Jerusalem, Oct 11 (AP/UNB) — Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's top ministers are squabbling, a deadline looms for contentious legislation that may bring down his government and a corruption indictment could be just around the corner.
Against this backdrop, there are growing signs he may soon call for elections — possibly as early as next week, when parliament reconvenes from its summer break. And though Netanyahu hasn't committed yet, conditions appear ripe for him to schedule the vote, nearly a year ahead of schedule.
Polls, for now at least, predict a solid Netanyahu victory, one that would assure his place in history as Israel's longest-serving leader and allow him to solidify his close alliance with President Donald Trump. Another term would also allow Netanyahu to push forward with his nationalistic agenda and worldwide campaign to thwart Iran's nuclear ambitions.
But one big obstacle could still trip him up: a mounting corruption investigation that may soon deliver criminal charges.
"It comes down to his electoral prospects and his legal situation," said Avraham Diskin, a political scientist at Israel's Hebrew University. "On both fronts he seems to be doing well for now, so he could easily manufacture a crisis and seize on it for elections."
If he gets another term, Netanyahu would most likely build a government similar to the religious, nationalistic coalition he currently leads.
A strong showing in the polls could also shield him in the corruption case, the thinking goes, making it much harder for the attorney general to charge a popular, newly re-elected prime minister.
Netanyahu's opening speech to the Knesset, or parliament, on Monday could give an indication as to which way he is leaning. On the agenda will be passing a new law mandating the military draft of ultra-Orthodox men, a political hot potato that has deeply divided the government.
Israel's Supreme Court has dictated a Dec. 2 deadline to get the law passed and if his divided coalition partners remain inflexible, Netanyahu could use it as a pretext to dissolve parliament. With political parties focused on nationwide municipal elections later this month, Netanyahu's final decision will likely come down in November, which would set up an election early next year.
Already, signs of coalition upheaval are everywhere.
Naftali Bennett, who heads the pro-settler Jewish Home party, has launched a scathing critique of Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman's handing of the past six months of violence along the Gaza border, in what is widely seen as a campaign to replace him.
Lieberman, who heads the nationalist, but secular, Yisrael Beiteinu faction, is also refusing to bend to an ultra-Orthodox demand that he ease the proposed legislation to draft young religious men.
Ultra-Orthodox parties consider conscription a taboo, fearing that military service will lead to immersion in secularism. But years of exemptions have generated widespread resentment among the rest of Jewish Israelis.
Earlier this week, Netanyahu held an impromptu press conference, fielding questions from the media for the first time in months in what was viewed as a warm-up for the election season.
Cabinet minister Gilad Erdan, a senior member of Netanyahu's ruling Likud Party, said he hadn't heard from the prime minister on his plans.
"But it's obvious that when Lieberman and the ultra-Orthodox are hardening their positions about the draft law, we have a problem abiding by the Supreme Court's demand," he told Israel's Army Radio. "You can't run the Knesset and the country when everyone does as they please."
If history is any guide, elections look likely. The last time a government served its full term was in 1988. Since then, elections have almost always been moved up because of a coalition crisis or a strategic move by the prime minister to maximize his chance of re-election.
A poll aired Sunday on Israel's top-rated Channel 2 newscast showed Netanyahu to be on solid ground.
The survey found that, if elections were held today, Netanyahu's Likud party would get 32 seats of the 120-seat Knesset — a two seat jump from its current level — and his current coalition would score a solid majority. The centrist Yesh Atid party would earn 18 seats, while the center-left Zionist Union would trail with 12.
The poll had Netanyahu, with 38 percent support, as being the most suitable candidate for prime minister — far ahead of his closest competitor at 12 percent, retired military chief Benny Gantz who has yet to say whether he even plans to enter politics.
The Midgam poll surveyed more than 500 Israelis and had a margin of error of 4.4 percentage points.
The biggest wild card for Netanyahu is the corruption investigation.
Police have already questioned Netanyahu a dozen times and recommended he be indicted on bribery and breach of trust charges in two cases. The first involves allegedly taking gifts from billionaires and the second for allegedly discussing legislation that favored a major newspaper in exchange for positive media coverage. Netanyahu has also been grilled about a corruption case involving Israel's telecom giant.
This week, his wife, Sara Netanyahu, went on trial for fraud charges for allegedly overspending roughly $100,000 on celebrity chefs at their official residence, even when there was a full-time chef on staff.
Israel's attorney general, Avichai Mandelblit, is expected to make a decision on charges in the coming months.
