Explainer: Israel’s election – will Netanyahu survive?

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote on Tuesday for the second time in less than six months in an election that could see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win a record fifth term – or end his decade-long dominance of Israeli politics.

He faces formidable challengers to his reign and, after the vote, possible criminal charges in three corruption cases.

The last polls taken before election day show a race that is too close to call. They predict Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party tied with the centrist Blue and White, with neither securing an outright majority.

However, about 10 parties are likely to win parliament seats. The polls also show increasing support for a right-wing, pro-Netanyahu bloc of factions that could hand him a victory.

Here are a number of possible scenarios for how the election could play out:

1. NETANYAHU WINS CONTROL OF MAJORITY OF KNESSET SEATS

Likud, together with the three right-wing and religious parties that have already declared their support for him, win a majority. With at least 61 lawmakers, Netanyahu would have little trouble assembling a coalition similar to his outgoing cabinet, which supported his hawkish position on Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal, and took a tough stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the run-up to the election Netanyahu said he would annex the Jordan Valley and all the settlements Israel has built in the occupied West Bank – land the Palestinians seek for a state. Such a move would delight Netanyahu’s far-right allies.

2. NO CLEAR WINNER AND NETANYAHU UNITY GOVERNMENT

After election day, Israel’s president consults with party leaders, asking them who they would support for prime minister. President Reuven Rivlin then asks the candidate he believes has the best chance to try to form a government. Netanyahu had his opportunity after the previous election in April, but failed within the allocated 42 days. Rather than risk Rivlin appointing someone else to try, Netanyahu opted for a second election.

If he is again chosen, and again faces a stalemate, Netanyahu could go outside his bloc of right-wing and Jewish religious parties to form a so-called “national unity” government with those who are not his natural allies.

That would likely mean his strongest rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White. But Gantz has said he would not join a Netanyahu-led government, citing possible corruption indictments against Netanyahu. But Israeli politics are famously fluid, with ever-shifting fealties.

3. NO CLEAR WINNER, CENTER-RIGHT GOVERNMENT FORMED WITHOUT NETANYAHU

If Netanyahu again fails to form a government, his own party could oust him to pave the way for a governing coalition between Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White, leaving Netanyahu in the political wilderness.

So far, no one in Likud has publicly broached such an idea. That could change if Netanyahu comes up short in coalition talks.

4. NETANYAHU CLEARLY DEFEATED, CENTER-LEFT GOVERNMENT

If the center and left-wing parties garner a majority in parliament, Gantz would head a government that could include his own party as well as the Labor Party and the newly-formed, environmentalist and secularist Democratic Camp, without needing an alliance with the right. It would be the first time since the 1990s that the left controlled parliament. But with an electorate shifting steadily toward the right, polls are not showing much likelihood of such a scenario.

However, if a left-leaning coalition were ultimately formed, it would be likely to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians and be more open to concessions as part of a lasting peace accord. It could also be more accepting of the nuclear deal struck between world powers and Iran.

5. NO CLEAR WINNER, NEW ELECTIONS

If no candidate can form a government, Israel would head to another snap election. But lawmakers are likely to do all they can to avoid a third this year.

HOW DOES THE ISRAELI ELECTION WORK?

The 120 Knesset (parliament) seats are allocated by proportional representation to party lists. In order to win seats, a party must get at least 3.25 percent of the national vote, equivalent to 4 seats. In the election in April, Likud and Blue and White came out on top, tied at 35 seats each. No one party has ever won an outright majority of the 120-seat Knesset in 71 years of nationhood. This makes post-election coalitions the key to victory, and negotiations can stretch on for weeks.

WHO’S THE KINGMAKER?

According to the polls, it is Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish ex-defense minister. Polls suggest the ultra-nationalist settler will double his seats from five to about 10. Lieberman, head of the Israel Beitenu party, has said he would only join a unity government comprised of Likud and Blue and White.

However, Lieberman is something of a wild card and has made unpredictable moves in the past.

WHAT ABOUT NETANYAHU’S LEGAL WOES?

Israel’s attorney-general, who has announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in three corruption investigations, is expected to decide whether to formally charge him by the end of 2019 after a pre-trial hearing in October, during which Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, can argue against indictment.

