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Biden and Putin summit: Where they disagree and where they might compromise

By Humeyra Pamuk, Steve Holland and Andrew Osborn

GENEVA/MOSCOW (Reuters) - Expectations for a major breakthrough at a summit on Wednesday between U.S. President Joe Biden and his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin are low with ties between Washington and Moscow at their most strained in years.

But both leaders say they hope the Geneva meeting, their first in-person encounter since Biden became president, can lead to stable and predictable relations even though they remain at odds over everything from Ukraine to Syria.

Among the disagreements, there are some issues where they could make modest progress.

CYBER/RANSOMWARE

Ransomware attacks by criminals reportedly linked to Russia that have twice targeted critical American infrastructure are a concern for the United States.

The FBI has not disclosed any evidence showing Russian government involvement in the attacks on U.S. fuel transporter Colonial Pipeline Co and meatpacker JBS SA of Brazil, and Putin says the idea that Russia was responsible is absurd.

But Biden intends to bring up the issue and has suggested he wants Russian authorities to crack down on such cybercriminals. Putin has said Moscow would be willing to hand over suspects if any deal cuts both ways.

Biden is also likely to raise U.S. concerns over Russian cyber meddling in U.S. politics, something Moscow, which is pushing for a cyber non-interference pact, denies.

HUMAN RIGHTS, NAVALNY

Biden has said his administration will prioritise the global promotion of human rights and democracy and not shy away from warning countries over their records.

Washington has criticised Moscow over its treatment and alleged poisoning of Navalny, and says he should be freed.

The Kremlin, which denies the poisoning, has said Russian politics is a domestic matter and Washington should stay out of it. It says it will not take lectures from a country it casts as having many human rights problems of its own.

NUCLEAR ARMS

The world's two biggest nuclear powers are keen to talk arms control to ensure stable relations between their militaries.

In February, they extended for five years the New START treaty, which limits the numbers of strategic nuclear warheads, missiles and bombers each can deploy.

Moscow is keen on a longer extension that would include newer systems.

After the 2019 demise of the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty, Russia also wants to do a deal that neither side deploy certain land-based missiles in Europe.

UKRAINE

The United States has been Ukraine’s most powerful ally since Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, a move that pushed Moscow's ties with the West to post-Cold war lows.

A build-up of Russian forces in Crimea and near Ukraine's borders earlier this year worried Washington, which wants Russia to return Crimea and Kyiv to regain control of a swath of eastern Ukraine controlled by Russian-backed separatists.

NATO leaders on Monday reiterated a 2008 decision that Ukraine could one day join, but Biden said Kyiv had to root out corruption and meet other criteria first.

Putin had made clear that Ukraine is a 'red line' and that he wants Washington to steer clear. He has baulked at the idea of Ukrainian membership of NATO, said Crimea is Russian, and told Kyiv it needs to talk to separatists in eastern Ukraine if it wants the territory back in any form.

AMBASSADORS, CONSULAR SERVICES

The status of foreign missions is one area where both sides believe there may be scope for progress.

Russia recalled Anatoly Antonov, its ambassador to Washington, in March after Biden said he believed Putin was a "killer", while John Sullivan, the U.S. Ambassador to Moscow, returned to Washington for consultations in April.

An agreement for both diplomats to return to their posts would send a signal that some progress had been made.

There may also be room for a mini deal on visas and embassy staffing.

Russia, in response to U.S. sanctions, has imposed limits on the number of local staff the U.S. embassy can employ, forcing Washington to cut consular services.

It has also withdrawn from an agreement that eased restrictions on diplomats travelling around each other's countries.

PRISONERS

Russia is holding former U.S. marine Paul Whelan on an espionage conviction, and Trevor Reed, another former U.S. marine, for an alleged assault on a police officer. Both deny wrongdoing.

Their families have pressed for their release ahead of the summit.

Asked if he would consider a prisoner swap, Putin told NBC News: "Yes, yes of course."

Whelan's Russian lawyer has previously suggested Moscow would be interested in a deal that brought arms dealer Viktor Bout home as well as Konstantin Yaroshenko, a pilot convicted of conspiracy to smuggle cocaine into the United States.

BELARUS

The Kremlin has said it expects Putin and Biden to discuss Belarus, a close Russian ally plunged into crisis last year when street protests erupted over what demonstrators said was a rigged presidential election.

With Moscow's help, veteran leader Alexander Lukashenko has so far ridden out the storm by carrying out a brutal crackdown. His grounding last month of a commercial airliner and arrest of a dissident blogger on board drew Western outrage.

Biden is likely to challenge Putin over his support for Lukashenko and question him about plans to push ahead with integrating the two countries economically and politically.

