Archive for January 26th, 2013

Netanyahu narrowly wins Israeli election

January 23, 2013

JERUSALEM (AP) — Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his hard-line allies fared far worse than expected in a parliamentary election Tuesday, likely forcing him to reach across the aisle to court a popular political newcomer to cobble together a new coalition.

While Netanyahu appeared positioned to serve a third term as prime minister, the results marked a major setback for his policies and could force him to make new concessions to restart long-stalled peace talks with the Palestinians.

More than 99 percent of the votes had been counted by Wednesday morning and results showed the hawkish and dovish blocs were split about evenly. Netanyahu’s most likely partner was Yesh Atid, or There is a Future, a party headed by political newcomer Yair Lapid that showed surprising strength. Lapid has said he would only join a government committed to sweeping economic changes and a resumption of peace talks with the Palestinians.

Addressing his supporters early Wednesday, Netanyahu vowed to form as broad a coalition as possible. He said the next government would be built on principles that include reforming the contentious system of granting draft exemptions to ultra-Orthodox Jewish men and the pursuit of a “genuine peace” with the Palestinians. He did not elaborate, but the message seemed aimed at Lapid.

Shortly after the results were announced, Netanyahu called Lapid and offered to work together. “We have the opportunity to do great things together,” Netanyahu was quoted as saying by Likud officials.

Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance was set to capture about 31 of the 120 seats, significantly fewer than the 42 it held in the outgoing parliament and below the forecasts of recent polls. With his traditional allies of nationalist and religious parties, Netanyahu could put together a shaky majority of 61 seats, results showed. But it would be virtually impossible to keep such a narrow coalition intact, though it was possible he could take an additional seat or two as numbers trickled in throughout the night.

The results capped a lackluster campaign in which peacemaking with the Palestinians, traditionally the dominant issue in Israeli politics, was pushed aside. Netanyahu portrayed himself as the only candidate capable of leading Israel at a turbulent time, while the fragmented opposition targeted him on domestic economic issues.

Netanyahu’s goal of a broader coalition will force him to make some difficult decisions. Concessions to Lapid, for instance, will alienate his religious allies. In an interview last week with The Associated Press, Lapid said he would not be a “fig leaf” for a hard-line, extremist agenda.

Lapid’s performance was the biggest surprise of the election. The one-time TV talk show host and son of a former Cabinet minister was poised to win 19 seats, giving him the second-largest faction in parliament.

Presenting himself as the defender of the middle class, Lapid vowed to take on Israel’s high cost of living and to end the contentious system of subsidies and draft exemptions granted to ultra-Orthodox Jews while they pursue religious studies. The expensive system has bred widespread resentment among the Israeli mainstream.

Thanks to his strong performance, Lapid is now in a position to serve as the kingmaker of the next government. He will likely seek a senior Cabinet post and other concessions. Yaakov Peri, a member of Lapid’s party, said it would not join unless the government pledges to begin drafting the ultra-Orthodox into the military, lowers the country’s high cost of living and returns to peace talks. “We have red lines. We won’t cross those red lines, even if it will cost us sitting in the opposition,” Peri told Channel 2 TV.

Addressing his supporters, a beaming Lapid was noncommittal, calling only for a broad government with moderates from left and right. “Israelis said no to the politics of fear and hatred,” he said. “And they said no to extremism and anti-democracy.”

There was even a distant possibility of Lapid and more dovish parties teaming up to block Netanyahu from forming a majority. “It could be that this evening is the beginning for a big chance to create an alternative government to the Netanyahu government,” said Shelly Yachimovich, leader of the Labor Party, which won 15 seats on a platform pledging to narrow the gaps between rich and poor.

Although that seemed unlikely, Netanyahu clearly emerged from the election in a weakened state. “We expected more seats in the parliament,” Danny Danon, a senior Likud member, told the AP. “But the bottom line is that Benjamin Netanyahu is the next prime minister of Israel.”

Under Israel’s system of proportional representation, seats in the 120-member parliament are allocated according to the percentage of votes a party gets. As leader of the largest party, Netanyahu is in the best position to form a coalition and be prime minister.

