Day: March 20, 2017

FBI Director Comey confirms probe of possible coordination between Kremlin and Trump campaign

https://www.washingtonpost.com/world/national-security/fbi-director-to-testify-on-russian-interference-in-the-presidential-election/2017/03/20/cdea86ca-0ce2-11e7-9d5a-a83e627dc120_story.html?utm_term=.e59157adf9d3

 

FBI Director James B. Comey acknowledged Monday that his agency is conducting an investigation into possible coordination between the Kremlin and the Trump campaign in a counterintelligence probe that could reach all the way to the White House and may last for months.

The extraordinary disclosure came near the beginning of a sprawling, 5½ -hour public hearing before the House Intelligence Committee in which Comey also said there is “no information” that supports President Trump’s claims that his predecessor ordered surveillance of Trump Tower during the election campaign.

Comey repeatedly refused to answer whether specific individuals close to the president had fallen under suspicion of criminal wrongdoing, “so we don’t wind up smearing people” who may not be charged with a crime.

The FBI traditionally does not disclose the existence of an investigation, “but in unusual circumstances, where it is in the public interest,” Comey said, “it may be appropriate to do so.”

Comey also said he was authorized by the Justice Department to confirm the existence of the wide-ranging probe into Russian interference in the electoral process. He drew fire last year after he notified Congress 11 days before the presidential election — and against the department’s strong advice not to — that the FBI had reopened an examination of Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server.

Nunes to Comey: You’ve put ‘a big gray cloud’ over Trump administration

House Intelligence Committee Chair Devin Nunes (R-Calif.) urged FBI Director James Comey to disclose “quickly” any evidence he had linking the Trump White House to Russia at a hearing, March 20. (Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Reuters)

That move, Democrats charged, hurt Clinton as she was heading into the home stretch of her campaign. Now, the tables are turned.

Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the committee chairman, urged Comey to reveal if and when the bureau has information clearing any of its targets, and to do so as quickly as possible.

“There’s a big gray cloud that you’ve now put over people who have very important work to do to lead this country, and so the faster that you can get to the bottom of this, it’s going to be better for all Americans,” Nunes said.

Comey said that the investigation began in late July and that for a counterintelligence probe, “that’s a fairly short period of time.”

The hearing came amid the controversy fired up by Trump more than two weeks ago when he tweeted, without providing evidence, that President Barack Obama had ordered his phones tapped at Trump Tower.

“I have no information that supports those tweets,’’ Comey said. “We have looked carefully inside the FBI,’’ and agents found nothing to support those claims.

He added that the Justice Department had asked him to tell the committee that the agency has no such information, either.

Comey: No information to support Trump’s wiretapping tweets

FBI Director James B. Comey said at a House Intelligence Committee hearing that he has no information that Trump Tower was wiretapped by former president Barack Obama. (Photo: Matt McClain/The Washington Post/Reuters)

Under questioning from the top Democrat on the panel, Rep. Adam B. Schiff (Calif.), Comey said no president could order such surveillance.

Remarkably, Trump’s presidential Twitter account continued to fire away throughout the widely watched hearing, live-tweeting comments and assertions that lawmakers then referred to and used to question Comey and National Security Agency Director Michael S. Rogers.

Comey and Rogers both predicted that Russian intelligence agencies will continue to seek to meddle in U.S. political campaigns, because they consider their work in the 2016 presidential race to have been successful.

In an influence campaign that the U.S. intelligence community in January said was ordered by Russian President Vladi­mir Putin, hackers working for Russian spy agencies penetrated the computers of the Democratic National Committee in 2015 and 2016, as well as the email accounts of Democratic officials. The material was relayed to WikiLeaks, the intelligence community reported, and the anti-secrecy group launched a series of damaging email releases that began just before the Democratic National Convention last summer and continued through the fall. The Russians’ goal was not only to undermine the legitimacy of the election process but also to harm Clinton’s campaign and boost Trump’s chances of winning, the intelligence community concluded.

