The Early Edition: May 14, 2018

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Before the start of business, Just Security provides a curated summary of up-to-the-minute developments at home and abroad. Here’s today’s news.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

The U.S. embassy in Israel will relocate from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem today following a controversial decision by President Trump in December which accompanied an announcement that the U.S. would recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel – a recognition at odds with the international community and decades of U.S. foreign policy due to the contested nature of Jerusalem and its importance for the prospect of peace between Israel and Palestine. Felicia Schwartz reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s daughter Ivanka Trump, his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin and Deputy Secretary of State John Sullivan will be at the opening ceremony; Ivanka Trump and Kushner are both senior advisers to the president and Trump himself is expected to address attendees via video link. The BBC reports.

The embassy opening takes place against a backdrop of violence on the Israel-Gaza border, Palestinian protests began March 30 and organizers hope today will be the largest protest yet to mark the embassy move, which also corresponds with the 70th anniversary of the creation of the state of Israel, which Palestinians commemorate tomorrow as a day of mass displacement – calling the day the “Nakba,” the “catastrophe,” Oliver Holmes reports at the Guardian.

Tensions at the Israel-Gaza border are expected to escalate as part of the Palestinian “Great March of Return” protests. The Israeli military have sent reinforcements to the Gaza border and dropped leaflets warning Palestinians “not to serve as a tool of [the Palestinian] Hamas [group]” or approach the frontier fence, Nidal al-Mughrabi and Maayan Lubell report at Reuters.

Gazan health officials report that 18 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli gunfire and more than 900 wounded, clashes have also broken out in the West Bank. Jack Khoury and Noa Landau report at Haaretz in rolling coverage of the day’s news.

Organizers of the “Great March of Return” protests say that up to one million people may join the protests today and attempt to breach the fence from Gaza into Israel, with a spokesperson for the protests saying that crossing the fence would “send a message that the Palestinian people have not and will not adapt to 70 years of being refugees, estrangement and difficult conditions.” Al Jazeera reports.

The al-Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri yesterday released a message calling on Muslims to carry out jihad against the U.S., stating that the U.S. decision revealed that negotiations and “appeasement” had failed Palestinians. France24 reports.

Most countries’ foreign envoys did not attend the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s reception yesterday ahead of the U.S. embassy opening ceremony, highlighting the controversial nature of the U.S. decision and the lack of support for its position among allies and the international community. Ori Lewis reports at Reuters.

Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem and move the U.S. embassy marks the fulfilment of his campaign promise, however critics have said it may further destabilize an already tense region and undermine the U.S. role in negotiations for a peace deal between Israel and Palestine. Nicole Gaouette and Elise Labott report at CNN.

The celebration of Israel’s independence and the U.S. embassy move come at a particularly fraught time for the country, in many ways Israel is in a position of strength, but the prospect of peace with Palestine remains elusive. David M. Halbfinger explains at the New York Times.

An overview of the “Great March of Return,” its origins, motivations and strategy, is provided by Matt Bradley reports at NBC News.

An explanation of Jerusalem’s borders and its political significance is provided by Larry Kaplow and Greg Myre at NPR.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

President Trump has praised North Korea after the country gave further indication of its plans to scale back its nuclear weapons-testing program, with Trump sending a message on Twitter claiming that “North Korea has announced that they will dismantle Nuclear Test Site this month, ahead of the big Summit Meeting on June 12th. Thank you, a very smart and gracious gesture!” Brent D. Griffiths reports at POLITICO.

North Korea’s foreign ministry announced Saturday that it will allow journalists from the U.S. and other nations to attend the shutting down of its north-eastern Punggye-ri nuclear test site at a ceremony between May 23 and 25, in which all the site’s tunnels will be collapsed in a controlled explosion. Chloe Sang-Hun reports at the New York Times.

The foreign ministry announced that it will also remove observation and research facilities as well as ground-based guard units, but analysts have warned that closure of the site does not represent a material step toward full denuclearization. Kim Tong-Hyung reports at the Washington Post.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that the removal of North Korean leader Kim Jong-um is not part of the agenda for next month’s summit, claiming in an interview with Fox News Sunday that “we will have to provide security assurances, to be sure.” Carol Morello and Anne Gearan report at the Washington Post.

