Exclusive: Iran intervenes to prevent ousting of Iraqi prime minister – sources

Exclusive: Iran intervenes to prevent ousting of Iraqi prime minister – sources
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iran has stepped in to prevent the ouster of Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Abdul Mahdi by two of Iraq’s most influential figures amid weeks of anti-government demonstrations, sources close to both men told Reuters.

Populist Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr demanded this week that Abdul Mahdi call an early election to quell the biggest mass protests in Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003. The demonstrations are fueled by anger at corruption and widespread economic hardship.

Sadr had urged his main political rival Hadi al-Amiri, whose alliance of Iran-backed militias is the second-biggest political force in parliament, to help push out Abdul Mahdi.

But in a secret meeting in Baghdad on Wednesday, Qassem Soleimani, head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, intervened. Soleimani asked Amiri and his militia leaders to keep supporting Abdul Mahdi, according to five sources with knowledge of the meeting.

Spokesmen for Amiri and Sadr could not be reached for comment. An Iranian security official confirmed Soleimani was at Wednesday’s meeting, saying he was there to “give advice”.

“(Iraq’s) security is important for us and we have helped them in the past. The head of our Quds Force travels to Iraq and other regional countries regularly, particularly when our allies ask for our help,” the Iranian official said, asking not to be named.

Soleimani, whose Quds force coordinates Tehran-backed militias in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon, is a frequent visitor to Iraq. However, his direct intervention is the latest sign of Iran’s increasing influence in Iraq and across the region.

Iraqi security officials told Reuters earlier this month that Iran-backed militias deployed snipers on Baghdad rooftops to try to help put down the protests.

If Iraq falls further into crisis, Iran risks losing the influence it has steadily been amassing in the country since the U.S.-led invasion and which it sees as a counter to American influence in the region.

FATE UNCLEAR

Despite the maneuvering behind closed doors, Abdul Mahdi’s fate remains unclear. He took office a year ago as a compromise candidate between Amiri and Sadr but faces a wave of protests that has swelled in recent days.

In the 16 years since the fall of Saddam, a Sunni Muslim, Shi’ite Iran has emerged as a key power broker in Iraqi politics, with greater influence than the United States in the Shi’ite majority country.

But that proxy power battle has rankled ordinary Iraqis who criticize a political elite they say is subservient to one or the other of Baghdad’s two allies and pays more attention to those alliances than to Iraqis’ basic economic needs.

Despite their country’s vast oil wealth, many Iraqis live in poverty or have limited access to clean water, electricity, basic health care and education. Most of the protesters are young people who above all want jobs.

The protests have broken nearly two years of relative stability in Iraq. They have spread from Baghdad across the mainly Shi’ite south and met with a security crackdown that killed over 250 people.

Until earlier this week, it appeared that Amiri – who is one of Tehran’s key allies in Iraq and the leader of the Badr Organization of militia – was willing to support Abdul Mahdi’s departure.

Late on Tuesday night, Amiri issued a public statement agreeing to “work together” with Sadr after the cleric called on him to help oust the prime minister.

Wednesday’s meeting seemingly changed the course of events.

A Shi’ite militia commander loyal to Amiri – one of the five sources Reuters spoke to about the meeting – said there was agreement that Abdul Mahdi needed to be given time to enact reforms to calm the streets.

Many of the militia leaders raised fears at the meeting that ousting Abdul Mahdi could weaken the Popular Mobilization Forces, according to another source familiar with the meeting.

The PMF is an umbrella of mostly Shi’ite paramilitary groups backed by Iran who are influential in Iraq’s parliament and have allies in government. They formally report to the prime minister but have their own command structure outside the military.

Following the meeting with Soleimani, Amiri changed tune with Sadr. He told Sadr that getting rid of Abdul Mahdi would cause more chaos and threaten stability, a politician close to Sadr said.

In response, Sadr said publicly that without a resignation there would be more bloodshed and that he would not work with Amiri again.

“I will never enter into alliances with you after today,” he said in a statement.

