Jerusalem, May 30 (AP/UNB) — Israel's parliament voted to dissolve itself early Thursday, sending the country to an unprecedented second snap election this year as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu failed to form a governing coalition before a midnight deadline.
The dramatic vote, less than two months after parliamentary elections, marked a setback for Netanyahu and sent the longtime leader's future into turmoil.
Netanyahu, who has led Israel for the past decade, had appeared to capture a fourth consecutive term in the April 9 election. But infighting among his allies, and disagreements over proposed bills to protect Netanyahu from prosecution stymied his efforts to put together a majority coalition.
Rather than concede that task to one of his rivals, Netanyahu's Likud party advanced a bill to dissolve parliament and send the country to the polls for a second time this year.
"I didn't spare any effort to avoid unnecessary elections," Netanyahu said after the vote, lashing out at an ally-turned-rival, Avigdor Lieberman, who refused the prime minister's offers to join the government.
He said the country was being forced to hold "unnecessary, wasteful elections because the people had their say. They didn't have their say enough for what Mr. Lieberman wants."
Had the deadline passed without the vote, Israel's president would have given another lawmaker, most likely opposition leader Benny Gantz, an opportunity to put together a coalition.
After the vote, Gantz angrily accused Netanyahu of choosing self-preservation over allowing the country's political process to run its course.
Gantz said that Netanyahu opted for "three crazy months" of a new campaign and millions of wasted dollars over new elections because he is "legally incapacitated" by looming indictments. "There is no other reason," Gantz said.
The country now plunges into a new election campaign that will last at least three months under Israeli law. With much of the country on vacation in late August, a tentative date of Sept. 17 was set.
The campaign looks to complicate Netanyahu's precarious legal standing. Israel's attorney general has recommended pressing criminal charges against him in three separate corruption cases, pending a hearing scheduled for October.
Even if Netanyahu wins the election, it is unlikely he will be able to form a government and lock down the required political support for an immunity deal before an expected indictment. That would force him to stand trial and put heavy pressure on him to step aside.
The political uncertainty could also spell trouble for the White House's Mideast peace efforts. The U.S. has scheduled a conference next month in Bahrain to unveil what it says is the first phase of its peace plan, an initiative aimed at drawing investment into the Palestinian territories.
With the Palestinians, who accuse the U.S. of being unfairly biased toward Israel, opposed to the plan, and Netanyahu preoccupied with re-election, it remains unclear how the Americans will be able to proceed. President Donald Trump's top Mideast adviser, son-in-law Jared Kushner, was in Israel and scheduled to meet with Netanyahu on Thursday.
That Netanyahu struggled to secure a majority coalition in the 120-seat parliament was a shocking turn of events for the country's dominating political figure.
In the April 9 vote, Likud and its hardline nationalist and religious parties captured a majority of 65 seats.
The immediate cause of the crisis was his dispute with Lieberman, a former aide who leads the small Yisrael Beitenu faction.
The men had clashed over Lieberman's demand to subject ultra-Orthodox religious males to the military draft, which is compulsory for most Jewish males. Without Lieberman's five Knesset seats, Netanyahu had no parliamentary majority.
But the deeper issue is connected to Netanyahu's legal troubles. Facing a likely indictment, he had pushed his coalition partners to pass legislation that would grant him immunity and curb the powers of the country's Supreme Court.
Opposition parties strongly oppose granting Netanyahu immunity, robbing him of any alternatives to Lieberman as he tried to form a coalition.
For the past two decades, Lieberman has alternated between being a close ally and a thorn in the side of his former boss. He has held a number of senior Cabinet posts, including defense minister and foreign minister.
Lieberman's base of support is fellow immigrants from the former Soviet Union, and he takes a hard line toward the Palestinians but also is staunchly secular.
He has demanded that the parliament pass pending legislation that requires young ultra-Orthodox men to be drafted into the military. Years of wide exemptions for religious men have generated resentment among the rest of Jewish Israelis, who are required to serve.
"I am not against the ultra-Orthodox community. I am for the state of Israel. I am for a Jewish state but against a Halachic state," Lieberman wrote on Facebook early Wednesday, using a term that refers to a Jewish state governed by Jewish law.
The ultra-Orthodox parties consider conscription a taboo, fearing that military service will lead to immersion in secularism, and insist the exemptions should stay in place. Netanyahu, dependent on the parties' political support, says they have compromised enough and refuses to press them further.
