Knesset approves new coalition, ending Netanyahu’s long rule

Israeli demonstrators gather near a screen showing a projection of the faces of the heads of a new coalition government. (AFP)
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Updated 13 June 2021

Knesset approves new coalition, ending Netanyahu’s long rule

  • Sunday’s vote, passed by a 60-59 margin, ended a two-year cycle of political paralysis
  • Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament

JERUSALEM: Israel’s parliament approved a new coalition government on Sunday that sent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the opposition after a record 12 years in office and a political crisis that sparked four elections in two years.
Naftali Bennett, the head of a small ultranationalist party, was sworn in as prime minister after a narrow 60-59 vote in parliament. But if he wants to keep the job, he will have to maintain an unwieldy coalition of parties from the political right, left and center.
The eight parties, including a small Arab faction that is making history by sitting in the ruling coalition, are united in their opposition to Netanyahu and new elections but agree on little else. They are likely to pursue a modest agenda that seeks to reduce tensions with the Palestinians and maintain good relations with the US without launching any major initiatives.
Netanyahu sat silently during the vote. After it was approved, he stood up to leave the chamber, before turning around and shaking Bennett’s hand. A dejected Netanyahu, wearing a black medical mask, briefly sat in the opposition leader’s chair before walking out.
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament and is expected to vigorously oppose the new government. If just one faction bolts, it could lose its majority and would be at risk of collapse, giving him an opening to return to power.
The country’s deep divisions were on vivid display as Bennett addressed parliament ahead of the vote. He was repeatedly interrupted and loudly heckled by supporters of Netanyahu, several of whom were escorted out of the chamber.
Bennett’s speech mostly dwelled on domestic issues, but he expressed opposition to US efforts to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
“Israel will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” Bennett said, vowing to maintain Netanyahu’s confrontational policy. “Israel will not be a party to the agreement and will continue to preserve full freedom of action.”
Bennett nevertheless thanked President Joe Biden and the US for its decades of support for Israel.
Netanyahu, speaking after him, vowed to return to power. He predicted the incoming government would be weak on Iran and give in to US demands to make concessions to the Palestinians.
“If it is destined for us to be in the opposition, we will do it with our backs straight until we topple this dangerous government and return to lead the country in our way,” he said.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the new government will likely be more stable than it appears.
“Even though it has a very narrow majority, it will be very difficult to topple and replace because the opposition is not cohesive,” he said. Each party in the coalition will want to prove that it can deliver, and for that they need “time and achievements.”
Still, Netanyahu “will continue to cast a shadow,” Plesner said. He expects the incoming opposition leader to exploit events and propose legislation that right-wing coalition members would like to support but can’t — all in order to embarrass and undermine them.
The new government is meanwhile promising a return to normalcy after a tumultuous two years that saw four elections, an 11-day Gaza war last month and a coronavirus outbreak that devastated the economy before it was largely brought under control by a successful vaccination campaign.
The driving force behind the coalition is Yair Lapid, a political centrist who will become prime minister in two years, if the government lasts that long.
He called off a planned speech to parliament, instead saying he was ashamed that his 86-year-old mother had to witness the raucous behavior of his opponents. In a brief speech, he asked for “forgiveness from my mother.”
“I wanted her to be proud of the democratic process in Israel. Instead she, along with every citizen of Israel, is ashamed of you and remembers clearly why it’s time to replace you,” he said.
The new government is expected to win a narrow majority in the 120-member assembly, after which it will be sworn in. The government plans to hold its first official meeting later this evening.
It’s unclear when Netanyahu will move out of the official residence. He has lashed out at the new government in apocalyptic terms and accused Bennett of defrauding voters by running as a right-wing stalwart and then partnering with the left.
Netanyahu’s supporters have held angry protests outside the homes of rival lawmakers, who say they have received death threats naming their family members. Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service issued a rare public warning about the incitement earlier this month, saying it could lead to violence.
Netanyahu has condemned the incitement while noting that he has also been a target.
His place in Israeli history is secure, having served as prime minister for a total of 15 years — more than any other, including the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.
Netanyahu began his long rule by defying the Obama administration, refusing to freeze settlement construction as it tried unsuccessfully to revive the peace process. Relations with Israel’s closest ally grew even rockier when Netanyahu vigorously campaigned against President Barack Obama’s emerging nuclear deal with Iran, even denouncing it in an address to the US Congress.
But he suffered few if any consequences from those clashes and was richly rewarded by the Trump administration, which recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, helped broker normalization agreements with four Arab states and withdrew the US from the Iran deal.
Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a world-class statesman, boasting of his close ties with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has also cultivated ties with Arab and African countries that long shunned Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians.
But he has gotten a far chillier reception from the Biden administration and is widely seen as having undermined the long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.
His reputation as a political magician has also faded at home, where he has become a deeply polarizing figure. Critics say he has long pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy that aggravated rifts in Israeli society between Jews and Arabs and between his close ultra-Orthodox allies and secular Jews.
In November 2019, he was indicted for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He refused calls to step down, instead lashing out at the media, judiciary and law enforcement, going so far as to accuse his political opponents of orchestrating an attempted coup. Last year, protesters began holding weekly rallies across the country calling on him to resign.
Netanyahu remains popular among the hard-line nationalists who dominate Israeli politics, but he could soon face a leadership challenge from within his own party. A less polarizing Likud leader would stand a good chance of assembling a coalition that is both farther to the right and more stable than the government that is set to be sworn in.


