The Early Edition: November 19, 2019

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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.

TRUMP AND CONGRESSIONAL INVESTIGATIONS

Counselor to the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine, David Holmes, told the House impeachment inquiry that the Ukrainians “gradually came to understand” that they were being asked to launch an investigation into President Trump’s political opponent Joe Biden in exchange for military aid or a White House meeting, according to a transcript of the testimony released yesterday. Matt Zapotosky, Karoun Demirjian, Ellen Nakashima and Elise Viebeck report at the Washington Post.

Holmes explained that he was shocked to overhear the July 26 phone call between U.S. Ambassador to the European Union Gordon Sondland and President Trump about Ukraine and the desired investigation into the Bidens, telling lawmakers: “I’ve never seen anything like this, someone calling the President from a mobile phone at a restaurant, and then having a conversation of this level of candor, colorful language.” Jeremy Herb and Kevin Liptak report at CNN.

The undersecretary of State for political affairs, David Hale, was also a witness in the impeachment inquiry last week, and the transcript released yesterday shows the focus of his testimony was on Trump allies’ attempts to oust U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yanovitch. Morgan Chalfant, Brett Samuels and Olivia Beavers report at the Hill.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo yesterday avoided directly answering questions on Ambassador Yovanovitch’s ouster, but said that her departure was not down to “some nefarious purpose.” Abbey Marshall reports at POLITICO.

The former special envoy to Ukraine, Kurt D. Volker, is set to tell the impeachment inquiry today that he was not aware that military aid for Ukraine was tied to the president’s desired investigation. Peter Baker, Catie Edmondson and Nicholas Fandos report at the New York Times.

Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman – the White House’s top Ukraine expert on the National Security Council – is scheduled to testify before the House impeachment hearing today. Vindman previously told lawmakers that the July 25 call between President Trump and his Ukrainian counterpart crossed a “disturbing” line. Tom Hamburger, Carol D. Leonnig and Rachael Bade report at the Washington Post.

Impeachment investigators are looking into whether Trump lied in his written answers to former special counsel Robert Mueller in relation to Russian interference in the 2016 election and whether the president obstructed justice. The top lawyer for the investigators, Douglas Letter, told judges at a federal appeals court in Washington, D.C. that there is “evidence that the president may have provided untruthful answers,” Byron Tau and Michael C. Bender report at the Wall Street Journal.

President Trump said he would “strongly” consider testifying in the impeachment inquiry, making the comments in a message on Twitter after Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said Sunday that he would be welcome to appear before House lawmakers. Demetri Sevastopulo and Lauren Fedor report at the Financial Times.

Senate Minority Leader Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) yesterday asked Defense Secretary Mark Esper for details on how the Pentagon is protecting officials testifying in the impeachment inquiry, adding in the letter that the Pentagon should formally notify personnel about their ability to cooperate with Congress. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

An explanation of the role played by Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) in the Ukraine situation is provided by Sam Brodey at The Daily Beast.

ISRAEL-PALESTINE

U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced yesterday that Washington would no longer consider Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be in violation of international law, stating that the U.S. would defer authority to Israeli courts on the issue of settlement building. Felicia Schwartz and Courtney McBride report at the Wall Street Journal.

The Trump administration decision marks a significant shift in U.S. policy and increases the possibility of Israel annexing Palestinian territory. The announcement was praised by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who is currently attempting to form a government after two elections failed to deliver a decisive outcome, Laura Jakes and David M. Halbfinger report at the New York Times.

The U.S. policy shift threatens to replace international law with the “law of the jungle,” the Palestinian Chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said in response to the announcement, stating that “Israel colonial settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories … are not only illegal under international law, they are war crimes.” The BBC reports.

Palestinian officials and rights groups have reacted angrily to the announcement, and the European Union (E.U.) foreign policy chief Federica Mogherini reiterated that Israeli settlement activity in occupied Palestine is illegal under international law. Al Jazeera reports.

“Entrenching the occupation and its injustice, and violating the resolutions of international legitimacy will not achieve peace, and will not guarantee security and stability,” the Jordanian Foreign Minister Ayman Safadi said today, adding that settlements “kill” the possibility of a two-state solution for Israel and Palestine. Michael Safi and Oliver Holmes report at the Guardian.

“A change in policy position of one state does not modify existing international law nor its interpretation by International Court of Justice and the [U.N.] Security Council,” the U.N. human rights spokesperson Rupert Colville said today. Reuters reports.

The Trump administration announcement is the latest in a series of policy decisions that have undermined Palestine’s aspiration for statehood and brings renewed scrutiny of the Israel-Palestinian peace plan that is to be put forward by Trump’s adviser and son-in-law Jared Kushner. Colum Lynch and Robbie Gramer explain at Foreign Policy.

