3/4/19 Netanyahu Indictment Impacts the Race - History

3/4/19 Netanyahu Indictment Impacts the Race - History


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The Israeli political system is uncharted territory. For the first time, the Attorney General has informed a candidate, who happens to be the sitting Prime Minister, that that PM will be indicted pending a hearing. On Fox and Friends, host Pete Hegseth parroted the defense put forward by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his supporters, i.e., that the charges alleged against Netanyahu are only about his accepting a few cigars from a friend (which Hegseth asserted “was a good thing”) and his receiving positive coverage in one or two news stories. Hegseth then went on to say that the prosecution of Netanyahu is an example of the “deep state” that cannot defeat Netanyahu any other way attempting to force him out.

However, the reality is very different. The initial police recommendations were made by Netanyahu’s hand-picked Police Commissioner, who grew up on the West Bank. Netanyahu also appointed the Chief Prosecutor, who also recommended the indictment. Finally, the Attorney General, who decided to go forward and make the announcement of the indictment pending a hearing public, also comes from a right-wing background and had been a close confidant of the Netanyahu, before the PM tapped him to serve as Attorney General, with the expectation the AG would shield him from investigation.

Furthermore, as the charge sheet presented by the Attorney General made clear, this case is definitively not about “a few cigars” and “coerced coverage in two positive news articles.” The Attorney General’s charge sheet ran over 50 pages. While I will not lay out the entire list of serious allegations here, it should be noted that the Attorney General cited gifts valued at over NIS 700,000 (approx $200,000)on cigars and champagne, along with jewelry for Sara Netanyahu, as part of just one of the three cases for which Netanyahu must answer.

The AG offered many specific examples that provide some understandable color to his decision to indict. According to one instance presented by the AG, when Arnold Milchen, (Netanyahu’s chief purveyor of cigars), was refused an American visa, he immediately called Netanyahu, who immediately contacted the American Ambassador with a request to intervene in support of Milchen. Subsequently, when that did not work, Milchen showed up at Netanyahu’s office with a case of champagne and requested that the Prime Minister call Secretary of State Kerry on his behalf, which Netanyahu did.

In Case 4000, the most serious of the cases against Netanyahu, the PM is accused of helping to secure regulatory approval worth NIS 1.8 billion for Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitch. In Netanyahu’s defense, the Likud repeatedly insists Netanyahu never received anything of value from Elovich. The indictment, however, cites a lengthy list of things Elovitch did for Netanyahu — including fulfilling the PMs instruction to cut off the live coverage of the Zionist Parties’ rally in Rabin Square, days before the last elections, and his direction to send out millions of SMS messages publicizing the Likud’s rally a few days later.

Of course, the big question is whether any of these legal proceedings will impact the election. Talk about Netanyahu's corruption has been circulating for years. Netanyahu responded to these charges with claims it is all “a house of cards that will collapse, after his defense hearing”. Netanyahu also continues to insist the charges are merely the work of leftists trying to unseat him. Attacking “the leftists” has worked for Netanyahu in the past. Will it work again? Can Netanyahu successfully paint three of the living IDF Chiefs of Staff as leftists? Can the Police Commissioner, Chief Prosecutor and the Attorney General Netanyahu himself appointed all be “dangerous” leftist?

I set out to try to get the answer to that question, looking for Likud voters to interview. Indeed, the Likud received 17% of the vote in Tel Aviv last time — not all that far from the 25% support they received nationwide. Based on the results of my unscientific survey, if I was Netanyahu I would worry. The first person I interviewed, a young man, said: “They [politicians] are all corrupt”. When pressed whether he thought Netanyahu should remain Prime Minister, he said he guessed not, though he was not sure who would be better.

I then interviewed a couple who were arguing about what Netanyahu had done. The pair finally concluded that with so much smoke, there must be fire. One said they would still vote for Netanyahu, the other was unsure who to vote for, but insisted it would not be Netanyahu.

I asked the next person if he thought the indictment would affect the election results. He said he hoped not, and went on to say that all politicians are corrupt, and that he preferred a corrupt politician who could stand up to the world, than one who could not. Finally, I approached an older Likud supporter. He also asserted all politicians are corrupt, adding that he voted for Likud the last time, but regrets that decision. He shared that he was Druze (a non-Muslim Arab sect that has always been loyal to Israel). He continued that despite the fact most of the Druze had voted for Likud in the past, they were stabbed in the back by Netanyahu with the nation-state law and would never vote for Likud again.

The statistically insignificant sampling in my survey closely tracked the more scientific polling done by the Israeli media. For the first time, polls conducted by both Channel 13 and the National Broadcasting Authority, indicate Netanyahu no longer has the ability to form a government — with the center-left garnering 61 seats, compared to 59 for the right-wing/religious bloc. Both aforementioned polls, show the Blue and White Party, headed by Benny Gantz significantly ahead of the Likud.

Over the past ten years, Netanyahu has done an excellent job of convincing large segments of the public that leftists are dangerous figures who endanger the state. Over the next six weeks, he will do all in his power to convince enough voters that everyone who opposes him is indeed a danger to the security of the country. To Netanyahu, everything is fair game in his fight for survival. Will his tactics work? They have in the past, however, many believe that this time he might just come up short.


