‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region

‘Everything is a mess’: Morales exit rocks Bolivia, splits region
By Daniel Ramos and Gram Slattery

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Looting, fighting and roadblocks convulsed Bolivia on Monday after President Evo Morales’ resignation ended his 14-year rule and created a power vacuum following weeks of violent protests.

The departure of Bolivia’s first indigenous president, who was the last survivor of a wave of leftist leaders in Latin America from two decades ago, came on Sunday when the military abandoned him amid unrest over his disputed Oct. 20 re-election.

The Organization of American States (OAS), which had denounced “manipulations” of that vote, exhorted Bolivian lawmakers to meet urgently to resolve the crisis.

With Morales’ deputy and many allies in government and parliament gone with him, opposition politician and Senate second vice-president Jeanine Añez flew into the capital saying she was willing to take temporary control until a new vote.

“I am afraid of what will happen, everything is a mess in the city. There are fights between neighbours,” said Patricia Paredes, a 25-year-old secretary in La Paz.

Overnight, gangs roamed the highland capital and other cities, businesses were attacked, rival political supporters clashed and properties were set on fire.

Schools and shops were largely closed, while public transport halted and roads were blocked.

Morales, 60, flew out of La Paz and was believed to still be in Bolivia – but his exact whereabouts were unclear.

He said he stepped down to ease the violence, but repeated on Monday accusations he was the victim of a conspiracy by political enemies including election rival Carlos Mesa and protest leader Luis Fernando Camacho.

“The world and our Bolivian patriots repudiate the coup,” he tweeted. “They moved me to tears. They never abandoned me. I will never abandon them.”

DIVIDED LATIN AMERICA

Argentine President-elect Alberto Fernandez echoed Morales’ denunciations of a coup, as did Mexico which has offered him asylum. “It’s a coup because the army requested the resignation of the president, and that violates the constitutional order of that country,” Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard said.

In a redrawing of Latin America’s political landscape, the left has regained power in both Mexico and Argentina, though powerhouse Brazil still retains a right-wing government.

“A great day,” Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro tweeted, in apparent reference to events in Bolivia.

In Venezuela, opponents of Morales ally Nicolas Maduro also hailed the fall of the Bolivian leader whom they call a “dictator”, saying they hoped Maduro would be next.

Further afield, the United States urged civilian leaders to keep control. Russia backed Morales, accusing the opposition of violence and quashing dialogue.

Amid the chaos, prominent Bolivian opposition figure and academic Waldo Albarracin tweeted that his house had been set on fire by Morales supporters.

Another widely-shared video appeared to show people inside Morales’ own property with graffiti daubed on the walls.

“People are trying to cause chaos,” fretted Edgar Torrez, a 40-year-old business administrator in La Paz, saying politicians and criminals were all taking advantage of the situation.

TEMPORARY LEADER

Under Bolivian law, the head of the Senate would normally take over provisionally. However, Senate President Adriana Salvatierra also stepped down on Sunday.

Legislators were expected to meet on Monday to agree on an interim commission or legislator who would take temporary control, according to a constitutional lawyer.

“If I have the support of those who carried out this movement for freedom and democracy, I will take on the challenge, only to do what’s necessary to call transparent elections,” said senator Añez, who is constitutionally next in line to assume the presidency.

Añez flew into El Alto airport near La Paz on Monday, where another senator Arturo Murillo told reporters she was taken by an Air Force helicopter to a military academy, from where she was expected to travel to Congress.

“The military were waiting on the tarmac and they said it was safer to take them by helicopter,” he said. “I want to trust the military. I have my faith in the police.”

At a press conference, Mesa asked the police and mobilized civilian groups to guarantee the arrival of legislators across the political spectrum to the central Plaza Murillo to formalize Morales’ resignation and push forward new elections.

“Upon them (the lawmakers) rests the democracy and stability of the country,” he said.

Bolivia under Morales had one of the region’s strongest economic growth rates and its poverty rate was cut in half, but his determination to cling to power and seek a fourth term alienated many allies, even among indigenous communities.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos, Gram Slattery, Monica Machicao in La Paz, Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Dave Graham and Miguel Gutierrez in Mexico City, Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Hugh Bronstein and Adam Jourdan; Editing by Kevin Liffey and Andrew Cawthorne)

Facebook suspends Russian Instagram accounts targeting U.S. voters

FILE PHOTO: Silhouettes of mobile users are seen next to a screen projection of Instagram logo in this picture illustration taken March 28, 2018. REUTERS/Dado Ruvic/Illustration/File Photo

Facebook suspends Russian Instagram accounts targeting U.S. voters
By Jack Stubbs and Christopher Bing

LONDON/WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Facebook Inc. said on Monday it has suspended a network of Instagram accounts operated from Russia that targeted Americans with divisive political messages ahead of next year’s U.S. presidential election, with operators posing as people within the United States.

