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, during a supportive rally in front of the Knesset during a parliamentary vote, in Jerusalem on June 13, 2021. (AFP)
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Updated 14 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.


COVID-19, Palestine and Iranian nukes feature in first day of UN General Assembly speeches

Updated 22 September 2021

COVID-19, Palestine and Iranian nukes feature in first day of UN General Assembly speeches

  • The leaders of the US, Egypt and Turkey raised the issue of Palestinian rights and statehood, and called for a just and comprehensive solution
  • Iran’s president took aim at Washington, saying it has ‘no credibility; Qatar’s emir hailed the resolution of the dispute with neighboring countries

NEW YORK: The COVID-19 pandemic dominated the first day of speeches by world leaders during the 76th session of the UN General Assembly. But some also took the opportunity to raise the question of Palestinian statehood and express their fears about Iran’s nuclear ambitions. 

The leaders of the US, Egypt, Turkey, Qatar and Iran were among the premiers who addressed the UNGA on Tuesday. The speeches continued late into the evening, with many running over their allotted 15-minute slots.

US President Joe Biden declared that the US is back on the world stage and remains committed to multilateralism. As evidence of this he cited the nation’s return to the Paris Climate Agreement and its contribution to the international Covax vaccine-sharing initiative.

“Already, the United States has put more than $15 billion toward the global COVID response,” said Biden, who was making his first in-person speech to the UN as president. “We’ve shipped more than 160 million doses of COVID-19 vaccine to other countries. This includes 130 million doses from our own supply,” with “no strings attached.”

Moving on to other issues, he called for the establishment of a sovereign and independent Palestinian state, saying that this is the “best way” to safeguard Israel’s future.

“We must seek a future of greater peace and security for all people of the Middle East,” Biden said. “The commitment of the United States to Israel’s security is without question, and our support for an independent Jewish state is unequivocal.

“But I continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable, sovereign and democratic Palestinian state.

“We’re a long way from that goal at this moment but we should never allow ourselves to give up on the possibility of progress.”

On the issue of Iran’s nuclear program, Biden said: “We’re prepared to return to full compliance (with the 2015 Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, commonly known as the Iran nuclear deal) if Iran does the same.”

Egyptian President Abdel Fattah El-Sisi also addressed the issue of Palestinian statehood.

“There can be no stability in the Middle East without a just, lasting, and comprehensive solution for the Palestinian question, which remains the central cause of instability for the Arab region,” he said. “This must happen in accordance with international resolutions to establish a Palestinian state along the June 4, 1967 border, with East Jerusalem as its capital.

“Egypt also calls upon the international community to take the necessary measures to improve the living conditions of the Palestinian people.”

Turning his attention to matters closer to home, El-Sisi said Egypt is “immensely proud” of its African identity but decried the lack of progress in negotiations over the Ethiopian Grand Renaissance Dam project. Located upriver on the Nile, Egyptian authorities say it threatens their country’s existence due to its reliance on Nile water.

In his prerecorded speech, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi, who assumed office this year, took aim at the US over its withdrawal from Afghanistan and the Capitol riots in Washington on Jan. 6, saying that America has “no credibility.”

He also blamed American authorities for causing the COVID-19 crisis in Iran, accusing them of preventing the country from obtaining vaccine supplies. He failed to mention that in January, Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei banned the import of Western-produced vaccines, falsely claiming they could not be trusted. The ban was subsequently reversed but left Iran facing relentless waves of COVID-19 infections.

Raisi also attempted to convince world leaders that his country does not seek to develop nuclear weapons. “Nukes have no place in our defense doctrine and deterrence policy,” he said.

He also made a plea for sanctions relief, saying: “The Islamic Republic considers useful the talks whose ultimate outcome is the lifting of all oppressive sanctions.”

The leaders of Qatar and Turkey called on the international community to cooperate in delivering vaccines to the world’s most vulnerable countries.

Qatari Emir Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani also urged the world to take action to fight what he called the “other pandemic:” COVID-19 misinformation.