Putin regards Belarus as part of Russia's sphere of influence and the two leaders are unlikely to see eye to eye.

SYRIA

Biden is likely to question Putin on Moscow's apparent reluctance to continue a U.N-backed cross-border aid operation into Syria whose mandate is due to expire next month.

U.N. aid chief Mark Lowcock last month appealed to the Security Council not to cut a cross-border aid "lifeline" to some 3 million Syrians in the country's north.

Putin told NBC that Russia thought the West should distribute any aid it provides to Syria via the central government, accusing it of not doing so to try to avoid President Bashar al-Assad.

(Reporting by Humeyra Pamuk and Steve Holland in Geneva and by Andrew Osborn in Moscow; Editing by Giles Elgood)

Top senator fears Big Tech at home as Alexa, Nest dominate

By Diane Bartz

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The U.S. Congress takes up the issue on Tuesday of yet another area where big tech firms -- in this case, Amazon.com and Alphabet's Google -- dominate, this time in smart home devices where they battle smaller companies like speaker maker Sonos Inc.

The hearing takes place at a time of extraordinary interest in tougher antitrust enforcement, much of it focused on the biggest U.S. technology companies. One result has been a series of investigations and several federal and state lawsuits filed against Google and Facebook as well as a long list of antitrust bills.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, who chairs the antitrust subcommittee, is hoping to act before the existing tech giants, in this case Amazon and Google, establish themselves as unassailable.

In the smart speaker market, she cited data that showed that Amazon was at 53 percent market share while Google was at 31 percent.

"This is an area where we can look forward and see around the corner and not just respond years later," she said, noting that people are buying everything from smart speakers to smart door locks and more. "We know that this is a growing market."

Smart home technology can be smart speakers like Amazon's Echo or Google's Nest, security systems or televisions.

Witnesses will include Ryan McCrate, Amazon's associate general counsel, and Google Senior Public Policy Director Wilson White, along with Sonos Chief Legal Officer Eddie Lazarus.

Last year, Sonos CEO Patrick Spence told a congressional committee that Google and Amazon used their dominance of search and online retail, respectively, to subsidize the smart speaker market and, potentially, dominate the market for other smart home devices.

(Reporting by Diane Bartz; Editing by Nick Zieminski)

US House panel: Justice Department documents show Trump pressed to overturn 2020 election

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Documents obtained from the U.S. Department of Justice detail efforts by then President Donald Trump, his chief of staff and other allies to pressure the department to challenge the 2020 presidential election results, the U.S. House Oversight and Reform Committee said on Tuesday.

(Reporting by Susan Heavey; Editing by Catherine Evans)

U.S. Justice Dept. to 'strengthen' policies on getting lawmakers' records

By Jan Wolfe and Lisa Lambert

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Justice Department will make its policies for obtaining records of U.S. lawmakers more rigorous after former President Donald Trump's administration secretly secured data on members of Congress, journalists and a former White House lawyer, the top U.S. law enforcement official said on Monday.

Attorney General Merrick Garland in a statement https://www.justice.gov/opa/pr/statement-attorney-general-merrick-b-garland also said that "political or other improper considerations must play no role in any investigative or prosecutorial decisions" and that anyone within the department who fails to live up to that principle "will be met with strict accountability."

Democratic congressional leaders on Sunday vowed to investigate the department's "rogue" actions under Trump, including its move to obtain the communications records of House of Representatives Democrats Adam Schiff and Eric Swalwell as part of a probe into leaks of classified information. Schiff and Swalwell both were critics of Trump, a Republican.

Garland said he has instructed Deputy Attorney General Lisa Monaco "to evaluate and strengthen the department's existing policies and procedures for obtaining records of the Legislative branch."

"Consistent with our commitment to the rule of law, we must ensure that full weight is accorded to separation-of-powers concerns moving forward," Garland added, referring to the constitutional system of checks and balances among the U.S. government's executive, judicial and legislative branches.

The department's internal watchdog, Inspector General Michael Horowitz, on Friday said his office is launching a review of the use of subpoenas during Trump's administration to obtain the records of lawmakers and journalists and whether "improper considerations" drove those decisions.

"There are important questions that must be resolved in connection with an effort by the department to obtain records related to members of Congress and congressional staff," Garland added.

Garland said that if action related to Horowitz's investigation is warranted, "I will not hesitate to move swiftly."

"POLITICAL ENEMIES"

Garland also met on Monday with officials from the New York Times, Washington Post and CNN to discuss the Trump Justice Department's seizure of phone records for journalists from the three news organizations.

The Justice Department in a statement said Garland had "a productive conversation" with the media representatives and they "agreed on the need for strong, durable rules."

