Jerusalem, Apr 9 (AP/UNB) — Israeli voters began casting ballots Tuesday in parliamentary elections that will determine whether longtime Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu remains in office after a decade in power.
Clouded by a series of looming corruption indictments, Netanyahu is seeking a fourth consecutive and a fifth overall term in office, which would make him Israel's longest-ever serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.
He faces a stiff challenge from retired military chief Benny Gantz, whose Blue and White party has inched ahead of Netanyahu's Likud in polls. Netanyahu still appears to have the best chance of forming a coalition, though, with a smattering of small nationalist parties backing him. Gantz cast his ballot in his hometown of Rosh Haayin in central Israel alongside his wife, Revital, and called on all Israelis to get out and vote, saying they should "take responsibility" for their democracy.
"Go to vote. Choose whoever you believe in. Respect each other and let us all wake up for a new dawn, a new history," he said.
The election has emerged as a referendum on Netanyahu and his 13 years overall in power, with the existential questions facing Israel rarely being discussed in the campaign. The 69-year-old prime minister has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for the past two decades and its face to the world.
But his various corruption scandals have created some voter fatigue, and in recent days he's vowed to annex Jewish West Bank settlements if re-elected — a prospect that could doom the already slim hopes of establishing a Palestinian state alongside Israel, which Netanyahu has previously wavered on.
"It's about time for a change," said Barry Rifkin, a Jerusalem resident.
Polling stations opened at 7 a.m., with exit polls expected at the end of the voting day, at 10 p.m. Some 6.4 million eligible voters will be able to cast their ballots at more than 10,000 stations. Some 40 parties are running, but no more than a dozen are expected to make it into parliament. Election day in Israel is a national holiday, with turnout expected to be high in good weather.
Official results will begin streaming in early Wednesday, but it may take far longer for a final verdict to come through, given the fragmented state of Israeli politics.
As many as a half-dozen parties are teetering along the threshold for entering the Knesset, or parliament. A failure by any of these parties to get the required 3.25 percent of total votes cast could have a dramatic impact on who ultimately forms the next coalition. The Israeli government needs a parliamentary majority to rule, and since no party has ever earned more than half of the 120 seats in the Knesset, a coalition is required.
Netanyahu and Gantz have ruled out sitting together in government, so the next prime minister will likely come down to how many supporters each candidate can recruit.
Israel's president, Reuven Rivlin, could play an important role. Though largely a ceremonial post, the president is responsible for choosing the candidate with the best chance of building a stable coalition government as prime minister.
In the campaign's final days, Netanyahu has veered to the right and embarked on a media blitz in which he portrays himself as the underdog and frantically warns that "the right-wing government is in danger."
His nationalist allies, however, see the move as a repeat of his 2015 election tactic to draw away their voters as he did four years ago when on election day, he warned of Arabs turning out in "droves." The scare tactics were seen as helping him seal a come-from-behind victory.
Arab turnout will be a major issue this time as well. Netanyahu's campaign against Arab politicians, together with the new alliance with anti-Arab extremists and the passage of last year's contentious nation-state law, which enshrined Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people alone, have deepened calls for a ballot boycott in Arab communities.
But some hope these blows will have the opposite effect, fueling enough frustration to drive up the Arab participation rate, which is typically lower than that of Israeli Jews. A big Arab turnout could push smaller right-wing parties into the margins and even threaten Netanyahu's long rule.
The Palestinian issue has been largely sidelined in the election campaign that has been long on scandal and short on substance. But in a reminder, the military says it imposed a 24-hour closure on the West Bank and Gaza throughout election day, based on its security assessments.
Even if he is re-elected, Netanyahu could have a difficult time governing. Some of his allies have indicated they will no longer back him if formal charges are filed.
Israel's attorney general has recommended indicting him on bribery and breach of trust charges in three separate cases. Rivals have also begun to question a deal in which Netanyahu reportedly earned $4 million on a German submarine sale to Egypt by owning shares in one of the German manufacturer's suppliers.
Netanyahu denies any wrongdoing and claims the accusations are part of a liberal media's orchestrated witch hunt against him.
Netanyahu has generated much of his popularity from projecting a tough image in the face of Iran's rising power and for keeping Israel safe and prosperous in a hostile region.
But in Gantz he has encountered the rare opponent who can match his security credentials. Along with two other former military chiefs on his ticket, Gantz has attacked Netanyahu for failing to halt rocket fire from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. The telegenic Gantz, who has been vague on key policy fronts, has presented himself as a clean, scandal-free alternative to Netanyahu and has vowed to heal the rifts the longtime leader has created in Israeli society.
