Former Israeli prime minister: Netanyahu enabling ‘budding fascism’


Former Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak said Benjamin Netanyahu’s government is encouraging “budding fascism.”

Speaking at the Herzliya Conference Thursday, Barak, who served as defense minister under Netanyahu until 2013, said, “A fanatic nucleus of extremist ideology has taken over Likud by using loopholes in the primaries constitution, purging Likud’s leadership of all those who cherished democracy over populism or some fleeting achievement.”

Netanyahu was responsible for this perceived development, Barak said, whether he it allowed to happen out of weakness or as a “late manifestation” of his own core beliefs.

“If it looks like budding fascism, walks like budding fascism, barks like budding fascism, then it’s budding fascism,” he said. Barak called on Israelis to bring about regime change through democratic means.

Likud in a statement dismissed Barak’s criticism as less than credible given that he was happy to serve as defense minister under Netanyahu.

“This is about clout and jobs [for Barak], not ideology,” the statement read.

Likud and Netanyahu used similar arguments to pooh–pooh critique at the Herzliya Conference by Moshe Yaalon, a Likud member and former chief-of-staff of the Israel Defense Forces, who last month resigned from his post as defense minister.

Yaalon quit after Netanyahu asked him to become foreign minister so Avigdor Liberman could take over the Defense Ministry. Netanyahu brought in Liberman’s right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu to increase the coalition’s majority in the Knesset.

On Thursday, calling himself an “alternative” to the current leadership, Yaalon accused Netanyahu of fear mongering by attempting to scare Israeli citizens about security threats to distract them from Israel’s serious problems. Yaalon said Iran is not an imminent existential threat so long as the nuclear agreement it signed with six world powers is en force, and that “we have to prepare for future events.”

Separately, in an ostensibly non-political move into which Israelis immediately read political motives, two former Israel Defense Forces chiefs of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi and Benny Gantz, set up a new cultural movement with the stated aim of promoting “hope and not of fear, when fear is sown in all directions”.

Israeli Cabinet OKs appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister


The Israeli Cabinet unanimously approved the appointment of Avigdor Lieberman as defense minister on Monday, formalizing a coalition deal between his Yisrael Beiteinu party and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud.

The vote came after weeks of talks initiated by Netanyahu to add the five Yisrael Beiteinu seats to his ruling government, bringing the total to 66 lawmakers out of the 120 in the parliament, or Knesset, Israel Radio reported.

In the framework of the deal, Lieberman’s right-wing party will also receive the immigrant absorption portfolio, with Sofa Lanver as minister. In another ministerial appointment, Tzachi Hanegbi of Likud was named a minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister’s Office.

The vote followed a compromise reached between Netanyahu and Naftali Bennett of the Jewish Home party, who conditioned his joining the coalition on greater involvement by Cabinet ministers in security decisions. Bennett said the prime minister and defense minister did not inform other ministers of important military considerations, such as Hamas’ possession of terror tunnels ahead of the 2014 Gaza war.

Bennett insisted on the appointment of a military secretary to the Cabinet and greater access by ministers to classified information. Netanyahu offered to set up a committee to examine ways to implement these goals but Bennett rejected the offer, leading to a compromise under which the head of the National Security Council will act temporarily as the Cabinet’s military secretary, pending a permanent solution.

The coalition talks followed the May 20 resignation of Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon of Likud amid an open disagreement between him and Netanyahu over Israeli army officers expressing themselves publicly on military and non-military issues.

The disagreement surfaced after Netanyahu condemned statements by Deputy Chief of Staff Yair Golan, who on May 5 said Israeli society was witnessing trends reminiscent of those visible in Nazi Germany. Netanyahu condemned the remarks, but Yaalon encouraged officers to continue to speak their minds.

Yaalon said his resignation was over “growing extremism” within Likud under Netanyahu. But Netanyahu said Yaalon had resigned because Netanyahu dismissed him as defense minister, offering instead to make him foreign minister.

On Friday, Avi Gabai of the center-right Kulanu party resigned, citing disagreements with Netanyahu over policy.

The Israeli coalition is now made up of Likud, Kulanu, Jewish Home, Yisrael Beitenu and the haredi Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Temple Mount activist Yehuda Glick moves to Knesset


A year and a half ago, Yehuda Glick was a fringe Temple Mount activist expected to die, the victim of a point-blank assassination attempt.

This week, he was sworn into the Knesset as the ruling Likud Party’s replacement legislator for outgoing Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon.

Glick’s journey — from the United States to Israel, from government bureaucrat to outspoken demonstrator at Jerusalem’s most contested site, and from a hospital bed to elected office — is an unlikely one. And Glick’s arrival in the halls of the Knesset reflects the growing reception of his push for Jews’ right to visit and worship on the Temple Mount. From 2009 and 2014, Jewish visits to the site nearly doubled.

Glick has been barred from the mount — revered by Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary — and was even charged with assault there (the charges were dropped). Glick and his fellow religious activists see his accession to the Knesset as a victory for a just cause after his brush with death. Critics, however, say the power he wields could exacerbate tensions at a regional flashpoint.

“I’m sure that I will be involved in the Temple Mount,” Glick said in an interview on May 22. “Just like I use the justice system and the courts, I think the political world has strong institutions to promote issues in a democratic society.”

Glick, 50, is the director of Haliba, an organization that brings Jewish groups to visit the Temple Mount and fights for Jews’ right to pray there. Previously, Glick was the head of the Temple Institute, a group that builds vessels for animal sacrifice and commissions architectural plans for a future Third Temple on the Mount.

The Temple Mount is under Israeli sovereignty but, under a deal following Israel’s 1967 takeover of the site, is run by the Islamic Waqf, a Jordanian body. Muslims generally have full access to the site and the exclusive right to pray there. Jews can ascend the mount only during limited visiting hours and are forbidden from doing anything resembling worship, such as kneeling, singing, dancing or rending their clothes.

“The discrimination on the Temple Mount is obvious,” Glick said. “The Temple Mount became a center of incitement and hate instead of a center of peace.”

Glick’s critics and supporters alike praise him as a gentle and benign man who seems sincerely interested in enabling members of all religions to coexist on the mount. A 2014 video shows him happily reciting a prayer in Arabic with Muslim worshippers. The men then repeat a verse in Hebrew from Psalms 24.

Analysts say Glick’s activism, however well-intentioned, could empower extremists and heighten an already explosive mood on the Mount. Palestinian leaders have accused Israel’s government of planning to change the site’s fragile status quo, which Israeli leaders fervently deny. The recent wave of Palestinian stabbing attacks in Israel began after riots and clashes on the mount.

“He’s part of a movement that deals in pyromania,” said Daniel Seidmann, an attorney and expert in Jerusalem’s geopolitics. “There are few threats that create a clear and present danger to the most vital interests of Israel more than a radical change on the Temple Mount.”

But David Haivri, a spokesman for Israeli settlements in the northern West Bank and a friend of Glick’s, called him “very lovable.” Haivri said that while Glick focuses on a combative issue, he comes at it in a warm and accessible way.

“A lot of people consider him an extremist because he’s so concerned with the right of Jewish prayer on the Temple Mount,” Haivri said. “They’ll discover that he’s bringing that to the table with a different type of platform. Extremism is absent in Yehuda Glick’s platform.”

Some of Glick’s fellow travelers are more provocative. When then-Housing Minister Uri Ariel, a member of the pro-settler Jewish Home Party, visited the Mount ahead of Rosh Hashanah in 2014, he called for Jews in the future to “ascend the Mount and be seen for festivals, to bring sacrifices.”

Glick has also run into his share of trouble at the Mount. He has repeatedly been barred from the site and was charged with assaulting a female Muslim activist in 2014. The charges were dropped in February.

Michael Melchior, a former government minister who was active with Glick’s father, Shimon, in the liberal-religious Meimad Party, also questioned whether Glick should be celebrated as a voice of tolerance. While Melchior admires Glick’s use of universalist language in his Temple Mount work, he said Glick is inconsistent for not advocating for Palestinian rights.

“The human rights motive is used to say, ‘Well, why shouldn’t Jews have the right to pray everywhere?’ ” Melchior said. “But the human rights motive is a universal motive. If you believe in human rights, will you apply that to everything else that has to do with human rights?”

Glick was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., moved to Israel at 9 and now lives in the West Bank settlement of Otniel. He attributes his use of the language of civil rights and equality to his American upbringing. Before his Temple Mount activism, he worked for nearly a decade in the Ministry of Immigrant Absorption, quitting in protest of Israel’s 2005 withdrawal from Gaza.

He became a symbol of the Jewish Temple Mount movement after a Palestinian gunman shot him three times at point-blank range outside a Jerusalem convention center in October 2014. He was discharged from the hospital that November and a month later competed in Likud’s primaries. He won the 33rd spot on the slate — reserved for an Israeli settler.

“I felt that in a democratic country, we cannot allow a situation in which someone who is active democratically, someone who is active to promote a legitimate issue, is attacked physically because of the fact that he tried to work legally,” Glick said.

Last week, Glick tweeted critically of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s decision to oust Yaalon — the decision that gave Glick his Knesset seat. He disapproved of replacing Yaalon — who is viewed as a pragmatist — with the hawkish and unpredictable Avigdor Lieberman, whom he criticized on May 18 for his “way of speaking, changing his political opinions depending on the mood, and [his] lack of trust in the prime minister.”

Sharren Haskel: Likud’s Millenial MK


Sitting down at a leadership dinner last week at UCLA across from John Pérez, the former speaker of the California State Assembly, Sharren Haskel looked barely older than the college students who hosted the event.

At 32, and appearing much younger, the youngest Knesset member from the center-right Likud party doesn’t exactly look the part. 

But for her, that’s exactly the point. In a recent interview at the Jewish Journal offices, Haskel lamented that Israel’s younger generation isn’t well represented in parliament.

She’s building her own political agenda around issues that disproportionately impact young people, such as the high cost of living and rent in Israel. 

Before being elected to the Knesset last year, Haskel, a veterinary technician by trade, spent six years in Australia before returning to Israel five years ago. She also spent a year in Los Angeles, studying at Santa Monica College and learning to surf in Malibu, by her account. 

Haskel is on a speaking tour in the United States timed to a Knesset recess. When she returns to Israel next month, it will be, at least in part, to wed her fiancé.

Jewish Journal: Israelis can be tough, to say the least. How does the bravado-driven culture impact your career as a woman in politics?

Sharren Haskel: You don’t think of a woman as the one who can lead the front lines, or be this general who makes the decision of where to take the troops and what to do with them. But I think that’s what’s so amazing about women in Israeli society, because we all join the army. Many of us serve not just in intelligence or with computers, we actually serve in the field as pilots; [and] we’re on the ground. I served in the Second Intifada. We got [attacked with] rocks, Molotov [cocktails], demonstrations, had to go and do house arrests — really intense physical work. And, obviously, normally any kind of man or woman in any kind of modern society would say this is not a job for women. But it’s not like that in the Israeli society, and I think this is what makes us also a little bit different. 

JJ: It sounds as if you’re saying Israeli society is more accepting of women in leadership roles than most others. Is that the case?

