Israeli foreign minister says annexation move unlikely Wednesday

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s foreign minister said a move toward the proposed annexation of occupied West Bank land was unlikely on Wednesday, the start date set by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government for discussing such a move.

“It seems unlikely to me that this will happen today,” Gabi Ashkenazi, a member of the centrist Blue and White party that is a coalition partner of Netanyahu’s conservative Likud, told Israel’s Army Radio.

“I reckon there will be nothing today, regarding (the extension of Israeli) sovereignty.”

Netanyahu and his senior coalition partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz are at odds over the timing of any unilateral annexation move.

After meeting U.S. envoys on Tuesday to discuss annexation within the framework of U.S. President Donald Trump’s Middle East peace plan, Netanyahu said such talks would continue for several days.

Trump’s proposal calls for Israeli sovereignty over about 30% of the West Bank – land on which Israel has built settlements for decades – as well as creation of a Palestinian state under strict conditions.

“There are very robust conversations with Israel on the Trump plan,” a U.S. official told Reuters after White House adviser Avi Berkowitz concluded his trip to Israel.

The Palestinians want to establish an independent state in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem, territories Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war and have rejected Trump’s plan, saying it would deny them a viable state.

Most world powers view Israel’s settlements as illegal. Israel disputes this, citing historical and biblical ties to the West Bank, as well as security needs.

In an editorial published in Israel’s largest selling newspaper on Wednesday, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson called for any annexation plans to be scrapped.

“Annexation would represent a violation of international law,” Johnson wrote in Yedioth Ahronoth, echoing remarks he made in parliament on June 16. “I profoundly hope that annexation does not go ahead. If it does, the UK will not recognize any changes to the 1967 lines, except those agreed between both parties.”

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Michael Perry and Timothy Heritage)

Major West Bank annexation move not imminent, Israeli minister signals

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli minister played down on Tuesday the likelihood of major moves to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank on July 1, the planned start date for cabinet debate on the issue.

Zeev Elkin, a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party, said Israel still did not have the green light it seeks from Washington to begin extending its sovereignty to parts of the West Bank, territory Palestinians seek for a state.

Netanyahu said in a speech he had met U.S. Ambassador David Friedman and White House adviser Avi Berkowitz to discuss “the sovereignty question,” adding: “We are working on it in these very days and will continue working on it in the coming days.”

Palestinian leaders, the United Nations, European powers and Arab countries have all denounced any annexation of land that Israeli forces captured in a 1967 war.

“Whoever painted a picture of everything happening in one day on July 1, did so at their own risk,” Elkin, minister of higher education, told Army Radio when asked what would happen on Wednesday. “From tomorrow, the clock will start ticking.”

No cabinet session for Wednesday has been announced.

Friedman and Berkowitz are in Israel as part of the White House’s efforts to win consensus within its government for annexation as envisioned in an Israeli-Palestinian peace plan announced by U.S. President Donald Trump in January.

The proposal calls for Israeli sovereignty over about 30% of the West Bank – land on which Israel has built settlements for decades – as well as creation of a Palestinian state under strict conditions.

Palestinians say the blueprint would make the state they seek in the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem unviable. Most world powers view Israel’s settlements as illegal. Netanyahu says the Jewish people have a legal, historic and moral claim to the West Bank, the biblical Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu and his main coalition government partner, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, are at odds over annexation, which the right-wing prime minister has promoted.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell and Timothy Heritage)

Cabinet post disputes delay Israeli government inauguration

(Reuters) – The planned inauguration on Thursday of an Israeli unity government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been postponed until Sunday, in last-minute wrangling over cabinet appointments, an official statement said.

Under a coalition deal with his former election rival, centrist Benny Gantz, Netanyahu would serve as prime minister for 18 months before the former armed forces chief replaces him.

Gantz had agreed to the delay in order to give Netanyahu more time to allocate cabinet posts to Netanyahu’s Likud party members, a joint statement said. Their unity government deal ends more than a year of political deadlock in which three inconclusive elections were held.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller)

Netanyahu and Gantz move closer to unity government in surprise twist

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, was elected Speaker of parliament on Thursday in a surprise manoeuvre that could herald a unity government keeping the veteran leader in power.

With only the partial backing of his centrist Blue and White party and the support of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, Gantz left many of his own political allies fuming over the smoothing of a path to partnership with a prime minister under criminal indictment.

The surprise twist in 48 hours of political drama plunged Blue and White in disarray. But Gantz’s move kept open the possibility of a “rotation” deal in which he and Netanyahu would take turns as prime minister.

