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)

Israeli minister condemns Sanders’ remarks on ‘racist’ Netanyahu government

FILE PHOTO: U.S. 2020 Democratic presidential candidate and Senator Bernie Sanders participates in a moderated discussion at the We the People Summit in Washington, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Carlos Barria/File Photo

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Israeli cabinet minister condemned U.S. Democratic Party presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders on Tuesday for describing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government as racist over its treatment of Palestinians.

While enjoying unprecedentedly strong backing from the Republican administration of President Donald Trump, some Israelis have been fretting about whether this comes at the cost of losing traditionally bipartisan support in Washington.

Addressing a televised CNN event alongside other Democratic candidates on Monday, Vermont senator Sanders said he was “100 percent pro-Israel” but proposed changing U.S. policy toward it.

“The goal must be to try to bring people together and not just support one country, which is now run by a right-wing, dare I say, racist government,” Sanders said, adding that Netanyahu “is treating the Palestinian people extremely unfairly”.

Netanyahu was reelected to a fifth term on April 9 and appears likely to build a coalition government including religious ultranationalists opposed to Palestinian statehood.

“We condemn statements like that made by Sanders, which was really strange,” Tzachi Hanegbi, a minister in Netanyahu’s outgoing cabinet and senior member of his conservative Likud party, told Israel’s Reshet 13 TV.

“The Israeli government is not a racist government, nor does it include a single racist minister,” the regional cooperation minister said.

“To be right wing is not illegitimate and it is odd that the Democratic Party allows one of its senior members to not respect the democratic choice of the State of Israel.”

Hanegbi cast his own remarks as specific to Sanders rather than any more generalized criticism of the Democratic Party.

Asked whether Israel risked being seen in the United States as a country championed by Republicans, he said: “We make every effort to avoid this danger because, indeed one of Israel’s greatest advantages over all the years was the ability not to get caught up in the political dispute between the parties.”

U.S. Jews overwhelmingly vote Democratic, studies show, a trend that political analysts say has also contributed to a degree of grassroots disconnect between the allies since Trump’s rise. Sanders is himself Jewish and, in his CNN appearance, noted his past visits to, and relatives living in, Israel.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alison Williams)

Israel to name new town on Golan after Trump: Netanyahu

FILE PHOTO: U.S. President Donald Trump shakes hands with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they pose on the West Wing colonnade in the Rose Garden at the White House in Washington, U.S., March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Leah Millis/File Photo

GOLAN HEIGHTS (Reuters) – Israel said on Tuesday it would name a new community on the Golan Heights after U.S. President Donald Trump as an expression of gratitude for his recognition of its claim of sovereignty over the strategic plateau.

Israel captured the Golan from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed it, in a move not recognized internationally. The United States broke with other world powers last month when Trump signed a decree recognizing Israeli sovereignty there.

“All Israelis were deeply moved when President Trump made his historic decision,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a video statement made on the Golan.

He added that, after the Jewish Passover festival, he would “bring to the government a resolution calling for a new community on the Golan Heights named after President Donald J. Trump.”

Trump’s Golan move followed his decision in December 2017 to recognize Jerusalem as the Israeli capital, breaking with decades of U.S. policy over the status of a city contested by the Palestinians.

Israel has said separately that, in appreciation of the U.S. president, it intends to name a proposed train station near Jerusalem’s Western Wall after him.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Gareth Jones)

Kushner urges world to keep ‘open mind’ about upcoming Middle East plan: source

White House adviser Jared Kushner at the "2019 Prison Reform Summit" in the East Room of the White House in Washington, U.S., April 1, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – White House senior adviser Jared Kushner urged a group of ambassadors on Wednesday to keep an “open mind” about President Donald Trump’s upcoming Middle East peace proposal and said that it will require compromises from both sides, a source familiar with the remarks said.

Kushner said the peace plan is to be unveiled after Israel forms a governing coalition in the wake of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s election victory and after the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which ends in early June, the source said.