SH: I definitely think the army has made a major impact on my life as a woman. …

I did a commander course, and in navigations [training], usually the guys didn’t want to be with women because, “Women cannot navigate — you know, look how they get lost in their cars or anything.” And in the commander course, every time for three weeks when we did the training — you walk with heavy equipment on you — I would always get to the last point [as one of] the first five [to arrive]. … Suddenly the guys wanted to come and be my partner in navigation, because they saw I’m actually really good at it. And this gave me as a woman an opportunity to actually believe in myself, that I’m equal to anyone else, that I’m capable. My body is physically as capable of doing anything that a male can do, and sometimes even better. 

JJ: How does that experience translate as a Knesset member?

SH: I sit on the [Knesset] committee for [foreign affairs] and defense. This is the most important committee in Israel. I mean, the existence of Israel depends a lot on this committee. And I remember the first time I walked into the committee chamber. … I walk in and I can see all the looks, like everybody just stared at me, and I can see a big question mark on all their faces. “Who is this young woman? Is she an assistant of someone? Is she classified to come in here?” And then they see me sit at the table, and I could see the surprise on their faces. It gave me so much joy — to be able to come and make those important decisions. … It’s a young woman who comes and asks this old general who’s been in the army for years all these questions, and it’s an interesting dynamic.

JJ: Do you think Likud lacks young leadership? Is the party failing to appeal to young people?

SH: There are a lot of issues that are extremely important for [young people] that nobody spoke about before. For example, there’s the problem of cost of living, and how do we solve that. … I took it upon myself to come in and work within the problems of the food industry. … Every kind of food — you’ve got a council, and they’re the ones in charge of who’s going to grow what, how much they’re going to grow, how much they’re going to sell it for, who they’re going to sell it to. You can’t run a business like that. … 

The opposition in the left wing came up with all these ridiculous ideas of how socialism and more involvement is going to solve these problems, and we, the younger generation in the right wing, keep on telling them it is not a solution. We have to liberate the market. And no one was voicing that in the Knesset, no one was speaking about it. And so that’s the voice that was missing in the Likud. This is something that no one speaks about and that I’m bringing in.

JJ: You’ve introduced a bill into the Knesset to decriminalize marijuana. On top of that, you’re the chair of the Lobby for Medical Cannabis. Why did you choose to work on this issue?

SH: Between 2009 and 2011, there were 500 people who sat in prison for up to a year because of self-use of marijuana. This is crazy! To put a person in jail, for a year, destroying his life for something like that — is this something that we need to do? And so this is a core issue of the Likud. We have to fight for justice for these people. Even if you look at alcohol abuse, drug abuse, all these issues: Does it help that we go put them in jail behind bars? Does it help that we open for them a criminal record? If someone is in such a bad place, such a bad state in his life that he’s actually addicted to these things, putting him in jail and opening a record will just push him further and further into the ground. And so what we need to do is invest all these millions of shekels that we invest in courts and in policing and prisons into education, into awareness about drugs and alcohol abuse, into rehabilitation facilities.

JJ: How’s is the fight for decriminalization of marijuana coming?

SH: It’s going to take a long time. There is a lot of opposition. A lot of people are really worried about it. There’s a big stigma about marijuana, that it can cause violence and you can die from it and all of these ideas that we know are untrue. As I said, even if someone’s got a problem — doesn’t matter if it’s marijuana or alcohol — we need to treat it in a certain way. Prison is not the answer.

JJ: What can Likud offer young people who feel there’s no future in Israel?

SH: People who are following me see I’m bringing a lot of new politics into my party and into the Knesset in general. I speak about issues that I’m really trying to drive forward and that are really important to [young people]. I’m their voice. Everything I do, every day I wake up, I enter the Knesset — I come and I deal with issues not for them, for us. … That’s what I bring. I deal with security and defense issues, but also most of my time is on civil issues, environmental issues, social issues, economic issues, things that actually affect their day-to-day to life. This is what I’m bringing for them.

Trump was on Netanyahu’s list of potential donors


Republican presidential front-runner Donald Trump claims to be a big fan of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In an attempt to talk up his pro-Israel credentials, Trump suggests that he was one of the celebrities Netanyahu reached out to for an endorsement in 2013.

“According to what he said, I’m the only celebrity — he’s used the word celebrity — this was a while ago, that did commercials, that he asked to do commercials,” he said during an interview on the Hugh Hewitt radio show in September.

According to a document we came across this week, the history between Netanyahu and Trump goes back to 2007 when the Likud leader plotted his return to the Prime Minister’s office. In October 2010, Israel’s Yedioth Ahronoth published a list of potential major donors prepared by the Netanyahu campaign during the Likud Party’s leadership contest in 2007. The list includes names of foreign and local donors and a reordered list in Netanyahu’s own handwriting, in which he divided donors into four categories according to whether contacting them was “worth the effort.” The first group, according to Yediot, included the foreigners worthwhile of contacting. Numbers 3 and 4 were marked next to the names of millionaires with a small chance of donating.

Donald Trump was one of the donors Netanyahu was seeking to reach out to although he was placed in the fourth category with only a small chance of donating.

Ivanka Trump’s father-in-law Charles Kushner was also on the list in the first category.

Yitzhak Rabin: Timeline of a great leader


1922: Born March 1 in Jerusalem to Russian-born parents.

1941: While still in high school, joins the Palmach, an underground commando unit, to fight British rule in Palestine.

1948: Commands the Harel Brigades that defend Jerusalem during Israel’s War of Independence. 

1964: Rises to chief of staff.

1967: Plans war that erupts June 5 and ends six days later, after Israel seizes West Bank and East Jerusalem from Jordan, Gaza Strip from Egypt, Golan Heights from Syria.

1968: Appointed ambassador to the United States.

1974: Ruling Labor Party names Rabin to succeed Prime Minister Golda Meir.

1976: Authorizes June 27 raid in Entebbe, Uganda, where Israeli commandos rescue more than 100 Israelis from plane hijacked by Palestinians.

1977: Resigns over wife Leah’s illegal U.S. bank account. 

1984: Returns to government, serving for six years as defense minister in Labor-Likud coalition governments.

1992: Labor Party recaptures government in June election, and Rabin becomes prime minister.

1993: Shakes hands Sept. 13 at the White House with PLO leader Yasser Arafat after the first Oslo Accord is signed, offering a framework for autonomy in the West Bank and Gaza. The two shared 1994’s Nobel Peace Prize with Shimon Peres.

1994: Joins Jordan’s King Hussein in Washington, D.C., to sign declaration ending 46-year state of war.

1995: Signs second Oslo agreement with Arafat expanding Palestinian autonomy. 

1995: On Nov. 4, Rabin, 73, is assassinated after a peace rally in Tel Aviv. Israeli religious extremist Yigal Amir is serving a life sentence for the murder.

SOURCE: CNN.COM

Lawmaker makes controversial remark about Israeli flag at Temple Mount


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu restated his government’s commitment to the status quo on the Temple Mount after a government minister said it was her dream to see an Israeli flag fly on the site.

“I think it’s the center of Israeli sovereignty, the capital of Israel, the holiest place for the Jewish people,” Likud party lawmaker Tzipi Hotovely, also the deputy foreign minister, said in an interview aired Monday on the Knesset channel. “It’s my dream to see the Israeli flag flying on the Temple Mount.”

In response, the Prime Minister’s Office released a statement on Monday night.

“The policy of the Government of Israel regarding the Temple Mount was expressed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in his statement Saturday night, and nothing has changed,” the statement said. “Prime Minister Netanyahu made ​​it clear that he expects all members of the Government to act accordingly.”

Netanyahu in his statement on Saturday night said that “Israel will continue to enforce its longstanding policy: Muslims pray on the Temple Mount; non-Muslims visit the Temple Mount. As we have said many times, Israel has no intention to divide the Temple Mount, and we completely reject any attempt to suggest otherwise.”

Hotovely issued a statement as well, saying: “My personal opinions are not the government’s policy, and I am certainly bound by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s policy as stated on Saturday evening in which he declared that there would be no change in the status quo at the Temple Mount.”

Opposition lawmakers called for her dismissal.

Hotovely has made public visits to the Temple Mount, including the day before her wedding, and opposes the creation of a Palestinian state.

Deadly Palestinian attacks on Jewish-Israelis have sharply increased in recent weeks amid tensions over the Temple Mount, which is holy to Jews and Muslims. Driving the tensions in part have been reports among the Palestinians that Israel is planning to alter the site, which houses the Al-Aqsa mosque compound. Palestinian Authority President Abbas himself has made the charge, which Netanyahu has continued to vehemently deny.

Embattled from the outset, new Netanyahu government sworn in


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's new rightist coalition government, hobbled by a razor-thin parliamentary majority, was sworn in late on Thursday amid wrangling within his Likud party over cabinet posts.

The evening ceremony in the Knesset was postponed by two hours so Netanyahu could divvy up for Likud the remaining ministries, after others were assigned to its four partners. Some Israeli commentators called the manoeuvring “farcical”.

The coalition with conservative, far-right, and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties controls 61 of parliament's 120 seats, auguring difficulty for the fourth-term Netanyahu in passing controversial policies or even surviving no-confidence votes.

Blowback abroad is also expected. Prospects for resolving deadlocked U.S.-sponsored peace talks with the Palestinians are dim, Netanyahu is at loggerheads with Washington over its nuclear negotiations with Iran, and Western diplomats recoil at nationalist legislation championed by some in the coalition.

Seconds into his speech unveiling the government, as he pledged that it would “safeguard security, work toward peace,” Netanyahu was interrupted by opposition heckling and guffaws.

But coalition lawmakers managed to get the new government approved by a 61-59 vote, to allow its inauguration by midnight.

Netanyahu has retained four cabinet portfolios for himself, at the cost of leaving key Likud loyalists feeling bereft. That has stirred speculation he is holding the ministries in reserve for Isaac Herzog, head of the centre-left opposition, should they eventually join forces in a “national unity” government.

“I am leaving the door open for broadening the government,” Netanyahu said in his speech. “The country needs this.”

Herzog was combative when he took the lectern, however: “No decent leader would join the 'Netanyahu circus' that you put together at the last minute, on the strength of one seat, only to extend your rule,” he said.

Shortly after winning a March 17 election, Netanyahu appeared to be coasting toward a comfortable 67-seat majority. But in a surprise move last week, he was abandoned by long-time ultra-nationalist coalition ally Avigdor Lieberman.

The guidelines of the new government make no mention of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, after talks collapsed in April last year. Instead, they pledge in general terms to “advance the diplomatic process and strive for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and all our neighbours”.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he had not given up hope for peacemaking.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Thursday he was willing to revive peace talks but the onus was on Netanyahu to change course and end Israel's settlements in the West Bank  by 2017.

Israel’s vulnerable governing coalition passes first test


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's emerging government scraped by its first parliamentary test on Wednesday, paving the way for the new cabinet to be sworn in after two months of difficult coalition building.

By a narrow 61-59 vote, parliament ratified a legislative amendment allowing Netanyahu to increase the number of ministers he can appoint to his cabinet, enabling him to meet demands from his own Likud party and other coalition partners.

His conservative Likud will head a coalition comprising the far-right Jewish Home party, the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Shas factions, and Kulanu, a centrist movement led by a former Likud legislator.

Netanyahu's razor-thin, one-seat majority in the Knesset may make his government – expected to be sworn in on Thursday – shaky and leave him vulnerable to policy demands from even his most junior partners, extending a long tradition of instability in Israeli politics.