Tunisians back their president as he vows: ‘Your freedoms are safe’

Updated 28 July 2021

Tunisians back their president as he vows: ‘Your freedoms are safe’

  • Responsibility for political crisis lies with Islamist Ennahda party, analysts tell Arab News

JEDDAH: Tunisians threw their weight behind President Kais Saied on Tuesday after he told leading civil society groups that the emergency situation was temporary and he would “protect the democratic path.”
Saied pledged that the “freedoms and rights of Tunisians would not be affected in any way,” said Sami Tahri, an official in the powerful UGTT trade union.
Thousands celebrated on the streets on Monday after Saied dismissed the government, including Prime Minister Hichem Mechichi and the justice and defense ministers. He also suspended parliament, which had been dominated by its speaker, Rached Ghannouchi, leader of the Islamist Ennahda party.
On the streets of Tunis, many welcomed the president’s orders. Najet Ben Gharbia, 47, a nurse, said she had been waiting “a long time” for such a move. A decade after Tunisians ousted dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali, many are struggling.
“There is still great poverty,” Ben Gharbia said, describing the inflation that has stripped the value of income, making meat too expensive to buy. “People are miserable.
“Kais Saied, he’s a teacher, not a politician, he’s like us. We are sure of him, he is not like Ben Ali, he is not a dictator.”
Mounir Mabrouk, 50, said: “What the president is doing is in our interest. Political parties have done nothing except sell our property to foreigners and wealthy elites.”

Opinion

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Taxi driver Hosni Mkhali, 47, said action had to be taken — especially to bring the cases of coronavirus under control, as Tunisia struggles with one of the world’s worst recorded death rates. “All Tunisians are disgusted,” he said. “It was the best time to act.”
Analysts laid the blame for Tunisia’s turmoil firmly at the door of Ennahda, the Islamist party led by Ghannouchi.
Ammar Aziz, an associate editor at Al Arabiya News Channel, told Arab News: “With Ennahda controlling parliament and also the government, everything has simply collapsed — from security to the economy. The same is true for the country’s transport system and public health institutions. All Tunisians have noticed the deterioration and it is for this reason we saw the protests in different towns on July 25.”
Writing today in Arab News, Sir John Jenkins, a senior fellow at Policy Exchange and former leading British diplomat, said Ghannouchi’s motives were questionable.
He said: “Although Ghannouchi claimed to have separated the political, social welfare and dawa wings of Ennahda in 2016, there has never been anything to suggest that he does not share the ultimate Muslim Brotherhood goal of an Islamized state.”

