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Israel exit polls give Netanyahu edge, but short of majority

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gained seats in Israel’s election on Monday, according to early exit polls that put him almost within grasp of a right-wing governing coalition. But it is unclear whether Netanyahu can clinch a parliamentary majority needed to claim victory. Exit polls on Israel’s main TV channels projected Netanyahu’s Likud Party and…

Israel exit polls give Netanyahu edge, but short of majority

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gained seats in Israel’s election on Monday, according to early exit polls that put him almost within grasp of a right-wing governing coalition.
But it is unclear whether Netanyahu can clinch a parliamentary majority needed to claim victory.
Exit polls on Israel’s main TV channels projected Netanyahu’s Likud Party and its religious and nationalist allies would capture 60 seats, leaving it one seat short of the majority needed to claim victory.
Netanyahu’s Likud Party won about 37 seats, ahead of his rival Benny Gantz of the centrist Blue and White alliance, according to media channels.
The early results came after a hard-fought campaign for the country’s third election in less than a year.
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If final results give Netanyahu a parliamentary majority, it would pave the way for a new term and give him a boost as he prepares to go on trial for corruption charges.
But if he falls short, the country’s year-long political deadlock will continue and it could potentially face a fourth consecutive election.
Israeli exit polls are often imprecise and final results could change. Official results are expected to come in throughout the night.
Polls for 6.4 million eligible voters opened at 7am (05:00 GMT) and closed at 10pm (20:00 GMT).
Israeli citizens aged 18 and over, including those living in illegal settlements in occupied East Jerusalem and the West Bank were eligible to vote.
The 4.8 million Palestinians living under Israeli military occupation in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza did not have voting rights.
There was little fanfare in the days leading up to the vote, with a noticeable absence of campaign posters and public rallies on the streets. With voter fatigue clearly a factor after the inconclusive polls in September and April, turnout could prove to be decisive.

Israeli elections: Illegal settlements high on election agendas

Election day is a national holiday in Israel but the three-repeat vote and fears of the new coronavirus outbreak, which has so far has been kept largely in check, look to hinder turnout.
Israel set up some 15 stations to allow voting by hundreds of Israelis who have been ordered to remain in home quarantine after possible exposure to the virus.
Al Jazeera’s Imran Khan, reporting from West Jerusalem, said the months-long political deadlock had left the public frustrated.
“They say that politicians needed to sort this out in the first election and not this one. However that anger hasn’t led to apathy. In fact, what we’re seeing is people coming out to vote, hoping that this one will be decisive,” Khan said.
More seats expected for Joint List
The Joint List, an alliance of four parties who mainly represent Palestinian citizens of Israel, is also urging people to take to the polls.
According to opinion poll, the Joint List, headed by Ayman Odeh, is expected to win a record 14-15 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, improving its September showing when it won 13 seats.
Many Palestinian citizens with Israeli citizenship said they were voting as a response to US President Donald Trump’s proposed plan for the Middle East.
Heavily weighted in favour of Israel, Trump unveiled his long-awaited plan in late January alongside Netanyahu at an event in the White House.
Israel’s Palestinian citizens have long said they are not treated as equals in Israel, facing systematic discrimination in law and policy.
Coalitions
Following September’s election and in a bid to remove Netanyahu, the Joint List had endorsed Gantz for prime minister after his party won the most seats, breaking a nearly 27-year-long standard of not endorsing a candidate.
However, during campaigning for the latest round of election, Gantz said he will build a coalition only with a Jewish majority, in an apparent attempt to win right-wing voters.
Many analysts have remarked that it will be difficult for the Blue and White party to form a coalition without the Joint List.
Coalitions are the norm as winning a majority of 61 seats are required to form government.
Gantz says he favours a coalition government with Likud but only if it rids itself of its longtime leader because of the corruption charges against him. Netanyahu, who still enjoys widespread support in his party, insists he must remain as prime minister in any unity deal.

Last month, Netanyahu was indicted for bribery, breach of trust and fraud in three corruption cases, which could damage his bid to stay in office. Netanyahu, who goes to trial on March 17, denies the charges.
With his career on the line, Netanyahu has campaigned furiously. He has taken a hard turn to the right in hopes of rallying his nationalist base, promising to expand and annex settlements in the occupied West Bank.
Avigdor Lieberman, who leads the far-right Yisrael Beiteinu party,once again looms as a potential kingmaker, with neither Netanyahu nor Gantz able to secure a parliamentary majority without his support.
Lieberman has not committed himself to either candidate, though he has promised there will not be a fourth election.
“Even after the results come out in the next 24 hours, there’s still gonna be a lot of politicking, a lot of deal making and a lot of people being reached out to by [Gantz and Netanyahu],” Khan said.
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Honduras to move its Israel embassy to Jerusalem by end of year |NationalTribune.com

