Archive for March 20th, 2015

Netanyahu victory leaves damage in wake

March 18, 2015

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s strong showing in national elections this week has come with a price: He has managed to antagonize friends and foes alike with hard-line rhetoric on the campaign trail.

While the tough talk gave Netanyahu a last-minute boost in the polls, the Israeli leader could now face a difficult task convincing an already skeptical world that he is serious about reaching peace with his Arab neighbors — particularly if, as expected, he forms a new government comprised of religious and nationalistic parties.

Trailing in opinion polls, Netanyahu took a sharp turn to the right in the final days of the campaign to shore up support among his core nationalistic constituency. He vowed to increase settlement construction in east Jerusalem, the Palestinians’ would-be capital, and rejected the idea of a Palestinian state in current conditions — putting him at odds with U.S. and European positions and reversing his own policy of the past six years.

In a last-ditch attempt to spur his supporters to the polls Tuesday, he warned that Arab citizens were voting “in droves” and endangering years of rule by his Likud Party. The comments drew accusations of racism from Israeli Arabs and a White House rebuke.

In Washington, the Obama administration said Wednesday that it was “deeply concerned” by the divisive language used by the Likud. White House spokesman Josh Earnest also said the U.S. would have to rethink the best way to bring about a two-state resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — a cornerstone of U.S. Mideast policy for years — after Netanyahu rejected the idea.

“Based on those comments, the U.S. will evaluate our position going forward,” Earnest told reporters traveling aboard Air Force One on a flight to Cleveland. State Department spokesman Jen Psaki said Secretary of State John Kerry had called Netanyahu to congratulate him. But she refused to describe the conversation as “warm” or friendly.

Netanyahu’s controversial stance appears to have paid off at home. Thought to be in danger of being voted out of office just a few days ago, the Likud emerged as the largest party in parliament when near-final results trickled in Wednesday, leaving it in position to lead the next coalition government. But the comments may have reinforced a belief in many world capitals that Netanyahu isn’t serious about peace.

Dore Gold, a confidant and unofficial adviser to Netanyahu, said he was confident the prime minister could repair the relationship with the U.S., Israel’s closest and most important ally. “The U.S. and Israel have had very sharp disagreements in the past about different aspects of Mideast policy but have usually been able to overcome the differences,” Gold said. “I suspect that is exactly what is going to happen this time as well.”

Gold declined to speculate on what Netanyahu might do, saying only that he is a masterful diplomat who knows “exactly how to address the U.S.-Israel relationship in a positive way.” Elliot Abrams, a former adviser on Mideast policy to President George W. Bush, dismissed Netanyahu’s campaign tactics as “hot rhetoric.”

“I’m not sure they give us much insight into how he’s going to govern,” Abrams, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, told a briefing for reporters. The Likud led the election by capturing 30 seats in the 120-member parliament, according to near-final results released Wednesday.

Netanyahu is expected to cobble together a majority coalition in the coming weeks made up of religious and nationalist parties that generally oppose concessions toward the Palestinians, and a new centrist party whose agenda is focused almost entirely on domestic economic matters. The issue of the Palestinians is not expected to be high on the agenda.

Cabinet minister Yuval Steinitz, a close ally of Netanyahu’s, said withdrawing from captured land to make way for a Palestinian state “is not relevant” in the current climate. He said Israel believes any land it relinquishes to the Palestinians will fall into the hands of hostile militant groups like Hamas or the Islamic State.

“Even though I understand the urge for peace now, we can’t ignore the reality in the Middle East,” he told Channel 10 TV. The only alternative, he said, is to “secure ourselves and preserve the status quo because we do not have a real partner for peace.”

For now, the United States and the European Union appear set to give the next Israeli government the benefit of the doubt. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said in a statement that the 28-nation bloc was “committed to working with the incoming Israeli government on a mutually beneficial relationship as well as on the re-launch of the peace process.”

It remains unclear, however, how long the world will wait. German Foreign Ministry spokesman Martin Schafer said his government took Netanyahu’s comments on Palestinian independence “very seriously.” “We assume and hope that the current Israeli government’s declared aim remains, which is to enter into talks with the Palestinians about a negotiated two-state solution at the end of which there will be a Palestinian state,” he said.

An EU diplomat in Brussels said officials considered Netanyahu’s rhetoric a “fundamental breach of the two-state solution.” He said if Israel sticks to that policy, the EU will use its “leverage.” The official, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss internal deliberations, refused to elaborate. But European officials in the past have discussed various potential measures, starting with the labeling of products made in West Bank settlements.

At home, meanwhile, Netanyahu risks facing a backlash from Israel’s own Arab citizens, who make up about 20 percent of the population. Netanyahu’s doomsday warnings about high Arab voter turnout prompted angry allegations of racism.

Following the election, Netanyahu appeared to be trying to sooth tensions. On Wednesday, he visited the Western Wall in Jerusalem’s Old City and vowed to “do anything in my power to ensure the well-being and security of all the citizens of Israel.”

But Aida Tuma-Suleiman, an Arab lawmaker, said the country’s Arab citizens would not forget so easily. Israeli Arabs have long complained of discrimination. “Yesterday Netanyahu divided the citizens of Israel. It is them and us, the Jews against the Arabs,” she told Channel 10 TV. “I won’t let that go quietly. It is dangerous. If someone in France or England or Belgium would say, ‘Go out and vote because the Jewish Belgians are voting,’ what would have happened?”

