Archive for November, 2018

Netanyahu takes on defense post amid call for early polls

November 18, 2018

TEL AVIV, Israel (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said Sunday he would take on the defense minister portfolio, rejecting calls to dissolve his government even as early elections appeared increasingly likely.

Netanyahu said heading to elections now, amid repeated violent confrontations with Gaza militants, was “irresponsible” of his coalition partners, who have been pushing for early polls since the resignation last week of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman over a Gaza cease-fire.

“Today, I take on for the first time the position of defense minister,” said Netanyahu, speaking from Israel’s defense headquarters in Tel Aviv in a statement broadcast live at the top of the evening newscasts.

“We are in one of the most complex security situations and during a period like this, you don’t topple a government. During a period like this you don’t go to elections,” he said. The sudden coalition crisis was sparked by the resignation of the hawkish Lieberman, who had demanded a far stronger response last week to the most massive wave of rocket attacks on Israel since the 2014 Israel-Hamas war. He alleges the cease-fire agreement reached with Gaza’s Hamas rulers will put southern Israel under a growing threat from the group, similar to that posed to northern Israel by Lebanon’s heavily armed Hezbollah group.

The departure of Lieberman and his Yisrael Beitenu party leaves the coalition with a one-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. Netanyahu’s other partners say that makes governing untenable and would leave the coalition susceptible to the extortion of any single lawmaker until elections scheduled for November 2019.

Education Minister Naftali Bennett, of the pro-settler Jewish Home party, has already threatened to bring down the government if he is not appointed defense minister. He and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked, also of Jewish Home, are set to deliver a statement to the media Monday. If the party leaves the coalition, it would strip Netanyahu of his parliamentary majority.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, another senior partner, says another year of such instability will harm the economy. A meeting between him and Netanyahu Sunday meant to convince Kahlon to stay ended with no results.

Netanyahu’s Likud allies are already preparing to pin the blame on coalition partners if the effort to salvage the government fails. “I think that there is no reason to shorten the term of a national government, not even for one day, and at this moment it’s in the hands of the education minister and the finance minister,” said Gilad Erdan, the minister of public security.

No Israeli government has served out its full term since 1988. Since then, elections have almost always been moved up because of a coalition crisis or a strategic move by the prime minister to maximize his chances of re-election.

Though Netanyahu has been reportedly flirting with the idea of moving up elections himself in recent months, the current timing is not ideal for him. He has come under heavy criticism for agreeing to the Gaza cease-fire, especially from within his own political base and in the working-class, rocket-battered towns in southern Israel that are typically strongholds of his Likud Party. But with Lieberman forcing his hand and the other coalition partners appearing eager to head to the polls he may not have a choice.

Most opinion polls show Netanyahu easily securing re-election, which would secure him a place in Israeli history as the country’s longest serving leader. But several factors could trip him up, including a potential corruption indictment that could knock him out of contention.

Police have recommended he be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges in two cases and have questioned him at length on another. The country has long been eagerly awaiting the attorney general’s decision on whether to press charges.

Netanyahu has angrily dismissed the accusations against him, characterizing them as part of a media-driven witch-hunt that is obsessed with removing him from office.

Associated Press writer Aron Heller in Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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Netanyahu’s main coalition partner pushes for early election

November 16, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel moved closer to early elections Friday after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main coalition partner, the ultra-nationalist Jewish Home party, said it wants a vote “as soon as possible,” and will press for consultations on a date on Sunday.

The call for early elections came after a meeting Friday between Netanyahu and Education Minister and Jewish Home leader Naftali Bennett. The two men have been locked in a tense rivalry, with Bennett often criticizing Netanyahu from the right.

Bennett had demanded the post of defense minister, after the incumbent, Avigdor Lieberman, resigned earlier this week in protest over Netanyahu’s Gaza policies. A senior Jewish Home official said it became clear after the Bennett-Netanyahu meeting that there “is a need to go to elections as soon as possible.” He spoke on condition of anonymity because he was discussing the content of a closed meeting.

The official said leaders of coalition parties will meet Sunday to coordinate the date for early elections. The apparent failure of the Netanyahu-Bennett meeting seemed to seal the coalition’s fate. The departure of Lieberman and his Israel Beitenu party had left the coalition with a one-seat majority in the 120-member parliament. Without Bennett’s Jewish Home, Netanyahu’s coalition would lose its parliamentary majority.

The political crisis began with a botched Israeli undercover raid in Gaza on Sunday. The raid led to two days of intense cross-border fighting. Gaza’s Hamas rulers fired hundreds of rockets at southern Israel, while Israeli warplanes targeted scores of targets in Gaza.

After two days, Egypt brokered an informal truce between Israel and the Islamic militant Hamas. Netanyahu averted a war, but drew blistering criticism from ultra-nationalists. Lieberman resigned in protest on Wednesday.

On Friday, he toured southern Israel and accused Netanyahu of being soft on terrorism. He said Netanyahu’s Gaza policy is strengthening Hamas. Lieberman alleged that the truce will put southern Israel under a growing threat from Hamas, similar to the threat posed to northern Israel by Lebanon’s heavily armed Hezbollah militia.

“It’s impossible that after Hamas launches 500 rockets at the Israeli border communities, the heads of Hamas are actually getting immunity from the Israeli cabinet,” he told reporters. “We are now feeding a monster” that will only grow if not stopped, he said. “Within a year we will have a twin brother of Hezbollah, with all the implications.”

Israeli defense minister resigns over Gaza cease-fire deal

November 14, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel’s defense minister abruptly resigned Wednesday in protest over a cease-fire reached with Gaza militants, in a move that rocked the Israeli political scene and seemed likely to bring about early elections.

