Jerusalem, Apr 10 (AP/UNB)— Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be headed toward a historic fifth term as Israel's prime minister on Wednesday, with close-to-complete unofficial election results giving his right-wing Likud and other nationalist and religious parties a solid majority in parliament.
The outcome affirmed Israel's continued tilt to the right and further dimmed hopes of a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Re-election will also give Netanyahu an important boost as he braces for the likelihood of criminal charges in a series of corruption scandals.
With 97.4% of the vote counted, Likud and its traditional political allies were in command of a 65-55 majority in parliament. A couple of small parties were still teetering along the electoral threshold and fighting for their survival, so the final makeup of the next parliament has yet to be decided. Final results were expected Thursday.
Two of his potential allies, hawkish former Defense Minister Avigdor Lieberman and economic-centric Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon, have yet to formally confirm they would sit with Netanyahu and could emerge as wildcards. In any case, the country now faces what could be weeks of political negotiations over the composition of a ruling coalition.
But under nearly every scenario, Netanyahu was the big winner.
The long-time Israeli leader had fought a tight, ugly race against centrist ex-military chief Benny Gantz, whose nascent Blue and White party emerged as a viable alternative to Netanyahu's decade in power. The near-final results showed it deadlocked with Likud at 35 seats. But most of its support seems to have come at the expense of the venerable Labor and leftist Meretz parties, who both earned historic lows in Tuesday's election.
Together with his current Jewish ultra-Orthodox and nationalist partners, Netanyahu seemed to have a clear path toward building a coalition government that has a majority in the 120-seat parliament.
With a victory, Netanyahu would capture a fourth consecutive term and fifth overall, which this summer will make him Israel's longest-ever serving leader, surpassing founding father David Ben-Gurion.
"It's a night of tremendous victory," Netanyahu told supporters early Wednesday. "I was very moved that the nation of Israel once again entrusted me for the fifth time, and with an even greater trust."
He said he had already begun talking to fellow right wing and religious parties about forming a new coalition.
"I want to make it clear, it will be a right-wing government, but I intend to be the prime minister of all Israeli citizens, right or left, Jews and non-Jews alike," he said.
Netanyahu's message of unity was a sharp contrast from his campaign theme in which he accused Gantz of conspiring with Arab parties to topple him. Arab leaders accused Netanyahu of demonizing the country's Arab community, which is about 20 percent of the population.
His attacks on the Arab sector fueled calls for a boycott and appeared to result in relatively low turnout by Arab voters.
Overnight, with fewer of the votes counted, Blue and White still appeared to be ahead by one seat and Gantz projected optimism that he would be tasked with building a coalition. But by morning, he seemed to have realized his dream of becoming prime minister was lost, even if he didn't formally concede defeat.
"Though the skies appear gloomy, nothing is final. There could be changes and some political options could open up," he wrote to his supporters. "Our voters asked for hope and we gave it to them. They wanted a different way and we outlined it."
Though the Palestinian issue was rarely mentioned in the raucous campaign, Netanyahu had in the final stretch pledged for the first time to annex parts of the occupied West Bank in a desperate bid to rally his right-wing base. Netanyahu has welched on election eve promises before, but should he follow through on this one, it would mark a dramatic development and potentially wipe out the already diminishing hope for Palestinian statehood.
An aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the outcome of the election raised Palestinian fears about an Israeli annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank. Ahmed Majdalani said Palestinians will seek the help of the international community to try to block any such plans. He said that the outcome of the election means a boost for what he called the "extreme right-wing camp" in Israeli politics.
Hanan Ashrawi, a senior Palestinian official, said Israel chose to entrench "the status quo of oppression, occupation, annexation and dispossession."
The 69-year-old Netanyahu has been the dominant force in Israeli politics for the past two decades and its face to the world. His campaign has focused heavily on his friendship with President Donald Trump and his success in cultivating new allies, such as China, India and Brazil.
But his corruption scandals created some voter fatigue. Along with two other former military chiefs on his ticket, Gantz was able to challenge Netanyahu on security issues, normally the prime minister's strong suit, while also taking aim at the prime minister's alleged ethical lapses.
Israel's attorney general has recommended charging Netanyahu with bribery, breach of trust and fraud in three cases and a potential fourth case emerged during the campaign. He will only decide on indicting Netanyahu after a legally mandated hearing. Legal experts expect at least some charges to be filed, which could set the stage for a short term in office for Netanyahu and another round of elections soon.
"This is a clear beginning of Netanyahu's fifth term, but his fifth term might end up being his shortest one", says Reuven Hazan, a political scientist from Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "In another year, we might be in a battle for either leadership of the Likud or another election."
Tehran, Apr 9 (AP/UNB) — Chanting "Death to America," Iranian lawmakers convened an open session of parliament Tuesday following the White House's decision to designate Iran's elite paramilitary Revolutionary Guard a foreign terrorist organization.
The U.S. move was an unprecedented declaration against a foreign government, one that could prompt retaliation and make it harder for Americans to work with allies in the region.
Iran's Supreme National Security Council immediately responded by designating the U.S. Central Command, also known as CENTCOM, and all its forces as terrorist, and labeling the U.S. a "supporter of terrorism."
It was the first time the United States has designated an entity of another government as a terrorist organization, placing a group with vast economic resources that answers only to Iran's supreme leader in the same category as al-Qaida and the Islamic State group.
In Tehran, the semi-official Fars news agency said many of the lawmakers wore the uniform of the guard in a show of support for the force as they convened for a parliament session marking the National Day of the Revolutionary Guard, which follows the lunar calendar. This year it coincides with the April 9 holiday known as Nuclear Day.
Parliament Speaker Ali Larijani denounced the U.S. decision as the "climax of stupidity and ignorance." Supreme National Security Council's spokesman, Keivan Khosravi, said that going forward, "any unusual move by American forces in the region will be perceived as the behavior by a terrorist group." He did not elaborate.
Iranian newspapers carried reports of the U.S. move along with bellicose commentary on their front pages.
The Guard-affiliated Javan daily said any attack on Revolutionary Guard bases and facilities will be "recognized as a right" for Iran to respond. The hard-line Kayhan newspaper said it gave Iranians "permission" to kill American military personnel.
State-owned IRAN daily went a step further, saying the U.S. move was a "designation of the entire Iranian nation" as terrorist.
The pro-reform Shargh daily described it as "the last card" of President Donald Trump against Iran.Trump last year pulled America out of the 2015 nuclear deal between Iran and world powers and re-imposed sanctions on the country, mainly targeting Iran's vital oil sector.
Marking Iran's Nuclear Day, President Hassan Rouhani on Tuesday unveiled dozens of unspecified "achievements" in nuclear technology, something he does every year. This time he touted that beginning of an installation of a chain of advanced centrifuges at the uranium enrichment facility in the central town of Natanz as well as an addition at the Fordo underground facility.
On Monday, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the designation of the Revolutionary Guard is intended to increase pressure on Iran, isolating it further and diverting some of the financial resources it uses to fund terrorism and militant activity in the Middle East and beyond.
But, in addition to the potential for Iranian retaliation, it complicates a delicate balance for U.S. personnel in at least two key countries— Iraq and Lebanon. Iraq has prominent Iranian-affiliated Shiite militias and its government has strong ties to Iran. In Lebanon, the Iran-backed Hezbollah militant group is in parliament and the government.
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.