Facebook said it also had suspended three separate networks operated from Iran. The Russian network “showed some links” to Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA), Facebook said, an organization Washington has said was used by Moscow to meddle in the 2016 U.S. election.

“We see this operation targeting largely U.S. public debate and engaging in the sort of political issues that are challenging and sometimes divisive in the U.S. right now,” said Nathaniel Gleicher, Facebook’s head of cybersecurity policy.

“Whenever you do that, a piece of what you engage on are topics that are going to matter for the election. But I can’t say exactly what their goal was.”

Facebook also announced new steps to fight foreign interference and misinformation ahead of the November 2020 election, including labeling state-controlled media outlets and adding greater protections for elected officials and candidates who may be vulnerable targets for hacking.

U.S. security officials have warned that Russia, Iran and other countries could attempt to sway the result of next year’s presidential vote. Officials say they are on high alert for signs of foreign influence campaigns on social media.

Moscow and Tehran have repeatedly denied the allegations.

Gleicher said the IRA-linked network used 50 Instagram accounts and one Facebook account to gather 246,000 followers, about 60% of which were in the United States.

The earliest accounts dated to January this year and the operation appeared to be “fairly immature in its development,” he said.

“They were pretty focused on audience-building, which is the thing you do first as you’re sort of trying to set up an operation.”

Ben Nimmo, a researcher with social media analysis company Graphika who Facebook commissioned, said the flagged accounts shared material that could appeal to Republican and Democratic voters alike.

Most of the messages plagiarized material authored by leading conservative and progressive pundits. This included recycling comments initially shared on Twitter that criticized U.S. congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden and current President Donald Trump.

“What’s interesting in this set is so much of what they were doing is copying and pasting genuine material from actual Americans,” Nimmo told Reuters. “This may be indicative of an effort to hide linguistic deficiencies, which have made them easier to detect in the past.”

Attorneys for Concord Management and Consulting LLC have denied any wrongdoing. U.S. prosecutors say the firm is controlled by Russian catering tycoon Evgeny Prigozhin and helped orchestrate the IRA’s operations.

Gleicher said the separate Iranian network his team identified used more than 100 fake and hacked accounts on Facebook and Instagram to target U.S. users and some French-speaking parts of North Africa. Some accounts also repurposed Iranian state media stories to target users in Latin American countries including Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Bolivia, Peru, Ecuador and Mexico.

The activity was connected to an Iranian campaign first identified in August last year, which Reuters showed aimed to direct internet users to a sprawling web of pseudo-news websites which repackaged propaganda from Iranian state media.

The accounts “typically posted about local political news and geopolitics including topics like public figures in the U.S., politics in the U.S. and Israel, support of Palestine and conflict in Yemen,” Facebook said.

(Reporting by Jack Stubbs; Additional reporting by Elizabeth Culliford in San Francisco; Editing by Chris Reese, Tom Brown and David Gregorio)

Explainer: “Only Bibi” no more – Israel’s Netanyahu seeks power-sharing deal

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – After failing to secure a clear election victory twice in six months, Israel’s longest-serving prime minister now seems to be calculating that he can stay in power only by sharing it.

Following a deadlocked parliamentary election last week, a weakened Netanyahu reissued an offer on Monday to his centrist rival Benny Gantz for a unity government, saying that neither had enough support from respective allies for a majority of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament.

There was no sign Gantz, head of the Blue and White Party, would agree to a coalition with Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud. Gantz cited looming corruption charges against Netanyahu in saying no last week.

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who will pick a candidate to try to build a coalition, has called for a unity government – but does not have the legal power to compel Gantz or Netanyahu to form one together.

Wrapping up two days of consultations with leaders of all parties that won parliamentary seats in the Sept 17 ballot, Rivlin summoned Netanyahu and Gantz to a closed-door meeting later on Monday, apparently to urge them to join forces.

WHO HAS THE EDGE?

On paper, Netanyahu now has a slim lead over Gantz in building a parliamentary bloc, with pledges of support from 55 members of a right-wing grouping to 54 for Gantz from left-wing and Arab parties. But it also means that neither has secured a governing majority of at least 61 legislators.

Netanyahu’s slight edge might move Rivlin to ask him to try to build a narrow coalition if a unity government proves impossible. A nominee gets 28 days to do so, with a possible 14-day extension, before Rivlin can turn to someone else.