The results were shocking, given the steady stream of recent opinion polls forecasting a solid victory by Netanyahu and his allies. Netanyahu appeared to suffer because of his close ties to the ultra-Orthodox and perhaps from complacency. Many voters chose smaller parties, believing a Netanyahu victory was inevitable.

Tensions with the United States, Israel’s most important ally, also may have factored into the thinking. President Barack Obama was quoted last week as saying that Netanyahu was undermining Israel’s own interests by continuing to build Jewish settlements on occupied lands.

Netanyahu has won praise at home for drawing the world’s attention to Iran’s suspect nuclear program and for keeping the economy on solid ground at a time of global turmoil. In his speech, Netanyahu said that preventing Iran from developing nuclear weapons would remain his top priority.

But internationally, he has repeatedly clashed with allies over his handling of the peace process. Peace talks with the Palestinians have remained stalled throughout his term, in large part because of his continued construction of Jewish settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. The Palestinians want a halt to settlement construction before talks begin. Netanyahu says talks must start without any preconditions.

Obama has had a turbulent relationship with Netanyahu, and the two leaders could find themselves on a collision course in their new terms. The Obama administration said that regardless of the results of the election, the U.S. approach to the conflict would not change.

“We will continue to make clear that only through direct negotiations can the Palestinians and the Israelis … achieve the peace they both deserve,” said White House spokesman Jay Carney. In London, British Foreign Secretary William Hague urged Obama to make the Middle East peace process his top priority. “We are approaching the last chance to bring about such a solution,” Hague warned.

Netanyahu himself has only grudgingly voiced conditional support for a Palestinian state, and his own party is now dominated by hard-liners who oppose even that. A potential coalition partner, Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home Party, which won 11 seats, has called for annexing large parts of the West Bank, the core of any future Palestinian state.

While Lapid advocates a softer line toward the Palestinians, his campaign focused on economic issues and it remains unclear how hard he will push Netanyahu on the issue. Lapid’s positions also fall short of Palestinian demands. Most critically, he opposes any division of Jerusalem. The Palestinians seek the West Bank, Gaza Strip and east Jerusalem, territories captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war, for a future state.

The Palestinians viewed the election results grimly. “If he brings Lapid into his government, this would improve the image of the Netanyahu government in the eyes of the world. But it won’t make him stop building settlements, particularly in east Jerusalem,” said Mohammed Ishtayeh, a senior adviser to President Mahmoud Abbas.

In all, 32 parties contested the election, and 12 won enough votes to enter parliament, according to the exit polls. Netanyahu now has up to six weeks to form a government.

Aron Heller in Tel Aviv, Daniel Estrin and Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, and Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

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Syrian forces escalate offensive in Homs

January 26, 2013

BEIRUT (AP) — Syria’s army unleashed a barrage of rocket and artillery fire on rebel-held areas in a central province Friday as part of a widening offensive against fighters seeking to oust President Bashar Assad. At least 140 people were killed in fighting nationwide, according to activist groups.

The United Nations said a record number of Syrians streamed into Jordan this month, doubling the population of the kingdom’s already-cramped refugee camp to 65,000. Over 30,000 people arrived in Zaatari in January — 6,000 in the past two days alone, the U.N. said.

The newcomers are mostly families, women, children and elderly who fled from southern Syria, said Melissa Fleming, spokeswoman for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. She said the UNHCR was working with the Jordanian government to open a second major camp nearby by the end of this month.

Many of the new arrivals at Zaatari are from the southern town of Daraa, where the uprising against Assad first erupted nearly two years ago, the Britain-based Save the Children said Friday. Five buses, crammed with “frightened and exhausted people who fled with what little they could carry,” pull up every hour at the camp, said Saba al-Mobasat, an aid worker with Save the Children.

The exodus reflected the latest spike in violence in Syria’s civil war. The conflict began in March 2011 after a peaceful uprising against Assad, inspired by the Arab Spring wave of revolutions that toppled leaders in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen, turned violent.

