A high-ranking American and Israeli delegation took off Monday to Abu Dhabi in the first-ever direct commercial passenger flight to the United Arab Emirates (UAE).
The American delegation includes President Donald Trump’s senior adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner, national security adviser Robert O’Brien, Mideast envoy Avi Berkowitz and envoy for Iran Brian Hook. Israel is represented by national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and director generals of several ministries, who will meet with their Emirati counterparts, reports AP.
“While this is a historic flight, we hope that this’ll start an even more historic journey for the Middle East and beyond,” Kushner told reporters before boarding the plane.
Meir Ben-Shabbat, Israel’s national security adviser and head of the Israeli delegation, said he was excited about the trip and that the aim was to lay the groundwork for cooperation in various areas like tourism, medicine, technology and trade.
The Israeli flag carrier’s flight marks the implementation of the historic US-brokered deal to normalise relations between the two nations and solidifies the long-clandestine ties between them that have evolved over years of shared enmity toward Iran.
With the US as matchmaker, Israel and the UAE agreed earlier this month to work toward normalisation, which would make the UAE the third Arab nation to have full relations with Israel, after Egypt and Jordan.
But unlike those two nations, Israel has never fought a war against the UAE and hopes to have much-warmer relations.
The El Al flight, numbered LY971 as a gesture to the UAE’s international calling code number, is expected to fly over Saudi Arabian airspace which would mark another historic first for Israel and at least an acquiescence by the kingdom for the UAE's move.
Saudi King Salman, along with other Gulf Arab leaders to varying degrees, maintain boycott of Israel in support of Palestinians obtaining an independent state. Any long-term flights between Israel and the UAE would require Saudi clearance to be profitable.
El Al spokesman Stanley Morais said the 737-900 is equipped with a missile-defense system, a standard feature on these types of planes and a requirement for this flight. After grounding its fleet due to coronavirus, it is the airline’s first flight since July 1.
The plane was decorated with the words for peace in Arabic, Hebrew and English above the pilot’s window. Journalists were handed special face masks decorated with the Israeli and Emirati flags. The seat protectors said “Making History” in all three languages, and Israeli folk music played in the background.
The plane's captain, Tal Becker, said he has not worked for several months and received a call out of the blue asking him to prepare for the flight. He said it took about a week to get up to speed.
The 45-year veteran, who is the senior captain in El Al’s 737 fleet, said he never dreamed of flying to Abu Dhabi, calling it a “very special feeling.”
The Israeli delegation will stay in Abu Dhabi for one night before returning home on El Al flight LY972, a nod to Israel’s international calling code.
Private jets have earlier flown between the two nations as part of covert talks, and Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways flew cargo freighters to Israel before to deliver coronavirus aid to the Palestinians. But the high-profile flight Monday, eagerly promoted by US officials, looks to place a solid stamp on the surprise Aug 13 White House announcement of Israel and the UAE establishing ties.
Since then, telephone calls were connected, and the UAE’s ruler issued a decree formally ending the country’s decades-long boycott of Israel. Some Israeli firms have already signed deals with Emirati counterparts, but Monday’s visit is expected to usher in a slew of further business cooperation. The official repeal of the boycott looks to open the door to more joint ventures, such as in aviation, banking and finance.
The UAE has touted the deal as a tool to force Israel into halting its contentious plan to annex parts of the West Bank sought by the Palestinians for their future state. It also may help the Emirates acquire advanced US weapons systems that have been previously unattainable, such as the F-35 fighter jet. Currently, Israel is the only country in the region with the stealth warplanes.
The Palestinians, however, have fiercely opposed the normalisation as peeling away one of their few advantages in moribund peace talks with Israel. Palestinians have held public protests and burned the UAE flag in anger.
Iran has unveiled two new missiles amid heightened tensions between Iran and the United States, reported Iran State TV.
State TV said officials unveiled the two new missiles on Thursday — National Defense Industry Day in Iran, reports AP.
They are named after top Iranian Gen. Qassem Soleimani and Iraqi militia leader Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, who were killed outside Baghdad’s international airport in a U.S. strike in January.
The “Martyr Hajj Qassem” surface-to-surface ballistic missile has a 1,400-kilometer (870-mile) range, according to the semi-official Fars news agency. State TV said the “Martyr Abu Mahdi” naval cruise missile has a 1,000-kilometer (620-mile) range.
State TV said the “Martyr Hajj Qassem” missile was not intercepted by a defense system during a test.
Also on Thursday, Iran unveiled a fourth-generation light turbo-fan engine for its advanced drones.