Under former attorneys general William Barr and Jeff Sessions, the department was accused by Democrats of putting Trump's personal and political interests ahead of the law.

The Times on Thursday reported that under Trump the department subpoenaed Apple Inc for data on Schiff and Swalwell. Apple also told Donald McGahn, who served as White House counsel under Trump, that the department had subpoenaed information about him in 2018 and barred the company from telling him, the Times reported on Sunday.

Schiff said he has spoken with Garland and Monaco about the subpoena that sought his phone records.

"I have every confidence they will also do the kind of top-to-bottom review of the degree to which the department was politicized during the previous administration and take corrective steps," Schiff said.

Schiff added that the department "can never be used to protect a president's friends or accomplices, or as a potential weapon against a president's perceived political enemies."

Mitch McConnell, the top Senate Republican, decried the investigation announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, both Democrats. Echoing Trump's language on previous investigations, McConnell called this one "a witch hunt in the making." McConnell said on the Senate floor that Horowitz is "fully equipped" to investigate the matter without Congress also doing so.

John Demers, who heads the Justice Department's national security division and is a rare holdover from Trump's administration, is expected to leave his post by the end of next week, the Times reported on Monday.

(Reporting by Lisa Lambert and Jan Wolfe; Editing by Doina Chiacu, Aurora Ellis and Will Dunham)

Twitter adds 'Arabic (feminine)' language option in diversity drive

By Lisa Barrington

DUBAI (Reuters) - Twitter on Tuesday introduced an "Arabic (feminine)" language setting enabling the social media site to speak to users using feminine grammar, part of what it said was an inclusion and diversity drive.

"We want our service to reflect the voices that shape the conversations that take place on our service," said Rasha Fawakhiri, Twitter's communications head for the Middle East and North Africa.

In Arabic, verbs agree with the gender of their subject. Masculine forms are used to address mixed or unknown audiences and are the default in most texts.

Twitter did not introduce a non-binary gender language option in Arabic, but Fawakhiri said the company has other gender neutral projects in the works for the site. It has plans to add a designated gender pronoun field to Twitter profiles so people can display how they prefer to be addressed.

Until now, the instruction for the user to Tweet in Arabic had appeared only in the masculine form "gharrid". With a change of settings, this command can now appear on Twitter as "gharridi", the feminine form.

Twitter says it is the first social media site to introduce an "Arabic (feminine)" language option. Dubai-based global logistics company Aramex in April added a similar language option to its corporate website.

"We want to provide people with the option of how they prefer to be addressed," Fawakhiri said.

Twitter started with Arabic and the initiative could be expanded to other languages, Fawakhiri said.

Last year the company amended some of the language used by its engineers in their processes to be more inclusive. This included "they/them/their" pronouns and replacing "man hours" with "person or engineer hours", and "master/slave" with "leader/follower".

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; editing by Grant McCool)

Khamenei set to tighten grip in Iran vote as frustrations grow

By Parisa Hafezi

DUBAI (Reuters) - Iranians elect a new president on Friday in a race dominated by hardline candidates close to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, with popular anger over economic hardship and curbs on freedoms set to keep many pro-reform Iranians at home.

The front-runner in a carefully vetted field is Ebrahim Raisi, a hardline judge seen by analysts and insiders as representing the security establishment at its most fearsome.

But the authorities' hopes for a high turnout and a boost to their legitimacy may be disappointed, as official polls suggest only about 40% of over 59 million eligible Iranians will vote.

Critics of the government attribute that prospect to anger over an economy devastated by U.S. sanctions and a lack of voter choice, after a hardline election body barred heavyweight moderate and conservative candidates from standing.

The race to succeed President Hassan Rouhani, a pragmatist, will be between five hardliners who embrace Khamenei's strongly anti-Western world view, including Raisi and former nuclear negotiator Saeed Jalili, and two low-key moderates.

The limited choice of candidates reflects the political demise of Iran's pragmatist politicians, weakened by Washington’s decision to quit a 2015 nuclear deal and reimpose sanctions in a move that stifled rapprochement with the West.

"They have aligned sun, moon and the heavens to make one particular person the president," said moderate candidate Mohsen Mehralizadeh in a televised election debate.

While the establishment's core supporters will vote, hundreds of dissidents, both at home and abroad, have called for a boycott, including opposition leader Mirhossein Mousavi, under house arrest since 2011.

"I will stand with those who are tired of humiliating and engineered elections and who will not give in to behind-the-scenes, stealthy and secretive decisions," Mousavi said in a statement, according to the opposition Kalameh website.

Mousavi and fellow reformist Mehdi Karoubi ran for election in 2009. They became figureheads for pro-reform Iranians who staged mass protests after the vote was won by a hardliner, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, in a contest they believed was rigged.

