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News Brief: Golan Heights, House Panel Probe, Brexit


This story begins in 1967, when Israel was at war with much of the Arab world. Israeli soldiers seized a patch of land from Syria. It's land President Trump now says they never need to give back.


For half a century, the United Nations has said that border land should be returned, which is why it was news when the president tweeted yesterday that the United States should fully recognize Israel's sovereignty in the Golan Heights. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called it a miracle.


PRIME MINISTER BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: He did it again. First he recognized Jerusalem as Israel's capital and moved the U.S. embassy here. Then he pulled out of the disastrous Iran treaty. But now he did something of equal historic importance.

MARTIN: NPR Jerusalem correspondent Daniel Estrin is with us to explain all the implications of this. Hey, Daniel.


MARTIN: Why did the Golan Heights matter so much?

ESTRIN: Well, it's a beautiful place, and to Israel, it's very strategic. It's a rugged plateau. It rises up from the Sea of Galilee. And Syria used to shell Israel from that high point. And in 1967, Israel came under attack, fought the Six-Day War, captured the Golan, later annexed it. And Syria demands it back. And the world and the U.S. never recognized that annexation.

And actually, for the - for years, the U.S. helped broker quiet peace talks between Israel and Syria. There was an understanding by Israel that the status of the Golan Heights would be subject to Israeli-Syrian peace talks and an agreement. Even Netanyahu held discussions about this. But then, of course, several years ago, the Syrian civil war erupted. Recently, Iran has been building up its forces in Syria. And in the last month, Israel has been lobbying the Trump administration very hard to endorse Israel keeping the Golan as necessary for security.

MARTIN: So, I mean, what does this mean for any potential peace deal? I mean, the Trump administration has been pretty forthright about its very large ambitions of peace in the Middle East. Does this just upend all that? I mean, they clearly think it doesn't.

ESTRIN: Well, strategically, this could be risky. Former U.S. peace negotiator Dennis Ross gave an interview to an Israeli paper. And he says he thinks it might make it harder for Trump to get Arab countries to support his promised Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. George W. Bush's former ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer, testified before Congress last year on this question of the Golan Heights. He advised against recognizing Israel's annexation. He said Israel has always left the door open to an ultimate peace deal with Syria that could somehow involve the Golan Heights, and this could hurt that.

And other analysts are arguing, well, this decision might make it harder for the U.S. to stand up to Russia's annexation of Crimea. And one more interesting point, in Israel, this is breathing life into a much more controversial annexation idea that senior government ministers are backing, and that is that Israel should annex the West Bank.

MARTIN: Also, the timing of this is interesting. Israel's getting ready for elections, right? Three weeks away.

ESTRIN: You're right. I mean, if you look at all the problems in the Middle East today, the Israeli sovereignty question over the Golan Heights is not really the pressing issue. No one is expecting Israel to leave the Golan anytime soon. So the timing is very key here. This Golan decision is a political gift for Netanyahu. So is his trip to the White House next week. Netanyahu hopes this will carry him to re-election in what has shaped up to be a very, very tough race.

MARTIN: Yet another move underscoring the closeness of that relationship too between President Trump and President (ph) Netanyahu. Daniel Estrin for us, NPR's correspondent in Jerusalem. Thank you so much. We appreciate it.

ESTRIN: You're welcome.

MARTIN: So the man who is leading those efforts we mentioned to broker a Middle East peace deal is the president's son-in-law, Jared Kushner. Kushner is now under pressure for something that sounds a little bit familiar, using a private email account to conduct government business.

INSKEEP: House Democrats are asking if Kushner violated federal record-keeping rules. Committee Chairman Elijah Cummings has the same question about the president's daughter Ivanka, by the way. Cummings asserts, and he cites Kushner's own lawyer as the source here, that Kushner has been using the messaging service WhatsApp as well as private email to communicate with foreign leaders, which brings to mind a famous chant.


UNIDENTIFIED TRUMP SUPPORTERS: (Chanting) Lock her up. Lock her up. Lock her up. Lock her up.

INSKEEP: They're saying, lock her up. During his presidential campaign and as recently as a few weeks ago, the president's supporters were demanding jail for Hillary Clinton over her use of a private email server.

MARTIN: All right. We've got NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith with us this morning. Hey, Tam.


MARTIN: So there are a lot of details in the House Oversight Committee's letter. What are the specific accusations, as you understand them, against Jared Kushner?

KEITH: Right. And a big part of this letter is just the backstory because this investigation began back in March of 2017, when Republicans controlled the Oversight Committee and the House of Representatives. And it's been going on since then. This letter expresses a lot of frustration about the White House not cooperating. And it cites, as Steve said, Jared Kushner's lawyer - also happens to be Ivanka Trump's lawyer - Abbe Lowell.

And in this letter from Elijah Cummings to the White House, it says that Lowell confirmed that Jared Kushner has used and continues to use WhatsApp as part of his official White House duties. It says that Ivanka Trump is not forwarding official business done on her private email account to her government account - this is all about records-keeping - and also alleges that Steve Bannon and an early National Security Council deputy, K.T. McFarland, used personal email accounts and - including an AOL account to discuss a proposed transfer of nuclear technology to Saudi Arabia.

MARTIN: Which is a significant national security issue.

KEITH: That is a significant national security issue.

MARTIN: That's not just setting up a meeting here and there, do you want to go to lunch. That - that's a substantive issue.

