Jerusalem, Apr 4(AP/UNB) — In a charged election campaign that has been heavy on insults and short on substance, Israel's conflict with the Palestinians has been notably absent from the discourse.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party has offered no plan for what many believe is the country's most existential problem. His main challenger in the April 9 vote speaks vaguely of "separation," while Netanyahu's hard-line partners speak openly of the once unthinkable idea of annexing all or parts of the West Bank. Talk of a Palestinian state, the international community's preferred solution for the past two decades, is non-existent.
It is a far cry from past elections, when peace with the Palestinians was the central issue for voters. This apparent lack of interest reflects widespread disillusionment in Israel over years of failed peace efforts.
But it also is a testament to Netanyahu's success in sidelining the issue. Capitalizing on internal Palestinian divisions and promoting sometimes contradictory policies, Netanyahu has succeeded in managing the conflict without addressing the bigger issue of how two intertwined peoples will live together in the future. Strong backing from the Trump administration has given him an extra boost.
"The peace track is currently in a coma," said Shmuel Rosner, a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. "There's not much hope for a viable solution to be revived in the near future, so people can just keep pushing it aside until someday it comes back to haunt them."
Netanyahu took office in early 2009 and under heavy pressure from then-President Barack Obama reluctantly stated his support for an independent Palestinian state, albeit with many conditions, which were rejected.
Things quickly went downhill, and serious peace talks never took place during Obama's time in office.
Throughout his tenure, Netanyahu has repeatedly cast blame on the Palestinians, accusing President Mahmoud Abbas, who seeks a negotiated settlement with Israel, of incitement and promoting "terror." At the same time, he has maintained behind-the-scenes security cooperation with Abbas' forces in the West Bank in a joint struggle against the Hamas militant group.
In the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip, Netanyahu has engaged in frequent rounds of fighting, but is also conducting behind-the-scenes negotiations with his bitter enemy in hopes of maintaining calm.
The Trump administration has further sidelined the Palestinians by cutting hundreds of millions of dollars in aid and recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, prompting the Palestinians to sever ties with the U.S. A long-promised peace plan, which the White House says will be released after the election, faces dim prospects, if it is even released.
With the peace process in a deep freeze, it is perhaps no surprise that none of the major Israeli parties are talking about the Palestinians.
"The Palestinian cause is totally absent in the Israeli elections, and when it comes, it comes only in a negative context," said Ahmed Majdalani, a senior Palestinian official. "This is worrisome, because it tells us that we are going from bad to worse."
The Palestinians seek the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip — areas captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — for an independent state. The so-called two-state solution is widely backed internationally as the best way to end the conflict.
If Israel continues to rule over millions of Palestinians, the thinking goes, the Palestinians will eventually abandon their dream of statehood and instead demand Israeli citizenship and full equality. In such a scenario, Israel would no longer be able to be both Jewish and democratic.
Israelis accuse the Palestinians of rejecting generous peace offers, most recently in late 2008, a narrative the Palestinians reject. The Israelis also point to the 2005 withdrawal from Gaza, which cleared the way for Hamas to seize power from Abbas' forces two years later.
Ahead of the election, several religious and nationalist parties, along with individual members of Netanyahu's Likud party, have openly called for annexing parts or all of the West Bank. These plans include a range of proposals for the Palestinians, including nonvoting residency rights, possible citizenship or financial incentives to emigrate.
It remains unclear how hard these parties, all potential coalition partners for Netanyahu, will push, though Trump's recent recognition of Israel's annexation of the occupied Golan Heights has led to stepped-up calls for annexing West Bank territory.
Likud spokesman Eli Hazan said he does not expect annexation to be on the agenda. He said the party "strongly believes" in the status quo. "We are against the one-state solution and two-state solution. Both ways may lead to the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic country," he said.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israeli Democracy Institute and a former lawmaker, said he did not think Netanyahu would give in to the annexation calls. "At the end of the day, West Bank annexation is the prerogative of the prime minister," he said.
Netanyahu's main challenger, former military chief Benny Gantz, has given Israel's "peace camp" some dim hope.