History Will Judge Israel's Attorney General for His Decision on Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, February 24, 2019. Emil Salman

There are times when the course of history is changed due to decisions made by people of high stature, precipitating developments that are remembered for generations. This is one of those moments, as Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is about to issue his decisions regarding the possible indictment of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the several criminal cases over which he has been investigated. Mendelblit’s decision could seal the fates not only of the suspects in the cases, but of Israel as a whole.

According to reports, Mendelblit is currently deliberating over whether to file charges in Case 2000, which involves conversations between Netanyahu and Yedioth Ahronoth publisher Arnon Mozes, allegedly involving bribery - through which Mozes would purportedly give Netanyahu positive coverage in his newspaper in exchange for government policy that would weaken Yedioth’s competition from the free newspaper Israel Hayom. Contrary to the opinion of most prosecutors who have been involved in the case, Mendelblit is apparently inclined - and perhaps has already decided - not to press charges in the case.

Why? According to reports, he believes, for reasons that remain unknown, that there’s no reason to get involved in the media sector and address the industry at the criminal level.

Unlike Case 2000, Mendelblit has apparently decided to file criminal charges against the prime minister in Case 4000, which involves his contacts with Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder at the time of the Bezeq telecommunications company. On the surface, there aren’t many major differences between the two cases. In both, the payback that Netanyahu allegedly received or would have received was positive media coverage and de facto control of media outlets — whether Yedioth Ahronoth and its Ynet news website or Bezeq’s Walla news website.


Benjamin Netanyahu, Tel Aviv, Israel, 05/15/2017 © paparazzza / Shutterstock

The stigma of corruption surrounding Benjamin Netanyahu could lead even more Likud supporters to hide their electoral preferences.

On February 28, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit announced his decision to indict Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, who is facing investigations in three different cases and could be found guilty of bribery, fraud and breach of trust. Prior to Mandelblit’s announcement, there was a widespread conviction that the indictment would affect the electoral prospects of his party, Likud, in the general election that will take place on April 9. A public survey published by T he Times of Israel had found that Likud could drop from 29 to 25 projected seats in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament. Moreover, over a quarter of those who initially planned to vote for Likud said they would desert the party in case of an indictment.

However, while Netanyahu’s prosecution has moved to the next stage, the expected consequences have not materialized. The electoral polls published after February 28 do not reflect any change in the volume of public support toward the embattled prime minister. The average of the different polls published in February prior to the indictment showed that Likud would gain around 30 seats. Since Mandelblit’s decision, polls forecast that Likud will control 29 out of the 120 seats in the Knesset.

It is also relevant to observe the case of the New Right, a recently created party headed by Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennet, which would be a likely destination for disenchanted Likud voters. Nevertheless, the New Right has experienced a small fall in the polls since Mandelblit presented charges against Netanyahu. The Blue and White coalition, created after the merger of Benny Gantz’s Resilience Party and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid, continues to lead all the electoral polls. The coalition’s leaders have been warning that in the case of Netanyahu’s victory, the prime minister would immediately pass legislation to secure his immunity from prosecution, but the message does not seem to have had a desired impact as support for Netanyahu has not declined.

THE LIMITATIONS OF ELECTORAL POLLING

Electoral polls, however, should be taken with a pinch of salt. Rob Santos, president of the American Statistical Association, explained that pollsters rely on the adage that the best predictor of future performance is past performance. This means that an important change in the political panorama between two elections will introduce new elements of uncertainty in the pollsters’ already difficult job.

When the Likud and Yisrael Beiteinu coalition contested the 2013 election, the results were considerably below what most polls had predicted — and far below the combined total of 42 seats the two parties had prior to the elections. The prospective performance of the electoral Blue and White coalition seems even more difficult to predict than that of Likud-Yisrael Beiteinu if we take into account that the Resilience Party was created as recently as December 2018.

Electoral coalitions do not always maximize votes. This might not be a great problem in plurality or majoritarian electoral systems. On the contrary, it is highly problematic when a country has a very proportional electoral system with a low threshold. Israel is the paradigmatic example of this system. Sona Nadenichek Golder, professor of political science at the Pennsylvania State University, writes that Israel has seen “a number of successful pre-electoral coalitions.”

So far, Blue and White is polling higher than the combination of Resilience Party and Yesh Atid before the merger. However, looking back at history, Golder notes that “pre-electoral coalitions are more likely to form and be successful in countries that have a disproportional electoral system.” Dahlia Scheindlin, a leading international public opinion analyst, recommends reading election polls by focusing “on trends, range, and averages.” If we consider the average of Likud and Blue and White in the electoral polls, a clear picture emerges. The Likud is around four seats behind Blue and White, and the trend is stable. Such a distance is clearly within the margin of error.

The fact that Likud is organized around the figure of Netanyahu has not acted against the party after the indictment. In fact, one does not need to believe that Netanyahu is being unjustly accused in order to vote for him. All it takes is to be convinced that, despite Netanyahu’s criminal activities, the current prime minister remains the best option for Israel. According to a poll published by T he Times of Israel , after Netanyahu’s indictment only 10% of Likud voters opined that the probes against him are “extremely serious and should not be taken lightly.”

After all, Israel is a country built on the occupation of Palestinian lands, especially since the 1967 Six-Day War. Furthermore, Likud voters are especially hawkish regarding the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Thus, it should not be so surprising that they believe in the Machiavellian principle that the end justifies the means. If Netanyahu tried to bribe the press, they may think, it was because the media was being unfair to him and jeopardizing his work in the pursuit of the public good.

