Israel: Election lists close with rifts leaving Liberman as kingmaker

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Election lists close with rifts on left and right, leaving Liberman as kingmaker

Three major takeaways as 32 parties register with the Central Elections Committee for the September 17 national vote

Raoul Wootliff
Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in Tel Aviv, July 30, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flahs90)

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman in Tel Aviv, July 30, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flahs90)

With 47 days to go until the September 17 national vote, all 32 parties set to run in the election, and their electoral slates, have been registered with the Central Elections Committee.

Here are three takeaways from two fairly humdrum days at the committee, as the parties filed ahead of Thursday’s midnight deadline:

1. Divided Right

The most exciting drama leading up to the closing of registration was the protracted effort, which went down to the wire, to merge the extremist Otzma Yehudit party with the newly formed United Right union.

Pressure to reach an agreement continued right up until the deadline, with party leader Itamar Ben Gvir saying he had been asked to hold out a little while longer by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been pushing for the merger on the grounds that right-wing votes could be wasted if Otzma Yehudit, whose name means Jewish Power, failed to clear the 3.25% electoral threshold.

In the end, however, those efforts failed and United Right, led by popular former justice minister Ayelet Shaked, filed its own party list without Otzma Yehudit or Moshe Feiglin’s quasi-libertarian hard-right Zehut (or, indeed, the tiny anti-LGBT Noam party, which had temporarily agreed to run with Otzma Yehudit.) Likud has (generously) estimated that those three parties are worth roughly four to five percent of the vote (180,000-216,000 votes).

The decision to forgo a merger, which United Right has said was due to Ben Gvir refusing to take any spot on the joint slate below eighth place, may well end up being good for the right-wing union and bad for Netanyahu, reducing his chances of gaining the support of at least 61 of the 120 eventual Knesset members.

Otzma Yehudit’s Itamar Ben Gvir speaks to reporters at the Knesset before his far-right party submits its electoral slate to the Central Elections Committee on August 1, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Instead of gathering the fringes of Israel’s right-wing, the new union has brought together the mainstream factions on the right — Shaked’s New Right and the religious-Zionist union, United Right Wing Parties — all but guaranteeing their own political survival, but not necessarily Netanyahu’s.

The union headed by Shaked could end up being a direct threat to his own support: it may boost the right-wing bloc somewhat, but it is just as likely to drain support from the Likud in favor of the new United Right, with many Likud voters likely amenable to Shaked and the type of party she is forming.

At the same time, tens or hundreds of thousands of right-wing votes may now be lost in the election if they go to Ben Gvir or Feiglin’s factions, and those parties fail to clear the threshold and enter the Knesset.

2. Democratic Camp(s)

At the other end of the political spectrum, Thursday also saw hopes dashed for a grand left-wing union made up of the Democratic Camp — itself a merger between Meretz, former prime minister Ehud Barak’s Israel Democratic Party and ex-Labor MK Stav Shaffir — and the recently announced Labor-Gesher partnership.

Despite significant internal criticism over the decision, newly elected Labor leader Amir Peretz opted to run independently of the newly formed Democratic Camp, and instead position Labor as a left-leaning socio-economic party less focused on diplomatic and peace issues.

There has been lingering anger within Labor over Peretz’s decision to merge the faction with former lawmaker Orly Levy-Abekasis’s Gesher party, which is further to the right on the political spectrum and failed to pick up enough votes to enter the Knesset in April’s elections. Others within Labor, notably the party’s No. 2 MK, Itzik Shmuli, meanwhile, had pushed Peretz to cooperate with the Democratic Camp on a joint slate in an effort to win as many seats as possible for the left.

MK Amir Peretz, leader of the Labor party, right, and Orly Levy, head of the Gesher party, seen at an opening event for the new election headquarters in Tel Aviv, on July 24, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

As Peretz and Levy-Abekasis presented their slate on Thursday, Shmuli stood by their side, telling press afterwards that Labor was “the true camp for Israeli democrats.” A few hours earlier, Shaffir, Shmuli’s one-time partner when leading the 2011 social protests, had said that her party would be the one to “ensure the future of Israeli democracy.”

