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Israel offers economic help to Palestinians, but not peace talks
Thomas Grove, Wall Street Journal
Wednesday February 9 2022
Israel is rushing to prop up the Palestinian Authority, promising loans, allowing infrastructure upgrades and holding high-level talks with West Bank leaders for the first time in years, in a bid to stem the growing influence of Hamas and keep a lid on unrest. Together, the piecemeal initiatives amount to a new period of Palestinian engagement by an Israeli centrist coalition government attempting a reset on West Bank policies after a decade of frayed relations under former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has said the renewed dialogue isn’t meant to lay a foundation for peace talks, which were last held in 2014. Rather, Israeli officials say the efforts are designed to ease severe economic pain in the West Bank and ensure the survival of the Palestinian Authority, which is unpopular with its constituents but provides essential security assistance to Israel.
Defence Minister Benny Gantz — who has met twice with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, once in the West Bank and another time at his home in Israel — said last week that Israel’s security was at the heart of his meetings. "Ties with the Palestinian Authority strengthen the moderates and weaken our enemies, led by Hamas", he told the Knesset.
Israel sees a major threat in the growing West Bank popularity of Hamas, the militant group that rules the Gaza Strip and has been designated a terrorist organisation by the US and Israel. Polls show Palestinian support for Hamas has grown since a conflict last May with Israel because it struck the country’s heartland with rockets, even though hundreds of Gazans died.
High-level discussions between Israeli officials and the PA hadn’t occurred for more than a decade under Mr Netanyahu, who publicly threatened to annex West Bank territory for Israel. Israeli officials say there is an urgency to getting relations between Israeli government and Palestinian authorities back on track, particularly given the West Bank’s dire economic situation and Hamas’s gains.
On Sunday, Mr Abbas said his government was engaging with Israel to ease problems that had accumulated in recent years but wanted greater concessions from Israel. "This has not and will not be a substitute for our demands for a political solution in accordance with international resolutions to end the occupation", said Mr Abbas, speaking at a gathering of top Palestinian leaders.
The Palestinian engagement has drawn criticism from Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party, which said the moves would compromise Israel’s security. Others say the PA has delegitimised itself by paying money to the families of those who wind up in Israeli jails — payments the Palestinians say are a social safety net for families who have lost their breadwinners.
An important Israeli initiative for the West Bank has been the issue or renewal of several thousand identity cards for Palestinians. With military checkpoints dotting most major roads, Israeli-approved ID cards are essential for Palestinians to travel anywhere in the country.
Israel has permitted Palestinian cellular providers to upgrade their networks to 4G. It also promised a loan of 500m shekels ($AU220m) to make up for tax revenues Israel takes away from the PA for the money it gives the family members of those in Israeli jails.
The Israelis’ posture is largely endorsed by the Biden administration, echoing parts of the Trump administration’s focus on economic progress for Palestinians over a separate Arab state. A senior State Department official said longstanding US policy seeking a Palestinian state hadn’t changed, "but as making progress towards that goal is difficult at this time, it is vital that we support tangible, practical steps toward improving Palestinian lives".
Neither Israelis nor Palestinians are eager for the resumption of US-led peace talks. Palestinians have lost hope that Washington’s involvement helps their cause, while Israelis have preferred to address security concerns as they arise, a policy described as "mowing the grass", instead of addressing overarching political solutions.
For Israel, the initiatives are aimed at helping rein in West Bank discontent, which has boiled over with attacks on Israelis in Jerusalem as well as an uptick in armed confrontations between Israeli settlers and Palestinians.
"In the West Bank we have a real interest in the Palestinian Authority remaining the prominent power", said Michael Milshtein, of the Palestinian Studies Forum at Tel Aviv University. "We need to talk economics with the Palestinians because we need stability. But how long things remain stable without peace talks and addressing politics is a different question".
Polling shows the PA has regained considerable support after its popularity bottomed when corruption allegations, bad services and the issue of alleged security co-operation with Israel were compounded by its decision to cancel elections last April.
The West Bank hasn’t held elections since 2006.
Shuttle diplomacy as Blinken visits Israel for Mid-East talks
Paul Handley, AFP
Monday March 28 2022
Jerusalem: US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is in Israel for a "historic" meeting with Arab countries that have normalised relations with the Jewish state in the US-brokered Abraham Accords. Mr Blinken was to meet his counterparts from Israel, Morocco, Egypt, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates in the Negev Desert on Sunday and Monday to mark the shift in Arab-Israeli relations that began in late 2020.
Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid described it as a "historic summit".
Mr Blinken’s visit, the first stop in a trip that will also take him to the West Bank, Algeria and Morocco — where he will hold talks with the UAE’s de facto ruler, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed — is focused in part on building support for Ukraine after the Russian invasion.
US officials say two other key issues are on the agenda for the trip: quelling the Jewish state’s worries about a looming nuclear deal with Iran, and discussing the potential global wheat shortage caused by the Ukraine war that could deal a heavy blow to the import-dependent Middle East.
"We know this pain is keenly felt in the Middle East and North Africa, where most countries import at least half of their wheat", much of it from Ukraine, State Department Acting Assistant Secretary Yael Lempert said. The war "will only continue to increase the price of basic staples like bread in the region, taking money from the pockets of the hardest working and most vulnerable families", she said.
The trip comes as the US and Iran are in the final stages of negotiating a revival of the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, which aimed to prevent Tehran from developing a nuclear weapons capacity. The administration of former US president Donald Trump quit the deal unilaterally in 2018 and reimposed punishing economic sanctions, and Iran has since resumed many of its sensitive nuclear activities.
The conclusion of a renewed accord could come in a matter of "days", EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell, who is co-ordinating talks with Tehran, said on Saturday. "We are very close but there are still some issues pending", Mr Borrell said. US officials say reaching a deal hinges on one or two key issues, but that Tehran has to make "difficult choices" if it wants an agreement.
But the possible deal worries Israel and US allies in the Gulf, who see Iran as a menace. Last month Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he was "deeply troubled" by the prospect of a new nuclear deal, which Israel fears would not prevent Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.
Ahead of the talks, Mr Bennett sent a rare message to regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia, expressing "sorrow" over a wave of attacks by Iran-backed Yemeni rebels on Friday that hit targets including an oil plant near the Formula One race in Jeddah. "This attack is further proof that Iran’s regional aggression knows no bounds", Mr Bennett tweeted.
Mr Blinken will also meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. Palestinians remain concerned that they are being forgotten in the US-backed push for Arab governments to boost relations with Israel and focus on Iran as their principal threat.
The Trump administration slashed support for the Palestinians and closed the US consulate in Jerusalem dedicated to Palestinian relations. Joe Biden promised to reopen the consulate, but a year into his administration that move has not come.
Israel-Arab summit ‘a clear signal to arch enemy Iran’
Paul Handley, AFP
Wednesday March 30 2022
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and the top diplomats of Israel and four Arab states wrapped up a landmark meeting late on Monday vowing to boost co-operation, which Israel said would send a strong message to its arch foe Iran. The talks brought together for the first time on Israeli soil the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco — which all normalised ties with the Jewish state in 2020 — and of Egypt, a country formally at peace with Israel since 1979.
Israel Foreign Minister Yair Lapid said that "this new architecture, the shared capabilities we are building, intimidates and deters our common enemies — first and foremost Iran and its proxies. "They certainly have something to fear", he said about Iran, a country Israel is fighting in a regional shadow war and which it accuses of seeking a nuclear bomb, a goal the Islamic republic denies pursuing.
UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed Al-Nahyan called the two-day gathering "historic" and said that "what we are trying to achieve here is changing the narrative, creating a different future".
Mr Blinken departed Israel and arrived on Tuesday in Morocco, where he will meet senior officials from the North African kingdom, as well as the UAE’s de facto leader, Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed.
The opening of the historic meeting in Israel, in the Sde Boker kibbutz in the Negev desert, was marred by a shooting attack on Sunday in northern Israel that killed two police officers and was claimed by Islamic State. ISIS has rarely managed to stage attacks inside the Jewish state.
Mr Blinken’s visit to Morocco, followed by Algeria on Wednesday, is expected to focus in part on the threat from ISIS and al- Qa’ida affiliates in the Sahel region, alongside wheat supply shortages stemming from the war in Ukraine.
The talks on reviving the 2015 Iran nuclear deal were high on the agenda at the Negev gathering and in Mr Blinken’s meetings with Israeli officials. The EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, on Monday struck a cautious note on the prospects for restoring the Iran pact quickly, after having signalled over the weekend that a deal could be reached "in a matter of days". "I cannot guarantee that we will reach an agreement", he told the European parliament. "It’s not getting to an end". The efforts to revive the deal have raised concern in Israel and among US-allied Arab states, which view Iran as a menace.
An Israeli official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said after the Sde Boker talks: "All countries here except the US have reservations about a nuclear deal with Iran and what happened is that we got them closer to our approach". Mr Blinken on Sunday stressed that Israel and the US "see eye-to-eye" on the core issue of stopping Iran from ever getting a nuclear bomb, despite their differences on the deal known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA).
The UAE and Bahrain forged ties with Israel under the Abraham Accords, brokered by former US president Donald Trump. Morocco then re-established relations with Israel under a separate Trump-brokered agreement. Israeli leaders have argued that the normalisations highlight a changed Middle East, where Arab leaders are no longer compelled to isolate Israel over its ongoing conflict with the Palestinians.
The Abraham Accords infuriated the Palestinians, who argued that they marked a betrayal of a decades-old Arab consensus. A small group of protesters outside the Negev venue waved placards that said "Haven’t you forgotten someone?" Iran has repeatedly emphasised that it remains fully behind the Palestinian cause. "Any attempt to normalise and establish relations with the terrorist Zionists and the occupiers of al- Quds (Jerusalem) is a stab in the back" for the Palestinians, Iran’s foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said.
Mr Blinken has voiced strong support for the Abraham Accords but cautioned they cannot replace Israeli-Palestinian peace-building. "We have to be clear that these regional peace agreements are not a substitute for progress between Palestinians and Israelis", said Mr Blinken, who on Sunday also met Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas in the Israeli-occupied West Bank.
Mr Blinken says Joe Biden’s administration is committed to repairing Palestinian relations, which collapsed under Mr Trump. But the Palestinian leader told Mr Blinken that the West showed "double standards", taking a hard line against Russia’s invasion of Ukraine while ignoring what he called Israel’s "crimes" against his people.
As the diplomats were wrapped up in their Negev meeting, Mr Abbas hosted Jordan’s King Abdullah II, making his first visit to the West Bank since 2017.
Jordan — the only Arab country with full Israeli ties that was not at the Negev meeting — has played a middleman role between Israel and the Palestinians. Jordan’s king warned that "the region cannot enjoy security and stability without a just and comprehensive solution to the Palestinian issue", the official Palestinian news agency reported.
Pre-Ramadan terror wave sweeps West Bank
Dov Lieber, Wall Street Journal, plus BBC report
Saturday April 2 2022
Tel Aviv On Friday night three Palestinian militants were killed in a gun battle with Israeli security forces near Jenin in the occupied West Bank, Israeli police say. A statement said the Palestinians were on their way to carry out an attack in a car and that they fired on a counter-terrorism unit that was trying to arrest them. Four Israeli troops were wounded in the ensuing clash, one of them seriously.
Also on Friday, a Palestinian man was shot dead during clashes with Israeli forces in the West Bank city of Hebron, the Palestinian health ministry said. The Israeli military said its soldiers opened fire when a suspect threw a Molotov cocktail at them during a riot.
On Thursday another three Palestinians were killed. One was a 30-year-old Palestinian who stabbed and seriously injured an Israeli on a bus near the West Bank settlement of Elazar in the Gush Etzion settlement bloc near Jerusalem according to the Israeli military. An armed civilian on the bus shot and killed the assailant, the military said.
Two were killed in a gunfight during an Israeli raid in Jenin where 15 others were injured, including three seriously from bullet wounds, according to the Israeli military and the Palestinian Health Ministry. The Israeli military said its soldiers came under fire in Jenin as they arrested three people suspected of involvement in an attack by a Palestinian gunman in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak on Tuesday, in which two Israeli civilians, two Ukrainian nationals and an Israeli policemen were killed. Before the attack in Bnei Brak, Israeli security forces were already on high alert in response to two attacks in recent days by Arab citizens of Israel with suspected ties to Islamic State.
Jenin has become a centre of Palestinian militancy, with numerous clashes occurring between Israeli forces and Palestinian gunmen over the past year.
On Wednesday (March 30) Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett told civilians in a video message: "Whoever has a licence to carry a weapon, this is the time to carry it". The attacks have come before the Muslim holy month of Ramadan. The month is usually a time of heightened tensions, especially around Jerusalem, where tens of thousands of Muslim worshippers travel to the Aqsa Mosque to pray. Israel earlier this week also hosted a summit of American, Arab and Israeli diplomats aimed at boosting economic and security ties and helping build an alliance against Iran. See the article above.
With the escalation of violence, Israel announced on Wednesday it would significantly boost its security presence in the West Bank and on the border of the Gaza Strip. Israeli police have also suspended normal activities to focus on counter-terrorism.
On Thursday (March 31) far-right Israeli politician Itamar Ben-Gvir visited the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary. Such visits, when made as an act of political protest, are seen by right-wing Israelis as affirmation of their right to visit the holiest site in Judaism, but Palestinians view them as provocative and they have led in the past to an increase in tensions.