A majority in the Knesset could grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution until the end of his term. Some of his prospective allies signaled they would support such a move, but it would probably draw a public outcry and legal challenges at the Supreme Court. Even if indicted, Netanyahu would not be under strict legal obligation to step down. His right-wing and religious allies are not expected to pressure him to resign, even if he is charged.

WHAT ABOUT TRUMP’S PEACE PLAN

Netanyahu has said he expects U.S. President Donald Trump to release his long-delayed plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace soon after the election. If Netanyahu wins and forms a right-wing cabinet, he would have a hard time getting his far-right allies to sign on to any peace plan involving concessions to the Palestinians. This could either destabilize the government or bury the Trump plan. A cabinet with Gantz in it would likely be more open to negotiations with the Palestinians.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

Former Netanyahu aide Lieberman could be Israeli kingmaker

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A former nightclub bouncer with a heavy Russian accent, Avigdor Lieberman used to carry a fresh change of shirt for his political boss, Benjamin Netanyahu.

He is now one of Israel’s most prominent politicians and opinion polls suggest he could emerge as a kingmaker after an election on Tuesday, putting him in a position where he could possibly end the prime minister’s decade in power. [nL5N25W3VZ]

After working as an aide to the right-wing Netanyahu, Lieberman quit the Likud Party and formed the far-right Yisrael Beitenu. He then went on to serve in a string of governments, including under Netanyahu, but quit as his defense chief last November in protest at a ceasefire in Gaza.

Since Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government after an election in April, Lieberman, 61, has refocused his political strategy to attract new supporters.

With opinion polls predicting Yisrael Beitenu will double to 10 the number of parliamentary seats it won in the election five months ago, Lieberman could be the linchpin in determining the composition and leadership of the next governing coalition.

It was Lieberman who handed Netanyahu a rare defeat after the April election. Netanyahu needed Yisrael Beignet’s five seats to secure a majority of 61 in the 120-member parliament but Lieberman rejected his approaches.

Lieberman is pushing for a “national unity” government after Tuesday’s poll that would include his own party, Netanyahu’s Likud and its strongest challenger, the centrist Blue and White party, but exclude what he calls “messianic” religious factions.

Where Netanyahu fits in is anyone’s guess. Blue and White’s leader, Benny Gantz, citing looming corruption indictments against the prime minister, says he is open to teaming up with Likud, but not if it is led by Netanyahu.

So far, potential successors to Netanyahu, who has denied wrongdoing in three criminal cases against him, have remained loyal. But no one party has ever won an outright parliamentary majority on its own in Israel and national politics are fluid.

“(Lieberman) has an ability to crown the next prime minister – and he knows it very well,” said Dmitri Doubov, editor in chief of Israel’s Russian-language Channel 9 television.

“I don’t think that he sees himself as the next prime minister but he can set the conditions for the next coalition to define it as he wants, as he sees fit.”

CHANGE OF FOCUS

With campaign billboards reading “Make Israel Normal Again”, Lieberman’s far-right political platform includes support for Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.

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

Lieberman, a settler himself who in his younger days also worked as an airport baggage handler, also calls for conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military.

Unlike other 18-year-old Israeli Jews, Orthodox seminary students are exempt from compulsory service. Lieberman gave his differences with an ultra-Orthodox party over a conscription bill as the reason for refusing to join the coalition Netanyahu had seemed poised to form after the election in April.

Lieberman’s frequent complaints about ultra-Orthodox political power and influence over everyday life in Israel, including the administration of marriage and divorce, have played well with his Russian-speaking immigrants, some of whom are not Jewish according to ritual law.

If the opinion polls showing a surge in support for Yisrael Beitenu are correct, his message is also now resonating with secular Israelis outside his power base.

In the port city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, Jonathan Joseph Motro, a 28-year-old student, said he was looking for a candidate who was right-wing but not in step with the ultra-Orthodox. Lieberman fits the bill, he said.

“I voted Likud for a long time, now I’m voting for Lieberman,” Motro said.

Speaking at a public forum of “influencers” organized by Israel’s Channel 12 TV last week, Lieberman said in his usual deadpan delivery that “there is nothing personal” in his criticism of Netanyahu.

Back in the days of their early relationship, Lieberman would be at Netanyahu’s side during campaigning.

“Lieberman scheduled Netanyahu’s visits to Likud branches around the country, arriving in advance with signs to hang in the hall and a crisp powder-blue shirt for his fastidious boss to change into before his speech, Anshel Pfeffer, author of a Netanyahu biography, wrote in the Haaretz newspaper.