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Human Rights Watch: Israeli war crimes apparent in Gaza war

A ball of fire erupts from a building in Gaza City’s Rimal residential district on May 16 during massive Israeli bombardment on the Hamas-controlled enclave. (AFP)
Updated 28 July 2021

Human Rights Watch: Israeli war crimes apparent in Gaza war

  • Rights group issues conclusions after investigating three Israeli airstrikes that it said killed 62 Palestinian civilians
  • Such attacks violate ‘the prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians’

JERUSALEM: Human Rights Watch on Tuesday accused the Israeli military of carrying attacks that “apparently amount to war crimes” during an 11-day war against the Hamas militant group in May.
The international human rights organization issued its conclusions after investigating three Israeli airstrikes that it said killed 62 Palestinian civilians. It said “there were no evident military targets in the vicinity” of the attacks.
The report also accused Palestinian militants of apparent war crimes by launching over 4,000 unguided rockets and mortars at Israeli population centers. Such attacks, it said, violate “the prohibition against deliberate or indiscriminate attacks against civilians.”
The report, however, focused on Israeli actions during the fighting, and the group said it would issue a separate report on the actions of Hamas and other Palestinian militant groups in August.
“Israeli forces carried out attacks in Gaza in May that devastated entire families without any apparent military target nearby,” said Gerry Simpson, associated crisis and conflict director at HRW. He said Israel’s “consistent unwillingness to seriously investigate alleged war crimes,” coupled with Palestinian rocket fire at Israeli civilian areas, underscored the importance of an ongoing investigation into both sides by the International Criminal Court, or ICC.
There was no immediate reaction to the report by the Israeli military, which has repeatedly said its attacks were aimed at military targets in Gaza. It blames Hamas for civilian casualties by launching rocket attacks and other military operations inside residential areas.
The war erupted on May 10 after Hamas fired a barrage of rockets toward Jerusalem in support of Palestinian protests against Israel’s heavy-handed policing of the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound, built on a contested site sacred to Jews and Muslims, and the threatened eviction of dozens of Palestinian families by Jewish settlers in a nearby neighborhood. In all, Hamas fired over 4,000 rockets and mortars toward Israel, while Israel has said it struck over 1,000 targets linked to Gaza militants.
In all, some 254 people were killed in Gaza, including at least 67 children and 39 women, according to the Gaza Health Ministry. Hamas has acknowledged the deaths of 80 militants, while Israel has claimed the number is much higher. Twelve civilians, including two children, were killed in Israel, along with one soldier.
The HRW report looked into Israeli airstrikes. The most serious, on May 16, involved a series of strikes on Al-Wahda Street, a central thoroughfare in downtown Gaza City. The airstrikes destroyed three apartment buildings and killed a total of 44 civilians, HRW said, including 18 children and 14 women. Twenty-two of the dead were members of a single family, the Al-Kawlaks.
Israel has said the attacks were aimed at tunnels used by Hamas militants in the area and suggested the damage to the homes was unintentional.
In its investigation, HRW concluded that Israel had used US-made GBU-31 precision-guided bombs, and that Israel had not warned any of the residents to evacuate the area ahead of time. It also it found no evidence of military targets in the area.
“An attack that is not directed at a specific military objective is unlawful,” it wrote.
The investigation also looked at a May 10 explosion that killed eight people, including six children, near the northern Gaza town of Beit Hanoun. It said the two adults were civilians.
Israel has suggested the explosion was caused by a misfired Palestinian rocket. But based on an analysis of munition remnants and witness accounts, HRW said evidence indicated the weapon had been “a type of guided missile.”
“Human Rights Watch found no evidence of a military target at or near the site of the strike,” it said.
The third attack it investigated occurred on May 15, in which an Israeli airstrike destroyed a three-story building in Gaza’s Shati refugee camp. The strike killed 10 people, including two women and eight children.
HRW investigators determined the building was hit by a US-made guided missile. It said Israel has said that senior Hamas officials were hiding in the building. But the group said no evidence of a military target at or near the site and called for an investigation into whether there was a legitimate military objective and “all feasible precautions” were taken to avoid civilian casualties.
The May conflict was the fourth war between Israel and Hamas since the Islamic militant group, which opposes Israel’s existence, seized control of Gaza in 2007. Human Rights Watch, other rights groups and UN officials have accused both sides of committing war crimes in all of the conflicts.
Early this year, HRW accused Israel of being guilty of international crimes of apartheid and persecution because of discriminatory polices toward Palestinians, both inside Israel as well as in the occupied West Bank and Gaza Strip. Israel rejected the accusations.
In Tuesday’s report, it called on the United States to condition security assistance to Israel on it taking “concrete and verifiable actions” to comply with international human rights law and to investigate past abuses.
It also called on the ICC to include the recent Gaza war in its ongoing investigation into possible war crimes by Israel and Palestinian militant groups. Israel does not recognize the court’s jurisdiction and says it is capable of investigating any potential wrongdoing by its army and that the ICC probe is unfair and politically motivated.

