No final decision at White House talks on Israeli annexation moves, U.S. officials say

American and Israeli flags flutter in the wind atop the roof of the King David Hotel, in preparation for the upcoming visit of President Trump to Israel, in Jerusalem. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

By Steve Holland, Matt Spetalnick and Dan Williams

WASHINGTON/JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Three days of White House meetings between aides to U.S. President Donald Trump on whether to give Israel a green light to annex parts of the occupied West Bank have ended without any final decision, senior U.S. officials said on Thursday.

The high-level discussions centered on Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to extend Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the territory, which has drawn condemnation from the Palestinians, U.S. Arab allies and other foreign governments.

With Netanyahu’s cabinet due to begin formal annexation deliberations on Wednesday, the still-unclear U.S. position suggested the Trump administration wants to move cautiously.

“There is as yet no final decision on the next steps for implementing the Trump plan,” one of the officials told Reuters, referring to the president’s Israeli-Palestinian peace blueprint that could provide a basis for Netanyahu’s annexation moves.

Trump, who has hewed to a heavily pro-Israel policy, participated in the discussions, the official told Reuters on condition of anonymity.

Another U.S. official said further “fact-finding” would be needed before a U.S. determination.

Under Trump’s peace proposal unveiled in January and met with widespread skepticism, the United States would recognize the settlements – built on land the Palestinians seek for a state – as part of Israel.

The proposal would create a Palestinian state but impose strict conditions. Palestinian leaders have dismissed the initiative and it has gone nowhere.

Netanyahu hopes for U.S. approval for his project of extending sovereignty over settlements and the Jordan Valley. Most countries view Israel’s settlements as illegal.

This week’s meetings included Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and other aides. On Wednesday, Pompeo said that any decision on annexation was “for Israelis to make.”

Among the main options under U.S. consideration is a gradual process in which Israel would initially declare sovereignty over several settlements close to Jerusalem instead of the 30% of the West Bank envisaged in Netanyahu’s original plan, according to a person close to the matter.

The Trump administration has not closed the door to a larger annexation. But Kushner is concerned that allowing Israel to move too fast could further alienate the Palestinians.

There are also worries about opposition from Jordan, one of only two countries that have a peace treaty with Israel, and from Gulf states that have quietly expanded engagement with Israel. Washington also wants Israel’s unity government, divided on the issue, to reach a consensus.

(Reporting by Dan Williams in Jerusalem and Steve Holland and Matt Spetalnick in Washington, Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Edmund Blair and Alistair Bell)

A day without women: strikes in Mexico and Argentina follow huge rallies

MEXICO CITY (Reuters) – Millions of women in Mexico and Argentina will stay away from offices, school and government offices on Monday, stepping up historic protests against gender violence that saw hundreds of thousands take to the streets over the weekend.

The one-day action dubbed “a day without us” is intended to show what life would be like if women vanished from society. In Mexico, the strike stems from a surge in disappearances of women and femicides, or gender-motivated killings of women.

FILE PHOTO: Women protest against gender violence and femicides at Angel de la Independencia monument in Mexico City, Mexico, February 22, 2020. REUTERS/Gustavo Graf

Femicides in Mexico jumped 137% in the past five years, government statistics show, as gang violence pushed the national murder tally to record heights. Most violent crimes go unsolved.

On Sunday, women took to the streets in unprecedented numbers across Latin America as part of International Women’s Day, demanding abortion rights and action from leaders to stem the violence.

The mostly peaceful protests saw anger boiling over into some outbreaks of violence, such as Molotov cocktails thrown at Mexico’s national palace, after the killing of a 7-year-old and the murder and skinning of a young woman shocked the nation.

The impact of Monday’s strike, in contrast, will stem from the absence of women in businesses, universities and government ministries. Not all women, however, will take part.

“We are tired of being victims, of being abused and mistreated. Enough is enough,” said Alma Delia Díaz, 45, a beautician in the Mexico City suburb of Ecatepec.

Diaz said she supported women making their voice heard, but personally could not miss a day’s work.

President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador has said government employees are free to join the walkout. But he has also accused political opponents of seeking to exploit Mexico’s security problems to undermine his administration.

(Editing by Clarence Fernandez)

Violence escalates in Iraq as government pushes to end protests

By Aziz El Yaakoubi and Nadine Awadalla

BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Gunmen shot dead two protesters in Iraq’s southern city of Nassiriya overnight and a Baghdad district became a battlefield on the third day of a drive by security forces to end months of demonstrations against the largely Iran-backed ruling elite.

Clashes over the weekend had already killed at least five protesters and rockets hit the U.S. embassy compound in Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone housing government buildings.

Security sources told Reuters three people were wounded when at least one rocket landed inside the U.S. embassy compound, the first time in years that an attack on the Green Zone – a regular occurance – had actually hurt staff there.