“They’ll be back in 2020. They may be back in 2018,” Comey said. “One of the lessons they may draw from this is that they were successful, introducing chaos and discord” into the electoral process.

Rogers agreed: “I fully expect they will maintain this level of activity.” And, he said, Moscow is conducting a similar “active measures” campaign in Europe, where France and Germany are holding elections this year.

The panel’s Democrats focused on possible contacts between Trump associates and Russian officials. Schiff outlined a series of events that took place last July and August that he said appear to be “pivotal” to the question of whether there was improper contact.

He ticked off a list of more than a dozen incidents, including former Trump campaign adviser Carter Page’s trip to Moscow and alleged meeting with Igor Sechin, a Putin confidant and chief executive of the energy company Rosneft; and Trump political adviser Roger Stone’s boasts about his connections to WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange and Stone’s prediction that the emails of Clinton campaign adviser John Podesta would be published.

“Is it possible that all of these events and reports are completely unrelated and nothing more than an entirely unhappy coincidence? Yes, it is possible,” Schiff said. “But it is also possible, may be more than possible, that they are not coincidental, not disconnected and not unrelated. . . . We simply don’t know, not yet, and we owe it to the country to find out.”

At the White House, press secretary Sean Spicer stressed that an investigation into possible collusion between Russian officials and Trump associates doesn’t mean that there was any.

“Investigating it and having proof of it are two different things,” Spicer said. “I think it’s fine to look into it, but at the end of the day they’re going to come to the same conclusion that everybody else has had.” Said Spicer: “There’s no evidence of a Trump-Russian collusion.”

The committee Republicans, meanwhile, seemed most exercised by leaks to the media. Information shared with the press has resulted in stories since the election on the intelligence community’s conclusion about Moscow’s desire to see Trump win, and on contacts Trump administration officials or close associates had with Russian officials.

One story in particular that apparently upset the Republicans was a Feb. 9 piece by The Washington Post reporting that Trump’s then-national security adviser, Michael Flynn, discussed the subject of sanctions with the Russian ambassador, Sergey Kislyak, in the month before Trump took office. The Post reported that the discussions were observed under routine, court-approved monitoring of Kislyak’s calls. Flynn, who had denied to Vice President Pence that he had spoken about sanctions, was forced to resign.

Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.) suggested that the leaks were political. He asked Comey whether the intelligence community had shared such information with Obama or his attorney general, Loretta E. Lynch.

Comey — who had acknowledged that in general, senior officials, including Lynch, would have access to such information — said he would not comment on his conversations with Obama or Trump.

As the hearing was going on, Trump’s presidential Twitter account — in an apparent dig at Comey and carrying the suggestion that Obama administration officials were behind the leaks — posted the tweet: “FBI Director Comey refuses to deny he briefed President Obama on calls made by Michael Flynn to Russia.”

At another point, the account tweeted out, “The NSA and FBI tell Congress that Russia did not influence electoral process.”

Rep. Jim Himes (D-Conn.), noting that the tweet had gone out to 16.1 million Americans, asked Comey, “Is that accurate?”

“We’ve offered no opinion . . . on potential impact because it’s not something we looked at,” Comey said.

Nunes sought an admission from the officials that the leaks were illegal under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the law that governs foreign intelligence-gathering on U.S. soil or U.S. persons overseas.

“Yes,” Comey answered. “In addition to being a breach of our trust with the FISA court.”

Rep. Thomas J. Rooney (R-Fla.) pressed Rogers to clarify under what circumstances it would be legitimate for Americans caught on tape speaking with people under surveillance to have their identities disclosed publicly.

Rogers stressed that the identities of U.S. persons picked up through “incidental collection” — in which investigating agents hear the words of people conversing with the targets of a wiretap — are disclosed only on a “valid, need-to-know” basis, and usually only when there is criminal activity or a potential threat to the United States at play.

