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Why Bolton's pick adds to obstacles for US Mideast plan

RAMALLAH: The list of obstacles to a long-awaited US plan for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal has grown longer in recent days.
Contentious relations between the Trump administration and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas are bound to deteriorate further with incoming National Security Adviser John Bolton, who has said Palestinians would be better off being absorbed by Egypt and Jordan than having their own state. Meanwhile, U.S.-backed efforts to negotiate a deal sidelining Hamas in the Gaza Strip appear to have collapsed, raising new questions about the territory said to be at the center of any U.S. plan.

Coupled with Abbas’ refusal to engage with the Trump administration, these developments exacerbate fundamental challenges to any proposals coming from Washington. Here’s a look at the issues.


Palestinian officials say they haven’t received anything from the White House, but have been alarmed by US policy shifts. In December, President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, infuriating the Palestinians, who seek Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem as their capital. Abbas suspended contacts with the Trump administration and said it could no longer serve as Mideast broker.

In January, a Palestinian envoy was shown the outlines of a plan — though it was not tagged as coming from Washington — in a meeting in Saudi Arabia, according to three Palestinian officials who spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to discuss the issue with the media.

The outlines fell far short of Palestinian demands for a state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem, captured by Israel from Jordan and Egypt in 1967.

The officials say the plan calls for a Palestinian entity in Gaza, the autonomous Palestinian areas of the West Bank and some of the remaining 60 percent that is under sole Israeli control.

Palestinians would get access to Jerusalem’s Old City, but would have to establish their capital on the outskirts of the city. Future borders, security arrangements and the fate of dozens of Israeli settlements would be negotiated later.

US officials have said such descriptions are inaccurate, but refused to discuss the plan’s contents.


Trump’s Mideast team has not set a date, despite previous suggestions that it’s close to being done. Team member Jason Greenblatt tweeted last week that “we will advance it when circumstances are right.” Greenblatt and Trump son-in-law Jared Kushner discussed the plan last week in Washington with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen as a key conduit to the Palestinians.


Abbas believes it is best not to engage, according to Palestinian officials. He fears that if he is drawn into negotiations, this would at best lead to minor improvements in what he considers a fundamentally unacceptable proposal. He hopes to win a unanimous endorsement for traditional Palestinian demands at the annual Arab Summit in Saudi Arabia in mid-April. The meeting would signal how far, if at all, the Saudi crown prince would deviate from such positions in a nod to the White House.


The addition of the hawkish former UN ambassador to Trump’s inner circle is bound to intensify Palestinian distrust. After leaving government service, Bolton promoted views perceived as pro-Israel as a TV commentator. He said Palestinians would be better off without a state, suggesting Gaza return to Egyptian rule again and Jordan resume a role in the West Bank.

Trump has not committed to a two-state solution. Palestinians are already suspicious of other members of Trump’s Mideast team, due to their ties to the West Bank settler movement.

Hanan Ashrawi, a Palestinian spokeswoman, said that Palestinian-American relations are now “the worst they have been.” She described Bolton as a “war-monger” and said his appointment closed the circle of control in the White House “where you have the extreme right-wing, the extreme Zionists, the fundamentalist Christians.”


In recent months, the Trump administration has expressed concern about a humanitarian crisis in Gaza and has backed efforts of regional ally Egypt to broker a deal between Abbas and his Islamic militant Hamas rivals.

Gaza’s 2 million Palestinians have endured an Israeli-Egyptian border blockade since 2007, when Hamas seized the territory from forces loyal to Abbas. The blockade has crippled daily life in Gaza.

The Abbas government views the latest US efforts with suspicion and boycotted a White House conference on aid to Gaza. It fears the US is only interested in Gaza because it views the territory as the main component of a Palestinian mini-state.

“The core of the US project, which is an Israeli project, is establishing a state in Gaza and dividing power in the West Bank between us and Israel,” said Ahmed Majdalani, an Abbas aide.


Earlier this month, a bomb hit the convoy of Abbas’ prime minister and intelligence chief in Gaza. They weren’t hurt, but the attack triggered mutual accusations signaling the likely end to this round of reconciliation talks, one of several failed efforts since 2007. Earlier this week, Hamas staged a military drill and plans to lead protest marches to the border with Israel on Friday, signaling a willingness to stoke tensions.

While pledging to cooperate with Western aid projects for Gaza, Abbas and his aides also view the renewed friction with Hamas as “insurance” against the unwanted U.S. plan.

US officials say they want to help Gaza without shoring up Hamas rule _ a goal that has eluded the international community since 2007.


