Israeli voters force Netanyahu to seek centrist partner


Israel's next government must heed voters and devote itself to bread-and-butter issues, not thorny foreign policy problems such as Iran's nuclear plans and the Palestinian conflict, senior politicians said on Thursday.

Israelis worried about housing, prices and taxes have reshaped parliament, forcing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to woo their centrist champion as his main coalition partner.

Final results from the Jan. 22 national election were due later on Thursday, but were not expected to differ significantly from published projections.

Defence Minister Ehud Barak said voters had imposed new constraints on the next government.

“It will be much more balanced, probably limited, cannot do whatever it wants and will have to take into account the growing pressure from within to focus on many internal issues,” he told CNN.

Yair Lapid, the surprise success of Tuesday's ballot, stormed to second place with 19 seats in the 120-member assembly against 31 for Netanyahu's alliance of his Likud party ultra-nationalists led by former Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

Formal coalition talks have yet to begin, but Netanyahu and Lapid held a long meeting on Thursday, a Likud statement said.

“The meeting, which lasted two and a half hours, was conducted in a very good atmosphere. Netanyahu and Lapid discussed the challenges facing the country and ways to grapple with them. They agreed to meet again soon,” the statement said.

Netanyahu has swiftly adopted chunks of Lapid's election platform as his own, keen to seal a deal that would create a solid base of 50 seats before drawing in other partners from the right or centre needed for a stable ruling majority.

Lapid said “colour had returned to the cheeks” of Israelis following the vote, adding that he was happy Netanyahu had now embraced his party's themes of “equal sharing of the burden” and helping the middle class, especially with housing and education.

“Equal sharing” is political code for meeting the complaints of secular tax-payers about the concessions given to the ultra-Orthodox, whose menfolk study in Jewish seminaries, often on state stipends, and who are not drafted into the army.

“EQUAL BURDEN”

Lulled by pre-election opinion polls, Netanyahu may have assumed he could coast back to power at the head of a right-wing coalition enthused by his mission to halt Iran's nuclear drive and eager to settle more Jews in the occupied West Bank.

But his Likud party and Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu lost 11 of the seats they had won at the last election in 2009, punished by voters more preoccupied with problems of daily life.

Lieberman said he and Netanyahu shared with Lapid and Naftali Bennett, leader of a new far-right party, the goals of “equal burden, living costs and affordable housing”.

But Lieberman told Army Radio reaching a similar consensus on foreign policy might prove elusive. “We can start with diplomacy, but that will impair the government's functioning,” he said. “This government must focus on domestic issues.”

In its first reaction to the election, the United States, Israel's chief ally, renewed a call for resuming stalled peace talks with the Palestinians, but huge obstacles remain, even if the next Israeli government gains a more moderate flavour.

Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the PLO executive committee, said Palestinian leaders were watching for change after a vote that had given Israel a “new and different opportunity”.

He told reporters any renewed talks must be based on creating a Palestinian state on the pre-1967 war lines.

“We are not ready to be part of the process of more political theatre or to give cover for government policy which represents the same policies as the last one, while settlements continue and we experience daily killing and repression.”

U.S.-brokered peace talks broke down in 2010 amid mutual acrimony. Since then Israel has accelerated construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem – land the Palestinians want for their future state – much to the anger of Western partners.

RAZOR-THIN

Complicating Netanyahu's quest for a workable coalition is the difficulty of reconciling the demands of a dozen factions in parliament, where those on the right hold a razor-thin edge.

Lapid, a former TV anchorman who only founded his Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party a year ago, seeks to end exemptions from military service for Israel's 10 percent minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews who also receive generous state benefits.

Those privileges were extracted from successive governments by religious parties such as Shas and the United Torah Party in exchange for their backing. The two parties have a combined total of 18 seats in parliament, and Netanyahu is likely to want to include at least one of them for a broad-based coalition.