Netanyahu has angrily rejected the accusations against him and his wife, calling them part of a media-orchestrated witch-hunt. His sense of indignation seems to have served him politically, rallying his conservative base in an assault on the supposed liberal elites plotting to get rid of him.
Israeli law is unclear whether a prime minister must step down if indicted. Speaking to journalists on Tuesday, Netanyahu refused to discuss the topic, expressing confidence that he would not be charged.
But later, his finance minister, Moshe Kahlon, said Netanyahu should step aside if charged, saying a prime minister under indictment "cannot function."
If indicted, Netanyahu can expect such calls to grow — whether there are elections or not.
Istanbul, Oct 11 (AP/UNB) — Turkey's president increased his pressure on Saudi Arabia over the disappearance of journalist Jamal Khashoggi, local media reported Thursday, while President Donald Trump expressed reservations over withholding American arm sales over the writer.
Recep Tayyip Erdogan's comments appear aimed at slowly intensifying the criticism while balancing the need to maintain the kingdom's investments in Turkey and relations on other issues.
Trump's remarks, on the other hand, came as prominent American lawmakers increasingly criticize Saudi Arabia — America's longtime security ally in the region.
Turkish officials fear Khashoggi was killed by the Saudis after walking into the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2, though they haven't offered any evidence to support that.
The kingdom calls the allegation "baseless," but has not offered any evidence to explain why Khashoggi simply walked out of the consulate and disappeared though his fiancée waited outside for him.
Erdogan was quoted by Turkish media on Thursday as telling journalists flying with him back home from a visit to Hungary that "we cannot remain silent to such an incident."
"How is it possible for a consulate, an embassy not to have security camera systems? Is it possible for the Saudi Arabian consulate where the incident occurred not to have camera systems?" Erdogan asked. "If a bird flew, if a mosquito appeared, these systems would catch them and (I believe) they (the Saudis) would have to most advanced of systems."
Meanwhile, Trump told reporters in the Oval Office that he has a call in to Khashoggi's fiancee, Hatice Cengiz, who has appealed to the president and first lady Melania Trump for help.
Trump said he had spoken with the Saudis about what he called a "bad situation," but he did not disclose details of his conversations. He also said the U.S. was working "very closely" with Turkey, "and I think we'll get to the bottom of it."
White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said national security adviser John Bolton and presidential senior adviser Jared Kushner spoke on Tuesday to Crown Prince Mohammed about Khashoggi.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo then had a follow-up call with the crown prince to reiterate the U.S. request for information and a thorough, transparent investigation.
In an interview later Wednesday with "Fox News @ Night," Trump said he wanted to find out what happened to Khashoggi but appeared reluctant to consider blocking arms sales, citing economic reasons.
"I think that would be hurting us," Trump said. "We have jobs, we have a lot of things happening in this country. We have a country that's doing probably better economically than it's ever done before."
"Part of that is what we're doing with our defense systems and everybody's wanting them," he continued. "And frankly, I think that that would be a very, very tough pill to swallow for our country. I mean, you're affecting us and, you know, they're always quick to jump that way."
On his first international trip as president, Trump visited Saudi Arabia and announced $110 billion in proposed arms sales. The administration also relies on Saudi support for its Middle East agenda to counter Iranian influence, fight extremism and support an expected peace plan between Israel and the Palestinians.
Khashoggi had gone to the consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2 to get paperwork he needed for his upcoming marriage while his Turkish fiancee waited outside.
The Washington Post reported Wednesday evening that U.S. intelligence intercepts outlined a Saudi plan to detain Khashoggi. The Post, citing anonymous U.S. officials familiar with the intelligence, said Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered an operation to lure Khashoggi from his home in Virginia, where he lived most recently, to Saudi Arabia and then detain him.
Beirut, Oct 8 (AP/UNB) — Jamal Khashoggi, the Saudi journalist who disappeared last week after a visit to his country's consulate in Turkey, was once a Saudi insider. A close aide to the kingdom's former spy chief, he had been a leading voice in the country's prominent dailies, including the main English newspapers.
Now the 59-year-old journalist and contributor to The Washington Post is feared dead, and Turkish authorities believe he was slain inside the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul, something Saudi officials vehemently deny.
The U.S.-educated Khashoggi was no stranger to controversy.
A graduate of Indiana State University, Khashoggi began his career in the 1980s, covering the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan and the decade-long war that followed for the English-language daily Saudi Gazette. He traveled extensively in the Middle East, covering Algeria's 1990s war against Islamic militants, and the Islamists rise in Sudan.