US officials say they won’t impose a solution, but haven’t explained how they will bring Abbas back to the table. Israeli media on Thursday quoted the U.S. ambassador to Israel as suggesting Abbas could become irrelevant unless he returns to negotiations. David Friedman later said in a tweet that he was misquoted and that the United States is not seeking to replace Abbas.

Critics say it’s unlikely any plan can be advanced without a credible Palestinian partner or broad support by Arab leaders. Even if Sunni Arab leaders are eager to work with the US and Israel as part of their strategy to contain Iran, it could be difficult to sell their populations on a plan that doesn’t have Palestinians in control of major Muslim sites in Jerusalem.

Air France staff strike, a quarter of flights cancelled

PARIS: Air France staff went on strike Friday for the third time in a month, forcing the airline to cancel a quarter of flights as multiple industrial disputes weigh on President Emmanuel Macron’s workload.
Lawyers were also set to strike nationwide Friday against reforms that they say will over-centralise France’s court system, while staff at state rail operator SNCF will begin three months of rolling strikes next week.

Refuse collectors are also set to go on strike from April 3 demanding the creation of a national waste service, creating a headache for Macron who has so far avoided the mass industrial action suffered by his predecessor Francois Hollande.

Some 32 percent of Air France pilots were set to join the walkout on Friday along with 28 percent of cabin crew and 20 percent of ground staff, according to company estimates.

Eleven trade unions have already staged two strikes on February 22 and March 23 seeking a six percent salary hike, with two more planned on April 3 and April 7.

Unions argue the airline should share the wealth with its staff after strong results last year, but management insist they cannot offer higher salaries without jeopardising growth in an intensely competitive sector.

Air France is set to bring in a 0.6 percent pay rise from April 1 and 0.4 percent from October 1, along with bonuses and promotions equivalent to a 1.4 percent raise for ground staff.

CEO Franck Terner insisted Thursday that with operating profits of nearly 590 million euros ($727 million) last year, only 200 million euros can be set aside for boosting salaries.

“To distribute wealth we have to create it first,” he told Le Parisien newspaper.

Successive attempts to end the row have ended acrimoniously, with pilots’ unions walking out of negotiations Thursday afternoon after just 40 minutes.

An Air France spokesman said the airline was running 76 percent of planned flights on Friday, including 80 percent of long-haul departures.

But at some French airports, such as Nice, as many as half of Air France flights were cancelled.

The Air France-KLM group, Europe’s second-biggest airline which is 17.6 percent owned by the French state, has been plagued by strikes and labour disputes in its French operations in recent years.

Two French company executives had their shirts torn off in 2015 by workers protesting its plans to cut nearly 3,000 jobs.

Despite strong operating profits of 1.5 million euros in 2017, the Franco-Dutch group made net losses in 2017 of 274 million euros due to the costs of a new retirement deal with KLM pilots and cabin crew.

Malala Yousafzai’s visit to Swat Valley uncertain

MINGORA, Pakistan: A Pakistani women’s activist says Malala Yousafzai, who is back in Pakistan for the first time since the Taliban shot her in 2012, is hoping to visit her Swat Valley hometown but that the trip depends on security clearances from the government.

Security was visibly beefed up on Friday in Mingora, Yousafzai’s hometown, but authorities wouldn’t confirm whether the Nobel Peace Prize laureate would be arriving there.

Activist Adnan Tabassum, also from Swat, says she met with Yousafzai on Thursday in Islamabad and that Malala told her she wants to travel to Swat to see her former schools friends and relatives.

According to Tabassum, 20-year-old Malala has asked authorities to allow her to go to Shangla village in Swat, where a school has been built by the Malala Fund.

Rohingya refugees in Cox's Bazar need to be relocated ahead of rains: UN chief

UNITED NATIONS: About 1.5 lakh Rohingya refugees, who fled violence in Myanmar to settle in crowded camps in Bangladesh’s Cox’s Bazar, are living in flood-prone areas and must be relocated ahead of the coming rainy season, UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres said.
“In relation to Cox’s Bazar, the monsoon is the biggest concern. We believe that about 150,000 people are in areas that are flood-prone or can be negatively impacted by the monsoon in a dangerous way for the people,” he told reporters here yesterday.

The UN chief was responding to a question on the need to relocate the Rohingya refugees currently living in camps in the border town of Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh.

Guterres said he has had the opportunity to discuss with the Bangladesh government the best way to relocate these people. “And I think the best way to relocate these people is in higher areas that can be outside… treated to accommodate this group that, of course, is extremely vulnerable to the monsoon,” he said.

