Archive for the ‘ Levant News ’ Category

Protests rattle the postwar order in Lebanon and Iraq

October 26, 2019

BAGHDAD (AP) — Tens of thousands of people, many of them young and unemployed men, thronged public squares and blocked main streets Friday in the capitals of Iraq and Lebanon in unprecedented, spontaneous anti-government revolts in two countries scarred by long conflicts.

Demonstrators in Iraq were beaten back by police firing live ammunition and tear gas, and officials said 30 people were killed in a fresh wave of unrest that has left 179 civilians dead this month. In Lebanon, scuffles between rival political groups broke out at a protest camp, threatening to undermine an otherwise united civil disobedience campaign now in its ninth day.

The protests are directed at a postwar political system and a class of elite leaders that have kept both countries from relapsing into civil war but achieved little else. The most common rallying cry from the protesters in Iraq and Lebanon is “Thieves! Thieves!” — a reference to officials they accuse of stealing their money and amassing wealth for decades.

The leaderless uprisings are unprecedented in uniting people against political leaders from their own religious communities. But the revolutionary change they are calling for would dismantle power-sharing governments that have largely contained sectarian animosities and force out leaders who are close to Iran and its heavily armed local allies.

Their grievances are not new. Three decades after the end of Lebanon’s civil war and 16 years after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, the streets of their capitals echo with the roar of private generators that keep the lights on. Tap water is undrinkable and trash goes uncollected. High unemployment forces the young to put off marriage and children.

Every few years there are elections, and every time it seems like the same people win. The sectarian power-sharing arrangement that ended Lebanon’s 1975-1990 civil war distributed power and high offices among Christians, Shiites and Sunnis. It has mostly kept the peace, but has turned former warlords into a permanent political class that trades favors for votes. A planned tax on WhatsApp amid a financial crisis was the last straw.

In Iraq, a similar arrangement among Shiites and minority Sunnis and Kurds has led to the same corrupt stasis, with parties haggling over ministries so they can give jobs and aid to supporters while lining their own pockets. The devastating war against the Islamic State group only exacerbated decades-old economic problems in the oil-rich country.

“They (leaders) have eaten away at the country like cancer,” said Abu Ali al-Majidi, 55, pointing toward the Green Zone, home to government offices and Western embassies. “They are all corrupt thieves,” he added, surrounded by his four sons who had come along for the protest.

In Iraq, a ferocious crackdown on protests that began Oct. 1 resulted in the deaths of 149 civilians in less than a week, most of them shot in the head and chest, along with eight security forces killed. After a three-week hiatus, the protests resumed Friday, with 30 people killed, according to the semi-official Iraq High Commission for Human Rights.

In both countries, which share a history of civil strife, the potential for sustained turmoil is real. Iraq and Lebanon are considered to be firmly in Iran’s orbit, and Tehran is loath to see protracted political turbulence that threatens the status quo, fearing it may lose influence at a time when it is under heavy pressure from the U.S.

The Iran-backed Hezbollah in Beirut and the Popular Mobilization Forces in Baghdad have said they want the governments in both countries to stay in power. The protests against Iraq’s Shiite-led government have spread to several, mainly Shiite-populated southern provinces. In Lebanon, demonstrations have erupted in Shiite communities, including in south Lebanon for the first time.

Signs of a backlash against Tehran’s tight grip on both countries can already be seen. Among the protesters’ chants in Baghdad, one said: “Iran out, out! Baghdad free, free!” Protesters trying to reach the heavily fortified Green Zone were met with tear gas and live ammunition. Men in black plainclothes and masks stood in front of Iraqi soldiers, facing off with protesters and firing the tear gas. Residents said they did not know who they were, with some speculating they were Iranians.

In the south, headquarters of Iran-backed militias were set on fire. In central Beirut, Hezbollah supporters clashed with anti-government protesters. Supporters of the powerful group rejected the protesters equating its leader with other corrupt politicians. A popular refrain in the rallies, now in their ninth day, has been: “All means all.”

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah warned in a televised speech that the protests — although largely peaceful until now — could lead to chaos and civil war. He said they were being hijacked by political rivals opposing the group.

“We are closing the roads, calling for toppling the system that has been ruling us for the past 30 years with oppression, suppression and terror, said Abed Doughan, a protester blocking a street in southern Beirut.