Avigdor Lieberman said the cease-fire amounted to “surrender to terrorism” after two days of heavy fighting, and that he could no longer serve a government that endorsed it. Lieberman had demanded a far stronger Israeli response to the most intense round of rocket fire against Israel since a 50-day war in 2014, but appeared to have been overruled by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

His resignation delivers a major blow to Netanyahu’s coalition government and sparked immediate calls for early elections. Lieberman said he hoped that in the coming days a date would be set for a new vote. The opposition parties joined his call.

The government still has a narrow one-seat majority in the Knesset without Lieberman’s nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu faction, but is unlikely to survive until the next elections, currently set for November 2019.

The party of another Netanyahu rival, Naftali Bennett, has already announced that if he is not appointed defense minister it will also quit the coalition — a move that would trigger early elections. Given Bennett’s sometimes rocky relationship with Netanyahu, it is far from certain he will be given the powerful defense post. Yair Lapid, head of the opposition Yesh Atid Party, said “the countdown has begun” to the end of Netanyahu’s term in office.

Lieberman’s resignation will take effect in 48 hours and Netanyahu will take over the defense portfolio on an interim basis. Netanyahu currently also serves as Israel’s foreign minister. Netanyahu had come under heavy criticism for agreeing to the cease-fire, especially from his own political base and in rocket-battered towns in southern Israel that are typically strongholds of his ruling Likud Party.

Angry residents took to the street Tuesday chanting “Disgrace!” at what they saw as the government’s capitulation to violence and its inability to provide long-term security. Many have openly vowed to never vote Likud again.

“We are third-class citizens here in Sderot and the communities on the border with Gaza,” complained David Maimon, a local resident. “It’s a shame. Instead of helping us and letting us live quietly, they let us suffer.”

Recent months have seen sporadic rocket attacks as well as militant infiltration attempts and a wave of incendiary kites that have destroyed Israeli crops. Netanyahu presented the decision to step back from a full-blown conflict as a unified one made by his Security Cabinet and based on the military’s recommendations. But Lieberman and Bennett later expressed reservations, saying they favored a stronger response.

Netanyahu defended his actions at a memorial ceremony in the Negev desert for Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. “I see the big picture of Israeli security that I cannot share with the public,” he said. “Our enemies begged for a cease-fire and they know well why. I cannot detail our plans for the future. We will dictate the time and circumstances that are right for Israel and are right for the security of our people.”

“In times like these, leadership is not doing the easy thing. Leadership is doing the right thing, even if it is hard. Leadership is sometime facing criticism,” he added. Lieberman said the cease-fire deal, coupled with a decision to allow Qatar to deliver $15 million in aid to Gaza last week, were too much for him to bear.

“We are buying quiet in the short-term at the cost of severe damage to our security in the long-term,” he said in his resignation announcement. “The weakness we displayed also projects itself to other arenas.”

A gleeful Hamas said Lieberman’s resignation marked a “political victory for Gaza.” “Lieberman’s departure is recognition of defeat and failure to confront the Palestinian resistance,” Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said in a statement. “Gaza’s steadfastness sent a political shockwave.”

The Israel-Gaza frontier remained largely quiet overnight after the heavy fighting of recent days. But on Wednesday afternoon, Gaza’s fishermen’s union said a 20-year-old fisherman was fatally shot on the beach near the fence separating Gaza from Israel.

The Israeli military said it opened fire under standard procedure after the man ventured too close to the border. Hamas had no immediate reaction. During this week’s fighting, Palestinian militants fired 460 rockets and mortars into Israel in a 24-hour period, while the Israeli military carried out airstrikes on 160 Gaza targets. Seven Palestinians, including five militants, were killed. In Israel, one person was killed in a rocket strike and three were critically wounded.

With air raid sirens wailing throughout southern Israel and the explosions of airstrikes thundering in Gaza, the two sides had appeared to be on the verge of their fourth war in a decade. Instead, Gaza’s Hamas rulers abruptly announced a cease-fire and Israel’s Security Cabinet ended a seven-hour discussion with a decision to hold its fire.

The latest round of violence was triggered by a botched Israeli raid on Sunday that left seven Palestinian militants and a senior Israeli military officer dead. Before the raid, Egyptian and U.N. mediators had made progress in reducing tensions.

In recent days, Israel had allowed fuel shipments to increase the power supply in Gaza, which suffers from frequent blackouts, and agreed to additional Qatari assistance to allow Hamas to pay the salaries of its thousands of government workers.

Hamas has staged near-weekly border protests since March in an effort to lift the Israeli-Egyptian blockade imposed after the Islamic militant group seized control of the coastal strip in 2007. The blockade has ravaged Gaza’s economy, and Israel refuses to lift it unless Hamas disarms, a demand rejected by militant group, which is pledged to Israel’s destruction.

Demonstrators each week have approach the border fence, throwing firebombs, grenades and burning tires at Israeli troops. Israeli snipers have killed about 170 people, most of them unarmed. Israel says it is defending its border against attackers, but it has come under heavy international criticism for shooting unarmed people.

Israel holds municipal vote, Jerusalem chooses new mayor

October 30, 2018

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israelis are voting in municipal elections across the country. In the closest watched race Tuesday, four candidates are hoping to become the next mayor of Jerusalem — a city with great importance to billions of people around the world.

Ofer Berkovitch, a young secular activist, is running against Moshe Lion, a longtime political activist, Cabinet minister Zeev Elkin, who is supported by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and ultra-Orthodox candidate Yossi Daitch.

If no one captures 40 percent of the votes, the top two finishers will advance to a runoff. Jerusalem is a diverse city, with a Jewish population divided between secular residents, modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. In addition, about one-third of the population is Palestinian.

Few Palestinians vote, however, seeing participation as recognition of Israeli control over east Jerusalem.

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