At the Channel 12 event, Lieberman said he did not rule out Netanyahu as a political ally or underestimate a veteran leader hailed by chanting Likud faithful after previous election victories as a “magician”.

“(But) I will not go to a Halacha government,” he said, in a reference to Jewish ritual law and ultra-Orthodox party participation in a coalition.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Explainer: Israel’s election – will Netanyahu survive?

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote next week for the second time in less than six months in an election that could see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win a record fifth term – or end his decade-long dominance of Israeli politics.

He faces new and formidable challengers to his reign and, after the vote, possible criminal charges in three corruption cases. Recent polls have shown Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party tied with the centrist Blue and White. They also show that neither party will secure an outright majority.

Here are a number of possible scenarios for how the Sept. 17 election could play out:

1. NETANYAHU WINS CONTROL OF MAJORITY OF KNESSET SEATS

Likud, together with the three right-wing and religious parties that have already declared their support for him, win a majority. With at least 61 lawmakers, Netanyahu would have relatively little trouble assembling a coalition similar to his outgoing cabinet, which supported his hawkish position on Iran and its 2015 nuclear deal and took a tough stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the run-up to the election, Netanyahu has vowed to annex the settlements Israel has built in the occupied West Bank – land the Palestinians want for a state. Such a move would delight Netanyahu’s far-right allies.

2. NO CLEAR WINNER AND NETANYAHU UNITY GOVERNMENT

After election day, Israel’s president consults with party leaders, asking them who they would support for prime minister. President Reuven Rivlin then asks the candidate he believes has the best chance to try and form a government. Netanyahu had his opportunity after the previous election in April but failed within the allocated 42 days. Rather than risk Rivlin appointing someone else to try, Netanyahu opted for a second election.

If he is again chosen, and again faces a stalemate, Netanyahu could go outside his bloc of right-wing and Jewish religious parties to form a so-called “national unity” government with those who are not his natural allies.

That would likely mean his strongest rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White. But Gantz has said he would not join a Netanyahu-led government, citing looming possible corruption indictments against Netanyahu. But Israeli politics are famously fluid, with ever-shifting fealties.

3. NO CLEAR WINNER, CENTER-RIGHT GOVERNMENT FORMED WITHOUT NETANYAHU

If Netanyahu again fails again to form a government, his own party could oust him to pave the way for a governing coalition between Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White, leaving Netanyahu in the political wilderness.

So far, no one in Likud has publicly broached such an idea. But that could change if Netanyahu again comes up short in coalition talks.

4. NETANYAHU CLEARLY DEFEATED, CENTER-LEFT GOVERNMENT

If the center and left-wing parties garner a majority in parliament, Gantz would head a government that could include his own party as well as the Labour Party and the newly-formed, environmentalist and secularist Democratic Camp, without needing an alliance with the right. It would be the first time since the 1990s that the left controlled parliament although, with an electorate shifting steadily toward the right, polls are not showing much likelihood of such a scenario. However, if a left-leaning coalition were ultimately formed, it would likely pursue peace talks with the Palestinians and be more open to concessions toward them as part of a lasting peace accord. It could also be more accepting of the nuclear deal struck between world powers and Iran.

5. NO CLEAR WINNER, NEW ELECTIONS

If no candidate can form a government, Israel would head to another snap election. But lawmakers are likely to do all they can to avoid a third this year.

HOW DOES THE ISRAELI ELECTION WORK?

The 120 Knesset seats are allocated by proportional representation to party lists. In order to win seats, a party must get at least 3.25 percent of the national vote, equivalent to 4 seats. In the election in April, Likud and Blue and White came out on top, tied at 35 seats each. No one party has ever won an outright majority of the 120-seat Knesset (parliament) in 71 years of nationhood. This makes post-election coalitions the key to victory, and negotiations can stretch on for weeks.

WHO’S THE KINGMAKER?

According to the polls, it’s Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish ex-defense minister. Polls suggest the ultra-nationalist settler will double his seats from five to around 10. Lieberman, head of the Israel Beitenu party, has said he would only join a unity government comprised of Likud and Blue and White.

However, Lieberman is something of a wild card and has made unpredictable moves in the past.

WHAT ABOUT NETANYAHU’S LEGAL WOES?