The guidelines of the right-leaning government, released on Wednesday, made no mention of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – the foundation of U.S.-led peace efforts, which collapsed in April last year.

In its policy paper, the new coalition pledges in general terms to “advance the diplomatic process and strive for a peace agreement with the Palestinians and all our neighbors”.

The policy parameters of Netanyahu's previous administration also contained no pledge of support for a future Palestine. However, in 2009 he spelled out his vision for a demilitarized Palestinian nation that recognizes Israel as a Jewish state.

On the eve of the March 17 election, Netanyahu raised international concern by saying he would not permit a Palestinian state to be established under his watch.

He later backtracked, saying he had never retracted the comments he made in his address six years ago, an explanation that left Washington unmoved.

U.S. President Barack Obama said on Tuesday he has not given up hope for a two-state solution but tensions in the region and “serious questions about overall commitment” have made progress difficult.

“We look to the new Israeli government and the Palestinians to demonstrate – through policies and actions – a genuine commitment to a two-state solution,” Obama told Asharq al-Awsat, a London-based Arabic international newspaper.

Shortly after winning the March ballot, Netanyahu appeared to be coasting toward a comfortable governing majority comprising 67 seats in the 120-member parliament, and he voiced confidence he would be able to form one quickly.

But in a surprise move last week, political ally Avigdor Lieberman announced that his ultranationalist Yisrael Beitenu party would not join the government, leaving Netanyahu scrambling to meet Jewish Home's demands for key cabinet seats.

Obama administration ‘deeply concerned’ about Netanyahu Arab comments


The Obama administration is “deeply concerned” about Likud Party rhetoric marginalizing Arab Israelis during the recent elections.

“There has been a lot of coverage in the media about some of the rhetoric that emerged yesterday that was propagated by the Likud Party to encourage turnout of their supporters that sought to, frankly, marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens,” White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters Wednesday in his daily briefing.

Earnest did not name Benjamin Netanyahu, but the Israeli prime minister posted a video on Tuesday, election day, urging followers to vote, saying “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the ballot box. The Likud Party also texted voters warning them that voting in the Arab sector was high.

“The United States and this administration is deeply concerned by divisive rhetoric that seeks to marginalize Arab-Israeli citizens,” Earnest said.

Earnest, notably, volunteered the criticism; reporters did not raise the issue with him. He also cast the criticism against the “shared values” that U.S. and Israeli leaders have for decades said the two countries have in common.

“It undermines the values and democratic ideals that have been important to our democracy and an important part of what binds the United States and Israel together,” he said.

“We’ve talked a lot about how our shared values are an important part of what binds our two countries together, and rhetoric that seeks to marginalize one segment of their population is deeply concerning and it is divisive,” Earnest said. “And I can tell you that these are views that the administration intends to communicate directly to the Israelis.”

Earnest also noted Netanyahu’s rejection in the election’s final days of a two-state solution for the foreseeable future.

“Based on those comments, the United States will evaluate our approach to the situation moving forward,” he said. He prefaced his comment by saying that the U.S.-Israel relationship remained close. “The unprecedented security cooperation between the United States and Israel, including our strong military and intelligence relationships, will continue,” he said.

Earnest also said that President Barack Obama would congratulate Netanyahu once he was charged with forming a government.

Netanyahu comeback propelled by hardline rhetoric, calls for unity on right


This city’s Rabin Square was full of young men wearing large knit kippahs and women in long skirts and long sleeves cheering as right-wing politicians declared their opposition to Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank.

On Sunday night, when Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ascended the stage to address the crowd, he needed their votes. On Tuesday he got them.

“As long as I am prime minister, and as long as Likud is in government, the nationalist camp is in government,” he said in his speech at the rally. “And as long as the nationalist camp is in government, we won’t divide Jerusalem, there won’t be concessions and there won’t be retreats.”

The final polls ahead of the election showed the Likud with as few as 20 seats, lagging well behind the center-left Zionist Union. But when the votes were tallied on Wednesday morning, the picture had changed dramatically: Likud won 30 seats — a quarter of the Knesset — six more than Zionist Union’s 24. It was the Likud’s best showing since the 2003 election.

“I’m proud of the nation of Israel, that at the moment of truth knew to separate between the essential and the trivial, and stand for the essential,” Netanyahu told a crowd of cheering supporters chanting his name on Tuesday night. “To stand for the things important for all of us: real security, responsible economics and social welfare, which we’re dedicated to.”

Now Netanyahu has what he said he wanted when he called in December for new elections: a relatively easy path to forming a coalition with his so-called “natural partners.” The Knesset’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties holds close to a majority of seats and will be able to govern along with the new center-right Kulanu party, which indicated during the campaign that it would join either a left- or right-wing coalition.

Netanyahu made his comeback through a mix of panic and resolve. Beginning Friday, the famously media-shy prime minister stated his case in several interviews to Israeli television and print journalists. In the interviews, Netanyahu called on right-wing voters to unite around him and vote Likud instead of the religious Zionist, pro-settler Jewish Home, the hardline Yisrael Beiteinu or Kulanu.

“People don’t have a privilege of splitting their vote, to vote for Jewish Home, because Likud’s seats are falling,” he told the Israeli news website Walla.

In parallel, Netanyahu moved his positions nearer to his more staunchly right-wing rivals, reassuring his base that a vote for him meant a vote for what he called “the nationalist camp.” The days leading up to the campaign saw him oppose a Palestinian state — reversing his 2009 declaration of support and returning to the position he held beforehand. He also promised senior positions in government to Kulanu chair Moshe Kachlon, an ex-Likudnik, and Jewish Home chair Naftali Bennett.

“He turned to two camps that are close to him, but that had gone to Jewish Home or Kachlon,” said Bar-Ilan University political science professor Shmuel Sandler, referring to religious Zionist and center-right voters. “He said he would make Kachlon finance minister and give Jewish Home a part in the coalition. That caused those voters to come to him.”

On Election Day, Netanyahu also played on his base’s wariness of the left wing and Arab opposition. In a controversial video released Tuesday morning, Netanyahu warned of increased Arab-Israeli turnout and asked right-wing voters to come to the polls in response.

“Right-wing rule is in danger,” the prime minister said in the video. “Arab voters are coming out in droves to the ballot box. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them on buses. … We have only you. Come to the ballot box, bring your friends, your relatives, vote [Likud]. We’ll close the gap between us and Labor.”

The results show that his constituents heeded his calls. Likud won 10 more seats than last time, while the right-wing nationalist Yisrael Beiteinu and Jewish Home parties, and the haredi Orthodox parties all lost seats. In Jerusalem, Likud alone won 10 more seats Tuesday than its alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu did in 2013. Likud also increased its vote totals in the large settlement of Maale Adumim and in southern cities like Beersheba and Ashkelon.

On the left, similar calls by Zionist Union chairman Isaac Herzog to close ranks around his party also partially worked. His Labor Party had 15 seats in the outgoing Knesset. Now he will lead 24 center-left lawmakers. But the soft-spoken politician ran a largely negative campaign that Sandler said backfired, inspiring Netanyahu’s supporters to consolidate around him.

“What happened here was a personal attack on [the prime minister], which speaks to Netanyahu’s supporters,” Sandler said. “They feel attacked, and when there’s a virulent personal attack on him, it brings his supporters out.”

Diplomatically, Netanyahu’s rightward shift may make his life more difficult. The Obama administration said it would work with whomever leads the next Israeli government. But Netanyahu’s revived opposition to Palestinian statehood will clash with Obama’s staunch support of the two-state solution and do little to heal the leaders’ acrimonious relationship.

Netanyahu may now have an easier time managing a coalition with parties to his right. But his warning about Arab-Israeli voters enraged his opposition and could harm Arab-Jewish relations, which deteriorated during last summer’s war in Gaza. Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List, Israel’s Arab-Israeli party, criticized in a Facebook post on Tuesday “the ugly efforts to exclude us from the political game.”

Challenges foreign and domestic, however, are nothing new for Netanyahu. His goal in this campaign was to receive a stronger mandate to lead Israel, and to do so with like-minded partners. And at the potential cost of embittering enemies and distancing his policies from the international consensus, that’s exactly what he accomplished.

“Now it’s on us to create a strong and stable government that will care for the security and welfare of all of Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu said in his victory speech. “Very large challenges face us.”

How Israel’s cities voted: Likud in Jerusalem, Zionist Union in Tel Aviv


The Likud and haredi Orthodox parties dominated in Jerusalem, while the Zionist Union took the most votes in Tel Aviv in Israel’s national elections.

Nationally, the right-wing Likud Party garnered 23.3 percent of the vote and the center-left Zionist Union coalition garnered 18.7 percent of the vote, followed by the United Arab List with nearly 11 percent of the vote, according to Israel’s Central Elections Committee.

In Jerusalem, Likud finished with 24 percent of the vote and United Torah Judaism won 21 percent. The Sephardic Orthodox Shas party was next with 11 percent, followed by the Zionist Union at 10 percent and Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party at 8 percent. The Yachad party, led by former Shas lawmaker Eli Yishai, garnered 7 percent of the vote in the city but failed to meet the minimum number of votes nationally required to enter the Knesset. The Joint Arab List picked up 1.2 percent of the vote in Jerusalem.

In Tel Aviv, the Zionist Union won 34 percent of the vote and Likud had 18 percent. Next were the left-wing Meretz with 13 percent and the centrist Yesh Atid with 11 percent. Both Jewish Home and the Joint Arab List had 3 percent of the city’s vote.

In Sderot, the southern Israeli city that has borne the brunt of rocket attacks from Gaza, 42 percent of ballots went to Likud, 11 percent to Jewish Home, 8 percent to Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party and 7.5 percent to the Zionist Union.

Polls get it wrong as Netanyahu wins big


This story originally appeared at The Media Line.

Israelis went to sleep believing that the two largest parties – the Likud of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the Zionist Union headed by Isaac Herzog – had each received 27 seats in the Israeli Knesset, and Israel’s President could ask either party to try to form a governing coalition. When they woke up, Likud had surged to 30 seats, and Herzog had plummeted to 24. The result defied both the exit polls, and almost all of the polls taken in the weeks and even days leading up to the elections.

“I can’t tell you what the other guys did, but all along I had Likud ahead of the Zionist Union,” Avi Degani, the president of Geocartography Knowledge Group, GKG, told The Media Line. “Ten days before the election I had Likud at 26 seats, and Zionist Union at 21.”

Most other pollsters in the week preceding the election had Zionist Union ahead of Likud by three or four seats. Degani says GKG does only telephone polls, and make sure to include all of the sectors of Israel’s population – Jews, Arabs, immigrants from the former Soviet Union, Ethiopians, ultra-Orthodox – while some of his colleagues use the internet to conduct their polls.

“In internet polls, you get too many tech-savvy people from Tel Aviv and not enough poor people who live on the periphery,” he said.

At the same time, Israel’s election rules do not allow new polls to be published in the final days of the campaign, meaning they did not reflect changes that occurred in the last few days. Netanyahu launched a full-court press to get voters from the smaller parties on the right, especially the Jewish Home of Naftali Bennett, and a new far-right party called Yachad, to vote for him instead. He also used social media, including Facebook, Twitter, and personalized email messages and phone calls on the day of the vote to warn that Arab citizens of Israel were turning out in droves to vote for the new joint Arab party, which won 14 seats, and became the third-largest party in the government.