HONG KONG

Around 200 protestors remain in Hong Kong’s Polytech University (PolyU) amid a standoff with police. The incident at PolyU has entered its third day and is part of ongoing anti-government protests that were sparked months ago by a proposed bill allowing for the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China, the BBC reports.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam called for a peaceful resolution today but said the police would take “necessary action” if protestors use violent tactics. Marius Zaharia and Donny Kwok report at Reuters.

“The United States is gravely concerned by the deepening political unrest and violence in Hong Kong,” Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday, calling for the Hong Kong government to “take clear steps to address public concerns” and “promote accountability.” Edward Wong reports at the New York Times.

“I would encourage this president, who has seen Chinese behavior for what it is with a clarity that other have lacked, not to shy away from speaking out on Hong Kong himself,” Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-K.y.) said yesterday in comments addressed to Trump, also calling for Hong Kong’s autonomy to be a “key topic within our bilateral diplomacy” with China. Jordain Carney reports at the Hill.

The Chinese government denounced the Hong Kong High Court decision to overturn a ban on protestors wearing face masks, with a spokesperson for China’s legislature stating that only the legislature “can make that ruling and decision.” Gerry Shih, Tiffany Liang and David Crawshaw report at the Washington Post.

Some Hong Kong activists see the issuing of British National Overseas (B.N.O.) passports to citizens as increasing the possibility of maintaining the territory’s semi-autonomous status. Rick Noack explains at the Washington Post.

Chinese President Xi Jinping bears broader responsibility for the situation in Hong Kong, Gideon Rachman writes at the Financial Times.

The KOREAN PENINSULA

“As we have got nothing in return, we will no longer gift the U.S. president with something he can brag about,” the North Korean diplomat and foreign ministry adviser Kim Kye Gwan said yesterday in response to a possible one-on-one meeting between President Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Anne Gearan reports at the Washington Post.

Talks on defense costs between the U.S. and South Korea have broken down over a dispute about housing U.S. troops, revealing discord in the alliance. Joyce Lee, Sangmi Cha and Hyonhee Shin report at Reuters.

AFGHANISTAN

A prisoner exchange between the Taliban and the Afghan government today has led to the release of two Westerners and three senior insurgent members, according to officials, who hope the swap could provide momentum for Afghan peace talks. David Zucchino and Adam Goldman report at the New York Times.  

The prison swap was partly negotiated by the U.S. special envoy to the Afghan peace process, Zalmay Khalilzad. Craig Nelson reports at the Wall Street Journal.

SYRIA

Israel’s Iron Dome air defense system today intercepted four rockets launched from Syria towards the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, according to the Israeli military. Isabel Kershner reports at the New York Times.

The Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu warned yesterday that his country may launch another operation in northern Syria against the Kurdish Y.P.G. militia if “we do not obtain a result.” Reuters reports.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said today that he is aware that the U.S. would not end its support for the Y.P.G. immediately, nevertheless Ankara would continue to battle the Kurdish militants – whom it considers to be a terrorist group. Reuters reports.

IRAN

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (I.R.G.C.) yesterday threatened to take “decisive action” in response to protests over fuel price increases, issuing the warning as the Iranian government continued to restrict Internet access for citizens. Erin Cunningham reports at the Washington Post.

The protests are continuing in Iran and three security personnel have been killed today by “rioters.” Though it is difficult to understand the situation on the ground due to restrictions to the Internet, the AFP reports.

Iran’s judiciary spokesperson claimed today that “calm has been restored in the country,” Reuters reports.

Sens. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and House Republican Conference Chairwoman Liz Cheney (R-Wy.) yesterday called on the Trump administration to cancel all civil-nuclear waivers for Iran, making the comments after praising Trump and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo to end some of the waivers. Laura Kelly reports at the Hill.

OTHER DEVELOPMENTS

The Chinese government yesterday hit back at a New York Times article detailing Beijing’s crackdown on the Uighur Muslim minority in Xinjiang region, stating the newspaper’s revelations smeared the country’s efforts to combat extremism. Steven Lee Myers reports at the New York Times.

Yemen’s Iran-aligned Houthis captured vessels in the southern Red Sea on Sunday, including a South Korean drilling rig and a Saudi tug, according to the Saudi-led coalition. The Houthis today said they would release the vessels if they prove to be South Korean, Aziz El Yakoobi and Hyunjoo Jin report at Reuters.

U.S. airstrikes against Islamic State fighters in southern Libya in late September significantly hindered the terrorists’ efforts to reorganize and carry out attacks, Eric Schmitt reports at the New York Times. 

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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