SHY LIKUDISM

There is also the undeniable possibility of a presence of “shy Likudism.” The original term, “shy Tory,” gained prominence in the 1990s and refers to the theory that a part of the British conservative voters does not want to openly admit its political preferences. When confronted by pollsters, they sometimes prefer not to answer. On other occasions, they mislead pollsters by saying they will vote a party other than the Conservatives. There is good reason to argue that some prospective Likud voters could be behaving in a similar way. Polls ahead of the 2015 election severely underestimated the public support enjoyed by the party.

This time, the stigma of corruption surrounding Netanyahu could lead even more Likud supporters to hide their electoral preferences. This may have had an impact on the polls conducted before the attorney general’s announcement and after it. There are two reasons for this. First, Mandelblit’s decision was, at least to a certain extent, already expected. Second, strong rumors about Netanyahu’s corruption have circulated for a long time.

While cross-country comparisons have a limited value, the case of the 2015 Spanish elections is noteworthy. The conservative Popular Party (PP), which had been in government since 2011 and was enmeshed in multiple corruption scandals, was forecast to garner around 25% of the votes. In the end, PP won almost 29%.

It is not far-fetched to argue that Likud and Blue and White are neck-to-neck ahead of the coming elections. In fact, Likud could easily be ahead in the electoral race. However, we should not forget the specifics of the Israeli parliamentary system. It is not enough for a party to garner plurality among the voters. The party will also need to receive the support of a majority of the Knesset to form a government. Netanyahu himself became prime minister in 2009 despite Tzipi Livni’s Kadima Party winning the most votes.

Thus, the electoral performance of the former government partners of Likud such as Shas and United Torah Judaism will prove decisive. All in all, as journalist Ben Caspit intelligently notes, “it is unclear whether the outcome of the April 9 elections will resolve Israel’s current political predicament and permit the formation of a new government.”

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.


Mandelblit says he can rule on Netanyahu indictment before elections

Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit said on Friday there was no legal reason to prevent him from indicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on corruption charges before the April 9 elections should he decide such a move was warranted.

The prime minister, who is accused of corruption in three separate investigations, maintains that holding a hearing before the elections would have a detrimental impact on his electoral prospects. He denies any wrongdoing and has called the cases a witch-hunt.

Mandelblit said that suspending the legal process would "violate the principle of equality before the law" and interfere with "the public's right to know," adding that his team is still examining the case materials and intends to make a decision as soon as possible.

The attorney general said he had informed Netanyahu's lawyers "there is no impediment to making and publishing a decision, if there is any, to consider filing an indictment in the cases relating to the prime minister, or part of them, pending a hearing, even before the election date."

Netanyahu has said he would not bow out of the race if Mandelbit announces his intention to accept police recommendations to indict him.

In January, Netanyahu's lawyers met with Mandelblit in Jerusalem, in an effort to persuade him not to announce a hearing for the prime minister before elections.

According to the prime minister's legal team, this interim decision would influence the results of the elections, as Netanyahu would not have the chance to respond and present his own position concerning the evidence collected by the prosecution. This, they say, could mislead the voter, who will only hear one side of the argument.

In addition, Netanyahu harshly criticized Mandelblit over an interview the attorney general gave Channel 12 over a week ago, in which he commented on the investigations against the prime minister.

"The choice to cooperate with such a program, at such timing, is unprecedented in the history of Israeli justice and raises serious questions," Netanyahu said.

Netanyahu also posted a video to social media, accusing the left wing of pressuring the attorney general to file an indictment against him. The video makes the accusation that "For three years now, the left and the media are persecuting the attorney general to force him to file an indictment at any cost." It shows protesters outside Mandelblit's home and outside the synagogue he prays in. The video concludes with the question: "Will they succeed?"

Netanyahu is suspected of wrongdoing in three separate cases: Case 1000 concerns allegations that the prime minister and his family received illicit gifts from wealthy donors, most notably billionaire film producer Arnon Milchan. Case 2000 concerns allegations that Netanyahu held talks with Yedioth Ahronoth publisher and owner Arnon Mozes about favorable coverage in return for legislation that would weaken Yedioth's rival, free daily Israel Hayom. Case 4000 concerns an alleged quid pro quo relationship between Netanyahu and investor Shaul Elovitch, who was the majority shareholder of Bezeq telecommunications and owner of the Walla! News site Elovitch allegedly ensured Netanyahu and his family received favorable coverage on Walla! News in return for regulatory benefits for Bezeq, which sought to merge with satellite company Yes.


What Netanyahu’s indictment means politically

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and one of his chief rivals, Yair Lapid (Photo: EPA/Abir Sultan) Dec. 2018.

The big news in the Israeli elections is the decision of State Attorney Avichai Mandelblit to indict Prime Minister Netanyahu for fraud, bribery and breach of trust in three criminal cases, pending a hearing (which is expected to take place after elections April 9th). Mandelblit announced his decision yesterday (Thursday). Alison Kaplan Sommer covers this concisely in Haaretz, and notes the technical issues concerning Netanyahu’s political future:

The attorney general’s decision to indict Netanyahu will not be official until after the hearing and there isn’t even a legal requirement for him to resign as prime minister if he is then indicted. It is fully possible – many say probable – that he will remain in power if he wins the election and is subsequently indicted, despite doubts that he can prepare a legal defense while running the country.