Those comments by Netanyahu sparked anger among both Arab citizens of Israel and dovish Israelis.

“Netanyahu's comments have clearly crossed a red line, Amnon Be'eri Sulitzeanu, the co-Director of The Abraham Fund, an organization devoted to coexistence said in a statement. “Imagine a Presidential candidate in the United States, for instance, warning the public of voting trends among Afro-Americans or Jews. These statements join a long history of similar provocations made by Netanyahu and other party leaders against Arab society – which cause long-term damage to Jewish-Arab relations in Israel.”

But the messages were also effective and many who had been planning to vote for smaller parties on Israel’s right changed their mind at the last minute. Just a few days before the election, about 20 percent of Israelis said they still did not know who they were voting for.

“Netanyahu gambled that even though economics were at the forefront of the campaign, people would not want to vote for the Zionist Union,”  Mitchell Plitnick, program director at the Foundation for Middle East Peace, told The Media Line. “He is still not popular among the right but he is still seen by most Israelis as the best of a bunch of bad choices.”

Plitnick says that most of the extra seats Netanyahu received came from right-wing parties and that the right, left, and center blocs did reflect the pre-election polls.

“The blocs haven’t changed at all, and the center hasn’t changed much,” Guy Ben Porat, a professor of public policy at Ben Gurion University told The Media Line. “Before Yair Lapid of the Yesh Atid party had 19 seats, now he and Kahlon (the head of a new centrist party called Kulanu) are sharing them.”

Many Israeli analysts said that Netanyahu could expect a chilly reception from the White House, just weeks after he addressed Congress despite objections from President Obama. There was no congratulatory call from the White House almost 24 hours after the polls closed.

Deep divisions apparent as Israelis head to polls


Relaxing on a bench on Rothschild Boulevard here, first-time voters Ellie Ashkenazi and Ziv Oran, both 18, talked about wanting to oust Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But they couldn’t agree on which party to support to meet that end.

Voters needed to close ranks around Netanyahu’s main challenger, Isaac Herzog, Ashkenazi said, adding that the the policies of the staunchly leftist Meretz — not least the idea of dividing Jerusalem — were too “brutal” for her.

“I’m left wing, I believe in Bougie and I want to replace Bibi,” she said, using the nicknames for Herzog and Netanyahu. “I’m worried about Bibi winning again. Anything is better than Bibi.”

Much to her chagrin, Oran had cast his ballot for Meretz — “to annoy me,” Ashkenazi joked, nudging him. But Oran worried that with left-wing votes consolidating around Herzog’s center-left Zionist Union, Meretz would not acquire enough votes to even enter Knesset and its voice would be absent.

“I believe in their social policies,” Oran said. “I’m center-left and I want them in Knesset. Meretz will recommend Herzog [to be prime minister], so you’re not losing votes.”

In Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, voters took advantage of the Election Day national holiday to stroll the streets with their kids, picnic on urban patches of grass and go shopping. They walked among political banners and dodged volunteers angling to stop them with a last-minute appeal.

But behind the carefree attitude, voters were divided — not just between left and right, but between whether to support the flagship party of their political camp or one of the smaller, more ideologically driven factions.

“There shouldn’t be extremes this way or that,” said Yakir Yaakovi, 23, a dried-fruit merchant in Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda market and a Netanyahu voter.

“He’s the only real one, he doesn’t mess around,” Yaakovi said of the incumbent. “If the left governs, God help us. There will be a civil war.”

Netanyahu campaign advertising dominated Jerusalem’s streets, with groups of young Likud volunteers clustering in public spaces and banners lining central squares. A man with a white beard sat outside the Central Bus Station singing Sephardi hymns and drumming a tambourine bearing a Likud sticker.

The late Likud push reflected fear that it could lose the election as right-wing voters defect to other parties. Netanyahu gave several interviews over the weekend and spoke at a large rally in Tel Aviv to warn against right-wing division. On Election Day, Likud sent out a controversial message urging voters to come out, warning that “droves” of Arab-Israelis were heading to the polls.

Such efforts didn’t faze Gershon Swimmer, who moved to Israel in 2008 from Atlanta and was voting for Jewish Home, the religious Zionist, pro-settler party headed by Economy Minister Naftali Bennett. Swimmer felt confident that Netanyahu would win reelection and wanted to push him further to the right.

“I feel Naftali Bennett and the party represent me,” he said, sitting at a restaurant on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda Street. “He doesn’t want to give back land, he’s strong on the economy and he’s religious.

“I think Bibi will probably be prime minister. I’m more worried the left will get in the government and give away the country. I want to vote to help push Bibi to do the right thing.”

Some voters hadn’t chosen a side in the Netanyahu-Herzog debate. Florist Roi Mothada, 27, voted for the centrist Kulanu, which has emphasized its economic platform and plans to join the coalition whether it’s left wing or right wing.

“I don’t support one or the other,” Mothada said, referring to Netanyahu and Herzog. “One will be elected, but I want Kulanu to be as strong as possible. It’s a decision between bad and worse.”

Some voters went even further in their protest against both left and right. Haya Dahan, a 47-year-old mother of two, cast a blank ballot, writing in her young daughter’s name instead of choosing any of the 25 possible parties. In Israel, such ballots aren’t counted as valid votes.

“I don’t know who to vote for,” she said. “I don’t trust anyone. I hope in four years someone will prove themselves.”

Bibi’s fate hangs in the balance as Israel votes


Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faced a fight for his political survival on Tuesday as Israelis voted in an election that opinion polls predict the center-left opposition could win.

After a bitterly contested campaign, the election has turned into a referendum on “Bibi” Netanyahu, 65, who has been in power for a total of nine years spread over three terms.

If he narrowly loses the vote, Netanyahu is probably still better placed than the opposition Zionist Union to cobble together a coalition, setting him on track to become Israel's longest-serving prime minister.

However, a fourth term would probably also prolong his prickly relationship with Israel's main ally, the United States, at least as long as Barack Obama is in the White House.

Netanyahu has focused on the threat from Iran's nuclear program and militant Islam. But many Israelis say they are tiring of the message, and the center-left's campaign on social and economic issues, especially the high cost of housing and everyday living in Israel, appears to have won support.

In a possible sign of edginess, Netanyahu took to Facebook to denounce what he said was an effort by left-wing non-profit groups to get Arab-Israelis out to sway the election against him. “The right-wing government is in danger,” he wrote. “Arab voters are going to vote in droves. Left-wing NGOs are bringing them in buses.”

He also took the unusual step of calling the media to his official residence for a statement while voting was underway, only to repeat his concerns about the opposition winning and to urge people to vote for him.

When the last opinion polls were published on March 13, the Zionist Union led by Isaac Herzog held a four-seat lead over Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, a margin that had the opposition set for a surprise victory.

But in the last days of campaigning, Netanyahu fought to shore up his Likud base and lure voters from other right-wing, nationalist parties, promising more building of Jewish settlements and saying the Palestinians would not get their own state if he were re-elected.

Those sweeping promises, if carried out, would further isolate Israel from the United States and the European Union, which believe a peace deal must accommodate Palestinian demands for a state in the West Bank, East Jerusalem and Gaza.

But they may go some way towards persuading voters to stick with what they know, rather than another candidate on the right.

Surveys show around 15 percent of voters are undecided, meaning the result could swing widely – opinion polls have rarely been good predictors of Israeli elections in the past.

When Netanyahu called the election in December, two years early, he looked set for an easy victory. But Herzog has mounted a resilient campaign and there is a sense that change could be in the air. Some voters have talked of Netanyahu fatigue.

By 6 pm (1600 GMT), turnout was running at 55 percent, slightly lower than the last election. Voting ends at 10 pm, with the first exit polls published immediately afterwards.

If Netanyahu can draw votes from other right-wing parties, he may be in a position to be asked first by Israel's president to try to form a coalition.

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel's 67-year history. Coalition-building is an unpredictable game, with any number of allegiances possible among the 10 or 11 parties expected to win a place in the 120-seat Knesset.

It also takes time: the party invited to try to form a government has up to 42 days to negotiate a coalition. It may be mid-May at the earliest before Israel has a new government.

COALITION TACTICS

Since there are more parties on the right and far-right, Netanyahu would have the advantage in coalition building if the Zionist Union wins by only a small margin. But if the center-left wins by four or more seats, it should get the nod first to try to form a government.

Under sunny skies, Netanyahu went to vote early with his wife at a school near their home in Jerusalem. He acknowledged that it was a tight race and urged voters to back the right.

Herzog, who has overcome criticism of his slight stature and reedy voice to lead a strong campaign, voted in Tel Aviv, where he emphasized that the election was about a new direction.

“Whoever wants to continue the way of Bibi – despair and disappointment – can vote for him,” he said. “But whoever wants change, hope, and really a better future for Israel, vote for the Zionist Union under my leadership.”

The son of a former president and the grandson of an eminent rabbi, Herzog, 54, is as close as it gets to having Kennedy-style heritage in Israel. While his leadership has been criticized in the past, he has shown wit and intellect on the campaign trail, bolstering his image among voters.

“For the first time in my life, I'm going to be voting for Labour, that is the Zionist Union,” said Dedi Cohen, 39, a lawyer in Tel Aviv. “The risk of Netanyahu building the next government is too big. How long has he been in power? Nine years? It's too much. Enough.”

Three or four parties are likely to decide how the balance of power tips in the coalition building.

Moshe Kahlon, the leader of Kulanu, a centrist party that broke away from Likud, is seen as perhaps the most important “kingmaker”. A former communications minister credited with bringing down mobile phone prices, Kahlon could ally with either Netanyahu or Herzog, bringing up to 10 seats with him.

One of the party's candidates, Michael Oren, a former Israeli ambassador to the United States, has said that whoever wins must try to repair relations with Washington, which have been under particular strain since Netanyahu addressed Congress on March 3, attacking a possible nuclear deal with Iran sought by Obama.

Yair Lapid, the leader of the centrist Yesh Atid party, could also ally with either side, bringing 12-14 seats. But he does not sit comfortably with religious parties, making him less flexible in coalition talks.

If the center-left is to assemble a coalition, it will also need the support of ultra-Orthodox parties, which are expected to win around 13 seats.

Another factor is the parties from Israel's 20 percent Arab minority, which for the first time have united under one list and are expected to win around 13 seats as well. While they are unlikely to join a center-left coalition, they could give it tacit support and create a block against Netanyahu.

After divisive campaign, Israelis render a split verdict


After weeks in which polls consistently showed Zionist Union holding a slight lead over the Likud Party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Israelis delivered a split decision in elections, leaving the two parties virtually tied atop exit polls.

The polls on Tuesday from two Israeli broadcasters, Channels 1 and 10, gave the parties 27 seats each. A third poll, from Channel 2, gave Likud 28 seats and had Zionist Union with 27.

Against all odds: a great victory for the Likud. A major victory for the people of Israel!” Netanyahu posted on Twitter.

Early analyses gave Netanyahu the easier path to building a governing coalition and thus retaining the premiership for a third consecutive term, but the vote did not render a conclusive verdict on the current government.

Nor did it bring a clear call for change, as Netanyahu’s principal challenger, Zionist Union’s Isaac Herzog, had called on the electorate to deliver. Neither the right- nor left-wing bloc won an outright majority of the Knesset.

