Netanyahu tries to avert indictment as he fights for political life

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu began his final attempt to fend off a corruption indictment on Wednesday when his lawyers argued against looming charges that have combined with election stalemate to threaten his long hold on power.

The pre-trial hearings, scheduled to be held over four days, will allow him to make his case against indictment to Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit in three graft investigations.

A final decision by the attorney-general on whether to file charges is expected by the end of 2019.

Netanyahu, who denies any wrongdoing, faces no legal requirement to leave government if indicted, as long as he remains prime minister.

But his aura of political invincibility has been clouded by his failure to win a clear victory in parliamentary elections in April and last month, after a decade in office as head of the right-wing Likud party.

“Today, we will present all the evidence that everyone knows and some new evidence,” Amit Hadad, one of Netanyahu’s attorneys, told reporters outside Mandelblit’s office. “We believe that all three cases will be dropped after the hearings.”

Mandelblit announced in February that he intends to charge Netanyahu with bribery, fraud and breach and trust. Netanyahu has said he is the victim of a political witch-hunt spearheaded by left-wing opponents and journalists.

The investigations, dubbed Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000, have revolved around gifts of champagne and cigars that Netanyahu has acknowledged receiving from millionaire friends, purported attempts to influence media coverage and the alleged dispensing of regulatory favors.

Netanyahu has said he is the victim of a political witch-hunt spearheaded by left-wing opponents and journalists.

He is the first sitting Israeli prime minister to go through a pre-indictment hearing process.

Ehud Olmert, facing corruption allegations, quit as Israel’s leader in 2008 before such sessions could be held or any indictment filed. He was eventually charged and convicted of accepting bribes and served 16 months in jail before his release in 2017.

On Tuesday, talks to form a national unity government hit a further snag after Netanyahu’s centrist election rival, Benny Gantz of the Blue and White party, called off a meeting with him scheduled for Wednesday.

With neither leader appearing able to put together a coalition with a ruling majority on his own, Israel’s president last week gave Netanyahu 28 days to try to form the next government in the hope of securing a power-sharing deal.

Gantz, however, has pledged not to serve in a government under a premier facing criminal charges.

(Editing by William Maclean)

Israeli minister urges unity government to stave off ‘blow-up’ in Iran tensions

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz speaks during an interview with Reuters in Cairo, Egypt January 14, 2019. REUTERS/Mohamed Abd El Ghany/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s energy minister on Friday warned tensions between Iran and the United States were reaching a breaking point and an Israeli unity government deal was needed to stave off the threat of conflict following an inconclusive election last week.

Washington has blamed Iran for a Sept. 14 attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities, and on Thursday announced it would send radar systems and Patriot missiles to the kingdom to bolster its defenses. Iran denies carrying out the attack.

Yuval Steinitz, who is also a member of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s security cabinet, warned “we are on the verge of the Iran situation blowing up”.

“(The) chances of an American-Iranian or Saudi-Iranian blow-up, or a blow-up in the Gulf which, if it happens, is liable to reach us too, is something that is very, very tangible and realistic,” Steinitz told Tel Aviv radio station 102 FM on Friday.

Steinitz, a member of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party, said the potential for a wider conflict “is another reason for the need to hasten and form a broad unity government now, and not to be dragged into months of boycotts and discussions.”

On Wednesday, Netanyahu was tapped to try to form the next coalition government after garnering marginally more support from lawmakers than his centrist rival, Benny Gantz, in a Sept. 17 election.

Neither leader was able on his own to put together a coalition with a ruling majority or reach a power-sharing deal for a unity government between their two parties.

However, with little appetite among Israeli voters for a third trip to the polls in less than a year if no government emerges, public pressure could grow for Netanyahu and Gantz to compromise and join forces.

(Reporting by Rami Ayyub and Dan Williams, Editing by William Maclean)

Netanyahu tapped by Israel’s president to assemble new government

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s president tasked Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday with assembling a new government after power-sharing talks with his strongest rival, Benny Gantz, failed following an inconclusive election.

Netanyahu, head of the right-wing Likud party, and Israel’s longest-serving leader, still has no clear path to a fifth term after emerging from the Sept. 17 ballot, the second this year, short of a parliamentary majority.

“I have decided to give you, sir, the opportunity to assemble a government,” President Reuven Rivlin said to Netanyahu at a nomination ceremony.

He will have 28 days to form a coalition and can ask Rivlin for a two-week extension if necessary. Netanyahu’s failure to clinch victory in a ballot in April led to last week’s election and left him politically weakened.

In the new countdown, Likud has the pledged support of 55 legislators in the 120-member parliament, against 54 for Gantz’s centrist Blue and White Party. The two parties failed to reach a coalition deal in talks launched on Tuesday.

Former Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman, a possible kingmaker, has been keeping his far-right Yisrael Beitenu party on the fence since the Sept. 17 ballot, citing differences with both Likud’s and Blue and White’s political allies.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Alex Richardson)

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)

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

By Jeffrey Heller

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

ANNEXATION

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“NATIONAL UNITY”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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)

Christian evangelicals harvest land in settlements Israel hopes to annex

By Maayan Lubell and Elana Ringler

SHILO, West Bank (Reuters) – It’s harvest time in vineyards atop the hills of Shilo settlement in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. But it’s not Jewish settlers picking the grapes, it’s evangelical Christians.