The Iraqi military said five Katyusha rockets had hit the Green Zone late on Sunday, without reporting casualties. The U.S. embassy was not immediately available for comment.

Authorities began the pushback on Saturday to try to end protests that began in the capital on Oct. 1 and in other southern cities. Demonstrators are demanding the removal of all politicians, free elections and an end to corruption.

In Nassiriya, at least 75 protesters were wounded, mainly by live bullets, in overnight clashes when security forces tried to move them away from bridges in the city, police and health sources said.

Unknown gunmen in four pickup trucks had attacked the main protest camp there, shooting dead the two people and setting fire to demonstrators’ tents before fleeing the scene, the sources said.

Some protesters began building more permanent structures using bricks, Reuters witnesses said, while others broke into a police office on Monday and set fire to at least five police vehicles parked inside.

The leaderless movement is an unprecedented challenge to Iraq’s Shi’ite Muslim-dominated and largely Iran-backed ruling elite, which emerged after a U.S.-led invasion toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003.

“REVOLUTION”

Pitched battles raged in the Khilani area of central Baghdad near Tahrir Square, on Monday with protesters throwing stones and Molotov cocktails at security forces using tear gas, live rounds in the air and slingshots to push them back.

Some of the demonstrators danced on the protest frontline while others shielded themselves behind concrete blocks and trees or by using metal sheets.

“This revolution is peaceful. They use various kinds of fire against us, live ammunition, bullets and teargas canisters. I got injured in my face,” said Allawi, a hooded protester who gave only his first name.

Tuk tuks darted through the crowd to help the wounded and carried away protesters suffering from teargas inhalation.

Demonstrations continued in other southern cities, despite repeated attempts by security forces to clear up their camps.

Nearly 500 people have been killed in the unrest, with both security forces and unidentified gunmen shooting people dead.

After a lull earlier this month, demonstrations resumed; protesters have controlled three key bridges in Baghdad and maintain camps and road blocks in several cities in the south.

The government has responded with violence and piecemeal reform. The international community has condemned the violence but not intervened to stop it.

Saturday’s push by the authorities began after populist cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said on Friday that he would halt the involvement of his supporters in the demonstrations.

Sadr had backed the demands of protesters for the removal of corrupt politicians and for the provision of services and jobs soon after the demonstrations began in October, but stopped short of calling on all his followers to join in.

“Everyone has come out protesting against the government,” said Hussain, a protester. “We demand that all politicians resign and get out. We don’t want Moqtada or any of them.”

(Reporting by Aziz El Yaakoubi, Nadine Awadalla, Baghdad bureau; Writing by Ahmed Rasheed, Editing by William Maclean and Philipaa Fletcher)

‘Fire magicians’ and medieval weaponry: a Hong Kong university under siege

By Kate O’Donnell-Lamb, Jessie Pang and Tom Lasseter

HONG KONG (Reuters) – For three days last week, anti-government protesters camped out at Hong Kong’s sprawling Polytechnic University prepared for what they feared might be a bloody, even deadly, battle with police.

In the university’s heart, littered with smashed glass and covered in revolutionary graffiti spray-painted on the walls, the black-clad demonstrators in gas masks sawed metal poles into batons and practiced firing rocks from a makeshift catapult. Nearby, others ferried around crates of petrol bombs and wrapped arrows in cloth to set aflame.

On Saturday, the battle began as police moved in to clear the campus and the protesters responded with barrages of rocks and petrol bombs, leaving parts of the university in flames.

After more than five months of protests calling for greater democratic freedoms amid growing anxiety over Chinese influence in Hong Kong, the demonstrations have taken a sudden and dangerous turn, engulfing the city’s universities for the first time.

On five campuses in the Chinese-ruled territory, students armed with medieval-type weaponry turned their universities into rebel fortresses, amid a growing sense by many that sustained peaceful protests were futile. On the other side of the barricades and beyond the flames of burning debris were lines of riot police, armed with batons, tear gas and rubber bullets.

Most of the universities were cleared of demonstrators by the weekend. But the showdown between police and demonstrators at Polytechnic University was grinding on Tuesday, as officers maintained a siege around the campus, where about 100 protesters were still holed up.

During the past week, Reuters journalists have covered the violent confrontations at four Hong Kong universities, including the Polytechnic, as an increasingly militant protest movement suddenly shifted tactics.

‘FIRE MAGICIANS’ AND CATAPULTS

Toward the end of last week, as many as a thousand students occupied the Polytechnic campus. But the numbers dwindled over the next two days, as protesters feared police would lay siege to the campus.

The preparations, though, did not abate. In the cafeteria, tables were laden with supplies – mountains of bottled water, energy drinks, chocolate, torches, toothbrushes and power banks. Outside, a team produced petrol bombs, while the university’s archery team gave impromptu lessons on how to draw a bow.