Labor has seen its fortunes tumble in recent years, hit by a rightward shift among Israeli voters, turmoil within the party, and the emergence of various new political players that have eroded its base. In April’s election, it dropped from the 24 Knesset seats it received as part of the Zionist Union in 2015 to just six. In total, the party gained only 4.43 percent of the national vote.

Peretz’s decision to stay out of the Democratic Camp will determine whether Labor, still plagued by internal divisions, will be able to regain its past glory. More likely, with the party currently hovering at around six seats, not far from the electoral threshold (as opposed to Democratic Camp’s nine to twelve seats), it may mean that the election campaign could become a fight for Labor’s very survival.

3. Liberman’s gain

While the right and left kept each other on their toes until the final hours before the Thursday night deadline, the only major party to casually file its slate on Wednesday, avoiding speculation and spin, was Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu.

Being the first to finalize its electoral list, and doing so without the need for other partners, symbolized the image of Yisrael Beytenu as a sturdy, trustworthy and even centrist party that Liberman has cultivated over the past few weeks. It also underlines his confidence given the gains his party has seen in polling, jumping from the five seats it received in April’s election to 11 in a survey released on Thursday night.

According to that Channel 13 poll, the right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties together would win 54 seats without Liberman, while the center-left and Arab factions would have 46, meaning neither side could form a coalition without Yisrael Beytenu. That means that the former defense and foreign minister would again hold the balance of power and that Netanyahu will likely be unable to form a coalition without him.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman at a campaign event for his party in Tel Aviv on July 30, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Such a turn of events would mark the second time this year that Liberman has been in the kingmaker position. In May, weeks after the previous elections, Netanyahu failed to form a new coalition when Liberman refused to join his government.

Perhaps more significantly for Liberman, Thursday’s poll showed that half of Israeli voters want to see a unity government between the Likud and Blue and White parties that does not include ultra-Orthodox factions. Yisrael Beytenu has vowed, if it holds the balance of power, to indeed force a coalition of Likud and Blue and White that does not include religious parties.

Thus, amid the splits on both right and the left, Liberman emerges from the quagmire precisely where he wants to be — as the man potentially holding the keys to a very different union: a unity government.

Damascus, Tel Aviv Exchange ‘Goodwill’ Gestures

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE SAUDI NEWS AGENCY ASHARQ AL-AWSAT)

 

Damascus, Tel Aviv Exchange ‘Goodwill’ Gestures

Sunday, 28 April, 2019 – 06:30
An Israeli soldier stands next to signs pointing out distances to different cities at an observation post in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights. (Reuters)
Moscow, Beijing, London – Raed Jaber and Asharq Al-Awsat
A series of “goodwill gestures” emerged on Saturday between Damascus and Tel Aviv related to a prisoner exchange.

An Israeli official said Tel Aviv decided in the past few days to release two Syrian prisoners as a goodwill gesture after the return of the remains of Israeli soldier Zachary Baumel.

Baumel went missing during in a battle between Israeli and Syrian forces in Sultan Yaqub during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in 1982. His remains were recovered by Russian forces in Syria and returned to Israel earlier this month.

A Syrian regime source told Reuters that authorities had pressured Moscow to secure the prisoners’ release after news emerged that the Israeli soldier’s remains were being handed over.

Israel’s Prison Service identified the two prisoners as Ahmed Khamis and Zidan Taweel.

Khamis, from a Palestinian refugee camp in Syria, was a member of the Palestinian Fatah group and was jailed in 2005 after he tried to infiltrate an Israeli military base in order to carry out an attack.

Taweel, from the Syrian Druze village of Hader, was jailed in 2008 for drug smuggling.

Meanwhile, Syria’s representative to the UN, Bashar al-Jaafari said on Saturday that “Turkey’s occupation is four times larger than Israel’s and that Turkey’s negative attitude to Syria is thus four times worst than Israel.”