After Friday’s deadly violence in Iraq, a curfew was announced in several areas of the south. Hundreds of people were taken to hospitals, many with shortness of breath from the tear gas. The current round of protests has been endorsed by nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who has a popular base of support and holds the largest number of seats in parliament. He has called on the government to resign and suspended his bloc’s participation in the government until it comes up with a reform program.

However, powerful Shiite militias backed by Iran have stood by the government and suggested the demonstrations were an outside “conspiracy.” Iraq’s most senior Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, appealed for protesters and security forces to avoid violence. In his Friday sermon, he also criticized the government-appointed committee investigating the crackdown in the previous protests, saying it did not achieve its goals or uncover who was behind the violence.

As in the protests earlier this month, the protesters, organized on social media, started from the central Tahrir Square. The demonstrators carried Iraqi flags and chanted anti-government slogans, demanding jobs and better public services like water and electricity.

“I want my country back, I want Iraq back,” said Ban Soumaydai, 50, an Education Ministry employee who wore black jeans, a white T-shirt and carried an Iraqi flag with the hashtag #We want a country printed on it.

Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi has struggled to deal with the protests. In an address to the nation early Friday, he promised a government reshuffle next week and pledged reforms. He told protesters they have a right to peaceful demonstrations and called on security forces to protect the protesters.

Similarly, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri issued an emergency reform package few days after the protests began on Oct. 17 — a document that has been dismissed by protesters as “empty promises.”

Karam reported from Beirut and Krauss from Jerusalem. Associated Press writer Sarah El Deeb in Beirut contributed.

Netanyahu, rightist allies appear to fall short of majority

September 18, 2019

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fell short of securing a parliamentary majority with his natural religious and nationalist allies in national elections Tuesday, partial results indicated, setting the stage for a period of coalition negotiations that could threaten his political future and even clear the way for him to be tried on corruption charges.

Initial partial results showed challenger Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party tied with Netanyahu’s Likud. While the results do not guarantee that Gantz will be the next prime minister, they signaled that Netanyahu, who has led the country for over 10 years, could have trouble holding on to the job.

Addressing his supporters early Wednesday, Netanyahu refused to concede defeat and vowed to work to form a new government that excludes Arab parties. His campaign focused heavily on attacking and questioning the loyalty of the country’s Arab minority — a strategy that drew accusations of racism and incitement from Arab leaders.

“In the coming days we will convene negotiations to assemble a strong Zionist government and to prevent a dangerous anti-Zionist government,” he said. He claimed that Arab parties “negate the existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “glorify bloodthirsty murderers.”

The partial results released Wednesday by the Central Election Commission were based on 35 percent of the vote counted. The three Israeli TV channels reported the same outcome, based on more than 90 percent of the vote counted, but did not explain the discrepancy with the commission’s percentage.

Final results are expected Wednesday and could still swing in Netanyahu’s favor. According to the partial results, the parties of Gantz and Netanyahu received 32 seats each in the 120-member parliament. Likud with its natural allies of religious and ultra-nationalist parties mustered 56 seats — or five short of the needed majority.

This means both Likud and Blue and White will have difficulty setting up a governing coalition without the support of Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party. That put Lieberman, a former protege of Netanyahu’s who has become one of the prime minister’s fiercest rivals, in the position of kingmaker.

Arab parties, which have never before sat in an Israeli government, also finished strong, and exit polls predicted they would form the third-largest party in parliament. Addressing his supporters late Tuesday, a jubilant Lieberman said he saw only “one option”: a broad, secular coalition with both Blue and White and Likud.

“We’ve always said that a unity government is only possible in emergency situations. And I tell you and I tell every citizen today watching us on television: the situation, both security-wise and economically, are emergency situations,” he said. “The country, therefore, requires a broad government.”

Early Wednesday, Gantz told a cheering rally of supporters that while it was too soon to declare victory, he had begun speaking to potential partners and hoped to form a unity government. “Starting tonight we will work to form a broad unity government that will express the will of the people,” he said.

Attention will now focus on Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, who is to choose the candidate he believes has the best chance of forming a stable coalition. Rivlin is to consult with all parties in the coming days before making his decision.

After that, the prime minister designate would have up to six weeks to form a coalition. If that fails, Rivlin could give another candidate for prime minister 28 days to form a coalition. And if that doesn’t work, new elections would be triggered yet again. Rivlin has said he will do everything possible to avoid such a scenario.