He interviewed Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan before al-Qaida was formed, then met him in Sudan in 1995. Following bin Laden's rise likely helped cement Khashoggi's ties with powerful former Saudi spy chief, Turki Al-Faisal.
Khashoggi rubbed shoulders with the Saudi royal family and supported efforts to nudge the kingdom's entrenched ultra-conservative clerics to accept reforms. He served as an editor for nine years on the Islamist-leaning al-Madina newspaper and was frequently quoted in the Western media as an expert on Islamic radicals and a reformist voice.
However, he was fired from his post as an editor at Al-Watan, a liberal paper founded after the 9/11 terror attacks, just two months after he took the job in 2003. The country's ultra-conservative clerics had pushed back against his criticism of the powerful religious police and Ibn Taymiyah, a medieval cleric viewed as the spiritual forefather of Wahhabism, the conservative interpretation of Islam that is the founding tenant of the kingdom.
Khoshaggi then served as media adviser to Al-Faisal, the former spy chief, who was at the time the ambassador to the United States.
Khashoggi returned to Al-Watan in 2007, where he continued his criticism of the clerics as the late King Abdullah implemented cautious reforms to try to shake their hold. Three years later, he was forced to resign again after a series of articles criticizing Salafism, the ultra-conservative Sunni Islam movement from which Wahhabism stems.
In 2010, Saudi billionaire Alwaleed bin Talal tapped him to lead his new TV station, touted as a rival to Qatari-funded Al-Jazeera, a staunch critic of the kingdom. But the new Al-Arab station, based in Bahrain, was shut down hours after it launched, for hosting a Bahraini opposition figure.
Khoshaggi's final break with the Saudi authorities followed the Arab Spring protests that swept through the region in 2011, shaking the power base of traditional leaders and giving rise to Islamists, only to be followed by unprecedented crackdowns on those calling for change. Siding with the opposition in Egypt and Syria, Khashoggi became a vocal critic of his own government's stance there and a defender of moderate Islamists, which Riyadh considered an existential threat.
"This was a critical period in Arab history. I had to take a position. The Arab world had waited for this moment of freedom for a thousand years," Khashoggi told a Turkey-based Syrian opposition television station last month, just days before he disappeared.
He also criticized his government's diplomatic break with Qatar and war on Yemen as well as Riyadh's policy toward its archenemy, Iran, whose influence has grown in neighboring Yemen and in Syria.
In the Sept. 23 interview, he called Saudi Arabia's foreign policy "narrow minded," and ridiculed its crackdown on political Islam, urging the kingdom to realign its policy to partner with Turkey, a close Qatar ally.
"Saudi is the mother and father of political Islam. It is based on political Islam," Khoshaggi said. "The only recipe to get Iranians out of Syria — it is not Trump or anyone else— it is through the support of the Syrian revolution. ... Saudi Arabia must return to supporting the Syrian revolution and partnering with Turkey on this."
Eight days later, on Oct. 2, he disappeared while on a visit to the consulate in Istanbul for paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancée. The consulate insists the writer left its premises alive, contradicting Turkish officials.
Before his disappearance, Khoshaggi had been living since last year in the U.S. in self-imposed exile, after he fled the kingdom amid a crackdown on intellectuals and activists who criticized policies of Crown Prince Mohammed Bin Salman.
"As of now, I would say Mohammed bin Salman is acting like Putin. He is imposing very selective justice," Khashoggi wrote in the Post last year after he fled the kingdom, saying he feared returning home.
He described "dramatic" scenes of arrest of government critics accused of receiving Qatari funding. They included a friend of Khashoggi's who had just returned from a trip to the U.S. as part of an official Saudi delegation.
"That is how breathtakingly fast you can fall out of favor with Saudi Arabia," he wrote.
Istanbul, Oct 7 (AP/UNB) — Turkish investigators believe a prominent Saudi journalist who contributed to The Washington Post was killed in "a preplanned murder" at the kingdom's consulate in Istanbul, the Post reported Saturday night, citing two anonymous officials.
Saudi authorities called the allegation "baseless."
One Turkish official also told The Associated Press that detectives' "initial assessment" was that Jamal Khashoggi was killed at the consulate, without elaborating.
Khashoggi, who has lived in self-imposed exile in the U.S. for the last year, vanished Tuesday while on a visit to the consulate. His disappearance has threatened to upend already-fraught relations between Saudi Arabia and Turkey, and it raises new questions about the kingdom and the actions of its assertive Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, whom Khashoggi wrote critically about in his columns.