He may also turn to the hardline Jewish Home group led by his former protege Bennett, a millionaire software entrepreneur, which won a projected 12 seats. A Likud spokeswoman said Netanyahu called Bennett to congratulate him but did not reveal details of their conversation.

“Jewish Home can certainly be one of the desired partners in the new coalition,” Likud lawmaker Zeev Elkin told Israel Radio.

However, Bennett has denounced the idea of Palestinian statehood and advocates annexing swathes of the West Bank, putting him at odds with Lapid, who wants “divorce” talks with the Palestinians to end the decades-old Middle East conflict.

The Labour party, which came third with 15 seats after putting economic and social issues at the forefront of its campaign, not the Middle East peacemaking it once championed, has vowed not to join any Netanyahu-led coalition.

Once official results are announced on Jan. 30, President Shimon Peres will ask someone, almost certainly Netanyahu, to try to form a government, a process that may take several weeks.

Reporting by Jerusalem bureau; Editing by Peter Graff and Giles Elgood

Israel hits Hamas government buildings, reservists mobilized


Israeli aircraft bombed Hamas government buildings in Gaza on Saturday, including the prime minister's office, after Israel's cabinet authorized the mobilization of up to 75,000 reservists in preparation for a possible ground invasion.

Palestinian militants in Gaza kept up cross-border salvoes, firing a rocket at Israel's biggest city Tel Aviv for the third straight day. Police said it was destroyed in mid-air by an Iron Dome anti-missile battery deployed hours earlier, and no one was injured.

Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist group that runs the Gaza Strip, said Israeli missiles wrecked the office building of Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh – where he had met on Friday with the Egyptian prime minister – and struck a police headquarters.

In the Israeli Mediterranean port of Ashdod, a rocket ripped into several balconies. Police said five people were hurt.

With Israeli tanks and artillery positioned along the Gaza border and no end in sight to hostilities now in their fourth day, Tunisia's foreign minister travelled to the enclave in a show of Arab solidarity.

Officials in Gaza said 41 Palestinians, nearly half of them civilians including eight children and a pregnant woman, had been killed since Israel began its air strikes. Three Israeli civilians were killed by a rocket on Thursday.

In Cairo, a presidential source said Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi would hold four-way talks with the Qatari emir, the prime minister of Turkey and Hamas chief Khaled Meshaal in the Egyptian capital on Saturday to discuss the Gaza crisis.

Egypt has been working to reinstate calm between Israel and Hamas after an informal ceasefire brokered by Cairo unraveled over the past few weeks. Meshaal, who lives in exile, has already held a round of talks with Egyptian security officials.

Israel uncorked its massive air campaign on Wednesday with the declared goal of deterring Hamas from launching rockets that have plagued its southern communities for years. The salvoes recently intensified, and are now displaying greater range.

The operation has drawn Western support for what U.S. and European leaders have called Israel's right to self-defense, along with appeals to both sides to avoid civilian casualties.

Hamas, shunned by the West over its refusal to recognize Israel, says its cross-border attacks have come in response to Israeli strikes against Palestinian fighters in Gaza.

“We have not limited ourselves in means or in time,” Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said on Israel's Channel One television. “We hope that it will end as soon as possible, but that will be only after all the objectives have been achieved.”

Hamas says it is committed to continued confrontation with Israel and is eager not to seem any less resolute than smaller, more radical groups that have emerged in Gaza in recent years.

The Islamist movement has ruled Gaza since 2007. Israel pulled settlers out of Gaza in 2005 but maintains a blockade of the tiny, densely populated coastal territory.

RESERVE TROOP QUOTA DOUBLED

At a late night session on Friday, Israel's cabinet decided to more than double the current reserve troop quota set for the Gaza offensive to 75,000, political sources said.

The move did not necessarily mean all would be called up or that an invasion would follow. Tanks and self-propelled guns were seen near the sandy border zone on Saturday, and around 16,000 reservists have already been summoned to active duty.