Yet the question is what this indictment would mean in terms of votes. Despite Netanayhu’s attempts to frame this as a “blatant intervention in the elections by leftist bullies”, a “witch hunt”, calling Mandelblit “weak” and using the indictment to race-bait “Arab parties”, many Likud supporters take this seriously. 28% of those planning to vote for Likud said that they would not vote for the party if the attorney general announces his intention to indict Netanyahu, according to a recent Times of Israel poll (24th-27th February). The poll suggests Likud could lose four Knesset seats (down from 29 to 25), and the centrist Blue and White of Benny Gantz and Yair Lapid could get a massive gain of 8 seats (up to 44 from 36). Although this still means that either party would need to form a coalition in order to make a 61-seat majority in the 120-seat parliament, yesterday’s announcement may prove to be a game changer.

The announcement is also predicted to cause a redistribution of votes beyond the Likud fall, with the the result that Likud’s ability to form a coalition with likely partners might be cut down to 55 seats. The religious Shas and the right-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu are just on the electoral threshold and might not survive the news. While the New Right and centrist Kulanu parties (both further right than Blue and White) seem to gain from the indictment announcement (New Right growing from 8 to 10 seats, Kulanu growing from 4 to 6). Both are possible Likud partners.

On the left side of the spectrum, Labor seems unaffected, with its roughly projected 8 seats. If Blue and White join with Labor and Kulanu, for example, they would only need another party like United Torah Judaism (UTJ), or maybe even the leftist Meretz (lightly strengthened from 4 to 5 seats), to form a viable coalition.

But I wouldn’t say it’s game over. If Shas and Yisrael Beitenu survive the threshold (they are just on the edge), then Likud might be able to form a viable coalition of 63 seats (Likud, New Right, UTJ, United Right List, Kulanu, Yisrael Beitenu, Shas).

Gantz has already made clear that he would not join forces with Likud if Netanyahu were indicted, and has already called upon Netanyahu to resign just ahead of Mandelblit’s announcement, since Israel can’t have a ‘half-time PM’. But when asked to decide between Netanyahu and Benny Gantz as prime minister, 41% of Israelis said Netanyahu, and only 39% said Benny Gantz. Netanyahu thus has huge clout in the Israeli public. This is even more clearly expressed in specific questions:

41% trust Netanyahu to protect Israel’s security, as opposed to 30% who trust Gantz.

41% trust Netanyahu more to manage Israeli economy, with only 25% trusting Gantz.

So in terms of persona, Netanyahu still appears to be leading on Gantz considerably. But persona alone cannot make a Prime Minister. The Prime Minister in Israel needs to lead a majority coalition, and t hings are not looking good for Netanyahu. Though many things can happen from now to April 9th, if there’s one thing we know about Netanyahu, it’s that he is a masterful political survivor who’s willing to apply all sorts of conspiracy theories and race-baiting in an attempt to ensure his win. It is doubtful that he will give up here. He will probably up his incitement, as he did in his race-baiting speech.

Finally, let it be known, None of this represents any prospect of any sort of revolution in Israeli politics.

All these calculations have little meaning for Palestinians. Their representation in Israeli politics will continue to be marginalized. Netanyahu’s person and personal corruption is one thing, but the ideological corruption of Israel vis-à-vis Palestinians is something that would not be changed by any of these players – not by Gantz who boasts of killing many Palestinians, nor by Lapid who wants “maximum territory” and “minimum Palestinians”. It’s all just a question of who will head the status quo.

We’d be happier being notified about an indictment against Benjamin Netanyahu for the war crimes his government has committed, or for the racist incitement and violence that he’s leading against Arab society, and for the disasters that his colonial, capitalist and swinish policy has brought upon us. No doubt, Netanyahu must stand trial as a corrupt politician, but it’s desirable that he stand trial in the future for all the other crimes he committed and instructed to commit by his government’s policies.

So where are the Palestinian voices in mainstream media?

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Netanyahu challenger fails to form coalition

JERUSALEM (AP) — Benjamin Netanyahu’s chief rival announced Wednesday that he had failed to form a new government, dashing his hopes of toppling the long-time Israeli prime minister and pushing the country closer toward an unprecedented third election in less than a year.

The announcement by Benny Gantz, leader of the centrist Blue and White party, prolongs the political paralysis that has gripped the nation for the past year. It also provides a new lifeline for the embattled Netanyahu, who is desperate to remain in office as he prepares for an expected indictment on corruption charges, possibly as early as Thursday.

Gantz, a former military chief, was tapped to form a government last month after Netanyahu failed to cobble together a coalition in the wake of inconclusive September elections. But during four weeks of intense negotiations, Gantz was unable to muster the support of a required 61-member majority in the 120-seat parliament by Wednesday’s midnight deadline.

Addressing reporters, Gantz accused Netanyahu of scuttling attempts to form a broad-based unity government between their parties.

“He should have come to terms with the fact that the outcome of the elections required him to negotiate directly, with no blocks or barriers,” Gantz said angrily.

“Most of the people chose a liberal unity government headed by Blue and White,” he added. “Most of the people voted to weaken the power of extremists, and most of the people voted to go on a different path from that of Netanyahu in recent years.”

Under Israeli law, parliament now enters a 21-day period where any lawmaker can try to muster a 61-seat majority and become prime minister.

That means both Gantz and Netanyahu will continue their efforts to find coalition partners and to explore the possibility of a unity government. Dark-horse candidates may also emerge. If they fail, the country would be forced to hold another election in March.