He compared the Israeli occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights to Ankara’s “occupation” of Syrian territory in the North. He charged that Turkey was occupying some 6,000 kms of Syrian land, encompassing Afrin and Idlib.

He also accused it of constructing 70-km wall south of Manbij to separate it from Aleppo and imposing a Turkish curriculum at schools.

Israel: The People Have Spoken. They Want To Live In Netanyahu’s Israel

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

The people have spoken. They want to live in Netanyahu’s Israel

Israelis were not under-informed or unfairly swayed. They knew what they’d get with a 5th term of Netanyahu. The result was the highest vote ever for right & ultra-Orthodox parties

David Horovitz
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at a victory event after polls for general elections closed in Tel Aviv,, April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at a victory event after polls for general elections closed in Tel Aviv,, April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

The people have spoken. And a week after the elections, with the president now in the midst of consultations with our newly elected politicians ahead of the formation of our next government, it’s worth taking a closer look at what the people actually said.

They knew that Benjamin Netanyahu was facing criminal charges in three cases, unless he could persuade the attorney general of his innocence. They knew that he had castigated the opposition, the media, the cops and the state prosecutors for purportedly seeking to frame him as part of a political vendetta to oust him. They knew that, if re elected, he might try to use existing or new legislation to avoid being prosecuted, and would likely seek to stay on as prime minister even if he were to be prosecuted. And that, if reelected, he would make the case that the public had given him a mandate to offset the state prosecutors’ recommendations that he be put on trial.

They knew. And 26.45% of the voting Israeli public chose Likud — a vast number, by Israeli standards, 1,139,079 out of the 4,306,520 legitimate ballots cast nationwide.

The people have spoken. Not all the people. But more than enough of them.

They knew that they had a clear alternative to four more years of a Netanyahu-led Israel, embodied in a party led by three former IDF chiefs of staff — an unprecedented assemblage of security expertise, in a country where security concerns always figure at the very top of voting considerations. They saw Netanyahu portray that party, Benny Gantz’s Blue and White, as a group of weak leftists. Even though it included Netanyahu’s own former Likud defense minister Moshe Ya’alon, whose public positions are more hawkish than those of Netanyahu, and even though Netanyahu in 2013 extended Gantz’s term as IDF chief by an additional year in the most overt illustration possible of the confidence he then had in Gantz’s security leadership capabilities.

Members of the Blue White political party Benny Gantz (second left), Moshe Yaalon (right), Gabi Ashkenazi (left) and Yair Lapid hold a press conference at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on April 10, 2019, a day after the elections. (Flash90)

They watched Netanyahu’s Likud depict Gantz as mentally unstable. They watched Netanyahu attempt to make political capital out of a bizarre saga involving the reported Iranian hacking of Gantz’s phone — a saga in which Gantz and his colleagues did not provide a clear-cut explanation of what had gone on. They watched Gantz veer between an attempted statesmanlike, high-ground approach to beating Netanyahu and a lower-ground trading of insults and accusations.

They watched Netanyahu broker a deal that legitimized the Kahanist Otzma Yehudit party as part of a new Union of Right-Wing Parties that would partner Netanyahu in any new Likud-led coalition. They watched URWP’s Bezalel Smotrich declare he’d set his heart on becoming minister of education. They watched the New Right’s Ayelet Shaked vow to curb the power of the Supreme Court if she continued as justice minister.

They watched. And they made their choice. Very few voters from the right of the political spectrum threw their support behind Gantz and the other generals. While Blue and White also topped the million-vote count — 1,124,805 — much of its support came from the center and the now decimated Labor, and that wasn’t enough to thwart Netanyahu’s fifth election victory.

The people have spoken. Not all the people. But more than enough of them.