The Gaza conflagration has stirred the pot of a Middle East already boiling from two years of Arab revolution and a civil war in Syria that threatens to spread beyond its borders.

U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon is expected to visit Israel and Egypt next week to push for an end to the fighting in Gaza, U.N. diplomats said on Friday.

Hamas's armed wing claimed responsibility for Saturday's rocket attack on Tel Aviv, saying it had fired a longer-range, Iranian-designed Fajr-5 at the coastal metropolis, some 70 km (43 miles) north of the Gaza Strip.

After air raid sirens sounded, witnesses saw two white plumes rise into the sky over the southern outskirts of Tel Aviv and heard an explosion when the incoming rocket was hit.

The anti-missile battery had been due to take delivery of its fifth Iron Dome battery early next year but it was rushed into service near Tel Aviv after rockets were launched toward the city on Thursday and Friday. Those attacks caused no damage or casualties.

In Jerusalem, targeted by a Palestinian rocket on Friday for the first time in 42 years, there was little outward sign on the Jewish Sabbath that the attack had any impact on the usually placid pace of life in the holy city.

In Gaza, some families abandoned their homes – some of them damaged and others situated near potential Israeli targets – and packed into the houses of friends and relatives.

ISRAEL'S GAZA TARGETS

The Israeli army said it had zeroed in on a number of government buildings during the night, including Haniyeh's office, the Hamas Interior Ministry and a police compound.

Taher al-Nono, a spokesman for the Hamas government, held a news conference near the rubble of the prime minister's office and pledged: “We will declare victory from here.”

A three-storey house belonging to Hamas official Abu Hassan Salah was also hit and totally destroyed early on Saturday. Rescuers said at least 30 people were pulled from the rubble.

In Washington, U.S. President Barack Obama commended Egypt's efforts to help defuse the Gaza violence in a call to Morsi on Friday, the White House said in a statement, and underscored his hope of restoring stability there.

On Friday, Egyptian Prime Minister Hisham Kandil paid a high-profile visit to Gaza, denouncing what he called Israeli aggression and saying Cairo was prepared to mediate a truce.

Egypt's Islamist government, freely elected after U.S.-backed autocrat Hosni Mubarak fell to a popular uprising last year, is allied with Hamas but Cairo is also party to a 1979 peace treaty with Israel.

In a call to Netanyahu, Obama discussed options for “de-escalating” the situation, the White House said, adding that the president “reiterated U.S. support for Israel's right to defend itself, and expressed regret over the loss of Israeli and Palestinian civilian lives”.

Hamas fighters are no match for the Israeli military. The last Gaza war, involving a three-week long Israeli air blitz and ground invasion over the New Year period of 2008-09, killed over 1,400 Palestinians. Thirteen Israelis died.

But few believe Israeli military action can snuff out militant rocket fire entirely without a reoccupation of Gaza, an option all but ruled out because it would risk major casualties and an international outcry.

While Hamas rejects the Jewish state's existence, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who rules in areas of the nearby West Bank, does recognize Israel but peace talks between the two sides have been frozen since 2010.

Additional reporting by Maayan Lubell, Jeffrey Heller and Ori Lewis in Jerusalem and Louis Charbonneau at the United Nations; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Mark Heinrich

Lieberman: Israel might withdraw from U.N. Human Rights Council


Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman reportedly said he might recall Israel’s ambassador to the U.N. Human Rights Council after the council voted 36-1 to investigate the effects of Jewish settlements on Palestinians.

Lieberman also said Israel would not cooperate with the fact-finding mission established by the council to probe settlements, the Jerusalem Post reported.

On Thursday, the council passed a resolution, with 10 abstentions, to investigate how Israeli settlement construction affects Palestinian human rights. The United States was the only country to vote against the resolution.

“This is a hypocritical council with an automatic majority against Israel,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Thursday. “This council ought to be ashamed of itself.”