“We will all have to look for reasonable compromises that will make peace achievable,” Kushner said, according to the source, who asked to remain unidentified.

(Reporting By Steve Holland; Editing by Steve Orlofsky)

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

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

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

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

WHAT HAPPENS AFTER POLLS CLOSE?

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

WHO’S AHEAD IN OPINION POLLS?

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

HOW DOES COALITION-BUILDING WORK?

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

WHAT SORT OF COALITION COULD BE FORMED?

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

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

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

WHAT ARE THE UNEXPECTED FACTORS TO WATCH?

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

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

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Hugh Lawson)

Israel recovers body of U.S.-born soldier missing since 1982

An undated photo of Zachary Baumel, a U.S.-born Israeli soldier missing since a 1982 tank battle against Syrian forces. Government Press Office/Handout via REUTERS

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel has recovered the body of a U.S.-born Israeli soldier missing since a 1982 tank battle against Syrian forces, a case that had long vexed the nation, the military said on Wednesday.

Zachary Baumel, who immigrated to Israel with his parents from New York in 1970, was 21 when he fought in Israel’s invasion of Lebanon and was declared missing in action (MIA) along with two other soldiers in the Battle of Sultan Yacoub.

“The last words he wrote to his parents, on a postcard before Sultan Yacoub, were: “Don’t worry, everything is fine, but I probably won’t be home for a while,'” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said in a televised statement.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jonathan Conricus, an Israeli military spokesman, said Baumel’s remains were flown to Israel by El Al Israel Airlines several days ago.

Conricus declined to say how or where the body of Baumel, a tank crewman and sergeant, was recovered in what he described as an intelligence operation, and Netanyahu gave no details in his address.

In 2018, Russia – which Netanyahu is due to visit for talks with President Vladimir Putin on Thursday – said its troops in Syria had been trying to locate the remains of Israeli soldiers killed in previous conflicts.

Two other Israeli tank crew members are still listed by the military as missing in action from the June 10-11, 1982 battle.

Over the years, there had been unverified reports that Baumel and the other soldiers missing at Sultan Yacoub, Zvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz, might have survived the fighting and been captured.

The fate of Israeli air force navigator Ron Arad, whose plane crashed in Lebanon in 1986, has also never been clarified.

Israel hoped forensic tests might determine if Baumel was killed outright or died under other circumstances, Conricus said.

Baumel’s father, Yona, who died in 2009, led an international campaign to discover whether his son might still be alive.

“Today, we are lifting the uncertainty and closing a circle,” Netanyahu said, vowing continued efforts to discover the fate of Israel’s other MIAs.

He said Baumel’s tank crewman overalls and Jewish religious garment were found with the soldier’s remains.

“This is one of the most emotional moments I have experienced in all my years as prime minister,” said Netanyahu, who has been in office for the past decade and is vying for a fifth term in a closely contested election on April 9.

In 2016, in a ceremony attended in Moscow by Netanyahu, Russia returned an Israeli tank that had been captured by Syria at Sultan Yacoub and transferred to a Russian museum.

(Editing by Mark Heinrich)

Trump to give Israel’s Netanyahu an election boost

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

By Steve Holland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

(Reporting by Steve Holland; editing by Jonathan Oatis)

Trump says time for U.S. to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Golan

FILE PHOTO: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. Republican Senator Lindsey Graham and U.S. Ambassador to Israel David Friedman visit the border between Israel and Syria in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, March 11, 2019 REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – U.S. President Donald Trump said on Thursday it was time to back Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, territory Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 Middle East War.

“After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!” Trump said on Twitter.

The recognition of the disputed area would mark a major shift in U.S. policy a week before Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives in Washington to meet with Trump and address the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

Netanyahu, who faces an election in Israel on April 9, has been pressing for the United States to recognize its claim to sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

Israel captured much of the Golan from Syria in a 1967 war and annexed it, a move not endorsed internationally. Netanyahu raised the possibility of U.S. recognition in his first White House meeting with Trump in February 2017.