Teams of “fire magicians”, tasked with lobbing petrol bombs at police on the frontlines, practiced by throwing empty bottles into the university’s drained swimming pool.

The campus is located in a strategic spot next to the Cross Harbour Tunnel, a major artery linking the Kowloon peninsula to Hong Kong island that had been barricaded by protesters. One aim of the Polytechnic occupation was keeping the tunnel shut, protesters said.

Demonstrators who streamed into the university last week encountered what had become a small on-campus village. Hot food was served in the cafeteria, where signs were posted asking media not to take photographs so that weary young men and women could shed their masks to eat and chat. Nearby, others napped on yoga mats spread across a basketball court.

Among the protesters, there was also a growing sense of foreboding about the looming battle with police.

“Once you come out, you know that anything can happen, especially when you are on the frontline, even real bullets,” said Chen, a 21-year-old student and one of the “fire magicians”. Preparing for the worst, Chen, who only provided his surname, said he had recently penned a will.

The campus occupations began on Nov. 11 after police shot an anti-government protester during a demonstration.

Widespread street protests in Hong Kong escalated in June after an eruption of public anger over perceived encroachments on Hong Kong’s autonomy by the Chinese government. The trigger was a bill introduced by Hong Kong’s government that would have allowed the extradition of suspects to the mainland for trial.

The bill has since been withdrawn, but anger has only grown over the government’s perceived indifference to the demands of the protesters, which include an independent investigation into alleged police brutality and an amnesty for arrested protesters.

Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said she would not be swayed by violence to yield to the demands of protesters. On Tuesday, she said she hoped the university standoff would end soon and that she was shocked that campuses had transformed into “weapons factories”.

In response to questions from Reuters, Lam’s office said: “The Chief Executive has made it clear on various occasions that violence is not a solution to any problem.”

The Hong Kong Police Force did not respond to questions from Reuters.

CHANGED TACTICS

Fears that police were preparing to enter universities and arrest students involved in protests sparked an online appeal to protect campuses, attracting an influx of young protesters. Once on campus, they began preparing weapons and fire bombs, and blocking key adjacent roads that prevented people from getting to work in an effort to engineer a general strike.

And they dug in.

That marked a significant tactical shift for the protesters, whose motto has been “be like water”, a philosophy about being flexible that has underpinned the leaderless wildcat protests. The protesters had utilized Hong Kong’s topography to their advantage, gathering on busy urban streets with plenty of escape routes, making it difficult for the police to arrest more than a few at a time.

The Polytechnic occupiers set up barricades and walls of brick and cement of their own making. But hunkering down meant they would be trapped on campus, with police standing by ready to make arrests on charges carrying heavy prison sentences: rioting, trespassing and theft of public property.

Police began their siege of the Polytechnic on Saturday. By Tuesday, they said that they had “arrested and registered” about 1,100 people in and around the university. Some people tried slipping out past the police cordons in dramatic fashion: through the sewers, or abseiling down a rope hanging from a bridge.

But a hard core of about 100 remained, according to Reuters estimates.

AN APPETITE FOR VIOLENCE

On Tuesday, Hong Kong’s new police chief, Chris Tang, called for support from all citizens to help end the unrest by condemning acts of violence.

Many of the protesters interviewed at university campuses over the past week expressed a sense of futility, saying non-violent opposition was not proving effective.

“We are not destroying things for nothing,” said Yip, a 21-year-old Polytechnic student, standing amid the protest debris on campus. She only gave her surname. “This is the only way we can fight for freedom.”

Others said they were frustrated by the fact that nothing had happened after the “Umbrella Protest” of 2014, when protesters occupied city streets for 11 weeks. The call for greater democracy had been followed by an erosion of freedoms in the city, they said.

Most said their tactics were justified in the face of what they see as brutal force used by the police to quell the protests.

“We are just doing this to protect ourselves,” said Chen, the “fire magician”. “I don’t think we are using violence, we are just policing the police.”

Lee, a 20-year-old nursing student, joined the protests in June, taking to the streets to peacefully demonstrate against the extradition bill.

On Saturday afternoon, she sat on a terrace at the Polytechnic where young men and women hurled petrol bombs at the police on the street below. Unlike the protesters around her, Lee’s face, under a pair of pigtails, was not covered – she’d taken off her mask to sip a juice box.

Asked about the violence, she said of the police that, “they are not following the rules – every time we try to be peaceful, they create new problems.”

“There has to be someone here to defend the things we deserve,” she said.

Later that evening, four young men with metal-tipped arrows rushed out to the same spot, drew back the strings of their bows and sent the missiles hurtling into the darkness toward the police beyond the barricades.