KEITH: Right. And so that is what the committee is alleging.

MARTIN: So how is Jared Kushner, K.T. McFarland, for that matter, anyone in the White House responding to this?

KEITH: So the official word from the White House is that they have received the letter, and - here is the line - as with all properly authorized oversight requests, the White House will review the letter and will provide a reasonable response in due course. What is more notable is what comes from Abbe Lowell, the lawyer for Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump. And he says that Cummings' claims are not completely accurate and are being misreported.

He says that when he was asked about Kushner using WhatsApp, he didn't - he told the committee that he didn't know that that topic was on the agenda and that the best place to ask those questions was the White House. And he says that he never said Jared Kushner's communications with foreign officials or leaders - that Jared Kushner's communications were with officials or foreign leaders, just that they were with some people.

MARTIN: So what do you make of this and what it says about how the White House is going to deal with these investigations by House Democrats? I mean, this isn't the first time we've heard this line from them, right?

KEITH: No. To me, the most telling line from Cummings' letter to the White House was this. He says, the White House has not produced a single piece of paper to the committee in the 116th Congress in this or any other investigation, which is to say that this ongoing series of investigations is - that - is...

MARTIN: It's just stalemated.

KEITH: ...Not very friendly.

MARTIN: Yeah, not very friendly. Lots of words we can use to describe that...


MARTIN: ...Not so much cooperative. NPR's Tamara Keith, thanks so much. We appreciate it.

KEITH: You're welcome.


MARTIN: The United Kingdom was scheduled to leave the European Union one week from today.

INSKEEP: That would have meant potentially crashing out without any agreement to replace the intricate mechanisms of the European Union, damaging Britain's economy, damaging Europe's economy, causing havoc at the borders. So Prime Minister Theresa May asked the EU for an extension to come up with some plan that she can get through her parliament. And last night, after an eight-hour summit, the EU said, OK.

MARTIN: (Laughter) So we will turn to NPR's Frank Langfitt, our man on all things Brexit, in London. Hi, Frank.

FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Good morning, Rachel.

MARTIN: What exactly did the EU agree to?

LANGFITT: Well, they said a couple things. They said if prime minister can get her Brexit plan through Parliament, she can have an extension until May 22. But if she can't, the U.K. only has until April 12 to come up with a new plan or walk away from the EU with no deal.

MARTIN: Why April 12?

LANGFITT: It's an important day. The reason is that's when you have to field - if you're a country inside the EU, you have to field candidates for the European parliamentary elections that are coming up in May. What the EU's basically saying to the U.K. is, you know, if you're going to stay in, then field candidates. If not, you got to come up with something else or go without a deal. And so April 12 is now the new cliff edge.

MARTIN: Why - I mean, let's talk about this from the perspective of the EU.


MARTIN: They are - I think it's fair to say they're frustrated with how difficult this has been.

LANGFITT: I think that that's way too soft.

MARTIN: (Laughter).

LANGFITT: I think they are completely exasperated, shocked by what's happened here in the U.K.

MARTIN: So why did they grant the extension?

LANGFITT: They're pragmatic, Rachel. They know that the prime minister was going to have - will have a hard time next week trying to get this Brexit deal through. And they also knew, as Steve just mentioned, if she failed, they're going to crash out on the 29th. That's just a mess for everybody, and it certainly would be even more humiliation for the U.K. So at least they wanted to give them some breathing space, but not too much.

MARTIN: But I still don't understand how a delay, no matter how short or long - how it makes any difference. I mean, they've been negotiating this for two years.

LANGFITT: I think they want to give them one last chance to see basically what, if anything, she can do. And it also would give them a little bit of a chance to maybe manage a no deal, in the sense that if there is no deal, maybe there's a little bit more time to make that a little less chaotic. But the real question is, you know, can she get any three - thing through next week? And people are not optimistic.

If you remember, just earlier this week, the prime minister went on national television. She actually insulted the very members of Parliament she desperately needs to get to back her deal. She basically blamed them for the failures and said she was with the people. And last night...

MARTIN: I mean, talk about people being frustrated. Theresa May (laughter) is real frustrated right now.

LANGFITT: She is. She is. I mean, there's sort of frustration all over the United Kingdom political class. But last night, European Council President Donald Tusk, he said, here are the options if she can't get the deal through. They either have to prepare to leave without a deal, cancel Brexit or accept a long extension. But basically, by mid-April, no more fence-sitting.

MARTIN: What's going on with people you talk to? I mean, do - are...

LANGFITT: They hate it.

MARTIN: They're so over this.

LANGFITT: They really, really hate it. They don't want - it's hard to interview people in this topic, Rachel.


LANGFITT: They just roll their eyes or just want to walk away from you. There was a poll that came out this week by Sky Data that said 90 percent of people say the way the U.K. has handled Brexit is a national humiliation. That number seems low to me (laughter).

MARTIN: NPR's Frank Langfitt in London. Frank, thanks as always. We appreciate it.

LANGFITT: Happy to do it, Rachel.

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In a previous version of this report, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was incorrectly referred to as president.]

(SOUNDBITE OF JOASIHNO'S "EFOM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: March 21, 2019 at 11:00 PM CDT
In a previous version of this report, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was incorrectly referred to as president.
Steve Inskeep is a host of NPR's Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.
Rachel Martin is a host of Morning Edition, as well as NPR's morning news podcast Up First.