Gaza rocket sends Netanyahu to shelter during campaign rally: TV

ASHKELON, Israel (Reuters) – A rocket launched from the Gaza Strip at a southern Israeli city on Wednesday as it hosted a campaign rally by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prompted him to take shelter briefly before resuming the event, Israeli TV stations reported.

The Israeli military confirmed the launch against Ashkelon, which is 12 km (7.5 miles) from the coastal Palestinian enclave, and said the rocket was shot down by an Iron Dome air defense interceptor.

There was no immediate claim of responsibility in Gaza, which is under the control of Hamas Islamists and where a smaller armed faction, Islamic Jihad, exchanged fire with Israel during a two-day surge of violence last month.

Israeli TV stations showed Netanyahu, who is campaigning to keep the helm of the conservative Likud party in an internal election on Thursday, being escorted off a stage by bodyguards. The reports said he was taken to a shelter after sirens sounded.

It was the second such incident after a September appearance by Netanyahu in the nearby town of Ashdod was briefly disrupted by a rocket siren.

Israel sparked the November fighting in Gaza by assassinating Baha Abu Al-Atta, an Islamic Jihad commander it accused of ordering the launch against Ashdod.

“He (Al-Atta) is no longer around,” a video circulated on social media showed a smiling Netanyahu saying after he retook the stage in Ashkelon, to cheers from onlookers.

In a veiled threat to retaliate for Wednesday’s attack, he added: “Whoever tried to make an impression just now should pack his bags.”

While Netanyahu is widely expected to retain Likud’s leadership, he faces a tough battle ahead of a March general election in Israel – its third in a year, after he and his centrist rival Benny Gantz failed to secure majorities in two previous ballots. Netanyahu’s standing has been dented by an indictment on corruption charges that he denies.

Netanyahu’s failure to stem attacks from Gaza has been invoked by his political rivals.

“The situation in which Israeli citizens live at the mercy of terrorists and the prime minister of Israel is unable to tour parts of his country is a badge of shame on the security policy in the south – and a loss of deterrence that no sovereign country can accept,” Gantz, a former military chief, said in a statement on Wednesday.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne and Dan Grebler)

Netanyahu charged in corruption cases, deepening Israeli political disarray

By Jeffrey Heller and Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was indicted on corruption charges on Thursday, heightening uncertainty over who will ultimately lead a country deep in political disarray after two inconclusive elections this year.

The decision announced by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit was the first of its kind against a serving Israeli prime minister and represented Netanyahu’s gravest crisis of his lengthy political career.

He was charged with breach of trust and fraud in all three corruption cases against him, as well as bribery in one of the investigations, according to a charge sheet released by the Justice Ministry.

Netanyahu, in power since 2009, has dominated Israeli politics for a generation and is the country’s longest-serving leader. He has denied wrongdoing in the three corruption cases, saying he is the victim of a political witch hunt.

He is under no legal obligation to resign after being charged. The opening of a trial could be delayed for months by a new election and any moves by the right-wing prime minister to seek parliamentary immunity from prosecution.

Netanyahu, 70, was due to make a statement from his official residence at 2030 GMT.

Earlier, during one of the most unusual days in Israeli political history, the country’s president told lawmakers to name a candidate to form a new government after right-winger Netanyahu and centrist challenger Benny Gantz both failed, a development that probably sets the stage for a third election within a year.

“These are harsh dark days in the annals of the State of Israel,” President Reuven Rivlin said as he announced that Gantz had not mustered enough support for a stable coalition.

Police recommended in February that Mandelblit file criminal charges against Netanyahu in the long-running investigations dubbed Cases 1000, 2000 and 4000.

Netanyahu is suspected of wrongfully accepting $264,000 worth of gifts, which prosecutors said included cigars and champagne, from tycoons and of dispensing favors in alleged bids for improved coverage by Israel’s biggest selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth, and the Walla website.

Netanyahu could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted of bribery and a maximum 3-year term for fraud and breach of trust.

Even though he was under suspicion, that was not enough to dissuade most of his traditional allies from sticking with him in coalition negotiations, effectively blocking Gantz’s path to the premiership.

But the two elections that neither Netanyahu nor Gantz won exposed a rare political vulnerability in the prime minister after a decade in office.