“These are 21 fateful days in which Israeli democracy will be challenged by the most important test,” Gantz said. He vowed to try to find a way to pull Israel “out of the total paralysis that was forced upon us.”

Gantz’s Blue and White is the largest party in parliament, with 34 seats, just ahead of Likud’s 33, meaning the two men together could control a majority. But during weeks of talks, they could not agree on the terms of a power-sharing agreement, including who would first be prime minister and what would happen if Netanyahu is indicted.

Opinion polls have indicated a new election would deliver similar results to September’s inconclusive vote, signaling additional months of horse-trading and uncertainty.

The race, however, could be shaken up by the expected indictment of Netanyahu in a series of corruption cases. Channel 13 TV reported that Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has decided to file fraud and breach of trust charges and an announcement could come as soon as Thursday. There was no immediate confirmation from the Justice Ministry.

Netanyahu is desperate to remain in the prime minister’s post, where he would be best positioned to fight the charges and seek immunity from prosecution from parliament. With the exception of prime minister, Israeli law requires public officials to resign if charged with a crime.

As Netanyahu’s legal woes have mounted, his Likud party has remained firmly behind him. But that could change if there is a formal indictment, and he could begin to face calls to step aside. It also is unclear how voters beyond his political base would react to an indictment.

Gantz has ruled out a partnership with Netanyahu at a time when he is facing trial, but has said he has no objections to partnering with Likud if it is led by someone else.

Wednesday’s crisis was triggered by Avigdor Lieberman, leader of a small secular, ultranationalist party who has emerged as Israel’s political power broker.

Neither Gantz nor Netanyahu was able to form a majority government without Lieberman’s support. But on Wednesday, Lieberman said he would not endorse either candidate.

Lieberman, a former Netanyahu ally who hails from the former Soviet Union, has objected to the outsize influence of ultra-Orthodox religious parties and refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition of religious and nationalist partners after April elections. That forced the second election in September.

Lieberman had urged Netanyahu and Gantz to form a broad, secular unity government as a way out of the stalemate.

Speaking to reporters, Lieberman blamed both men for the failure.

“I made every effort. I turned over every stone,” he said. “There were no significant gaps, they were mainly personal gaps and after it all, at least for now, it seems we are heading for another election.”

Lieberman said he objected to Netanyahu’s alliance with “messianic” religious parties, while he also accused Gantz of reaching out to religious parties and not negotiating in good faith.

Lieberman also ruled out a “minority” government that would depend on outside support from Arab politicians. Lieberman has frequently been accused of racism for describing the country’s Arab minority as a threat from within.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu had lambasted Gantz for dangling the prospect of a minority government with Arab partners. His comments drew accusations of racism and incitement and a stern lecture from President Reuven Rivlin, who berated Netanyahu’s “ugly” words.

After Lieberman’s announcement Wednesday, Netanyahu called upon Gantz to join him in forming a unity government. “I think we must not drag this country into another election,” he said at a Likud faction meeting.

Yuval Shany, vice president of research at the Israel Democracy Institute, said there is little appetite for new elections, but the expected indictment would complicate unity talks.

“I think what we will see now is the continued negotiations over the formation of a grand coalition," he said.

Rising regional tensions could also force the sides into compromise.

Israel carried out a wide-scale offensive against Iranian targets in Syria early Wednesday in response to rocket attacks against it. At least 23 people were reported killed, including 15 non-Syrians who included at least some Iranians.

Israeli security officials fear Iran could respond, setting off further violence a week after heavy fighting between Israel and Iranian-backed militants in Gaza. Against such a backdrop, the prospect of another dreaded election would weigh heavily on an already weary public.


Israel's embattled Netanyahu wins landslide in primary

JERUSALEM -- Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Thursday scored a landslide victory in a primary race for leadership of the ruling Likud party, giving the embattled leader an important boost ahead of the country's third election in less than a year.

The strong showing by Israel's longest-serving leader could give him another opportunity to form a government following the March election, after falling short in two previous attempts this year. By easily fending off Likud lawmaker Gideon Saar, Netanyahu also kept alive his hopes of winning immunity from prosecution after being indicted last month on a series of corruption charges.

“A giant victory,” Netanyahu tweeted early Friday, just over an hour after polls closed.

“Thanks to the members of Likud for the trust, support and love,” he added. “God willing, I will lead Likud to a big victory in the coming elections.”

In a tweet, Saar congratulated Netanyahu and said he would support the prime minister in the national election. "I am absolutely comfortable with my decision to run," he added. “Whoever isn't ready to take a risk for the path he believes in will never win.”

Official results released by Likud showed Netanyahu capturing 41,792 votes, or 72%, compared with 15,885 votes, or 28%, for Saar.

While removing any doubts about Netanyahu’s standing in the ruling party, the primary is likely to prolong Israel’s political uncertainty. Netanyahu will remain at the helm of Likud through the March elections, and his lingering legal troubles could again scuttle efforts to form a government after that.

In September’s election, both Likud and its main rival, the centrist Blue and White party, were unable to secure a parliamentary majority and form a government on their own.

The two parties together captured a solid majority of parliamentary seats, leaving a national unity government as the best way out of the crisis. But Blue and White has refused to sit in a partnership with Netanyahu when he is under indictment.

Opinion polls predict a similar outcome in the March election, raising the possibility of months of continued paralysis. The country already has been run by a caretaker government for the past year.