They recognized other likely and possible implications of another Netanyahu victory. He’d vowed in the final days of the campaign to extend Israeli sovereignty to all West Bank settlements — a move that, if realized, would have major consequences for what was once called the peace process. It was clear his most reliable coalition partners would be the two ultra-Orthodox parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism — on whose behalf he reluctantly froze the Western Wall compromise deal, and whose key agenda items include making Israel more Shabbat-observant and minimizing the number of young ultra-Orthodox males required to share the rights and responsibilities of military and national service.

Self-evidently, enough Israeli voters either share this agenda or are not deterred by it. Enough to hand Netanyahu another term.

The people have spoken.

Residents of the Gaza envelope communities of southern Israel have for years complained about Netanyahu’s policies in dealing with Hamas. They have protested that the government has turned them into rocket fodder. Sderot, the most rocket-battered city of all, voted 43.52% for Netanyahu’s Likud. (The next most popular party was Yisrael Beytenu at 10.14%.) To the east of Gaza, Netivot voted 32.46% Likud (second only to 33.35% Shas.) Ashkelon, to the north, voted 42.61% Likud (followed by Blue and White at 15.62%). By contrast, kibbutzim and moshavim in the Gaza periphery area generally voted overwhelmingly for Blue and White.

The people have spoken.

Early on election day, reports started circulating about Likud-paid activists bringing hidden cameras into polling stations in Arab areas. Some of those involved have since acknowledged that they were indeed acting on behalf of Likud; a PR agency has claimed responsibility, saying it was hired by Likud; the Likud party’s lawyer, on the day, claimed the operation was open and legal, and necessary to ensure the “integrity” of the vote in districts ostensibly prone to voter fraud; Netanyahu himself championed the use of public cameras for the same purpose. (Needless to say, the Central Elections Committee has its own, nonpartisan procedures for preventing election fraud.) In fact, ruled the judge overseeing the elections, the deployment of the cameras was illicit; the equipment was ordered removed.

Israel’s voters watched and read about all these developments in real time.

Some analysts have suggested that the camera gambit depressed Arab turnout — it’s not comfortable showing up to do your democratic duty, as members of a minority that was traduced by the prime minister on the previous election day, when you hear on the news that you’re going to be filmed in the process by his supporters. Arab turnout does appear to have been down last week (an estimated 52%) as compared to 2015 (an estimated 63.7%). And while the Joint (Arab) List won 13 seats in the last Knesset, its constituent parties, now running in two separate lists, managed only 10 this time.

But if the camera ploy worked to Netanyahu’s advantage, possibly costing his political rivals a seat or three, and maybe boosting support for a Likud seen to be taking on the Arabs, there was a more dramatic arithmetical factor on the right-hand side of the spectrum that worked against him. Between Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right (138,491 votes, or 3.22% of the national total) and Moshe Feiglin’s Zehut (117,670 votes; 2.73% of the national total), a staggering 6% of right-wing votes went down the drain — a potential six or seven more Knesset seats for a Netanyahu-led coalition. And yet Netanyahu still has a clear, if complex, path (involving reconciling the ultra-Orthodox parties with the fiercely secular Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu) to a 65-strong coalition.

Over 57% of counted votes went to right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties (Likud; Shas; UTJ; Yisrael Beytenu; United Right-Wing Parties; Kulanu; The New Right; Zehut, and Gesher). This is the highest proportion in Israeli history. Only 34% went to centrist and left of center Zionist parties (Blue and White, Labor and Meretz).

The two ultra-Orthodox parties, it is worth noting, had repeatedly stressed in the run-up to polling day that they would only consider joining a Netanyahu-led coalition. Even when the polls closed and for a brief moment Gantz was claiming victory on the basis of a predictably inaccurate exit poll, UTJ rushed to say that it would go into the opposition with Netanyahu rather than partner with Gantz.