Lieberman called for an immediate start to negotiations and predicted it could be wrapped up quickly. But such a deal promises to be complicated. Gantz, a former military chief who has presented himself as a unifying figure in a divided nation, has ruled out a partnership with Likud if Netanyahu remains at the helm at a time when he is expected to be indicted on criminal charges.

But in his speech, he made no such conditions. “I intend to speak with everyone,” he said, without mentioning Netanyahu. Lieberman, who leads a nationalist but secular party, is unlikely to sit with Arab parties on the left or ultra-Orthodox religious parties on the right.

That could limit both Gantz’s and Netanyahu’s ability to maneuver and could potentially put pressure on the longtime leader, who has ruled for over a decade, to step aside. Likud members said they remained behind their leader.

“We have the basic principle of standing by the party leader who was elected in the party primary, which is why we won’t take action against Netanyahu,” said lawmaker Micky Zohar, a Netanyahu loyalist.

Netanyahu had sought an outright majority with his allies in hopes of passing legislation to give him immunity from the expected indictment. Israel’s attorney general has recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach of trust in three scandals, pending a hearing scheduled next month. A formal indictment would increase the pressure on Netanyahu to step aside if he does not have immunity.

Netanyahu tried to portray himself as a seasoned statesman uniquely qualified to lead the country through challenging times during an alarmist campaign marked by mudslinging and slogans that were condemned as racist. Gantz tried to paint Netanyahu as divisive and scandal-plagued, offering himself as a calming influence and honest alternative.

Netanyahu’s campaign promoted images of him jetting off to world capitals and boasting of warm relations with powerful leaders, most notably President Donald Trump. At the same time, he issued repeated doomsday warnings that his opponents were scheming with politicians from the country’s Arab minority to “steal” the election.

He tried, and failed, to pass legislation that would allow cameras in polling stations, a step he said was needed to crack down on alleged fraud in Arab towns. Facebook suspended his account for 24 hours last week after it published a post saying that “Arabs want to annihilate all of us.”

Netanyahu also sought to appeal to his hard-line base with a number of election promises, including plans to annex all of Israel’s settlements in the West Bank. His proposal, which could extinguish any remaining hopes for a Palestinian state, were condemned by much of the world, including important Arab countries like Jordan and Saudi Arabia. But the U.S. remained muted, suggesting he had coordinated with Washington ahead of time.

Netanyahu’s frenetic warnings about Arabs appeared to backfire, turning off some Jewish voters and driving heavy turnout in the Arab sector. Ayman Odeh, leader of the main Arab faction in parliament, said Netanyahu’s repeated attacks had boosted turnout and hurt Netanyahu in the end.

“There’s a heavy price to pay for incitement,” he told Channel 13 TV. The election was Israel’s second of the year. In April’s vote, Netanyahu appeared to have the upper hand, with his traditional allies of nationalist and ultra-religious Jewish parties controlling a parliamentary majority.

But Lieberman, his mercurial ally-turned-rival, refused to join the new coalition, citing excessive influence it granted the ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties. Without a parliamentary majority, Netanyahu dissolved parliament and called a new election.

Lieberman’s gamble paid off Tuesday, and partial results indicated his party had nearly doubled in strength, with nine seats. Israel’s election commission said 69.4% of all eligible voters cast ballots by the time polls closed on Tuesday evening, a slightly larger number than took part in April’s vote. Turnout in April’s elections was 68.5%.

Associated Press writer Ilan Ben Zion contributed to this report.

Israel’s left-wing party Meretz elects new leader

June 28, 2019

One of Israel’s left-wing parties Meretz has elected a new leader ahead of the country’s upcoming general election on 17 September.

Nitzan Horowitz – a journalist with Israeli daily Haaretz and two-time Knesset Member (MK) – was elected as party chair in Meretz’s primaries yesterday. His victory sees him oust previous chairwoman Tamar Zandberg, who led the party in Israel’s last election on 9 April.

Giving a victory speech in Tel Aviv, Horowitz said that “Meretz has a clear, straight path, of love for humans, and belief in equality and freedom”. “This is the path I have walked my whole life and continue to walk,” he explained, adding that “this way of life is under attack and Meretz will fight for freedom for all, from darkness, racism and coercion”.