He also celebrated his country’s return to the fold of Middle East diplomacy in January, after a dispute with a number of neighboring countries, including Saudi Arabia, was resolved through the AlUla declaration.

“We have repeatedly stressed the importance of the Gulf Cooperation Council, and our commitment to settling any differences through constructive dialogue,” he said. “The AlUla declaration came as an embodiment of the principle of settling differences through dialogue.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said his country would soon start to provide vaccines produced there to the international community. He also echoed the comments by other leaders about the importance of working to find a lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Heads of state will continue to address the General Assembly throughout the week. The speech by Saudi Arabia’s King Salman is scheduled to take place on Wednesday.


Biden in UN call for independent Palestine

Updated 22 September 2021

Biden in UN call for independent Palestine

  • “We must seek a future of greater peace and security for all people of the Middle East,”

NEW YORK: A sovereign and democratic Palestinian state is the best way to ensure Israel’s future, US President Joe Biden said on Tuesday. “We must seek a future of greater peace and security for all people of the Middle East,” Biden said on the opening day of the UN General Assembly.
“I continue to believe that a two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable, sovereign and democratic Palestinian state.
“We’re a long way from that goal at this moment but we should never allow ourselves to give up on the possibility of progress.” Biden repeated his promise to return to the 2015 deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program, provided Tehran did the same. Talks on the issue are deadlocked over who takes the first step.
The world faced a “decisive decade,” Biden said, in which leaders must work together to combat a raging coronavirus pandemic, global climate change and cyber threats. He said the US would double its financial commitment on climate aid and spend $10 billion to fight hunger.
Earlier, Antonio Guterres, who begins a second five-year term as secretary-general on Jan. 1, warned of the dangers of the growing gap between China and the US, the world’s largest economies.
“I fear our world is creeping toward two different sets of economic, trade, financial and technology rules, two divergent approaches in the development of artificial intelligence — and ultimately two different military and geopolitical strategies,” Guterres said.
“This is a recipe for trouble. It would be far less predictable than the Cold War.”


Nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want President Abbas to quit: Poll

Updated 22 September 2021

Nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want President Abbas to quit: Poll

  • International community still views him as a crucial partner in peace process

JERUSALEM: A new poll has found that nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want President Mahmoud Abbas to resign, reflecting widespread anger over the death of an activist in security forces’ custody and a crackdown on protests over the summer.

The survey released Tuesday found support for Abbas’ Hamas rivals remained high months after the 11-day Gaza war in May, when the Islamic militant group was widely seen by Palestinians as having scored a victory against a far more powerful Israel while the Western-backed Abbas was sidelined.

The latest poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research found that 45 percent of Palestinians believe Hamas should lead and represent them, while only 19 percent said Abbas’ secular Fatah deserved that role, showing only a slight shift in favor of Fatah over the last three months.

“This is the worst polling we’ve ever seen for the president,” said Khalil Shikaki, the head of the center, who has been surveying Palestinian public opinion for more than two decades. “He has never been in as bad a position as today.”

Despite his plummeting popularity and refusal to hold elections, the international community still views the 85-year-old Abbas as the leader of the Palestinian cause and a crucial partner in the peace process with Israel, which ground to a halt more than a decade ago.

His Palestinian Authority administers parts of the occupied West Bank under interim agreements signed with Israel at the height of the peace process in the 1990s. Hamas drove Abbas’ forces out of Gaza when it seized power there in 2007, a year after winning parliamentary elections.

Abbas’ latest woes began in April, when he called off the first Palestinian elections in 15 years as Fatah appeared to be headed for another embarrassing loss. Hamas’ popularity soared the following month amid protests in Jerusalem and the Gaza war, as many Palestinians accused the PA of doing nothing to aid their struggle against Israeli occupation.

The death of Nizar Banat, a harsh critic of the PA who died after being beaten by Palestinian security forces during a late-night arrest in June, ignited protests in the occupied West Bank calling on Abbas to resign.