The result provides an inconclusive finish to a fierce and largely negative campaign in which both Netanyahu and Herzog campaigned with variations on the slogan It’s Us or Them.

“After the quarrels and disagreements, I am convinced that only a unity government can prevent the quick breakup of Israeli democracy and new elections soon,” said President Reuven Rivlin, according to sources quoted by Haaretz. Rivlin later this month will choose the candidate he sees as best suited to form a coalition.

The official results will be presented on Thursday, according to the Times of Israel.

Exit polling placed the Arab-Israeli Joint List in third place and made the party, a combined slate of several smaller Arab factions, one of the election’s biggest winners. Driven by elevated turnout among Arab-Israelis, the Joint List won 12 to 13 seats, gaining one or two from its current Knesset representation.

Ayman Odeh, the party’s charismatic leader, has committed himself to working on improving the lives of Arab-Israelis but has vowed not to join a coalition led by either Likud or Zionist Union.

Throughout the campaign, voters said their top issue was Israel’s high cost of living. They reiterated that demand on Tuesday, giving the new centrist Kulanu party a strong showing with nine or 10 seats, according to the polls. Party founder Moshe Kachlon, a former Likud minister, had focused almost exclusively on socioeconomic issues during the campaign.

The other party with a strong economic focus, the centrist Yesh Atid, fell from 19 to 11 or 12 seats, according to the polls. But the combined strength of Kulanu and Yesh Atid makes for a large bloc committed to economic reform.

Kulanu may well emerge as the election’s kingmaker. As the largest party not committed to either Zionist Union or Likud, its support could be critical to forming the next government.

If Netanyahu can convince Kulanu to back him, he would be able to form a coalition with other right-wing parties and the religious parties. For Herzog to emerge as the prime minister, he would have to convince religious, secular and leftist parties to unite under him in order to form a majority.

“I plan to make every effort to form a good government for Israel,” Herzog said at his campaign headquarters here. “A good government for Israel, a government that will return Israel to being a Jewish and democratic state, social and aspiring toward peace with our neighbors.”

As Election Day drew near, leaders on both sides urged voters to close ranks around their respective flagship party. Voters moved away from smaller parties, enabling both Likud and Zionist Union to outperform their recent poll standings, with Likud succeeding in closing a deficit of several points in the campaign’s final days.

The religious Zionist, pro-settler Jewish Home party, which grew from three to 12 seats in the 2013 vote, fell back to eight or nine in the election.

On the left, the staunchly leftist Meretz fell from six seats to five, while the right-wing Yachad party, founded by the former Shas chairman Eli Yishai, did not pass the electoral threshold and will not enter the next Knesset, according to most exit polls.

Among the biggest losers was Israel Beiteinu, the hardline faction led by Foreign Minister Avigdor Liberman. The party, which had 13 seats in the previous Knesset, was hit with a corruption scandal early in the campaign and wound up with just five seats.

Netanyahu calls for forming rightist government without delay


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, claiming victory for his Likud party in a close-call election on Tuesday, said he had invited other rightist politicians to join him in a coalition government “without delay.”

“Reality does not take a break,” Netanyahu said in a speech to supporters after two television exit polls gave Likud a narrow lead over his centre-left challenger in the ballot.

Business leaders see peace boost if Netanyahu loses Israeli election


An upset victory by Israel's centre-left opposition in Tuesday's election could be a welcome change for a business and corporate sector eager for the “peace dividend” that might come with a government willing to talk with the Palestinians.

Although Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud party is traditionally viewed as more pro-business, leading industrialists say a government led by the Zionist Union opposition is unlikely to pursue an anti-business agenda.

And though a centre-left government may spend more on social and welfare issues, the potential benefits of a return to a peace process outweigh the risks, they say.

Netanyahu's campaign focus on security issues and the threat from Iran's nuclear program has failed to inspire voters, who say economic issues are their overriding concern. After nine years in power over three terms, there's also some Netanyahu fatigue.

Dov Moran, a leading high-tech entrepreneur and developer of the USB flash drive, said he believes that for Israel to be economically successful, peace is required.

Moran is part of a non-profit group called Breaking the Impasse, formed by 200 business leaders to promote a return to the negotiating table for Israelis and Palestinians.

“It doesn't have to be a warm peace, it doesn't mean we have to hug our neighbors everyday or expect them to hug us. But there should be a process where we can trade with them and live a normal life where not everything is dictated by Iran, Iran, Iran,” Moran told Reuters.

The last opinion polls before Tuesday's vote showed the Zionist Union, led by Isaac Herzog and former peace negotiator Tzipi Livni, on track to win between 24 and 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, against 20 to 22 for Likud.

Critics say Netanyahu, while doing a good job of reining in fiscal spending, has done little in the past six years to address the rapid rise in home prices, the high cost of living or the deterioration in education and healthcare standards.

“No doubt that if we go towards a peace process, security spending should go down and this would clearly allow dividing the pie differently, and even make the pie bigger,” Moran said.

Shraga Brosh, head of the Manufacturers' Association, said Herzog would probably fight more than Netanyahu to renew the beleaguered talks, which would benefit Israel by opening up a market for trade with its Arab neighbors.

With 4.5 million Palestinians living in the West Bank and Gaza, any progress that breaks down borders and enhances trade and economic activity is regarded as positive for both sides.

LABOR RHETORIC

Members of Herzog's Labour party have criticized the government's policy of giving tax breaks and subsidies to Intel and other multinationals in exchange for investing in Israel. But such business- and investment-friendly policies were not expected to change significantly despite the rhetoric.

“When Labour was in government they were quite supportive of Israeli high-tech in all forms – taxation, grants, export policies,” said Yoram Oron, managing partner of Vertex Venture Capital, a key investor in community-based navigation firm Waze.

“Politicians understand that having successful multinationals in Israel is good for the start-up industry.”

Industrialists say some of Netanyahu's recent policies have been negative for business, particularly a sharp tax hike on profits from natural resources. And after falling between 2007 and 2011, corporate tax rates have edged higher.

Uriel Lynn, head of the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce, also noted that under Netanyahu new laws favoring unions' rights have been implemented.

“There is no real difference in the economic policy of the political parties who are supposed to be coalition leaders,” Lynn said.

Some sectors, particularly banks, could be hit regardless of who heads the next government. That's because Moshe Kahlon, head of the new centrist Kulanu party, is expected to be offered the finance ministry portfolio in exchange for joining a government, whether it ends up being formed by the right or the centre-left.

As communications minister in a previous Netanyahu government, Kahlon boosted mobile phone competition and brought prices down sharply. He has vowed to do the same for banking.

“You will see a negative effect in the market if Kahlon becomes finance minister,” said Ady Vigodsky, head of UBS Securities in Israel, who otherwise does not see a major shake-up for the corporate climate if the centre-left comes to power.

Netanyahu: No Palestinian state on my watch


Benjamin Netanyahu said in an interview that as long as he is Israel’s prime minister, a Palestinian state will not be established.

The interview was published Monday on the Israeli news website NRG, a day before Israelis head to the polls, as Netanyahu attempts to shore up right-wing support.

“I think anyone who is going to establish a Palestinian state and to evacuate territory is giving radical Islam a staging ground against the State of Israel,” Netanyahu told NRG. “This is the reality that has been created here in recent years. Anyone who ignores it has his head in the sand.”

When the interviewer asked again in the article, presented in a Q&A format, “If you are a prime minister, there will be no Palestinian state?” Netanyahu responded, “Indeed.”

Netanyahu accused the left of burying its head in the sand “again and again.” He said a strong government led by Likud must be formed to withstand the pressures of the international community to divide Jerusalem and return to the pre-1967 borders.

Also Monday, Netanyahu visited the Jewish eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Har Homa, considered an illegal settlement by the international community. As prime minister in 1997, Netanyahu approved the first construction in Har Homa.

“It was a way of stopping Bethlehem from moving toward Jerusalem,” Netanyahu said of the construction, The New York Times reported. “This neighborhood, exactly because it stops the continuation of the Palestinians, I saw the potential was really great.

“We will preserve Jerusalem’s unity in all its parts. We will continue to build and fortify Jerusalem so that its division won’t be possible and it will stay united forever.”

Xavier Abu Eid, a spokesman for the Palestine Liberation Organization, was quoted in the Times as saying that Netanyahu “has confirmed verbally for the first time what we have denounced for years — that Har Homa is not about an innocent ‘Jerusalem neighborhood’ on occupied land, but about splitting occupied East Jerusalem from Bethlehem.”

Israel’s election: It’s the economy, stupid


Ambassador Michael Oren and professor Manuel Trajtenberg, both immigrants who have served as Benjamin Netanyahu’s most respected — and visible — public servants, have joined campaigns against the Likud. Their voices reflect 11th-hour polling suggesting the Israeli electorate is breaking from the prime minister’s party largely over the economy.

“It is clear that we should reverse course,” Trajtenberg said.

The Tel Aviv University economist emigrated from Argentina when he was 16 and earned his doctorate in economics at Harvard. Joining the Zionist Union’s electoral slate represents the first foray into partisan politics for the 65-year-old academic.

“I have a very strong feeling that the country is stuck in so many ways, both on the social-economic side but clearly on the political-diplomatic aspect as well. So, I feel if I can do anything to bring about change, I should do it,” Trajtenberg told the Jewish Journal.

“The government should again take responsibility for social services,” said Trajtenberg, who was named by Netanyahu to head a panel charged with drafting economic policy recommendations after the 2011 social justice protests.

The prime minister shelved most of the findings in the report.

“The Netanyahu era has been characterized by continuous decrease in government involvement in the provision of services. The liberalizing economic philosophy, which was good in the 1990s, has gone too far, and what we are seeing is a reduction in resources for education and health and increasing poverty,” Trajtenberg said.

Over the past few months, Trajtenberg, the Zionist Union’s candidate for finance minister, has worked with other party leaders including Yitzhak Herzog, social activist Stav Shaffir and tech investor Erel Margalit to draft a detailed economic program that shifts resources with the aim of “inclusive growth”.

“The reality is that “start-up nation” is happening only in high tech, and most of the economy is not involved — so what we need to do is bring innovation to other sectors in the economy, including services,” explained Trajtenberg.

Oren, who was appointed by Netanyahu to serve as Israel’s ambassador to Washington in 2009, is No. 4 on the Kulanu list.  The new party is focused almost exclusively on economic egalitarianism, with more of a focus on consumer rights and regulating prices, without some of the socialist underpinnings of the Zionist Camp program.

“When I was ambassador in Washington, I met hundreds of young Israelis who said they wanted to go home and do reserve duty,” recalled Oren at a March 12 candidates’ forum organized by the Tel Aviv International Salon.

“They told me they couldn’t come back to Israel because they didn’t see how they would make a decent living there or be able to own a home. It tore my heart out.”

Oren served as a lone soldier in the Israel Defense Forces after moving to Israel in 1979.

“When I listen to the candidates here from the Likud and Yesh Atid saying how great a job they’ve done in office, I have to ask how is it possible that Israel’s rank in any international economic criteria is in the sewer,” Oren said. 

He pointed to child poverty rates of 20 percent and the world’s second-most-expensive food costs, exceeded only by Australia’s, as signs of a policy failure.