(Reporting by Doina Chiacu; Editing by David Alexander and Susan Thomas)

Netanyahu election rival pledges to ‘separate’ from Palestinians

FILE PHOTO: Benny Gantz, head of Resilience party is seen after a news conference, in Tel Aviv, Israel February 21, 2019. REUTERS/Amir Cohen

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – The centrist Blue and White party posing the biggest election challenge to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu pledged a policy of “separation” from Palestinians in occupied land on Wednesday, but stopped short of backing their goal of statehood.

However, the party’s number two, former finance minister Yair Lapid, predicted that parting ways with the Palestinians would eventually lead to them having a state of their own alongside Israel.

Netanyahu and fellow rightists have cast themselves as blockers of any initiative to cede territory to the Palestinians.

Blue and White, led by former armed forces chief Benny Gantz, has hedged on the issue for weeks as it gained ground in opinion polls ahead of the April 9 election.

In its inaugural platform, published on Wednesday, Blue and White said that once in power it would confer with Arab states “and intensify the process of separation from the Palestinians, while ensuring an uncompromising commitment to Israel’s national security”.

The policy blueprint envisages Israel retaining control of the Jordan Valley and blocs of Jewish settlements in the West Bank but remains hazy on what might be done with more isolated outposts in territory captured in the 1967 Middle East war.

Pressed on this, Lapid told Israel’s Ynet TV: “I believe that, in separating from the Palestinians, we will ultimately arrive at two states. But no responsible politician would get into details before the Trump plan is presented.”

U.S. President Donald Trump is widely expected to make public a peace plan after the Israeli election.

Asked if Lapid’s remarks reflected Blue and White policy, a party spokeswoman said she could not elaborate on the platform.

Opinion polls give Blue and White around 35 of parliament’s 120 seats against 30 for Netanyahu’s Likud party.

Palestinians were circumspect.

“What does he (Lapid) mean by a state?” asked Wasel Abu Youssef, an official in the umbrella Palestine Liberation Organization.  “We want a Palestinian sovereign state on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem as its capital, empty of settlements, with territories that are connected, not isolated.”

In 2009, pressured by the Obama administration, Netanyahu said he would accept a Palestinian state under several provisos. But with U.S.-sponsored peace talks stalled since 2014, he has shifted tone, vowing never to uproot West Bank settlements.

“A Palestinian state would endanger our existence,” the prime minister said in speech last month. “This is what they (Gantz and Lapid) are planning to do. They obscure it. They hide it.”

Most world powers deem the settlements illegal and support independence for the Palestinians, who want statehood in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as their capital.

Israel pulled settlers and soldiers out of Gaza in 2005. It annexed East Jerusalem after the 1967 war, in a move that has not won international recognition, and regards all of the city as its capital. Blue and White echoed this position in its platform.

(Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Frances Kerry)

Netanyahu meets Omani foreign minister , hints other Arab states warming to Israel

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem February 10, 2019. Gali Tibbon/Pool via REUTERS

WARSAW (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met Oman’s foreign minister on the sidelines of a U.S.-sponsored Middle East conference in Warsaw on Wednesday and hinted that other Arab countries represented there were engaging with Israel.

“Many are following this (Omani) lead, and may I say, including at this conference,” a video released by Netanyahu’s office showed him telling Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, whose Gulf state hosted the Israeli leader in October.

Oman does not formally recognize Israel. Nor do Saudi Arabia and United Arab Emirates, which share Israel’s concerns about Iranian actions in the region and also sent envoys to Warsaw.

Speaking to Netanyahu, bin Alawi said: “People in the Middle East have suffered a lot because they have stuck to the past. Now we say, this is a new era, for the future.”

The United States hopes the Warsaw gathering will ratchet up pressure against Iran despite concerns among major European countries about heightened tensions with Tehran.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller, Alison Williams, William Maclean)