extend 12 miles out to sea.

The official said the speculation is that the Russian ship is headed near the U.S. Navy's submarine base at New London, Connecticut.

Russian military monitoring of U.S. sub bases used to happen frequently during the Cold War, but became infrequent after the fall of the Soviet Union.

In 2015, another Russian spy ship made its way south along the East Coast past the sub base at Kings Bay, Georgia, but was apparently mapping underwater communications cables off the Florida coast.

If the Leonov follows previous deployment patterns it will eventually head to south to Cuba.

The official says there is not much concern about the Leonov's movements or its intelligence gathering capabilities.

The Russian ship was in the mid-Atlantic a month ago and made a port of call in Kingston, Jamaica in early February.

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