Polls show Kulanu likely to win eight seats in the next Knesset. Its leader, Moshe Kahlon, the son of Libyan immigrants to Israel, is best known from his stint as Netanyahu’s communications minister, when he reduced mobile phone rates.

“The prime minister gave a rather heralded speech in Congress about a truly existential threat posed by an Iranian nuclear weapon, but the polls show overwhelmingly that we in Israel see far greater existential threats in the economic and social dangers facing this country,” Oren said.

According to February polls conducted by the Israel Democracy Institute and Tel Aviv University, 40 percent of Israelis (41 percent of Jewish Israelis and 36 percent of Arab Israelis) say socioeconomic issues will determine which party they will vote for. Thirty-two percent of Israelis (33 percent of Jewish Israelis and 29 percent of Arab Israelis) will vote based on a party’s foreign policy/security stance, and 17 percent of Israelis (18 percent of Jewish Israelis and 12 percent of Arab Israelis) will vote based on both issues to the same extent.

While Kahlon’s supporters tend to belong to the center-right when it comes to the boundaries and timetable for Palestinian statehood, they are largely focused on capturing the finance ministry, with which they will demand either of the two large parties selected by President Reuven Rivlin to form a governing coalition.

“If we become the king-makers, we are going to make sure that we have the finance ministry,” said Joseph Brown, 34, an oleh (a person who makes aliyah) from Indianapolis who runs the informal Facebook Page for Kulanu’s English-speaking supporters.

“Should Zionist Camp win, Kulanu will moderate their more socialistic leanings and make sure they don’t turn the clock back to 1986. If Bibi wins, we are going to make sure that we get to break up the monopolies and continue to push for consumer rights. It’s a win-win either way,” Brown said.

Naor Narkis, a veteran of the 2011 Rothschild Street protests and the figure behind last summer’s controversial “Aliyah to Berlin” campaign, which was launched over the continued housing affordability crisis, isn’t saying who he is voting for, but makes it clear that the likelihood that Kulanu’s ability to align with Netanyahu is a concern.

“My fear is that Kahlon might be a good minister who will try to do good things for the public, but from where I stand, no real change is possible; under Netanyahu, no change is possible,” the 25-year-old activist said.

“I met Trajtenberg after Netanyahu appointed him to write the report on what changes are needed. After reading it, I felt it was a step in the right direction, if not exactly what the people who protested wanted. Netanyahu did nothing with those results, but I do think he is a good candidate who will do good things for Israel if Herzog gets to form the next government.”

Netanyahu meets the press


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is famously media shy, avoiding interviews with Israeli journalists, declining televised debates with his opponents and communicating almost exclusively via speeches and official statements.

But with his Likud party trailing in the polls just a few days before Israel’s election on Tuesday, that all changed. Netanyahu conducted a series of interviews with Israeli journalists over the weekend in an effort to shore up votes from his right-wing base.

He spoke to Israeli news website Walla, the Jerusalem Post, the Times of Israel and twice to Israeli Channel 2. The second Channel 2 interview even began with a short, impromptu and somewhat awkward debate between Netanyahu and Isaac Herzog, whose center-left Zionist Union is leading the polls.

The debate — an unexpected treat in an electoral system usually devoid of such tete-a-tetes — lasted all of three minutes, with Netanyahu speaking via video feed while Herzog sat in the Channel 2 studios. Netanyahu managed to keep the conversation focused on his perceived forte — security and diplomacy.

He accused Herzog and Zionist Union co-chair Tzipi Livni of angling to cede East Jerusalem to the Palestinian Authority and opposing Israeli construction there, which Herzog denied. When Herzog tried to change the subject, asking Netanyahu if he’d give up the premiership should Herzog receive more votes, Netanyahu didn’t answer.

“Their policy is to capitulate to every dictate,” Netanyahu said. “Someone in the international community demands something, they bow their heads right away and say ‘OK, we’ll capitulate,’ because they aren’t able to really take a stand, and to take a real position on our essential interests.”

Herzog shot back that Netanyahu doesn’t have the world’s ear and said the prime minister’s conduct has driven the Palestinians to abandon bilateral talks with Israel.

“The international community knows you’re weak,” Herzog said. “The international community doesn’t accept your position. Essentially, the Palestinians evaluated your weakness, and that’s why they’re doing unilateral moves.”

In his various media appearances, Netanyahu focused his messaging on three assertions: Right-wingers need to unite behind Likud, rather than its satellite parties; he’s trailing in polls because of an “unprecedented” international campaign against him, and he accused his opponents of wanting to yield to international pressure.

Netanyahu said several times across the interviews — accurately, according to polls — that a majority of Israelis deems him more fit to be prime minister than Herzog. His party is lagging, he said, because traditional Likud voters have chosen to vote for parties like Jewish Home, Israel Beiteinu and Kulanu — right-wing or center-right parties all headed by former Netanyahu deputies who left Likud. For him to get reelected, he said, those voters need to come back to him and his party.

“People don’t have a privilege of splitting their vote, to vote for Jewish Home, because Likud’s seats are falling,” he told Walla. “We’ll get [Livni and Herzog] as prime ministers.”

Netanyahu blamed his campaign troubles on “tens of millions of dollars” from foreign donors to fund campaign strategists opposing him, and he mentioned one organization by name — V15, which is aiming to increase center-left voter turnout.

Netanyahu told Channel 2 that most Israelis back him “even after these huge efforts, the giant campaigns they did, the powerful money coming from abroad … There are governments helping NGOS with ‘Anyone but Bibi,’ to get out the Arab vote, to get out the left-wing vote.”

He also admonished publications that have criticized him, in particular Yediot Aharonot, which has run critical coverage of his term in office. Supporting Netanyahu is Israel Hayom — a free daily paper bankrolled by American casino mogul and Netanyahu backer Sheldon Adelson. Even though Israel Hayom is the country’s most-read newspaper, Netanyahu told the Times of Israel it was a “drop in the bucket” compared to the myriad efforts against him.

The bulk of the interviews dealt with local issues, with Netanyahu’s characteristically aggressive Israeli interlocutors pressing him on Israel’s housing crisis, excessive spending at his personal residences and a Likud video that compared Israeli government workers to Hamas — for which Netanyahu apologized.

Netanyahu sounded most confident when it came to opposing the Iranian nuclear program and taking a hard line on concessions to the Palestinians. The prime minister claimed that while he’s willing to stand up even to allies — as he did in his speech to Congress earlier this month — Herzog and Livni have less backbone.

“The trouble is, the Palestinians, half are controlled by an Iranian power in Gaza and half are on their way there,” he told Walla. “I said sincerely that any proposal for withdrawal, if we execute it, will give us not peace, not coexistence, not a demilitarized [Palestinian] state, but an armed state that will threaten Israel.”

The interview circuit even contained a pair of gaffes — once each from Netanyahu and Herzog. Netanyahu,speaking to the Jerusalem Post, blamed the now-defunct centrist Kadima party for withdrawing from Gaza in 2006. In fact, it was Likud that withdrew from Gaza in 2005, ahead of Kadima’s founding — a move Netanyahu supported at the time.

And responding to the prime minister during the debate, Herzog accidentally declared he would “ensure a united Netanyahu under Israeli sovereignty,” giving his opponent a hearty laugh. Presumably, Herzog meant to say a united Jerusalem, though he did not seem to catch his mistake.

Center-left opposition rides a solid lead into Israeli election


Israel's center-left opposition is poised for an upset victory in next week's parliamentary election, with the last opinion polls before Tuesday's vote giving it a solid lead over Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's party.

Final polls published by Israel's Channel 10 and Channel 2 on Friday evening respectively predicted the Zionist Union would win 24 and 26 seats against 20 and 22 for Netanyahu's Likud, echoing earlier surveys which all gave the opposition a clear lead.

Polls in two of Israel's leading newspapers predicted the Zionist Union would secure 25 or 26 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, against 21 or 22 for Likud. All polls in the past three days have given the same margin of victory.

No party has ever won an outright majority in Israel's 67-year history, making coalition-building critical to the formation of a government.

Netanyahu's campaign focus on security issues and the threat from Iran's nuclear program has failed to inspire voters, who consistently say that economic issues, including soaring house prices and the high cost-of-living, are their chief concerns.

Because there are more parties on the right and far-right of the political spectrum, he had been expected to be able to cobble together a coalition more easily than the center-left, even if he narrowly loses the vote.

But there was positive news for the Zionist Union on that score too, with a poll of Israeli-Arabs showing the overwhelming majority would favor their united Arab party joining a center-left coalition government.

The survey showed 71 percent thought the Joint Arab List, which groups four Arab parties and enhances their electoral clout, should sign up with the Zionist Union, while 16 percent said it should support the coalition from the outside.

With the Joint Arab List expected to win 13 to 15 seats, it has become an important player in the election – it could end up being the third largest group in parliament, giving a powerful voice to Israel's 20 percent Arab minority.

If the Zionist Union, jointly led by Labour party leader Isaac Herzog and former justice minister Tzipi Livni, wins, it is expected to link up with the far-left Meretz party (five or six seats) and the centrist, secular Yesh Atid (13 seats).

With the Arab list on side too, it would need the support of just one more party with around five or six seats to cross the threshold of 61 and form a coalition.

That said, while the arithmetic is possible, it is still challenging. Israel's coalition-building is a messy and convoluted game that can spring surprises at the last minute.

POST-ELECTION BATTLE

When he called this election in December, Netanyahu looked to be in a commanding position and set for a fourth term. But the past three months have exposed vulnerabilities in his armor after nine years in power spread over three terms.

His much-criticized speech to the U.S. Congress on March 3 appears to have marked a turning point. Rather than giving him an electoral boost, with his face on primetime TV, polls turned against him shortly after the event.

He has relentlessly attacked Herzog, a man of small stature with a reedy, slightly high-pitched voice. But Herzog has countered with a quick sense of humor and sharp intellect.

With the conflict with the Palestinians barely mentioned, there are signs that voters are growing fed up with Netanyahu's hard-charging style of leadership. One poll published on Friday showed 72 percent of Israelis say a change is needed.

In the past two days, Netanyahu has talked more about economic issues and his ideas for bringing housing prices down, but it may be too little, too late. Earlier this week he said there was a “real danger” he could lose and he took a similar line in an interview on Friday, urging his supporters to vote.

“Don't stay at home and don't waste your votes,” he said on local radio, sounding as though he was suffering from a cold.

“I will not be elected if the gap is not closed and there is a real danger that Tzipi and Bougie will form the next government,” he said, referring to Herzog by his nickname.

Netanyahu’s main challenger widens lead in Israeli opinion polls


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu launched a last-minute media blitz on Thursday to counter what appears to be a rising tide of support for his main opponent in next week's election, the centrist Zionist Union.

The latest opinion polls show momentum shifting to Zionist Union after weeks of running neck-and-neck with Netanyahu's right-wing Likud, and the premier again warned voters who have abandoned his party for like-minded challengers that without their votes, he could lose.

Forecast to win up to 24 seats to Likud's 21 in the 120-member parliament, Zionist Union hopes the gap will be wide enough to persuade Israel's president to ask its leader, Labour party chief Isaac Herzog, rather than Netanyahu, to try to form a coalition government after Tuesday's balloting.

“If we don't close the gap in the coming days, there is certainly a risk that Tzipi Livni and Bougie Herzog will be the next prime ministers,” Netanyahu told Channel 2 in one of two primetime television interviews, using Herzog's nickname.