Comey confirmed that individuals within the NSA, the CIA, the FBI, the Justice Department and others — including personnel in the White House, in some situations — could have requested the unmasking of the names of U.S. persons. But he stressed that only the collecting agency, whether it’s the FBI, the NSA or the CIA, can unmask the identities of people.

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Toronto hate crimes increase, with Jews targeted the most

(JTA) — Reports of hate crimes in Toronto increased by 8 percent, with the city’s Jewish community targeted the most, according to a police report compiling last year’s data.

Hate crimes in the city increased to 145 in 2016 from 134 the previous year, the Toronto Police reported. Forty-three of the reported attacks, or 30 percent, were against Jews, followed by LGBTQ, blacks and Muslims.

Crimes motivated by religion accounted for 46 percent of the incidents, the highest number in the past 10 years.

Police said suspects in hate crimes are predominantly male and aged 18 to 40.

The three most reported criminal offenses motivated by hate were mischief to property, assault and criminal harassment. The Jewish community saw the most cases of vandalism.

Only 11 arrests were made in 2016, down from 19 the previous year.

HERZOG: GET READY FOR MASS ALIYA FROM US DUE TO ANTI-SEMITISM

 

http://www.jpost.com/Diaspora/Herzog-Get-ready-for-mass-aliya-from-US-due-to-anti-Semitism-482747

 

Opposition leader Isaac Herzog called upon Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday to get Israel ready in case there will be massive immigration from the United States due to ongoing incidents of anti-Semitism across America.

Speaking to his Zionist Union faction, Herzog expressed outrage over cemeteries that have been vandalized in Missouri and Pennsylvania and said they required immediate action by the Israeli government.

“I want to express my shock and strong condemnation for the outbreak of incidents of anti-Semitism in the United States, France and other places around the world,” Herzog said. “I call upon the government of Israel to urgently prepare a national emergency plan for the possibility that we will see waves of immigration of our brothers to Israel.”

Herzog said he was convinced that US President Donald Trump’s administration would do everything possible to stop such incidents. But other MKs said they saw Herzog’s statement as an attack on the president, who was initially reluctant to condemn rising anti-Semitism.

When Trump was asked about anti-Semitic incidents since his election in a joint press conference with Netanyahu, he spoke about his Jewish grandchildren, and the prime minister defended him.

“I’ve known the President and I’ve known his family and his team for a long time, and there is no greater supporter of the Jewish people and the Jewish state than President Donald Trump,” Netanyahu said. “I think we should put that to rest.”

Herzog’s associates stressed that he was not calling upon American Jews to make aliya due to the incidents.

Officials working in the field of aliya said they were not aware of any expected “waves.”

Jewish Agency Spokesman Avi Mayer responded to Herzog’s comments saying: “As Abba Eban once said, quoting Niels Bohr, prediction is very difficult, especially when it’s about the future. Neither our data nor our field professionals indicate an impending wave of aliya from the United States.”

Yael Katsman, Director of Communications at Nefesh B’Nefesh echoed this. “We have been experiencing natural growth with regards to aliya interest and as such have not identified any unexpected spikes,” she told The Jerusalem Post. “Our organizational model is equipped to service all those interested in making aliya.”

Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett said he trusted the American government to take care of the problem.

“They are responsible for the security of their citizens,” Bennett said. “I know the president, his administration and Congress care deeply about American Jews and will ensure their welfare.”

Former ambassador to the US and current deputy minister Michael Oren (Kulanu) said Herzog’s statement revealed a fundamental misunderstanding of American Jewry.

“As the nation-state of the Jewish people, we, of course, welcome Jews from around the world but a strong American Jewish community is a paramount interest of Israel,” Oren said.

When Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman was asked about the incidents in the US at his Yisrael Beytenu faction meeting Monday, he said there was no connection between anti-Semitism around the world and the policies of the Israeli government.