TENSE WAIT AT POLYTECHNIC

The campus occupation movement began at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, located beyond the mountains that loom over Kowloon in the New Territories. On Nov. 11, hundreds of protesters there began constructing barricades on campus and blocked off a nearby highway with bricks and branches.

After a standoff of several days, the police moved in, breaking up barricades and unleashing tear gas. Protesters let loose a hail of petrol bombs, setting fire to a bridge that crossed the highway.

From the Chinese University, the protests spread rapidly to other campuses, including Hong Kong Polytechnic.

Over the course of last week, police managed to mostly clear protesters from the universities – except from the Polytechnic.

For several days, protesters at the Polytechnic waited for the onslaught from police. Then, on Saturday the police finally made a move, blocking streets and firing volleys of tear gas. Next came water cannons that sprayed the university grounds with streams of blue dye that contains an irritant that makes the skin itch. Protesters who’d been soaked stripped to their underwear as their comrades hosed them down.

About 100 demonstrators wielding umbrellas and petrol bombs led a charge against the police lines, backed by the deployment of their makeshift weapons behind them, as local residents gathered on street corners to watch.

One police officer was rushed to hospital after being shot in the leg with an arrow.

On Sunday, as a government helicopter circled the campus, the police adopted a new strategy, sealing off surrounding roads to prevent protesters escaping. Officers warned they were ready to use live bullets if protesters used lethal weapons.

Thirty-eight people were injured in the siege, amid barrages of tear gas, water cannons and petrol bombs. A police van and the university entrance were set ablaze.

By Tuesday, there appeared to be only about 100 protesters left at the university.

One of them, a man who gave his name as Sun, said he wasn’t planning to leave. “There are people out there who have been beaten till their heads were bloodied, it’s not fair to them,” he said. “Those who are staying here, we’ve got to hold out.”

(Reporting by Kate O’Donnell Lamb, Jessie Pang and Tom Lasseter in Hong Kong; additional reporting contributed by Sarah Wu. Editing by Philip McClellan)

‘We’re desperate to buy anything’: Bolivians go hungry as protests snarl cities

‘We’re desperate to buy anything’: Bolivians go hungry as protests snarl cities
By Daniel Ramos

LA PAZ (Reuters) – Bolivians are starting to feel the pinch of weeks-long turmoil roiling the South American country, with fuel shortages mounting and grocery stores short of basic goods as supporters of unseated leader Evo Morales blockade key transport routes.

In the highland seat of government La Paz, roads have grown quiet as people preserve gasoline, with long queues for food staples. People lined up with gas canisters next to the blocked Senkata fuel plant in nearby El Alto on Tuesday.

“Unfortunately this has been going on for 3-4 weeks, so people are desperate to buy everything they find,” said Ema Lopez, 81, a retiree in La Paz. The country has been in turmoil since a disputed Oct. 20 election.

Daniel Castro, a 63-year-old worker in the city, blamed Morales, who resigned earlier this month amid rising pressure over vote-rigging allegations after an international audit found serious irregularities in the leftist leader’s poll win.

“It is food terrorism and it is the terrorism of the boss who has already left. This is chaos and you’re seeing this chaos in (La Paz’s) Plaza Villarroel with more than 5,000 people just there to choose a chicken,” he said.

Morales fled last week to Mexico, where he has railed at what he has called a right-wing coup against him. He has hinted he could return to the country, though pledged not to run again in a new election the caretaker government is seeking to hold.

Since then his supporters have ramped up protests against interim President Jeanine Anez, calling for her to step down and for Morales to return. Nine coca farmers were killed last week in clashes with security forces at protests calling for Morales to return.

Bolivia’s Legislative Assembly, controlled by Morales’ Movement to Socialism (MAS) party, is set to meet on Tuesday evening, with expectations it could vote to reject the long-standing leader’s resignation, a move that could tip the country into a further chaos with rival claims on the presidency.

The country’s hydrocarbons minister, Victor Hugo Zamora, said on Tuesday he was looking to unlock fuel deliveries for La Paz and called on the pro-Morales movements to join talks and allow economic activity to resume.

(Reporting by Daniel Ramos and Miguel Lo Bianco; Writing by Adam Jourdan; Editing by Alex Richardson)

Hong Kong police break up new protest with rubber bullets, tear gas

Protesters erect the Lady Liberty Hong Kong statue during the "No White Terror No Chinazi" rally in Chater Garden, Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Amr Abdallah Dalsh

By Marius Zaharia and Jessie Pang

HONG KONG (Reuters) – Hong Kong police fired rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray on Friday to clear protesters outside a subway station on the densely populated Kowloon peninsula, the latest clash in 14 weeks of sometimes violent anti-government demonstrations.

Hundreds of protesters, many of them masked and dressed in black, took cover behind umbrellas and barricades made from street fencing. Some had broken through a metal grill to enter the station where they pulled down signs, broke turnstiles and daubed graffiti on the walls.