Under his Zionist Union alliance with centrist Livni, Herzog would serve as Israel's leader for two years and then hand over to the country's most prominent woman politician for the remainder of their government's slated four-year term.

Netanyahu also ruled out the possibility of forming a broad coalition after the election that would include a leadership rotation between him and Herzog.

In the right-leaning Jerusalem Post and the Israel Hayom free sheet, an ardent supporter, Netanyahu focused his message on Israelis who want him as prime minister but plan to vote for his potential partners in a Likud-led coalition.

Gilad Erdan, a Likud cabinet minister and Netanyahu confidant, said he expected the prime minister to give interviews to other Israeli media outlets in the next few days as part of an effort to bring “supporters of Likud and its ideological path back to their (rightful) home”.

In Israel Hayom, Netanyahu complained that “right-wingers mistakenly thought that I would be elected in any case, and therefore thought about supporting other parties”.

He told the Jerusalem Post that a Zionist Union-led administration “will cause such a monumental shift in policy that it is a danger, and anyone who wants to stop it has to vote Likud to narrow the gap”.

Likud's weakening in the polls appeared to indicate that Netanyahu's contentious speech on March 3 to the U.S. Congress against big powers reaching a potential nuclear deal with Iran had little impact on Israeli voters long accustomed to such warnings from a leader now in his third term.

Netanyahu's opponents, while acknowledging the dangers of a nuclear-armed Iran, have made Israel's high cost of living a focal point of their campaigns and cautioned against diplomatic isolation over his tough policies toward the Palestinians.

Netanyahu has kept the focus on security.

Herzog and Livni, he said in the Jerusalem Post, would “completely prostrate themselves to any pressure” to trade land for peace with the Palestinians and to accept an Iranian deal.

“Our security is at great risk because there is a real danger that we could lose this election,” Netanyahu said.

Likud’s ‘Us or Them’ TV ads raise ire


The Likud Party has replaced a TV spot featuring Islamic State terrorists on a mission to take over Jerusalem with a second commercial warning that Israeli-Arab politicians will anchor any government that might replace Benjamin Netanyahu.

Both Likud television commercials conclude with the tag line, “It’s Us or Them.”

The “Islamic State” commercial drew criticism from diverse quarters ranging from a coalition of former Israel Defense Forces (IDF) commanders to a Jordanian rap group, which has objected to the use of its track without permission in the first “Us or Them” spot. In the clip, an actor playing a naive Hebrew-speaking motorist instructs the Islamic State invaders to “turn left” to reach the Israeli capital. 

“I think the current government is threatening people without any basis,” retired IDF Gen. Amnon Reshef said. 

Reshef is one of 183 retired senior officials from the Israeli military and intelligence communities who formed the nonpartisan Commanders for Israel’s Security (CIS) organization, which calls for a regional political-security initiative to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and normalize relations with moderate Arab states.

CIS released a statement Feb. 19 calling on Likud to cease airing the Islamic State commercial. 

“The problem is not the vans with Islamic State fighters, but the fact that if there is no change in the conduct of Israel’s security, fears of the mothers for their children’s future will increase,” reads the statement, which condemns the commercial for “implied incitement.”

“The IDF is a capable force, strong enough to defend any border which will be decided and accepted by the Israeli government and the Israeli people,” said Reshef, who admits there is a gap between the security outlook of his group of former top brass and wide segments of the public.

A poll commissioned by the Israel Democracy Institute found that though a majority of voters put economic issues ahead of security considerations, 58 percent of the Israeli Jewish public believe a government headed by Netanyahu is better suited to deal with Israel’s security issues.

“The Israeli public has been brainwashed by stories and threats,” said Reshef, who is best known in the country for leading the force that blocked the Egyptian army after it crossed the Suez Canal in the 1973 Yom Kippur War.

“We could be in an even stronger position to fight Islamic State if we concluded a political arrangement with the Palestinians which would allow for real security cooperation with the moderate Arab states like Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Kingdom of Jordan.”

The “Islamic State” commercial has also drawn fire in Amman, Jordan, home to the Palestinian hip-hop group Torabyeh, whose track is heard playing from the “ISIS” truck’s sound system in the Likud campaign advertisement.

Zionist Union candidate and Labor Member of Knesset Erel Margalit thinks the Likud campaign increasingly smacks of desperation as Netanyahu’s party fails to definitively edge ahead of the centrist grouping in opinion surveys.

“Netanyahu is projecting his fear and panic onto the public,” declared Margalit, who noted that the “Islamic State” spot aired just days before the release of the comptroller’s report examining expenditures at the prime minister’s residence. 

As of Feb. 23, two respected polling companies came out with contradictory surveys. Geocartography predicts 27 seats for the Likud and 23 for Labor/Livni while TRI has Zionist Union at 25 and 23 seats for the Likud. On Feb. 24, a Haaretz poll had Zionist Union and Likud tied at 23 seats each. 

Israeli President Reuven Rivlin has stated he will ask the party with the best chance of forming a “stable” coalition to form the next government.

“It’s under this prime minister that kindergartners learned how to crawl under their desks with sirens blasting and tensions got to the place in Jerusalem where the light rail needs special protection,” said Margalit, who believes the Labor Party is well positioned to attract Jewish and Arab voters looking for improvement in Israel’s diplomatic and economic standing.

Margalit, founder of Jerusalem Venture Partners, has been involved in startup technology incubators for young Arab-Israelis in the Galilee.

“There is a chance to rally Israeli Arabs this time like we did with Rabin and demonstrate that being involved in our party can have more direct positive benefits than supporting small Arab arties,” Margalit said.

On Feb. 15 the left-wing Meretz Party filed a formal complaint with Israel’s attorney general, claiming the “left gives directions to Islamic State” spot had the same overtones of incitement that characterized Netanyahu’s 1992 campaign against Yitzhak Rabin. 

The Likud candidate appeared at rallies where placards showed Rabin dressed as an SS German officer. 

“Netanyahu has to build on the legitimate and credible fears of the Israeli-Jewish community and regardless of what the AG rules, the damage has already been done,” said Bashar Iraqi, Arab communities coordinator for the Meretz Party.

“This video went viral, so the message of alarm has been spread,” added the 31-year-old activist who also leads Darna, a community-service NGO in the Arab town of Tira just west of the 1967 Green Line.

“Of course, then there are the horrific real movies that DA’ASH [the Arabic acronym for Islamic State] is spreading reinforcing the fictional scenario with a real one, which also benefits Netanyahu.”

“Each commercial has to bring a source of threat, if it is not DA’ASH, it’s Iran, if not Iran, it’s Hezbollah, if not Hezbollah it’s Hamas, and if it’s not Hamas it’s the Arab citizens of this country,” Iraqi said.

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Us or Them #1

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Jordanian rapper sues Netanyahu and his party over campaign clip


A Jordanian hip-hop group has taken legal action against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party after one of its songs was used in a campaign video for Israel's election next month.

Firas Shehadeh, founder of the group Turabyeh (“Of the Soil”), filed an injunction with the Haifa District Court on Monday stating that the song had been used without permission, Iyad Jubran, the group's attorney, told Reuters.

“They were stunned by Likud's shamelessness and outright theft,” the Israel-based Jubran said.

Representatives of Likud and Netanyahu declined to comment.

The song, entitled 'Gorbeh' (Alienation), is being used in a 40-second online video posted on Netanyahu's YouTube channel.

The video, under the title “Us or Them, ISIS's Version”, depicts four men dressed as Islamic State militants driving across sandy terrain. At one point, the driver stops to ask the driver of a car next to them in Arabic-accented Hebrew: “How do we get to Jerusalem, brother?”

The Israeli driver replies: “Turn left.”

The message appears to be that if the center-left defeats Netanyahu's right-wing party in the March 17 parliamentary election, ISIS will end up taking over.

Shehadeh said he learned of the clip from friends on Saturday, shortly after it was posted online.

“I was shocked, it was craziness,” he told Reuters by phone from Spain. “We are against ISIS and against Israel.”

The court petition says the clip creates the impression that the group supports ISIS and could expose them to reprisals by those who oppose Islamic State. Its use in the campaign of an Israeli right-wing party could also deter their fans.

Turabyeh has four members, three of them descendants of Palestinian refugees, millions of whom now live in Jordan. The song is about their political alienation and longing for a return to their Palestinian homeland, Shehadeh said.

Comptroller’s report: Netanyahu family spent excessively with public funds


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu could be facing a criminal investigation following a government report that said he and his family spent public funds excessively on personal items.

The report issued Tuesday by State Comptroller Yosef Shapira cited the excessive spending at the official prime minister’s residence in Jerusalem and at the family’s private home in Caesarea. Among the categories of excessive expenditure are food, cleaning and clothing expenses.

Evidence from the report was forwarded to Israel’s attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, for a possible criminal probe.

Among the affairs that could be criminally prosecuted are the so-called bottle and garden furniture affairs.

In the bottle affair, the prime minister’s wife, Sara, is accused of pocketing funds received from recycling state-funded beverage bottles. In the garden furniture affair, the Netanyahus are accused of purchasing new furniture for their private home that was intended for the official residence.

The report also found that cleaning expenses at the Netanyahus’ official and private residences doubled from 2009 to 2011 to about $280,000 at the official residence alone, though after publicity they came down in 2012 and 2013.

Food and hosting costs also nearly doubled between 2009 and 2011 to nearly $106,000, according to the report. The costs dropped to about $58,500 by 2013.

In addition, more than one-quarter of the food costs for 2010 and slightly less for 2011 were for outside meals, despite the fact that there is a paid cook on staff.

The report said that “in light of the noteworthy reduction in costs in 2013, it can be established that the economic costs of the prime minister, his family and their guests in the official residences, and especially during the years 2010-2011, and to a lesser extent even in 2012, were not commensurate with the bedrock principles of proportionality, reasonability, saving and efficiency.”

Shapira also said that finances at the prime minister residence were poorly managed and lacked appropriate budgeting practices.

In response to the report, the Likud Party headed by Netanyahu released a statement on Tuesday afternoon.

“To our sincere regret, the ongoing media campaign which has surrounded this issue for weeks in advance of the report’s release was a clear effort to remove the Prime Minister from office and the Likud from leadership through a focus on irrelevant minutia and distract from the real issues at hand,” the statement said.

“Among the items that were investigated in the Comptroller’s report, there is absolutely no indication of any assault on the public’s integrity and certainly no indication of any criminal transgressions,” the statement added, noting that the expenses of the prime minister’s residence have been “reduced significantly” over the past two years.

Moshe Feiglin leaving Likud


Moshe Feiglin said he is quitting the Likud Party after failing to secure a realistic spot on the candidates’ list for the March elections.

Feiglin, a Likud member since 2005 and a Knesset lawmaker since 2013, finished 36th on the Likud list in voting held by party members last week. The latest polls show the party earning some 25 slots in the revamped Knesset. Likud now has 18 spots in a combined list with Yisrael Beiteinu.

He reportedly was pushed out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who heads Likud, and his supporters.

“Netanyahu targeted me, but I do not harbor any resentment towards the prime minister,” Feiglin said Monday evening at a meeting of his Jewish Leadership faction.

Feiglin, a major supporter of building in Jewish settlements and Jews praying on the Temple Mount, said he will form a political movement that “aligns itself with Jewish ideals, and hopefully lead.” The new party likely will not run in the March national elections.