EXECUTIONS

If judiciary chief Raisi wins Friday's vote, it could increase the mid-ranking Shi'ite cleric's chances of eventually succeeding Khamenei, who himself served two terms as president before becoming supreme leader.

Rights groups have criticised Raisi, who lost to Rouhani in the 2017 election, for his role as a judge in the executions of thousands of political prisoners in 1988. Raisi was appointed as head of the judiciary in 2019 by Khamenei.

However, Iranians do not rule out the unexpected.

In the 2005 presidential vote, Ahmadinejad, a blacksmith’s son and former Revolutionary Guard, was not prominent when he defeated powerful former president Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, largely seen beforehand as the frontrunner.

"(Saeed) Jalili's chances to surprise us should not be underestimated," said Tehran-based analyst Saeed Leylaz.

Although publicly Khamenei has favoured no candidate, analysts said he would prefer a firm loyalist like Raisi or Jalili as president.

The election is unlikely to bring major change to Iran's foreign and nuclear policies, already set by Khamenei. But a hardline president could strengthen Khamenei's hand at home.

Iran's devastated economy is also an important factor.

To win over voters preoccupied by bread-and-butter issues, candidates have promised to create millions of jobs, tackle inflation and hand cash to lower-income Iranians. However, they have yet to say how these promises would be funded.

All candidates back talks between Iran and world powers to revive the 2015 nuclear deal and remove sanctions.

But moderate candidate Abdolnaser Hemmati said hardliners sought tension with the West, while conglomerates they control rake in large sums by circumventing sanctions.

"What will happen if the hardliners come to power? More sanctions with more world unanimity," Hemmati, who served as central bank chief until May, said in a televised debate.

Please also see

Judge, banker, negotiator among candidates for Iran's presidency

Front-runner for Iran presidency is hardline judge sanctioned by U.S.

Iran's presidential election process

(This story has been refiled to fix typo in para 17)

(Writing by Parisa Hafezi, Editing by William Maclean)

China urges NATO to stop exaggerating 'China threat theory'

BEIJING (Reuters) -China's mission to the European Union urged NATO on Tuesday to stop exaggerating the "China threat theory" after the group's leaders warned that the country presented "systemic challenges".

NATO leaders on Monday had taken a forceful stance towards Beijing in a communique at United States President Joe Biden's first summit with the alliance.

"China's stated ambitions and assertive behaviour present systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to alliance security," NATO leaders had said.

The new U.S. president has urged his fellow NATO leaders to stand up to China's authoritarianism and growing military might, a change of focus for an alliance created to defend Europe from the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The NATO statement "slandered" China's peaceful development, misjudged the international situation, and indicated a "Cold War mentality," China said in a response posted on the mission's website.

China is always committed to peaceful development, it added.

"We will not pose a 'systemic challenge' to anyone, but if anyone wants to pose a 'systemic challenge' to us, we will not remain indifferent."

In Beijing, a spokesman for the foreign ministry, Zhao Lijian, said the United States and Europe had "different interests," and that some European countries "will not tie themselves to the anti-China war chariot of the United States".

G7 nations meeting in Britain over the weekend scolded China over human rights in its Xinjiang region, called for Hong Kong to keep a high degree of autonomy and demanded a full investigation of the origins of the coronavirus in China.

China's embassy in London said it was resolutely opposed to mentions of Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Taiwan, which it said distorted the facts and exposed the "sinister intentions of a few countries such as the United States."

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Beijing newsroom; Writing by Ben Blanchard; Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan and Clarence Fernandez)

Israeli nationalists to march in East Jerusalem — Palestinians plan 'Day of Rage'

By Rami Ayyub

Far-right Israeli groups will march in and around East Jerusalem's Old City on Tuesday in a flag-waving procession that risks igniting tensions with Palestinians in the contested city and rekindling violence between Israel and Gaza militants.

Assailing the march as a "provocation", Palestinian factions have called for a "Day of Rage" in Gaza and the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas have warned of renewed hostilities if it goes ahead.

"We warn of the dangerous repercussions that may result from the occupying power's intention to allow extremist Israeli settlers to carry out the Flag March in occupied Jerusalem tomorrow," Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Twitter.

An original march was re-routed to avoid the Old City's Muslim Quarter on May 10 when tensions in Jerusalem led Gaza's Islamist rulers Hamas to fire rockets towards the holy city, helping set off 11 days of deadly fighting.

Israeli rightists accused their government of caving into Hamas by changing its route. They rescheduled the procession after a Gaza truce took hold.