The Israeli leader noted that the council has made 91 decisions, 39 of which dealt with Israel, three with Syria and one with Iran.

“One only had to hear the Syrian representative speak today about human rights in order to understand how detached from reality the council is,” he said.

The decision requires the council to “dispatch an independent international fact-finding mission, to be appointed by the President of the Human Rights Council, to investigate the implications of the Israeli settlements on the civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights of the Palestinian people throughout the Occupied Palestinian Territory, including East Jerusalem.” The mission will generate a report for the council.

The council on Thursday approved five resolutions critical of Israel, including implementing the Goldstone report on the Gaza war and criticizing Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights.

The resolution on the settlements, which calls on Israel to cooperate in the investigation, also called on Israel to prevent settler violence against Palestinians in the West Bank.

A U.S. representative to the council said the U.S. is “deeply troubled by this council’s bias against Israel.”

Abbas says no talks without Israeli settlement freeze


Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas repeated on Sunday his refusal to talk with Israel without a settlement freeze after international mediators, responding to his United Nations bid for statehood, urged negotiations within a month.

“We have confirmed to all that we want to achieve our rights through peaceful means, through negotiations—but not just any negotiations,” Abbas told a cheering crowd of thousands on his return to the West Bank city of Ramallah.

“We will not accept (negotiations) until legitimacy is the foundation and they cease settlement completely,” he said, two days after presenting the application for Palestinian statehood and addressing the U.N. General Assembly in New York.

U.S.-brokered peace talks collapsed a year ago after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu refused to extend a 10-month limited moratorium on construction in settlements in the occupied West Bank.

Palestinians say the settlements, built on land Israel captured in a 1967 war, would deny them a viable state. Israel cites historic and Biblical links to the West Bank, which it calls by its Hebrew names, Judea and Samaria.

Netanyahu, who has termed a settlement freeze an unacceptable precondition, gave no indication in his own speech at the U.N. of any change in his position. He urged Abbas to return to peace talks.

The United States, Israel’s closest ally, has said it will block the statehood move in the Security Council, which is expected to convene on Monday to discuss the application Abbas made after 20 years of failed Israeli-Palestinian talks.

NEW AGENDA

Neither Israel nor the Palestinians have responded formally to a plan from the so-called Quartet of Middle East peace negotiators—the United States, Russia, the European Union and the U.N.—for a return to direct negotiations.

The forum urged Israel and the Palestinians to meet within a month and set a new agenda for talks, with the aim of achieving a peace deal by the end of 2012 that would result in the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel.

Netanyahu welcomed the Quartet’s call but reserved an official reply until he meets with senior cabinet ministers after his return on Monday from New York.

Abbas has said he would discuss the ideas with Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leaders and other senior Palestinian officials.

Hours before Abbas returned to the West Bank, Netanyahu’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, said there would be “tough repercussions” if the U.N. approved the statehood application {nS1E78L2CV].

Lieberman, who heads a far-right party in Netanyahu’s governing coalition, did not spell out what action Israel might take. He said Israel had reservations about the Quartet’s proposal but was “ready to open immediate negotiations” with the Palestinians.

In the past, Lieberman has suggested severing ties with Abbas’s Palestinian Authority, which exercises limited self-rule in the West Bank, if it wins recognition without a peace deal with Israel.

Israel is concerned that even if the United States vetoes a statehood resolution in the Security Council, the Palestinians could still win approval in the General Assembly for a more limited U.N. membership.

Additional reporting by Nidal al-Mughrabi; Writing by Jeffrey Heller; Editing by Sophie Hares

Netanyahu, Lieberman praise Obama’s U.N. speech, but Palestinians pan it


Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thanked President Obama for his speech at the United Nations General Assembly, but the Palestinians criticized the address.

Netanyahu met with Obama at the United Nations on Wednesday afternoon after the president’s speech and reportedly expressed his appreciation for the address. The speech was praised as well by Israel’s hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman.