Netanyahu, who has led the country for the past decade, maintained his position atop the political right by cultivating an image as a veteran statesman with close ties to U.S. President Donald Trump, Russian President Vladimir Putin and other world leaders.

His refusal to make any concessions to the Palestinians was rewarded after Trump took office, as the U.S. began openly siding with Israel on several key issues, validating Netanyahu's approach in the eyes of many Israelis and adding to his mystique.

Netanyahu's hard-line approach to Iran has also proved popular. He was a staunch opponent of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal, which has unraveled since Trump withdrew from the agreement. A wave of Israeli strikes on Iran-linked targets in Syria, Lebanon and Iraq has burnished Netanyahu's claims to having protected Israel from its enemies.

His fortunes have nevertheless waned over the past year, after he was unable to form a government following the unprecedented back-to-back elections in March and September. His party came in second place in September, leading many observers to view the vote as the beginning of the end.

In November, Netanyahu was indicted on charges of fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes, the culmination of three long-running corruption investigations. Netanyahu vowed to remain in office, dismissing the indictment as an “attempted coup” by hostile media and law enforcement.

Reuven Hazan, a political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the victory for Netanyahu would have no impact on the general election.

“It simply means that he’s managed to maintain control of the party,” he said. “It just means that the faithful have circled the wagons. It means nothing for the elections except that he looks good. He looks strengthened.”

Netanyahu appeared rejuvenated in recent weeks as he hit the campaign trail, doing several live events a day where he rallied supporters in small gatherings and face-to-face meetings.

“The Likudniks have witnessed an astonishing event play out in the past two weeks, in which a 70-year-old leader who has had his fill of terms in office has thrown himself at every last registered party member,” Israeli columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily.

The approach appears to have paid off and may serve as a template for a more effective general election campaign. In the meantime, Israel will remain in limbo for at least another two months.

Netanyahu, who also served as prime minister in the late 1990s, is desperate to remain in office, where he is best positioned to fight the corruption charges. Israeli law requires public officials to resign if charged with a crime. But the law does not apply to sitting prime ministers.

As long as he remains in office, Netanyahu can use the position as a bully pulpit to criticize his prosecutors. He also can offer political favors in hopes of rallying a majority of lawmakers who favor granting him immunity from prosecution.

“His game is to be prime minister because that is a shield from indictment," Hazan said.

Despite the victory, Netanyahu has many hurdles ahead.

The Supreme Court is set next week to begin considering whether an indicted member of parliament can be tasked with forming a new government. Its decision could potentially disqualify Netanyahu from leading the next government. It's not clear when a ruling would be handed down.

The political uncertainty has led the Trump administration to delay the release of its long-anticipated Mideast peace plan.

The Palestinians have already rejected the plan, saying the administration is hopelessly and unfairly biased toward Israel. They point to Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital, to cut off virtually all aid to the Palestinians and to reverse longstanding opposition to Jewish settlements in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, which Israel captured in the 1967 war.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has said Israel is on the cusp of securing U.S. support for the annexation of large parts of the occupied West Bank — but only if he remains in power.

That would virtually extinguish the Palestinians' hopes of one day establishing an independent state, but it would cement Netanyahu's legacy as perhaps the most successful right-wing leader in the country's history.


José Mourinho takes the reins at Tottenham for the first time on Saturday, promising to “give absolutely everything I have” to the club as they face West Ham. Unai Emery will be hoping a win against Southampton can inject fresh optimism into his demoralised Arsenal side. Those are two of 10 things to look out for amid the weekend’s action in the Premier League.

Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback Mason Rudolph has denied uttering a racial slur in his confrontation with Cleveland Browns defensive end Myles Garrett, which led to an all-out brawl between the two teams. The claim was reportedly made by Garrett as he appealed against his suspension at NFL headquarters on Wednesday.


Years before he became the man with a chance to topple Israel’s longtime premier, Benny Gantz was a 12th grader with a graduation party on his mind.

He knew some of his classmates couldn’t afford the luxury of a celebration, so he lobbied the boarding school where he studied in the Kfar Hayarok farming community outside Tel Aviv to give them a piece of land.

Gantz’s idea, recalls his teacher, Sara Ran Haiykae, was to grow a crop the students could sell together, and thereby 𠇊void embarrassing anyone or creating a situation of privilege—to engineer the kind of independence where they could pay for the party themselves.”

“I saw a leadership ability that was amazing,” Haiykae said in an interview.

Gantz went on to serve for almost four decades in the Israeli military before entering politics just two months ago. Now, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu fighting for his political survival, Gantz may be on the verge of his greatest leadership test yet.

The attorney general’s announcement of a draft indictment against Netanyahu on bribery and fraud charges has upended the campaign for April 9 elections, with polls showing Gantz’s party most likely to form the government. That puts the former general head-to-head with Netanyahu in the most formidable electoral threat the four-term prime minister has faced since another former military commander, Ehud Barak, unseated him in 1999.

During a 38-year career that began as a paratrooper, Gantz commanded the West Bank and the front with Lebanon and Syria, rising to become the head of Israel’s military from 2011 to 2015.

The International Criminal Court has been conducting a preliminary probe for four years of possible war crimes committed by both Israelis and Palestinians during the 2014 Gaza Strip war, when Gantz was Israel&aposs military chief. It hasn&apost decided yet whether to open a full-fledged investigation.

