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Saudi embrace of Assad sends strong signal to US

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Once labeled a pariah, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman took center stage as master of ceremonies last week when Arab states readmitted Syria to the Arab League, signaling to Washington who calls the regional shots.

His effusive greeting of President Bashar al-Assad at the Arab summit with kissed cheeks and a warm embrace defied U.S. disapproval at Syria’s return to the fold and capped a turnabout in the prince’s fortunes spurred by geopolitical realities, Reuters reported.

The prince, known as MbS, seeks to reassert Saudi Arabia as a regional power by using his place atop an energy giant in an oil-dependent world consumed by the war in Ukraine.

Shunned by Western states after the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit squad, the prince has now emerged as a player whom Washington can neither disregard nor disavow, but must deal with on a transactional basis.

Skeptical of U.S. promises on Saudi security and tired of its scolding tone, MbS is instead building ties with other global powers and, regardless of Washington’s consternation, remaking his relations with their shared foes.

His blithe confidence on the world stage was not only visible in his reception of Assad. Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy came to the Jeddah meeting and MbS offered to mediate between Kyiv and fellow oil producer Moscow.

Saudi Arabia still depends militarily on the United States, which saved it from possible invasion by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, and it monitors Iranian military activity in the Gulf and provides Riyadh with most of its weapons, Reuters reported.

Still, with Washington seemingly less engaged in the Middle East and less receptive to Riyadh’s anxieties, MbS is pursuing his own regional policy with less apparent deference to the views of his most powerful ally.

“This is a strong signal to America that ‘we’re reshaping and redrawing our relations without you’,” said Abdulaziz al-Sager, Chairman of the Gulf Research Center, of the summit.

“He is not getting what he wants from the other side,” Sager added.

The Saudi pivot away from reliance on the United States was meanwhile evident when China mediated this year a settlement between Riyadh and its arch regional foe Iran after years of hostility.

The deal was not made from a position of Saudi strength: Iran’s allies had come out stronger than those of the kingdom in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, and held most of the populated territory in Yemen.

Still, it showed Riyadh was able to cut its losses and work with U.S. rivals and foes to shore up its regional interests such as cooling the Yemen war where Saudi forces have been bogged down since 2015.

Meanwhile the prince has improved ties with Turkey and ended a boycott of Qatar, a neighbor he considered invading in 2017 according to diplomats and Doha officials.

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UN Security Council backs Israel-Hamas ceasefire plan

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The United Nations Security Council on Monday backed a proposal outlined by President Joe Biden for a ceasefire between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip and urged the Palestinian militants to accept the deal aimed at ending the eight-month-long war, Reuters reported.

Hamas welcomed the adoption of the U.S.-drafted resolution and said in a statement that it is ready to cooperate with mediators over implementing the principles of the plan “that are consistent with the demands of our people and resistance.”

Russia abstained from the U.N. vote, while the remaining 14 Security Council members voted in favor of the resolution supporting a three-phase ceasefire plan laid out by Biden on May 31 that he described as an Israeli initiative.

“Today we voted for peace,” U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the council after the vote.

The resolution welcomes the new ceasefire proposal, states that Israel has accepted it, calls on Hamas to agree to it and “urges both parties to fully implement its terms without delay and without condition.”

Algeria, the only Arab member of the council, supported the resolution because “we believe it can represent a step forward toward an immediate and lasting ceasefire,” Algeria’s U.N. Ambassador Amar Bendjama told the council.

“It offers a glimmer of hope to the Palestinians,” he said. “It’s time to halt the killing.”

The resolution also goes into detail about the proposal, and spells out that “if the negotiations take longer than six weeks for phase one, the ceasefire will still continue as long as negotiations continue.”

ISRAEL’S GOALS

However, it did not contain enough detail for Moscow. Russia’s U.N. Ambassador Vassily Nebenzia asked what Israel had specifically agreed to and said the Security Council should not be signing up to agreements with “vague parameters.”

“We did not wish to block the resolution simply because it, as much as we understand, is supported by the Arab world,” Nebenzia told the council.

Israel’s U.N. Ambassador Gilad Erdan was present for the vote, but did not address the council. Instead, senior Israeli U.N. diplomat Reut Shapir Ben Naftaly told the body that Israel’s goals in Gaza had always been clear, read the report.

“Israel is committed to these goals – to free all the hostages, to destroy Hamas’ military and governing capabilities and to ensure that Gaza does not pose a threat to Israel in the future,” she said. “It is Hamas that is preventing this war from ending. Hamas and Hamas alone.”

The council in March demanded for an immediate ceasefire and unconditional release of all hostages held by Hamas.

For months, negotiators from the U.S., Egypt and Qatar have been trying to mediate a ceasefire. Hamas says it wants a permanent end to the war in the Gaza Strip and Israeli withdrawal from the enclave of 2.3 million people.