Honduras hopes to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem before the end of the year, putting an end to its policy of neutrality – a move likely to further anger the Palestinians. “I have just talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu to strengthen our strategic alliance, we spoke to arrange the opening of the…

Honduras to move its Israel embassy to Jerusalem by end of year |NationalTribune.com

Honduras hopes to relocate its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem before the end of the year, putting an end to its policy of neutrality – a move likely to further anger the Palestinians.
“I have just talked to Prime Minister Netanyahu to strengthen our strategic alliance, we spoke to arrange the opening of the embassies in Tegucigalpa and Jerusalem, respectively,” Honduran President Juan Orlando Hernandez posted on Twitter on Sunday.
“We hope to take this historic step before the end of the year, as long as the pandemic allows it.”
Netanyahu said the intention was to open and inaugurate the embassies before the end of the year. Israel currently has no embassy in Honduras but opened a diplomatic office there last month.

Acabo de conversar con el Primer Ministro @netanyahu para afianzar nuestra alianza estratégica y acordar la apertura de las embajadas en Tegucigalpa y Jerusalén respectivamente. Esperamos dar este paso histórico antes de fin de año, siempre y cuando la pandemia lo permita. 🇭🇳🤝🇮🇱 pic.twitter.com/V0qYceKW1N
— Juan Orlando H. (@JuanOrlandoH) September 20, 2020

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Juan Orlando Hernandez spoke on 20 September 2020, and reaffirmed that Honduras and Israel are close friends and strategic allies who form part of an alliance of reciprocal support and both economic and political cooperation. pic.twitter.com/c9V4Gla3Ch
— PM of Israel (@IsraeliPM) September 21, 2020

Hernandez last year began a process of breaking with his country’s long-held policy of neutrality on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Hernandez opened a commercial office in Jerusalem in September 2019 as an extension of the Honduran embassy in Tel Aviv.
“Honduras recognises Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and we are confident that this recognition will be of great blessing and mutual benefit,” Hernandez said last month.
Honduras has the second-largest population of Palestinians in Latin America, after Chile.
Status of Jerusalem
Only two countries – the United States and Guatemala – have established embassies to Israel in Jerusalem.
The Honduran statement followed announcements by US President Donald Trump and Netanyahu this month who said Kosovo and Serbia would also open embassies in Jerusalem.
The status of Jerusalem has been one of the thorniest issues in the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Palestinians want occupied East Jerusalem, which includes the holy sites in the Old City and was captured by Israel in the 1967 war, as the capital of a future state.
Israel regards the entire city as its capital – a claim not recognised by the international community.
Most diplomatic missions to Israel have been in Tel Aviv as countries stayed neutral over the disputed city of Jerusalem until its status could be settled in an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.
But in December 2017, Trump recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and announced the moving of the US embassy from Tel Aviv.
Last Tuesday, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain signed agreements in Washington to establish formal ties with Israel.
The US-brokered deals between Israel and the Gulf states, forged partly through shared fears of Iran, has left the Palestinians further isolated in the region.

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Israel bombs Gaza after rocket fire follows UAE, Bahrain deals |NationalTribune.com

The Israeli military carried out a series of air raids on the besieged Gaza Strip on Wednesday after rockets were fired into Israel during a “normalisation” of ties signing ceremony with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the United States.  According to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency, Israeli warplanes fired missiles at a site in…

Israel bombs Gaza after rocket fire follows UAE, Bahrain deals |NationalTribune.com

The Israeli military carried out a series of air raids on the besieged Gaza Strip on Wednesday after rockets were fired into Israel during a “normalisation” of ties signing ceremony with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in the United States. 
According to Wafa, the official Palestinian news agency, Israeli warplanes fired missiles at a site in Beit Lahiya in the northern strip. They also targeted areas in Deir al-Balah, a city in central Gaza, as well as parts of Khan Younis in southern Gaza. No casualties were reported.
By Wednesday morning, 15 rockets had been fired into Israel wounding two people, according to the military.
Hamas, the group that governs the Gaza Strip, warned Israel it “will pay the price for any aggression against our people or resistance sites and the response will be direct”.
“We will increase and expand our response to the extent that the occupation persists in its aggression,” it said in a statement.
Without naming specific factions, the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in Gaza said in response to the Israeli air raids, the “resistance” fired rocket salvoes at Israel.

Israel, UAE and Bahrain sign US-brokered normalisation deals

Earlier on Wednesday, the Israeli army in a statement said it carried out 10 air strikes against positions belonging to Hamas in response to rockets being fired into Israel.