‘A THIRD OF SECULAR ISRAELI JEWS WANT TO MOVE ABROAD’

 

Some 36% of secular Israeli Jews would move abroad given the opportunity, according to a poll released by Masa Israeli – Israeli Roots Odyssey ahead of its fourth conference held at the Knesset on Monday.

The poll of 509 Israeli Jews was conducted over the phone by Midgam Consulting and Research, with a reported margin of error of 4.5%.

Secular respondents made up the largest group responding in the affirmative to the question: “If you had the possibility of migrating from Israel to another country would you leave?” Some 27% of respondents said they were certain they would leave or think they would. Of those, 6.9% identified as religious, 20% haredi (ultra-Orthodox) and 23.4% as traditional.

Those most likely to express a wish to leave were single, secular men between the ages of 23-29.

“The fact that so many people say they would leave the country if they could indicates that many Israeli citizens do not feel a sense of belonging to the state,” Masa Israeli CEO Uri Cohen said. “This is an alarming statistic that obligates us all to deal with this difficult issue.”

Another finding of the poll concerns the sense of identity of Israeli Jews. Respondents were asked whether they categorize themselves as Jewish or Israeli. One hundred percent of haredim, 90.3% of religious and 82.9% of traditional respondents overwhelmingly saw themselves as Jewish first. The secular camp was divided, with 53% selecting Jewish and 43.6% Israeli (3% said they did not know ,and 4% chose neither).

Cohen said the data pointed to problems among a growing number of Israelis in sense of identity; belonging; and connection to the nation, land and State of Israel. “This is already creating division” in society, he said.

Monday’s conference sought to tackle these issues by developing “a deep and meaningful discourse as a society and nation to find a shared way and future together here in this country.”

Participants of the conference included: Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein (Likud), Education and Diaspora Affairs Minister Naftali Bennett (Bayit Yehudi), Opposition Leader Isaac Herzog (Zionist Union) and former Peace Now director-general Yariv Oppenheimer.

Masa Israeli is a nonprofit organization invested in reinforcing individual, Jewish and Zionist identities while strengthening the connection and sense of belonging to the people, land and State of Israel, as well as to the communities from which they come.

ASSAD TO ISRAEL: WE HAVE A RIGHT TO DEFEND OUR BORDERS

 

http://www.jpost.com/Middle-East/Syrian-President-Assad-Were-counting-on-Russia-to-prevent-a-conflict-with-Israel-484715

 

Syrian President Bashar Assad warned Israel on Monday that his country has a right to defend its borders.

“Defending our borders is our right, and it’s our duty, not only our right,” he told Russian reporters in Damascus according Russian news site Sputnik.

 

Assad also told Russian parliament members, who paid an official visit to the capital on Monday, that he was counting on Moscow to prevent Israel from attacking his country in the future.

“We are counting on Russia to prevent a conflict with Israel,” Assad was quoted as saying by several Russian media outlets.
Interfax also quoted him as saying that “Damascus counts on Russia to take a role in order to prevent Israel from attacking Syria in the future.”

The Syrian president also told the officials that he was supportive of a Russian proposition to help reach an agreement in its country, that is still in the throes of its bloody civil war as it has been for the past six years.

Russian website LifeNews reported that Assad also said that the current support Syria has been receiving from Russia sufficed, but that he was confident that Damascus could easily receive additional support from Moscow if the need arose.

By openly alluding to a future conflict with Israel, Assad has, for the first time, officially reacted to the recent escalation between Israel and Syria.

He spoke after Syrian government forces fired an anti-aircraft missile at Israel Air Force jets during an air-strike last Friday to halt the flow of advanced weapons to Hezbollah near Palmyra. By openly referring to a conflict with Israel, Assad, for the first time, has officially reacted to his country’s recent escalation with Israel.

This was the most serious incident to take place between the two countries since the Syrian Civil War first started in 2011.