Tuesday's march, due to begin at 6:30 p.m. (1530 GMT), poses an immediate challenge for new Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who took office on Sunday and brought veteran leader Benjamin Netanyahu's record-long rule to an end.

Bennett's internal security minister approved the march on Monday.

A route change or cancellation of the procession could expose Bennett's patchwork coalition to accusations from Netanyahu, now in the opposition, and his right-wing allies of giving Hamas veto power over events in Jerusalem.

"The time has come for Israel to threaten Hamas and not for Hamas to threaten Israel," prominent far-right lawmaker Itamar Ben-Gvir said on Twitter.

An official route for the march has yet to be announced. Israeli media reported that police will allow participants to congregate outside the Old City's Damascus Gate but will not let them cross through it to the Muslim Quarter, which has an overwhelmingly Palestinian population.

Tensions are sure to be high whether or not the route is changed. Palestinian protests were planned for 6 p.m. (1500 GMT) across the Gaza Strip, and Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's Fatah faction have called on Palestinians to flock to the Old City to counter the march.

The Israeli military has made preparations for a possible escalation in Gaza over the march, Israeli media reported, and the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem prohibited its employees and their families from entering the Old City on Tuesday.

Palestinians want East Jerusalem, which includes the Old City, to be the capital of a state they seek to establish in the occupied West Bank and Gaza.

Israel, which annexed East Jerusalem in a move that has not won international recognition after capturing the area in a 1967 war, regards the entire city as its capital.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub; Editing by Howard Goller)

US Supreme Court seeks Biden views on Harvard admissions dispute

By Lawrence Hurley

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday asked President Joe Biden's administration to give its views on whether the justices should hear a challenge to Harvard University's consideration of race in undergraduate student admissions.

The case, should it be taken up by the court, would give the court's conservative majority a chance to end affirmative action policies used to increase the number of Black and Hispanic students on American campuses.

The action by the court signals the interest of at least some of the nine justices in considering an appeal brought by a group called Students for Fair Admissions, founded by anti-affirmative action activist Edward Blum, of a lower court ruling that upheld Harvard's program. The lawsuit accused Harvard of discriminating against Asian American applicants in violation of a landmark 1964 federal civil rights law.

The Supreme Court has a 6-3 conservative majority.

The use of affirmative action has withstood Supreme Court scrutiny for decades, including in a 2016 ruling involving a white student backed by Blum who challenged a University of Texas policy, though the justices have narrowed its application.

The Boston-based 1st U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November ruled that Harvard's consideration of race was not "impermissibly extensive" and was "meaningful" because it prevented the racial diversity of its undergraduate student body from plummeting. A federal judge in 2019 also ruled in favor of the Ivy League school after a three-week trial.

Harvard, one of the world's most prestigious schools, has said that the number of Black and Hispanic students would drop by nearly half if its affirmative action program were to be struck down. Lawyers for Harvard said it considers race "only in a flexible and non-mechanical way" and does not automatically favor certain races in deciding which students to accept.

Blum's group sued in 2014, accusing Harvard of violating Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which bars discrimination based on race, color or national origin under any program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Harvard is a private university located in Cambridge, Massachusetts that receives federal funding.

Students for Fair Admissions has said its members include Asian American applicants rejected by Harvard. The identities of these Asian Americans have been withheld throughout the litigation. Blum has said all of them earned high test scores and participated in extracurricular activities in high school and that Harvard's lawyers questioned many of them during the litigation.

(Reporting by Lawrence Hurley; Additional reporting by Nate Raymond; Editing by Will Dunham)

Bid of $28 million wins a rocket trip to space with Jeff Bezos

By Eric M. Johnson

SEATTLE (Reuters) -A seat on a spaceship ride with billionaire Jeff Bezos went for $28 million during a live auction on Saturday, concluding the month-long bidding process for the sightseeing trip on the Blue Origin's maiden voyage next month.

Within four minutes of the open of Saturday's live phone auction, bids reached beyond $20 million. The bidding closed seven minutes after the auction began. The identity of the winner - presumably an ultra-wealthy space aficionado - was not immediately disclosed.

The July 20 launch of Blue Origin's New Shepard booster from West Texas would be a landmark moment as U.S. firms strive toward a new era of private commercial space travel.

Blue Origin's founder and Amazon.com Inc executive Bezos, the world's wealthiest man and a lifelong space enthusiast, has been racing against fellow aspiring billionaire aeronauts Richard Branson and Elon Musk to be the first of the three to travel beyond Earth's atmosphere.

"To see the earth from space, changes you. It changes your relationship with this planet, with humanity," Bezos said in a video before the final bidding took place, adding that his brother Mark will join him on the trip.