Commentators expect Horowitz’s victory over Zandberg to impact Meretz’s potential alliances ahead of the September election; whereas Zandberg was said to be weighing an alliance with the newly-reformed Joint List, Horowitz is thought to prefer an alliance with other left-wing Jewish-Israeli parties, such as the Israeli Labor Party or the as-yet-unnamed party announced this week by former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak.

Horowitz, however, stressed that Meretz “is prepared for talks and cooperation based on our values,” which includes “alliances with new groups and the heads of Arab and Druze society”.

“Our way and values ??are the reason for our existence as a party. We have a historic responsibility to create a strong left. If need be, we will be a combative opposition that they [a right-wing government] will not forget,” he added.

Horowitz also took aim at the Blue and White (Kahol Lavan) alliance, dismissing the centrist party as little more than a “soap bubble”.

Despite becoming Israel’s second-biggest party following a strong performance in April’s election, Blue and White – particularly its leader Benny Gantz – has been most noticeable by its absence since fresh elections were called last month.

This has led to speculation of discord between Gantz and co-leader Yair Lapid, as well as accusations that the party is “sleeping” when it could – or should – be working to weaken increasingly-embattled Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Meretz could, however, find itself needing to collaborate with Blue and White if the center-left camp has any hope of reaching the 61 Knesset seats needed to form a majority government and challenge Netanyahu’s hegemony.

In the most recent polls, Blue and White was predicted to win 32 seats, once again the same number as Netanyahu’s Likud party. The Joint List was predicted to win 12 seats, Meretz six and Labor five, while Ehud Barak’s new party could win as many as six seats.

This would garner the 61 seats needed to form a center-left government, while the right-wing bloc would only win 52 seats. This calculation leaves out former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party – which is predicted to improve on its April performance to win seven seats – after Lieberman claimed he would sit neither in a Netanyahu nor Gantz-led government.

Whether the Joint List will agree to join a Gantz-led government is also unclear, after the former army Chief of Staff claimed to be looking for only “Jewish and Zionist” coalition partners ahead of April’s election. Though Arab-Israeli parties have held working arrangements with governments in the past, none have ever officially joined a ruling coalition.

This apparent deadlock has sparked calls from Likud officials – rumored to be at Netanyahu’s behest – to cancel the election. Though such a move has no constitutional precedent in Israel, Netanyahu’s increasingly-desperate attempts to hold on to power and avoid impending corruption charges could see him rip up the rule book once again.

Source: Middle East Monitor.

Link: https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20190628-israels-left-wing-party-meretz-elects-new-leader/.

Israel faces new elections after parliament dissolves

May 30, 2019

JERUSALEM (AP) — Israel embarked Thursday on an unprecedented snap election campaign — the second this year — after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition and instead dissolved parliament.

In what seemed an improbable scenario just days ago, Israel’s newly elected Knesset dissolved itself in an early morning 74-45 vote and set a new election date for Sept. 17. The developments were a shocking setback for Netanyahu, who had appeared to secure a comfortable win in last month’s election. But he was unable to build a parliamentary majority needed to rule because a traditional ally, Avigdor Lieberman, refused to bring his Yisrael Beiteinu faction into the coalition.

Netanyahu, who has led Israel for the past decade, now faces another challenge to his lengthy rule. It comes as he prepares for a pre-indictment hearing before expected criminal charges against him in a series of corruption cases.

Assuming they would sweep into power again, Netanyahu’s allies in the ruling Likud Party had already begun drafting a contentious bill aimed at granting him immunity from the various corruption charges awaiting him. He was also looking to push legislation limiting the power of Israel’s Supreme Court and paving his path to many more years in office.

But it was a separate issue that sparked the unprecedented crisis, and for the first time in history thrust Israel into a repeat election before a new government was even formed. Lieberman — a veteran nationalist and secular politician — demanded that current legislation mandating that young ultra-Orthodox men be drafted into the military run its course.

Years of exemptions for ultra-Orthodox men have generated widespread resentment among the rest of Jewish Israelis who serve. The ultra-Orthodox, backed by Netanyahu, refused to bend and the showdown quickly devolved into a full-blown crisis that imploded the perspective government.