He added that on-ground officials of the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR), International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and other agencies will be talking with the Bangladesh authorities on the issue. “We believe the higher ground is the best place for this kind of relocation,” he said.

When asked why has he not yet appointed a special adviser on Myanmar, Guterres said he has been conducting a number of consultations for that appointment.

“I hope it will come soon. It is not an easy function that everyone is ready to accept, but I’m sure that we will have a solution soon,” he said.

Veteran Indian diplomat Vijay Nambiar had served as UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Special Adviser on Myanmar from 2010 till December 2016. Guterres is yet to name his successor.

Meanwhile, the World Health Organisation appealed to the international community to contribute generously to enable appropriate and timely health services to the Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar, now facing grave risks to their lives and health in view of the coming rainy season.

“This is one of the biggest humanitarian crisis in recent times. No single agency or the government of Bangladesh alone can meet the massive health needs of such a large population group,” WHO South-East Asia Regional Director Poonam Khetrapal Singh said at a meeting of partners in Dhaka.

WHO said the country’s health sector is grossly underfunded to meet the needs of 1.3 million Rohingyas in Cox’s Bazar.

“The Rohingya population are settled in an area that is prone to cyclone and a terrain that would be flooded as soon as rains begin. The risk of outbreak of life threatening water and vector-borne diseases under such conditions is huge,” Singh said.

Coordinating the work of over a 100 partners on the ground along with the Ministry of Health, WHO has facilitated the contingency plan for the rainy season and coordinated a simulation around it. The plan aims at continuity of health services during rains and floods to minimise the risk of disease and deaths among the affected population.

Since August 2017, nearly 700,000 minority Muslim Rohingyas have fled violence in Myanmar across the border into Bangaldesh’s Cox’s Bazar, joining several hundred thousand more that were already settled there in overcrowded camps.

Since the start of the Rohingya crisis, 900,000 doses of cholera vaccine were administered to the refugees and their host communities, in addition to two vaccination campaigns for measles and three for diphtheria, which concluded earlier this week with WHO support.

“However, much of the health sector’s capacity to respond depends on availability of resources,” Singh said.

Moreover, the vulnerable population will need continued services for reproductive, maternal and child health, communicable and non-communicable diseases, as well as psychosocial support, the WHO Regional Director noted.

The WHO has appealed to partners for USD 16.5 million for continued support in 2018, which is part of the USD 113.1 million being sought by all health partners under the Joint Response Plan for the Rohingya crisis.

US withdrawing from Syria 'very soon': Donald Trump

WASHINGTON: President Donald Trump on Friday said the US troops would withdraw from Syria “very soon” as he lamented that America has wasted $7 trillion in wars in the Middle East.

At the same time, he said the US was using all its resources to defeat ISIS and drive them out of the captured territory. “We’re knocking the hell out of ISIS. We’ll be coming out of Syria, like, very soon. Let the other people take of it now,” Trump said in Ohio where he had gone to deliver a speech on infrastructure.

“Very soon we’re coming out. We’re going to have 100 per cent of the caliphate, as they call it — sometimes referred to as “land” — taking it all back quickly, quickly. But we’re going to be coming out of there real soon. Going to get back to our country, where we belong, where we want to be,” he said.

“We spent $7 trillion in the Middle East. We’d build a school, they’d blow it up. We’d build it again, they’d blow it up. We’d build it again — hasn’t been blown up yet, but it will be. But, if we want a school in Ohio to fix the windows, you can’t get the money. If you want a school in Pennsylvania or Iowa to get federal money, you can’t get the money,” he said.

“We spent $7 trillion in the Middle East. What we have for it? Nothing. Remember I used to say ‘keep the oil’ as a civilian. We never kept the oil. If we kept the oil, we would have been OK. If we kept the oil, we wouldn’t have ISIS. Because you know who kept a lot of the oil? ISIS. That’s how they funded themselves. They kept the oil. We didn’t keep the oil. Stupid, stupid,” he said.

As a result, Trump said, the US has little money for its infrastructure.

“We have to fight for our military. But we’re becoming so strong again. And you watch — not going to take very long. I’ve asked Republicans and Democrats in Congress to come together and deliver the biggest and boldest infrastructure plan in the last half century. I don’t think you’re going to get Democrat support very much. And you’ll probably have to wait until after the election, which isn’t so long down the road,” he said.

Earlier in the day, Defense Department Spokesperson Dana White said while the coalition has significantly degraded ISIS, the important work remains to guarantee the lasting defeat of the extremists.