Protestors stand behind a burning barricade during a demonstration in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Protestors stand behind a burning barricade during a demonstration in Mong Kok district in Hong Kong, China September 6, 2019. REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

“We’re angry at the police and angry at the government,” said Justin, 23, dressed in black and wearing a hoodie. “Police was very brutal with us at this station. We cannot let them get away with it.”

Protesters had gathered outside Prince Edward station in Mong Kok, one of the world’s most densely populated regions, where police had fired beanbag guns and used pepper spray to clear demonstrators this week.

They withdrew when police fired rubber bullets, but regrouped in smaller pockets to light fires in the street from wooden pallets, cardboard boxes and other debris. Firemen were dousing the flames.

“The police will use appropriate force to conduct a dispersal operation and warn all protesters to stop all illegal acts and leave immediately,” police said in a statement.

There was no immediate official word of arrests or injuries. Both Mong Kok and Prince Edward stations were closed.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced measures this week to try to restore order in the Chinese-ruled city, including the formal withdrawal of a bill that triggered the demonstrations. The law would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, despite the city having an independent judiciary dating back to British colonial rule.

But the demonstrations, which began in June, had long since morphed into a broader call for more democracy and many protesters have pledged to fight on, calling Lam’s concessions too little, too late.

“No China” was daubed over walls along the key north-south artery of Nathan Road.

“The four actions are aimed at putting one step forward in helping Hong Kong to get out of the dilemma,” Lam told reporters during a trip to China’s southern region of Guangxi. “We can’t stop the violence immediately.”

Apart from withdrawing the bill, she announced three other measures to help ease the crisis, including a dialogue with the people.

Medical students hold hands as they form a human chain during a protest against the police brutality, at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Hong Kong, China, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

Medical students hold hands as they form a human chain during a protest against the police brutality, at the Faculty of Medicine in The University of Hong Kong, China, September 5, 2019. REUTERS/Anushree Fadnavis

WEEKEND PLANS FOR THE AIRPORT

Demonstrations have at times paralyzed parts of the city, a major Asian financial hub, amid running street battles between protesters and police who have responded with tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons. Violent arrests of protesters, many in metro stations, have drawn international attention.

The crowds were expected to swell into the night, as the city braces for weekend demonstrations aiming to disrupt transport links to the airport.

The airport announced that only passengers with tickets would be allowed to use the Airport Express train service on Saturday, boarding in downtown Hong Kong. The train would not stop en route, on the Kowloon peninsula. Bus services could also be hit, it said.

The measures are aimed at avoiding the chaos of last weekend, when protesters blocked airport approach roads, threw debris on the train track and trashed the MTR subway station in the nearby new town of Tung Chung in running clashes with police.

Global credit rating agency Fitch Ratings on Friday downgraded Hong Kong’s long-term foreign-currency issuer default rating to “AA” from “AA+”.

Fitch said it expects that public discontent is likely to persist despite the concessions to certain protester demands.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the issue of Hong Kong with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing, saying a peaceful solution was needed.

“I stressed that the rights and freedoms for (Hong Kong) citizens have to be granted,” Merkel said.

‘RETURN TO ORDER’

Li told a news conference with Merkel “the Chinese government unswervingly safeguards ‘one country, two systems’ and ‘Hong Kong people govern Hong Kong people'”.

Beijing supported the territory’s government “to end the violence and chaos in accordance with the law, to return to order, which is to safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability”, Li added.

Hong Kong returned to China in 1997 under the “one country, two systems” formula which guarantees freedoms not enjoyed on the mainland. Many Hong Kong residents fear Beijing is eroding that autonomy.

China denies the accusation of meddling and says Hong Kong is its internal affair. It has denounced the protests, warning of the damage to the economy and the possible use of force to quell the unrest.

In addition to calling for a withdrawal of the extradition bill and the release of those arrested for violence, protesters also want an independent inquiry into perceived police brutality, retraction of the word “riot” to describe rallies and the right for Hong Kong people to choose their own leaders.

The protests have presented Chinese President Xi Jinping with his greatest popular challenge since he came to power in 2012.

(Additional reporting by Felix Tam, Jessie Pang, Twinnie Siu, Donny Kwok, Noah Sin, Kai Pfaffenbach and Joe Brock; Andreas Rinke in Beijing; Writing by Anne Marie Roantree and Nick Macfie; Editing by Robert Birsel and Frances Kerry)

Netanyahu hours away from deadline for forming coalition government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem May 19, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had until late Wednesday to form a new ruling coalition with a recalcitrant ally or face the possible end of a decade of combative leadership of Israel.