Despite significant rebel advances on the battlefield, the opposition remains outgunned by government forces and has been unable to break a stalemate on the ground. In Lebanon, the leader of the Syria-backed Lebanese Hezbollah group, Sheik Hassan Nasrallah, said Friday in a speech that those who dream about “dramatic changes” taking place in Syria should let go of their fantasies.

“Particularly those who were expecting the fall of Damascus,” he told supporters, adding that military, political and international developments point to the futility of such dreams. Activists said the army recently brought in military reinforcements to the central province of Homs and launched a renewed offensive aimed at retaking patches of territory that have been held by rebels for months.

An amateur video posted online by activists showed rockets slamming into buildings in the rebel-held town of Rastan, just north of the provincial capital, Homs. Heavy gunfire could be heard in the background.

Another video showed thick black and gray smoke rising from a building in the besieged city. “The city of Homs is burning … day and night, the shelling of Homs doesn’t stop,” the narrator is heard saying.

Troops also battled rebels around Damascus in an effort to dislodge opposition fighters who have set up enclaves in surrounding towns and villages. The troops fired artillery shells Friday at several districts, including Zabadani and Daraya, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights.

Another activist group, the Local Coordination Committees, said regime warplanes carried out airstrikes on the suburb of Douma, the largest patch of rebel-held ground near Damascus. Other video showed devastation in the Damascus neighborhood of Arbeen, following what activists said were two airstrikes there. A bleeding, wounded man can be seen being helped out of the rubble of the destroyed building. The videos appeared consistent with Associated Press reporting on the fighting.

Last month, the UNHCR said it needed $1 billion to aid Syrians in the Mideast, and that half of that money was required to help refugees in Jordan. The agency says 597,240 refugees have registered or are awaiting registration with the UNHCR in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt. Some countries have higher estimates, noting many Syrians have found accommodations without registering, relying on their own resources and savings.

In Turkey, U.S. officials announced that the United States was providing an additional $10 million in assistance to help supply flour to bakeries in the Aleppo region. Nancy Lindborg, assistant administrator for the U.S. Agency for International Development, said the aid would help provide daily bread for about 210,000 people for the next five months.

She said that with the new assistance, the United States was providing a total of $220 million to help Syrians. “Too many people — an unconscionable number of Syrians — are not able to get daily bread, in addition to other supplies,” Lindborg told journalists after a visit to a Syrian refugee camp near Turkey’s border with Syria.

In a rare gesture, Syria’s Interior Ministry called on those who fled the country during the civil war to return, including regime opponents. It said the government will help hundreds of thousands of citizens return whether they left “legally or illegally.”

Syrian opposition figures abroad who want to take part in reconciliation talks will also be allowed back, according to a ministry statement carried late Thursday by the state SANA news agency. If they “have the desire to participate in the national dialogue, they would be allowed to enter Syria,” it said.

The proposed talks are part of Assad’s initiative to end the conflict that started as peaceful protests in March 2011 but turned into a civil war. Tens of thousands of activists, their family members and opposition supporters remain jailed by the regime, according to international activist groups.

Opposition leaders repeatedly have rejected any talks that include Assad, insisting he must step down. The international community backs that demand, but Assad has clung to power, vowing to crush the armed opposition.

More than 60,000 people have been killed since the conflict began, according to the U.N. Activists also said two cars packed with explosives blew up near a military intelligence building in the Syrian-controlled part of the Golan Heights, killing eight. Most of the dead were members of the Syrian military, the Observatory said.

The Syrian government had no comment on the attacks, which occurred Thursday night in the town of Quneitra, and nobody claimed responsibility for them. Car bombs and suicide attacks targeting Syrian troops and government institutions have been the hallmark of Islamic militants fighting in Syria alongside rebels trying to topple Assad.

Quneitra is on the cease-fire line between Syria and Israel, which controls most of the Golan Heights after capturing the strategic territory from Syria in the 1967 war.

Associated Press writers Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria, Suzan Fraser in Ankara, Turkey and Zeina Karam in Beirut contributed to this report.

Islamists and the Jordanian King at Loggerheads Over Elections

by Adam Nicky

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Muslim Brotherhood set to boycott parliamentary elections

With just three days left ahead of Jordanian parliamentary elections, King Abdullah and representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood’s political party the Islamic Action Front (IAC), who are boycotting the election, are on a collision course ahead of the vote.