“Our commitment to win must outlast the so-called physical caliphate, and the warped ideas that guide the calculated cruelty of ISIS,” she said.

This is a group that plots and launches terror attacks globally, White said, adding that they have no regard for anything decent or valuable in life.

“As long as they exist and bring death and destruction around the world, we will continue to degrade, destroy and ultimately defeat ISIS,” she said.

“We cannot allow our focus to deviate from the most important task of eliminating ISIS from the region. The ISIS terrorist network is more fragile than it was one year ago, but it still presents a capable and committed threat. ISIS is taking full advantage of any opportunity to regain momentum. We must not relent on ISIS or permit these terrorists to recover from their battlefield loses,” White said.

Noting that the Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF)have repeatedly shown that they are a capable force on the ground to defeat ISIS, she said the US will continue to support the SDF in their fight against the extremists.

At a separate press conference, the US State Department alleged that Russia was not doing anything to help in Syria.

“Russia is the huge part of the problem for the tens of thousands of innocent civilians who have been killed and are still being killed each and every day as we look at the video that’s coming out of Eastern Ghouta. Russia is responsible for that,” State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said.

“Russia is directly responsible for propping up Bashar-al-Assad, who has been killing his own people for far, far too long — Iran also responsible. We don’t anticipate that Russia is going to — based on their actions — to help right now,” she said.

PLA bats for close ties between China, Pak armies

BEIJING: Close ties between militaries of China and Pakistan will not only help maintain an all-weather partnership between the two countries but also the regional peace and global stability, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) said on Thursday.

China’s 2.3 million-strong military is the world’s largest, and Pakistan has emerged as the biggest consumer of the China-produced military hardware. In the past five years, Pakistan has bought 41 per cent of China’s exported weapons, according to analysts.

Pakistan is seeking to make China its main supplier of military hardware, partly due to the looser financial terms offered by Beijing, replacing traditional suppliers from the west.

“China and Pakistan share all-weather partnership. We have maintained very high level of defence exchange and cooperation,” Chinese military spokesman, Col Ren Guoqiang told a media briefing here.

“At the same time, I am very confident that military cooperation will help facilitate our state to state relationship and also in maintaining regional peace and international stability”, he said.

Guoqiang’s comments came in the backdrop of China selling a powerful tracking system in an “unprecedented deal” which could speed up the development of multi-warhead missiles by Pakistan.

Zheng Mengwei, a researcher with the state-run Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) Institute of Optics and Electronics in Chengdu, Sichuan province recently.

The researchers told the Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post that Pakistan had bought a highly sophisticated, large-scale optical tracking and measurement system from China and deployed it “at a firing range” for use in testing and developing its new missiles.

China was the first country to export such sensitive equipment to Pakistan, CAS said.

The Post report attributed the sale of the equipment to Pakistan to India testing the most advanced nuclear-ready intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) Agni-V with a range long enough to hit Beijing or Shanghai.

Chinese authorities declassified information about the sale of the tracking system yesterday.

While India’s single-warhead missiles are bigger and cover longer distances, Pakistan has focused its efforts on developing multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicles (MIRVs), a type of missile carrying several nuclear warheads that can be directed towards different targets, the report said.

Unlike the US, which accounts for one-third of exports and supplies at least 100 countries, China delivered major arms to 44 countries, mostly in Asia and Africa.

More than 60 per cent of China’s exports went to Pakistan, Bangladesh and Myanmar and another 22 per cent went to Africa, a recent study report by Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said.

Russia to expel 60 US diplomats, close down American consulate in St. Petersburg

MOSCOW: Russia’s foreign minister says Moscow will expel the same number of diplomats from the nations that have expelled Russian diplomats over the poisoning of an ex-Russian spy in Britain.

Sergey Lavrov said US Ambassador Jon Huntsman has been summoned to the Foreign Ministry on Thursday, where he was given notice that Russia is responding quid pro quo to the US decision to order 60 Russian diplomats out.

Lavrov said Moscow will also retaliate to the US decision to shut the Russian consulate in Seattle by closing the US consulate in St. Petersburg.

Lavrov said the same approach will be applied to other nations that expelled Russian diplomats this week.

Two dozen countries, including the US, many EU nations and NATO, have ordered more than 150 Russian diplomats out this week in a show of solidarity with Britain.

France's Sarkozy to face trial for corruption, influence peddling

PARIS: Former French President Nicolas Sarkozy will face trial over charges he misused his influence to secure leaked details of an inquiry into alleged irregularities in his 2007 election campaign, a source close to the investigation said on Thursday.
Sarkozy’s lawyers said he would appeal the decision to send him to court, initially reported by the daily Le Monde.