Israel’s attorney-general, who has announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in three corruption investigations, is expected to decide whether to formally charge him by the end of 2019 after a pre-trial hearing in October, during which Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, can argue against indictment.

A majority in the Knesset could grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution until the end of his term. Some of his prospective allies signaled they would support such a move, but it would probably draw a public outcry and legal challenges at the Supreme Court. Yet even if indicted, Netanyahu would not be under strict legal obligation to step down. His right-wing and religious allies are not expected to pressure him to resign, even if he is charged.

WHAT ABOUT TRUMP’S “DEAL OF THE CENTURY”?

Netanyahu has said he expects U.S. President Donald Trump to release his long-delayed plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace soon after the election. If Netanyahu wins and forms a right-wing cabinet, he would have a hard time getting his far-right allies to sign on to any peace plan involving concessions to the Palestinians. This could either destabilize the government or bury the Trump plan. A cabinet with Gantz in it would likely be more open to give-and-take negotiations with the Palestinians.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich)

Barr defends Trump before release of special counsel’s Russia report

By Sarah N. Lynch

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. Attorney General William Barr on Thursday offered a spirited defense of President Donald Trump ahead of the release of Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russia’s role in the 2016 U.S. election, but revealed that it detailed 10 episodes of potential obstruction of justice by the president.

Barr, the top U.S. law enforcement official and a Trump appointee, gave a news conference at the Justice Department as he sought to shape the narrative on a watershed day in Trump’s tumultuous presidency.

Barr is one of a handful of people to have seen the report before its release later on Thursday. He emphasized that Mueller did not conclude there was collusion between Trump’s campaign and Moscow.

The attorney general previously said Mueller had not exonerated Trump on the question of whether the president had committed the crime of obstruction of justice by trying to impede the Russia inquiry.

At the news conference, Barr said the report details “ten episodes” involving Trump and “discusses potential legal theories for connecting these actions to elements of an obstruction offense.” Barr said he concluded Trump had not committed obstruction of justice.

Barr said he and Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, who appointed Mueller as special counsel in May 2017, “disagreed with some of the special counsel’s legal theories and felt that some of the episodes examined did not amount to obstruction as a matter of law.”

“Apart from whether the acts were obstructive, this evidence of non-corrupt motives weighs heavily against any allegation that the president had a corrupt intent to obstruct the investigation,” Barr said.

The prospect of the Democratic-led House of Representatives beginning an impeachment process to remove Trump from office receded with the release of Mueller’s initial findings last month.

Some House Democrats had spoken of launching impeachment proceedings against Trump in Congress but top Democrats have been notably cautious. Any such effort would be unlikely to be successful because Trump fellow Republicans controls the Senate, which would decide the president’s fate.

The report’s disclosure, with portions expected to be blacked out by Barr to protect some sensitive information, is certain to launch a new political fight in Congress and on the 2020 presidential campaign trail, as Trump seeks re-election in a deeply divided country.

BARR DEFENDS TRUMP

“President Trump faced an unprecedented situation. As he entered into office and sought to perform his responsibilities as president, federal agents and prosecutors were scrutinizing his conduct before and after taking office and the conduct of some of his associates,” Barr said.

“At the same time, there was relentless speculation in the news media about the president’s personal culpability. Yet, as he said from the beginning, there was in fact no collusion,” added Barr.

Moments after Barr concluded his news conference, Trump posted an image of himself on Twitter surrounded by fog with the words: “No collusion. No obstruction. For the haters and the radical left Democrats – GAME OVER.”

Barr said Trump’s personal lawyers “were given the opportunity to read a final version of the redacted report before it was publicly released,” a revelation certain to infuriate congressional Democrats.

“The Russian government sought to interfere in our election process but thanks to the special counsel’s thorough investigation, we now know that the Russian operatives who perpetrated these schemes did not have the cooperation of President Trump or the Trump campaign,” Barr said.

The report promises to provide new details about some of the biggest questions in the investigation, including the extent and nature of his campaign’s interactions with Russia and actions Trump may have taken to hinder the inquiry including his 2017 firing of FBI Director James Comey.

Mueller submitted the report to Barr on March 22. Two days later, Barr told lawmakers the inquiry did not establish that Trump’s 2016 campaign team engaged in a criminal conspiracy with Russia and that Mueller had not reached a formal conclusion on obstruction of justice.