After failing to attract the Islamist movement to run in the polls, which he promotes as fruit of the Arab Spring, King Abdullah this week appeared to have given up on the IAC. The pro-Western monarch accused them of seeking to establish a “religious dictatorship” and said he didn’t trust the Islamists.

“I am not worried about the Islamists winning in the elections. I am worried about pluralism and an exchange of power” that might result from such a victory, Abdullah said in a January 13 interview with the French magazine L’Observoire. He also expressed concern about how much change such a victory would bring to the country.

Meanwhile, the state-controlled media has been leading a smear campaign against the Islamist movement ahead of the polls.

Jordanian officials point out that the January 23 elections will lead to the creation of the country’s first parliamentary government. The king would name a prime minister to form a government that includes members of parliament, and retain the right to name and dismiss the prime minister.

Jordan elects its parliament every four years to choose 150 MPs in the lower house, while the king appoints the upper house with 50 senators forming the legislative authority. It remains unclear how many MPs would join the new government, but lists of candidates show former officials and businessmen leading the race in the absence of powerful opposition.

Wary of the possible negative effects of an Arab Spring in Jordan, Abdullah’s spokesmen argue that gradual reforms are safer in a country surrounded by major powers struggling for Mideast interests.

“The region is facing an uncertain future. We don’t know where Syria is heading and countries that saw change in the Arab Spring are suffering,” a senior government official told the Media Line.

“The king is determined to go ahead with his vision of reform. He has said that his son will not inherit the monarchy as he did,” the official added, referring to opposition demands that the king relinquish his constitutional powers that allow him to form governments.

Over the past two years, Abdullah endorsed amendments to the constitution, including that the king can sack the parliament only once in four years and the government must resign after parliamentary elections, and he established an independent electoral committee that promised fair and free elections.

The opposition accuses the king of procrastinating and exploiting the Syrian storm to block fundamental change.

It wants quick reforms including trimming the king’s powers, separation between authorities to shield judicial authority and the parliament from government interference, and a fair elections law.

“The so-called concessions, including the constitutional court, etc….[are] like a camel that gave birth to a mouse. We expected too much and got so little,” Kathem Ayash, a member of Jordan’s Muslim Brotherhood Shura Council, the highest governing body of the group, told The Media Line.

“This is an arrogant attitude. The state says we give you this little and we have to be happy for it. We will not take part in this political process,” he added.

The Islamist movement said this week it plans to organize a major rally in downtown Amman against the elections, but vowed not to hold protests on election day, a sign it might not be acting as strongly as expected.

The highly publicized polls are expected to do little to defuse tension between maneuvering authorities and stubborn opposition, said political analyst and researcher Mohammed Imran.

“Jordan will remain in the same place as two years ago, when the Arab Spring started. The kingdom is headed to the unknown in such a situation,” argues Imran.

Islamist movement opponents say the group’s bark is bigger than its bite, accusing Shura Council President Abdul Latif Arabiyat, IAF party leader Hamza Mansour and other senior Islamists of failing to live up to their status as the biggest opposition party in the kingdom.

“Street protestations look more like a formality than a genuine expression of anger by the public. The Islamist movement has been treading so carefully that they are becoming powerless,” said Rami Rafeeq, a leader from the Jordan professional association.

Other opposition groups including some leftist parties have insignificant support.

Besides the planned election boycott, the Muslim Brotherhood has been enduring its own internal strife. Some party leaders say it supports peacefully achieving political rights and recently some said they are not seeking to overthrow the regime.

A melting pot for immigrants from around the region, Jordan has survived the bloody ripples of the Arab Spring that have occurred in other Arab countries.

King Abdullah takes his authority and powers from a general belief among the seven million inhabitants that the royal family is the safest option for a country built by refugees from what is today Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, Armenia, Chechnya and elsewhere seeking safety.

However, young opposition activists from Jordan University’s student council say they want better than their parents had, insisting the king must face the inevitable and change.

Copyright © 2013 The Media Line. All Rights Reserved.

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