In a campaign video, Gantz boasted that “parts of Gaza were sent back to the Stone Age” during the conflict and that 1,364 militants were killed. Gaza authorities have said more than 2,100 Palestinians were killed during the war, including about 1,400 civilians, hundreds of them children.

Gantz&aposs political rivals in Israel, however, try to portray him as too soft a commander, faulting him in one instance for risking the lives of soldiers to protect Gaza civilians.

In this race, though, Gantz, 59, portrays himself as a balm to a nation rubbed raw by a prime minister he describes as imperious and riddled with graft. He has the security credentials so important in Israeli politics and, at 6 foot 3 (1.91 meters), a commanding presence. Warning that 𠇊 bad wind” is blowing in Israel, he’s promised to heal the rifts between left and right, religious and secular, Jews and non-Jews.

Gantz has pledged a government “without masters and servants, no obscene gifts and no court jesters”

It’s a pitch that cuts little ice with Netanyahu, 69, who denounces the general as a weak leftist prepared to make dangerous territorial concessions to the Palestinians. “The choice is clear,” Jonatan Urich, a spokesman for Netanyahu’s Likud party, said of the election.

Gantz is hardly the first Israeli general to burst onto the scene promising a better way. But at a time when the incumbent is showing rare vulnerability, Gantz’s profile helps him to look like a credible alternative, according to Mitchell Barak, an independent pollster who once worked with Netanyahu.

In Israeli elections, “it’s personality politics,” said Barak. Gantz “has got charisma, he looks the part. People have a comfort level with a chief of staff.”

That may just make Netanyahu all the more determined in his bid to win a fifth term and surpass founding father David Ben-Gurion as Israel’s longest-serving premier. Netanyahu is “just going to be juiced up and ready to go,” Barak said. “Netanyahu is best when he’s got someone to fight.”

Gantz has teamed up with another leading centrist politician and two other ex-military chiefs to present a stronger front. Their Blue & White party—representing the colors of the Israeli flag—surged ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud in the polls immediately after they joined forces on Feb. 21. After the draft indictment was released last week, surveys suggested a Gantz-led bloc was poised to form the next coalition.

Yet that is to ignore what’s kept Netanyahu aloft for so many years: an unrivaled deftness as a political operator and a reputation as an articulate and tenacious defender of Israel’s security. Added to that are diplomatic achievements that eluded predecessors, such as the transfer of the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem. Diehard Likud supporters agree with him that the corruption investigations are the handiwork of leftist enemies bent on toppling him in the courts because they can’t do so at the ballot box.

As Gantz’s poll numbers rise, so have the attacks against him. Two people have come forward to claim the general exposed himself in high school. Gantz has denied the allegations, which his party says are politically motivated, and is suing one of his accusers.

Netanyhau is not standing still: to get as many people as possible into his tent, last month he maneuvered to bring a Jewish extremist group which demands the expulsion of Arabs from the biblical Land of Israel into an existing parliamentary party. Polls show the bloc they’ve created winning as many as seven of parliament’s 120 seats.

For all his track record on security matters, Gantz’s campaign positions aren’t very concrete. The new bloc hasn’t finalized its platform, though Gantz has said he plans to promote affordable housing and invest in the public health system to pull it out of crisis.

On all-important territorial matters, Gantz’s stances broadly mesh with those of Netanyahu: A united Jerusalem under Israeli sovereignty, retention of West Bank settlement blocs, and a continued Israeli presence in the Golan Heights and Jordan Rift Valley. He doesn’t see full peace with the Palestinians in the near future.

“I call him the Charlie Chaplin candidate because he doesn’t really say anything, and that leaves space for Israelis to fantasize about what they𠆝 like him to be”

Gantz was born in Israel to a mother who survived the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp and a father who was arrested by the British for illegally trying to enter pre-state Palestine. His father, the Haaretz newspaper wrote, sent him to a boarding school because he thought he was too pampered at home, where he was the only son among four children.

His father belonged to a group in the 1970s that called for the establishment of a Palestinian entity𠅊 rare position at that time. “I’m a little further to the right than my father,” the newspaper quoted Gantz as saying.

In his military career, Gantz climbed the ranks to the top post, but not without stumbles over operations such as the chaotic withdrawal from southern Lebanon in 2000. He was a second-choice chief of staff, appointed only after the original nominee was forced out by a land-use scandal.

Some senior military and political officials who worked closely with Gantz criticized him as a dithering, non-confrontational commander. During the 2014 war in the Gaza Strip, Education Minister Naftali Bennett frequently assailed the conduct of the fighting, saying the military’s response wasn’t harsh enough. “Throughout his career, Gantz always wanted to cut and run,” he said in a recent interview.

But in others he inspires loyalty. His teacher Haiykae has his vote. Chili Tropper, an educator running on Gantz’s ticket, likened him to Yitzhak Rabin, the slain prime minister known as tough on security but willing to reach agreements for peace. And Dan Emergui, a signal operator under his command 30 years ago, described an accessible commander who knew how to keep his wits about him in the toughest circumstances.

“He is impressive, charismatic and very pleasant. He spoke to soldiers as equals,” Emergui said. �yond that, he was a great commander, a great fighter who knew how to give orders under fire,” he added. “He is the kind of commander you follow with your eyes closed.”

The Palestinians, despairing of another Netanyahu term, say they’re willing to give Gantz a chance.

It will take months before Attorney General Avihai Mandelblit will decide whether to charge Netanyahu. The prime minister will first be entitled to a hearing to try to fend off prosecution, though not until after the election.