Israel, UAE and Bahrain sign US-brokered normalisation deals

The rockets were fired at the same time as Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain signed agreements at the White House in Washington to establish diplomatic relations.
Palestinians, who seek an independent state that includes the illegally occupied West Bank and Gaza, view the US-brokered deals as a betrayal of their cause.
The latest rocket fire from Gaza came after a month of armed groups in the strip stepping up incendiary balloon attacks against Israel, which responded with nighttime air raids against Hamas.
Since 2008, Israel has waged three wars on the Gaza Strip. Israel has long said it holds Hamas responsible for all violence from Gaza, while Hamas says Israel is responsible for the state of anger and pressure inflicted on Gaza’s residents because of the continued siege.
Since 2007 Israel has imposed a crippling blockade on Gaza’s two million residents. The Gaza Strip has a population of two million, more than half of whom live in poverty, according to the World Bank.
Anti-normalisation rallies
While many Israelis welcomed the Gulf state accords, in Sderot’s main square, resident Yehuda Ben Loulou said Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “should first solve the main problem in Gaza”.
Netanyahu “goes to easy countries with whom we have no problems. They sign agreements. But what about Gaza?” said Ben Loulou, 59.
The normalisation moves by the UAE and Bahrain with Israel prompted demonstrations in the Palestinian territories on Tuesday.

Clutching Palestinian flags and wearing blue face masks for protection against the coronavirus, demonstrators rallied in the West Bank cities of Nablus and Hebron, and in Gaza.
Hundreds also took part in a demonstration in Ramallah, home of the Palestinian Authority (PA).
The Palestinian leadership wants an independent state based on the de facto borders before the 1967 war, in which Israel occupied the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and annexed East Jerusalem.
Arab countries have long called for Israel’s withdrawal from already illegally occupied land, a just solution for Palestinian refugees and a settlement that leads to the establishment of a viable, independent Palestinian state in exchange for establishing ties with it.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas warned on Tuesday the Gulf deals will “not achieve peace in the region” until the US and Israel acknowledge his people’s right to a state.
Abbas warned “attempts to bypass the Palestinian people and its leadership, represented by the Palestine Liberation Organization, will have dangerous consequences”.
In Gaza, protesters trampled on and set fire to placards bearing images of the leaders of Israel, the UAE and Bahrain.
Hamas and Israel last month reached a Qatari-mediated ceasefire deal and revived a fragile 18-month truce. The group has joined the PA in condemning the UAE and Bahraini accords as a “betrayal” of their cause.
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Israel ties that bind: What is the US giving Gulf Arab states? |NationalTribune.com

Representatives of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Israel, and United States governments will converge in Washington, DC on Tuesday to sign historic normalisation accords between the Gulf nations and Israel.  The UAE agreement, announced in August and since dubbed the “Abraham Accords” by White House officials, makes the UAE the third Arab country and first…

Israel ties that bind: What is the US giving Gulf Arab states? |NationalTribune.com

Representatives of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Israel, and United States governments will converge in Washington, DC on Tuesday to sign historic normalisation accords between the Gulf nations and Israel. 
The UAE agreement, announced in August and since dubbed the “Abraham Accords” by White House officials, makes the UAE the third Arab country and first in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) to agree to establish relations with Israel.
The agreement ends the UAE’s economic boycott of Israel and allows the possibility of advanced US weaponry sales to the Emirates. Blasted by Palestinians as a “betrayal”, a sentiment echoed by regional players Turkey and Iran, the deal will have lasting, unprecedented geopolitical ramifications, experts told Al Jazeera. 
But the extent of these ramifications remains to be seen. 
Arms sales
William Hartung, director of the Arms and Security Program at the DC-based Center for International Policy, told Al Jazeera arms sales were an “important factor” in the agreements.
The UAE has long wanted F-35 fighter jets, Hartung said, and larger drones, which the US was unable to sell because of its commitment to Israel’s military advantage.