“The public chose me, and Lieberman, unfortunately, deceived his voters. From the beginning he had no intention to do what he said,” Netanyahu said after the vote, accusing Lieberman of aligning with “the left.”

Lieberman, a former top aide to Netanyahu who has alternated between a close alliance and bitter rivalry with his former boss, retorted that the new election was a result of Netanyahu caving into the ultra-Orthodox.

“This is a complete surrender of Likud to the ultra-Orthodox,” he said. A new election complicates Netanyahu’s efforts to pass the proposed bills to protect himself from prosecution. Even if Netanyahu wins the election, it is unlikely he will be able to form a government and lock down the required political support for an immunity deal before an expected indictment. That would force him to stand trial, and in turn put heavy pressure on him to step aside. No one in Likud has yet challenged him publicly.

The political uncertainty could also spell trouble for the White House’s Mideast peace efforts. The U.S. has scheduled a conference next month in Bahrain to unveil what it says is the first phase of its peace plan, an initiative aimed at drawing investment into the Palestinian territories. The Trump administration had vowed to unveil its plan after the Israeli election and it’s unclear how the current political shakeup will affect that rollout.

Israeli spacecraft crashes during moon landing: mission control

By Stephen Weizman

Jerusalem (AFP)

April 11, 2019

Israel’s attempt at a moon landing failed at the last minute on Thursday when the craft suffered an engine failure as it prepared to land and apparently crashed onto the lunar surface.

“We didn’t make it, but we definitely tried,” project originator and major backer Morris Kahn said in a live videocast from mission control near Tel Aviv.

“I think that the achievement of getting to where we got is really tremendous, I think we can be proud,” he said.

During the broadcast, control staff could be heard saying that engines meant to slow the craft’s descent and allow a soft landing had failed and contact with it had been lost.

“We are on the moon but not in the way we wanted,” one unidentified staffer said.

“We are the seventh country to orbit the moon and the fourth to reach the moon’s surface,” said another.

Only Russia, the United States and China have made the 384,000-kilometre (239,000-mile) journey and landed safely on the Moon.

“If at first you don’t succeed, you try again,” said Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from the control room, where he had been watching along with US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman.

“We reached the moon but we’d like to land more comfortably,” he added. “That will be for the next attempt.”

The 585-kilogram (1,290-pound) unmanned spacecraft named Beresheet, which means “Genesis” in Hebrew, resembles a tall, oddly shaped table with round fuel tanks under the top.

Israeli NGO SpaceIL and state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), the project’s two main partners, have described it as the “world’s first spacecraft built in a non-governmental mission”.

Khan, a philanthropist and chairman of SpaceIL, put up $40 million of the project’s $100 million budget.

Other partners who joined later are from “the private sector, government and academia,” according to the IAI website.

Just before the landing attempt Netanyahu said that he was thinking about initiating a national space project.

“I am seriously considering investing in a space program,” he said in the webcast.

“It has national implications for Israel and implications for humanity.”

The country’s president, Reuven Rivlin, viewed the broadcast with 80 middle school space buffs at his official Jerusalem residence, his office said in a statement.

“We are full of admiration for the wonderful people who brought the spacecraft to the moon,” he said after the crash. “True, not as we had hoped, but we will succeed in the end. This is a great achievement that we have not yet completed.”

Although the journey is 384,000 kilometers, Beresheet will have traveled a total of 6.5 million kilometers due to a series of orbits.

It was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida on February 22 with a Falcon 9 rocket from Elon Musk’s private US-based SpaceX company.

Its speed has reached 10 kilometers per second, (36,000 kilometers per hour).

The one-way trip was to have included an attempt to measure the lunar magnetic field, which would have helped understanding of the moon’s formation.

– Google prize –

The project began as part of the Google Lunar XPrize, which in 2010 offered $30 million in awards to encourage scientists and entrepreneurs to come up with relatively low-cost moon missions.

Although the Google prize expired in March without a winner, Israel’s team pledged to push forward.

The Israeli mission came amid renewed global interest in the moon, 50 years after American astronauts first walked on its surface.

China’s Chang’e-4 made the first-ever soft landing on the far side of the moon on January 3, after a probe sent by Beijing made a lunar landing elsewhere in 2013.

US President Donald Trump’s administration announced in March it was speeding up plans to send American astronauts back to the moon, bringing forward the target date from 2028 to 2024.