Each has insisted on going first, following three inconclusive national elections in less than a year.

Netanyahu has proposed a “national emergency” government with Gantz to help tackle the coronavirus crisis.

Israel’s president, who enjoys wide public respect, had pressed them to join forces, with Israelis facing a possible national lockdown within days to try to lower infection rates.

“Israel is facing a growing number of (coronavirus)infections and the number of victims is rising daily,” Gantz told parliament, accepting the speaker’s gavel.

Gantz said he intended to advance towards a unity government, and that he had opted to put himself up for the Speaker’s office to promote a deal.

Gantz had ruled out serving with Netanyahu, citing the prime minister’s looming trial on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust, which he denies.

But Likud had threatened to abandon unity efforts if Blue and White’s original candidate for Speaker, an opponent of a partnership with Netanyahu, was chosen in the newly sworn-in parliament.

Mired in political deadlock, the prospects of Gantz forming an administration on his own had appeared slim.

At least one member of Netanyahu’s right-wing bloc, Defence Minister Naftali Bennett, publicly congratulated both Netanyahu and Gantz on a unity agreement, but there was no formal announcement that a deal had been reached.

(Editing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Angus MacSwan and Nick Macfie)

Netanyahu’s Likud to hold party leadership vote: challenger

By Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party will hold a leadership vote, a Likud challenger said on Sunday, as pressure mounted on the veteran leader to step aside after his indictment on corruption charges.

Israeli media reported the Likud primary would be held in six weeks. A party spokesman was not reachable to confirm the timeline.

Gideon Saar, a Likud lawmaker who has challenged Netanyahu, wrote on Twitter that he “welcomes the prime minister’s agreement to hold primaries for party leadership.”

Netanyahu’s indictment last Thursday came amid political disarray in Israel, after neither Netanyahu nor his main challenger in the general election, centrist Benny Gantz, secured a majority in parliament in April and September votes.

Netanyahu has denied the charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust and said he would stay in office and defend himself.

The four-term conservative leader projected business as usual on Sunday, touring the country’s northern frontier and ramping up rhetoric about Iranian threats.

Israel’s Supreme Court dismissed a petition by a watchdog group to force Netanyahu to step aside.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel had said in its court filing that the first criminal charges against a sitting prime minister constituted “the crossing of a red line and a grave blow to public trust in ruling institutions”.

The court dismissed the petition to force Netanyahu to resign or temporarily recuse himself from office. It said the watchdog had not yet exhausted other avenues, such as petitioning Netanyahu directly and Israel’s attorney general.

For his part, Netanyahu kept his focus on security and toured the Golan Heights with top military brass.

“I am doing everything needed to carry out government work, Cabinet work … in all necessary ways, to ensure the security of the citizens of Israel and the things that are crucial for Israel,” he said in a video statement.

He reiterated concerns over Iran’s attempt to entrench itself militarily in a number of Middle East countries and said Israel “will act to prevent Iran’s attempt to make Iraq and Yemen bases for rocket and missile launches against Israel.”

POLITICAL CHALLENGE

But Israeli news coverage remained focused on the political challenge. Commentators said other court petitions could follow.

Gantz’s mandate to form a government – after an unsuccessful attempt by Netanyahu to do so – expired on Wednesday. The next day, Israel’s president declared a three-week period in which lawmakers can nominate one of their own to try to put together a ruling coalition.

Should that fail, a new election – Israel’s third in a year – will be triggered.

Netanyahu’s hope of securing that parliamentary nomination was challenged by Saar.

“There is only one way in which we can save the country, extricate it from the crisis and ensure the Likud’s continued rule – and that is if we go to snap primaries today, within these 21 days,” Saar told Israel’s Channel 12 television.

A less adversarial proposal was launched by a second Likud lawmaker, Nir Barkat, who called for nominating a deputy to Netanyahu who would take his place should he be forced to take a leave of absence.

Saar previously said he would consider running for the top Likud slot.

While voicing appreciation for Netanyahu’s record-long term and noting he was innocent until proven otherwise, Saar criticised the premier’s attempts to cast his criminal prosecution as a “coup attempt” involving police, prosecutors and the media.

“Not only is it wrong to say that, it’s also irresponsible to say that. It’s completely out of touch,” Saar said.

The Likud party spokesman earlier in the day dismissed the challenge.