But Trump often touts arms sales and was likely to view the UAE as another client as a positive, Hartung said.
The US ramped up its arms sales by 42 percent globally in 2019, an increase of almost $70bn, according to figures from the Forum on the Arms Trade (FAT) from the US Foreign Military Sales programme. 
But the Middle East and North Africa region far outpaced the global growth rate, going from $11.8bn in 2018 to more than $25bn in 2019, or a 118 percent increase. Morocco leads the pack in purchasing US arms, with almost $12bn sold to Rabat.
Nations in the GCC accounted for much of the rest. The UAE spent more than $4.7bn on US arms in 2019, FAT recorded, with Bahrain spending $3.37bn, Qatar spending about $3bn and Saudi Arabia at roughly $2.7bn.
Hartung said Bahrain may have agreed to normalisation to access to advanced weaponry and the Saudis could potentially follow.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, centre-left, meeting with Bahrain’s Crown Prince Salman bin Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, centre-right, in the capital Manama [Bahrain News Agency/AFP]

“Bahrain certainly benefitted from US transfers after Trump lifted the hold on F-16s … so they may feel somewhat beholden to him on that front”, Hartung said, citing a 2017 decision to sell the jets to Bahrain without conditions on human rights.
However, the status of an F-35 deal with the UAE remains questionable, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces criticism from his right-wing base as his political fortunes fall.
Regarding domestic political victories, Hartung said the Trump administration can “brag” about normalisation during the presidential campaign and possibly tout jobs from the F-35 programme.
It may also “burnish the F-35 programme”, which has cost trillions to US taxpayers and is criticised for its cost and inefficiencies, Hartung noted. 
The move may “also be perceived as a move to further contain Iran”, a target of ire from the Trump administration’s and a regional foe for the UAE, Bahrain and Israel, though Hartung said he did not see it as a benefit.
Traditional diplomacy
Jon Alterman, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), told Al Jazeera while Gulf countries normalising relations with Israel raises new questions, it is “an uncharacteristic dedication to traditional diplomacy on the part of the Trump administration”.
Alterman said the deal with the UAE showed the Trump administration was capable of diplomatic manoeuvres outside of doing “things quickly with presidential involvement”. 

However, concerns remain regarding the Israel-Palestinian peace process, Alterman said. The normalisation agreement could pave the way for other major Arab states to normalise ties with Israel without addressing the underlying issues of the conflict.
“We still have a long way to go to resolving the long-running conflict,” Alterman said. “I would hope this will mark an effort to redouble efforts rather than claim it is solved.”
While much of the focus is on the regional implications for Arab states, Alterman wrote for CSIS it could provide a “more robust and inclusive regional dialogue could be a constructive way to reduce tensions” between Israel, Turkey and Iran, three of the region’s most powerful – and non-Arab – countries. 
The view from Tehran
Israel and countries such as the UAE and Bahrain, which is a Shia-majority nation with a Sunni monarchy, have long held the common interest of keeping Iran at bay.
But Assal Rad, a senior research fellow at the National Iranian-American Council, does not think containing Iran was in the “calculus on the UAE’s side”.
The UAE and Iran have long-standing economic ties and a sizable diaspora of roughly 500,000 Iranians live in the Emirates, mostly in Dubai.

UAE exports to Iran totalled $10.23bn in 2018, according to UN figures cited by Trading Economics, making it among Iran’s top trade partners.
But Rad does not “see the normalisation as taking anti-Iran stance and aligning with Israel”, she said.
If the UAE was adopting an anti-Iran strategy, recent meetings between Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif and UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, who will lead the UAE delegation in Washington on Tuesday, would not have occurred. 
“It’s attempting a sort of balancing act. I don’t see it as an anti-Iran move. They wanted advanced weapons … which this deal makes possible.”
The larger strategy 
Trita Parsi, executive vice president of the Quincey Institute for Responsible Statecraft, told Al Jazeera the deal and possible advanced weapons sales could further threaten regional stability, but not in Iran, and it remains unclear how enthusiastic UAE leadership can be, domestically. 
“On the one hand, they want it, but … it doesn’t scream confidence when [Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan] isn’t going to show up to the signing ceremony in the US,” Parsi commented.
But normalisation could lead to an “emboldened” UAE in Yemen in Libya, he continued.

Video reportedly shows UAE’s involvement in Libya (2:34)

Parsi pointed to Saudi Arabia, which he claimed has achieved tacit approval for “reckless” military actions in Yemen by purchasing US weapons.  
“They are operating under the impression they have the protection of the US… To this day, even when Congress has voted twice to stop the war in Yemen, the president has vetoed it twice.” 
While the UAE has reduced actions in Yemen, it is still active there and concerns remain about military actions in Libya, Parsi warned. 
Alterman, for his part, said normalisation was not a “get out of jail free card” for the UAE. 
The upcoming election could shift US strategy towards the Gulf as a broader conversation about how much effort the US should spend on the region continues, which weighs on individual Gulf states, Alterman said. 
“Ultimately, the US has a larger regional strategy that is [more important] than any of its individual relationships with individual” states, Alterman said, and “every country needs to figure out how it needs to shape its relationship” within said US strategy. 
Normalisation “represents a beginning of the UAE’s answer” to that question, Alterman concluded.
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