(Reporting by Baghdad Newsroom; additional reporting by Dubai newsroom; Editing by Samia Nakhoul and Nick Tattersall)

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)

Explainer: Israel’s election – will Netanyahu survive?

By Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israelis vote on Tuesday for the second time in less than six months in an election that could see Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu win a record fifth term – or end his decade-long dominance of Israeli politics.

He faces formidable challengers to his reign and, after the vote, possible criminal charges in three corruption cases.

The last polls taken before election day show a race that is too close to call. They predict Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party tied with the centrist Blue and White, with neither securing an outright majority.

However, about 10 parties are likely to win parliament seats. The polls also show increasing support for a right-wing, pro-Netanyahu bloc of factions that could hand him a victory.

Here are a number of possible scenarios for how the election could play out:

1. NETANYAHU WINS CONTROL OF MAJORITY OF KNESSET SEATS

Likud, together with the three right-wing and religious parties that have already declared their support for him, win a majority. With at least 61 lawmakers, Netanyahu would have little trouble assembling a coalition similar to his outgoing cabinet, which supported his hawkish position on Iran and the 2015 nuclear deal, and took a tough stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the run-up to the election Netanyahu said he would annex the Jordan Valley and all the settlements Israel has built in the occupied West Bank – land the Palestinians seek for a state. Such a move would delight Netanyahu’s far-right allies.

2. NO CLEAR WINNER AND NETANYAHU UNITY GOVERNMENT

After election day, Israel’s president consults with party leaders, asking them who they would support for prime minister. President Reuven Rivlin then asks the candidate he believes has the best chance to try to form a government. Netanyahu had his opportunity after the previous election in April, but failed within the allocated 42 days. Rather than risk Rivlin appointing someone else to try, Netanyahu opted for a second election.

If he is again chosen, and again faces a stalemate, Netanyahu could go outside his bloc of right-wing and Jewish religious parties to form a so-called “national unity” government with those who are not his natural allies.

That would likely mean his strongest rival, Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White. But Gantz has said he would not join a Netanyahu-led government, citing possible corruption indictments against Netanyahu. But Israeli politics are famously fluid, with ever-shifting fealties.

3. NO CLEAR WINNER, CENTER-RIGHT GOVERNMENT FORMED WITHOUT NETANYAHU

If Netanyahu again fails to form a government, his own party could oust him to pave the way for a governing coalition between Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White, leaving Netanyahu in the political wilderness.

So far, no one in Likud has publicly broached such an idea. That could change if Netanyahu comes up short in coalition talks.

4. NETANYAHU CLEARLY DEFEATED, CENTER-LEFT GOVERNMENT

If the center and left-wing parties garner a majority in parliament, Gantz would head a government that could include his own party as well as the Labor Party and the newly-formed, environmentalist and secularist Democratic Camp, without needing an alliance with the right. It would be the first time since the 1990s that the left controlled parliament. But with an electorate shifting steadily toward the right, polls are not showing much likelihood of such a scenario.

However, if a left-leaning coalition were ultimately formed, it would be likely to pursue peace talks with the Palestinians and be more open to concessions as part of a lasting peace accord. It could also be more accepting of the nuclear deal struck between world powers and Iran.

5. NO CLEAR WINNER, NEW ELECTIONS

If no candidate can form a government, Israel would head to another snap election. But lawmakers are likely to do all they can to avoid a third this year.

HOW DOES THE ISRAELI ELECTION WORK?

The 120 Knesset (parliament) seats are allocated by proportional representation to party lists. In order to win seats, a party must get at least 3.25 percent of the national vote, equivalent to 4 seats. In the election in April, Likud and Blue and White came out on top, tied at 35 seats each. No one party has ever won an outright majority of the 120-seat Knesset in 71 years of nationhood. This makes post-election coalitions the key to victory, and negotiations can stretch on for weeks.

WHO’S THE KINGMAKER?