“It is sad to see that while Prime Minister Netanyahu keeps Israel safe on all fronts and works to preserve Likud rule, Gideon Saar, as is his wont, is displaying zero loyalty and maximum subversion,” the spokesman said.

(Reporting by Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jane Merriman and Peter Cooney)

Israel’s Netanyahu faces calls to quit but is defiant in crisis

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced calls to resign over a corruption scandal on Friday, as senior government colleagues publicly declared support after some signs of cracks in party loyalty.

Netanyahu said he would not quit after he was indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust by Israel’s attorney general on Thursday night.

The 70-year-old right-wing Likud Party leader denies all wrongdoing and denounced the indictment – the first against a sitting Israeli prime minister – as an “attempted coup.”

But his ability to lead a country mired in political crisis, after two inconclusive elections this year that failed to produce a government, is being questioned.

The centrist Blue and White Party headed by Netanyahu’s main rival, Benny Gantz, issued a statement calling on him to “immediately resign from all ministerial positions in the government”.

The party – which has 33 of parliament’s 120 seats to Likud’s 32 – said its lawyers had formally approached the prime minister and attorney general’s offices saying it was “imperative” that Netanyahu step down.

Under Israeli law, as prime minister he is under no obligation to do so. But with Israel heading towards a likely third election in less than a year, Netanyahu could soon find himself in the difficult position of trying to win an election while preparing to be prosecuted.

The support of his Likud party colleagues is likely to be crucial to Netanyahu’s chances of staying in power.

Two Likud lawmakers publicly broached holding a party leadership contest on Thursday, but even such mild expressions of disloyalty upset loyalists.

Senior ministers issued public statements declaring their support, and Justice Minister Amir Ohana said he was proud of his fellow Likud parliamentarians for standing by Netanyahu, adding pointedly: “Except for two of them.”

Netanyahu’s ultra-nationalist coalition partner Bezalel Smotrich, the transport minister, also offered sympathy for Netanyahu over the charges against him, announced by Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit on Thursday.

Smotrich said in a tweet that planned street protests in support of the prime minister were aimed at preventing “a predatory, violent and dangerous judicial dictatorship”.

After a national televised address on Thursday night Netanyahu himself kept a low profile on Friday, posting a tweet with heart and an Israeli flag emojis saying: “Thank you for your support and love. Shabbat Shalom.”

ELECTION SCHEDULE

But Israel’s election schedule could work against Netanyahu, Israel’s longest serving prime minister after 10 successive years in power plus three years in office in the 1990s.

President Reuven Rivlin on Thursday set a three-week deadline for lawmakers to nominate a new candidate from their own ranks to try to form a new government after Netanyahu and Gantz both failed to do after April and September elections.

If that also fails to produce a government, an election will be triggered in three months.

A source close to Rivlin said he expected appeals to disqualify Netanyahu as a candidate because of the indictment. If the president does so, Netanyahu could be ejected by Likud.

“Netanyahu’s great fear is that, amid the extraordinary constitutional crisis has been created, and amid the political and legal synchronization, he will emerge as the only member of parliament who cannot do this (form a government),” wrote Tal Shalev, political commentator for Israel’s Walla news site.

Two of the three cases involve news media outlets whose bosses allegedly received inducements from Netanyahu in return for more favourable coverage on his policies and personal conduct.

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams, Tova Cohen and Nidal al-Mughrabi. Editing by XX)

‘Dark days’ in Israel after PM and rival fail to form government, election looms

A combination picture shows Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv, Israel November 17, 2019, and leader of Blue and White party Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, Israel November 20, 2019. REUTERS/Nir Elias, Amir Cohen

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president told lawmakers on Thursday to name a candidate to form a new government after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and challenger Benny Gantz both failed, a move that probably sets the stage for a third election within a year.

“These are harsh dark days in the annals of the State of Israel,” President Reuven Rivlin said as he announced that the centrist Gantz had failed to muster enough support for a stable coalition following an unsuccessful attempt by the conservative Netanyahu.

During a 21-period mandated by law, Knesset legislators can nominate anyone in the 120-seat assembly to form a government.

If that fails, an election is triggered within 90 days, sending voters back to the polls for the third time within a year after inconclusive elections in April and September.

The prolonged stalemate comes at a tricky time for Israel on the domestic and international fronts.

Its conflict with arch foe Iran has deepened – Israeli warplanes hit Iranian targets in Syria on Wednesday after rockets were fired toward Israel – while the Palestinian issue remains unresolved as violence has flared anew.