Menachem Begin, center, speaks to supporters at his party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on May 18, 1977, as they celebrate the Likud Bloc’s election to government after 29 years of Israeli Labor Party rule. (AP Photo)

By way of comparison, the 2015 elections saw over 56% voting for right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties (Likud, Kulanu, Jewish Home, Shas, Yisrael Beytenu and Yachad). In 2013, the comparable figure was 48% (Likud, Jewish Home, Shas, UTJ, Otzma LeYisrael). In 2009, it was 54% (Likud, Yisrael Beytenu, Shas, UTJ, National Union and Jewish Home).

Going way back to 1977, when Menachem Begin’s Likud first won power, the comparable proportion was about 53% — and that’s including the then-relatively centrist National Religious Party, which had partnered with Labor-led governments for the past three decades.

The people have spoken.

Were some worried by Gantz’s warnings that Netanyahu is turning Israel into Turkey — becoming our un-oustable leader, gradually marginalizing opposition, taking control of ever more of the media, bending the cops and the prosecutors and the courts to his will? Doubtless, many were. But not enough to unseat him.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu holds a voting slip for his Likud party in a video filmed at a beach in Netanya on election day, April 9, 2019. (Screen capture: YouTube)

The people saw Gantz caught by a camera in his car, toward the end of election day, looking exhausted. They saw Netanyahu, sweating in his suit on the beach at Netanya, imploring potential supporters to get out of the sea and vote Likud.

The people saw everything, internalized what they chose to internalize, and made their decision. No nefarious forces, as far as we know, skewed these elections. The public was not under-informed; nor was it disaffected. The turnout was a healthy 67.9% (compared to 61.4% in the 2016 US presidential elections, or 66.1% in 2015’s British parliamentary elections).

The people want to live in Benjamin Netanyahu’s Israel.

The people have spoken. Not all the people. But more than enough of them.

Israelis’ choice. Israelis’ consequences.

Note: Figures cited in this piece for the 2019 elections are from the completed-count totals announced by the Central Elections Committee at midnight on April 11; the totals have fluctuated slightly since then, and are to be made official on April 16.

Netanyahu’s election win confirmed; New Right misses out

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

JUDGE IN CHARGE: TALLY NOT OFFICIAL UNTIL GIVEN TO PRESIDENT

With all votes counted, Netanyahu’s election win confirmed; New Right misses out

After full day of rechecking, Likud gains a seat to outscore Gantz’s Blue and White 36-35, United Torah Judaism loses a seat; Netanyahu’s path to majority coalition clear

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at a victory event after polls for Israel's general elections closed in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu waves to supporters at a victory event after polls for Israel’s general elections closed in Tel Aviv, Israel, Tuesday, April 9, 2019. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was confirmed as the big winner of Israel’s general elections on Thursday night, when the Central Elections Committee published the completed tallies of Tuesday’s election, a full 60 hours after the polling stations closed.

The delay was caused by extra time spent Thursday checking and rechecking the “extra” votes cast by soldiers, diplomats and other absentees, which led to adjustments to the tentative results that had been issued early Wednesday. Even when releasing these ostensibly final tallies, however, the Supreme Court justice overseeing the elections said they were not official, and reserved the right to amend them before they are formally handed to the president on April 17.

With all of the votes counted, checked and rechecked, Netanyahu’s Likud party edged past its rival Blue and White party with 26.45 percent of the vote to win 36 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, gaining one more seat in the adjusted final tally. The ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party dropped a seat, from Wednesday’s tentative eight to seven. Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White faction was confirmed at 35 seats, 26.11% of ballots.

Blue and White had formally conceded the election on Wednesday.

Final results in 2019 elections36363535887766665555444444000000LikudBlue and WhiteShasUTJHadash-Ta’alLaborYisrael BeytenuURWPMeretzKulanuRa’am-BaladNew RightZehutGesher0510152025303540

The bloc of Likud and its ultra-Orthodox and right-wing allies finished with 65 seats, compared to 55 for the center, left and Arab parties, giving Netanyahu a clear path for building a majority coalition.