Dhaka, Apr 5 (UNB) - Saudi Arabia has detained at least seven people, including two dual US-Saudi citizens and a pregnant woman, a London-based rights group said on Friday.
Those arrested are not said to be frontline activists, but writers and bloggers who have discussed reform, reports BBC.
They had already been under a travel ban since February, rights group ALQST says.
The latest arrests come amid concern at the fate of activists already in prison after pushing for women's rights.
Ten women's rights campaigners were put on trial last month following a crackdown beginning in 2018. Three were released last week on bail.
All those named above are writers and social media bloggers previously engaged in public discourse on reforms. We believe their arrests have been orchestrated since February and are linked to their support for the women activists’ families.#StandWithSaudiHeroes— ALQST (@ALQST_ORG) April 5, 2019
That case has drawn international criticism, with 36 states demanding their release at the UN Human Rights Council.
However, Saudi authorities have not commented on the latest arrests.
They include at least six men and one woman, according to ALQST. Some reports speak of eight arrests.
Among them is Khadijah al-Harbi, a pregnant feminist writer, and US-Saudi citizen Salah al-Haidar, whose mother was one of the activists recently freed.
Al-Haidar has a family home in Virginia but lives with his wife and child in Saudi Arabia, the Associated Press reports.
The other US-Saudi national arrested was reportedly Badr al-Ibrahim - a writer and doctor.
Scrutiny of Saudi Arabia's human rights record has intensified since the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul last October.
Turkish investigators and others have pointed the finger at Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, seen as the real power behind the throne, alleging he orchestrated the murder.
But the Saudi authorities deny he was involved and blame a "rogue" operation. Eleven people went on trial in January.
The arrests of activists and writers are seen as an attempt to shut down criticism of the crown prince, who has himself enacted some reforms.
The World Economic Forum ranked Saudi Arabia number 141 out of 149 countries around the world for gender equality in 2018.
Saudi women still cannot travel, get married or open a bank account without a male guardian's permission.
Earlier this year, the case of a Saudi woman fleeing her family abroad gained high-profile attention.
Rahaf al-Qunun, 18, barricaded herself in a Bangkok hotel room after immigration officials tried to return her.
Jerusalem, Apr 4 (AP/UNB) — Israelis head to the polls on Tuesday to vote in the country's 21st parliamentary elections. Over 6.3 million eligible voters will cast ballots in an election largely seen as a referendum on long-seated Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Here is a closer look at what to expect:
Netanyahu is seeking his fourth consecutive term and fifth overall, including an earlier stint in the 1990s. With another victory, Netanyahu will secure a place in history later this year as the longest-serving prime minister, surpassing Israel's founding father David Ben-Gurion. He faces tough opposition from his former army chief of staff, Benny Gantz, whose new Blue and White party seeks to replace Netanyahu's long-dominant Likud.
'CORRUPTION' VS. 'INEXPERIENCE'
The three-month campaign has focused much more on personalities than issues. Netanyahu has tried to portray his opponent as weak and inexperienced. Gantz has tried to capitalize on a series of corruption investigations. The attorney general has recommended bribery and breach of trust charges against Netanyahu, who has denied any wrongdoing.
WIDE RANGE OF PARTIES
All 120 seats in the Knesset, Israel's parliament, are up for grabs. A total of over 40 parties will compete, including large front-runners, ultra-Orthodox religious parties, Arab factions and fringe movements like the Pirate and Simply Love parties.
Only a handful are expected to garner the 3.25% of the vote necessary to break the electoral threshold and earn the minimum four seats in parliament. Ten parties made up the last Knesset.
Israeli elections tend to have robust turnout. Election day is a national holiday, a measure aimed at encouraging participation. The last elections, in 2015, saw a 72% voter turnout, the highest percentage since 1999, but below the 77% average since Israel first went to the polls in 1949, a year after independence.
Arab voters, who make up 20 percent of the electorate, are threatening to boycott the election, accusing Netanyahu of inciting against them. That could have the unintended effect of helping the prime minister win a new term.
WINNER TAKE ... MAYBE NOTHING
No Israeli party has ever won an outright majority, which forces the larger parties to form blocs with smaller allies.
After the election, Israel's president will meet with party heads and select the party he believes is most capable of forming a coalition. That party, usually but not always the largest faction, then has four weeks to form a coalition. A new government will be given a four-year term, but disagreements between coalition parties often result in early elections.
Should neither a right-wing nor left-wing bloc be able to form a coalition, Israel could face the prospect of a second election in November.
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.