Israel’s government faces crisis after Idit Silman quits
Dov Lieber, Wall Street Journal
Friday April 8 2022
Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s government faces a crisis after a member quit the ruling coalition, leaving it without a majority in parliament less than a year since coming to power.
Idit Silman, the coalition’s de facto whip, in a letter to Mr Bennett late on Wednesday, said she was resigning over disagreements about the country’s Jewish character. She has clashed with the Health Minister over whether leavened grain products should be allowed in hospitals during the coming Passover religious holiday. In Jewish tradition, such products are removed from public spaces and not consumed during the holiday.
Her resignation leaves the government with 60 members backing it in the 120-member Knesset. The coalition can continue to govern without a majority but it will struggle to pass laws, requiring support from opposition members. With one more resignation, the government could collapse. That would give the opposition a potential majority in a vote to dissolve parliament and send the country to a fifth election in a little over three years.
Still, even if a second coalition member resigns, the opposition would struggle to form its own government without the support of the Joint List, a union of Arab Israeli parties, to dissolve parliament and set up new elections. Political analysts are sceptical that could happen due to the Joint List’s animosity toward former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the opposition leader.
While the Knesset is in recess for the next five weeks the opposition would need the government’s support to hold a vote to dissolve parliament. Chen Friedberg, a senior lecturer of political science at Ariel University, said it was unlikely the government would dissolve before parliament is back in session.
Israel has held four elections since 2019, with voters divided over whether Mr Netanyahu should rule while on trial for corruption. Mr Bennett came to power in June 2021 after a mix of left-wing, centrist and right-wing parties, including for the first time an independent Arab party, united in their opposition to Mr Netanyahu. The parties’ deep ideological differences have created an unwieldy alliance. Members have clashed over West Bank settlements, Palestinians and questions of religion and state.
"Unfortunately, I cannot lend a hand to harming the Jewish identity of the state of Israel", Ms Silman, a member of Mr Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party, wrote in her resignation letter. Mr Bennett blamed months of incitement against Ms Silman by Mr Netanyahu for her defection. He said coalition leaders are committed to maintaining the government. "The alternative", he said, "is more elections and then maybe more elections, and a return to the days of dangerous instability to the state of Israel".
If another member of Mr Bennett’s bloc defects and a vote is held to dissolve the Knesset, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid would become the interim prime minister under a rotation deal reached when the government was founded.
Polls show Mr Netanyahu’s Likud party remains the most popular, especially among right-wing voters, but he lacks a clear majority to form a government of his own. Mr Netanyahu could also form an alternative government without new elections. This, too, would be challenging.
Without the Joint List, Mr Netanyahu has 54 members in his right-wing nationalist camp. He would need to entice at least seven more. Members in Mr Bennett’s right-wing and religious party, which numbered seven after elections and is now down to five, are aligned with Mr Netanyahu, but formed an alternative coalition after he failed to get 61 members to support him due largely to his corruption charges.
The crisis comes after a burst of terrorist attacks that has left the government vulnerable to charges from the right-wing opposition that it is weak against terrorism. The opposition could potentially prevail if Mr Netanyahu agreed to yield the prime minister role. So far, he has vowed to continue leading his party. For now, Israeli political analysts believe the current coalition could survive until March 2023, when it needs a majority to pass a budget. Failure to pass it would automatically trigger new elections.
"The only guaranteed thing is we’re back in a crisis mode", said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Jerusalem-based think tank the Israel Democracy Institute.
Israeli PM vows no limits after three killed by Palestinian attacker
Saturday April 9 2022
Israeli PM Naftali Bennett says security forces will have "full freedom" to act after an attack in Tel Aviv killed three Israelis. Two were killed when a Palestinian opened fire on a bar in one of the city's busiest streets on Thursday night. A third died on Friday. The attacker evaded a huge manhunt for hours, before being shot dead in a gunfight in nearby Jaffa.
Israel has been rocked by a wave of attacks which have killed 14 people.
In the latest, Raad Hazem, 28, from Jenin in the occupied West Bank, shot people at the Ilka bar on Dizengoff Street, a main thoroughfare full of restaurants and bars in the heart of Tel Aviv, before escaping. More than 1,000 members of the Israeli police, army special forces and the Shin Bet intelligence service poured into the city centre to try to find him, as police warned residents to stay indoors.
Hazem was found hiding near a mosque in the port of Jaffa, about four miles (6km) away, and was killed in a shootout with counter-terrorism and security agents.
Speaking in Tel Aviv on Friday morning, Prime Minister Bennett said security forces would have free rein to deal with threats. "There are not and will not be limits for this war. We are granting full freedom of action to the army, the Shin Bet [domestic intelligence agency] and all security forces in order to defeat the terror".
"Every murderer knows we will find them, everyone who helps a terrorist should know that they will pay a heavy price".
Shin Bet said Hazem had entered Israel illegally and had no known links to militant organisations.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas condemned "the killing of Israeli civilians", warning that "the killing of Palestinian and Israeli civilians only leads to a further deterioration of the situation", the official Palestinian Wafa news agency said. However, the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad, praised the attack.
Israeli media reports say Hazem had been sitting outside Ilka bar for about 15 minutes before he opened fire at about 21:00 (18:00 GMT), sparking pandemonium. "I was heading north and as we were passing by a bar shots started", Mark Malfiev, who was injured, told the BBC. "I saw the window shattering, suddenly people started running and I felt a back pain", he said. "I did not know there was an injury. I was just walking and then I felt a lot of blood, I saw blood".
CCTV footage showed people drinking then suddenly dashing away at the moment of the attack, overturning chairs in the scramble to escape. Video from Dizengoff Street showed people running away as emergency vehicles streamed into the area, sirens wailing. The two men killed at the bar were named as childhood friends Eytam Magini and Tomer Morad, both aged 27. A 35-year-old father-of-three, who was one of 12 people wounded, died in hospital on Friday.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken condemned the attack, adding that Washington stood with Israel "resolutely in the face of senseless terrorism and violence".
Israel's security forces were already on a high state of alert after a spate of deadly attacks in recent days. At the end of last month, five people were shot dead by a Palestinian gunman in an ultra-Orthodox Jewish suburb of Tel Aviv. Days earlier, six people were killed in two attacks by three Israeli Arabs in the northern city of Hadera and the southern city of Beersheba. All the perpetrators were shot dead.
It marks the deadliest period of attacks in Israel since 2006, with fears of further incidents in the lead-up to the rare convergence next week of the Muslim festival of Ramadan, the Jewish festival of Passover and the Christian festival of Easter.
Arab party pulls out of coalition
Tuesday April 19 2022
Jerusalem The Arab-Israeli Raam party has "suspended" its participation in the coalition government of Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, over violence centred on Jerusalem’s flashpoint Al-Aqsa compound.
Mr Bennett took office last June after painstaking efforts to cobble together a coalition able to topple Israel’s longest-serving prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, creating a majority of 61 seats in the 120-seat Knesset.
But the government lost that majority earlier this month when a hard-right Knesset member quit over a government decision to authorise the distribution of leavened bread in hospitals during Passover, in line with a recent supreme court ruling reversing years of prohibition. The coalition, a mix of left-wing, hardline Jewish nationalist and religious parties as well as Raam, both with deep ideological divides, became 60 seats, the same as the opposition.
On Sunday night, Raam — which has four seats in the coalition — said it was "suspending" its support, hours after more than 20 Palestinians and Israelis were wounded in incidents in and around Al-Aqsa, known to Jews as the Temple Mount. "If the government continues its steps against the people of Jerusalem … we will resign as a bloc", it said in a statement.
The party’s withdrawal from Mr Bennett’s administration will not immediately affect the government, as the Knesset is in recess until May 5.
Sources said Mr Bennett would seek to calm the situation. His coalition can rule with 60 seats, although with difficulty in passing new legislation. But if another member leaves the coalition, the Knesset could hold a vote of no confidence and lead Israel back to the polls for a fifth election in four years.
The latest clashes take the number of wounded since Friday to more than 170, at a tense time when Passover coincides with Ramadan. They also follow violence in Israel and the West Bank starting late last month, in which 36 people have been killed.
Early on Sunday morning, police said "hundreds" of Palestinian demonstrators inside the mosque compound started gathering piles of stones, shortly before the arrival of Jewish visitors. Jews are allowed to visit but not to pray at the site, the holiest place in Judaism and third-holiest in Islam.
Bennett Coalition Becomes Minority (temporarily)
Extract from Haaretz
Thursday May 19 2022
Meretz lawmaker Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi announced on Thursday that she is quitting Israel's ruling government, leaving the coalition with 59 of the Knesset's 120 seats. In her resignation letter, Rinawie Zoabi wrote that she had joined the coalition in hopes that Arabs and Jews working together might help bring about "a new path of equality and respect", but that coalition leaders had chosen to take "hawkish, hard-line and right-wing positions".
In the letter, Rinawie Zoabi cited violence at the Temple Mount and the funeral of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, as leading her to make "a moral decision". Rinawie Zoabi, however, is still serving as a lawmaker in the Knesset. It is still not clear if she intends to vote with the opposition in future votes.
Her departure could significantly damage the government's ability to function. Regardless of how she votes in the future, it's doubtful that her exit will pave the way for opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu to successfully pass a vote of no-confidence and form his own coalition — as there are not enough opposition members in support of a Netanyahu-led government. However, if the Knesset votes on dissolving the Knesset, Rinawie Zoabi's vote could be the deciding vote that sends the country to an election.
Update Sunday night: After meeting with senior minister Yair Lapid on Sunday, Ms Rinawie Zoabi said she would rejoin the coalition following intense pressure from Arab municipal officials worried about an alternative government that would likely include hard-right figures. "Since I came to serve the local Arab authorities and to bring achievements for the needs of Arab society, I will support the coalition. But I also want that this government will be genuine and attentive to the needs of Arab society", she said. Mr Lapid said "we have put this argument behind us".
Nation Faces Fifth Election in Three Years as Coalition Crumbles
Dov Lieber, Wall Street Journal
Wednesday June 22 2022
Tel Aviv: Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says he will move to dissolve parliament and call for the country’s fifth election in three years, marking the end of the most diverse ruling coalition in Israel’s history. Mr Bennett said Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a former news anchor turned centrist politician, would lead the country in the interim period, which could last several months. The two leaders, from opposite sides of the Israeli political spectrum, joined forces last year to oust then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The prospect of new elections gives Mr Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, a fresh shot at regaining power.
The decision ends an unusual period in Israeli politics, when a coalition from the country’s centre, right, left and an independent Arab party came together for the first time to form a government. The coalition is now poised to be among the shortest-lived in Israel’s history, after marking its first anniversary last week.
The deep ideological differences of the coalition’s eight parties created an unwieldy alliance. Members clashed over policies related to West Bank settlements, Palestinians and questions of religion and state. Controlling just 61 of 120 seats in parliament from its outset, the coalition lost its majority in April after a member of Mr Bennett’s party resigned.
The date of the next election won’t be known until parliament dissolves, but it is likely to take place in late October or early November, an adviser to the coalition said. Analysts said it was unlikely Mr Bennett would backtrack on his election decision despite his Yamina party’s slide in the polls. For parliament to dissolve, politicians will need to pass the bill several times. No date has been set for the vote, but the coalition leaders said they would bring it to the plenum floor next week.
Polling in recent months consistently shows that Mr Netanyahu’s party will remain by far the largest in parliament, and his popularity remains high among right-wing voters. Polls also show that Mr Netanyahu would likely remain just shy of the majority needed to form a government.
The prospect of another election comes in the midst of increased conflict between Israel and Iran, after a wave of Palestinian attacks in Israel that shook the country’s sense of security, and weeks before US President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel in July, when he is expected to advance regional security co-ordination between Israel and its allies in the region.
The immediate crisis facing the government was its inability to renew regulations needed to apply Israeli civil law to Jewish settlers in the West Bank owing to opposition from Arab members of the coalition, which angered right-wing politicians. The bill was opposed by Mr Netanyahu, who normally votes to support settlers but marshaled the opposition to vote against it in an attempt to embarrass the government and force it to collapse. If Israel does go to elections, the deadline to renew the regulations would automatically be postponed.
Speaking alongside Mr Lapid, Mr Bennett said he "left no stone unturned" in trying to save his government, but that new elections were the only way of preventing chaos and harm to Israeli security.
Mr Lapid pledged to continue Israel’s widening campaign against Iran and militant groups opposing Israel, tackle the increasing cost of living and fight for reform to solve Israel’s political instability. He thanked Mr Bennett for "putting the country before his personal interest". "You’re a friend and I love you", Mr. Lapid told Mr. Bennett.
Yohanan Plesner, the president of the Jerusalem-based Israel Democracy Institute, said the call for elections "is a clear indication that Israel’s worst political crisis did not end when this government was sworn into office". Mr Plesner said that the crisis, which had prevented stable management of the country for three years, stemmed from a split down the middle over Mr Netanyahu’s future, and that Israeli law makes it too easy for parliament to dissolve itself. "In governments with a small majority, it turns every backbencher into a kingmaker or into an instability instigator", he said.
Mr Plesner added that by including an Arab party in the coalition, the current government paved the way for a minority that makes up more than 20 per cent of the population to participate more in the political process.
Mr Netanyahu vowed to form a broad national government led by his Likud party. "This is an evening of great news for millions of Israeli citizens", Mr Netanyahu said.