On Friday, Israel’s Ambassador to Russia Gary Koren was summoned to the Foreign Ministry in Moscow to defend the air-strike. According to media reports, the strike occurred very close to Russian troops.

Israel’s Foreign Ministry on Monday denied a report in the Russian news agency Interfax that Koren had been summoned for the second time to speak with Russian officials.

On Sunday night, Syria envoy to the UN Bashar Jaafari spoke about the strike on Syrian TV. According to Ynet, he said Russia had sent Israel a clear message of displeasure and that it wanted Israeli to stop its air-strikes against Syrian rebel forces fearing it would cause an escalation of hostilities.

Israel and Russia have a mechanism in place so that any defensive Israeli air-strikes against Syria would not put Russian troops in harm’s way.

Syrian Ambassador to the UN Human Rights Council Hussam Edin Aala condemned the IAF strike, and warned that with such actions Israel was supporting terrorism.
“The military aggression by Israel inside Syrian land on the 17th of March is proof of the support Israel provides to terrorist groups,” Aala said in Geneva on Monday. “This aggression for us is a violation of the charter of the United Nations, international law and UN Security Council resolutions. It is a great threat of international peace and security.”
Israel has said the air-strike was necessary to stop the flow of weapons to Hezbollah. It is concerned by the actions of both Hezbollah and Iran in Syria, particularly near the Golan Heights border.
“When we detect attempts to transfer advanced weapons to Hezbollah, and we have the intelligence and feasibility to carry out an operation, we will work to prevent it,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Friday.

At the UNHRC, however, Aala alleged that Israel was helping the rebel group Jabhat al-Nusra. The group is fighting the Syrian government forces, but also has ties to al-Qaida.
Separately, Aala also attacked Israel for treating wounded Syrians in its hospitals.
“It [Israel] wants to give a humanitarian face to the way it has treated terrorists from al-Nusra in Israeli hospitals,” he said.
He further called on Israel to withdraw from the Golan Heights, which it recaptured from Syria in the Six Day War.

The UNHRC is expected to pass a resolution at the end of this week that echoes those calls. It does so at every session.
Israel annexed the Golan Heights in 1981, and during his trip to Washington last month, Netanyahu asked the Trump administration to recognize the Golan Heights as part of Israel, particularly in light of the Syrian civil war.

Israel is world’s 11th-happiest country, but…

Israel is the 11th-happiest country in the world, ranking behind such happiness superpowers as Norway, Switzerland and Canada, but above the United States, which placed 14th, Germany(16th) and the UK (19th), according to the UN’s 2017 World Happiness Report, released Monday.

The survey seeks to quantify happiness as a means of making societies healthier and more efficient. The United Nations first published the annual report in 2012, when Israel placed 14th. In the four years since then, the Jewish state has remained in the 11th spot.

The survey found that six main factors determined the level of happiness in the countries surveyed: gross domestic product per capita, social support, healthy life expectancy, individual freedom, generosity and perceptions of corruption.

Norway capped the list as the world’s most happy country, moving up three spots from last year and replacing Denmark (2nd) at the top, followed by Iceland, Switzerland and Finland.

Israeli school students dress up in costumes Hanisuii school in Jerusalem on March 10, 2017, ahead of the Purim holiday (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli school students dress up in costumes Hanisuii school in Jerusalem on March 10, 2017, ahead of the Purim holiday (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The most miserable countries were largely in sub-Saharan Africa, with Tanzania, Burundi and the Central African Republic edging out Syria for the three bottom spots on the list.

However, the impressive statistics for the Jewish state arrive as a separate Israeli poll paints a gloomier picture.

A survey released Monday by Masa Israeli, a Jewish identity project run in collaboration with the Education Ministry, found that 27 percent of Israeli Jews would leave the country if given the opportunity.

The poll indicated that the number is even higher among secular Israelis, who polled at 36%. The demographic least likely to depart the country was shown to be religious Jews, at just 7%.

Single secular males between the ages of 23 and 29 were found to be most likely to seek emigration.