Netanyahu’s caretaker cabinet has been unable to plug a gaping hole in government finances and the deficit has swelled over the past year. Relations between Israel’s Jewish majority and its Arab minority, and those between secular Israelis and ultra-Orthodox Jews are also at issue.

For Netanyahu, not securing another term as prime minister also has legal implications. It may increase his vulnerability to possible indictment on corruption charges. Under Israeli law, a sitting prime minister does not have to step down if charged.

Gantz and Netanyahu had looked at a power-share within a national unity government after they came neck-and-neck in both elections. But disputes about details, such as the timeline for rotating the premiership between them, were not resolved.

Turning to lawmakers on Thursday, Rivlin said: “In the coming 21 days, there will be no ‘bloc’ or ‘party’. Each and every person will sit alone with their conscience and will have to answer one question: What is my duty toward the State of Israel?”

But a new and successful candidate emerging from Israel’s fractious party system looked unlikely.

LEADERSHIP CONTEST

Within Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud Party there were stirrings of internal dissent, with two of its 32 lawmakers saying they would now favour a leadership contest.

Many citizens voiced resignation and rancour at a deadlock that has deepened worries over economic and national security matters.

“We’ve had enough of you! Let us know when you make a decision,” read the top headline on the mass-circulation Israel Hayom, alongside pictures of Netanyahu and Gantz as well as Avigdor Lieberman, a far-right political kingmaker.

Israel’s attorney-general is due to announce soon whether Netanyahu – Israel’s longest-serving prime minister – will be formally charged in three corruption cases. Netanyahu denies wrongdoing.

“It’s all about Bibi (Netanyahu) trying to escape jail and you know, we are all in trouble because of his personal problem,” said Nahum Tevet, a 72-year-old Tel Aviv artist.

“He should just step out and leave us alone, to be a normal state again, to have a normal government, to take care of all the problems – the social problems, political problems, economic problems – and God help us.”

(Writing by Dan Williams, editing by Stephen Farrell and Angus MacSwan)

‘King Bibi’ fights for his political life in Israeli election

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Twenty years after Benjamin Netanyahu’s first term as Israel’s prime minister ended, the man hailed by supporters as “King Bibi” is again fighting for his political survival in a rerun election.

Opinion polls predict a close race when Israel goes to the polls on Tuesday, five months after an inconclusive election in which Netanyahu declared himself the winner but failed to put together a coalition government.

“A Likud victory is possible but it’s hanging by a thread,” said Abraham Diskin, political science professor at Jerusalem’s Hebrew University, referring to Netanyahu’s right-wing party.

An end to the Netanyahu era after his 10 successive years in power would be unlikely to lead to a dramatic change in Israel’s policy on hotly disputed issues in a peace process with the Palestinians that collapsed five years ago.

Relations with the United States would be likely to remain on track, despite Netanyahu’s close relationship with President Donald Trump.

Likud is running neck-and-neck with the centrist Blue and White party led by former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, who has focused heavily on looming corruption charges Netanyahu faces.

But Netanyahu’s political fate could ultimately end up in the hands of the far-right Yisrael Beitenu headed by former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a potential kingmaker in the coalition-building certain to follow the vote.

After the election in April, Lieberman blocked Netanyahu’s attempts to form a coalition, citing differences with the prime minister’s ultra-Orthodox allies. Opinion polls indicate Yisrael Beitenu will emerge stronger in the new ballot.

ANNEXATION

Netanyahu has campaigned hard to avoid losing power, as he did in 1999 against then-Labour party leader Ehud Barak, appearing in hours of live video question-and-answer sessions on Facebook in recent weeks and dominating the news in Israel.

In a step this week that alarmed Palestinian and other Arab leaders but delighted his core right-wing constituency, Netanyahu announced his intention to annex the Jordan Valley in the occupied West Bank.

It was, Israeli political commentators said, a clear attempt to draw votes away from far-right parties.

Netanyahu hammered home a get-out-the-vote message: Applying Israeli sovereignty to the valley, which Palestinians want as part of a future state, will happen only if Likud emerges from the election as the biggest party in the Knesset (parliament).

In Israel, votes are cast for a party’s list of Knesset candidates. Since no party has ever won a majority of seats on its own, Israel has always been ruled by coalitions, making post-election political bargaining key to determining the ultimate winner.

Netanyahu has burnished a statesman’s image during the campaign, visiting Britain last week for talks with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper, and meeting President Vladimir Putin in Russia on Thursday.