Associated Press writers Ian Deitch in Jerusalem, Josh Lederman and Matthew Lee in Washington, Frank Jordans in Berlin and Lorne Cook in Brussels contributed to this report.

Israel’s Netanyahu emerges with slight edge after tight race

March 18, 2015

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to fend off a strong challenge from the country’s opposition leader in parliamentary elections Tuesday, emerging from an acrimonious campaign in a slightly better position to form Israel’s next government.

But with the sides nearly evenly divided, a victory by Netanyahu’s Likud Party still was not guaranteed. His chief rival, Isaac Herzog of the Zionist Union, said he would make “every effort” to form a government, and an upstart centrist party led by a former Netanyahu ally-turned-rival was set to be the kingmaker. The country now heads into what could be weeks of negotiations over the makeup of the next coalition.

Both Netanyahu and Herzog will now compete for a chance to form a coalition that commands a majority in the 120-seat parliament, a daunting task in Israel’s fractured political landscape. Netanyahu appeared to have a better chance of cobbling together a government with right-wing and religious parties that he calls his “natural allies.” Herzog would have to appeal to more ideologically diverse parties.

Either will likely need the support of Moshe Kahlon, whose new Kulanu party captured nine or 10 seats, according to polls. Kahlon, whose campaign focused almost entirely on bread-and-butter economic issues, refused to take sides.

“I am loyal to my way,” he told his supporters, saying he would work to form a government committed to social justice. The election was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu, who has governed the country for the past six years, and recent opinion polls had given Herzog a slight lead.

As the results were announced on the nation’s three major TV stations, celebrations erupted at Likud’s campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv. “Against all the odds we obtained a great victory for the Likud,” Netanyahu told the gathering. “Now we must form a strong and stable government that will ensure Israel’s security and welfare,” he added, in comments aimed at Kahlon.

He said he had already been in touch with all other nationalist parties in hopes of quickly forming a coalition. Netanyahu focused his campaign on security issues, while his opponents instead pledged to address the country’s high cost of living and accused the leader of being out of touch with everyday people. Herzog also promised to repair tattered ties with the U.S. and to revive peace efforts with the Palestinians.

At a rally of his supporters, Herzog vowed to do his utmost to form a government and said he too had reached out to potential coalition partners. In a nod to Kahlon, he said he was committed to forming a “real social reconciliation government” committed to lowering the country’s cost of living and reducing gaps between rich and poor.

Netanyahu’s return to power would likely spell trouble for Mideast peace efforts and could further escalate tensions with the United States. Netanyahu, who already has a testy relationship with President Barack Obama, took a sharp turn to the right in the final days of the campaign, staking out a series of hard-line positions that will put him at odds with the international community.

In a dramatic policy reversal, he said he now opposes the creation of a Palestinian state — a key policy goal of the White House and the international community. He also promised to expand construction in Jewish areas of east Jerusalem, the section of the city claimed by the Palestinians as their capital.

Netanyahu infuriated the White House early this month when he delivered a speech to the U.S. Congress criticizing an emerging nuclear deal with Iran. The speech was arranged with Republican leaders and not coordinated with the White House ahead of time.

In Washington, White House spokesman Josh Earnest said Obama was confident strong U.S.-Israeli ties would endure far beyond the election regardless of the victor. The Palestinians, fed up after years of deadlock with Netanyahu, are now likely to press ahead with their attempts to bring war crimes charges against Israel in the International Criminal Court.

“What Netanyahu is doing and stating are war crimes and if the international community wants peace it should make Netanyahu accountable for his acts,” said Palestinian official Saeb Erekat. He said the Palestinian leadership will meet Thursday to discuss its next steps.

Exit polls on Israel’s three main TV stations showed Likud and the Zionist Union in a near deadlock. Channels One and 10 gave Likud a 27-26 lead in the 120-seat parliament, while Channel 2 gave Likud a 28-27 edge. That breakdown could change as final results pour in on Wednesday.

Under Israel’s fragmented electoral system, either Netanyahu or Herzog will have to court potential partners to secure a 61-seat majority. Herzog could potentially try to build a coalition that would rely on support from a new Arab alliance that captured 12 to 13 seats. But Arab parties have never sat in an Israeli coalition before, complicating any potential deal.

Stav Shaffir, a leader of the Zionist Union, called the results a “clear vote of no confidence in Netanyahu.” She said the Zionist Union would wait for the official results before declaring victory or defeat, but claimed Netanyahu’s opponents “have a majority.”

Netanyahu has ruled out a “unity” government with the Zionist Union that would give him a broad coalition, and Herzog has also been cool to the idea. That would indicate the next government will be a narrow majority — a recipe for further instability in which any member could bring it down. The previous government lasted less than two years before crumbling apart.

President Reuven Rivlin will now spend the next few days consulting with the various parties, whose leaders will all offer recommendations for who should be prime minister. Based on those consultations, he will ask either Netanyahu or Herzog to begin the process of forming a coalition.

Associated Press writer Aron Heller in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.