India hopes to become the next lunar country in the spring with its Chandrayaan-2 mission. It aims to put a craft with a rover onto the moon’s surface to collect data.

Japan plans to send a small lunar lander, called SLIM, to study a volcanic area around 2020-2021.

The United States remains the only country to have walked on the moon, with 12 astronauts having taken part in six missions between 1969 and 1972.

Source: Moon Daily.

Link: http://www.moondaily.com/reports/Israeli_spacecraft_crashes_during_moon_landing_mission_control_999.html.

US says closing consulate in Jerusalem no policy shift

March 04, 2019

JERUSALEM (AP) — The United States has officially shuttered its consulate in Jerusalem, downgrading the status of its main diplomatic mission to the Palestinians by folding it into the U.S. Embassy to Israel.

For decades, the consulate functioned as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians. Now, that outreach will be handled by a Palestinian affairs unit, under the command of the embassy. The symbolic shift hands authority over U.S. diplomatic channels with the West Bank and Gaza to ambassador David Friedman, a longtime supporter and fundraiser for the West Bank settler movement and fierce critic of the Palestinian leadership.

The announcement from the State Department came early Monday in Jerusalem, the merger effective that day. “This decision was driven by our global efforts to increase the efficiency and effectiveness of our diplomatic engagements and operations,” State Department spokesman Robert Palladino said in a statement. “It does not signal a change of U.S. policy on Jerusalem, the West Bank, or the Gaza Strip.”

In a farewell video addressed to the consulate’s Palestinian partners, Consul General Karen Sasahara, who is leaving her post as the unofficial U.S. ambassador to the Palestinians and will not be replaced, maintains that new Palestinian unit at the embassy will carry forward the mission of the consulate, “in support of the strengthening of American-Palestinian ties, to boost economic opportunities for the Palestinians and facilitate cultural and educational exchanges.”

When first announced by U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo in October, the move infuriated Palestinians, fueling their suspicions that the U.S. was recognizing Israeli control over east Jerusalem and the West Bank, territories that Palestinians seek for a future state.

Palestinian official Saeb Erekat called the move “the final nail in the coffin” for the U.S. role in peacemaking. The downgrade is just the latest in a string of divisive decisions by the Trump administration that have backed Israel and alienated the Palestinians, who say they have lost faith in the U.S. administration’s role as a neutral arbiter in peace process.

Last year the U.S. recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and relocated its embassy there, upending U.S. policy toward one of the most explosive issues of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The Palestinians in turn cut off most ties with the administration.

The administration also has slashed hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, including assistance to hospitals and peace-building programs. It has cut funding to the U.N. agency that provides aid to Palestinians classified as refugees. Last fall, it shut down the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington.

The Trump administration has cited the reluctance of Palestinian leaders to enter peace negotiations with Israel as the reason for such punitive measures, although the U.S. has yet to present its much-anticipated but still mysterious “Deal of the Century” to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, announced last month that the U.S. would unveil the deal after Israeli elections in April. The Palestinian Authority has preemptively rejected the plan, accusing the U.S. of bias toward Israel.

AP Diplomatic Writer Matthew Lee in Washington contributed to this report.

Israeli election may have dimmed hopes for 2-state solution

April 21, 2019

JERUSALEM (AP) — Is the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dead? After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coasted to another victory in this month’s Israeli election, it sure seems that way.

On the campaign trail, Netanyahu ruled out Palestinian statehood and for the first time, pledged to begin annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank. His expected coalition partners, a collection of religious and nationalist parties, also reject Palestinian independence.

Even his chief rivals, led by a trio of respected former military chiefs and a charismatic former TV anchorman, barely mentioned the Palestinian issue on the campaign trail and presented a vision of “separation” that falls far short of Palestinian territorial demands.

The two Jewish parties that dared to talk openly about peace with the Palestinians captured just 10 seats in the 120-seat parliament, and opinion polls indicate dwindling support for a two-state solution among Jewish Israelis.

“The majority of the people in the state of Israel no longer see a two-state solution as an option,” said Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy for the Yesha settler council, himself an opponent of Palestinian independence. “If we are looking for peace in this region, we will have to look for a different plan from the two-state solution.”

For the past 25 years, the international community has supported the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as the best way to ensure peace in the region.