Netanyahu has also showcased his relationship with Trump, featuring posters in which both are shaking hands. But there has been no sign from Trump of a “grand gesture” that could bolster Netanyahu as a candidate.

Shortly before the last election, with the prime minister at his side, Trump signed a proclamation recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. Israel captured the strategic area in a 1967 war and annexed it in 1981, moves not accepted by most world powers, who deem it to be occupied Syrian territory.

“NATIONAL UNITY”

The line-up of challengers this time is similar to the one Netanyahu faced in the previous election, with Blue and White his biggest threat.

Blue and White has said it would “strengthen the settlement blocs” in the West Bank, with the Jordan Valley as Israel’s “eastern security border”. But that falls short of an outright commitment to annex the valley, and a party spokesman said a Blue and White-led government would “maintain an open channel” for a peace deal with the Palestinians.

Most of the international community regards the Israeli settlements as illegal, a view that Israel disputes.

The spokesman said the party would seek “the return of bipartisanship to Israel-U.S. relations”, a reference to Netanyahu’s close ties with Trump and his Republican party and sharp differences with the Democrats over issues such as Iran’s nuclear program and Middle East peacemaking.

After an election in Israel, its president gauges, following consultations with all political parties that won parliamentary seats, which legislator stands the best chance of forming a government.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz hope to be tapped, but a photo finish would complicate the picture.

A “national unity” government could avoid or resolve a stalemate if a Likud-led right-wing coalition or a Blue and White-led center-left alliance prove impossible.

Gantz has said his party would not join a government with Netanyahu in it, citing the prime minister’s legal troubles.

If a partnership with Gantz is the only way to stay out of the backbenches, prominent Likud members could try to topple Netanyahu as party leader, some political analysts have said.

Blue and White tied with Likud on 35 seats in the April election, and Gantz is seen by some voters as “Mr Clean”.

“His low-key style and relative ineloquence are for many a modest man’s refreshing antitheses to Bibi’s perceived bluster and soloism. Gantz is seen as balanced, cautious and pragmatic,” said Amotz Asa-El, a research fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalom Hartman Institute.

Two weeks after the election, Israel’s attorney-general will hold a pre-trial hearing in which Netanyahu can argue against his announced intention to file fraud and bribery charges against him in the corruption investigations.

Netanyahu, who has denied any wrongdoing, has said he will not quit as prime minister if indicted, and there is no legal obligation to do so. Allies have said they will press parliament to grant Netanyahu, as a member of the body, immunity from prosecution.

After election night, it could all come down to Yisrael Beitenu’s Lieberman, at odds with Netanyahu’s traditional ultra-Orthodox partners over military conscription exemptions for Jewish seminary students.

Lieberman, whose party is projected to double its April Knesset seat tally to 10, has said Yisrael Beitenu will not join up with a Netanyahu administration after Tuesday’s vote if it includes the religious factions.

Netanyahu’s annexation plans: https://graphics.reuters.com/ISRAEL-ELECTION/0100B2981B3/ISRAEL-ELECTION.jpg

(Additional reporting by Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Netanyahu opposes Iran talks after Trump moots meeting Rouhani

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a state memorial ceremony at the Tomb of the Patriarchs, a shrine holy to Jews and Muslims, in Hebron in the Israeli-occupied West Bank September 4, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

LONDON (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu urged world powers on Thursday not to open a dialogue with Iran, after U.S. President Donald Trump said he may meet his Iranian counterpart to resolve a crisis over Tehran’s nuclear project and sanctions against it.

“This is not the time to hold talks with Iran. This is the time to increase the pressure on Iran,” Netanyahu told reporters en route to London, where he was hosted by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and was later scheduled to confer with U.S. Defense Secretary Mark Esper.

Netanyahu’s comments marked rare public discord between the right-wing Israeli leader and Trump on the Iranian nuclear issue. Netanyahu had previously counseled France against its own outreach to Iran.

The Israeli leader, who is fighting for his political life in an election on Sept. 17, regularly touts his influence with Western leaders, especially fellow rightwingers such as Trump and Johnson, as vital for Israeli security. His opponents say his closeness to rightwing figures abroad hurts Israel by making support for it a partisan issue in friendly countries.

On Wednesday, Trump left the door open to a possible meeting with Iranian President Hassan Rouhani at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly in New York, saying: “Anything’s possible. They would like to be able to solve their problem.”

Tehran has rejected any negotiations with Washington unless Trump drops sanctions he imposed after quitting the 2015 Iranian nuclear deal, an agreement Netanyahu had savaged as inadequate.