Iran also inaugurated the production line of its domestically produced “Owj” engine for the Iranian-made twin-seat Kowsar fighter jet.
Iran routinely unveils technological achievements for its armed forces, its space program and its nuclear efforts.
President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the nuclear agreement between Iran and six major powers, known in 2018, and tensions between the two countries have escalated since.
Also read: N Korea fires missiles off its east coast, says S Korea
Dubai has again loosened laws governing alcohol sales and possession of liquor as part of the United Arab Emirates efforts to bring itself out of an economic depression worsened by the coronavirus pandemic.
The virus outbreak exacerbated the emirate’s woes with mass layoffs thinning the ranks of its foreign workforce and empty homes even amid slight signs of recovery. Experts warn the sheikhdom's crucial real-estate market is on track to hit record lows seen in the 2009 Great Recession.
“It’s been a challenging year and there’s no hiding from that for any business — particularly those in the hospitality industry,” Mike Glen, managing director for the United Arab Emirates and Oman for alcohol distributor Maritime and Mercantile International, told The Associated Press in an emailed statement.
Alcohol sales have long served as a major barometer of the economy of Dubai, a top travel destination in the UAE. The sales also serve as a major tax revenue source for Dubai’s Al Maktoum ruling family.
In Dubai, alcohol sales in general reflect the confidence of buyers in their own finances and in turn, the economy. Pre-pandemic, those sales already showed the trouble Dubai faced amid falling global energy prices and a weakening real estate market. Dubai also postponed its Expo 2020, or world’s fair, to next year, another major blow.
Overall sales of alcohol by volume fell sharply in 2019 to 128.79 million liters, down some 3.5 percent from 133.42 million liters sold the year before, according to statistics from Euromonitor. The 2019 sales are down nearly 9 percent low from 2017, which saw 141.51 million liters sold.
Amid the lockdown, Dubai’s two major alcohol distributors began legal home deliveries of alcohol for the first time in hopes of boosting the sales. Now, the city-state has changed the very system granting permission to residents to legally purchase alcohol.
By law, non-Muslim residents are supposed to carry red plastic cards issued by the Dubai police that permit them to purchase, transport and consume beer, wine and liquor. Otherwise, they can face fines and arrest — even though the sheikhdom's vast network of bars, nightclubs and lounges never ask to see the permit.
Those red cards now have been replaced with a black card and a simplified application process only requiring an Emirati national ID card. An application no longer requires an employer’s permission. Purchase restrictions based on salaries also have been eased.
The new card system comes as Dubai also now allows tourists and visitors to buy alcohol from distributors simply by using their passports, closing a loophole that made visiting imbibers unable to get a permit subject to arrest for possessing alcohol.
Tough time ahead for real-estate
The UAE as a whole still faces the challenge of the coronavirus — with some 64,000 confirmed cases and 360 deaths. But Dubai has been aggressively advertising itself as reopened to tourism and now appears set to host Indian Premier League cricket, beginning in September.
There have been signs of a tentative and slight recovery starting to take hold. In July, Dubai's non-oil sector saw its first improvement in five months, according to a monthly survey by IHS Markit and Emirates NBD bank. But that appeared driven by deep cuts in price discounts, particularly in travel and tourism, the report said.
“The recovery in activity has not been sufficient to prevent firms continuing to lay off workers as they seek to reduce costs,” wrote Khatija Haque, the head of research and chief economist at Emirates NBD.
Those layoffs struck Emirates, the flagship of Dubai's state investment firm, particularly hard with thousands of employees fired. That's not counting all the other businesses large and small through the city similarly hurt by the virus.
Dubai's biggest private real estate company, DAMAC, which operates President Donald Trump's eponymous golf club in the UAE, just reported a net loss of $105 million for the first half of 2020. The company's chairman, Hussain Sajwani, blamed the pandemic.
“Resulting travel restrictions impacted the economy and the real estate sector, and we will see a difficult market for the coming 18 to 24 months,” Sajwani said.
Meanwhile, the mass layoffs have seen a noticeable number of for-rent and sales signs in front of homes and apartments across the city. The Dubai firm Property Monitor said in a report this week that real estate prices likely will set new record lows by the end of the third quarter of this year.
Rental listings have risen by 11 percent in Dubai as over 45,000 new residential units have entered the already soft market, according to REIDIN Data and Analytics, which tracks the market. Another 120,000 units are expected to come into the market in the next two years, further pushing down prices, REIDIN said.
Both sales and rental prices have dropped about a third since a market high in 2014, when Dubai announced it would be hosting the Expo.