As the hours ticked by, there was no sign of a breakthrough in talks with far-right former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Parliament began a full-day debate on a motion to dissolve itself and call a new election if no deal is struck.

Political sources said Netanyahu was seeking agreement with the leaders of parties in the legislature for a mid-September election day.

Netanyahu had declared himself the winner of a national ballot last month, but he now has until midnight (2100 GMT) to tell President Reuven Rivlin whether he has put together an administration, and his political future hangs in the balance.

Failure to forge a coalition would take the task out of the 69-year-old Netanyahu’s hands, with Rivlin asking another legislator, either from the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party or from the opposition, to try.

That presidential move, which would sideline Netanyahu, can be avoided with a coalition agreement deal or if parliament approves an election.

Political commentator Chemi Shalev, writing in the left-wing Haaretz daily, said a last-minute agreement was still possible and Netanyahu would still be the favorite to win a new poll.

But he said Netanyahu’s critics now find themselves fantasizing about a world without him.

“It’s not an easy task, given his decade in power and the four more years he supposedly had coming. Young Israelis can’t even begin to imagine an Israel without him: Netanyahu as prime minister is all they’ve ever known,” Shalev wrote.

Lieberman has stuck to his guns in a battle with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, a member of Netanyahu’s current interim government, to limit traditional military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students.

Without the support of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, which has five seats in the 120-member Knesset, Netanyahu cannot put together a majority government of right-wing and religious factions led by Likud.

Political commentators said that as the prospects dimmed for a compromise with Lieberman, Netanyahu would focus his efforts on enlisting the 61 votes needed in parliament to approve a new election.

The brinkmanship six weeks after the closely contested April ballot poses another challenge to Netanyahu’s decade-long rule and deepens political uncertainty in a country riven with division.

PEACE PLAN

A new election could also complicate U.S. efforts to press ahead with President Donald Trump’s peace plan in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even before it has been announced Palestinians have rejected it as a blow to their aspirations for statehood.

The White House team behind the proposal, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is in the Middle East to drum up support for an economic “workshop” in Bahrain next month to encourage investment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The group is due in Israel on Thursday.

Lieberman said on Wednesday he was not backing down in what he termed a matter of principle over the conscription issue, and he denied Likud allegations his real intention was to oust Netanyahu and lead a “national camp”.

“I am not a vengeful man and I don’t hold a grudge,” said Lieberman, who last year resigned as defense chief in a dispute with Netanyahu over policy toward Gaza.

Despite looming indictments in three corruption cases,

Netanyahu had appeared to be on course for a fifth term as head of a right-wing bloc after he squeezed past centrist challenger Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli armed forces.

Public attention had been focused less on coalition-building and more on moves Netanyahu loyalists were planning in parliament to grant him immunity and to pass a law ensuring such protection could not be withdrawn by the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the cases and is due to argue at a pre-trial hearing in October against the attorney-general’s intention, announced in February, to indict him on bribery and fraud charges.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Israel moves towards new vote as Netanyahu struggles to form government

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem May 19, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel moved closer towards a new election on Monday as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to form a government after last month’s national ballot remained deadlocked.

In a preliminary vote, parliament decided to dissolve itself. In order to disperse and set an election date, legislators would still have to hold a final vote, likely to take place on Wednesday.

Netanyahu, who heads the right-wing Likud party, has until 2100 GMT on Wednesday to put a government together, after being delegated the task by President Reuven Rivlin following the April 9 poll.

In a televised address following the initial vote in parliament, Netanyahu pledged to continue pursuing coalition talks and said a new vote would be unnecessary and costly.

“A lot can be done in 48 hours,” he said. “The voters’ wishes can be respected, a strong right-wing government can be formed.”

In power for the past decade and facing potential corruption indictments, Netanyahu has struggled to seal an agreement with a clutch of right-wing, far-right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties that would ensure him a fifth term.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and is due to argue against the attorney-general’s intention to indict him on fraud and bribery charges at a pre-trial hearing in October.

U.S. President Donald Trump weighed in on Netanyahu’s political woes in the face of political brinkmanship by the Israeli leader’s erstwhile ally, former defense minister Avigdor Lieberman.

“Hoping things will work out with Israel’s coalition formation and Bibi and I can continue to make the alliance between America and Israel stronger than ever,” Trump tweeted, using Netanyahu’s nickname. “A lot more to do!”

Although a second national election in the same year – unprecedented for Israel – would pose new political risks for Netanyahu, it would pre-empt Rivlin from assigning coalition-building to another legislator once Wednesday’s deadline expires.

CONSCRIPTION STALEMATE

Divisions between Lieberman’s ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party and United Torah Judaism over a military conscription bill governing exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jewish seminary students have plunged the coalition talks into stalemate.

The five parliamentary seats that Yisrael Beitenu won in the April ballot are crucial to Netanyahu gaining a parliamentary majority.