Pompeo claimed that the U.S. may allow private companies to invest in North Korea and that U.S. investors could help build the country’s energy grid, although he clarified that this would be conditional on the country’s full denuclearization. The BBC reports.

Pompeo said that lifting sanctions on North Korea would create economic prosperity for the nation that “will rival” that of South Korea, claiming “what Chairman Kim will get from America is our finest – our entrepreneurs, our risk takers, our capital providers. … They will get private capital that comes in… [North Koreans] are in great need of agricultural equipment and technology.” Sarah N. Lynch reports at Reuters.

White House national security adviser John Bolton has outlined the U.S. approach to North Korean denuclearization, claiming in an interview with CNN that  “the ballistic missiles program, as with Iran…that’s gotta go. I think we need to look at their chemical and biological weapons programs as well. The President’s going to raise other issues, the Japanese abductees, South Korean citizens who were kidnapped.” Maegan Vazquez reports at CNN.

South Koreans fear that their own hostages will be forgotten in the upcoming summit between the North and the U.S., despite the North’s return of three detainees to the U.S. last week, with the Unification Ministry in Seoul claiming that as of 2014 at least 516 South Koreans may be being held against their will in the North. Bruce Harrison reports at NBC.

North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho stated that the nation will never give up its nuclear weapons, telling South Korean news agency Newsis that the current phase of negotiations will not end with “a sincere and complete disarmament” but rather with “a nuclear power packaged as a non-nuclear state.”  AFP reports.

IRAN

“If the remaining five countries continue to abide by the agreement, Iran will remain in the deal despite the will of America,” the Iranian President Hassan Rouhani said yesterday, referring to Trump’s decision last week to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 Iran nuclear agreement. Reuters reports.

Trump’s national security adviser John Bolton warned European countries yesterday that they would face “effective U.S. sanctions” if they do not stop business ties with Iran. Relief from sanctions were part of the 2015 deal agreed by U.S., Russia, China, Iran, France, Britain and Germany, Michael R. Gordon reports at the Wall Street Journal.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also took a tough stance on sanctions against Iran and declined to rule out possible implications for European firms, saying yesterday that the sanctions relief as part of the 2015 agreement had spurred Iran’s “malign activity” in the region. Jon Swaine reports at the Guardian.

European countries should not have been surprised by Trump’s decision, Bolton said in an interview with CNN yesterday, while Pompeo said in a separate interview with CBS that he intended to work with European allies for a “bigger deal” on Iran. Gardiner Harris provides an overview of Bolton and Pompeo’s remarks in interviews over the weekend at the New York Times.

Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Iran nuclear deal has upset relations with European allies, top diplomats from the E.U., Germany, France and Britain are scheduled to meet tomorrow with the Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif to discuss the future of the agreement. Rebecca Kheel reports at the Hill.

Zarif has embarked on a diplomatic tour to meet with signatories of the 2015 deal, meeting with Chinese, European and Russian officials. The BBC reports.

Regime change in Iran is not a Trump administration policy, Bolton said in an interview with ABC yesterday, noting that as a “free agent” he had written and said many things on regime change, but that was not the position of the White House. Reuters reports.

Trump’s decision on the nuclear deal is “nothing less than a massive assault on the sovereignty of others – most notably that of Europe,” the former Prime Minister of Sweden, Carl Bildt, writes at the Washington Post.

Trump’s approach to Iran is incoherent, his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the 2015 deal does nothing to stop Iran’s regional activities and may in fact push Iran to be more aggressive. Payam Mohseni writes at Al Jazeera.

SYRIA

The Iraqi air force carried out a strike on an Islamic State group position inside Syria, Iraqi state television reported today, destroying a building used as a command and logistics support centre on the orders of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi. Reuters reports.

Damascus is enjoying relative calm following Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s escalation of the offensive to secure the surrounding areas, and many living in the capital appear to support Assad’s ally Iran in the recent conflict with Israel on Syrian soil. Sune Engel Rasmussen and Nazih Osseiran report at the Wall Street Journal.