Some politicians once aligned with Mr Netanyahu have pledged to oppose his return to power, saying the former prime minister had used his position for personal interests. Mr Netanyahu is on trial over corruption charges, which he has denied. "The goal in the next elections is clear — preventing the return of Netanyahu to power and enslaving the state for his personal interests", tweeted Gideon Saar, a member of the anti-Netanyahu coalition who was once the former prime minister’s ally.
Mr Netanyahu can still run for office despite his trial, which shows no signs of ending soon. Avraham Diskin, a professor of political science at Hebrew University, said Mr Netanyahu’s chances of being re-elected were better than in recent elections because the right-wing religious and ultraorthodox parties that support him have grown in strength despite not reaching a clear majority. "The chances of Netanyahu becoming prime minister are more than 50 per cent, but it’s still not guaranteed", he said.
Mr Netanyahu had kept the opposition disciplined throughout the year, forcing the government to lose key votes and appear unstable. At the same time, he led a simultaneous pressure and wooing campaign against right-wing politicians in the coalition.
If Mr Netanyahu fails to get a clear majority, he might face a rebellion in his own party, Professor Diskin said, because right-wing politicians opposed to Mr Netanyahu had said they would form a government with the Likud party if someone else was leading it. "The rebellion against Netanyahu within the Likud can definitely occur. And once you have a rebellion everything is open", he said.
Update The bill to dissolve the Knesset passed its first reading in the early hours of Tuesday morning 28 June (Israel time) and its second and third readings on Thursday 30 June. The election will be held on 1 November.
Israel’s Naftali Bennett declares he won’t run in coming election
Ben Simon, Jonah Mandel, AFP
Friday Jul 1 2022
Jerusalem: Israel’s Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said he would not stand in upcoming elections as parliament voted to dissolve itself and force the country’s fifth vote in less than four years.
Mr Bennett, who conceded last week that his eight-party alliance was no longer tenable, is due to hand power to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who will lead a caretaker government into the polls. Final approval of the dissolution bill passed with 92 votes in favour and none against in the Knesset on Thursday after a vote initially expected by midnight Wednesday was postponed as coalition and opposition MPs sparred over last-minute details.
The passing of the dissolution law ends the year-long tenure of outgoing Mr Bennett, whose eight-party coalition was backed by an Arab party, a first in Israeli history "In a short while I’ll end my tenure as prime minister of Israel", said Mr Bennett, who will stay on as alternate premier in Mr Lapid’s interim government, speaking overnight Wednesday. "I do not intend to run in the upcoming elections, but I will remain a loyal soldier of this country", he added. He announced that his long-time political partner and Interior Minister, Ayelet Shaked, would take over the leadership of their religious, nationalist Yamina party.
Heading back to the polls extends the worst political crisis in the Jewish state’s 74-year history. Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has promised that his own alliance of right-wingers, ultra-nationalists and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties will win the upcoming vote, but polls show that he may also struggle to rally a parliamentary majority. Mr Netanyahu’s main challenger is likely to be long-time foe Mr Lapid, a 58-year-old former news anchor who has surprised many after being dismissed as a lightweight when he entered politics a decade ago.
Mr Bennett’s motley alliance with Mr Lapid, formed in June 2021, offered a reprieve from unprecedented political gridlock, passing Israel’s first state budget since 2018 and ending Mr Netanyahu’s record 12 consecutive years in power. As the pair announced plans to end their coalition last week, Mr Lapid sought to cast Netanyahu’s potential return to office as a national threat. With passage of the dissolution bill on Thursday, Mr Lapid will take over as premier when the clock ticks to Friday, in accordance with the power-sharing deal he agreed with Mr Bennett.
Mr Bennett, 50, led a coalition of right-wingers, centrists, doves and Islamists from Raam, which made history by becoming the first Arab party to support an Israeli government since the Jewish state’s creation. But the alliance, united by its desire to oust Mr Netanyahu, 72, and break a damaging cycle of inconclusive elections, was imperilled from the outset by its ideological divides.
Mr Bennett said the final straw was a failure to renew a measure that ensures the 475,000 Jewish settlers in the West Bank live under Israeli law. Some Arab MPs in the coalition refused to back a bill they said marked a de facto endorsement of a 55-year occupation that has forced West Bank Palestinians to live under Israeli rule. For Mr Bennett, a staunch supporter of settlements, allowing the West Bank law to expire was intolerable. Dissolving parliament before its June 30 expiration temporarily renews the measure.
Iran has ‘technical ability’ to build nuclear bomb
Tuesday July 19 2022
Tehran: Iran "has the technical ability to build a nuclear bomb", said Kamal Kharrazi, who heads an advisory board linked to Iran’s leadership. But Tehran has "not made a decision to build an atomic bomb", he added. The comments to the Al Jazeera broadcaster on Sunday come after US President Joe Biden visited the Middle East this week and signed a security pact with Israel vowing to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Mr Kharrazi, a former foreign minister, also told Al Jazeera that Tehran had carried out extensive drills to be able to strike deep inside Israel "if sensitive (Iranian) installations are targeted". He did not specify when the drills took place.
It comes as efforts to revive a 2015 nuclear deal between Tehran and world powers remain stalled. Iran has held direct talks with remaining parties to the accord — and indirect talks with the US — in a bid to restore the deal but negotiations have been at an impasse since March. The 2015 nuclear deal offered Iran sanctions relief in exchange for imposing limits on its nuclear program and sought to guarantee Tehran could not develop a nuclear weapon, something it has always denied wanting to do. The US withdrew from the agreement in 2018 under then president Donald Trump and reimposed biting sanctions, prompting Tehran to step away from many of its own commitments under the deal.
The new security pact signed this week by Israel and the US commits Washington to "never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon", stating that the US "is prepared to use all elements of its national power to ensure that outcome". Asked on Thursday how long the US would give efforts to revive the 2015 nuclear deal, Mr Biden said "We’re not going to wait forever".
Gaza: Palestinian militant killed as Israel strikes after threats
Yolande Knell in Jerusalem, Raffi Berg in London
Additional reporting by Yaroslav Lukov
Saturday August 6 2022
At least 10 people have been killed by Israeli air strikes in the Gaza Strip, including Tayseer Jabari, a top commander of a Palestinian militant group. Local health officials said a young girl was among the dead with dozens of others wounded.
Israel's PM said the operation followed "an immediate threat" by Palestinian Islamic Jihad (PIJ) after the arrest of one of its members early this week. The PIJ fired more than 100 rockets into Israel "in an initial response". Most were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome missile defence shield. Sirens were heard in a number of Israeli cities.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said it then resumed strikes late on Friday, targeting militant positions.
In a televised address earlier in the day, Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid said "Israel carried out a precise counter-terror operation against an immediate threat". The IDF said it struck sites linked to the PIJ. They include the high-rise Palestine Tower in Gaza City, hit in a loud explosion which left smoke pouring from the building.
Four PIJ militants - including Tayseer Jabari - and a five-year-old girl were among those killed since the strikes started, local health officials say. They say another 55 people were injured. An Israeli military spokesman said the IDF was "assuming about 15" militants had been killed.
Israel's Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked told Channel 12 News: "We don't know how this will play out… but this could take time… This could be a lengthy round [of conflict] and a hard one".
Speaking while on a visit to the Iranian capital, Tehran, PIJ secretary general Ziyad al-Nakhala said "we will respond forcefully to this aggression, and there will be a fight in which our people will win. There are no red lines for this battle... and Tel Aviv will be under the rockets of the resistance". Meanwhile, Hamas, which governs the Gaza Strip, said that armed groups were "united" in battle and would not keep silent.
On Monday night, Israel arrested Bassem Saadi, reported to be the head of PIJ in the West Bank. He was held in the Jenin area as part of an ongoing series of arrest operations after a wave of attacks by Israeli Arabs and Palestinians that left 17 Israelis and two Ukrainians dead. Two of the attackers came from the Jenin district.
After Bassem Saadi's arrest, Israel heightened security measures for communities near its border with Gaza, warning that PIJ intended to attack civilians and soldiers. Road closures brought towns and villages in southern Israel to a grinding halt.
PIJ, which is backed by Iran, has its headquarters in Damascus, Syria, and is one of the strongest militant groups in Gaza. It has been responsible for many attacks, including rocket-fire and shootings against Israel. Israel and PIJ fought a five-day conflict in November 2019 after fighting erupted following the killing by Israel of a PIJ commander who Israel said was planning an imminent attack. The violence left 34 Palestinians dead and 111 injured, while 63 Israelis needed medical treatment. Israel said 25 of the Palestinians killed were militants, including those hit preparing to launch rockets.
More than 40 people killed in Gaza in weekend of violences
By Andrew Carey and Abeer Salman, CNN
Updated Monday August 8 2022 4:24am Brisbane time
Jerusalem (CNN) Palestinian militants launched rockets toward Jerusalem on Sunday, after Israeli airstrikes in the Gaza Strip overnight killed a senior militant commander -- the second since Israel's operation against Islamic Jihad began. The response from the Iran-backed group marked another escalation in a weekend of violence that has left dozens of people dead in Gaza and sent thousands of Israelis scrambling for shelters.
Overnight on Saturday (Israel time), Khaled Mansour, a leader of Islamic Jihad's operations in southern Gaza, was killed in an airstrike on a building in Rafah, close to Egypt's border, according to Israeli officials. Israel said that Mansour was responsible for a number of terror attacks against Israelis.
He is the second Islamic Jihad commander to be killed since Friday, when Israel launched a surprise operation, "Breaking Dawn", triggering the worst bout of violence between Israeli and Palestinian militants since a brief war last May. On the same day, Israel killed Tayseer Al-Jabari, the head of the group's operations in the north of Gaza, in what it described a "pre-emptive" strike.
Since then, the Israeli military says it has hit dozens of additional targets including rocket launching sites, weapons manufacturing facilities and a tunnel it said was being built to allow militants to infiltrate Israel and carry out attacks. The Israeli military has also extended its campaign into the West Bank, detaining about 40 suspected Islamic Jihad militants across the territory in two nights of operations.
Islamic Jihad, which is the smaller of the two main militant groups in Gaza, has fired more than seven hundred rockets since Friday, according to Israeli officials, mainly launched toward Israeli communities living close to the Gaza Strip, but also firing several longer-range rockets. About twenty per cent of the launches have landed inside Gaza, an army spokesman told reporters. The Iron Dome aerial defense system, which is deployed against any incoming fire assessed to be a threat to people or buildings, and which intercepted the rockets fired at Jerusalem, is currently operating at a 97% success rate, the spokesman said.
At least 43 Palestinians have been killed in the escalation, among them 15 children, according to information from the Palestinian Ministry of Health. Israel maintains most of those killed in its airstrikes were militants. For its part, Islamic Jihad has said it will not release the names of its fighters killed until the latest escalation is over.
There are also conflicting claims over responsibility for some of the deaths. In one incident on Saturday, four children were among seven people killed in an explosion in Jabaliya in northern Gaza. The Palestinian Health Ministry said the blast was caused by an Israeli air-strike, but Israel rejected the claim blaming errant rocket fire. The Israel Defense Forces released a video showing what it said was the Islamic Jihad rocket apparently suddenly losing power and falling to the ground over a built-up area.
The Palestinian Authority Presidency, which is based in the West Bank and has very limited influence over events in Gaza, has strongly condemned Israel's military operation and is appealing for a strong response when the UN Security Council holds a special session later to discuss the escalation.
Among the United Nations' most pressing humanitarian priorities is restoring the supply of fuel to Gaza, the UN's Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) told CNN. Stocks are so low that Gaza's single power plant ground to a halt at noon Saturday, causing drastic cuts to electricity supplies throughout the Strip. Two water treatment plants and nine pumping stations have been forced to shut down as a result of the electricity shortages, OCHA said, meaning 130,000 cubic meters of dirty water is now flowing directly into the Mediterranean Sea.
The impact is also being felt by Gazan households, which are now receiving an average of three to four hours of electricity per day, down from 16 hours, the Gaza Power Generating Company told CNN. Fuel for the power plant is (normally) brought into Gaza by truck through the Kerem Shalom crossing. All crossing points have been closed by Israel since Tuesday amid concerns that Islamic Jihad was threatening an attack, following an Israeli military operation in the West Bank town of Jenin where Israeli forces captured one of the group's senior commanders, Bassam al-Saadi, on Monday night.
The violence is the most serious in the region since the Israeli military and Hamas fought an 11-day war in May 2021. Hamas, the preeminent Palestinian faction in Gaza, also blamed Israel for the escalation but has been notably restrained in its response overall, stopping short of threatening attacks in retaliation. The group's decision to stay out of the fighting has raised hopes that Egyptian mediators might soon be able to restore a ceasefire, and negotiation efforts continued Sunday according to parties involved in the fighting.
"There are talks underway with Egypt to reach a ceasefire", a Middle Eastern official briefed on the situation told CNN. A spokesman for Islamic Jihad, Tareq Selmi, told CNN that Egyptian mediators are making the "highest efforts" to restore calm to the Strip. Previous escalations have ended through international efforts led by Egypt, with support from the United Nations and from Qatar.
The clash came as the leader of the Islamic Jihad was in Iran, meeting with Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi and other high-ranking officials. A video obtained by Reuters showed Ziyad al-Nakhalah holding talks with Raisi on Saturday in Tehran, a day after Israel launched its military operation against Islamic Jihad in Gaza.