“I congratulate President Obama, and I am ready to sign on this speech with both hands,” Lieberman said at a news conference.

Some officials with the Palestine Liberation Organization criticized the president’s speech, which was seen as a rebuke of its effort to seek U.N. recognition of Palestinian statehood.

“Listening to him, you would think it was the Palestinians who occupy Israel,” Hanan Ashrawi, a senior member of the PLO delegation in Washington, told Israel’s daily Haaretz. “He presented a double standard when he disassociated the Arabs’ fight for their freedom in the region from the Palestinian freedom fighters, who deal with the occupation for 63 years.

“What we heard is precisely why we are going to the U.N.,” she added, apparently referring to the speech’s expressions of support for the Arab Spring.

The speech was also criticized by the secretary-general of the PLO’s executive committee, Yasser Abed Rabbo.

Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said at a news conference that the Palestinians would give the U.N. Security Council time to consider their request for full U.N. membership before taking the matter to the General Assembly. They are expected to submit their request to the Security Council on Friday.

“The U.N. is the only alternative to violence,” Shaath said at the news conference, according to reports. “It will be very costly to us and the Israelis. Our new heroes are Gandhi, Mandela and Martin Luther King.”

In his U.N. speech, Obama said the differences between Israelis and Palestinians must be bridged through negotiations between the two parties.

“Peace will not come through statements and resolutions at the United Nations,” he said.

Obama also noted Israeli suffering from terrorism and said that the “Jewish people have forged a successful state in their historic homeland.” He said that Israel deserves normal relations with its neighbors and called for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Obama administration has indicated that it would veto any Security Council resolution recognizing Palestinian statehood. The Palestinians, however, would be likely to win a vote in the General Assembly, which would not by itself grant them U.N. membership but could upgrade their status at the world body to a non-member observer state.

Clock ticks on Palestinian U.N. plan


Diplomats scrambled on Thursday to head off a clash over Palestinian plans to seek full U.N. recognition with little visible sign of progress and a deadline some 24 hours away.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad briefly seized the spotlight at the United Nations General Assembly, accusing the United States of using the September 11, 2001, attacks as a pretext for attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan and condemning western support for Zionism.

But attention focused on the crisis looming over this year’s U.N. meeting—Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is ready to submit his application to the U.N. Security Council on Friday despite pressure from U.S. President Barack Obama to forgo the U.N. option and resume direct talks with Israel.

Obama’s meetings with Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday ended with no breakthrough, illustrating stark new limits of U.S. influence over a process that is spinning in unpredictable directions.

Obama, whose personal efforts to restart the Middle East peace process have proved fruitless, on Wednesday declared that direct talks were the only path to Palestinian statehood, underscoring unbending U.S. opposition to the U.N. plan.

Obama said the United States will veto any Palestinian move in the Security Council—a step which would isolate Washington with its ally Israel at a moment of unprecedented political turmoil across the region.

U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who met both Abbas and Netanyahu on Wednesday, said the United States would continue to push for a durable, negotiated peace.

“Regardless of what happens tomorrow in the United Nations, we remain focused on the day after,” Clinton told reporters.

Diplomats are focused on several scenarios which they hope may contain the damage.

The Security Council could delay action on Abbas’ request, giving the mediating “Quartet”—the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations—more time to craft a declaration that could coax the two sides back to the table.

But the Quartet may be unable to agree on a statement that could satisfy both Israel and the Palestinians, which remain divided on core issues including borders, the status of Jerusalem, the fate of Palestinian refugees and the future of Jewish settlements.

Another option, advanced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, would see the Palestinians skip the Security Council in favor of the General Assembly, which could vote to upgrade the Palestinians from an “entity” to a “non-member state” while reviving direct peace talks.

Sarkozy’s plan calls for talks to begin within one month, an agreement on borders and security within six months and a final peace agreement within a year.