The “current pandemic, coupled with oversupply in the market and reduced occupancy levels, caused and increase in the rate of decline of prices for both apartment and villas especially in the second quarter,” said Ozan Demir, the director of operations and research at REIDIN.
Israel’s agreement to establish diplomatic ties with the United Arab Emirates marks a watershed moment in its relations with Arab countries, but the Palestinians say it puts a just resolution of the Middle East conflict even farther out of reach.
The UAE presented its decision to upgrade longstanding ties to Israel as a way of encouraging peace efforts by taking Israel’s planned annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank off the table, something Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu swiftly rebuffed by insisting the pause was “temporary.”
From the Palestinian perspective, the UAE not only failed to stop annexation, which would dash any remaining hopes of establishing a viable, independent state. It also undermined an Arab consensus that recognition of Israel only come in return for concessions in peace talks — a rare source of leverage for the Palestinians.
“I never expected this poison dagger to come from an Arab country,” Saeb Erekat, a senior Palestinian official and veteran negotiator said Friday. “You are rewarding aggression. ... You have destroyed, with this move, any possibility of peace between Palestinians and Israelis.”
President Donald Trump has presented the U.S.-brokered agreement as a major diplomatic achievement and said he expects more Arab and Muslim countries to follow suit. Israel has quietly cultivated ties with the UAE and other Gulf countries for several years as they have confronted a shared enemy in Iran.
In Israel, the agreement has renewed long-standing hopes for normal relations with its Arab neighbors. Netanyahu has long insisted, contrary to generations of failed peace negotiators, that Israel can enjoy such ties without resolving its conflict with the Palestinians. For now, he seems to have been proven right.
“It’s hard to claim right now that the 53-year-old occupation is ‘unsustainable’ when Netanyahu has just proved that not only is it sustainable, but Israel can improve its ties with the Arab world, openly, with the occupation still going,” wrote Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist for Israel’s Haaretz newspaper.
But the Middle East conflict was never between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, which have fought no wars and share no borders. And the nature of the agreement will likely force the Palestinians to harden their stance and redouble their efforts to isolate Israel.
The Palestinian Authority issued a scathing statement in response to the move, calling it a “betrayal of Jerusalem, Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Palestinian cause,” language clearly aimed at inflaming Arab and Muslim sentiment worldwide.
The Palestinians have called for an urgent meeting of the Arab League and the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation to condemn the move. But in those forums they will be pitted against the oil-rich UAE, which has deep pockets, allies across the region and even more influence in Washington following the agreement with Israel.
The international campaign is “meant to isolate the Emiratis so that other countries will not take the same step,” said Ibrahim Dalalsha, a Palestinian analyst. “Whether it will succeed in this or not, it remains to be seen.”
Iran and Turkey lashed out at the UAE, a regional rival, accusing it of betraying the Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims.
But the agreement, and the decision to pause annexation, was welcomed by much of the international community, including Egypt and the Gulf Arab nations of Bahrain and Oman. Many countries, including Germany, France, Italy, China and India, expressed hope it would help revive the peace process.
The Palestinians want an independent state in the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza, areas seized by Israel in the 1967 war. Trump’s plan would allow Israel to keep nearly all of east Jerusalem, including holy sites sacred to Christians, Jews and Muslims, and annex up to a third of the West Bank. The Palestinians have angrily rejected the proposal.
Germany’s Foreign Minister Heiko Maas reiterated his country’s support for a two-state solution when he called to congratulate Israel on the “historic” agreement with the UAE.
“We stand by our position that only a negotiated two-state solution can bring lasting peace to the Middle East,” Maas said in a statement. “Together with our European partners and the region we have campaigned intensively in past months against an annexation and for the resumption of direct negotiations.”
That strikes many Palestinians as a return to a similarly unbearable status quo, in which Israel rules the West Bank and expands Jewish settlements while the international community calls for peace talks that never materialize.
Any serious negotiations, or lasting solution to the conflict, will require the Palestinians, who feel they have been brushed aside.
“We’re now in a situation where everybody is talking about us and no one is talking to us,” said Diana Buttu, a former legal adviser to the Palestinian Authority. It’s a “colonial approach,” she said, “as though we are just some problem that needs to be addressed without ever speaking to us.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas suspended all contacts with the U.S. after it recognized disputed Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017. In May, the Palestinians cut all ties with Israel, including security coordination, in response to the threat of annexation, and said they would no longer abide by any past agreements with Israel or the United States.