Gantz had appeared to have 57 backers but three of the Arab Joint List’s 13 members on Monday withdrew support they had pledged to him a day earlier.

Likud won 31 seats to Blue and White’s 33, near-complete results show.

Avigdor Lieberman, whose far-right Yisrael Beitenu party won eight seats, would remain the kingmaker if unity efforts fail. In his meeting with Rivlin, he refused to commit to either Netanyahu or Gantz, citing his own policy differences with Likud’s Jewish ultra-Orthodox allies and Blue and White’s Arab backers.

WHAT ARE THE CHANCES FOR A UNITY GOVERNMENT?

It’s complicated, even though there are only narrow policy differences between Netanyahu and Gantz on many important issues, such as relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran and the Palestinian conflict.

Both men appear to be more deeply divided on the composition of a unity government.

Gantz has called for a “liberal” administration, political shorthand for one that does not include Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox partners. After the election, Netanyahu swiftly signed a new alliance with them.

And then there’s the question of who would get the top job: Netanyahu, Gantz, or both men – in rotation?

Left-winger Shimon Peres and right-winger Yitzhak Shamir set a historic example when they took turns as prime minister in a unity government from 1984 to 1988.

This time around, if a “rotating” power-sharing agreement is reached, it could be imperative for Netanyahu to serve as prime minister first.

Next month, Israel’s attorney-general will hold a pre-trial hearing at which Netanyahu can argue against his announced intention to indict the Israeli leader on fraud and bribery charges in three corruption cases.

As prime minister, Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing in the long-running investigations, would be under no legal obligation to resign if formal charges are filed. But any other cabinet post he might hold would not offer him that protection.

Netanyahu’s supporters in the legislature have also pledged to seek parliamentary immunity for him against prosecution. Any unity deal with Gantz would likely have to address that issue.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Israel’s Netanyahu clings to power as coalition talks loom

By Stephen Farrell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced Israeli media headlines on Friday suggesting power is slipping from his grasp after an election in which he trails his main rival with nearly all votes counted.

The right-wing leader failed on Tuesday, for the second time in five months, to secure a clear election victory and the centrist Blue and White party led by ex-armed forces chief Benny Gantz rebuffed his calls to join a unity government on Thursday.

Near-final results released on Friday by the Knesset’s election committee showed Blue and White will be the largest single party in the new parliament with 33 of the 120 seats, with Netanyahu’s Likud winning 31 seats, three less than it had before.

GRAPHIC: Seat projections in Israel’s election – https://graphics.reuters.com/ISRAEL-ELECTION/0100B2B21D9/ISRAEL-ELECTIONS.jpg

Israeli newspapers and commentators depicted the 69-year-old leader as in a weakened position, with headlines such as: “Himself Alone” and “Political Death Spasms”.

President Reuven Rivlin will on Sunday start consultations with the parties about choosing a leader to put together a coalition.

There were only narrow differences in the two main parties’ campaigns on many important issues, and an end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring significant changes in policy on relations with the United States, the regional struggle against Iran or the Palestinian conflict.

PALESTINIAN ELECTIONS?

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas appeared to see Israel’s coalition drama as an opportunity for his government in the occupied West Bank to announce election plans.

Abbas told reporters outside Norway’s parliament that he would issue a decree for elections across the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem when he returns to the Palestinian Territories following the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

Despite a long rift with Gaza’s Islamist rulers Hamas, Abbas said his Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, would be ready to accept a Hamas victory “because Hamas is a part of our people, we cannot exclude Hamas. They have a right to vote and to nominate themselves.”

Some political analysts said Abbas was unlikely to follow through on his election pledge, pointing to difficulties holding a national vote across Gaza and the West Bank and East Jerusalem, each of which has a different ruling entity.

There have not been any national Palestinian elections for 13 years. Abbas was elected president in 2005 and Hamas won a 2006 parliamentary election, plunging Palestinian politics into a bitter power struggle from which it has not emerged.

PEACE PLAN

One uncertainty is the timing of U.S. President Donald Trump’s long-delayed Middle East peace plan, which was expected soon after Israel’s election, but could unsettle a weakened Netanyahu if released during complex coalition negotiations.

On Friday, Netanyahu met Trump’s outgoing Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt, a chief architect of the plan.

Many political analysts are waiting to see how Netanyahu tries to prolong his political survival, not least to claim a public mandate in the face of possible corruption charges that prosecutors may bring within months. He denies wrongdoing, accusing his critics of mounting a witch-hunt.