The case came about after investigators used phone-taps to examine separate allegations that late Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi funded Sarkozy’s campaign and began to suspect he had kept tabs on a separate case through a network of informants.

The development came just over a week after Sarkozy was told he was being formally treated as a suspect in the election campaign investigation.

Sarkozy was president from 2007 to 2012 but was defeated by Socialist Francois Hollande when he ran for re-election. He has since faced a series of investigations into alleged corruption, fraud, favoritism and campaign-funding irregularities.

Sarkozy’s lawyers had previously argued that magistrates investigating the alleged secret Libyan funding exceeded their powers and went on a “fishing expedition” by tapping his conversations with them between September 2013 and March 2014, breaching lawyer-client privilege.

Based on the intercepts, Sarkozy is accused of having discussed offering a promotion to a prosecutor in return for tip-offs on an investigation into accusations that his former party treasurer and others exploited the mental frailty of France’s richest woman, Liliane Bettencourt, to extract political donations in cash.

3 lakh troops cut completed, more reforms to follow: Chinese military

BEIJING: China’s powerful military on Thursday said it has completed the target of laying off three lakh troops and hinted at more reforms to optimise the quality and combat efficiency of the now two-million-strong force.
“Our target of downsizing the military by three hundred thousand is basically achieved,” Chinese Defence spokesman Col Ren Guoqiang told a media briefing here, terming it as an “important political decision and political declaration” made by the ruling Communist Party of China (CPC) and the country.

The plan to downsize the world’s largest army by three lakhs was announced by President Xi Jinping at a parade in 2015.

The PLA which was 4.5-million strong till 1980 was first resized to three million in 1985 and later to 2.3 million.


Soldiers with China’s People’s Liberation Army march in formation past Beijing’s Tiananmen Square before a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War 2. (File photo: Reuters)

China also hiked its defence budget this year to a whopping USD 175 billion, three times higher than that of India.

The PLA also announced last year that it would reduce its ground troops to less than a million as part of Chinese military modernisation plan under which the navy has been given greater role to expand China’s global influence.

The troops cut also came in the backdrop of a massive anti-corruption drive carried out by Xi, who also heads the military in which over 3,000 personnel including over 50 top Generals were removed and punished.

Xi also carried out a massive restructuring plan integrating several commands and creating a Rocket Force and the Strategic Support Force for the missile launches.

Ren also hinted that reforms of the military will continue.

“However, the comprehensive reform plan is still ongoing,” he said, adding that the related information will be released in due course.

The present military reform plan has made “very considerate arrangements to downsize the military”, he said.

“At the same time, we are working arduously to build on lean military force,” he said.

“We are working to reduce the quantity to improve the quality to optimise our force structure to streamline our headquarters and non-combat staff to phase outdated equipment and to facilitate the transformation of the PLA (People’s Liberation of Army) from a military focussed on quantity and scale to the one focussing on quality and efficiency,” he said.

From manpower intensive to high-tech intensive was the essence of the modernisation of the defence and the military, he said.

“I also want to emphasise that China has always adhered to path of peace development, defensive policy and it has always been and will always be a force to maintain peace in the world and region,” he added.

Pakistan voices concern over growing influence of ISIS in Afghanistan

ISLAMABAD: Pakistan today expressed concern over the growing influence of the Islamic State in Afghanistan and its concentration on the borders with the Afghan neighbours.
Foreign Office spokesman Mohammad Faisal said at the weekly media briefing that ISIS (also known as Da’esh) had been involved in cross-border raids at Pakistani military posts.

“We have been consistently raising serious concerns about the rising footprint of Da’esh in Afghanistan. Concentration of Da’esh along the borders with Pakistan, Central Asian Republics, Iran and China further alarms us of its negative implications for Afghanistan, Pakistan and regional security,” he said.

He said the evidence of Da’esh’s cross-border raids at Pakistani military posts had been shared on several occasions with Afghanistan.

Faisal said Pakistan always supported an Afghan-owned and Afghan-led peace process in Afghanistan and reiterated that only political reconciliation can bring lasting peace in the war-torn country.

He said that Prime Minister Shahid Khaqan Abbasi has accepted an invitation from Afghan President Ashraf Ghani to visit Afghanistan at a convenient time.

To a question about Pakistan firing across the border with Afghanistan, he said that “our border troops only open fire when they are fired upon (by terrorists) and the response is always directed at the point of origin and is proportionate.”