Likud took 35 of the legislature’s 120 seats, the same number as its main rival, the centrist Blue and White party, but had the pledged support of a bigger right-wing bloc.

In a standoff with United Torah Judaism, Lieberman has demanded ultra-Orthodox must share other Israeli Jews’ burden of mandatory service. Ultra-Orthodox parties say seminary students should be largely exempt from conscription as they have been since Israel was founded in 1948.

But some commentators and members of Likud have suggested Lieberman’s real motive is to ultimately succeed Netanyahu and lead Israel’s right-wing, using the conscription bill and coalition stalemate to weaken him politically.

“Avigdor Lieberman’s only interest is to seize control of the national camp by toppling Netanyahu,” deputy foreign minister and Likud member Tzipi Hotovely told Army Radio.

Lieberman, who resigned his defense post in Netanyahu’s outgoing cabinet last November over policy towards the Palestinian enclave of Gaza, said he was acting only out of principle.

In his speech, Netanyahu welcomed the supportive remarks of Trump, with whom he has been in lock-step over policies towards the Palestinians and Israel’s Iranian foe.

“He (Trump) is right,” he said. “We have an infinite number of things to do, security challenges … economic challenges.”

But Netanyahu said he had failed “so far, including tonight” to persuade Lieberman “to avoid an election”.

(Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne)

Appeals court allows U.S. to keep sending asylum seekers to Mexico

FILE PHOTO - A general view shows a temporary facility for processing migrants requesting asylum, at the U.S. Border Patrol headquarters in El Paso, Texas, U.S. April 29, 2019. REUTERS/Jose Luis Gonzalez

WILMINGTON, Del. (Reuters) – A U.S. appeals court ruled on Tuesday that the Trump administration may continue sending asylum seekers to wait out their cases in Mexico while the government appeals a lower court ruling that found the policy violated U.S. immigration law.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit in San Francisco found that a preliminary injunction barring the government from returning asylum seekers to Mexico was “unlikely to be sustained” on appeal in its present form and stayed the lower court ruling.

The Department of Homeland Security “is likely to suffer irreparable harm absent a stay because the preliminary injunction takes off the table one of the few congressionally authorized measures available to process the approximately 2,000 migrants who are currently arriving at the nation’s southern border on a daily basis,” the judges said in issuing the stay.

While asylum seekers may fear substantial injury upon being returned to Mexico, the judges said, “the likelihood of harm is reduced somewhat by the Mexican government’s commitment to honor its international law obligations and to grant humanitarian status and work permits to individuals returned.”

The U.S. government was appealing an order by a U.S. District Court in early April that enjoined the policy, known as the Migrant Protection Protocols (MPP).

The program, launched in January, was one of many policies aimed at slowing rising numbers of immigrants arriving at the border, many of them families from Central America, that has swelled to the highest in a decade.

Since the policy went into effect on Jan. 29, through May 1 more than 3,000 Central Americans have been sent back to Mexico, according to Mexican officials.

The government argues that the MPP is needed because so many asylum seekers spend years living in the United States and never appear for their court hearings before their claim is denied and an immigration judge orders them to be deported.

Omar Jadwat, director of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Immigrants’ Rights Project, criticized the ruling. “Asylum seekers are being put at serious risk of harm every day that the forced return policy continues,” he said.

Jadwat noted that two of the three judges who heard the appeal found “serious legal problems with what the government is doing, so there is good reason to believe that ultimately this policy will be put to a halt.”

In recent years, there has been a shift in border crossings from mainly single, adult Mexicans trying to evade capture to Central American families and unaccompanied minors turning themselves in to border agents to seek asylum. Because of limits on how long children can be held in detention, most families are released to pursue their claims in U.S. immigration courts, a process that can take years.

(Reporting by Tom Hals in Wilmington, Delaware; Additional reporting by Lizbeth Diaz in Mexico City; Editing by G Crosse and Leslie Adler)

As Maduro holds on, Venezuela opposition eyes negotiated transition

FILE PHOTO: Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro attends a rally in support of his government and to commemorate the 61st anniversary of the end of the dictatorship of Marcos Perez Jimenez next to his wife Cilia Flores in Caracas, Venezuela January 23, 2019. Miraflores Palace/Handout via REUTERS/File Photo

By Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh

CARACAS (Reuters) – Venezuela’s opposition is trying to convince ruling Socialist Party officials to join a transition government, shifting focus as it seeks to unseat President Nicolas Maduro, who has clung to power in the face of growing international pressure and U.S. sanctions.

Last month, Venezuelan opposition leader and Congress chief Juan Guaido invoked the constitution to assume the interim presidency after declaring Maduro’s reelection in May 2018 illegitimate. He swiftly received recognition from the United States and Latin American powers.