Netanyahu maintained contacts with Lieberman and other parties in hopes of forging a deal as a parliamentary debate took place. Many of the Likud speakers lashed out at Lieberman, accusing him of forcing an unnecessary election.
But as a parliamentary debate stretched toward midnight, it became clear there would be no compromise.
A bitter Netanyahu claimed after the vote that Lieberman "had no intention" to compromise and made unrealistic demands. "He is dragging the entire country for another half a year of elections," he said.
Jerusalem, May 29 (AP/UNB)— Israel's raucous political world is on edge, counting down to a midnight deadline to see whether a new government will be formed or whether there will be an unpresented second election of the year.
Backchannel negotiations are continuing to try and find a compromise that will allow Avigdor Lieberman's Yisrael Beiteinu faction to join Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing coalition.
Without him, Netanyahu has no parliamentary majority and won't be able to form a government.
Netanyahu and Lieberman are engaged in a high-stakes showdown and neither side appears ready to blink.
The crisis ostensibly revolves around Lieberman's demand that current legislation mandating young ultra-Orthodox men be drafted into the military, like most other Jewish males, run its course. Netanyahu, dependent on the resistant ultra-Orthodox parties, is refusing to press them.
Damascus, May 28 (AP/UNB) — Syria said an Israeli attack against a military post in the country's south on Monday killed a soldier and injured another. Israel, in a rare statement acknowledging firing into Syria, said it was responding to an anti-aircraft fire from Syria against one of its combat planes.
The back-to-back statements come amid heightened regional tension over Iran's role in Syria and other parts of the Middle East. They also follow a number of reported Israeli strikes on Syria in the past ten days, according to state run media.
Israel does not usually comment on reports concerning its strikes in neighboring Syria, though it has recently acknowledged striking Iranian targets there.
Syrian state TV al-Ikhbariya quoted a military official saying that the Israeli attack came shortly after 2100 local time (1800GMT) and targeted a military outpost east of Khan Arnabeh, a town in Quneitra on the edge of the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. An earlier statement on state media said one military vehicle was also damaged when a rocket landed in Tal al-Shaar in Quneitra.
Israel said it was responding after an anti-aircraft fire from Syria targeted one of its combat planes in Israeli airspace.
A statement from the Israeli army said that earlier Monday a Syrian anti-aircraft system fired at one of its aircraft "as it was carrying out a routine flight in Israel. The projectile landed in Syrian territory. In response, we targeted the Syrian launcher that was responsible for firing it."
The Israeli military "sees any threat against its aircraft with great severity and takes measures to defend them."
Israel's prime minister said in statement shortly afterward that the Syrian army "tried to harm an Israeli plane, it didn't succeed."
"Our policy is clear — we are not prepared to tolerate any aggression against us, we will retaliate against it forcefully and decisively," the statement said.
Syrian media had reported earlier this month two incidents in which Israeli strikes hit inside southern Syria.
Iran, May 26 (AP/UNB) — Iran's president is suggesting the Islamic Republic could hold a public referendum over the country's nuclear program amid tensions with the United States.
The state-run IRNA news agency reported Hassan Rouhani made the comment late on Saturday.
Rouhani says he previously suggested a referendum to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei in 2004, when he was a senior nuclear negotiator.
Such a referendum could provide political cover for the Iranian government if it chooses to increase its enrichment of uranium, prohibited under the 2015 deal with world powers.
President Donald Trump pulled the U.S. out of the deal last year. In recent weeks, tensions between the U.S. and Iran have risen over America deploying an aircraft carrier and B-52 bombers to the region over a still-unexplained threat it perceives from Tehran.
Tehran, May 21 (AP/UNB) — Iran quadrupled its uranium-enrichment production capacity amid tensions with the U.S. over Tehran's atomic program, nuclear officials said Monday, just after President Donald Trump and Iran's foreign minister traded threats and taunts on Twitter.
Iranian officials made a point to stress that the uranium would be enriched only to the 3.67% limit set under the 2015 nuclear deal with world powers, making it usable for a power plant but far below what's needed for an atomic weapon.
But by increasing production, Iran soon will exceed the stockpile limitations set by the accord. Tehran has set a July 7 deadline for Europe to set new terms for the deal, or it will enrich closer to weapons-grade levels in a Middle East already on edge. The Trump administration has deployed bombers and an aircraft carrier to the region over still-unspecified threats from Iran.
Already this month, officials in the United Arab Emirates alleged that four oil tankers were sabotaged; Yemeni rebels allied with Iran launched a drone attack on an oil pipeline in Saudi Arabia; and U.S. diplomats relayed a warning that commercial airlines could be misidentified by Iran and attacked, something dismissed by Tehran.