The prolonged political stalemate comes at a tricky time for Israel and its most prominent statesman on the domestic and international fronts.

Its conflict with arch-foe Iran has deepened – Israeli warplanes hit Iranian targets in Syria on Wednesday after rockets were fired toward Israel – while fighting with Palestinian militants in Gaza flared last week.

The introduction of criminal charges could further complicate the eventual rollout of the U.S. administration’s long-delayed Middle East peace plan by imperiling the political future of one of the key players whose support is needed.

(Editing by Stephen Farrell and Giles Elgood)

Israel says six wounded near Tel Aviv in long-range Gaza rocket attack

A damaged house that was hit by a rocket can be seen north of Tel Aviv, Israel, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Yair Sagi

By Rami Amichay

MISHMERET, Israel (Reuters) – A long-range rocket launched from the Gaza Strip struck a house in central Israel on Monday, wounding six people in the first such incident since a 2014 war in the Palestinian enclave, Israeli authorities said.

The early morning attack on Mishmeret, an agricultural town north of Tel Aviv, came at a time of high tension ahead of the anniversary of Gaza border protests at the weekend, and with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visiting Washington as he campaigns for a fifth term in an April 9 ballot.

A damaged house that was hit by a rocket can be seen north of Tel Aviv, Israel, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Yair Sagi

A damaged house that was hit by a rocket can be seen north of Tel Aviv, Israel, March 25, 2019. REUTERS/Yair Sagi

Israel’s commercial capital and outlying communities had last come under such an attack during the 2014 war with Gaza’s dominant Hamas Islamists.

The Magen David Adom ambulance service said it was treating six occupants of a home in Mishmeret, including an infant, for wounds. TV images showed a building with extensive damage, and police said it had also been set aflame.

The strike came minutes after the Israeli military activated air raid sirens in the area and said one rocket had been launched out of the Gaza Strip, a coastal territory 50 miles (80 km) away where Hamas and other factions possess such weapons.

Emmanuel Nahshon, spokesman for Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said the home in Mishmeret was hit by a rocket from Gaza.

There was no immediate Palestinian confirmation.

Two rockets were launched at Tel Aviv on March 14 but caused no casualties or damage, Israel said. It blamed the rocket launches on Hamas, though a security official who declined to be identified by name or nationality later said that the salvo, which missed any built-up areas, had been set off by accident.

There was no immediate comment from Netanyahu on Monday’s incident.

His chief rival in next month’s election, centrist ex-general Benny Gantz, issued a statement accusing the rightist premier of having “bankrupted national security”.

(Writing by Dan Williams; editing by Darren Schuettler)

Israel to hold early election in April: Netanyahu spokesman

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel will hold an early general election in April, a spokesman for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday, after members of his governing coalition met to discuss differences over legislation.

“The leaders of the coalition decided unanimously to dissolve parliament and go to a new election in early April,” the spokesman wrote on Twitter, quoting from a statement issued by Netanyahu’s political partners.

A coalition crisis over a military conscription bill affecting exemptions from compulsory service for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men led to the decision.

Netanyahu, now in his fourth term as prime minister, has been governing with a razor-thin majority of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament. He heads the right-wing Likud party.

Under Israeli law, a national election had to be held by November 2019. Netanyahu’s government would remain in place until a new one is sworn in, after the April poll.

A series of corruption probes against Netanyahu and pending decisions by Israel’s attorney general on whether to follow police recommendations to indict him had raised speculation he would opt to seek a public show of confidence at the ballot box.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the cases and has given no indication he will step down if charged.

The 69-year-old Israeli leader made no immediate comment after his meeting with the coalition leaders. Recent opinion polls have shown his popularity remains strong among Israelis.

The likelihood of an early election increased in November after Netanyahu’s defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman, quit the government, leaving the ruling coalition with its one-seat majority.

No one in Netanyahu’s Likud has made a public challenge against him, and the party is expected to close ranks around him in the coming election.

Outside Likud, Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid opposition party, is seen as the strongest candidate to succeed Netanyahu in any upset. Lapid’s party is second to Likud in opinion polls.

Israel’s former army chief, Benny Gantz, is seen as a dovish potential candidate who could tip the balance in favor of a center-left bloc, but has not yet thrown his hat in the ring.