Al-Nakhalah also spoke on Saturday with the commander of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, Major General Hossein Salami, who praised "the swift response of the Palestinian Islamic Resistance" to the Israeli military operation, saying it "proves that a new era has begun for the resistance to take power", according to a report by Iran's Fars News Agency.
Israel's Prime Minister Yair Lapid drew attention to Al Nakhalah's Iran visit when he spoke on Friday about the campaign in Gaza. "Our fight is not with the people of Gaza. Islamic Jihad is an Iranian proxy, that wants to destroy the State of Israel and kill innocent Israelis. The head of Islamic Jihad, is in Tehran as we speak. We will do whatever it takes to defend our people", Lapid said.
Ibrahim Dahman in Gaza, Hadas Gold and Elliott Gotkine in Ashdod, Sara Mazloumsaki in Atlanta and Sophie Jeong in Yongin, South Korea contributed to this report.
Later News, Monday, AP
An Egyptian-brokered cease-fire took effect at 11:30 pm Sunday (6:30 am Monday, Brisbane time). Israeli strikes and militant rockets continued in the minutes leading up to the beginning of the truce, and Israel said it would "respond strongly" if the cease-fire was violated.
"All our goals were achieved", Lapid said Monday. "The entire senior military command of Islamic Jihad in Gaza was successfully targeted within three days".
Israel began to reopen crossings into Gaza for humanitarian needs and said it would fully open them if calm continued. Fuel trucks were seen entering the main cargo crossing and heading for the power plant, which had shut down Saturday, adding to the misery at the height of the summer heat in the territory.
The cease-fire deal contained a promise that Egypt would work for the release of two senior Islamic Jihad detainees held by Israel. The weekend fighting is also bound to complicate Islamic Jihad’s relations with Hamas.
In the occupied West Bank on Monday, Israeli troops demolished the homes of two Palestinians suspected of carrying out a deadly attack against Israelis in the city of Elad in May. The soldiers faced a violent protest during the operation, the military said.
Tor Wennesland, the top UN Mideast envoy, told an emergency meeting of the UN Security Council that "the cease-fire is fragile" and any resumption of hostilities will have "devastating consequences" for Palestinians and Israelis and make any political progress elusive. He condemned the Palestinian rocket fire while recognizing Israel's security concerns. He said any use of force "must be proportionate", with "all feasible steps" taken to avoid civilian casualties.
The Israeli army said militants in Gaza fired about 1,100 rockets toward Israel, with about 200 landing inside the Palestinian enclave. The army said its air defenses intercepted 380, including two fired toward Jerusalem. The military did not specify what happened to the remainder, but they most likely fell in open areas or broke up in flight.
Islamic Jihad has fewer fighters and supporters than Hamas, and little is known about its arsenal. Both groups call for Israel's destruction, but have different priorities, with Hamas constrained by the demands of governing. Over the past year, Israel and Hamas have reached tacit understandings based on trading calm for work permits and a slight easing of the border blockade, imposed by Israel and Egypt when Hamas overran the territory 15 years ago. Israel has issued 12,000 work permits to Gaza laborers and has held out the prospect of 2,000 more.
Renewal of Israel-Turkey ties a ‘win-win’ for both countries and the region, say analysts
By David Isaac, J-Wire
Jewish News Service
August 22 2022
After 14 years of strained relations, Israel and Turkey agreed to restore full diplomatic ties. Analysts told JNS that the development, announced on August 17, is a positive one for Jerusalem and Ankara and bodes well for regional stability. The observers underscored the importance of the decision, noting that it is part of a broader push by Turkey to repair relations with several Middle East countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, Egypt and even Syria.
"This is a major U-turn for Turkey", Hay Eytan Cohen Yanarocak, a researcher at both the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security and the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies, told JNS. Two years ago, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan placed himself on the side of the rejectionists, Yanarocak said, noting that Ankara initially opposed the Abraham Accords. At the time, Erdoğan announced he was considering suspending ties with the UAE and withdrawing his ambassador due to the normalization agreement Abu Dhabi forged with Jerusalem.
"Now Erdogan is strengthening the region’s moderate camp", Yanarocak said, adding, "Those players trying to destabilize the Middle East through force—nowadays, they are the ones who are isolated. Before it had been Israel that was isolated. Not anymore".
In the event, Yanarocak described the Jewish state as the "big winner". He emphasized that, historically, Turkey had always determined the strength of the bilateral relationship, but for the first time this was not the case. "It was the Turkish side that wanted to reconcile with Israel, and not the other way around", he said. "Israel also made it very clear that it would not run to the arms of the Turks whenever they decided. This is the most important distinction relative to times past".
Turkey also was compelled to take "tangible action" to mend ties, Yanarocak said, referring to a civil aviation agreement signed between the countries on July 7. Israeli airlines have not flown to Turkey since 2007, when Ankara started refusing Israel’s security requirements. "Now the monopoly of the Turkish firms is broken. Israeli companies will reinstate flights to Turkey", he said.
Gallia Lindenstrauss, a senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies who specializes on Turkey, agreed that the aviation issue was a "bone of contention". She told JNS that it was "seen as asymmetrical that the Turkish carriers could fly to Israel. What’s more, for Turkish Airlines the Istanbul-Tel Aviv line was one of the more profitable". However, she said the economic benefits to Israeli carriers are up in the air given that competition is strong. The agreement, she said, was more of a "confidence-building measure" than a move meant to generate economic dividends.
"That Turkey was prepared to meet Israel’s security requirement showed Israel that Turkey was serious in its intentions to normalize relations. At the beginning, Israel was not sure", Lindenstrauss said. She also noted that Ankara’s cooperation over the summer with Israeli intelligence agencies to thwart numerous Iranian plots to attack Israeli nationals on Turkish soil also made a positive impression on Jerusalem.
But Turkey’s main motivation for restoring ties is economic in nature, she stressed. "Turkey has a problem, a deep economic crisis in terms of inflation and the depreciation of the Turkish lira. Erdoğan feels by showing moderation in foreign affairs that this will attract investors. Turkey also wants to improve relations with the U.S. and believes repairing the relationship with Israel will be viewed favorably in Washington", Lindenstrauss said.
There is also the issue of introducing a pipeline to bring gas from deposits off Israel’s shores to Turkey. "The pipeline didn’t materialize for political and economic reasons", Lindenstrauss said, while acknowledging concerns in Israel about ever building such a pipeline given Ankara’s unreliability as an ally. Nevertheless, she noted that 40 percent of Israel’s oil is pumped from Azerbaijan through Turkey. "Turkey never messed with that transit. They have a good record in terms of energy ties with Israel", she said.
Both Lindenstrauss and Yanarocak say it is too early to tell if the rapprochement will hold given that Erdoğan’s political party is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood; the Palestinian issue, including Ankara’s support for Hamas, remains a sticking point; and that Turkey previously restored ties with Israel in 2016 only to break them off again two years later.
"It’s not that Turkey has had a change of heart towards Israel. It’s currently because Turkey is at a weak point and it will take time for it to come out of it. It’s definitely a marriage of interest and not something deeper in terms of values", Lindenstrauss said.
"It’s very fragile. Let us not be naïve", Yanarocak added. "If we’re going to find ourselves once again in a more serious confrontation with the Gaza Strip, I don’t know how Turkey will react. During the last operation, their response was much more moderate compared to their previous ones. But I think we should take the risk, because in my opinion, this new initiative will weaken the radical actors in the Middle East. It’s a strike against them in favor of those who would like to see a prosperous Middle East", Yanarocak said.
Jerusalem flip sparks diplomatic furore with Israel
Simon Benson, Jess Malcolm
October 19 2022
The Albanese government has ignited a diplomatic furore with Israel over a snap cabinet decision yesterday to abandon the policy of recognising West Jerusalem as the country’s capital, after a bungle by the Department of Foreign Affairs threw Australia’s official position into doubt.
The Australian has confirmed the Israeli embassy in Canberra was blindsided by the move, prompting an angry response from Prime Minister Yair Lapid and calling into question Australia’s treatment of a close ally. It also sparked condemnation from Australia’s Jewish community amid accusations that the rushed announcement — made without consultation and coming on an official Jewish religious holiday — had damaged Australia’s foreign policy credibility.
Mr Lapid attacked the Albanese government’s "hasty response". "In light of the way this decision was made in Australia, as a hasty response to an incorrect report in the media, we can only hope that the Australian government manages other matters more seriously and professionally", the Prime Minister said. "Jerusalem is the eternal and united capital of Israel and nothing will ever change that".
The decision caused ructions within the Labor caucus, with Victorian Labor MP Josh Burns lashing out against the move. "I am disappointed by this decision", Mr Burns told The Australian. "Israel has designated its capital as Jerusalem. It’s where its government buildings are and where its parliament sits. Capital cities are sovereign decisions for countries".
Australian officials were on Tuesday scrambling to repair the damage inflicted by the diplomatic bungle. The Australian understands cabinet was rushed into formalising Labor’s position to reverse the recognition of West Jerusalem after DFAT effectively announced the new position by quietly deleting sentences on its website relating to the previous Coalition government’s policy.
Scott Morrison formally recognised West Jerusalem in December 2018 in line with the US decision to relocate its embassy to West Jerusalem. However, Australia pulled back from relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv in light of a backlash from Indonesia.
Labor made clear at the time it did not support the recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of the Jewish state. But prior to the May 2022 election, Labor’s legal affairs spokesman Mark Dreyfus publicly stated there was no difference between the Coalition’s and Labor’s policy positions on Israel.
Government sources said the issue was forced onto the cabinet agenda on Tuesday after DFAT’s error had become public. Israeli officials were left in the dark, with Foreign Minister Penny Wong assuring Jewish leaders in Australia that no final decision or position had been formalised.
But Senator Wong on Tuesday was defiant in defending the reversal. She said Mr Morrison’s recognition of West Jerusalem was politically motivated in a bid to win the eastern Sydney seat of Wentworth, which has a large number of Jewish constituents. "This was a cynical play, unsuccessful, to win the seat of Wentworth in a by‑election", Senator Wong said. "And what the people saw was the prime minister of the day trying to play foreign policy in order to win votes in a seat. For that reason, I made clear at the time we affirmed our view that Jerusalem is a final status issue. What do those words mean? It means that it has to be resolved through negotiation between the parties". Senator Wong said DFAT’s website had been updated "ahead of government processes".
Former Liberal Wentworth MP Dave Sharma said Labor’s "abrupt" reversal in policy would damage Australia’s relationship with Israel. Mr Sharma, who had served as Australia’s ambassador to Israel, said the decision would "provide a tailwind to extremists and states such as Iran who insist that Israel has no rightful place in the region".
Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Simon Birmingham described the process as a "shambolic process, contemptuous of many stakeholders, all to make a completely unnecessary decision with shocking timing". "Astonishingly, the government was clumsy enough to announce this on a Jewish holy day (Shemini Atzeret) and foolish enough to do so in the heated environment of an Israeli election campaign", Senator Birmingham said.
Opposition legal affairs spokesman Julian Leeser said West Jerusalem had been part of the state of Israel since its establishment in 1948. "The Knesset is there, the President lives there, the Supreme Court is there", Mr Leeser said. "It looks like any other capital city to me. The question is why can’t Labor see that too".
An Indonesian Foreign Ministry spokesman welcomed the decision, arguing the policy would support peaceful resolution towards a two-state solution. "Indonesia welcomes the decision by Australia under PM Albanese to reverse the recognition of West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel", he said. "This policy would hopefully contribute positively to Palestinian-Israeli peace negotiations".
The Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council said the decision undermined the government’s own policy. "This decision by the government is not only deeply disappointing, but appears a pointless own goal, undermining the government’s self-declared policy of seeking to encourage a negotiated two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace", said AIJAC executive director, Colin Rubenstein. "The reversal also risks denting Australia’s credibility with some of our closest allies.
"In 2018, the Morrison government recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, whilst acknowledging that the Palestinians seek a state with their capital in East Jerusalem. This decision is likely to further encourage the rejectionist tendencies of the Palestinian Authority which has spent the past 20 years rebuffing Israeli peace offers, and has refused to restart the peace talks it abandoned in 2014".
Former Labor MP Michael Danby attacked the decision describing it as "chaotic". Mr Danby, who was a prominent Jewish parliamentarian, said the timing could "only hurt Israel’s left-of-centre government" which faces an election in two weeks. "Clearly these decisions have embarrassed the Israeli government on the eve of their election and are out of step with the zeitgeist of peace and co-operation of the Abraham Accords", he said. Mr Danby said the decision followed Senator Wong’s announcement to double aid to the Palestinian refugee agency UNWRA to $20m.
Former Labor foreign minister Bob Carr took a different view, backing the government’s decision as an "obvious" and "low-key diplomatic tidying up".
Commentary Greg Sheridan, Foreign Editor
Albanese government makes its first big mistake in foreign policy — but it’s a doozy.
It was unnecessary, worthless and of no diplomatic benefit to anyone to reverse the Morrison government’s decision to recognise West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and revert to the old practice of recognising Tel Aviv.
Worse, the decision was handled with a clumsiness unique so far in the otherwise highly polished foreign policy performance of the Labor government. This clumsiness led to needless diplomatic fallout from Australia’s friend and ally Israel.
First, the decision — mysteriously and inexplicably — was publicised on the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade website when no such decision had been made. The government denied the decision had been made. Then it made the decision and announced it, retrospectively validating the website words. This earnt a rare and explicit rebuke of the Albanese government from the Israeli Prime Minister, centrist Yair Lapid. Lapid is no hardline right-winger. A Labor government on bad terms with Lapid is way out of kilter.