They are volunteers for the devout U.S. evangelical group HaYovel which brings Christians to help Jewish farmers in settlements that Israel has built on land that Palestinians seek for a state.

Evangelicals have been a core support base for U.S. President Donald Trump since the 2016 election. Many are also staunch supporters of Israel, feeling a religious connection with the Jewish people and the Holy Land.

The West Bank holds special importance to evangelicals who see a divine hand in the modern-day return of Jews to a biblical homeland – and who call the territory by its Hebrew Old Testament name, Judea and Samaria.

The founder of HaYovel, Tommy Waller, is fond of quoting a passage from the book of Jeremiah, which reads: “Again I will build thee, and thou shalt be built, O virgin of Israel…Thou shalt yet plant vines upon the mountains of Samaria.”

But that land is also at the heart of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is the heartland of what the Palestinians see as a future state, along with East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip, territories that Israel captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

For the Tennessee-born Waller, helping the Jewish settlers cultivate the land means taking part in the fulfillment of a prophecy. “As a Christian, as a person who believes in the bible, it was an amazing thing to get to a place where my faith was touchable,” Waller said.

“We share a commonality between Christianity and Judaism and that’s our bible, our scripture,” said Waller at a vineyard on the outskirts of Har Bracha, another settlement whose farmers his volunteers assist.

ANNEXATION

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

Israeli hawks, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claim the West Bank is vital to Israel’s security. Relinquishing it to the Palestinians could put large swaths of Israel under threat of militant attacks, they say. Palestinians say there can be no viable Palestinian state without it.

In the run-up to Israel’s election next Tuesday, Netanyahu has renewed his pledge to annex parts of the West Bank if he wins. [L5N2615TB]

It’s a position that the politically powerful U.S. evangelicals have embraced.

“Evangelicals believe Judea and Samaria is bible land, because it is,” said Mike Evans, the Texas-based founder of ‘Friends of Zion Museum’ which sits in Jerusalem. “Do we think giving up Judea and Samaria is going to bring peace? No way,” said Evans, who is a member of Trump’s Faith Initiative.

The prospect of annexation has alarmed the Palestinians, who fear that Netanyahu is likely to have Trump’s backing.

“We are worried about losing our lands,” said Izzat Qadous, a retired school teacher from the Palestinian village Irak Burin, across the way from Har Bracha.

“The same way they have annexed Jerusalem, they want to annex the West Bank and soon we will hear of Trump acknowledging the annexation of the West Bank.”

About 2.9 million Palestinians live in the West Bank, according to official Palestinian figures and more than 400,000 Israeli settlers live there, according to the Israeli statistics bureau.

Evangelical leaders lobbied Trump earlier in his presidency for his 2017 recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and his relocation of the U.S. Embassy to the holy city in 2018.

“He (Trump) is rewarding moral clarity and I believe the Jewish people should be rewarded for moral clarity with recognizing more of their land,” said Evans, referring to the West Bank.

“ROCK STAR”

Trump’s administration includes evangelicals at some top positions – his vice president Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who in an interview to the Christian Broadcast Network in March said that “the Lord was at work here” in respect to Trump’s Israel policies.

Evangelical support for Israel goes back decades, with political lobbying, fundraising and organized tours to the Holy Land. But some see the ties growing far stronger under both Trump and Netanyahu.

Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official of the Palestine Liberation Organization, said the evangelical base “has been wielding unprecedented and enormous influence within the United States for the sake of the “fulfillment of the prophecy,” thereby giving Israel a free hand to carry out its most hardline and destructive policies against the Palestinian people.”

Dore Gold, President of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, said Netanyahu began cultivating ties with evangelicals during his first stint as prime minister in the 1990s.

“The Prime Minister has a keen sense of trendlines in the U.S.,” said Gold.

That effort may have paid off. “Benjamin Netanyahu among the evangelicals of the world is a rock star,” Evans said.

Critics, however, say Netanyahu has alienated many liberal American Jews by embracing Christian conservatives. Even in Israel’s settlements, the evangelicals are sometimes greeted with suspicion.

Some Israelis there fear that the Christians may have a missionary agenda – seeking to convert them. Evans said his mission in life is to defend the Jewish people.

Others are nervous about some evangelical readings of the scriptures in which the Jews’ return to the biblical land is instrumental in bringing about the end of the world, at which point those who do not accept Jesus Christ will not be saved.

“These people are pursuing God like we’re pursuing God,” said Waller. “Obviously we have our own messianic belief, but those are future things, in the kingdom to come.”

On the other hand, some settlers see the evangelicals as helping them out in fulfilling their own vision.

Nir Lavi, the owner of Har Bracha winery, says Hayovel’s contribution to his business has been more than financial.

“We are grateful,” said Lavi. “It’s a totally different phase of our own journey – the Jewish people’s redemption in their land.”

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Stephen Farrell and Angus MacSwan)