The poll was commissioned on the eve of Masa Israeli’s fourth conference, set to be held at the Knesset on Monday with the goal of finding new ways to build a common discourse in Israeli society.

Israelis gather at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City on June 5, 2016 with flags to celebrate Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel's victory in the 1967 Six Day War. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Israelis gather at the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City on June 5, 2016 with flags to celebrate Jerusalem Day, which marks Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

A separate segment of the survey focused on the issue of identity. Respondents were asked whether they consider themselves to be Israeli or Jewish first. Among Israelis who defined themselves as “traditional” or “religious” Jews, 83% and 90% identified as Jewish first, respectively; while with “secular” respondents, 44% identified first as Israeli and only then as Jewish.

In a statement on the survey results, Masa Israeli CEO Uri Cohen said, “The very fact that so many say they would leave the country if given the opportunity suggests that many Israeli citizens do not feel a sense of belonging to the country. This is an alarming statistic.”

Mel Gibson now donates to Holocaust survivors

JTA — Mel Gibson clearly knows he has a long road to winning back support from the Jewish community. But it seems as if he is willing to try.

The movie star — known for a drunken anti-Semitic rant and promoting the idea that the Jews killed Jesus in “The Passion of the Christ” — has been donating to a Holocaust survivor aid project, Extra reported on Friday.

The Survivor Mitzvah Project, started by comedic actress Zane Buzby, will be honored by the Anti-Defamation League in Los Angeles on March 30. The project provides financial aid, home visits and medical supplies to some 1,000 survivors living in the former Soviet Union.

The Extra report didn’t specify how much Gibson has been donating, or for how long.

“Mel Gibson is helping Holocaust survivors in eight countries, it’s remarkable,” Buzby said. “I have a great respect for people who turn their lives around, and I think that everyone makes mistakes in life, and I think the real proof of what kind of human being you are is what you do with that mistake. He’s educated himself. He’s done philanthropic work now, and I think that actions speak very loudly … and his actions have helped a lot of people.”

Those “mistakes” Buzby mentions still loom large in the Jewish community.

In 2006, two years after releasing “The Passion of the Christ” (which, despite a message many critics saw as anti-Semitic, garnered over $600 million in box office sales and three Academy Award nominations), Gibson was pulled over in Malibu, California for driving drunk. The police officers who detained him reported that he said, among other anti-Semitic things, that Jews were “responsible for all the wars in the world.”

Gibson apologized shortly after the incident, but many Jews deemed it insufficient.

The actor spent the next decade in relative obscurity but made a comeback last year when “Hacksaw Ridge,” a World II epic that he directed, earned widespread acclaim. The film garnered six Oscar nominations, including one for Best Director.

Russia says US missile systems in Asia a risk to regional security

TOKYO (AP) — Russia views US missile defense systems being deployed in northeast Asia as a threat to regional security, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said following talks Monday with Japanese officials in Tokyo.

Strategic concerns, both in northeast Asia and elsewhere, including Syria and Ukraine, were among a wide range of regional and global issues addressed in the one-day talks among foreign and defense ministers from Japan and Russia.

The two sides said they agreed to keep working toward resolving a longstanding territorial dispute that has prevented the countries from forging a peace treaty officially ending their World War II hostilities. They also joined in urging North Korea to refrain from “provocative actions” and to abide by United Nations resolutions demanding an end to its nuclear and missile testing.

The talks in Tokyo were the two countries’ first “two-plus-two” meeting of foreign and defense ministers since Russia’s annexation of Crimea from Ukraine.

Illustrative: People watch the news showing file footage of North Korea's missile launch at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea on February 12, 2017. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP)

Illustrative: People watch the news showing file footage of North Korea’s missile launch at a railway station in Seoul, South Korea on February 12, 2017. (Jung Yeon-Je/AFP)

Earlier this month, North Korea fired four missiles, of which three landed inside Japan’s territorial waters.