Several other political parties have offered spots, he told his supporters, which would enable him to run for the new Knesset. Feiglin said he was “considering all options.”

Also on Monday night at a meeting to present the Likud slate, Netanyahu said that if he is reelected as prime minister, he will propose legislation within the first 100 days of his new term that would require the head of the largest party to form the new government. Under the current system, the party head who has the most recommendations from other party chiefs to form the government gets the nod.

Observers say the proposal could lead to more stable governments that would serve out their full terms.

Israel’s Livni joins opposition head to challenge PM


Former Israeli justice minister Tzipi Livni and the center-left parliamentary opposition leader will jointly challenge Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a March election, political sources said on Wednesday.

They said Livni, whom Netanyahu fired last week as coalition rifts sank his government, would formally announce her alliance with Isaac Herzog of the Labour party later in the day.

Opinion polls predict Netanyahu's rightist Likud party will win the election, taking around 22 of parliament's 120 seats.

Labour is seen taking around 12 seats, a showing that could be improved by teaming up with Livni, whose centrist Hatnuah party has been polling at around 4 seats. One survey this week found that a joint Herzog-Livni list could defeat Likud.

Livni was dismissed along with former finance minister Yair Lapid, leader of centrist party Yesh Atid. They had clashed with Netanyahu over the government's handling of moribund peace talks with the Palestinians and a range of Israeli budget issues.

Netanyahu fumes at ‘chickenshit’ slur


An anonymous U.S. official's reported description of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “chickenshit” drew a sharp response on Wednesday from the Israeli leader – no stranger to acrimony with the Obama administration.

The American broadside, in an interview in The Atlantic magazine, followed a month of heated exchanges between the Netanyahu government and Washington over settlement-building in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem, which Palestinians seek as the capital of a future state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

[Related: Friends and allies shudder … despots and bullies rejoice]

“The thing about Bibi is, he’s a chickenshit,” the unidentified official was quoted as saying, using Netanyahu's nickname and a slang insult certain to redden the ears of the U.S.-educated former commando.

“The good thing about Netanyahu is that he’s scared to launch wars,” the official said, alluding to past hints of possible Israeli military action against Iran's nuclear program. “The bad thing about him is that he won’t do anything to reach an accommodation with the Palestinians or with the Sunni Arab states.”

Netanyahu, the official was reported to have said, is interested only in “protecting himself from political defeat … He's got no guts.”

Israeli leaders usually do not respond to comments by unidentified officials. But Netanyahu addressed those remarks directly in opening a memorial ceremony in parliament for an Israeli cabinet minister assassinated by a Palestinian in 2001.

“Our supreme interests, chiefly the security and unity of Jerusalem, are not the main concern of those anonymous officials who attack us and me personally, as the assault on me comes only because I defend the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

“…Despite all of the attacks I suffer, I will continue to defend our country. I will continue to defend the citizens of Israel,” he said.

PURPORTED SLUR DISMISSED

Such pledges by Netanyahu have resonated among Israeli voters, even amid fears his strained relations with U.S. President Barack Obama could ultimately weaken support from Israel's main diplomatic ally and arms provider.

After Netanyahu's speech, Alistair Baskey, a spokesman for the White House National Security Council, dismissed the purported slur, denying that it reflected how the Obama administration felt about the Israeli leader.

“Certainly that's not the administration's view, and we think such comments are inappropriate and counter-productive,” he said.

Asked though whether the administration would try to uncover and punish the official who made the comment, White House spokesman Josh Earnest told reporters: “I don't know of any effort like that under way right now.”

Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham condemned the remarks, saying they did “nothing but harm to America's national security interests.”

“We know that relations can be strained at times. But there is no excuse for Obama Administration officials to insult the Prime Minister of Israel, our closest ally in the Middle East,” the senators said in a joint statement.

Some Israeli pundits predict an Israeli election in 2015, two years early, speculation seemingly supported by increasingly vocal challenges to his policies from senior ministers to the left and right of him within the coalition government.

FRICTION

Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, whose ultranationalist Jewish Home party belongs to the coalition but who has had testy relations with Netanyahu, defended him on Wednesday.

“The prime minister of Israel is not a private person. He is the leader of the Jewish state and the entire Jewish people. Cursing the prime minister and calling him names is an insult not just to him but to the millions of Israeli citizens and Jews across the globe,” he wrote on Faceboook.

Israeli opposition leader Isaac Herzog sounded a more critical note, telling Channel Two television: “Netanyahu is acting like a political pyromaniac, and he has brought our relations with the United States to an unprecedented low.”

In a series of recent speeches widely seen in Israel as setting the stage for a possible poll, Netanyahu has highlighted growing security concerns in the wake of the July-August war with Hamas in Gaza and regional unrest that has brought Islamist militants to Israel's northern border with Syria.

Israel also worries that U.S.-led world powers will agree to what it sees as insufficient curbs on the nuclear program of its arch-foe, Iran, in talks with a looming Nov 24 deadline.

Fears of a possible new Palestinian Intifada, or uprising, have been stoked in Israel by now-daily rock-throwing by Palestinians in Jerusalem amid Muslim fears of an end to an Israeli de facto ban on Jewish worship at the al-Aqsa mosque compound in the holy city where Biblical temples once stood.

Netanyahu has pledged to preserve the “status quo” at the site, a commitment Palestinian leaders view with suspicion.

MORE SETTLER HOMES

But drawing Palestinian outrage and a State Department accusation that Israel was distancing peace, Netanyahu pledged on Monday to fast-track plans for 1,000 new settler homes in Israeli-annexed East Jerusalem.

Netanyahu described such criticism as being “detached from reality”, saying Jews had a right to live anywhere in Jerusalem, regarded by Israel as its united capital – a claim that is not internationally recognized.

Baskey, the U.S. spokesman, acknowledged longstanding policy differences between Israel and Washington over settlements.

“Obviously, despite the extremely close relationship between the U.S. and Israel, we do not agree on every issue,” he said.

“For instance we have repeatedly made clear the United States’ longstanding view that settlement activity is illegitimate and complicates efforts to achieve a two-state solution.” Despite these differences “the U.S.-Israel relationship remains as strong as ever”, Baskey added.

Most countries and the World Court deem the settlements Israel has built in areas captured in a 1967 war to be illegal. Israel disputes this, and has settled 500,000 Jews in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, among 2.4 million Palestinians.

Additional reporting by Matt Spetalnick in Washington; Editing by Dan Williams and Tom Heneghan

Israel’s Rivlin seeks to cure ‘disease’ of racism


Israel’s president fills a largely ceremonial role — meeting with foreign dignitaries, representing the government at state funerals and other official gatherings. But the office’s new occupant has embraced a challenge not inherent to the job: curbing what he sees as an epidemic of anti-Arab racism.

“Israeli society is sick, and it is our duty to treat this disease,” Reuven Rivlin, 75, told a group of Israeli academics on Sunday.

The Likud party elder statesman has been Israel’s most vocal politician in recent history on issues of racial discrimination and violence within the Jewish state. And he’s taking on the issue at a particularly challenging moment, when as he explained in his speech, “the tension between Jews and Arabs within the State of Israel has risen to record heights, and the relationship between all parties has reached a new low.”

Of Israel’s population of some 8.9 million people, about 20 percent is Arab.

Strong condemnation of anti-Arab racism in Israel is generally the province of the country’s Arab and left-wing politicians. So Rivlin, who opposes Palestinian statehood and advocates annexing the West Bank, does not seem like an obvious candidate to take up the cause. But despite his position on the two-state solution, the president has a reputation for defending civil liberties and minority rights within the land that Israel controls.

Rivlin took office in July — as the war between Israel and Hamas intensified and just weeks after three Jewish extremists captured and burned alive a Palestinian teen. The teen’s murder was a revenge attack for the kidnapping and deadly shooting of three Israeli teenagers in June.

But nearly two months after a cease-fire was declared, Arab-Jewish tensions have not waned. Last Tuesday, Jewish extremists burned a West Bank mosque, damaging prayer books and rugs. The same day, reports emerged of three Jewish brothers beating a Palestinian construction worker. And the following day, Arab protesters at the Temple Mount injured three policemen in riots that continued across Jerusalem throughout the week.

Then on Sunday, dozens of Jews moved into buildings overnight in the eastern Jerusalem neighborhood of Silwan, the second such move into the primarily Arab neighborhood this month. The next day, Arabs threw firebombs at the building in protest.

Rivlin has also called for an end to racism in high-profile TV appearances, in Facebook posts and at a recent dedication ceremony for a Jerusalem road bearing the name of the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir. And he made headlines last month when he notably recorded a video with an 11-year-old Arab-Israeli, George Amira, who had endured homophobic bullying at school. In the video, which went viral, Rivlin and George sit side by side in silence, holding up sheets of paper that call for an end to “violence, hostility, bullying, racism” in Israel.

“He said I was a courageous kid,” George told JTA. “He said he has friends who don’t have that courage.”

Former Likud minister Dan Margalit, who grew up with Rivlin in Jerusalem and served alongside him in Knesset, told JTA that Rivlin’s anti-racist activism stems from a commitment to traditional revisionist Zionism. The ideology espouses Jewish sovereignty over the Land of Israel, including the West Bank, as well as democracy and minority rights for Israel’s Arab citizens.

Although he supports Israeli annexation of the West Bank, the former longtime Knesset member broke with his party by opposing a 2010 law that criminalized boycotts of goods produced in Israeli settlements. The same year, Rivlin attempted to block the Knesset from stripping an Arab-Israeli lawmaker of her parliamentary privileges as punishment for participating in the flotilla operation to break Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip.

“Ruvi stayed the course,” Margalit said, using Rivlin’s nickname. “Racism is one of the worst attitudes and crimes you can think of. We were persecuted and killed by racists for generations, so to think there would be racism in our country is horrendous.”

Because Israel’s presidency is ceremonial, Rivlin’s power to advance policy changes is limited. Case in point: His predecessor, Shimon Peres, had little impact on Israeli government policy toward the Palestinians despite constantly calling for Israeli-Palestinian peace during his term.

“I think there’s a limit to what the president of the state can do,” said Gadi Gvaryahu, chairman of Light Tag, a coalition that opposes anti-Arab racism. “He can cry out from time to time, or protest from time to time, but the trends happening here are difficult and profound, and if the government doesn’t have a clear policy, even the president can’t influence.”

On the issue of racism, the Israel Democracy Institute, a think tank that researches Israel’s democratic institutions, is developing a curriculum to teach tolerance and pluralism. It is also setting up a task force to review existing anti-racism laws in Israel.

Mordechai Kremnitzer, the institute’s vice president of research, met with Rivlin on Sunday and is optimistic that the president will endorse its initiatives.

Activists for Arab-Israeli rights told JTA that racism demands forceful action from Israeli lawmakers. But some said they appreciate that Rivlin is raising an issue that had been largely ignored and feel he is creating a more conducive atmosphere for coexistence.

“The Arab public finds itself in despair from the amount of racist incitement and racist attitudes that exist,” said Jafar Farah, chairman of Mossawa, an organization that advocates for Arab-Israeli rights. “When suddenly Rivlin’s voice rises, people say maybe there’s a chance. Maybe we can live a shared life in this state.”