Clearly the Israeli government was not properly consulted nor prepared for the decision, especially the awkward, unprofessional way it leaked out. What is so dispiriting about this pointless concession to the Labor left is that it achieves nothing and costs something.
The truth is Australia has always recognised West Jerusalem as part of Israel’s sovereign territory. Australia regards East Jerusalem as contested territory and its status will be determined by final status talks between Israel and the Palestinian leadership in the event of a peace agreement.
This is not Israel’s position. Israel has formally incorporated all of Jerusalem into part of the state of Israel. Thus it was not completely happy with the Morrison government’s decision to formally recognise West Jerusalem as the nation’s capital as it very explicitly did not recognise the finality of Israel’s claims over East Jerusalem. The Morrison government decision was right but it too was made in a very clumsy way.
The Albanese government’s new decision looks antique, foolish and out of line with the main international trends we should be following. The administration of Joe Biden did not reverse Donald Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem.
Since Scott Morrison’s announcement, a slew of Arab countries, under the Abraham Accords, have concluded formal peace treaties with Israel and opened formal diplomatic recognition of the Jewish state, which remains the only meaningful democracy in the Middle East. There is something positively anachronistic — antique — about the old ideological obsessions of the Labor left, which have driven this useless, somewhat counterproductive bit of symbolism.
It would have been better if the Morrison government had physically established the Australian embassy in West Jerusalem. Our diplomats spend an enormous amount of time there anyway, because that’s where the Israeli parliament is located, along with other key Israeli institutions. The Morrison government didn’t do this in part because Indonesia, and one or two other Islamic friends of Australia, objected to Australia’s action. The Morrison government should have waited for a quiet moment and moved the embassy anyway. If it had taken that logical move, Labor would not have reversed it.
Israel elections: Netanyahu set for comeback with far right's help - partial results
By Raffi Berg
BBC News Online Middle East editor, Jerusalem
November 3 2022
Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is on the brink of a dramatic comeback, after partial results showed he was on course to win a majority in parliament with the far right's help. With 90.7% of votes from Tuesday's election counted, Mr Netanyahu's bloc is set to win 65 out of 120 seats. "We are close to a big victory", he told jubilant supporters in Jerusalem.
However, he will be dependent on the support of the ultra-nationalist Religious Zionism party. Its leaders, Itamar Ben-Gvir and Bezalel Smotrich, have gained notoriety for using anti-Arab rhetoric and advocating the deportation of "disloyal" politicians or civilians.
Mr Ben-Gvir was a follower of the late, explicitly racist, ultra-nationalist Meir Kahane, whose organisation was banned in Israel and designated as a terrorist group by the United States. Mr Ben-Gvir himself has been convicted of incitement to racism and supporting a terrorist organisation. Last month, Mr Ben-Gvir hit the headlines when he was filmed pulling out a gun after being targeted with a stone while visiting the flashpoint Palestinian Sheikh Jarrah district of occupied East Jerusalem, and calling for police to shoot the culprits.
Speaking to reporters on Wednesday, Mr Ben-Gvir promised to "work for all of Israel, even those who hate me". After exit polls were published on Tuesday night, supporters of Religious Zionism gathered in Sheikh Jarrah, shouting taunts and throwing stones towards Palestinian areas.
Mr Netanyahu, accompanied by his wife Sara, appeared at his Likud party's election night venue at 03:00 local time (01:00 GMT) on Wednesday to thunderous applause. "We have won a huge vote of confidence from the people of Israel", he told his cheering supporters. Hours earlier, when the exit polls predicted that Mr Netanyahu's bloc would win 61 or 62 seats, the room had been a scene of celebration as people jumped up and down, waved flags and chanted his nickname, Bibi. One man repeatedly blew a shofar, or ram's horn, a ritual instrument used by some Jewish people at times of special significance.
At his party's camp in Tel Aviv however, current Prime Minister Yair Lapid told his supporters that "nothing" was yet decided and his centre-left Yesh Atid party would wait for the final results.
Mr Netanyahu, 73, is one of Israel's most controversial political figures, loathed by many on the centre and left but adored by Likud's grassroots supporters. He is a firm supporter of Israel's settlement-building in the West Bank, occupied since the 1967 Middle East war. Settlements there are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.
He opposes the creation of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip as a solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict - a formula supported by most of the international community, including the Biden administration in the US. Mr Netanyahu is also currently on trial for alleged bribery, fraud and breach of trust - charges he fiercely denies. His possible partners in a Likud-led coalition government have said they would reform the law, in a move which would bring a halt to his trial.
According to the partial results, Likud stands to be the biggest party, with 32 seats, commanding a majority with the support of nationalist and religious parties. Yesh Atid, which led the coalition which brought down Mr Netanyahu in elections last year, is projected to win 24 seats. Religious Zionism appears to have won 14 seats, which would make it the third largest party.
"It will be better now", said Religious Zionism supporter, Julian, at the party's venue in Jerusalem. "When [Religious Zionism politician Itamar Ben-Gvir] will be minister of public security, it will be even better - he'll bring back security to the people of Israel. That's very important". However, political scientist Gayil Talshir, from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, warned that if the exit polls "reflect the real results, Israel is on its way to become Orban's Hungary", recently branded an "electoral autocracy" by the EU.
If Mr Netanyahu can secure a majority, it will stave off the prospect of a sixth election in just four years after analysts predicted deadlock. It would mark a remarkable turnaround for Mr Netanyahu, whose political future was widely written off after Mr Lapid formed an unlikely alliance of ideologically diverse parties to take power in June 2021, with the uniting aim of making it impossible for Mr Netanyahu to form a government. At the time, Mr Netanyahu vowed to bring it down as quickly as possible and one year later the coalition government concluded it could not survive and collapsed after resignations meant it no longer had a majority.
Tapped to head new hard-right government, Netanyahu pledges Israeli unity
November 13 2022
JERUSALEM Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu received an official mandate on Sunday to form a new government and pledged that he would seek national consensus after an election in which Jewish far-rightists surged, drawing concern at home and abroad. Tasking Netanyahu with building the next coalition, President Isaac Herzog noted that Israel's longest-serving premier had received enough recommendations from like-minded parties to secure 64 of parliament's 120 seats.
That puts the conservative Netanyahu on the path to one of the most stable governments in years, after an 18-month hiatus during which he was replaced by a rare but fragile alliance of centrist, liberal, nationalist and Arab politicians. "I intend to work to broaden the zone of consensus among us", Netanyahu said in televised remarks at Herzog's residence, adding that he would represent all Israelis "without exception".
He asserted that there was already widespread agreement on Israel's Jewish identity but that individual liberties should also be upheld - an apparent allusion to its 21% Arab minority as well as secularists. Reiterating two of his long-held convictions, he pledged further free-market reforms to lower costs of living and said: "We must determinedly take action against Iran's belligerence and, above all, foil its effort to arm itself with nuclear weaponry, which has direct designs against our existence".
Having forged normalisation with United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco in 2020, Netanyahu said he would now work on "further peace deals, peace through strength, peace in exchange for peace, with additional Arab countries - and thus, to a large extent, end the Israeli-Arab conflict".
He added: "I did not say the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but in my opinion this is the preliminary stage that would also bring that outcome".
‘Shameful’: Israelis assault troops, initiate clashes with Palestinians in Hebron
One soldier, two Palestinians injured by attacks in West Bank city during annual pilgrimage; military chief condemns ‘shameful and disgraceful criminal behavior’
Times of Israel
November 19 2022
Israelis clashed with Palestinians and security forces in the West Bank city of Hebron on Saturday, leaving at least three people hurt, the military said. The clashes came as thousands of Jewish Israelis spent the weekend in the city for an annual pilgrimage tradition.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, Jewish worshipers being escorted by the army to the tomb of Othniel Ben Kenaz attacked Palestinians with stones, who also responded with stone throwing. Ben Kenaz was the first biblical judge after Joshua, and his tomb is believed to be located in the H1 area of Hebron, which is controlled by Palestinians.
"Forces that were securing the area acted to separate the two sides and used riot dispersal means", the IDF said. The army said one Israeli man assaulted a female soldier with a wooden stick, lightly injuring her. Several suspects who were detained also assaulted soldiers, the IDF said, before they were handed over to police.
In a separate violent incident in Hebron, the IDF said two Palestinians were injured by stones hurled by Israelis. The IDF said troops treated the two at the scene, before they were taken by the Palestinian Red Crescent emergency service for further treatment.
Videos published by Palestinian media outlets showed Israelis and Palestinians hurling stones at each other in the streets of Hebron. Another clip showed an Israeli man slapping a Palestinian teenager in the street, before soldiers arrive to disperse the Palestinians, not the Israeli attackers.
The IDF in a statement said "violence of any kind, in particular against the security forces, is an intolerable criminal act that requires immediate attention and demands strict justice". Army chief Aviv Kohavi issued a separate statement, calling the attacks "unacceptable" and "shameful and disgraceful criminal behavior". "We will work for swift and strict justice", Kohavi said.
Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid said attacking soldiers was a "national disgrace". "This is harmful to Israel’s security, it harms the values of the Israel Defense Forces and those who protect our lives, and this is a serious criminal offense. This evening I wish strength to the soldiers of the IDF who stand guarding our country. We will bring justice to the perpetrators", Lapid said on Twitter.
Outgoing Defense Minister Benny Gantz also said he "strongly condemns" the violence. "I strongly condemn the attack against security forces and Palestinian residents by extremists in Hebron", Gantz said on Twitter. "I am sure that we charge the rioters, who do not represent the [rest of the] settlements, and whose conduct harms the [army’s] ability to fulfill security tasks in the area", Gantz added.
Incoming Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did not issue a statement and his spokesman didn't comment
Tor Wennesland, the United Nations Special Coordinator for the Middle East Peace Process, denounced the violence. "I condemn today’s violent attacks by Israeli extremists against Palestinian residents in the Old City of Hebron", he tweeted. "Such acts may aggravate an already tense environment. All have a responsibility to act against extremists & to speak out against all acts of violence and incitement".
On Friday night, one of Knesset member Itamar Ben Gvir’s bodyguards was injured in an altercation with settlers in Hebron. Ben Gvir lives in the settlement of Kiryat Arba on the outskirts of Hebron. In a separate incident in Hebron on Friday night, a large group of masked settlers threw stones at a Palestinian home near the city’s Jewish community, smashing the home’s windows and a car windshield.
The clashes came during traditional events marking the yearly Torah reading of the biblical Abraham’s purchase of the Hebron site the Tomb of the Patriarchs to bury his wife, the matriarch Sarah. Each year, tens of thousands of Jewish worshipers visit the city — under joint Israeli-Palestinian control — for the annual pilgrimage tradition, resulting in fierce clashes and violence with local Palestinians.
On Friday morning, ahead of the Shabbat events, a Palestinian teenager was arrested with a knife near Hebron.
The West Bank has been on edge in the past year. This spring, the IDF launched a major anti-terror offensive mostly focused on the northern West Bank to deal with a series of Palestinian attacks that have left 29 people in Israel and the West Bank dead since the start of the year. Hebron is in the southern part of the territory.
The operation has netted more than 2,000 arrests in near-nightly raids, but has also left over 130 Palestinians dead, many of them — but not all — while carrying out attacks or during clashes with security forces. At the same time, there has been a noted rise in settler attacks against Palestinians and security forces.
Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu will pursue a policy of increased settlement expansion in the West Bank, his Likud party said overnight on Wednesday as he prepared to unveil his new cabinet. Following his November 1 election win, veteran hawk Netanyahu secured a mandate to form a government backed by ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties and an extreme-right bloc.
The incoming government has sparked fears of a military escalation in the West Bank amid the worst violence in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory for nearly 20 years. “The Jewish people have an exclusive and inalienable right to all parts of the Land of Israel,” his right-wing Likud party said. “The government will encourage and develop settlement in all parts of the Land of Israel – in the Galilee, the Negev, the Golan, in Judea and Samaria.”
The statement also referred to demands by Mr Netanyahu’s far-right allies to give security forces greater leeway in the use of force in the occupied West Bank. “The government will strive to strengthen security forces and support fighters and police to combat and defeat terrorism,” it said.
The statement came as Mr Netanyahu, known as Bibi, unveiled the appointment of former general Yoav Galant as defence minister. Mr Galant, a member of Likud and a close Netanyahu ally, was given the key portfolio a day before the cabinet is expected to be sworn in before parliament.
A former commander of the southern region of Israel, Mr Galant has also served in several ministerial posts in Mr Netanyahu’s previous cabinets. Mr Galant had a long career in the army, reaching the rank of general in 2002, and becoming military attache to former prime minister Ariel Sharon. He would later be appointed commander-in-chief of the southern military region, serving at the time of Israel’s unilateral withdrawal from the Palestinian enclave of Gaza in 2005.
Bezalel Smotrich, leader of the extreme-right formation Religious Zionism, is to be the minister with control over civil affairs in the West Bank, a responsibility usually falling to the defence minister.
Mr Netanyahu also announced his intention to elect a new Speaker of parliament, Amir Ohana who, in 2019, was the first openly gay MP to take up a ministerial post in Israel. The Likud statement said “the status quo on matters of religion and state will be maintained as it has been for decades in Israel, including with regard to holy sites”.
