Jiddah, May 30 (AP/UNB) — Saudi Arabia's foreign minister on Thursday urged Muslim nations to confront recent attacks in the region that the U.S. and its allies have blamed on Iran with "all means of force and firmness."
Ibrahim al-Assaf made the comments at a meeting of foreign ministers of the 57-nation Organization of Islamic Cooperation ahead of a series of summits in the kingdom beginning Thursday.
Al-Assaf said the alleged sabotage of boats off the coast of the United Arab Emirates and a drone attack on a Saudi oil pipeline by Yemen's Iranian-backed Houthi rebels requires the region to "make more efforts to counter the terrorist acts of extremist and terrorist groups."
"We should confront it with all means of force and firmness," al-Assaf said.
Iran has denied being involved in the attacks, which come amid heightened tensions between Tehran and the U.S. An Iranian official was at the meeting where al-Assaf spoke on Thursday, but Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif did not attend.
The U.S. has accused Tehran of being behind the string of incidents this month, which also included a rocket strike near the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad.
On Wednesday, U.S. national security adviser John Bolton told journalists in Abu Dhabi that there had been a previously unknown attempt to attack the Saudi oil port of Yanbu as well, which he also blamed on Iran.
Bolton described Tehran's decision to back away from its 2015 atomic deal with world powers as evidence it sought nuclear weapons, even though it came a year after America unilaterally withdrew from the unraveling agreement.
He also stressed the U.S. had not seen any further Iranian attacks in the time since, something he attributed to the subsequent military deployments — America recently sent an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the Persian Gulf. But Bolton warned the U.S. would strike back if again attacked.
"The point is to make it very clear to Iran and its surrogates that these kinds of action risk a very strong response from the United States," Bolton threatened, without elaborating.
Meanwhile Wednesday, acting U.S. Defense Secretary Patrick Shanahan said some 900 troops coming to the Mideast over the perceived Iran threat — to reinforce the tens of thousands already in the region — would be deployed in Saudi Arabia and Qatar. Another 600 attached to a Patriot missile battery have had their deployment in the region extended.
"The Iranian threat to our forces in the region remains," Shanahan said.
Bolton's trip to the UAE comes just days after Trump in Tokyo appeared to welcome negotiations with Iran.
"We're not looking for regime change — I just want to make that clear," Trump said. "We're looking for no nuclear weapons."
But Bolton himself, for years before becoming national security adviser, called for overthrowing Iran's government in interviews and in paid speaking engagement before an Iranian exile group.
"I don't back away from any of it. Those are positions I took as a private citizen," Bolton said when asked about his prior remarks. "Right now I'm a government official. I advise the president. I'm the national security adviser, not the nation security decision-maker. It's up to him to make those decisions."
Jerusalem, May 30 (AP/UNB) — Israel's parliament voted to dissolve itself early Thursday, sending the country to an unprecedented second snap election this year as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition before a midnight deadline.
The dramatic vote, less than two months after parliamentary elections, marked a setback for Netanyahu and sent the longtime leader's future into turmoil.
Netanyahu, who has led Israel for the past decade, had appeared to capture a fourth consecutive term in the April 9 election. But infighting among his allies, and disagreements over proposed bills to protect Netanyahu from prosecution stymied his efforts to put together a majority coalition.
Rather than concede that task to one of his rivals, Netanyahu's Likud party advanced a bill to dissolve parliament and send the country to the polls for a second time this year.
"I didn't spare any effort to avoid unnecessary elections," Netanyahu said after the vote, lashing out at an ally-turned-rival, Avigdor Lieberman, who refused the prime minister's offers to join the government.
He said the country was being forced to hold "unnecessary, wasteful elections because the people had their say. They didn't have their say enough for what Mr. Lieberman wants."
Had the deadline passed without the vote, Israel's president would have given another lawmaker, most likely opposition leader Benny Gantz, an opportunity to put together a coalition.
After the vote, Gantz angrily accused Netanyahu of choosing self-preservation over allowing the country's political process to run its course.
Gantz said that Netanyahu opted for "three crazy months" of a new campaign and millions of wasted dollars over new elections because he is "legally incapacitated" by looming indictments. "There is no other reason," Gantz said.
The country now plunges into a new election campaign that will last at least three months under Israeli law. With much of the country on vacation in late August, a tentative date of Sept. 17 was set.
The campaign looks to complicate Netanyahu's precarious legal standing. Israel's attorney general has recommended pressing criminal charges against him in three separate corruption cases, pending a hearing scheduled for October.
Even if Netanyahu wins the election, it is unlikely he will be able to form a government and lock down the required political support for an immunity deal before an expected indictment. That would force him to stand trial and put heavy pressure on him to step aside.
The political uncertainty could also spell trouble for the White House's Mideast peace efforts. The U.S. has scheduled a conference next month in Bahrain to unveil what it says is the first phase of its peace plan, an initiative aimed at drawing investment into the Palestinian territories.
With the Palestinians, who accuse the U.S. of being unfairly biased toward Israel, opposed to the plan, and Netanyahu preoccupied with re-election, it remains unclear how the Americans will be able to proceed. President Donald Trump's top Mideast adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner, was in Israel and scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Thursday.