In an effort to secure the backing of Venezuela’s military, Guaido proposed an amnesty for officers who turn on Maduro’s government.

But defections have been minimal and top brass has declared allegiance to Maduro, dimming hopes of a quick end to an economic disaster that has prompted millions of desperate Venezuelans to flee abroad, fueling a regional humanitarian crisis.

Amid fears the changes have stalled, opposition leaders have begun to talk in the past week about bringing ruling Socialist Party stalwarts into a potential transition government.

“This transition requires a large national agreement between the country’s political forces,” Edgar Zambrano, vice president of the opposition-run National Assembly, said in an interview.

Zambrano said any transition must include “Chavismo,” the left-wing movement founded by Venezuela’s late leader Hugo Chavez, who hand-picked Maduro as his successor.

People attend a protest of the public transport sector against the government of Venezuela's President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

People attend a protest of the public transport sector against the government of Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela February 20, 2019. REUTERS/Andres Martinez Casares

“You cannot disappear Chavismo and you cannot go from persecuted to persecutor. This is not political revenge,” he said.

It was not immediately clear how actively the opposition is building bridges. Opposition leaders say they maintain contact with government officials and military officers but keep such talks confidential to avoid affecting those involved.

Maduro says he is the victim of a U.S.-orchestrated coup attempt and has refused to resign.

Many rank-and-file opposition supporters hope to see Maduro and his allies exiled or behind bars, and would be frustrated by attempts to bring them into the transition.

Guaido’s decision to assume the interim presidency revitalized Venezuela’s fragmented and disillusioned opposition and led to a flurry of street protests.

Hopes of quick change were fueled by diplomatic support from numerous countries and tough U.S. sanctions on Venezuela’s vital oil industry, which has bankrolled Maduro’s government.

Some in the opposition quietly predicted a military pronouncement in favor of Guaido as early as Jan. 23, the day he proclaimed himself president at a rally in Caracas. Top military officials were silent for hours after Guaido’s pronouncement, leading to speculation that Maduro was frantically negotiating with officers not to switch sides.

Yet only a handful of active officers backed Guaido. Expectations of a quick military proclamation have given way to concerns over a slow and complicated path forward, both in Caracas and Washington.

“I don’t think (Washington) understood the complexities of the target, of Venezuela: all the overlapping security that Maduro has available; the things at his disposal,” said one former U.S. administration official in touch with current officials.

WHAT ABOUT JUSTICE?

The idea of a unity in Venezuela was in fact included in a little-noticed provision of a Transition Law passed by the National Assembly last month.

Venezuela’s four main opposition parties all back the idea, but in the past week have increasingly discussed the issue.

“People must understand that Chavismo is not just Maduro,” legislator Stalin Gonzalez said in an interview with Reuters last week, in comments that sparked a backlash on social media.

Some opposition supporters say they would be open to middle-ranking or dissident socialists being included in an interim government, but not the top brass.

“They must pay for what they have done,” said Maria Elena Fonseca, who at age 78 struggles to make ends meet despite working as a psychologist. Like countless Venezuelans, Fonseca has seen her income eroded by hyperinflation that now tops 2 million percent annually.

Fonseca receives remittance from her daughter abroad, who is among the estimated 3 million Venezuelans who have fled the once-prosperous nation since 2015.

“It’s not about revenge: it’s about justice,” she said.

STALLING MOMENTUM?

Back channels between the two sides are considerably better developed than might be expected from 20 years of acrimonious politics and the constant slew of vitriolic social media commentary.

Gonzalez and other young legislators developed relationships with Socialist Party politicians in 2016. The two sides coexisted in the legislature until Maduro backed the creation in 2017 of an all-powerful, government-controlled Constitution Assembly with the aim of sidelining Congress.

Guaido’s team is wielding a stick as well as a carrot. It has held massive protests nationwide over the past month and will face off with authorities when it attempts to bring humanitarian aid into the country on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Washington’s crippling sanctions on the oil sector are expected to take effect in the coming weeks, cutting off funding to Maduro.

The risk, however, is that a standoff will drag on for months, disillusioning opposition supporters while allowing Maduro to blame an escalating economic crisis on the U.S. sanctions.

“The longer times passes and the opposition doesn’t pose a legitimate threat to Maduro, the more confident he will get,” said Raul Gallegos, an analyst with the consultancy Control Risks. He noted that Cuba, Zimbabwe and Iran all resisted international opprobrium and sanctions for decades.

“Chavistas are willing to drive this country into a level of despondency and reduce the economy to a level Venezuela hasn’t seen in decades as long as they can remain in power,” he said.

(Reporting by Brian Ellsworth and Sarah Marsh; Additional reporting by Luc Cohen and Matt Spetalnick in Washington’; Editing by Daniel Flynn and Leslie Adler)