According to the polls, it is Avigdor Lieberman, Israel’s hawkish ex-defense minister. Polls suggest the ultra-nationalist settler will double his seats from five to about 10. Lieberman, head of the Israel Beitenu party, has said he would only join a unity government comprised of Likud and Blue and White.

However, Lieberman is something of a wild card and has made unpredictable moves in the past.

WHAT ABOUT NETANYAHU’S LEGAL WOES?

Israel’s attorney-general, who has announced his intention to indict Netanyahu in three corruption investigations, is expected to decide whether to formally charge him by the end of 2019 after a pre-trial hearing in October, during which Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, can argue against indictment.

A majority in the Knesset could grant Netanyahu immunity from prosecution until the end of his term. Some of his prospective allies signaled they would support such a move, but it would probably draw a public outcry and legal challenges at the Supreme Court. Even if indicted, Netanyahu would not be under strict legal obligation to step down. His right-wing and religious allies are not expected to pressure him to resign, even if he is charged.

WHAT ABOUT TRUMP’S PEACE PLAN

Netanyahu has said he expects U.S. President Donald Trump to release his long-delayed plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace soon after the election. If Netanyahu wins and forms a right-wing cabinet, he would have a hard time getting his far-right allies to sign on to any peace plan involving concessions to the Palestinians. This could either destabilize the government or bury the Trump plan. A cabinet with Gantz in it would likely be more open to negotiations with the Palestinians.

(Writing by Maayan Lubell; Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Angus MacSwan)

Former Netanyahu aide Lieberman could be Israeli kingmaker

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – A former nightclub bouncer with a heavy Russian accent, Avigdor Lieberman used to carry a fresh change of shirt for his political boss, Benjamin Netanyahu.

He is now one of Israel’s most prominent politicians and opinion polls suggest he could emerge as a kingmaker after an election on Tuesday, putting him in a position where he could possibly end the prime minister’s decade in power. [nL5N25W3VZ]

After working as an aide to the right-wing Netanyahu, Lieberman quit the Likud Party and formed the far-right Yisrael Beitenu. He then went on to serve in a string of governments, including under Netanyahu, but quit as his defense chief last November in protest at a ceasefire in Gaza.

Since Netanyahu failed to form a coalition government after an election in April, Lieberman, 61, has refocused his political strategy to attract new supporters.

With opinion polls predicting Yisrael Beitenu will double to 10 the number of parliamentary seats it won in the election five months ago, Lieberman could be the linchpin in determining the composition and leadership of the next governing coalition.

It was Lieberman who handed Netanyahu a rare defeat after the April election. Netanyahu needed Yisrael Beignet’s five seats to secure a majority of 61 in the 120-member parliament but Lieberman rejected his approaches.

Lieberman is pushing for a “national unity” government after Tuesday’s poll that would include his own party, Netanyahu’s Likud and its strongest challenger, the centrist Blue and White party, but exclude what he calls “messianic” religious factions.

Where Netanyahu fits in is anyone’s guess. Blue and White’s leader, Benny Gantz, citing looming corruption indictments against the prime minister, says he is open to teaming up with Likud, but not if it is led by Netanyahu.

So far, potential successors to Netanyahu, who has denied wrongdoing in three criminal cases against him, have remained loyal. But no one party has ever won an outright parliamentary majority on its own in Israel and national politics are fluid.

“(Lieberman) has an ability to crown the next prime minister – and he knows it very well,” said Dmitri Doubov, editor in chief of Israel’s Russian-language Channel 9 television.

“I don’t think that he sees himself as the next prime minister but he can set the conditions for the next coalition to define it as he wants, as he sees fit.”

CHANGE OF FOCUS

With campaign billboards reading “Make Israel Normal Again”, Lieberman’s far-right political platform includes support for Jewish settlement in the occupied West Bank.

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

Lieberman, a settler himself who in his younger days also worked as an airport baggage handler, also calls for conscription of ultra-Orthodox Jews into the military.