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, flanked by Edward O'Callaghan, Acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General (L) and Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, speaks at a news conference to discuss Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, in Washington, U.S., April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

U.S. Attorney General William Barr, flanked by Edward O’Callaghan, Acting Principal Associate Deputy Attorney General (L) and Deputy U.S. Attorney General Rod Rosenstein, speaks at a news conference to discuss Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s report on Russian interference in the 2016 U.S. presidential race, in Washington, U.S., April 18, 2019. REUTERS/Jonathan Ernst

Barr seemed to offer cover for Trump’s actions by saying the report acknowledges that “there is substantial evidence to show that the president was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”

Justice Department regulations give Barr broad authority to decide how much of the report to make public.

“That’s the bottom line. After nearly two years of investigations, thousands of subpoenas, hundreds of warrants and witness interviews, the special counsel confirmed that the Russian government-sponsored efforts to illegally interfere in the 2016 presidential election but did not find that the Trump campaign or other Americans colluded in those efforts,” Barr said.

The release of the report may deepen an already bitter partisan rift between Trump’s fellow Republicans, most of whom have rallied around the president, and his Democratic critics, who will have to decide how hard to go after Trump as they prepare congressional investigations of his administration.

Wall Street took Barr’s comments in stride, with the S&P 500 holding slight gains during the news conference then slipping into negative territory after it ended.

Democrats were furious that Barr held a news conference on the report before it was provided to Congress.

Copies of the report will be delivered to Congress between 11 a.m. and noon (1500-1600 GMT), a senior Justice Department official said. The delay in seeing the report sparked Democratic complaints that Barr wanted to shape the public’s views during his news conference before others had a chance to draw their own conclusions.

Barr said “significant portions” of the report could have been kept secret because of a legal doctrine called executive privilege that lets the president withhold information about executive branch deliberations from other branches of government, but were not redacted.

(Reporting by Sarah N. Lynch; Additional reporting by David Morgan, Doina Chiacu, Andy Sullivan, Jan Wolfe, Nathan Layne, Karen Freifeld and Makini Brice; Writing by John Whitesides and Will Dunham, Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and Alistair Bell)

Israelis go to polls to decide on Netanyahu’s record reign

Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu casts his vote with his wife Sara during Israel's parliamentary election in Jerusalem April 9, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Dan Williams and Ari Rabinovitch

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis began voting on Tuesday in an election that could hand right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term or see him dethroned by an ex-general who has pledged clean government and social cohesion.

During the campaign leading up to polling day, the rival parties waged a vitriolic online battle, accusing each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Netanyahu’s closest rival in the campaign was Benny Gantz, a former chief of the armed forces. Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party, which includes other former generals, has challenged Netanyahu’s hitherto unrivalled national security credentials.

After an election eve visit to the Western Wall, Netanyahu, 69, voted at a polling station in Jerusalem on Tuesday morning, accompanied by his wife, Sara.

“This is truly the essence of democracy and we should be blessed with it,” he said, shaking hands with election officials and posing for selfies. “With God’s help the State of Israel will prevail. Thank you very much. Go to vote.”

Casting his vote in Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, Gantz, 59, said: “This is a day of hope, a day of unity. I look into everyone’s eyes and know that we can connect.”

After the election, Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult the leaders of every party represented in the Knesset and select the person he believes has the best chance of forming a government.

Polling stations opened at 7 a.m. (0400 GMT) across the country and will close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT).

But the victor may not be decided immediately. No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, meaning days or even weeks of coalition negotiations lie ahead.

One factor may be the turnout of voters from Israel’s 21 percent Arab minority. Many were angered by Israel’s nation-state law, passed in 2018, which declared that only Jews have the right of self-determination in the country. Netanyahu supported the legislation.

Voting in a predominantly Arab neighborhood in the northern Israeli city of Haifa, Arab legislator Ayman Odeh, who heads the Hadash party, said that engagement was key to bringing about political changes that would benefit the Arab community.

“We have to vote … we need to come in droves by train, bus, car and any other way to vote and make a crucial contribution to topple the right-wing government, and especially Benjamin Netanyahu,” he said.

“It is very important that Arabs vote for the party that represents their values 100 percent, not 80 or 40 percent like other parties,” he said. Some Arabs have indicated they will vote for left-wing or centrist Israeli parties instead of party lists dominated by Arab candidates.