Iran has said that, starting on Friday, it would begin developing centrifuges to speed up the enrichment of uranium, which can produce fuel for power plants or for atomic bombs. The Iranians deny seeking nuclear weapons.

The centrifuge move would be Iran’s latest reduction of its commitments to restrict nuclear projects under the 2015 deal.

Netanyahu called this “another violation, another provocation by Iran, this time in the realm of its quest for nuclear weaponry”.

Meeting Johnson at 10 Downing Street, Netanyahu praised the politically embattled British leader for his “staunch stance against anti-Semitism and … support for Israel’s security”.

“We have the challenge of Iran’s aggression and terrorism, and I’d like to talk to you about how we can work together to counter these things for the benefit of peace,” Netanyahu told Johnson, according to an official Israeli transcript.

Like other European partners to the Iran nuclear deal, Britain was worried by the U.S. withdrawal. Johnson, while openly sympathetic to Israel, wants to preserve a vision of Palestinian statehood that has eroded under Netanyahu’s tenure.

Netanyahu – who has doubled as defense minister for the past 10 months, a period of stepped-up Israeli operations against Iranian targets in the region – brought his air force chief and top military mission planner for the London meeting with Esper.

Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz told Ynet TV that Netanyahu and Esper would discuss “everything that happens in the space between Syria, Lebanon, Iraq,” an allusion to the often clandestine Israeli military campaign.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Toby Chopra and Peter Graff)

Israel’s Netanyahu wins re-election with parliamentary majority: tally

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures after he speaks following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a clear path to re-election on Wednesday, with religious-rightist parties set to hand him a parliamentary majority despite a close contest against his main centrist challenger, a vote tally showed.

With more than 97 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party looked likely to muster enough support to control 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and be named to head the next coalition government. It would be his record fifth term as premier.

President Reuven Rivlin said on Twitter he would begin meeting next week with political parties that won parliamentary seats to hear who they support for prime minister.

At the sessions, which Rivlin said would be broadcast live “to ensure transparency”, he will then pick a party leader to try to form a coalition, giving the candidate 28 days to do so, with a two-week extension if needed.

The close and often vitriolic contest was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on Netanyahu’s character and record in the face of corruption allegations. He faces possible indictment in three graft cases, and has denied wrongdoing in all of them.

Despite that, Netanyahu gained four seats compared to his outgoing coalition government, according to a spreadsheet published by the Central Elections Committee of parties that garnered enough votes to enter the next parliament.

“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv after Tuesday’s vote.

“He’s a magician!” the crowd chanted as fireworks flared and Netanyahu kissed his wife Sara.

Tel Aviv Stock Exchange main indexes were up nearly 1 percent in late trading on Wednesday, displaying confidence in a veteran prime minister who has overseen a humming economy and blunted various security threats, including from Syria.

His challenger, the new Blue and White party of ex-army chief Benny Gantz, claimed a more modest victory after winning a 35-seat tie with Likud. Unless he reverses on campaign pledges to shun Netanyahu, and joins him in a broad coalition, Gantz looked destined to lead a center-left parliamentary opposition.

“The skies may look overcast…but they cannot conceal the sun of hope that we have brought to the Israeli people and society,” Gantz, 59, wrote in an open letter to supporters.

Should Netanyahu retain the helm, he will become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister in July, overtaking the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. That could be scuppered if criminal charges are filed and force his removal.

IMMUNITY?

An indictment decision would follow a review hearing where Netanyahu can be expected to argue he should be spared in the national interest. Some analysts predict he may try to pass a law granting himself immunity, as a sitting leader, from trial.

During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who delighted Israelis and angered Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moving the U.S. Embassy to the holy city last May.

Two weeks before the election, Trump signed a proclamation, with Netanyahu at his side at the White House, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

In a rare turn during the race toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu further alarmed Palestinians by pledging to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if re-elected. Palestinians seek a state there and in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

This pre-election promise from Netanyahu was widely seen as an attempt to draw right-wing votes rather than a change of policy. But with Trump’s moves on Jerusalem and the Golan, the prime minister may feel emboldened to advocate annexation.

Commenting on the election, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said: “Israelis have voted to preserve the status quo. They have said no to peace and yes to the occupation”.

The last round of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014.

Trump is expected to release his administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan after the election. If it includes Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s probable far-right coalition allies will likely object.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Ha’ayin, Ron Bousso and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa, Rahaf Ruby, Stephen Farrell, Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Angus MacSwan/Mark Heinrich)