Unlike other 18-year-old Israeli Jews, Orthodox seminary students are exempt from compulsory service. Lieberman gave his differences with an ultra-Orthodox party over a conscription bill as the reason for refusing to join the coalition Netanyahu had seemed poised to form after the election in April.

Lieberman’s frequent complaints about ultra-Orthodox political power and influence over everyday life in Israel, including the administration of marriage and divorce, have played well with his Russian-speaking immigrants, some of whom are not Jewish according to ritual law.

If the opinion polls showing a surge in support for Yisrael Beitenu are correct, his message is also now resonating with secular Israelis outside his power base.

In the port city of Ashdod, south of Tel Aviv, Jonathan Joseph Motro, a 28-year-old student, said he was looking for a candidate who was right-wing but not in step with the ultra-Orthodox. Lieberman fits the bill, he said.

“I voted Likud for a long time, now I’m voting for Lieberman,” Motro said.

Speaking at a public forum of “influencers” organized by Israel’s Channel 12 TV last week, Lieberman said in his usual deadpan delivery that “there is nothing personal” in his criticism of Netanyahu.

Back in the days of their early relationship, Lieberman would be at Netanyahu’s side during campaigning.

“Lieberman scheduled Netanyahu’s visits to Likud branches around the country, arriving in advance with signs to hang in the hall and a crisp powder-blue shirt for his fastidious boss to change into before his speech, Anshel Pfeffer, author of a Netanyahu biography, wrote in the Haaretz newspaper.

At the Channel 12 event, Lieberman said he did not rule out Netanyahu as a political ally or underestimate a veteran leader hailed by chanting Likud faithful after previous election victories as a “magician”.

“(But) I will not go to a Halacha government,” he said, in a reference to Jewish ritual law and ultra-Orthodox party participation in a coalition.

(Editing by Timothy Heritage)

Bahamas says 2,500 missing after Dorian; prime minister warns death toll to rise ‘significantly’

By Zachary Fagenson

NASSAU, Bahamas (Reuters) – Some 2,500 people are still listed as missing in the Bahamas more than a week after Hurricane Dorian pummeled the Caribbean island chain, although that number may include evacuees who fled to shelters, authorities said on Wednesday.

Bahamian Prime Minister Hubert Minnis told the nation in a televised address that the death toll from Dorian remained at 50, but conceded that the large number of people missing meant that number would rise.

“The number of deaths is expected to significantly increase,” Minnis said, adding the government was being transparent and would provide “timely information on the loss of life as it is available.”

Emergency management officials told a separate news conference that the list of missing had not yet been checked against records of evacuees or the thousands of people staying in shelters.

“My friends are missing, a few of my cousins are missing over there, five in total, they lived in Marsh Harbour,” said Clara Bain, a 38-year-old tour guide, referring to the Abaco town where officials estimate that 90% of homes and buildings were damaged or destroyed.

“Everyone on the islands are missing someone, it’s really devastating,” she said.

Dorian slammed into the Bahamas on Sept. 1 as a Category 5 storm on the five-step Saffir-Simpson scale of intensity, one of the strongest Atlantic hurricanes on record to make a direct hit on land and packing top sustained winds of 185 miles per hour (298 kph).

“Our sympathies go out to the families of each person who died,” Minnis said. “Let us pray for them during this time of grief. We offer you our shoulders to cry on. You will never be forgotten.”

More than 5,000 people evacuated to New Providence, the island where the capital, Nassau, is located, in the face of the worst hurricane in the country’s history. But there has since been a significant reduction in the number now asking to be relocated, according to emergency management officials.

Some 15,000 people are still in need of shelter or food, according to the Caribbean Disaster Emergency Management Agency.

Officials have already put up large tents in Nassau to house those made homeless by the storm and plan to erect tent cities on Abaco capable of sheltering up to 4,000 people.

Minnis thanked U.S. President Donald Trump and the American people for mobilizing support and urged Bahamians to pitch in with relief efforts by volunteering or donating money to legitimate charities.