According to figures released by Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, Israel’s roughly 9 million population included 1.9 million Arabs at the start of 2019. Most were Muslims, Christians or Druze. Jews made up 74.3 percent of the population.

OPINION DIVIDED

Voting at a polling station in Rosh Ha’ayin near Tel Aviv, gynecologist Yaron Zalel, 64, said he supported Gantz.

“Netanyahu did a lot of great things for Israel, really, a lot of great things. But he is 13 years in power and enough is enough,” he said.

“He has had enough, he did enough. Now when he feels his earth, the political earth, is shaking, he is destroying everything. This has to be stopped. I am here for my kids and the next generations. There is no one who can’t be replaced.”

Backing Netanyahu was another voter at the same polling station, Avi Gur, 65, a lecturer at Ariel University in a settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.

“Very excited, very excited. I hope that rightism will win,” he said, adding that the Likud leader was “the best prime minister there has ever been” in Israel.

“We are leading in high tech, we are leading in security, we are leading in the economy now. That’s good.”

In Jerusalem, Ronza Barakat, a librarian belonging to Israel’s Arab minority, said she backed the left-wing Meretz party.

“I voted for them hoping for change, a change in the racism that exists here,” she said. “We live together in a place of peace, why should hate exist between people?”

With little policy daylight between the two main candidates on issues such as Iran and relations with the Palestinians, much of the voting will be guided by judgments on character and personality.

CAMPAIGN RHETORIC

Netanyahu casts himself as the victim of media bias and judicial overreach, Gantz as a salve for Israel’s religiously and ethnically riven society and its ties with liberal Jews abroad.

But the distinctions between the leading parties in Israel were not as clear as they were in past decades, said Nabil Shaath, a veteran adviser to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“There were times when elections were important,” he said on Monday. “But now, what are you talking about? It’s the right, and then further to the right and then the extreme right and then further to the extreme right. There is really no left left in Israel.”

(Writing by Dan Williams; Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Ha’ayin; Ron Bousso and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa; Rahaf Ruby and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem; Editing by Larry King)

Israel’s election explained: first the vote, then the kingmaking

A man holds a Likud election campaign poster depicting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as he stands behind a stall at Mahane Yehuda Market in Jerusalem April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote in a parliamentary election on Tuesday, choosing among party lists of candidates to serve in the 120-seat Knesset.

No party has won a majority of seats since Israel’s first election in 1949. Following are questions and answers about the vote and what sort of coalition negotiations could emerge:

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER POLLS CLOSE?

Israel’s major television stations and news websites issue exit polls when voting ends at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT) on Tuesday, estimating how many parliamentary seats each party has won, and then the coalition calculations begin.

WHO’S AHEAD IN OPINION POLLS?

Final polls in the campaign, on Friday, showed that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had fallen behind his main challenger, centrist Benny Gantz, but still has an easier path to form a government that would keep him in power for a record fifth term.

HOW DOES COALITION-BUILDING WORK?

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, consults with the leaders of every party represented in parliament as to their preference for prime minister, and then chooses the legislator who he believes has the best chance of putting together a coalition. The nominee, who does not necessarily have to be the head of the party that won the most votes, has up to 42 days to form a government before the president asks another politician to try.

WHAT SORT OF COALITION COULD BE FORMED?

Netanyahu will likely seek a coalition, similar to his current government, with ultranationalist and Jewish Orthodox parties. Gantz, who heads the centrist Blue and White Party, will likely win the support of center-left and left-wing parties, but polls predict he will fall short of a governing majority in parliament.

An election campaign billboard depicting Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, is seen in Tel Aviv, Israel April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

An election campaign billboard depicting Benny Gantz, leader of Blue and White party, is seen in Tel Aviv, Israel April 8, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

WHAT ARE THE UNEXPECTED FACTORS TO WATCH?

A far-right politician, Moshe Feiglin, has been drawing unexpectedly strong support, opinion polls show, with a libertarian platform advocating the legalization of marijuana, free-market policies and annexation of the occupied West Bank. He could be a kingmaker.