In his election campaign, Netanyahu pledged to annex large swaths of the West Bank, territory Israel captured in a 1967 war where Palestinians seek a state along with Gaza and East Jerusalem. The move drew condemnation from world leaders as detrimental to achieving a lasting peace accord.

Gantz has urged redoubled efforts to restart peace talks with the Palestinians but stopped short of any commitment to the statehood they seek. He has spoken less concretely of Israel maintaining security control of the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu and Gantz will now seek potential coalition allies, prominent among whom is the far-right former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman. He secured eight seats for his Yisrael Beitenu party, making him a potential kingmaker.

Increased turnout by Israel’s 21-percent Arab minority saw the Arab-dominated Joint List coalition grouping win 13 seats, making it the third largest grouping.

The religious parties representing Israel’s Ultra-Orthodox communities, known as Haredim, remain a significant force, with Shas winning nine seats and United Torah Judaism eight seats.

The right-wing Yamina won seven seats, the leftist Labor-Gesher six, and the Democratic Union five. The full official results will be published next Wednesday.

(Additional reporting by Nerijus Adomaitis in Oslo, Rami Ayyub in Jerusalem and Ali Sawafta in Ramallah, Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Israel’s Netanyahu fails to win majority in close election

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to win a ruling majority in an election that produced a virtual tie between his right-wing bloc and a center-left grouping that would be led by former military chief Benny Gantz.

The outcome, according to almost complete results published on Wednesday, dealt a new blow to Israel’s longest-serving leader who was already weakened by the inability to put together an administration after an inconclusive election in April.

But with coalition-building again key to forming a government, it could be days or even weeks before it becomes clear whether the wily politician hailed by supporters as “King Bibi” has been dethroned after a decade in power.

With Israeli media reporting more than 90 percent of votes counted in Tuesday’s election, the bloc led by Netanyahu’s Likud party was more or less even with a likely grouping headed by Gantz’s centrist Blue and White party.

A Likud-led bloc looked poised to control 55 of parliament’s 120 seats, with 56 going to a center-left alliance, numbers falling short of a majority government of 61 lawmakers.

A Likud spokesman said the leaders of right-wing factions met Netanyahu at the prime minister’s office on Wednesday and pledged to work with him to form the next government.

The ballot’s wildcard, former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman, emerged as a likely kingmaker as head of the secular-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, projected to capture nine seats.

Lieberman has been pushing for a unity government comprised of the biggest parties. He declined to back Netanyahu’s bid to form a narrow right-wing and religious coalition after the April election, bringing about Tuesday’s unprecedented repeat vote.

Netanyahu, who made his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump a main selling point in his campaign, has made no claim of victory or concession of defeat, and he planned to address Likud party legislators later in the day.

Some of the party’s leaders issued nearly identical statements expressing their allegiance to Netanyahu.

“He remains party chairman and its candidate to continue as prime minister,” said Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz of Likud.

Netanyahu, 69, appeared fatigued and hoarse in a 3 a.m. election night speech to party faithful earlier on Wednesday in which he said he intended to form a “Zionist government”, without Arab parties that could lend support to Gantz.

CONSULTATIONS

Once the last votes are tallied, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin will consult with leaders of parties that won parliamentary representation about whom to tap to try to form a government. The nominee would then have up to 42 days to do so.

Gantz has not ruled out a unity administration with Likud but has said Blue and White would not join such a government if it included Netanyahu, citing looming corruption charges against the prime minister, who has denied any wrongdoing.

In a further complication, Lieberman has rejected any alliance that includes ultra-Orthodox parties – Netanyahu’s traditional partners.

Lieberman, a Jewish settler and immigrant from the former Soviet Union, had focused his campaign on weakening the power rabbis and religious politicians have on everyday life in Israel, such as ultra-Orthodox control of the administration of marriage and divorce.

Campaigns run by Likud and Blue and White pointed to only narrow differences on many important issues: the regional struggle against Iran, the Palestinian conflict, relations with the United States and the economy.

An end to the Netanyahu era would be unlikely to bring about a significant change in policy on hotly disputed issues in the peace process with the Palestinians that collapsed five years ago.

Three corruption investigations and the Israeli attorney general’s announced intention to charge him with fraud and bribery have also chipped away at Netanyahu’s seeming invincibility.

Netanyahu can argue at a pre-trial hearing in October against indictment. But an election loss could leave him more at risk of prosecution in the graft cases, without the shield of parliamentary immunity that his current political allies had promised to seek for him.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller, Dan Williams, Maayan Lubell and Stephen Farrell in Jerusalem and Akram El-Satarri in Gaza; Editing by Timothy Heritage; ((jeffrey.heller@thomsonreuters.com; +97226322202)

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)