The White House said on Wednesday the United States would not give temporary protected immigration status to people fleeing the Bahamas after the hurricane.

The status would have allowed Bahamians to live and work in the United States while their country recovers.

Private forecasters estimated that Dorian destroyed or damaged some $3 billion in insured property in the Bahamas or elsewhere in the Caribbean.

Commercial flights to Abaco, one of the hardest-hit areas, resumed on a limited basis on Wednesday.

(Reporting by Zach Fagenson in Nassau, Maria Caspani in New York, Scott Malone in Boston and Dan Whitcomb in Los Angele; Writing by Dan Whitcomb; Editing by Bill Tarrant and Peter Cooney)

Bruised but driven, Netanyahu becomes Israel’s longest-serving PM

FILE PHOTO: Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu points to a red line he has drawn on the graphic of a bomb as he addresses the 67th United Nations General Assembly at the U.N. Headquarters in New York, U.S., September 27, 2012. REUTERS/Lucas Jackson/File Photo

By Dan Williams

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Benjamin Netanyahu makes history this weekend by becoming the longest-serving Israeli prime minister, surpassing a record held by the country’s founding father David Ben-Gurion.

Yet the conservative leader, who will match Ben-Gurion’s 8,475 days in office on Friday, is limping across that line, facing an election in September after an inconclusive April ballot, and a possible corruption trial.

“Who’s counting?” he said airily when asked about the career milestone during a conference hosted by the sympathetic Israel Hayom newspaper and attended by U.S. envoys.

To judge from his solid approval ratings, Netanyahu, 69, has delivered what Israelis wants: a purring economy and relative security despite the collapse of peacemaking with the Palestinians and combustible fronts with Syria and Lebanon.

He has also rallied a rising Israeli right-wing with rhetoric against the country’s Arab minority, and cut down potential political challengers with divide-and-conquer tactics.

Netanyahu became Israel’s youngest-ever premier in 1996, serving until his defeat in a 1999 election. Re-elected in 2009, he extended his tenure through the ballot box in 2013 and 2015.

But in a surprise turn, he failed to form a new coalition government after claiming victory in an election three months ago, and now serves as a caretaker prime minister.

That means a do-over in September, just weeks before prosecutors are expected to decide whether to indict Netanyahu in three graft cases, which he has castigated as a witch-hunt.

STATECRAFT

Netanyahu has scored a string of statecraft goals with the help of President Donald Trump: U.S. recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and of Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, as well as Washington’s withdrawal from world powers’ 2015 nuclear deal with Israel’s arch regional foe Iran.

He may be one of the few world leaders who can boast a rapport with both Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin.

And to the delight of Jewish settlers in the occupied West Bank, he has sidestepped the Palestinians with outreach to Arab Sunni Muslim rulers who share his concerns over Iran.

Israel’s center-left opposition, and many of its foreign friends, worry, however, that Netanyahu has missed a chance to find a two-state deal with the Palestinians to safeguard the Jewish majority and democratic credentials of his country.

Tom Segev, an Israeli historian, said that while Netanyahu’s political longevity might be seen as a success story, “it may also be that…we will remember him more for leading Israel down the road to more oppression of the Palestinians”.

Dore Gold, a veteran Netanyahu envoy who now heads the Jerusalem Center of Public Affairs think-tank, described the U.S.-educated premier as influenced by his late father, Benzion Netanyahu, a scholar of Jewish persecution during the Spanish Inquisition.

“I think he sees himself as someone who will do whatever is possible, anything in his power, to protect his people from any future disaster,” Gold said in summarizing Netanyahu’s legacy.

Netanyahu’s political strategy has included emulating Trump in blunt social media attacks on his rivals that have underlined deep divisions within Israel society.

Much like Ben-Gurion, Netanyahu has doubled as defense minister and bolstered the military as part of an uncompromising distrust of Israel’s neighbors and a doctrine of self-reliance.

But the two leaders cut two very different figures.