Israel is retaliating against Hamas, which rules Gaza, over an Oct. 7 attack by its militants, Reuters reported.

More than 1,200 people were killed and over 250 taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7, according to Israeli tallies. More than 100 hostages are believed to remain captive in Gaza.

Israel launched an air, ground and sea assault on the Palestinian territory, killing more than 37,000 Palestinians, according to Gaza health authorities.

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Israel’s centrist minister Benny Gantz quits Netanyahu government

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Israeli minister Benny Gantz announced his resignation from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s emergency government on Sunday, withdrawing the only centrist power in the embattled leader’s far-right coalition amid a months-long war in Gaza, Reuters reported.

The departure of Gantz’s centrist party will not pose an immediate threat to the government. But it could have a serious impact nonetheless, leaving Netanyahu reliant on hardliners, with no end in sight to the Gaza war and a possible escalation in fighting with Lebanese Hezbollah.

Last month, Gantz presented Netanyahu with a June 8 deadline to come up with a clear day-after strategy for Gaza, where Israel has been pressing a devastating military offensive against the ruling Palestinian militant group Hamas.

Netanyahu brushed off the ultimatum soon after it was given, read the report.

On Sunday, Gantz said politics was clouding fateful strategic decisions in Netanyahu’s cabinet. Quitting while hostages were still in Gaza and soldiers fighting there was an excruciating decision, he said.

“Netanyahu is preventing us from advancing toward true victory,” Gantz said in a televised news conference. “That is why we are leaving the emergency government today, with a heavy heart but with full confidence.”

Netanyahu responded in a social media post, telling Gantz it was no time to abandon the battlefront.

With Gantz gone, Netanyahu would lose the backing of a centrist bloc that has helped broaden support for the government in Israel and abroad, at a time of increasing diplomatic and domestic pressure eight months into the Gaza war.

While his coalition remains in control of 64 of parliament’s 120 seats, Netanyahu will now have to rely more heavily on the political backing of ultra-nationalist parties, whose leaders angered Washington even before the war and who have since called for a complete Israeli occupation of Gaza.

This would likely increase strains already apparent in relations with the United States and intensify public pressure at home, with the months-long military campaign still not achieving its stated goals – the destruction of Hamas and the return of more than 100 remaining hostages held in Gaza.

Polls have shown Gantz, a former army commander and defence minister, to be the most formidable political rival to Netanyahu, whose image as a security hawk was shattered by the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas on Israel, read the report.

Warning that the conflict in Gaza could take years, he urged Netanyahu to agree on an election date in the autumn, to avoid further political infighting at a time of national emergency.

Gantz joined a unity government soon after Oct. 7 as part of Netanyahu’s inner war cabinet where he, Netanyahu and Defence Minister Yoav Gallant alone had votes.

On Sunday, Gantz described Gallant, who has sparred with Netanyahu and some ultra-nationalists ministers, as a brave leader and called on him ‘to do the right thing,’ though he did not elaborate on what that meant.

Far-right National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir demanded Gantz’s now vacant seat at the war cabinet soon after the resignation was announced.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich said in a statement Gantz was giving Israel’s enemies what they want, Reuters reported.

Asked whether he was worried about his departure impacting Israel’s standing abroad, Gantz said Gallant and Netanyahu both know “what should be done.”

“Hopefully they will stick to what should be done and then it will be okay,” he said.

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North Korea resumes sending trash balloons to South Korea

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North Korea has resumed sending balloons carrying trash over the border to South Korea, officials and news reports said on Sunday, a week after it vowed to continue if anti-North Korea leaflets are flown from the South.

Dozens of balloons with trash attached have been found in Seoul and in areas near the border overnight and early on Sunday, after the South Korean military said late on Saturday the North was again launching them, Reuters reported.

South Korea’s military said on Sunday it takes the balloons “very seriously” and was on alert to take action in response as necessary. It did not elaborate what actions it would take.

South Korea has warned it would take “unendurable” measures against the North for sending the trash balloons, which could include blaring propaganda broadcasts from huge loudspeakers set up at the border directed at the North.

The North Korean government has said the balloons were sent in retaliation to anti-North leaflets flown by South Korean activists as part of a propaganda campaign and launched hundreds of them starting late in May carrying trash and manure.

On June 2, it said it would temporarily halt sending the balloons because 15 tons of trash it sent was probably enough to get the message across how “unpleasant” it was. However, it vowed to resume if leaflets are again flown from the South by sending hundred times the amount.

A group of South Korean activists defied the warning and have since flown more balloons to the North with leaflets criticising its leader Kim Jong Un together with USB sticks containing K-pop videos and dramas, and U.S. dollar notes.

North Korea has shown some of the angriest reaction towards the leaflet campaign and the loudspeaker broadcasts, in some cases firing weapons at the balloons and the speakers in the past.

Experts have said the reaction was an indication Pyongyang considers the propaganda as a serious threat to controlling its public.

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