In Israeli politics, a “unity government” can never be ruled out if the path to a right- or center-left-led coalition proves difficult – even though Gantz has pledged not to serve with Netanyahu, citing corruption allegations against the Likud party leader, who has denied those accusations.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Trump to give Israel’s Netanyahu an election boost

U.S. President Donald Trump welcomes Israel Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with Vice President Mike Pence at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

By Steve Holland

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump was set to give Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a boost for his re-election campaign on Monday as Netanyahu’s chief political opponent sought to position himself as a better alternative to lead Israel.

During a White House visit by Netanyahu, Trump was expected to sign a proclamation officially granting U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights as Israeli territory. Israel seized the strategic land from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

The recognition, which Trump had announced in a tweet last Thursday, appeared to be the most overt gesture by the Republican president to help Netanyahu, who had been pressing Trump for the move.

The Israeli prime minister, who faces an election on April 9, on Monday cut short his U.S. visit after a rocket fired from Gaza injured seven people near Tel Aviv. He arrived in Washington on Sunday, originally for a four-day visit.

The attack in central Israel came as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), a pro-Israel group, held its annual meeting in Washington with speaker after speaker expressing U.S. support for strong ties with Israel.

“We stand with Israel because her cause is our cause, her values are our values, and her fight is our fight,” Vice President Mike Pence said on Monday.

Pence also talked tough against Iran, saying that under Trump, “America will never allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon.”

Netanyahu’s strongest election challenger, Benny Gantz, appeared before the gathering on Monday, and vowed to protect Israel against threats from Iran and Syria. He called for unity in Israel.

“We must remember if that we want hope, we must have unity,” he said.

With election day approaching, opinion polls put Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud and Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party neck and neck.

(Reporting by Steve Holland; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Israeli ex-general, polling closest to Netanyahu, joins 2019 election race

FILE PHOTO: Israeli military chief Lieutenant-General Benny Gantz attends a news conference in Tel Aviv, Israel July 28, 2014. REUTERS/Nir Elias/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A former Israeli armed forces chief who opinion polls show poses the toughest challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s bid for reelection next year formally established a political party on Thursday.

Details about Benny Gantz’s Israel Resilience Party, leaked to local media after it was registered, gave little indication of its ideological tilt.

Along with preserving Israel as “a Jewish and democratic country”, the party pledged unspecified changes to priorities in national security and the economy.

Polling has predicted an easy win for Netanyahu in the April 9 election, with his rightist Likud party taking around 30 of parliament’s 120 seats and on course to form a right-wing coalition government similar to the current cabinet.

The surveys, published after Netanyahu announced on Monday an election some seven months before one was due by law, gave second place to a then-hypothetical Gantz party. The polls forecast it would take around 15 seats.

Netanyahu is running for a fifth term under the shadow of three corruption investigations in which police have recommended his indictment. He has denied any wrongdoing.

Israel’s attorney-general has still to decide whether to charge Netanyahu and it is unclear whether he will make his announcement before the election.

Should Gantz emerge as a center-left candidate, that could work in Netanyahu’s favor by further fracturing an already disparate opposition bloc.

Gantz, 59, became Israel’s top general in 2011 after stints as commander of forces on the combustible northern frontier with Syria and Lebanon and as military attache in Washington. During his four-year term, he oversaw two wars in the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Gareth Jones)

Congo fire destroys thousands of voting machines for presidential election

A motorcyclist rides near smoke billowing from fire at the independent national electoral commission's (CENI) warehouse in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo December 13, 2018. REUTERS/Olivia Acland

By Giulia Paravicini

KINSHASA (Reuters) – A fire overnight at a warehouse in Congo’s capital destroyed thousands of voting machines and ballot boxes that were due to be used in the country’s long-delayed Dec. 23 presidential election, authorities said on Thursday.

Democratic Republic of Congo’s national electoral commission (CENI) said in a statement the blaze had destroyed 8,000 of 10,368 voting machines due to be used in the capital Kinshasa, but said the election would go ahead as scheduled.

CENI did not say who it believed to be responsible for the fire – which broke out about 2 a.m. (0100 GMT) in the Gombe riverside area of Kinshasa that is also home to President Joseph Kabila’s residence – but the ruling coalition and leading opposition candidates immediately traded accusations of blame.

Kabila’s Common Front for Congo (FCC), which is backing former interior minister Emmanuel Ramazani Shadary in the presidential race, accused opposition candidate Martin Fayulu of inciting violence earlier this month.