Plain-spoken and diminutive, the Polish-born Ben-Gurion stepped down as collectivist prime minister in 1963, aged 76, and retired to a spartan desert hut. The telegenic, English-fluent Netanyahu is a free-market champion who favors cigars and American sports tropes, and keeps a beachfront villa.

(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Jeffrey Heller/Mark Heinrich)

Putin to Britain: Let’s forget about the Skripal poisoning

Police officers guard a cordoned off area in the city centre where former Russian intelligence officer Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found poisoned, in Salisbury, Britain, April 3, 2018. REUTERS/Hannah McKay - RC1CDB2BFBB0

By Vladimir Soldatkin and Andrew Osborn

ST PETERSBURG/MOSCOW (Reuters) – Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Thursday he hoped Britain’s next prime minister would forget about the poisoning of a former double agent in England last year in order to improve battered ties.

The poisoning of Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia in Salisbury with a nerve agent prompted a wave of diplomatic expulsions and recriminations with ties between London and Moscow shriveling to a post-Cold War low in its wake.

British prosecutors have since charged two Russian military intelligence officers, known by the aliases Alexander Petrov and Ruslan Boshirov, with attempted murder in their absence, though the Kremlin has repeatedly denied Russian involvement.

Putin, speaking to media on the sidelines of an economic forum in St Petersburg, said he hoped whoever succeeded Theresa May as Britain’s prime minister would see what he described as the bigger picture and move on from the Skripal incident.

May is due to step down soon after failing to persuade parliament to back a deal on Britain’s withdrawal from the European Union. The ruling Conservative Party is in the process of choosing her successor.

“When all’s said and done we need to turn this page connected with spies and assassination attempts,” said Putin, who described Sergei Skripal, a former colonel in Russian military intelligence who betrayed dozens of agents to Britain’s MI6 foreign spy service, as London’s spy.

“He’s your agent not ours. That means you spied against us and it’s hard for me to say what happened with him subsequently. We need to forget about all this in the final analysis,” said Putin.

The Russian leader recalled his own lengthy experience working first for the Soviet Union’s KGB spy service and then Russia’s FSB security service, which he suggested meant he knew what he was talking about.

“Global issues linked with common national interests in the economic, social and security spheres are more important than games played by intelligence services. I’m talking to you as an expert, believe me. We need to cast off this fluff and get down to business.”

Putin said better ties between London and Moscow would benefit the interests of 600 British companies he said were working in Russia.

“They want to feel secure …. and we regard them as friends.”

May’s spokeswoman, reacting to Putin’s statement, said London would continue to engage with Russia on matters of international security, but that Moscow had to change its behavior.

“We have been clear that Russia’s pattern of aggression and destabilizing behavior undermines its claims to be a responsible international partner,” she said.

“…The PM has made clear on numerous occasions we can only have a different relationship if Russia changes its behavior.”

(Additional reporting by William James in London and by Tom Balmforth in Moscow; Writing by Andrew Osborn; Editing by Christian Lowe)

Israel faces new election after Netanyahu misses coalition deadline

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrives to a Likud party meeting at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, in Jerusalem May 29, 2019. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli lawmakers voted early Thursday to dissolve parliament and set the country on the path to a second election within months after right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to put together a ruling coalition before a midnight deadline.

In April Netanyahu appeared set for a fifth term after his Likud Party won 35 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, even though he faces possible indictment in three corruption cases. He has denied any wrongdoing and accused his opponents of mounting a witch-hunt.

But despite weeks of negotiations he failed to overcome divisions between secular and religious allies and in the early hours of Thursday, parliament voted by 74-45 to dissolve itself. Another election could be held in September.

(Reporting by Stephen Farrell)

Israel’s Netanyahu wins re-election with parliamentary majority: tally

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gestures after he speaks following the announcement of exit polls in Israel's parliamentary election at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel April 10, 2019. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

By Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu secured a clear path to re-election on Wednesday, with religious-rightist parties set to hand him a parliamentary majority despite a close contest against his main centrist challenger, a vote tally showed.