Gantz alluded to his aim to eliminate corruption in his campaign launch speech, pledging a government “without masters and servants, no obscene gifts and no court jesters.”

The rest of his relatively blank slate of policies may not necessarily be a hindrance, according Barak, the pollster. “I call him the Charlie Chaplin candidate because he doesn’t really say anything𠅊nd that leaves space for Israelis to fantasize about what they𠆝 like him to be,” he said.


TV report: Netanyahu’s legal problems mount as AG won’t delay his hearing

Taking a stance that could drastically reduce Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s chances of avoiding prosecution in three corruption cases, Israeli state prosecutors will reportedly reject any request by his lawyers to defer his pre-indictment hearing beyond its scheduled date at the start of October.

The reports Thursday night also said that the attorney general is aiming to wrap up the Netanyahu cases before the end of the year. If so, Netanyahu, who on Wednesday night called new elections for September 17 having failed to build a governing majority after the April 9 elections, may not now have time to pass planned legislation aimed at protecting him from prosecution.

Netanyahu is facing indictment on three counts of fraud and breach of trust, and one of bribery, pending the hearing — his final opportunity to persuade the attorney general not to file charges against him. The hearing was originally set for July, but was postponed earlier this month to October 2-3, with the possibility of a final session a week later. The prime minister’s lawyers had sought a full year’s delay — a request that was dismissed by Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who ruled that a speedy resolution of the matter was in the public interest.

Now that Israel is to hold new general elections in September, with Netanyahu having failed to put together a majority coalition after the April 9 election, his lawyers are widely expected to seek another delay in the hearing process. But senior officials in the state prosecution and law enforcement hierarchies quoted at length in TV news broadcasts Thursday night firmly rejected the idea.

“We will not agree to a further delay in the hearing,” a source quoted by Channel 13 news said. “Netanyahu has enough time to prepare for it. He intends to use the matter of [new] elections to seek another postponement? Let him try. It won’t work for him. He has plenty of time to prepare as necessary.”

In similar vein, Channel 12 quoted sources declaring that the announcement of new elections would “not have slightest impact” on the Netanyahu corruption cases. “The date for the hearing has been fixed, and it won’t move a millimeter,” a source was quoted saying.

The officials also noted that it is Netanyahu’s lawyers, rather than the suspect himself, who will appear at the hearing.

Netanyahu is widely reported to have tried to build a coalition after April 9’s election in which his Likud MKs and their allies would initiate or back legislative efforts to enable him to avoid prosecution — first by easing his path to gaining immunity via the Knesset, and then by canceling the Supreme Court’s authority to overturn such immunity.

This latter change would be achieved as part of a wide-ranging reform of the Supreme Court’s role, under which Israel’s justices would be denied their current quasi-constitutional authority to “override” legislation, and Knesset and government decisions, deemed unconstitutional. Plans for this “override” legislation have been described as marking a potential constitutional revolution in Israel, that would shatter the checks and balances at the heart of Israeli democracy.

Mandelblit earlier this week castigated planned changes to the current immunity law as being apparently designed to help Netanyahu rather than being in the genuine interest of constructive reform. As for the so-called override bill, he said that it would cause “direct harm to the country’s citizens, who will be left exposed to the possibility of arbitrary decisions by the government. The individual will not have any protection from actions which… may in an extreme case, ignore the individual’s rights and so harm him illegally.”

Earlier this week, as Netanyahu struggled to muster a majority coalition, his associates were said to have warned him that snap elections would likely deny him the time needed to pass legislation shielding him from prosecution. Nonetheless, on Wednesday night, when he concluded that he could not muster a majority, he pushed through a vote to disperse the 21st Knesset, which was only sworn in a month ago, and set Israel on the path to new elections on September 17. He chose this course rather than allow for a different Knesset member, possibly opposition leader Benny Gantz, to have a turn at trying to build a majority coalition.

Netanyahu is widely expected to now seek a delay in the hearing process, by arguing that the recourse to new elections means he will not have sufficient time to prepare for the October hearing. “He chose to support new elections,” Channel 12 quoted a legal official saying in response. “That’s up to him.”

Mandelblit announced his intention to indict Netanyahu for fraud and breach of trust in the three cases against him, and for bribery in one of them, in February. The prime minister’s attorneys requested, and were granted, that the case files not be handed over prior to the April 9 national election in order to prevent information from leaking to the media and affecting the vote.

But after the election, the lawyers refrained for another month from collecting the material, citing a dispute over their fees. They have been accused of engaging in delay tactics.

Netanyahu denies all the allegations against him, and has claimed they stem from a witch hunt designed to oust him, which he claims is supported by the left-wing opposition, the media, the police and the state prosecution, headed by a “weak” attorney general.

Case 1000 involves accusations that Netanyahu received gifts and benefits from billionaire benefactors including Israeli-born Hollywood producer Arnon Milchan in exchange for favors Case 2000 involves accusations that Netanyahu agreed with Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper publisher Arnon Mozes to weaken a rival daily in return for more favorable coverage from Yedioth and Case 4000, widely seen as the most serious against the premier, involves accusations that Netanyahu advanced regulatory decisions that benefited Shaul Elovitch, the controlling shareholder in the Bezeq telecom giant, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars, in exchange for positive coverage from its Walla news site.

Raoul Wootliff contributed to this report.

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