As the month-long bidding process leading up to the live auction closed on Thursday, the winning figure stood at $4.8 million, fueled by entries from more than 6,000 people from at least 143 countries, Blue Origin said.

"Putting the world's richest man and one of the most recognized figures in business into space is a massive advertisement for space as a domain for exploration, industrialization and investment," Morgan Stanley analyst Adam Jonas told clients earlier this month.

While the funds raised from the event are earmarked for charity, Blue Origin is hoping to galvanize enthusiasm for its nascent suborbital tourism business.

However, Branson, who founded Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc, may attempt to steal Bezos' thunder by joining a possible test flight to the edge of space over the July 4 weekend aboard Virgin's VSS Unity spaceplane, one person familiar with the matter said.

The race is fueled by optimism that space travel will become mainstream as nascent technology is proven and costs fall, fueling what UBS estimates could be a $3 billion annual tourism market by 2030.

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, as well as Musk's SpaceX, have also discussed using their rockets to link far-flung global cities. UBS says that long-haul travel market could be worth more than $20 billion, though several barriers such as air-safety certification could derail the plans.

Blue Origin has not divulged its pricing strategy for future trips.

Reuters reported in 2018 that Blue Origin was planning to charge passengers at least $200,000 for the ride, based on a market study and other considerations, though its thinking may have changed.

(Reporting by Eric M. Johnson in Seattle and Brendan O'Brien in Chicago; Editing by Rosalba O'Brien and Chizu Nomiyama)

Israel's Knesset set to vote on new government, ending Netanyahu's rule

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) -Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's record 12-year hold on power was set to end on Sunday when parliament votes on a new government, ushering in an administration that has pledged to heal a nation bitterly divided over his departure.

Netanyahu, 71, the most dominant Israeli politician of his generation, had failed to form a government after a March 23 election, the fourth in two years.

The new cabinet, which will be sworn in after a Knesset confidence vote it is expected to win, was cobbled together by the centrist opposition leader Yair Lapid and ultra-nationalist Naftali Bennett.

Bennett, a hawkish hi-tech millionaire and an Orthodox Jew, tweeted a photograph of himself at prayer, captioned with a Biblical blessing. He will serve as premier for two years before Lapid, a former TV host, takes over.

They will head a government comprising parties from across the political spectrum, including for the first time one that represents Israel's 21% Arab minority. They plan largely to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button international issues such as policy toward the Palestinians, and to focus on domestic reforms.

With little to no prospect of progress toward resolving the decades-long conflict with Israel, many Palestinians will be unmoved by the change of administration, saying Bennett will likely pursue the same right-wing agenda as Netanyahu.

BYE BYE BIBI?

On the international stage, with his polished English and booming baritone voice, the telegenic Netanyahu has become the face of Israel. Serving in his first term as prime minister in the 1990s and since 2009 winning four more terms in succession, he has been a polarising figure, both abroad and at home.

Often referred to by his nickname Bibi, Netanyahu is loved by his supporters and loathed by critics. His ongoing corruption trial - on charges he denies - has only deepened the chasm.

His opponents have long reviled what they see as Netanyahu's divisive rhetoric, underhanded political tactics and subjection of state interests to his own political survival. Some have dubbed him "Crime Minister" and have accused him of mishandling the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.

Celebrations by his opponents to mark the end of the Netanyahu era began late on Saturday outside his official residence in Jerusalem, the site of weekly protests for the past year, where a black banner stretched across a wall read: "Bye Bye, Bibi, Bye bye". Demonstrators sang, beat drums and danced.

But for Netanyahu's large and loyal voter base, the departure of "King Bibi", as some call him, may be difficult to accept. His supporters are angered by what they see as Israel turning its back on a leader dedicated to its security and a bulwark against international pressure for any steps that could lead to a Palestinian state, even as he clinched diplomatic deals with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

None of those moves, however, nor the role he played in securing COVID-19 vaccines for Israel's world-beating inoculation campaign, were enough to grant Netanyahu's Likud party enough votes to secure him a sixth term in office.

Bennett has drawn anger from within the right-wing camp for breaking a campaign pledge by joining forces with Lapid. He has countered that another election - a likely outcome if no government were formed - would have been a disaster for Israel.

"This is a sad morning, because of the theft of votes and the fact Israel is getting a government based on one thing - a lie," Ofir Akunis, an outgoing minister from Netanyahu's Likud party, told Army Radio.

Both Bennett and Lapid have said they want to bridge political divides and unite Israelis under a government that will work hard for all its citizens.

Their cabinet faces huge foreign, security and financial challenges: Iran, a fragile ceasefire with Palestinian militants in Gaza, a war crimes probe by the International Criminal Court, and economic recovery following the pandemic.