Israel has occupied the West Bank since the Six-Day War of 1967. An estimated 475,000 Jewish settlers live in the territory, alongside about 2.9 million Palestinians, in communities considered illegal under international law.
JERUSALEM The Israeli security cabinet has announced measures to revoke certain rights of “terrorist families” after two attacks in east Jerusalem, one of which killed seven people near a synagogue.
Ahead of the meeting late on Saturday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had promised a “strong and swift” response to the attacks carried out by two Palestinians from east Jerusalem. Afterwards, the security cabinet announced measures to revoke the rights to social security of “the families of terrorists that support terrorism”. It also said there would be a discussion on Sunday by the council of ministers over a bill to revoke their Israeli identity cards.
The measures announced are in line with proposals from Mr Netanyahu’s right-wing political partners, who enabled him to return to power at the end of December following elections the previous month. They are likely to apply primarily to Palestinians with Israeli nationality (Israeli Arabs) and Palestinians with resident status in east Jerusalem.
On Friday night, a 21-year-old Palestinian fired on passers-by near a synagogue in the settlement neighbourhood of Neve Yaacov, killing seven people before being shot. The bloodshed continued on Saturday when a 13-year-old Palestinian boy shot and wounded a 47-year-old Israeli father and his soldier son, 23, in Silwan, just outside the walled Old City of east Jerusalem. The boy blamed for the attack was shot and wounded at the scene. No one has claimed responsibility for either of the attacks.
The security cabinet also decided to make it easier to obtain permits to carry firearms. “When civilians have guns, they can defend themselves,” National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir said outside a Jerusalem hospital on Saturday.
Israeli forces have been placed on high alert, and the army has announced that it will be reinforcing troop numbers in the West Bank, while calls for restraint have multiplied from abroad. The attacks came after one of the deadliest Israeli army raids in the West Bank in two decades, rocket fire from militants in the Gaza Strip and retaliatory Israeli airstrikes.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken is expected in Jerusalem and Ramallah on Monday and Tuesday to discuss steps towards de-escalation.
Friday’s attack near a synagogue, which coincided with International Holocaust Remembrance Day, sparked outrage in Europe and the US and condemnation from several Arab governments that have ties with Israel – including Jordan, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. Israeli and Palestinian media have named the gunman as Khayri Alqam, who was being praised on some Arabic-language social media platforms.
Calling the attack “particularly abhorrent,” the UN Secretary-General, Antonio Guterres, said he was “deeply worried about the current escalation of violence”. The Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas refrained from condemnation, with his office insisting Israel was “fully responsible for the dangerous escalation”.
The fresh violence came after nine Palestinians were killed on Thursday in what Israel described as a “counter-terrorism” operation in the Jenin refugee camp. It was one of the deadliest Israeli army raids in the West Bank since the second intifada, the Palestinian uprising of 2000 to 2005. Israel said Islamic Jihad operatives were the target. Islamic Jihad and Hamas later fired several rockets at Israeli territory. Most were intercepted by Israeli air defences. The military responded with strikes on Hamas targets in Gaza. There were no casualties reported on either side, but Gaza’s armed groups vowed more action.
Mr Netanyahu, who returned to power in December after 14 months in opposition, brands himself as the leader best suited to keep Israel safe and will be tested by the deadliest spate of violence targeting Israelis in years.
Mr Abbas and Mr Netanyahu are due to meet separately with Mr Blinken this week, talks that have taken on renewed urgency amid the widening bloodshed. It will be Mr Netanyahu’s first high-level US meeting since returning to power as the head of Israel’s right-wing government.
Mr Netanyahu’s domestic critics continued their protests on Saturday, with thousands turning out in Tel Aviv to oppose his judicial reform plan that aims to give politicians more control over the Supreme Court. Demonstrators observed a minute of silence for those killed on Friday.
JERUSALEM When Antony Blinken landed at Ben Gurion airport on Monday he said he had arrived at a "pivotal moment".
By the end of his two-day visit, it is clear he had more than one moment in mind.
Mr Blinken met Mr Netanyahu in Jerusalem on Monday and urged all sides "to take urgent steps to restore calm, to de-escalate". "We want to make sure there's an environment in which we can I hope at some point create the conditions where we can start to restore a sense of security for Israelis and Palestinians alike, which of course is sorely lacking," he said.
The Americans are by far still the most powerful single diplomatic force able to influence both Israeli and Palestinian leaderships, but they have significant limits.
One is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and military occupation is not the priority it used to be for US foreign policy.
Another is the force of US domestic opinion as administrations, Democratic and Republican, feel the pressure of lawmakers in Congress who can take strong positions on the conflict and occupation.
But still, the US is historically the broker for peace - an "ironclad" ally of Israel - and it ploughs in money, huge amounts of military aid to Israel and some restored funding to the Palestinians mostly through the UN.
As for Mr Netanyahu, the Americans seem to be taking him at his word that he alone is in full control of his coalition and its far-right, ultranationalist ministers.
But it is already clear the US is very worried about the scope for these figures to make things much worse. After National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir used his first public appearance in office in January to walk around Jerusalem's most sensitive holy site surrounded by protection officers, the Americans described anything that threatened the delicate status quo arrangements there as "unacceptable".
Meanwhile in the run-up to his trip there was speculation over whether Mr Blinken would refer to US concerns over the coalition's controversial proposals for the legal system - to give the government powers to override the courts if they strike down its legislation.
It came in a quietly devastating moment after Mr Blinken said the US-Israel relationship transcended "any one American or Israeli government".
He stood next to the Israeli prime minister and spoke of the two countries' "shared interests and in shared values", spelling out what these were: "core democratic principles and institutions… respect for human rights, the equal administration of justice for all, the equal rights of minority groups, the rule of law, free press, a robust civil society".
It was an extraordinary description - effectively a list of expectations that the US had of the Israeli leader to maintain democracy. Before this, perhaps in anticipation, Mr Netanyahu assured him that Israel, like America, would "remain" a strong democracy.
One veteran Washington correspondent at the Israeli newspaper Yediot Ahronoth wrote that it showed the US administration saw Mr Netanyahu's plans as nothing short of a "regime coup" that would leave Israel "an illiberal and non-democratic country in its wake".
Mr Blinken's comments dominated many Israeli headlines. One far-right Israeli minister angrily responded "you decided to give our prime minister a lesson in democracy", telling him to stop interfering.
Meanwhile in Ramallah a key subject with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will have been calling on him not to follow through on his threat to drop security co-ordination with Israel, a legacy of the breakthrough 1990s Oslo peace agreements.
The system sees PA security forces stepping aside when the Israeli army raids Palestinian cities. It is deeply unpopular with many ordinary Palestinians and Mr Abbas has repeatedly threatened to ditch it in the past but only rarely ever got close to that. By Monday it already looked like he was backing down, reportedly saying it was "only partially suspended".
Mr Blinken later spoke of "concrete steps" that both sides could now try to take to reduce the level of violence, and that members of his team would be staying on to work on them. He was asked to elaborate but he would not. The visit started with a "pivotal moment" but finished with little clarity about how to fix it.
Israeli missile hits heart of Damascus security elite
February 20 2023
Beirut: An Israeli missile strike early on Sunday killed 15 people and destroyed a building in a Damascus neighbourhood home to much of Syria’s security apparatus, a war monitor said. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said the strike, which hit close to an Iranian cultural centre, had killed 15 people including civilians.
Since the beginning of the war in Syria in 2011, Israel has carried out hundreds of airstrikes against its neighbour, primarily targeting positions of the Syrian army, Iranian forces and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, allies of the Syrian regime. But it rarely hits residential areas of the capital. Sunday’s strike hit Kafr Sousa, home to senior officials, security agencies and intelligence headquarters. “At 00.22am, the Israeli enemy carried out an aerial aggression from the direction of the occupied Golan Heights targeting several areas in Damascus and its vicinity, including residential neighbourhoods,” Syria’s Defence Ministry said.
Israel’s military rarely comments on its strikes against Syria, but regularly asserts that it will not let Iran extend its influence to Israel’s borders. The Syrian regime of President Bashar al-Assad receives military support from Tehran and its allied armed Shia groups, including Hezbollah, which are declared enemies of Israel. Footage posted by state media showed a 10-storey building was badly damaged in the attack, crushing the structure of its lower floors.
“The strike on Sunday is the deadliest Israeli attack in the Syrian capital,” said Rami Abdel Rahman, head of the Britain-based observatory, which has a network of sources inside Syria. The attack comes more than a month after an Israeli missile strike hit Damascus International Airport, killing four people, including two soldiers. At the end of last year, the head of the Israel Defence Forces Operations Directorate, Oded Basiuk, presented the military’s “operational outlook” for 2023, saying the force “will not accept Hezbollah 2.0 in Syria”.
JERUSALEM “Hatikva,” Israel’s national anthem, is usually sung at the end of political demonstrations. That has been the case at all the previous rallies held over the past six weeks against the Netanyahu government’s plans to weaken the Supreme Court. The demonstration outside the Knesset Monday began with the anthem.
“We decided to do it like at soccer games, sing ‘Hatikva’ at the beginning,” explained Shikma Bressler, a physicist at the Weizmann Institute of Science who is a founder of the Black Flag protest movement and one of the demonstration’s organizers. “This isn’t going to end like another rally, we’re marching from here.”
The protest movement is slowly ratcheting up. In the morning, groups of activists were removed by police after blocking some coalition lawmakers from leaving their homes. No one really cares anymore about the precise or even approximate numbers of Israelis who turn up at the protests; what matters is that the movement has proved it can draw tens of thousands into the streets, Saturday evening and during the day Monday, week after week. This Monday’s innovation was the long march around the Knesset after the rally, which nearly surrounded the parliament and snarled traffic in central Jerusalem for hours.
The police presence was even heavier than last week. Additional fences were erected to prevent anyone from breaking into the Knesset compound. At the start of the rally, National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir had his two big, black SUVs parked provocatively on Rothschild Street, at the main entrance to the parliament. But there was no need for such a show of force. At least not this time. This week’s rally, on the day the Knesset was scheduled to vote for the first tranche of laws in its “legal reform” – stacking the Judicial Appointments Committee with coalition members and preventing the Supreme Court from disqualifying Basic Laws – was a bit more raucous and bitter than last week’s. But it wasn’t violent. Yet. It was another warning shot: There are enough people determined enough to wage a much uglier campaign, if and when the time comes.
Another difference Monday was that serving politicians weren’t invited to address the rally. Opposition MKs came and went backstage, walking back and forth from the Knesset. Representatives of Yesh Atid, National Union and the Labor Party watched each either warily for signs of compromise with the government. “We need to guard Benny Gantz closely, so he doesn’t undermine us,” muttered one, as news came that Gantz and opposition leader Yair Lapid were meeting in the Knesset to coordinate. “Just a few days ago it looked like [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu was about to hit the brakes and accept the president’s proposal for talks,” said one parliamentarian. “Then he doubled down again.”
Two weeks since his sudden statement to the nation, President Isaac Herzog has remained silent as politicians on both sides failed to accept his offer to host talks. That doesn’t mean he was idle. Herzog wasn’t only talking to the two sides, beseeching them to come together. He already assembled teams of constitutional experts to prepare new legislation that might be more consensual. But like athletes ordered from the bench by their coach, they’re still doing warm-ups on the sideline.
Herzog was led to believe by both sides that there would be a period for negotiations. The initial argument was over whether the government would suspend the legislation for the talks and for how long. But over the weekend the dispute moved to the point where the legislation would be paused. The opposition demanded that the government postpone the first of three mandatory Knesset votes on the bills. Netanyahu was prepared to open talks only after the coalition won the first vote.
Coalition sources say the prime minister can’t even deliver that. “Netanyahu said in a party leaders’ meeting that after the first votes on the first two provisions, we can wait a bit with the next law, the override clause,” said a source in one of the two Haredi parties. “But [Arye] Dery, [Moshe] Gafni and [Yitzchak] Goldknopf said no way. Bibi has already blinked, but it’s his partners who won’t let him back down, even for a moment. They won’t let this chance to weaken the Supreme Court elude them.”
Another possible reason for Netanyahu’s intransigence is the weekend he spent holed up at home. For a taste of the atmosphere around the ruling family’s Shabbat table, one need go no farther than the Twitter account of Netanyahu’s wastrel son Yair. The dauphin tweeted Monday, “Wow!!! The Shin Bet is involved in a coup against the prime minister!” He deleted the tweet soon after. But the message is clear. Netanyahu’s closest circle believes he is facing an insurrection from Israel’s security forces.
Such a showdown may actually be in the offing, though not quite in the way Netanyahu Jr. imagines it. Moshe Ya’alon, a former Israel Defense Forces chief of staff and defense minister in previous Netanyahu governments, now a central figure in the protests against him, was at the rally as well. He said that a situation where the heads of the security services, like the IDF chief of staff, the Shin Bet security service director and the national police commissioner, had to choose between obeying orders from the prime minister and government, and the guidance of the attorney general, could arise in the near future.
“There’s no manual for this,” Ya’alon said. “Just as no one ever thought we would need a law against having a prime minister who has been charged with criminal offenses. But it’s clear [the security forces] are guided by the attorney general in such a situation. We’re facing a challenge between the powers in Israel, you can already see it in the way the commissioner is ignoring Ben-Gvir’s illegal orders.” As he spoke, Police Commissioner Kobi Shabtai stood just a hundred meters from the stage, observing his officers at work and trying to avoid being photographed speaking with opposition politicians leaving the Knesset. That’s the last thing he needs now.