His Blue and White party's platform devotes just a few sentences to the Palestinians, promising "an open horizon for political settlement" and pledging to work with Arab neighbors to find a way to "deepen the separation." It makes no mention of Palestinian statehood, and says Israel will continue to maintain control of parts of the West Bank and never divide Jerusalem.
Ghassan Khatib, a former Palestinian negotiator, said the lack of interest on the Israeli side is harmful to the Palestinians in the short term but much worse for Israel in the long term.
"It means the end of the two-state solution," he said. "The alternative will be an apartheid system, and this will cause huge damage to Israeli democracy and the image of Israel."
Yossi Beilin, one of the chief architects of Israel's historic 1993 interim peace agreement with the Palestinians, said Netanyahu's policies have been "devastating" for peace prospects. Yet he remains confident the two-state solution will one day be adopted due to a lack of alternatives, and even believes that Gantz "for sure" will pursue a peace deal if elected.
Ironically, Trump's peace plan, if released, may force Netanyahu's hand, Beilin said. If elected, Netanyahu will have a hard time resisting his close friend's proposal while his hard-line coalition partners oppose any concessions to the Palestinians.
"The impact of the plan might be very interesting," Beilin said.
Jerusalem, Mar 31 (AP/UNB) — Israeli authorities have reopened the two crossings with the Gaza Strip after days of hostilities in a sign that cease-fire talks may be advancing.
Israeli and Hamas officials confirmed Sunday that the Erez and Kerem Shalom crossings were opened for the first time since Monday. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.
Sunday's reopening comes hours after Palestinian militants launched rockets into Israel overnight and the military responded with tank fire.
Four Palestinians, including three teens, died a day earlier from Israeli fire as tens of thousands took part in mass protests along the Israel-Gaza perimeter fence.
Egyptian mediators have tried to reach a cease-fire agreement to end six days of hostilities, which began when a rocket fired by Palestinian militants struck a home near Tel Aviv Monday.
Tunis, Mar 31 (AP/UNB) — Arab leaders are meeting in Tunisia's capital hoping to project unified opposition to President Donald Trump's recognition of Israel's sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
The annual Arab League summit is taking place Sunday. The leaders of Algeria, Sudan and Morocco have announced they are skipping the meeting.
Arab League spokesman Mahmoud Afifi says the 22-member bloc will aim to issue a proclamation affirming the international consensus that the Golan is occupied Syrian land.
The annual gathering will also look into readmitting Syria's membership in the Arab League, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Saudi Arabia-Iran rivalry and the war in Yemen.
The pan-Arab bloc froze Syria's membership in 2011 over a bloody government crackdown on protesters.
Many Arab countries have recently renewed ties with the government of President Bashar Assad.
United Nations, Mar 27 (AP/UNB) — A hospital in a rural area of northwest Yemen was hit by an airstrike Tuesday killing seven people and wounding eight others, Save the Children said.
The international aid organization, which supports the hospital, said in a statement sent to the Associated Press that four of those killed were children and two adults are unaccounted for.
Save The Children said a missile struck a petrol station near the entrance to Kitaf rural hospital, about 100 kilometers (62 miles) from the city of Saada at 9:30 a.m. local time on Tuesday.
"The missile was said to have landed within 50 meters of the facility's main building," it said.
The organization said the hospital had been open for half an hour and many patients and staff were arriving on a busy morning.
Among the dead were a health worker and the worker's two children and a security guard, it said.
Save the Children, which reported earlier this week that 37 Yemeni children a month had been killed or injured by foreign bombs in the last year, demanded an urgent investigation into the attack.
Helle Thorning-Schmidt, the organization's chief executive, said: "We are shocked and appalled by this outrageous attack."
"Innocent children and health workers have lost their lives in what appears to been an indiscriminate attack on a hospital in a densely populated civilian area," she said. "Attacks like these are a breach of international law."
Thorning-Schmidt said the hospital is one of many Save the Children supports in Yemen, "but time after time, we see a complete disregard by all warring parties in Yemen for the basic rules of war."
The conflict in Yemen began with the 2014 takeover of the capital, Sanaa, by Iranian-backed Houthi Shiite rebels, who toppled the government of Abed Rabbo Mansour Hadi.