Trump’s response to Iran’s political and military influence across the Middle East has been characterized by confusion – confusion exemplified by the deadlock at the tiny Syrian outpost of Tanf –  Missy Ryan and Greg Jafe comment at the Washington Post.

U.S.-led airstrikes continue. U.S. and coalition forces carried out 53 airstrikes against Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq between May 4 and May 10. [Central Command]

AFGHANISTAN

The Islamic State group today claimed responsibility for an attack on a government building in eastern Afghanistan that killed 10 people and wounded more than 40, with the group stating that four attackers took part in the assault yesterday on the finance directorate in Jalalabad. The AP reports.

The Taliban claimed responsibility for a military helicopter crash yesterday morning in Helmand province, posting a video on Twitter of the vehicle’s remains.  Zabihullah Ghazi and Rod Nordland report at the New York Times.

HASPEL CONFIRMATION PROCESS

Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said yesterday that Gina Haspel’s links to the enhanced interrogation program under the Bush W. Bush administration should not disqualify her from serving as C.I.A. director, citing the horror that people in the administration felt”, in 2001-2, “getting reports literally every day that Washington or New York were going to be attacked again.” Brett Samuels reports at the Hill.

Former Joint Chiefs Chairman Michael Mullen said yesterday that Haspel “should be held responsible” for her role in the use of brutal interrogation tactics against detainees, claiming in an interview on Fox News that he has positioned himself with Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.) on the issue. Rebecca Mullen reports at POLITICO.

TRUMP-RUSSIA

The investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election led by special counsel Robert Mueller will reach its one-year mark on Thursday and remains a constant distraction for President Trump. Ashley Parker, Philip Rucker, Tom Hamburger, Robert Costa and Matt Zapotosky provide analysis at the Washington Post.

Senate Judiciary Chairman Chuck Grassley provided new evidence about former F.B.I. director James Comey on Friday and this suggests that the explanation given by Comey to Congress last year – as to the truthfulness of former White House national security adviser Michael Flynn – differs from the story Comey is now telling the public. The Wall Street Journal editorial board writes.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

A series of attacks in the Indonesian city of Surabaya have taken place over the past 24 hours, including suicide attacks on three churches and an attack on a police station this morning, with the Islamic State group claiming responsibility for attacks on the churches. Devianti Faridz and Euan McKirdy report at CNN.

The Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr looks set to win Iraq’s parliamentary elections. Ahmed Aboulenein reports at Reuters, explaining the Iraqi system and that Sadr is an enemy of both the U.S. and Iran.

The head of U.K.’s MI5 security service has warned that Europe is at risk of “devastating” and “more complex attacks” as the extremist group loses the remaining territory in its “false caliphate” in Syria and Iraq. The BBC reports.

The U.S. diplomat Col. Joseph E. Hall has been barred from leaving Pakistan, according to Pakistani diplomats and media reports, due to Col. Hall’s involvement in a car crash in Islamabad. The incident takes place against the backdrop of deteriorating U.S.-Pakistan relations, Pamela Constable and Shaiq Hassan report at the Washington Post.

The Iran-backed Yemeni Houthi rebels launched a missile at a Saudi Aramco oil facility today, according to the Houthi’s al-Masrirah television. Reuters reports.

The Islamic State group have claimed responsibility for the stabbing attack by French citizen Khamzat Azimov in Paris on Saturday. Elaine Ganley reports at the AP.

U.S. jets intercepted two Russian bombers in international airspace off the coast of Alaska on Friday morning, according to a statement from the North American Air Defense (NORAD), with the TU-95 “Bear” bombers turned back by the U.S. F-22 stealth fighters although the bombers did not in fact enter U.S. airspace. John Bowden reports at the Hill.

Feuding between the princes of the Gulf Arab states threatens to undermine Trump’s attempts to resolve the ongoing dispute between a Saudi-led bloc and Qatar, Liz Sly explains at the Washington Post. 

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About the Author(s)

Pouneh Ahari

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK

Robbie Stern

Assistant News Editor at Just Security and Legal Researcher at JUSTICE, a law reform and human rights organization based in the UK - Follow him on Twitter (@robbieguystern).