A rocket landed Sunday near the U.S. Embassy in the Green Zone of Iraq's capital of Baghdad, days after nonessential U.S. staff were ordered to evacuate from diplomatic posts in the country. No one was reported injured. Iraqi military spokesman Brig. Gen. Yahya Rasoul told The Associated Press that the rocket was believed to have been fired from eastern Baghdad, an area home to Iran-backed Shiite militias.
The Iranian enrichment announcement came after local journalists traveled to Natanz in central Iran, the country's underground enrichment facility. There, an unidentified nuclear scientist gave a statement with a surgical cap and a mask covering most of his face. No one explained his choice of outfit, although Israel is suspected of targeting Iranian nuclear scientists.
The state-run IRNA news agency later quoted Behrouz Kamalvandi, the spokesman of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, as acknowledging that capacity had been quadrupled. He said Iran took this step because the U.S. had ended a program allowing it to exchange enriched uranium to Russia for unprocessed yellowcake uranium, as well as ending the sale of heavy water to Oman. Heavy water helps cool reactors producing plutonium that can be used in nuclear weapons.
Kamalvandi said Iran had informed the International Atomic Energy Agency of the development. The Vienna-based U.N. nuclear watchdog did not respond to a request for comment. Tehran long has insisted it does not seek nuclear weapons, though the West fears its program could allow it to build them.
Before Iran's announcement, Trump tweeted: "If Iran wants to fight, that will be the official end of Iran. Never threaten the United States again!"
Trump's remarks reflect what has been a strategy of alternating tough talk with more conciliatory statements he says is aimed at keeping Iran guessing at the administration's intentions. He also has said he hopes Iran calls him and engages in negotiations.
He described his approach in a speech Friday, saying, "It's probably a good thing because they're saying, 'Man, I don't know where these people are coming from,' right?"
But while Trump's approach of flattery and threats has become a hallmark of his foreign policy, the risks have only grown in dealing with Iran, where mistrust between Tehran and Washington stretch four decades. While both sides say they don't seek war, many worry any miscalculation could spiral out of control.
Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif soon responded by tweeting that Trump had been "goaded" into "genocidal taunts." Zarif referenced both Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan as two historical leaders that Persia outlasted.
"Iranians have stood tall for a millennia while aggressors all gone," he wrote. "Try respect - it works!"
Zarif also used the hashtag #NeverThreatenAnIranian, a reference to a comment he made during intense negotiations for the 2016 nuclear accord.
Trump campaigned on pulling the U.S. from the deal, which saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions. Since Trump withdrew America a year ago from the pact, the U.S. has re-imposed previous sanctions and come up with new ones, as well as warning other nations they would be subject to sanctions as well if they import Iranian oil.
British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told journalists in Geneva that Iran should not doubt the U.S. resolve, warning that "if American interests are attacked, they will retaliate."
"We want the situation to de-escalate because this is a part of the world where things can get triggered accidentally," Hunt said.
Meanwhile, Oman's minister of state for foreign affairs made a previously unannounced visit Monday to Tehran, seeing Zarif, the state-run IRNA news agency said. The visit by Yusuf bin Alawi comes after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called Oman's Sultan Qaboos bin Said last week. Oman long has served as a Western backchannel to Tehran and the sultanate hosted the secret talks between the U.S. and Iran that laid the groundwork for the nuclear deal negotiations.
In Saudi Arabia, the kingdom's military intercepted two missiles fired by the Iranian-allied Houthi rebels in neighboring Yemen. The missiles were intercepted over the city of Taif and the Red Sea port city of Jiddah, the Saudi-owned satellite channel Al-Arabiya reported, citing witnesses. The Saudi Embassy in Washington later confirmed the interceptions.
Hundreds of rockets, mortar rounds and ballistic missiles have been fired into the kingdom by the rebels since a Saudi-led coalition declared war on the Houthis in March 2015 to support Yemen's internationally recognized government.
The Houthis' Al-Masirah satellite news channel denied the rebels had any involvement with this round of rocket fire.
Between the two targeted cities is Mecca, home to the cube-shaped Kaaba toward which Muslims pray. Many pilgrims are in the holy city for Ramadan.
Early Tuesday, Saudi Arabia said the Houthis targeted civilian infrastructure in the kingdom's border city of Najran, without elaborating. The Houthis did not immediately acknowledge such an attack.