A Saudi-led coalition allied with Hadi's internationally recognized government has been fighting the Houthis since 2015.
Saudi-led airstrikes have hit schools, hospitals and wedding parties and killed thousands of Yemeni civilians. The Houthis have fired long-range missiles into Saudi Arabia and targeted vessels in the Red Sea.
The fighting in the Arab world's poorest country has killed thousands of civilians, left millions suffering from food and medical care shortages, and pushed the country to the brink of famine.
U.N. humanitarian chief Mark Lowcock has said about 80 percent of Yemen's population — 24 million people — need humanitarian assistance including nearly 10 million "just a step away from famine" and nearly 240,000 "facing catastrophic levels of hunger."
Thorning-Schmidt called for an immediate suspension of arms sales to the warring parties and diplomatic pressure to end the conflict.
"We must stop this war on children," she said.
Jerusalem, Mar 26 (AP/UNB) — A tense quiet took hold on Tuesday morning after a night of heavy fire as Israeli aircraft bombed targets across the Gaza Strip and Gaza militants fired rockets into Israel in what threatened to devolve into a major conflict, just two weeks before the Israeli election.
Schools in southern Israel were cancelled for the day and the military imposed restrictions on public gatherings near the Gaza border, after dozens of rockets were fired toward communities in the area, including one that struck a house in the town of Sderot.
The Israeli air force pounded militant sites of Gaza's Hamas rulers and the smaller Islamic Jihad group. The targets included a multistory building in Gaza City that Israel said had served as a Hamas military intelligence headquarters and the office of Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh. Gaza's Health Ministry said seven Palestinians were wounded in the airstrikes.
The cross-border fighting was triggered by a surprise rocket fired early Monday from Gaza that slammed into a house in central Israel and wounded seven people.
The Israeli military said it was a self-manufactured rocket with a range of 120 kilometers (75 miles), making it one of the deepest strikes ever carried out by Hamas. The military mobilized two armor and infantry brigades and drafted some reserve forces before striking back at militant sites in Gaza.
Gaza's Hamas rulers announced later in the day that Egyptian mediators had brokered a cease-fire but the firing continued overnight before calm appeared to return early Tuesday.
Monday's rocket attack prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to cut short a visit to Washington and return home. He promised a tough response, setting the stage for perhaps the most serious conflict since a war in 2014. But with no fatalities reported on either side yet, and the quiet holding for the moment, it still seemed possible to step back from the brink once again.
Two weeks ago, rockets were fired from Gaza toward Israel's densely populated commercial capital of Tel Aviv, and the Israeli military struck back. Gaza's Hamas leaders said the rocket was fired accidentally and the fighting quickly subsided.
Israel and Hamas have fought three wars in the last decade. Although neither side appears to have an interest in another war, fighting could easily spin out of control. The 2014 conflict lasted 50 days and ended with over 2,000 Palestinian deaths, including hundreds of civilians, and 73 killed on the Israeli side.
Netanyahu is scheduled to land later Tuesday and head directly to consultations at military headquarters in Tel Aviv. He faces the difficult task of delivering a tough blow to Hamas while avoiding protracted fighting that could work against him on election day.
Netanyahu came under heavy criticism from allies and opponents for what they say has been an ineffective policy containing Gaza militants. He has conducted indirect cease-fire talks through Egyptian mediators in recent months, and even allowed the delivery of millions of dollars of Qatari aid to Hamas to ease harsh conditions in Gaza.
Hamas is facing perhaps its toughest domestic test since seizing control of Gaza from the rival Palestinian Authority 12 years ago.
An Israel-Egyptian blockade, imposed to weaken Hamas, combined with sanctions by the Palestinian Authority and mismanagement by the Hamas government, have all fueled an economic crisis that has left Gaza with an unemployment rate above 50 percent.
Hamas has been leading weekly protests along the Israeli border for the past year in hopes of easing the blockade, but the demonstrations, in which some 190 people have been killed by Israeli fire, have done little to improve conditions.
Last week, hundreds of Gazans protested the dire conditions, a rare expression of public discontent against the authoritarian government. Hamas responded with a violent crackdown, beating and arresting dozens of demonstrators and drawing rare public criticism.