His security forces launched a crackdown in response, beating and arresting several demonstrators.

The poll found that 78 percent of Palestinians want Abbas to resign and just 19 percent think he should remain in office.

It found that 63 percent of Palestinians think Banat was killed on the orders of PA political or security leaders, with only 22 percent believing it was a mistake. The PA recently announced that 14 security officials who took part in the arrest will stand trial. Sixty-nine percent of those polled felt that was an insufficient response.

Sixty-three percent of Palestinians support the demonstrations that broke out after Banat’s death, and 74 percent believe the PA’s arrest of demonstrators was a violation of liberties and civil rights, the poll found.

The PCPSR says it surveyed 1,270 Palestinians face-to-face in the West Bank and Gaza, with a margin of error of three percentage points.


Saied vows new electoral code, transition team

Updated 22 September 2021

Saied vows new electoral code, transition team

  • The North African nation was widely seen as a model for budding democracies but has failed to cure chronic unemployment

TUNIS: Tunisia’s president has announced plans to draft a new electoral code and appoint a transitional leadership — and to hang on to the exceptional powers that he seized in July.

President Kais Saied promised that the new initiatives would respect Tunisians’ hard-fought rights and freedoms and democratic constitution. While many Tunisians welcome his moves, human rights groups and some others are concerned about the future of the only country to emerge from the turbulent Arab Spring uprisings with a new democratic system.

Saied spoke to supporters in the impoverished town of Sidi Bouzid, the birthplace of the Arab Spring, where many people are disillusioned with the country’s failure to solve economic and social problems since overthrowing its repressive leaders a decade ago.

He defended his July 25 decision to suspend parliament, fire the prime minister and seize executive powers, which he said was needed to save the country amid unrest over financial troubles and the government’s handling of Tunisia’s coronavirus crisis. He invoked a special constitutional article allowing such measures in the event of imminent danger to the nation, and said they would be in place for 30 days. But they have been extended until further notice.

“Danger still hangs over the country and I cannot leave it like a puppet in the hands of those who act in the shadows, and of corrupt people,” Saied said. He accused unidentified players of “conspiring to cause chaos and confusion” in Tunisia, and said, “There is no question of going back.”

He promised a new electoral code to hold lawmakers more accountable to constituents, and transitional arrangements to run the country before he names a new prime minister. He did not detail them.


Military aid for Israel removed from US bill to fund government

Updated 21 September 2021

Military aid for Israel removed from US bill to fund government

  • Some House Democrats objected to a provision in a stopgap spending bill to provide the additional funding so Israel can replenish its "Iron Dome"
  • That could set the stage for another dispute over military aid for Israel

WASHINGTON: Democratic lawmakers on Tuesday removed $1 billion in military funding for Israel from legislation to fund the US government after objections from House of Representatives liberals, setting the stage for a potential fight over the matter later this year.
Some House Democrats objected to a provision in a stopgap spending bill to provide the additional funding so Israel can replenish its “Iron Dome” missile-defense system.
The US company Raytheon produces many Iron Dome components.
The House is debating legislation to fund the federal government through Dec. 3 and raise the nation’s borrowing limit.
The dispute forced the House Rules Committee to adjourn briefly before leaders of the Appropriations Committee pledged that funding for the Israeli system would be included in a defense spending bill later this year. That could set the stage for another dispute over military aid for Israel.
Democratic Representative Jamaal Bowman said House members had not been given enough time to consider the matter.
“The problem is leadership (will) just throw something on our table, give us about five minutes to decide what we’re going to do and then tries to move forward with it,” Bowman told reporters.
The United States has already provided more than $1.6 billion for Israel to develop and build the Iron Dome system, according to a US Congressional Research Service report last year. This reflects perennially strong support for aid to Israel among both Democrats and Republicans.
Some liberal Democrats objected to that policy this year, citing Palestinian casualties as Israel struck back after Hamas rocket attacks in May. Israel said most of the 4,350 rockets fired from Gaza during the conflict were blown out of the sky by Iron Dome interceptors.