JERUSALEM Israeli jet fighters struck Hamas sites after militants fired rockets from Gaza on Thursday, the Israeli military said, raising fears of a wider conflict after a raid in the occupied West Bank left 11 Palestinians dead. The Israeli military said it bombarded a weapons-manufacturing facility affiliated with Hamas, the de facto rulers of the Gaza Strip and a US and Australian-designated terror group. Israeli forces also attacked a Hamas military site in Jabalia in northern Gaza.
Palestinian officials in Gaza didn’t report any injuries, although the site was located in a residential neighbourhood near a school and a health clinic.
The Israeli military slammed Hamas for “placing its military assets in the midst of the civilian population”. Hamas vowed the strikes wouldn’t stop its actions against Israel and said “the response to the occupation’s aggression will remain”.
The Israeli strikes followed the firing of six rockets from the Gaza Strip, the coastal Palestinian enclave ruled by Hamas. Israel’s Iron Dome air defence system shot down five while a sixth fell in an open area, the Israeli military said.
Both Hamas and Iran-backed Palestinian Islamic Jihad had threatened retaliation on Wednesday following the deadly raid in Nablus’s Old City, although neither took responsibility for Thursday’s rocket fire. A spokesman for Hamas’s military wing warned that the Gaza militants’ patience “was running out”. The UN’s envoy for the Middle East peace process, Tor Wennesland, headed to the Gaza Strip on Thursday. Mr. Wennesland met with Hamas officials amid efforts to avoid the conflict spiralling out of control, a diplomat said.
Israeli troops entered a bustling area of Nablus on Wednesday to arrest Palestinian militants that Israel said were planning an attack. The resulting firefight left at least three gunmen dead, Israeli officials said. An elderly Palestinian man, as well as others also not claimed by any militant group, were also killed, said Palestinian officials.
Israeli police raised its alert level across the country on Wednesday night following the deadly raid, fearing revenge attacks. A similar Israeli operation in Jenin in late January that left 10 dead was swiftly followed by a Palestinian man fatally shooting seven Israelis in Jerusalem, the deadliest attack in the city since 2008.
The past two months have been the deadliest start to any year in the West Bank since at least 2000, Palestinian health officials said. At least 60 Palestinians have been killed in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, according to a tally by The Wall Street Journal.
Israel’s government has vowed a harsh crackdown on Palestinian militancy and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, which has seen violence in recent years, is set to begin in late March. Security analysts say Hamas likely prefers to maintain the uneasy ceasefire in Gaza, which has been battered by repeated wars, even as violence rises in the West Bank and Israel. But events on the ground could change the group’s calculations, analysts say.
Six Palestinian men were killed Tuesday in the West Bank city of Jenin during an Israeli military raid pursuing a Hamas operative suspected of fatally shooting two Israeli brothers last week, Israeli and Palestinian authorities said. The Israeli military said troops encircled a house in Jenin’s refugee camp where Abdelfattah Kharoushe, a member of the US-designated terrorist group Hamas, had barricaded himself. Soldiers fired shoulder-mounted missiles at Mr Kharoushe’s hide-out in an attempt to force him out and killed him in an ensuing gunbattle along with five other Palestinian men.
Hamas said another of those killed was a member of its armed wing and identified the rest as militants who had joined the shootout with Israeli troops. Three Israeli police officers — members of a counterterror unit — also were wounded, Israeli officials said.
At least 65 Palestinians and 14 Israelis have been killed in the West Bank and Jerusalem since the beginning of 2023, marking one of the deadliest periods for both sides in years, according to a tally by The Wall Street Journal. The Israeli military said most of the Palestinians killed had attacked Israeli troops or civilians, but some, including a 61-year-old Palestinian woman in Jenin, were civilians.
Israeli and Palestinian officials have warned the violence could escalate during the coming Muslim holy month of Ramadan that begins later in March and coincides with the Jewish Passover holiday. Tensions often rise in Israel and the West Bank during these holidays.
Tuesday’s raid comes more than a week after Israeli and Palestinian officials pledged to calm tensions ahead of Ramadan, although Israeli officials said then they didn’t agree to any limitation on their military activities. Israeli officials said Mr Kharoushe shot and killed two Israeli brothers as they drove through the Palestinian town of Huwara last Sunday.
Following the shooting, hundreds of Jewish rioters stormed through Huwara and several neighbouring villages, torching houses and cars while Israeli troops looked on, according to Palestinian witnesses. The riots left a Palestinian man dead and scores wounded. A top Israeli general condemned the revenge attack as a “pogrom,” a term largely used for attacks on Jewish communities in Eastern Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. The State Department condemned the riots and said it expected Israel to hold the perpetrators accountable.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praised Israeli troops for “eliminating the despicable terrorist who murdered the two brothers in cold blood” during the Jenin raid. “Whoever strikes us will bear the cost,” Mr Netanyahu said. Israel has occupied the West Bank since 1967, and around 2.8 million Palestinians live there under Israeli military rule. Peace talks that could have created an independent Palestinian state have been moribund since 2014.
After a series of deadly Palestinian attacks last spring, the Israeli military stepped up its raids across the West Bank to crack down on rising Palestinian militancy. This year’s fast-rising death toll follows a bloody 2022. At least 146 Palestinians were killed by Israeli security forces last year in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem, the highest toll since 2004, according to the Israeli human-rights group B’Tselem. At least 31 Israelis were killed.
Palestinian officials say Israeli raids make it harder for them to combat the militants themselves, especially in the absence of any timeline for an end to Israeli rule. “If the Israelis think they can continue with these aggressions without a response from the Palestinian people, they are living in an illusion,” said Akram Rajoub, the governor of Jenin. “This violence will only lead to more violence, this blood to more blood.”
Why doesn't the headline read "Two Israeli brothers killed by Palestinians", then explain why the murderers were pursued & shot.
Arab states wanting to normalise relations with the Assad regime are heading for a confrontation with Western allies that remain opposed to lifting the sanctions on Syria. Last week, the Egyptian Foreign Minister was the latest senior figure from a Western-aligned Arab nation to meet President Bashar al-Assad and call for the two countries to “return to a normal status”. The Jordanian Foreign Minister also made a first visit since 2012, and Assad was invited last month to Oman.
The move towards renewing ties and readmitting Syria to the Arab League, from which it was suspended in November 2012 after shooting scores of demonstrators at the start of the anti-Assad uprising, is being led by the United Arab Emirates.
Although hostile to Iran, the Assad regime’s closest ally, the UAE has demanded an end to “fragmentation” in the Arab world. But even Saudi Arabia, which for years has led resistance to the move by Sunni-led Arab nations, is shifting position. “Someone had to initiate the discussion,” the UAE’s Foreign Trade Minister, Thani al-Zeyoudi, told The Times. He said that the UAE wanted to open up the Syrian economy, despite Western sanctions.
He added that the UAE was sending a message to the US, mastermind of sanctions on the Syrian economy. In recent years the UAE has moved from a once-tight lockstep with Washington on Middle East strategy and closer to Moscow. “America has its own agenda. For us, we are telling them bluntly that stability and prosperity are critical,” Mr Zeyoudi said. “If they don’t want that, that’s their agenda, but for us it’s an important step.”
The UAE was always dubious about the Arab Spring uprisings, seeing them as a threat to the autocratic but stable rule of the Gulf monarchies. However, its aggressive attempt to rehabilitate Assad, beginning with trade missions and the reopening of its Damascus embassy in 2018, was accelerated by a slow falling out with the US.
Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed, President of the UAE, was outraged by president Barack Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, which was negotiated behind the back of America’s Gulf allies. He hoped for better things from president Donald Trump, but after four years of wild gyrations in US policy towards the region decided to pursue a path independent of Washington. Given that the US has been the main security guarantor for the Arab monarchies, this also meant pursuing less confrontational relations with the UAE’s neighbours.
The UAE is now in the unusual position of leading outreach in the Arab world both to Israel, with which it normalised relations in 2020, and also to Syria, a self-proclaimed member of the so-called Axis of Resistance to Zionism. The trigger for the latest diplomatic moves in Damascus was the series of earthquakes last month. The UAE sent half of its $US100m aid pledge to Syria; Saudi Arabia, which once funded the Syrian rebels, also sent planeloads of aid. “In the Arab world there is a consensus growing that the status quo is not workable,” Prince Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud, its Foreign Minister, said at the Munich Security Conference last month.
Avi Melamed, an author on Israeli-Arab relations and a former Israeli intelligence officer, said it was possible that the UAE and Saudi outreach was also encouraged by Israel, which before the Arab Spring held secret talks with the Assad regime with a view to signing a peace treaty. “Israel views the potential Saudi-Assad rapprochement positively,” Mr Melamed said. He said that the Arab states saw normalisation with the regime as a way of reducing Iranian influence.
The really interesting part of this report is the last.
Israel is quietly trying to normalize relations with Syria. Very good news.
Bibi defies mass protests, organisers claim the "biggest protests" in Israel’s history
Melanie Swan, a British journalist based in the UAE, The Times
Tuesday March 14 2023
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed his government will “fulfil our mandate” despite a weekend of historic mass demonstrations against his plans to curb Israel’s judiciary. Hundreds of thousands of demonstrators took to the streets in cities across the country on Saturday, in what organisers claimed were the biggest protests in Israel’s history.
More than 240,000 marched in Tel Aviv on Saturday, with 50,000 on the streets of the northern city of Haifa and tens of thousands more in 105 rallies across cities including Jerusalem, Ra’anana and Be’er Sheva. It was the highest turnout since protests began 10 weeks ago, when Mr Netanyahu returned to power at the head of a coalition that includes hardline religious nationalist parties determined to curb the independence of the Supreme Court. They also want to expand Jewish settlements, give more powers for Rabbinical courts and tighten rules on conversion to Judaism and immigration.
Mr Netanyahu struck a defiant note at the start of a cabinet meeting on Sunday. “We received a mandate and we will fulfil our mandate,” he said, in filmed remarks that were posted on his official Twitter account.
Protest leaders insist they won’t back down either. “It’s never been like this before,” said Dana Oren-Yanay, a council member in Herzliya, where 20,000 of the tech hub’s 100,000 residents took to the streets. “This is the power of this campaign. Even the politicians understand that the fighting is in the hands of the people, not the Knesset. Only the people can stop this terrible revolution.” She accused Mr Netanyahu of using multiple international trips to try to distract from the domestic turmoil, which has also been fuelled by the soaring cost of living. “In Herzliya you never saw people like teachers joining such public protests, but now, they’d prefer to lose their job than stay silent in this revolution. People are taking their children, their grandparents, even Likud (Mr Netanyahu’s party) voters are joining protests because they know this is not the way.”
Police have adopted increasingly brutal tactics to suppress the unrest, including using water cannons and stun grenades. Protesters have closed major roads and last week forced the Prime Minister to take a helicopter to the airport to fly to Rome. Thursday’s protests also disrupted a visit by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin, whose schedule was rearranged to keep his engagements close to the airport.
Another issue motivating many protesters is anger at the privileges enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox community, who are exempt from military service and are entitled to state handouts. Weeks of protest have caused the shekel, the Israeli currency, to slip (Ed. from 29 cents to 28 cents) its lowest value since April 2020. Military reservists have threatened to shun call-up orders and the country’s vital hi-tech sector is threatening to relocate.
Mr Netanyahu, who returned to office for a sixth term in late December, is on trial in three corruption cases and denies all wrongdoing. His choice of cabinet ministers has caused international alarm. Itamar Ben-Gvir, minister of national security, has a conviction for incitement to racism and terrorism. Mr Netanyahu was forced to dismiss Aryeh Deri as health and interior minister after the high court found his twin appointments “unreasonable in the extreme” due to past offences including bribery, for which he served time in prison.
The protests come amid further violence between Israeli troops and Palestinians in the occupied Palestinian territories and terror attacks across Israel. On Sunday, Israeli forces shot and killed three Palestinian gunmen, believed to be members of the Lions Den group, after they opened fire on troops in the West Bank. It brought the number of Palestinians killed since the start of the year to 80, with Israel stepping up arrest raids in the West Bank. A wave of Palestinian terror attacks has killed 14 Israelis since the start of the year.
Jerusalem Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday put off a decision on bitterly contested plans for a judicial overhaul amid fears that Israel's worst national crisis in years could fracture his coalition or escalate into violence. "From a will to prevent the rift in the nation, I have decided to delay the second and third reading in order to reach a broad consensus," Netanyahu said in a TV address, calling the move "a chance to avoid a civil war".
The government's plan to enable parliament to override Supreme Court decisions and hold control over judicial appointments triggered some of the biggest protests in Israeli history, with opponents calling the move a threat to democracy. While some Israeli politicians tentatively welcomed the delay, some of Netanyahu's coalition partners called it a mistake and protest leaders said they would keep up demonstrations until the legislation was dropped entirely. Shikma Bressler, one of the main protest leaders, said Netanyahu was trying to weaken the demonstrations. "Now is not the time to reduce the pressure, but to increase it," Bressler said.
One of Netanyahu's hard-right coalition partners, security minister Itamar Ben-Gvir, said he had agreed to the delay on a promise the bill would return after the parliamentary recess and a deal to form a National Guard under his ministry - a move opponents fiercely criticise as giving him his own militia.