The logic is clear. With the number of Arabs living on lands controlled by Israel roughly equal to Jews, and the Arab population growing faster, two-state proponents say a partition of the land is the only way to guarantee Israel’s future as a democracy with a strong Jewish majority. The alternative, they say, is either a binational state in which a democratic Israel loses its Jewish character or an apartheid-like entity in which Jews have more rights than Arabs.

After decades of fruitless negotiations, each side blames the other for failure. Israel says the Palestinians have rejected generous peace offers and promoted violence and incitement. The Palestinians say the Israeli offers have not been serious and point to Israel’s ever-expanding settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, now home to nearly 700,000 Israelis.

The ground further shifted after the Hamas militant group took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 and left the Palestinians divided between two governments, with one side — Hamas — opposed to peace with Israel. This ongoing rift is a major obstacle to negotiations with Israel, and has also left many Palestinians disillusioned with their leaders.

Since taking office a decade ago, Netanyahu has largely ignored the Palestinian issue, managing the conflict without offering a solution for how two peoples will live together in the future. After clashing with the international community for most of that time, he has found a welcome friend in President Donald Trump, whose Mideast team has shown no indication of supporting Palestinian independence.

Tamar Hermann, an expert on Israeli public opinion at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the election results do not necessarily mean that Israelis have given up on peace. Instead, she said the issue just isn’t on people’s minds.

“Most Israelis would say the status quo is preferable to all other options, because Israelis do not pay any price for it,” she said. “They don’t feel the outcome of the occupation. … Why change it?”

While the two-state prospects seem dim, its proponents still cling to the belief that the sides will ultimately come around, simply because there is no better choice. “Either Israel decides to be an apartheid state with a minority that is governing a majority of Palestinians, or Israel has to realize that there is no other solution but two states,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh told The Associated Press. “Unfortunately the Israeli prime minister is politically blind about these two facts.”

Shtayyeh noted the two-state solution continues to enjoy wide international backing. Peace, he insisted, is just a matter of “will” by Israel’s leaders. Dan Shapiro, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, said the two-state solution “is certainly getting harder” after the Israeli election but is not dead.

Getting there would require leadership changes on both sides, he said, pointing to the historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt 40 years ago, reached by two leaders who were sworn enemies just two years earlier.

“We know what’s possible when the right leadership is in place,” he said. “So that puts us supporters of it in a mode of trying to keep it alive and viable for the future.” That may be a tall task as the Israeli election results appear to reflect a deeper shift in public opinion.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute, which conducts monthly surveys of public opinion, support for the two-state solution among Jewish Israelis has plummeted from 69% in 2008, the year before Netanyahu took office, to 47% last year. Just 32% of Israelis between the ages of 18-34 supported a two-state solution in 2018. The institute typically surveys 600 people, with a margin of error of just over 4 percentage points.

Attitudes are changing on the Palestinian side as well. Khalil Shikaki, a prominent Palestinian pollster, said 31% of Palestinians seek a single binational state with full equality, a slight increase from a decade ago. His poll surveyed 1,200 people and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Although there was no breakdown by age group, Shikaki said the young are “clinging less to the two-state solution because they lost faith in the Palestinian Authority’s ability to provide a democratic state” and because the expanding settlements have created a new reality on the ground.

Amr Marouf, a 27-year-old restaurant manager in the city of Ramallah, said he maintains his official residence in a village located in the 60% of the West Bank that Israel controls, just in case Israel annexes the territory. That way, he believes, he can gain Israeli citizenship.

“I think the one state solution is the only viable solution,” he said. “We can be in Israel and ask for equal rights. Otherwise, we will live under military occupation forever.” Netanyahu is expected to form his new coalition government by the end of May, and he will come under heavy pressure from his partners to keep his promise to annex Israel’s West Bank settlements.

Such a step could extinguish any hopes of establishing a viable Palestinian state, particularly if the U.S. supports it. American officials, who have repeatedly sided with Israel, have said nothing against Netanyahu’s plan.

There is also the Trump administration’s long-delayed peace plan, which officials have signaled could finally be released this summer. U.S. officials have said little about the plan, but have indicated it will go heavy on economic assistance to the Palestinians while falling far short of an independent state along the 1967 lines.

Shtayyeh said such a plan would be a nonstarter. “This is a financial blackmail, which we reject,” he said.

Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.