“Over the course of this electoral campaign, (Fayulu) called on his supporters and sympathizers to destroy electoral materials,” the FCC said in a statement.

Fayulu rejected the charge and suggested that state security forces might have been behind the blaze.

“The fire erupted in a building guarded by the Republican Guard,” Fayulu told Reuters. “You understand today that the Kabila people do not want to organize elections.”

Felix Tshisekedi, the other leading opposition candidate, also suggested on local radio that the government was responsible. “How is it that what should be the best protected place in the republic at this time can burn so easily?” he said.

Barnabe Kikaya Bin Karubi, a Kabila adviser, said police guarding the warehouse had been arrested and that forensic police had launched an investigation.

Kabila, in power since his father’s assassination in 2001, is due to step down because of constitutional term limits. The vote has already been delayed by two years due to what authorities said were logistical challenges but the opposition said stemmed from Kabila’s reluctance to relinquish power.

This month’s highly anticipated vote could mark Congo’s first peaceful transition of power after decades marked by authoritarian rule, coups d’etat and civil wars in which around five million people are estimated to have died.

ELECTION DATE MAINTAINED

CENI president Corneille Nangaa told a news conference the destroyed equipment represented the materials for 19 of 24 voting districts in Kinshasa.

“Without minimizing the gravity of this damaging situation for the electoral process, CENI is working to pursue the process in conformity with its calendar,” Nangaa said.

Kikaya said voting machines from elsewhere in Congo would be recalled for use in Kinshasa, which is home to more than 15 percent of the Congolese population.

The introduction of the untested tablet-like voting machines for the election has been widely opposed by opposition candidates competing against Shadary.

They say the machines are more vulnerable to vote-rigging than paper and ink and could be compromised by the unreliability of Congos power supply.

The delay in the elections has coincided with a breakdown in security across much of the vast mineral-rich country. Militants fight over land and resources in the east near the border with Uganda and Rwanda.

Campaigning over the past three weeks has been mostly peaceful, though deadly clashes erupted between police and opposition supporters this week in the southeast.

(Additional reporting by Stanis Bujakera and Aaron Ross; Writing by David Lewis; Editing by Aaron Ross and Gareth Jones)

Trump points to Republican gains, broaches cooperation with Democrats

Democratic U.S. Senator Claire McCaskill addresses her supporters at her midterm election night party in St. Louis, Missouri, U.S. November 6, 2018. McCaskill conceded the election to Republican Josh Hawley. REUTERS/Sarah Conard

By Steve Holland and Jeff Mason

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump on Wednesday portrayed the midterm election results as “an incredible day” for his Republicans despite a Democratic takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives that will lead to greater restraints on his administration.

At a White House news conference, Trump argued that Republicans beat historical odds in Tuesday’s elections, saying the party’s gains in the U.S. Senate outweighed its loss of the House.

He also mocked those Republican candidates who lost their seats after refusing to embrace him on the campaign trail, such as U.S. Representative Barbara Comstock of Virginia.

“It was a big day yesterday, an incredible day,” he said in what was only his third formal solo news conference at the White House. “Last night the R party defied history to expand our Senate majority while significantly beating expectations in the House.”

Republicans expanded their control of the U.S. Senate, knocking off at least three Democratic incumbents on Tuesday, following a divisive campaign marked by fierce clashes over race and immigration.

But they lost their majority in the House, a setback for the president after a campaign that became a referendum on his combative leadership.

The divided power in Congress combined with Trump’s expansive view of executive power could herald even deeper political polarization and legislative gridlock in Washington.

The Democrats will now head House committees that can investigate the president’s tax returns, possible business conflicts of interest and any links between his 2016 election campaign and Russia.

There may be some room, however, for Trump and Democrats to work together on issues with bipartisan support such as a package to improve infrastructure or protections against prescription drug price increases.

“It really could be a beautiful bipartisan situation,” Trump said.

He said Nancy Pelosi, who may be the next speaker of the House, had expressed to him in a phone call a desire to work together. But Trump doubted there would be much common ground if Democrats press investigations.

“You can’t do it simultaneously,” he said.

(Additional reporting by Susan Heavey, Steve Holland, Roberta Rampton, Patricia Zengerle, Amanda Bedcker and David Alexander in Washington and Megan Davies in New York; Writing by Alistair Bell and Steve Holland; Editing by Frances Kerry and Paul Simao)