Tens of thousands of right-wing supporters of the law meanwhile rallied outside parliament at the urging of Ben-Gvir and other leaders. Groups of Jewish settlers and far-right football fans favouring the judicial changes had also urged protests and police said they were reinforcing after social media threats of violent attacks on left-wing Israelis.
Netanyahu's decision to put off the legislation also followed opposition from the Histadrut labour union, which grounded flights at Ben Gurion airport and planned to close seaports, banks, hospitals and medical services. The union called off the strikes after Netanyahu announced the delay.
The White House welcomed Netanyahu's announcement, urging Israeli leaders to find a compromise as soon as possible and adding that democratic societies are strengthened by checks and balances.
Israeli President Isaac Herzog said stopping the bill was "the right thing to do". Herzog staged a rare intervention into politics earlier on Monday to plead with Netanyahu to halt his judicial overhaul for the sake of national unity. Opposition leader Benny Gantz said the decision was "better late than never" but added he would not compromise on the "basics of democracy" in any dialogue on the new law.
Concerns over national security and what he called a "deep split" in Israeli society prompted Defence Minister Yoav Gallant to urge Netanyahu to shelve the legislation on Saturday. It broke a taboo in a country that revered military service as a sacred national duty. In response, the prime minister sacked him on Sunday.
Gallant's removal fed accusations the government was sacrificing the national interest for its own, especially at a time when the army is reinforcing in the West Bank with violence there increasing.
Gallant welcomed Netanyahu's decision to put off the law.
Representatives from coalition and opposition parties gathered at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening to begin negotiations over the government’s contentious judicial overhaul plans, in the first face-to-face talks between the sides after three turbulent months of a legislative blitz and nationwide mass protests.
The negotiations came after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Monday agreed to pause the controversial legislation, to give a chance for dialogue on the legislation that Justice Minister Yariv Levin publicly unveiled in January, triggering the wave of demonstrations and intense public opposition.
A statement from the President’s Office released after the 90-minute meeting said the discussions were conducted in “a positive atmosphere,” and that further meetings would be held on Wednesday.
Tuesday’s talks did not touch on the substance of potential reform, but rather focused on the mechanism for negotiations. Channel 12 reported that it was also aimed at fostering a friendly atmosphere more conducive to talks than the fiery, combative rhetoric the sides have employed against each other for weeks.
Reuters In the US, the US president, asked by Reuters’ White House correspondent on Tuesday what he wanted Netanyahu to do regarding the current judicial reform law, replied: “I hope he walks away from it.”
In his statement in response to Biden, Netanyahu said: “I have known President Biden for over 40 years, and I appreciate his longstanding commitment to Israel. The alliance between Israel and the United States is unbreakable and always overcomes the occasional disagreements between us.”
Netanyahu justified the planned judicial overhaul, saying: “My administration is committed to strengthening democracy by restoring the proper balance between the three branches of government, which we are striving to achieve via a broad consensus.”
And he directly rejected the president’s critique: “Israel is a sovereign country which makes its decisions by the will of its people and not based on pressures from abroad, including from the best of friends.”
Times of Israel The White House offered praise Wednesday for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s comments in response to concerns from US President Joe Biden regarding the judicial overhaul being advanced by the Israeli government. The remarks by White House National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby appeared to represent an attempt by the Biden administration to lower the temperature after tensions between the US and Israel flared up a day earlier.
“There’s a lot to like about it. He talked about searching for compromise. He talked about working toward building consensus with respect to these potential judicial reforms. He talked about how unshakable he knows the relationship is between the United States and Israel. And he talked about his great respect for President Biden — that’s a respect that President Biden shares as well,” Kirby said upon being primed at a press briefing.
Israel strikes Lebanon and Gaza after major rocket attack
Lucy Williamson & David Gritten
BBC News, in Jerusalem and London
Saturday April 8th 2023
The Israeli military has carried out air strikes on targets belonging to the Palestinian militant group Hamas in southern Lebanon and the Gaza Strip. The military said the attacks were a response to a barrage of 34 rockets fired from Lebanon into northern Israel on Thursday, which it blamed on Hamas. Militants in Gaza fired dozens more rockets after the strikes began.
Tensions are high following two nights of Israeli police raids at the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem earlier this week. The raids triggered violent confrontations with Palestinians inside the mosque, which is Islam's third holiest site, and caused anger across the region.
Hamas did not say that it fired the rockets from Lebanon, which was the biggest such barrage in 17 years. But its leader Ismail Haniyeh, who was visiting Beirut at the time, said Palestinians would not "sit with their arms crossed" in the face of Israeli aggression.
Late on Friday, two British-Israeli sisters were killed in a shooting attack in the occupied West Bank, while an Italian tourist was also killed when a car drove down a beachside promenade in Tel Aviv. In response, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered the police and army to mobilise their reserves to bolster counter-terrorism efforts.
The strikes in Lebanon took place in the area south of the coastal city of Tyre. Early on Friday, there were two or three explosions around the Rashidieh Palestinian refugee camp, 5km (3 miles) from the city. Lebanese media also reported strikes on the outskirts of the village of al-Qulaila, another 4km further south. Photographs appeared to show that a small bridge was destroyed.
The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) tweeted that its warplanes struck "terrorist infrastructures belonging to Hamas" in Lebanon. "The IDF will not allow the Hamas terrorist organization to operate from within Lebanon and hold the state of Lebanon responsible for every directed fire emanating from its territory," it warned. Hamas said it strongly condemned "the blatant Zionist aggression against Lebanon in the vicinity of Tyre at dawn today [Friday]".
In Gaza, more than 10 Hamas targets were hit, including a shaft for an underground site to construct weapons, three other weapons workshops and an underground "terrorist tunnel", the IDF said. During the strikes, at least 44 rockets were fired from Gaza towards southern Israel, Israeli media reported. Most were intercepted by Israel's Iron Dome defence system or fell in open areas, but at least one house in the city of Sderot was hit. There were no immediate reports of any casualties from either the strikes or the overnight rocket fire.
A man was injured by shrapnel in northern Israel on Thursday afternoon as a result of the rocket fire from Lebanon, which the Lebanese army said originated from the outskirts of al-Qulaila and two other border villages near Tyre - Maaliya and Zibqine. The Israeli military said 25 of the 34 rockets were intercepted, but that five hit Israeli territory.
In the north-western border town of Shlomi, the rockets left craters in the road, and damaged vehicles and a bank. A car was also damaged in the village of Fassuta. The attack came hours after the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which controls much of southern Lebanon, said it would support "all measures" taken by Palestinian groups against Israel.
Mr Netanyahu promised on Thursday night that Israel's response would "exact a significant price from our enemies".
An Israeli military spokesman told reporters following the overnight strikes in Lebanon and Gaza that the operation was over for the moment. "Nobody wants an escalation right now," Lt Col Richard Hecht said. "Quiet will be answered with quiet, at this stage I think, at least in the coming hours."
The memory of Israel's 2006 war with Hezbollah is fresh in minds on both sides of the border. Back then, a cross-border operation by Hezbollah infiltrators to capture Israeli soldiers spiralled into a month-long ground war inside Lebanon between the militant group and Israeli forces. Analysts say both sides were left bruised by that conflict, and neither is seen as wanting another war now.
The next couple of weeks are especially risky, as the Jewish Passover holiday and the Muslim holy month of Ramadan overlap, adding sensitivity to any incidents around the holy sites in Jerusalem.
After days of violence, Jerusalem prayers end peacefully
Ilan Rozenberg and Sinan Abu Mayzer, Reuters
JERUSALEM, April 9 - Ramadan prayers and Jewish Passover visits at the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound passed without incident on Sunday, after days of tension at the flashpoint Jerusalem site which led to cross-border exchanges of fire. Small groups of Jewish visitors under heavy police guard walked through the mosque compound, known in Judaism as Temple Mount, as thousands of worshippers gathered for the Passover holiday's special "Priestly Blessing" at the Western Wall below.
The Israeli military said that in light of the security situation, it would extend a closure on the West Bank and Gaza until April 13, when Passover ends.
Israeli PM reverses course on sacking defence minister
Reporting by Emily Rose, editing by James Mackenzie and Howard Goller, Reuters
JERUSALEM, April 10 - Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Monday he would leave Defence Minister Yoav Gallant in place given an escalating security crisis, reversing a decision to fire the minister that triggered protests and raised alarm abroad. He said the two had resolved their disagreement over Gallant's public call last month for a halt to the government's bitterly divisive judicial overhaul plan, which Gallant said had become a threat to Israel's security. Last week Netanyahu announced he would delay the dismissal.
"I've decided to put our differences behind us," Netanyahu said at a Monday press conference. He said the two had worked closely together throughout the last two weeks.
A Sunday opinion poll, from Israel's Channel 13 News, showed Netanyahu's Likud party would lose more than a third of its seats if an election were held now, and Netanyahu would fail to gain a majority with his hard-right coalition partners. "I'm not disturbed by the poll," Netanyahu told reporters.
Tens of thousands join protests against Israeli judicial overhaul
Rami Amichai, Reuters
Reporting by Emily Rose, Editing by Mike Harrison
Saturday May 6th 2023
TEL AVIV Tens of thousands of Israelis joined protests across the country on Saturday against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's bitterly disputed plans to tighten controls on the Supreme Court. The planned overhaul, which would give the government control over naming judges to the Supreme Court and let parliament override many rulings, was paused after opponents organised some of the biggest street protests ever seen in Israel, now in their 18th consecutive week.
The government accuses activist judges of increasingly usurping the role of parliament, and says the overhaul is needed to restore balance between the judiciary and elected politicians. Critics say it will remove vital checks and balances underpinning a democratic state and hand unchecked power to the government. Five months into the far-right coalition's term, 74% of Israelis think the government is functioning poorly, according to a poll released by the Israeli public broadcaster on Friday.
Crowds gathered in central Tel Aviv on Saturday in a show of defiance against plans which they see as an existential threat to Israeli democracy. Israel's Channel 12 estimated 110,000 people demonstrated in Tel Aviv alone, with other demonstrations held in cities across the country. "I'm very worried for my country," protester Bental Shamir, a 60-year old teacher told Reuters in Tel Aviv. "I don't want a corrupted country."
The planned overhaul has been put on hold in an attempt to give time for Israeli President Isaac Herzog, who plays a largely ceremonial role, to broker a compromise between the coalition and opposition which could see the legislation softened, but so far compromise talks have not born fruit. "I'm sure that we are closer than we can imagine," lawyer Dor Lasker, 35, told Reuters regarding the compromise talks. "I'm positive that it could happen."
Protesters waved the blue and white Israeli flags that have become a hallmark of the protests over the past three months. A statement from the Israeli president's office said King Charles III greeted Herzog after the coronation ceremony in London and commended him for his mediation efforts.
Tensions rise as Israeli minister Itamar Ben-Gvir visits Al-Aqsa mosque site
Rosie Scammell, AFP
Tuesday May 23 2023
Jerusalem Israel’s National Security Minister Itamar Ben-Gvir has visited the flashpoint Al-Aqsa mosque compound, a controversial move by the extreme-right politician amid heightened tensions in annexed east Jerusalem. The visit came three days after Mr Ben-Gvir and tens of thousands of Jewish nationalists marched through the Old City and just over a week into a fragile Gaza ceasefire.
“Jerusalem is our soul,” he wrote on Telegram on Sunday, alongside a photo of himself at the site in the heart of the Old City. “The threats of Hamas will not deter us, I went up to the Temple Mount!” he wrote, using the Jewish name for the site.
Al-Aqsa mosque is the third holiest site in Islam and is administered by Jordan. Non-Muslims are permitted to visit the site, but not pray there. The compound is also the most sacred site for Jews, who pray below it at the Western Wall. Washington said it was concerned by the “provocative visit”. “This holy space should not be used for political purposes, and we call on all parties to respect its sanctity,” the State Department said.
Hamas, the militant group that rules the blockaded Gaza Strip, denounced Mr Ben-Gvir’s last visit to the site in January and again slammed his action on Sunday. Israel will “bear responsibility for the barbaric incursions of its ministers and herds of settlers”, the group wrote on Telegram. The move “confirms the depths of danger looming over Al-Aqsa, under this Zionist fascist government and the arrogance of its ministers from the extreme right”, Hamas said.
Later on Sunday, Israel’s top politicians held a rare cabinet meeting in the tunnels beneath the Western Wall. Palestinians fear their use as a vast museum threatens the foundations of Al-Aqsa mosque. Israel considers all of Jerusalem as its capital, but the Palestinians want the eastern sector, which includes the Old City, as the capital of their future state.
The Jordanian Waqf Islamic affairs council, which administers the mosque compound, described Mr Ben-Gvir’s visit as a “blatant storming and desecration of the blessed Al-Aqsa mosque”. “No less dangerous is the call by the occupation (Israeli) government to hold its meeting this morning in the Western Wall area,” a Waqf statement said. Jordan decried Mr Ben-Gvir’s actions as a “provocative step” and a “dangerous and unacceptable escalation”.
The timing of Sunday’s visit also holds significance, coming days after extremists marched through the Old City to celebrate east Jerusalem’s capture by Israeli forces in the 1967 Six-Day War. Thursday’s event was marred by incidents of violence against Palestinians and journalists, and chants of “‘Death to Arabs”.
David: Journalists irresponsibly inflame already sensitive issues by using phrases like "extreme-right politicians". Why not just refer to Israel's 'National Security' minister?
Robert: Does not look anything like “blatant storming and desecration of the blessed Al-Aqsa mosque” by Ben Gvir
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