The General Assembly route would require only a simple majority of the 193-nation body, not a two-thirds majority necessary for full statehood.

What remains unclear, however, is whether the Palestinians will insist on the right to haul the Israeli government or its officials before war-crimes tribunals or sue them in other global venues—something Israel strongly opposes.

The Palestinians have pledged to press ahead with the Security Council bid while keeping the General Assembly option open.

In what has become a regular piece of political theater, U.S. and other Western delegations walked out of the cavernous General Assembly hall during the speech by the Iranian leader.

Ahmadinejad—who arrived in New York this year weakened by factional infighting at home—accused Western powers of a variety of misdeeds and again questioned the September 11, 2001, attacks as “mysterious”.

He made no mention of Tehran’s disputed nuclear program, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes but which Israel and Western governments say is a covert drive to produce atomic weapons and shift the regional balance of power.

Ahmadinejad, who in the past has called Israel a “tumor” that must be wiped from the map, made only a passing reference to the Palestinian issue and had no comment on the Palestinians’ bid for U.N. recognition.

Whatever happens at the United Nations, the disputed territory will remain Israeli and any nominal state would lack recognized borders or real independence and sovereignty.

The cash-strapped Palestinians face their own political divisions, and may also incur financial retribution from Israel and the United States which could hobble their efforts to build the framework of government for their homeland.

In the West Bank, Palestinians have rallied this week to support the U.N. plan, with many expressing anger and disappointment over U.S. policy.

“Our alliance with America has not brought us anything,” said Amina al-Akhras, a public sector employee, blaming reliance on international donor funds for what she described as lethargy among Palestinians living under Israeli occupation.

“We are ready to sacrifice their support and instead have a stronger national position,” she said.

Additional reporting by Arshad Mohammed, John Irish, Louis Charbonneau, Patrick Worsnip, Alistair Lyon and Tom Perry; editing by Mohammad Zargham

Abbas: PA Won’t Recognize Jewish State


The Palestinian Authority will not recognize Israel as a Jewish state, President Mahmoud Abbas said.

“Don’t order us to recognize a Jewish state. We won’t accept it,” Abbas warned the international community on Saturday.

Abbas also said Saturday in a speech to Muslim leaders in Ramallah that the PA’s statehood bid at the United Nations is not an attempt to isolate Israel or to ignite conflict with the United States. He said that the Palestinians would abandon the plan to go to the U.N. if Israel stops settlement construction and accepts the 1967 lines as the basis for negotiations on a two-state solution.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said that Abbas’ refusal to recognize Israel as a Jewish state “reveals the true nature of the September motion: A Palestinian state to come in place of a Jewish state.” He charged that the Palestinians want “a state free of Jews in Judea and Samaria, and a hostile takeover of Israel from within.”

Abbas met over the weekend with the European Union’s foreign affairs chief, Catherine Ashton. It was Ashton’s last-ditch attempt to bring the Palestinians and Israel together for peace negotiations before the September United Nations meeting. Abbas reportedly told Ashton that the U.N. bid will not stop the progress of peace negotiations. Ashton said that the E.U.’s final decision on supporting the statehood bid would depend on the content of the resolution.

Ashton was also scheduled to meet with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Olmert: Netanyahu leading Israel to political isolation


Former prime minister Ehud Olmert on Tuesday harshly criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman on the stalled peace process with the Palestinians.

Speaking at an Industry, Trade and Labor ministry conference, Olmert said that the government’s refusal to accept the United States request that Israel extend a freeze on West Bank settlement construction for two months could lead to Israel’s political isolation in the world and damage Israel’s economy.

“There are people who think it is possible to separate the political situation from the economic situation and they use the phrase ‘economic peace’,” Olmert said, alluding to Netanyahu. “This is a lovely phrase but it reality doesn’t exist.”

Read more at HAARETZ.com.

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