On the right, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, could both seek to lead a right-wing bloc if Likud emerges in a weaker position in an election.

Netanyahu first led Israel from 1996 to 1999, and returned in 2009. His current government has been in power since May 2015.

(Reporting by Jeffrey Heller; editing by Andrew Roche)

Looking ahead to Trump presidency, Netanyahu refocusses on Iran

Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu participates in a forum hosted by the Center for American Progress in Washington November

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu has resumed his attacks on a nuclear deal with Iran, seeking Donald Trump’s help to smash a cornerstone of the Obama administration’s foreign policy legacy.

Following up on remarks he made this month to a Washington think tank, the conservative Israeli prime minister said on CBS’s “60 Minutes” on Sunday “there are ways, various ways of undoing” last year’s accord.

The Republican president-elect is also no fan of the deal between Iran and six world powers under which Tehran agreed to suspend a suspected drive to develop atomic weapons in return for a lifting of most sanctions against it.

During the U.S. election campaign, Trump called the pact – against which Netanyahu lobbied long and hard – a “disaster” and “the worst deal ever negotiated”. But he has also said it would be hard to overturn an agreement enshrined in a U.N. resolution.

Asked if he had any ideas on how to unravel the deal, Netanyahu said on the television program: “Yeah, I have about five things in my mind”. Pressed for specifics, he said: “I’ll talk about it with President Trump.”

That discussion will likely take place soon after Trump’s Jan. 20 inauguration. Shortly after the election, Netanyahu said he and Trump had agreed to meet at the first opportunity.

Scrapping the deal would, at the very least, be complicated.

“It’s difficult to see the advantage for the U.S. in abrogating the deal at this stage,” said Jacob Parakilas, an expert on U.S. foreign policy at Chatham House, a London-based think tank.

“It would be nearly impossible to convince Europe, Russia and China to restore their sanctions on Iran in the absence of clear evidence of Iranian violations of the deal. So any sanctions the U.S. restored would have much less impact on the Iranian economy,” he said.

Yair Lapid, an Israeli opposition leader, said he doubted whether the deal could be undone given “the Chinese, Russians and Europeans are already in Iran signing deals”, and he said any discussion on it should take place “behind closed doors”.

In the run-up to Trump’s inauguration, Netanyahu has been laying the groundwork for a closer relationship with Trump.

The two met in September on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in New York, when the Israeli leader also held talks with Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton. A week after the election, Netanyahu sent his U.S. ambassador, Ron Dermer, to see the president-elect and his transition team.

Dermer hailed Trump as “a true friend of Israel”.

CHEMISTRY

Netanyahu has used similar language to describe Obama, but the superlatives have done little to mask a lack of personal chemistry and a relationship strained by policy differences over Iran and Jewish settlement on occupied land.

In recent months, however, Netanyahu had largely refrained from attacking the Iran deal as Israel finalised a 10-year, $38 billion military aid package with the Obama administration.

Nearly a year ago, the commander of Israel’s armed forces, Lieutenant-General Gadi Eisenkot, offered a nuanced view of a deal that Netanyahu had dubbed a historic mistake. The agreement, Eisenkot said in a speech, presented many risks but also “many opportunities”.

Trump, himself, could also face opposition from within his new administration to cancelling the Iran deal.

James Mattis, the former general who Trump said he intends to nominate as secretary of defence, has called for strict enforcement of the agreement but stopped short of calling for its abrogation.

“It may be possible in time to build up support for a multilateral restoration of sanctions,” Parakilas said. “But at the moment that’s just not really the case – and ending U.S. participation in the deal right now would make it more, not less, difficult.”

Last year, before the agreement was signed, Netanyahu angered the White House by addressing the U.S. Congress, where he argued that the deal would pave Iran’s path to nuclear arms.

Three years earlier, he famously held up a cartoon bomb at the United Nations, drawing a red line just below a label reading “final stage” to a nuclear device.

But Netanyahu seemed to backtrack in the interview.

Asked if Iran, which has denied seeking atomic weapons, would move quickly towards a bomb if the agreement was undone, Netanyahu said that was not the case prior to its signing.

“I think Iran didn’t rush to the bomb before there was a deal,” he said.

“Really?” his questioner asked.

“No, because they were afraid of retribution,” Netanyahu said.

(Editing by Luke Baker and Alison Williams)