That Netanyahu struggled to secure a majority coalition in the 120-seat parliament was a shocking turn of events for the country's dominating political figure.
In the April 9 vote, Likud and its hardline nationalist and religious parties captured a majority of 65 seats.
The immediate cause of the crisis was his dispute with Lieberman, a former aide who leads the small Yisrael Beitenu faction.
The men had clashed over Lieberman's demand to subject ultra-Orthodox religious males to the military draft, which is compulsory for most Jewish males. Without Lieberman's five Knesset seats, Netanyahu had no parliamentary majority.
But the deeper issue is connected to Netanyahu's legal troubles. Facing a likely indictment, he had pushed his coalition partners to pass legislation that would grant him immunity and curb the powers of the country's Supreme Court.
Opposition parties strongly oppose granting Netanyahu immunity, robbing him of any alternatives to Lieberman as he tried to form a coalition.
For the past two decades, Lieberman has alternated between being a close ally and a thorn in the side of his former boss. He has held a number of senior Cabinet posts, including defense minister and foreign minister.
Lieberman's base of support is fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and he takes a hard line toward the Palestinians but also is staunchly secular.
He has demanded that the parliament pass pending legislation that requires young ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the military. Years of wide exemptions for religious men have generated resentment among the rest of Jewish Israelis, who are required to serve.
"I am not against the ultra-Orthodox community. I am for the state of Israel. I am for a Jewish state but against a Halachic state," Lieberman wrote on Facebook early Wednesday, using a term that refers to a Jewish state governed by Jewish law.
The ultra-Orthodox parties consider conscription a taboo, fearing that military service will lead to immersion in secularism, and insist the exemptions should stay in place. Netanyahu, dependent on the parties' political support, says they have compromised enough and refuses to press them further.
Netanyahu maintained contacts with Lieberman and other parties in hopes of forging a deal as a parliamentary debate took place. Many of the Likud speakers lashed out at Lieberman, accusing him of forcing an unnecessary election.
But as a parliamentary debate stretched toward midnight, it became clear there would be no compromise.
A bitter Netanyahu claimed after the vote that Lieberman "had no intention" to compromise and made unrealistic demands. "He is dragging the entire country for another half a year of elections," he said.
Jerusalem, May 29 (AP/UNB)— Israel's raucous political world is on edge, counting down to a midnight deadline to see whether a new government will be formed or whether there will be an unpresented second election of the year.
Backchannel negotiations are continuing to try and find a compromise that will allow Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu faction to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition.
Without him, Netanyahu has no parliamentary majority and won't be able to form a government.
Netanyahu and Lieberman are engaged in a high-stakes showdown and neither side appears ready to blink.
The crisis ostensibly revolves around Lieberman's demand that current legislation mandating young ultra-Orthodox men be drafted into the military, like most other Jewish males, run its course. Netanyahu, dependent on the resistant ultra-Orthodox parties, is refusing to press them.
Damascus, May 28 (AP/UNB) — Syria said an Israeli attack against a military post in the country's south on Monday killed a soldier and injured another. Israel, in a rare statement acknowledging firing into Syria, said it was responding to an anti-aircraft fire from Syria against one of its combat planes.
The back-to-back statements come amid heightened regional tension over Iran's role in Syria and other parts of the Middle East. They also follow a number of reported Israeli strikes on Syria in the past ten days, according to state run media.
Israel does not usually comment on reports concerning its strikes in neighboring Syria, though it has recently acknowledged striking Iranian targets there.
Syrian state TV al-Ikhbariya quoted a military official saying that the Israeli attack came shortly after 2100 local time (1800GMT) and targeted a military outpost east of Khan Arnabeh, a town in Quneitra on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. An earlier statement on state media said one military vehicle was also damaged when a rocket landed in Tal al-Shaar in Quneitra.
Israel said it was responding after an anti-aircraft fire from Syria targeted one of its combat planes in Israeli airspace.
A statement from the Israeli army said that earlier Monday a Syrian anti-aircraft system fired at one of its aircraft "as it was carrying out a routine flight in Israel. The projectile landed in Syrian territory. In response, we targeted the Syrian launcher that was responsible for firing it."
The Israeli military "sees any threat against its aircraft with great severity and takes measures to defend them."
Israel's prime minister said in statement shortly afterward that the Syrian army "tried to harm an Israeli plane, it didn't succeed."
"Our policy is clear — we are not prepared to tolerate any aggression against us, we will retaliate against it forcefully and decisively," the statement said.
Syrian media had reported earlier this month two incidents in which Israeli strikes hit inside southern Syria.
Iran, May 26 (AP/UNB) — Iran's president is suggesting the Islamic Republic could hold a public referendum over the country's nuclear program amid tensions with the United States.
The state-run IRNA news agency reported Hassan Rouhani made the comment late on Saturday.
Rouhani says he previously suggested a referendum to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2004, when he was a senior nuclear negotiator.
Such a referendum could provide political cover for the Iranian government if it chooses to increase its enrichment of uranium, prohibited under the 2015 deal with world powers.
President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal last year. In recent weeks, tensions between the U.S. and Iran have risen over America deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region over a still-unexplained threat it perceives from Tehran.