The US and South Korea have agreed to install an advanced anti-missile system as a defense against North Korea. The Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense system, or THAAD, has angered both Russia and China. Russia also objects to US missile defense systems in Japan.

“The US global ballistic missile defense poses a deep risk to the security of the region,” Lavrov said. He said it was crucial to avoid upsetting the balance in the region and setting off an even greater arms buildup that could lead North Korea to step up its own military expansion.

Lavrov said the installation of the THAAD system was “a response completely out of proportion” to the threat from North Korea. He accused the US of “pumping arms into the region.”

Lavrov also called for approaches that might encourage North Korea to engage in dialogue with its neighbors.

Lavrov met with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, and Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu held talks with his Japanese counterpart, Tomomi Inada. The four ministers then held combined talks on international and bilateral issues.

Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, second right, and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, right, attend a joint news conference with Russia's Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, second left, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, their meeting in Tokyo, Monday, March 20, 2017. (David Mareuil/Pool Photo via AP)

Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, second right, and Defense Minister Tomomi Inada, right, attend a joint news conference with Russia’s Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, second left, and Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu, left, their meeting in Tokyo, Monday, March 20, 2017. (David Mareuil/Pool Photo via AP)

Japan and Russia last held “two-plus-two” talks in November 2013. Meetings were shelved after that due to the crisis in Ukraine, as Japan joined sanctions against Moscow.

As expected, the Tokyo talks did not yield a breakthrough on conflicting Russian and Japanese claims to islands just north of Japan’s northernmost main island of Hokkaido — Etorofu, Kunashiri, Shikotan and the Habomai islets — that came under Russian control in the closing weeks of World War II.

But the countries discussed possible visa-free travel between Hokkaido and the area. They also are working toward joint development of fisheries, tourism and other areas that might help bridge the gap.

“I believe this joint development will become an important step to create an appropriate environment for resolving a peace treaty,” Lavrov told reporters.

Russia has been eager to enlist Japanese help with development of energy and other industries in its Far East.

But while Monday’s talks yielded an agreement to keep talking, Japan has concerns over Russia’s installment of surface-to-ship missiles on Etorofu and other military activity elsewhere on the disputed islands.

The territorial issue has lingered since World War II, but disputes between Japan and Russia date back much further, to the 19th century, when the Russian and Japanese empires fought for domination of northeastern China, then known as Manchuria, and the Korean Peninsula.

Japan’s victory in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese war hobbled Russia’s expansion in the Far East and was the first significant triumph of an Asian country over a European nation. A treaty brokered by the US enabled Tokyo to claim territories that were later regained by Moscow after Japan’s World War II defeat in 1945.

Israel will continue to defend its citizens, says UN envoy in response to Syria threats

Israeli ambassador to the UN Danny Danon hit back at the Syrian envoy to the world body on Monday, calling him hypocritical for describing Israel’s airstrike Friday on a Hezbollah weapons convoy in Syrian territory as a “terrorist operation” while boasting of Syria’s retaliatory missile attacks as a game-changer.

“It is the peak of hypocrisy for the ambassador of a regime that massacres its own people to level such accusations at us,” said Danon in a statement early Monday.

“Israel will continue to defend its citizens and will act against any attempt to harm them,” he vowed.

In an early Friday morning operation, Israeli jets hit an arms transfer meant for Hezbollah near Palmyra, with Syrian air defenses firing missiles at the planes. One missile was intercepted by Israel’s Arrow missile defense battery, military officials said, in the first reported use of the advanced system. It was the most serious incident between the two countries since the Syrian civil war began six years ago.

Syria's UN Ambassador Bashar Ja'afari, right, listens to speakers during a meeting of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations Friday. The General Assembly overwhelmingly voted to condemn the Syrian crackdown. (photo credit: AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Bashar al-Jaafari (right) at the UN General Assembly at the United Nations (AP/Kathy Willens)

Speaking on Syrian state TV on Sunday, Syria’s ambassador to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari, said the Syrian response was “appropriate and in line with Israel’s terrorist operation,” and that Israel “will now think a million times [before striking again],” according to a translation cited in Ynet.