Their patchwork coalition of parties commands only a razor-thin majority in parliament, 61 of the Knesset's 120 seats, and will still have to contend with Netanyahu - who is sure to be a combative head of the opposition. And no one is ruling out a Netanyahu comeback.

(Reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Daniel Wallis and Gareth Jones)

Muslim victims of truck attack given farewell with coffins draped in Canadian flags

By Carolos Osorio

LONDON, Ontario (Reuters) - Several hundred mourners joined a public funeral service on Saturday to bid farewell to a Canadian Muslim family run over and killed by a man in a pick-up truck last Sunday in an attack the police said was driven by hate.

The hour-long ceremony started after the four coffins draped in Canadian flags rolled into the compound of the Islamic Centre of Southwest Ontario, and ended with prayers and condolences offered by religious and community leaders.

The four victims, spanning three generations, were killed when Nathaniel Veltman, 20, ran into them while they were out for an evening walk near their home in London, Ontario. A fifth family member, a 9-year-old boy, is recovering from his injuries in the hospital.

Police have said the attack was premeditated and allege the family was targeted because of their Islamic faith.

The funeral procession later proceeded for a private burial.

"And the very fact their coffins are draped in the beautiful Canadian flag is an apt testimony of the fact that the entire Canadian nation stands with them," Raza Bashir Tarar High Commissioner for Pakistan to Canada told the gathering.

The family moved to Canada from Pakistan some 14 years ago.

The attack sparked outrage across Canada, with politicians from all sides condemning the crime, spurring growing calls to take action to curb hate crime and Islamophobia. The city of London, 200 km (120 miles) southwest of Toronto, has seen an outpouring of support in the aftermath of the attack.

That has given some hope to the grieving community to look beyond the tragedy.

"Irrespective of colour and creed, the expressions of raw emotion, the prayers, the quiet tears, the messages of comfort from people we know and from people that are complete strangers, it has been the first step towards finding a way to heal," Ali Islam, maternal uncle of Madiha Salman, one of the victims, told the gathering.

Veltman, who returns to court on Monday, faces four charges of first-degree murder and one of attempted murder.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has called the killings a "terrorist attack" and vowed to clamp down on far-right groups and online hate.

"I think we're emotionally exhausted," Imam Aarij Anwer told the Canadian Broadcasting Corp before the ceremony. "We're looking forward to having some closure on Saturday."

(Reporting by Carlos Osorio in London; Writing by Denny Thomas; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Aurora Ellis)

Biden to hold solo news conference after Putin summit

By Steve Holland

CARBIS BAY, England (Reuters) -U.S. President Joe Biden will hold a solo news conference after meeting his Russian counterpart Vladimir Putin next week, denying the former KGB spy an elevated international platform to castigate the West and sow discord.

Putin's bravura performance at a 2018 news conference with Donald Trump led to shock when the then U.S. president cast doubt on the findings of his own intelligence agencies and flattered the Russian leader.

Talking about the summit alone will also spare Biden, 78, from open jousting with Putin, 68, before the world's media after what is certain to be a combative encounter.

"We expect this meeting to be candid and straightforward," a White House official said.

"A solo press conference is the appropriate format to clearly communicate with the free press the topics that were raised in the meeting — both in terms of areas where we may agree and in areas where we have significant concerns."

Biden will meet Putin on June 16 in Geneva for a summit that will cover strategic nuclear stability and the deteriorating relationship between the Kremlin and the West.

Putin, who has served as Russia's paramount leader since Boris Yeltsin resigned on the last day of 1999, said ahead of the meeting that relations with the United States were at their lowest point in years.

Asked about Biden calling him a killer in an interview in March, Putin said he had heard dozens of such accusations.

"This is not something I worry about in the least," Putin said, according to an NBC translation of excerpts of an interview broadcast on Friday.

The White House has said Biden will bring up ransomware attacks emanating from Russia, Moscow's aggression against Ukraine, the jailing of dissidents and other issues that have irritated the relationship.

Biden has said that the United States is not seeking a conflict with Russia, but that Washington will respond in a robust way if Moscow engages in harmful activities.

Russia says the West is gripped by anti-Russian hysteria and that it will defend its interests in any way it see fit.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who is hosting G7 leaders including Biden at a summit in southwestern England, told CNN that Biden would be giving Putin some "pretty tough messages, and that's something I'd only approve of".

(Reporting by Steve HollandWriting by Guy Faulconbridge and Michael HoldenEditing by Frances Kerry)

Eying Russia, Pentagon to send Ukraine counter-drone, electronic warfare equipment

By Phil Stewart

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -The Pentagon announced on Friday a new package of $150 million in military assistance for Ukraine that will include counter-artillery radar, electronic warfare equipment and counter-drone technology, bolstering Kyiv amid elevated tensions with Moscow.