With more than 97 percent of votes counted, Netanyahu’s conservative Likud party looked likely to muster enough support to control 65 of the Knesset’s 120 seats and be named to head the next coalition government. It would be his record fifth term as premier.

President Reuven Rivlin said on Twitter he would begin meeting next week with political parties that won parliamentary seats to hear who they support for prime minister.

At the sessions, which Rivlin said would be broadcast live “to ensure transparency”, he will then pick a party leader to try to form a coalition, giving the candidate 28 days to do so, with a two-week extension if needed.

The close and often vitriolic contest was widely seen in Israel as a referendum on Netanyahu’s character and record in the face of corruption allegations. He faces possible indictment in three graft cases, and has denied wrongdoing in all of them.

Despite that, Netanyahu gained four seats compared to his outgoing coalition government, according to a spreadsheet published by the Central Elections Committee of parties that garnered enough votes to enter the next parliament.

“It is a night of colossal victory,” the 69-year-old Netanyahu told cheering supporters in a late-night speech at Likud headquarters in Tel Aviv after Tuesday’s vote.

“He’s a magician!” the crowd chanted as fireworks flared and Netanyahu kissed his wife Sara.

Tel Aviv Stock Exchange main indexes were up nearly 1 percent in late trading on Wednesday, displaying confidence in a veteran prime minister who has overseen a humming economy and blunted various security threats, including from Syria.

His challenger, the new Blue and White party of ex-army chief Benny Gantz, claimed a more modest victory after winning a 35-seat tie with Likud. Unless he reverses on campaign pledges to shun Netanyahu, and joins him in a broad coalition, Gantz looked destined to lead a center-left parliamentary opposition.

“The skies may look overcast…but they cannot conceal the sun of hope that we have brought to the Israeli people and society,” Gantz, 59, wrote in an open letter to supporters.

Should Netanyahu retain the helm, he will become the longest-serving Israeli prime minister in July, overtaking the country’s founding father, David Ben-Gurion. That could be scuppered if criminal charges are filed and force his removal.

IMMUNITY?

An indictment decision would follow a review hearing where Netanyahu can be expected to argue he should be spared in the national interest. Some analysts predict he may try to pass a law granting himself immunity, as a sitting leader, from trial.

During the campaign, the rival parties accused each other of corruption, fostering bigotry and being soft on security.

Netanyahu highlighted his close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump, who delighted Israelis and angered Palestinians by recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017 and moving the U.S. Embassy to the holy city last May.

Two weeks before the election, Trump signed a proclamation, with Netanyahu at his side at the White House, recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights captured from Syria in the 1967 Middle East war.

In a rare turn during the race toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Netanyahu further alarmed Palestinians by pledging to annex Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank if re-elected. Palestinians seek a state there and in the Gaza Strip, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

This pre-election promise from Netanyahu was widely seen as an attempt to draw right-wing votes rather than a change of policy. But with Trump’s moves on Jerusalem and the Golan, the prime minister may feel emboldened to advocate annexation.

Commenting on the election, Palestinian chief negotiator Saeb Erekat said: “Israelis have voted to preserve the status quo. They have said no to peace and yes to the occupation”.

The last round of U.S.-brokered peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians collapsed in 2014.

Trump is expected to release his administration’s long-awaited Middle East peace plan after the election. If it includes Israeli concessions to the Palestinians, Netanyahu’s probable far-right coalition allies will likely object.

(Additional reporting by Rami Ayyub in Rosh Ha’ayin, Ron Bousso and Rawan Sheikh Ahmad in Haifa, Rahaf Ruby, Stephen Farrell, Dan Williams and Maayan Lubell in Jerusalem; Editing by Angus MacSwan/Mark Heinrich)

Brexit delayed? PM May requests three-month extension, EU pushes back

Britain's Prime Minister Theresa May answers questions in the Parliament in London, Britain, March 20, 2019 in this screen grab taken from video. Reuters TV via REUTERS

By Elizabeth Piper, Kylie MacLellan and William James

LONDON (Reuters) – Prime Minister Theresa May asked for a three-month delay to Brexit on Wednesday to buy time to get her twice-rejected departure deal though parliament, but the request faced immediate resistance from the European Commission.