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Egypt officials: Cairo apartment building collapses; 1 dead

Updated 27 July 2021

Egypt officials: Cairo apartment building collapses; 1 dead

  • The woman spent over 5 hours buried under rubble of the four-story building
  • Rescuers managed to locate and speak with the woman and passing her a bottle of water

CAIRO: An apartment building in the Egyptian capital of Cairo collapsed on Tuesday, killing a man while rescue workers hours later pulled his wife alive from under the rubble, officials said.
The woman spent more than five hours buried under the rubble of the four-story building in the city’s Waraq neighborhood, officials said. She was taken to hospital. No other residents were believed to be inside the building at the time of the collapse.
Earlier, the rescuers had managed to locate and speak with the woman — even passing her a bottle of water, the officials said, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to the media.
Prosecutors opened an investigation, the state-run MENA news agency reported.
It wasn’t immediately clear what caused the collapse but such incidents are common in Egypt, where shoddy construction is widespread in shantytowns, poor city neighborhoods and rural areas.
Last month, at least five women died when an apartment building collapsed in the Mediterranean city of Alexandria. Another building in Cairo collapsed in March, leaving at least 25 dead.
With real estate at a premium in big cities such as Cairo and Alexandria, developers seeking bigger profits frequently violate planning permits. Extra floors often, for example, are sometimes added without proper government permits.
The government recently launched a crackdown on illegal construction across the country, jailing and fining violators, and in many cases demolishing the buildings.

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Lebanon’s new PM-designate bids to form much-delayed government

Lebanon's new Prime Minister-Designate Najib Mikati, talks at the presidential palace in Baabda, Lebanon July 26, 2021. (REUTERS)
Updated 28 July 2021

Lebanon’s new PM-designate bids to form much-delayed government

  • Mikati’s efforts to form a government come ahead of the first anniversary of a devastating explosion that rocked Beirut on Aug. 4
  • Basic rights like access to food and medicine have turned into demands, says leader

BEIRUT: Lebanon's new Prime Minister-designate Najib Mikati on Tuesday held consultations with political parties that he said “unanimously” agreed on the need to put together a government quickly to rescue the crisis-hit country.

Mikati listened to lawmakers’ demands about the new government and said he wanted to form one comprising non-partisan specialists to implement a French initiative and also oversee the next parliamentary elections.

Under the French initiative, the new government would take steps to tackle corruption and implement the reforms needed to release billions of dollars of international aid.

Mikati said there were “international and American guarantees that Lebanon will not collapse” and that  his government’s priority would be addressing the electricity crisis and setting up power plants.

“Lebanon is an Arab country and we do not want it to be a conduit for conspiracy against any other Arab country,” he added.

The EU stressed the need for a “credible and accountable government” to be formed in Lebanon without any delay, while a spokesperson for the French Foreign Ministry stressed the “urgent need to form a competent government” able to implement the reforms that were crucial for the country’s recovery. The spokesperson also urged Lebanese leaders to “assume their responsibility.”

It is unclear how Lebanese lawmakers will facilitate Mikati’s task and if he will face the same obstacles that stymied his predecessor Saad Hariri, who stepped down after nine months of trying to form a government.

Mikati said following the Tuesday meetings: “All parliamentary blocs and lawmakers agreed on the urgent need to form a government to restore the role of the state that has been absent for a long time, to reassure the Lebanese and make them feel like someone is there for them amid these difficult circumstances, where basic rights like access to electricity, fuel, bread and medicine have turned into demands. That is what we are seeking to provide if we manage to form a government.”