Although the funds were already committed by Congress, the Defense Department's announcement details how the U.S. military will allocate assistance earmarked for Ukraine before the end of the U.S. government's fiscal year in September.

The latest tranche of assistance will come in addition to the $125 million that the Pentagon announced on March 1 https://www.defense.gov/Newsroom/Releases/Release/Article/2519445/defense-department-announces-125m-for-ukraine/#:~:text=The%20Department%20of%20Defense%20announces,and%20improve%20interoperability%20with%20NATO, which included armed Mark VI patrol boats.

Moscow annexed Ukraine's Crimea region in 2014 and backed a pro-Russian separatist uprising in eastern Ukraine which triggered a conflict that has killed more than 14,000 people.

Tensions have flared again in recent months after the two countries traded blame for a surge in fighting in Ukraine's Donbass, and Russia, in what it called a defensive exercise, massed troops on its border with Ukraine and in Crimea.

U.S. President Joe Biden told Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy on Monday he will stand up for Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity ahead of a meeting between Biden and Russian leader Vladimir Putin in Geneva on June 16.

The Pentagon said the U.S. security assistance included capabilities "to enhance the lethality, command and control and situational awareness of Ukraine's forces".

It would provide counter-artillery radars, counter-drone systems, secure communications gear, electronic warfare and military medical evacuation equipment.

Ukraine's defense minister, Andrii Taran, said in a statement on Saturday the decision to provide the second part of the security package was "timely and reasonable".

The country has received almost $2.5 billion in defense assistance from Washington between 2014 and 2021, Taran added, expressing gratitude "to our American friends for their enormous diplomatic, political and financial support".

The U.S. assistance followed certification by the Pentagon that Ukraine "made sufficient progress on defense reforms this year," as required by U.S. law.

During his term as U.S. president, Donald Trump was impeached by the Democratic-led House of Representatives after it accused him of using U.S. aid as leverage to try to force Kyiv into smearing Biden ahead of the 2020 presidential election. The Republican-led Senate later acquitted Trump.

(Reporting by Phil StewartAdditional reporting by Natalia Zinets in KyivEditing by Jonathan Oatis and Helen Popper)

EU tells Britain's Johnson: Implement the Brexit deal

By Michel Rose and Elizabeth Piper

CARBIS BAY, England (Reuters) - The European Union told British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Saturday that he must implement the Brexit deal that he signed to ensure the delicate peace in Northern Ireland and that the 27-member bloc was completely unified on that position.

The United States has expressed grave concern that a dispute between London and Brussels over the implementation of the 2020 Brexit divorce treaty could undermine the 1998 Good Friday peace deal that ended three decades of violence.

After the United Kingdom exited the bloc's orbit on Jan. 1, Johnson has unilaterally delayed the implementation of some provisions of the Northern Ireland Protocol of the deal and his top negotiator has said the protocol is unsustainable.

"The Good Friday Agreement and peace on the island of Ireland are paramount," Ursula von der Leyen said after a meeting with Johnson and European Council President Charles Michel. "Both sides must implement what we agreed on."

"There is complete EU unity on this," she said, adding that the deal had been agreed, signed and ratified by both Johnson's government and the EU.

The 1998 peace deal largely brought an end to the "Troubles" - three decades of conflict between Irish Catholic nationalist militants and pro-British Protestant "loyalist" paramilitaries in which 3,600 people were killed.

BREXIT

Though Brexit was not part of the formal agenda for the Group of Seven summit in the English seaside resort of Carbis Bay, it was raised in meetings between Johnson and EU leaders.

French President Emmanuel Macron offered to reset relations with Britain as long as Johnson stands by the Brexit deal.. Johnson also met German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Brexit has strained the situation in Northern Ireland: The EU wants to protect its markets but an effective border in the Irish Sea created by the Northern Ireland Protocol cuts off the British province from the rest of the United Kingdom.

The protocol aims to keep the province, which borders EU member Ireland, in both the United Kingdom's customs territory and the EU's single market.

London says the protocol is unsustainable in its current form because of the disruption it has caused to supplies of everyday goods to Northern Ireland.

The pro-British "unionist" community in Northern Ireland province say they are now split off from the rest of the United Kingdom and that the Brexit deal that Johnson signed therefore breaches the 1998 peace deal. But the open border between the province and Ireland was a key principle of Good Friday deal.

U.S. President Joe Biden, who is proud of his Irish heritage, has made clear that any steps that imperilled the 1998 peace agreement would not be welcomed by Washington.

(Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Frances Kerry)

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