May’s initiative came just nine days before Britain is formally due to leave the European Union and marked the latest twist in more than two years of negotiations that have left British politics in chaos and the prime minister’s authority in tatters.

After the defeats in parliament opened up the possibility of Britain leaving the EU without a deal and a smooth transition, May said she remained committed to leaving “in an orderly manner” and wanted to postpone Brexit until June 30.

Her announcement prompted uproar in parliament, where the opposition Labour Party accused her of “blackmail, bullying and bribery” in her attempts to push her deal through, and one prominent pro-Brexit supporter in her own Conservative Party said seeking a delay was “betraying the British people”.

Britain voted in 2016 to leave the EU by 52 to 48 percent, but the decision has split the country, opening up divisive debates over the future of the economy, the nation’s place in the world and the nature of Britishness itself.

Some European capitals have welcomed May’s extension plan, with Germany saying a disorderly British departure would be in nobody’s interest.

But a European Commission document seen by Reuters said the delay should either be several weeks shorter, to avoid a clash with European elections in May, or extend at least until the end of the year, which would oblige Britain to take part in the elections.

The pound fell sharply as May requested her extension. [GBP=D3]

BREXIT CRISIS

Nearly three years after the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union, British politicians are still arguing over how, when or even if the world’s fifth largest economy should leave the bloc it first joined in 1973.

When May set the March 29 exit date two years ago by serving the formal Article 50 divorce papers, she declared there would be “no turning back” but parliament’s refusal to ratify the withdrawal deal she agreed with the EU has thrust her government into crisis.

On Wednesday, May wrote to European Council President Donald Tusk to ask for a delay.

“As prime minister I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than the 30th of June,” May told a rowdy session of parliament.

“I have therefore this morning written to President Tusk, the president of the European Council, informing him that the UK seeks an extension to the Article 50 period until the 30th June,” she said.

She said she planned to ask parliament to vote a third time on her departure deal, which lawmakers have voted down twice. She did not say when the vote would happen.

But May did say delaying Brexit did not rule out the possibility that Britain could leave without a deal.

The Labour Party said by choosing a short delay May was forcing British lawmakers to decide between accepting a deal they have already rejected or leaving without a deal.

Many pro-Brexit members of May’s Conservative Party are opposed to a longer delay because they fear it could mean Brexit might never happen. They argue Britain can do well outside the European Union even though an abrupt departure would cause short-term pain.

EU PUSHES BACK

“Any extension offered to the United Kingdom should either last until 23 May 2019 or should be significantly longer and require European elections,” the EU document said.

“This is the only way of protecting the functioning of the EU institutions and their ability to take decisions.”

May said it was not in Britain’s interests to take part in European elections.

Britain must decide by April 11 if it will participate in the May 23 European election, creating an effective deadline for parliament to pass May’s deal for an orderly Brexit.

The document also said the EU should offer Britain just one extension as multiple delays would leave the bloc in limbo.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker had warned May against requesting a Brexit delay beyond the European elections, unless Britain takes part, an EU spokeswoman said.

While the United Kingdom remains divided over Brexit, most agree it will shape the economic future of generations to come and, if it goes badly, could undermine the West and threaten London’s position as the dominant global financial capital.

The loss of Britain for the EU is the biggest blow yet to more than 60 years of effort to forge European unity after two world wars, though the 27 other members of the bloc have shown surprising unity during the tortuous negotiations.

EU leaders are expected to decide on May’s request for a Brexit delay at a summit in Brussels on Thursday. But some diplomats said the final decision could be pushed into next week.

(Additional reporting by by Kate Holton and Alistair Smout in London and Alastair MacDonald in Brussels; Writing by by Guy Faulconbridge and Giles Elgood; Editing by Janet Lawrence)