"If the reports of Jamal's murder are true, it is a monstrous and unfathomable act," the Post's editorial page editor Fred Hiatt said in a statement. "Jamal was — or, as we hope, is — a committed, courageous journalist. He writes out of a sense of love for his country and deep faith in human dignity and freedom."
The Post cited one anonymous official who said investigators believe a 15-member team "came from Saudi Arabia." The official added: "It was a preplanned murder."
A Turkish official, requesting anonymity to discuss the ongoing investigation, told The Associated Press earlier Saturday night something similar.
"The initial assessment of the Turkish police is that Mr. Khashoggi has been killed at the consulate of Saudi Arabia in Istanbul," the official said. "We believe that the murder was premeditated and the body was subsequently moved out of the consulate."
Khashoggi, 59, went missing while on a visit to the consulate in Istanbul for paperwork to marry his Turkish fiancée. The consulate insists the writer left its premises, contradicting Turkish officials.
"Jamal is not dead! I don't believe he's been killed!" his fiancée Hatice wrote on Twitter late Saturday night.
Turkey's official Anadolu News Agency said Saturday that the Istanbul public prosecutor's office began a probe into Khashoggi's disappearance Tuesday, immediately after he went missing. It added the investigation over allegations that the writer was detained had "deepened," without elaborating.
The Saudi government news agency said quoted an unnamed official at the Istanbul consulate denying the "baseless allegations" and expressing doubt they came from Turkish officials with knowledge of the investigation.
The official said Saudi Arabia had sent a team of investigators to help look into the case.
Khashoggi is a longtime Saudi journalist, foreign correspondent, editor and columnist whose work has been controversial in the past in the ultraconservative Sunni kingdom. He went into self-imposed exile in the United States following the ascension of Prince Mohammed, now next in line to succeed his father, the 82-year-old King Salman.
As a contributor to the Post, Khashoggi has written extensively about Saudi Arabia, including criticizing its war in Yemen, its recent diplomatic spat with Canada and its arrest of women's rights activists after the lifting of a ban on women driving. All those issues have been viewed as being pushed by Prince Mohammed, who similarly has led roundups of activists, businessmen and others in the kingdom.
"With young Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman's rise to power, he promised an embrace of social and economic reform," Khashoggi wrote in his first column for the Post. "But all I see now is the recent wave of arrests."
Khashoggi was known for his interviews and travels with Osama bin Laden between 1987 and 1995, including in Afghanistan, where he wrote about the battle against the Soviet occupation. In the early 1990s, he tried to persuade bin Laden to reconcile with the Saudi royal family and return home from his base in Sudan, but the al-Qaida leader refused.
Khashoggi maintained ties with Saudi elites, including those in its intelligence apparatus, and launched a satellite news channel, Al-Arab, from Bahrain in 2015 with the backing of Saudi billionaire Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The channel was on air for less than 11 hours before it was shut down. Its billionaire backer was detained in the Ritz Carlton roundup overseen by Prince Mohammed in 2017.
The dispute over Khashoggi's disappearance also threatens to reopen rifts between Ankara and Riyadh. Turkey has supported Qatar amid a yearlong boycott by Bahrain, Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates over a political dispute. Turkey's support of political Islamists, like the Muslim Brotherhood, also angers leaders in Riyadh and Abu Dhabi, which label the organization a "terrorist group" threatening their hereditarily ruled nations.
Press freedom groups have decried Khashoggi's disappearance. U.S. Sen. Chris Murphy, D-Connecticut, who sits on the Senate's Committee on Foreign Affairs, expressed shock over the news.
"If this is true — that the Saudis lured a U.S. resident into their consulate and murdered him — it should represent a fundamental break in our relationship with Saudi Arabia," Murphy wrote on Twitter.
Tehran, Oct 4 (AP/UNB) — Iran's supreme leader says the Islamic Republic will "slap" the United States by defeating new American sanctions targeting the nation.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei made the comments Thursday in a speech in Tehran before thousands of members of the Basij, an all-volunteer force under Iran's paramilitary Revolutionary Guard.
Khamenei says he heard President Donald Trump tell European leaders that the Islamic Republic would collapse in the coming months over American sanctions, something he dismissed. The sanctions have hurt Iran's already ailing economy and have fueled the depreciation of its rial currency.
Khamenei also warned that media controlled by foreign enemies could be as dangerous as "chemical weapons."
Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Guard's expeditionary Quds Force, attended the speech with the head of the Guard, Gen. Mohammad Ali Jafari.