He added that he would visit President Michel Aoun “to exchange points of view and reach an agreement over the formation of a government as soon as possible.”

Lawmakers from the Lebanese Forces party on Monday told Mikati they would not join the government. But the Future Movement’s lawmakers urged him to hold tight to and protect the principles set by former prime ministers.

The parliamentary bloc of Parliament Speaker Nabih Berri demanded the amendment of a current electoral law that has divided the Lebanese and increased sectarian tension.

Gebran Bassil MP, who heads the Strong Lebanon parliamentary bloc, said his party had informed Mikati of its wish “not to take part in the government and not to interfere in the formation process,” but reminded Mikati “of his belief in the idea of a full constitutional partner.”

The political disputes between Bassil and Hariri started when Aoun insisted on naming the Christian ministers in the government and Hariri was accused of breaching the president’s powers.

Hariri insisted on not granting Aoun the blocking third and considered the presidential wish to name the ministers a violation of the constitution.

The Hezbollah bloc said it required Mikati to address the matter of “naming ministers, especially those who will handle the finance, economy and education ministries.”

It demanded that these people “be field experts, and not only good in offices and with numbers.”

Mikati’s efforts to form a government come ahead of the first anniversary of a devastating explosion that rocked Beirut on Aug. 4, with politicians under pressure to break the deadlock.

The country has been under the spotlight regarding the ongoing blast investigation and the vows of Lebanese officials to hold the criminals and the corrupt accountable.

Hariri said his bloc insisted on knowing the truth about the Beirut blast and the truth about the assassination of his father, former Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

He told the press: “People have the right to know who stored the tons of ammonium nitrate at the port of Beirut, why they were seized and who was behind the explosion.”

Hariri accused some people of trying to “distort” his position over the blast by claiming that Future Movement lawmakers had “abandoned their pursuit of truth and justice” in Hariri’s assassination and were calling for the protection of ministers, lawmakers and the defendants in the blast probe.

He suggested the suspension of all constitutional and legal articles that granted immunity or special treatment to try the president, the prime minister, ministers, representatives, judges, officials and even lawyers, in order to reach the truth.

 


Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day

Updated 27 July 2021

Iran hits new COVID-19 infection record for second straight day

  • The previous record of 31,814 infections had been set only a day earlier
  • The alarming spread of the variant prompted new anti-virus restrictions last week

TEHRAN: Iran recorded over 34,900 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, setting the nation’s single-day record for cases as vaccinations lag, public complacency deepens and the country’s outbreak spirals further out of control.
The previous record of 31,814 infections had been set only a day earlier, providing a sense of how quickly Iran’s latest surge, fueled by the contagious delta variant, is mounting. Health authorities recorded 357 COVID-19 fatalities on Tuesday, bringing the total death toll to 89,479 — the highest in the Middle East.
The alarming spread of the variant prompted new anti-virus restrictions last week. The government ordered the closure of state offices, public places and non-essential businesses in the capital of Tehran. But as with previous government measures, the lockdown looked very little like a lockdown at all. Tehran’s malls and markets were busy as usual and workers crowded offices and metro stations.
Iranian authorities have avoided imposing heavy-handed rules on a population that can little afford to bear them. The country, which has suffered the worst virus outbreak in the region, is reeling from a series of crises: tough US sanctions, global isolation, a heat wave, the worst blackouts in recent memory and ongoing protests over water shortages in the southwest.
Now, health officials warn that hospitals in the capital are overwhelmed with breathless COVID patients too numerous to handle. Fewer than 3 percent of Iranians have been fully vaccinated in the sanctions-hit country. Many front-line medical workers have been vaccinated with Iran’s locally produced shots or the Chinese state-backed Sinopharm vaccine that may be less effective than other inoculations.
Iran’s government announced that its homemade vaccine provides 85 percent protection from the coronavirus, without disclosing data or details. Iran also imports Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, as well as the Oxford-AstraZeneca shot through the United Nations-backed COVAX program.