“Syria’s forceful response to the Israeli attacks changed the rules of the game,” he said.

The comment emphasized the escalating tensions between Damascus and Jerusalem in recent days and came hours before Israel reportedly carried out a number of strikes overnight Sunday-Monday, including on yet another Hezbollah weapons convoy.

Syria media reported early Monday that Israeli jets took out a number of targets near the Lebanon-Syria border. The reports have not been confirmed.

This came hours before an Israeli drone strike reportedly killed a member of a Syrian pro-regime militia on the Syrian side of the Golan Heights.

Earlier Sunday, Israeli Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman threatened to destroy Syrian air defense systems for targeting the Israeli aircraft during the bombing run Friday.

“The next time the Syrians use their air defense systems against our planes we will destroy them without the slightest hesitation,” Liberman said on Israel Radio.

Israeli officials have warned of the possibility Hezbollah and Iran could attempt to set up a base to attack Israel near the border with the Israeli Golan Heights.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Moscow, where he asked the Kremlin to make sure Iran does not gain a foothold in the area.

Israel has also repeatedly vowed to prevent Hezbollah from acquiring any advanced weaponry and several strikes on such convoys over the years since the Syrian civil war began in 2011 have been attributed to Israel. Jerusalem has also claimed several of the raids, including Friday’s.

“Each time we discover arms transfers from Syria to Lebanon we will act to stop them. On this there will be no compromise,” Liberman said Sunday.

“The Syrians must understand that they are held responsible for these arms transfers to Hezbollah and that if they continue to allow them then we will do what we have to do.”

Abbas, Sissi hold ‘reconciliation’ meeting in Egypt

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi held what Egyptian media called a “reconciliation” meeting in Cairo on Monday.

Relations between Egypt and Abbas’s administration have been tense over a range of issues, including Cairo’s contacts with the Hamas terror group in the Gaza Strip.

According to the PA official news outlet Wafa, during the meeting at the Heliopolis Palace in Cairo, the two leaders “coordinated their stances” on Palestinian issues, including the realization of a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The meeting came as preparations were being made for the Arab League summit in Jordan on March 29, as well as trips to Washington for the two leaders, both scheduled for April.

The summit came after US President Donald Trump president waded into the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict, sending one of his top advisers to the region last week for talks with Abbas, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets with Jason Greenblatt, the US president's assistant and special representative for international negotiations, at Abbas's office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 14, 2017. (WAFA)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (right) meets with Jason Greenblatt, the US president’s assistant and special representative for international negotiations, at Abbas’s office in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 14, 2017. (WAFA)

The PA’s foreign ministry called the meeting between Sissi and Abbas “a bilateral response to all those who have tried to put into question the deep, strong and lasting historical relationship between the Egyptian Arab Republic and the state of Palestine, or to obfuscate the existing harmony between presidents Sissi and Abbas.”

Relations between the two soured when Egypt in December withdrew a draft resolution in the UN Security Council against Israeli settlements. The draft was later re-submitted by other countries and adopted by the council.

In late February, senior Palestinian official Jibril Rajoub was denied entry to Egypt, prompting a Palestinian delegation to withdraw in protest from a counterterrorism conference he was set to attend.

Abbas later claimed the barring of Rajoub from Egypt was the result of a mixup.

Egypt and the PA have also been at odds over Cairo’s warm relations with Abbas’s rival Mohammad Dahlan, with whom the PA president has been warring since he expelled Dahlan from the Palestinian territories in 2012.

Osama Qawasmeh, spokesman for Abbas’s Fatah faction, said on Monday that relations with Cairo have been “a little bit cold” recently, but the time was right to “restore this very important and strategic relationship.”