In recent weeks, as the threat of annexation faded amid internal political disputes in Israel, some had speculated the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority would quietly back down, if only to restore the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in taxes collected by Israel.
Now, in the wake of the UAE agreement, many say that’s out of the question.
“This is not a way for them to climb down from the tree,” Buttu said. “It’s quite the opposite, I think it keeps them there.”
BEIRUT (AP) — Lebanon’s prime minister stepped down from amid widespread anti-government protests over Beirut port explosion last week that triggered public fury and mass protests.
In a brief televised speech, Prime Minister Hassan Diab said on Monday that he is taking “a step back” so he can stand with the people “and fight the battle for change alongside them.”
He said, “I declare today the resignation of this government. May God protect Lebanon,” repeating the last phrase three times.
A brief while earlier, Diab's Cabinet resigned. The developments follow a weekend of anti-government protests in the wake of the Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut’s port that caused widespread destruction, killed at least 160 people and injured about 6,000 others.
Diab blamed corrupt politicians who preceded him for the “earthquake” that has hit Lebanon.
“They (political class) should have been ashamed of themselves because their corruption is what has led to this disaster that had been hidden for seven years,” he added.
Prime Minster Hassan Diab headed to the presidential palace to submit the Cabinet’s group resignation, said Health Minister Hamad Hassan. It follows a weekend of anti-government protests in the wake of the Aug. 4 explosion in Beirut's port that caused widestpread destruction, killed at least 160 people and injured about 6,000 others.
The moment typified Lebanon’s political dilemma. Since October, there have been mass demonstrations demanding the departure of the entire sectarian-based leadership over entrenched corruption, incompetence and mismanagement.
But the ruling oligarchy has held onto power for so long — since the end of the civil war in 1990 — that it is difficult to find a credible political figure not tainted by connections to them.
Although Diab’s resignation had appeared inevitable after the catastrophe, he seemed unwilling to leave and only two days ago made a televised speech in which he offered to stay on for two months to allow for various factions to agree on a roadmap for reforms. But the pressure from within his own Cabinet proved to be too much.
Diab’s government was formed after his predecessor, Saad Hariri, stepped down in October in response to the demonstrations. It took months of bickering among the leadership factions before they settled on Diab.
His government, which was supported by Hezbollah and its allies and seen as one-sided, was basically doomed from the start, tasked with meeting demands for reform but made up of all the factions that reformers want out.
Now the process must start again, with Diab’s government in a caretaker role as the same factions debate a new one.
“I hope that the caretaking period will not be long because the country cannot take that. Lets hope a new government will be formed quickly,” Public Works Minister Michel Najjar told reporters. “An effective government is the least we need to get out of this crisis.”
The weekend protests saw clashes with security forces firing tear gas at protesters.
The explosion is believed to have been caused by a fire that ignited a 2,750-ton stockpile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate. The material had been stored at the port since 2013 with few safeguards despite numerous warnings of the danger.
The result was a disaster Lebanese blame squarely on their leadership’s corruption and neglect. Losses from the catastrophic blast are estimated to be between $10 billion to $15 billion, with nearly 300,000 people left homeless.
The last decision taken by Diab’s government before its resignation was to refer the case of the explosion to the Supreme Judicial Council, which handles crimes infringing on Lebanon’s national security as well as political and state security crimes. The Supreme Judicial Council is Lebanon’s top judicial body.
A judge on Monday questioned the heads of the country’s security agencies. Public Prosecutor Ghassan El Khoury questioned Maj. Gen. Tony Saliba, the head of State Security, according to state-run National News Agency. It gave no further details, but other generals are scheduled to be questioned.
About 20 people have been detained after the blast, including the head of Lebanon’s customs department and his predecessor, as well as the head of the port. Dozens of people have been questioned, including two former Cabinet ministers, according to government officials.
Iran, meanwhile, expressed concern that Western countries and their allies might exploit anger over the explosion to pursue their political interests. Iran supports the Hezbollah militant group, which along with its allies dominates the government and parliament.
Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Abbas Mousavi said “it is natural for people to be frustrated.” But he said it would be “unacceptable if some individuals, groups and foreign countries use the incident as a pretext for their purposes and intentions.”
Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz drew a line Monday between the blast and claims that Hezbollah stores its rockets and weapons deep inside civilian areas.
While he did not accuse Hezbollah and its arms of being linked to the blast, Gantz said villages and towns across Lebanon were packed with Hezbollah arms that, if set off — whether by Israeli operations or by accident — would destroy homes. He said Hezbollah was Lebanon’s biggest problem.