Final blocs after 2019 elections65655555RightCenter-left + Arab

The results also confirmed that Naftali Bennett and Ayelet Shaked’s New Right party narrowly failed to garner enough support to win any seats, ending up with 3.22% of the votes cast nationwide; the minimum threshold for Knesset representation is 3.25%. New Right had pinned its hopes on the soldiers’ votes elevating it into the Knesset for the minimum four seats, and sources in the party challenged the count during Thursday when it emerged that it had fallen short.

New Right said after the completed tallies were released at midnight that it was “not giving up” and was not convinced that the published totals were accurate. UTJ said it would appeal against the results.

On the right, Aryeh Deri’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party wound up as the third-largest Knesset faction with eight seats, followed by UTJ with its seven, the Union of Right-Wing parties won five, Yisrael Beytenu won five, and Kulanu won four.

On the other side of the spectrum, Arab party Hadash-Ta’al won six seats, the Labor party crashed to a record low of six, Meretz won four seats, and the second Arab party, Ra’am-Balad, also won four.

Likud’s 36 seats was the party’s best result since the 2003 election (when it won 38 seats under Ariel Sharon), and its best under Netanyahu.

Final results of the 2019 national election on the Central Elections Committee website show the New Right, circled in yellow, falling short of the 3.25% threshold to enter the Knesset, April 11, 2019. (Screenshot/Central Elections Committee)

The vote count was plagued by controversy.

The Central Elections Committee’s website on Thursday morning erroneously stated that New Right had crossed the electoral threshold, before officials clarified that the website was inaccurate. The inaccurate figure remained on the site all day, however, until it was finally amended shortly before the completed figures were released at midnight.

Screenshot from the Central Elections Committee website showing the New Right party with 3.26% of the vote on Thursday late morning, April 11, 2019. The Committee said this information was erroneous and that the New Right had actually won only 3.22% of the vote. It said the site was not showing the correct number of total votes counted, and was thus displaying inaccurate figures for all parties.

United Torah Judaism and the New Right late Thursday had called for a delay in the publication of the election results. The New Right said the party had received over 1,000 complaints about ballot irregularities, while UTJ said mistakes had been recorded at five polling stations in ultra-Orthodox areas.

Additionally, Meretz accused United Torah Judaism of interfering in the count on Thursday to try to steal a seat. Meretz, according to Thursday night’s tally, ended up only a few hundred votes short of winning a fifth seat.

Snafus on the official website also included displayed turnout rates of over 100 percent in some areas.

Justice Hanan Melcer, head of the Central Elections Committee, acknowledged that erroneous data had been registered on the committee’s computers, leading to a discrepancy between official results and those posted to the official website, but said all such issues had now been resolved.

Nonetheless, when announcing the completed results, Melcer said they were still subject to possible change before they are submitted to President Reuven Rivlin on Wednesday, April 17.

“We retain the right,” he said in a letter to the representatives of the Knesset slates that ran in the elections, “to examine the results using additional means at the committee’s disposal… so that they are still subject to changes and adjustments.”

Melcer said he rejected the last-minute appeal by the New Right and United Torah Judaism parties to hold off on publishing the results, in part because they are not fully official until they are presented to the president and thus in principle subject to change.

Justice Hanan Melcer, chairman of the Central Elections Committee for the 21st Knesset, attends a committee meeting at the Knesset, April 3, 2019. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

He noted that 4,335,320 Israelis voted, from among 6,335,387 who were eligible (68.4 percent), and that 30,756 votes were disqualified.

Speaking to journalists at the Knesset earlier, Melcer stressed there was “no fault or issue” in tallying the votes.

Melcer downplayed the computer glitches at a press conference. He said the errors on the site were the result of a software problem that prevented the site from displaying the vote tallies in real time, and stressed the erroneous data displayed on the website was not the result of a cyberattack. (Ahead of the elections, the Shin Bet security agency had warned that a foreign power would seek to meddle in the elections.)

In a statement, the committee said: “Three glitches were found in the data transfer. The problem is not with the count but with entering figures into the system. Some of the figures were recorded by the system and some were not.”

On Thursday night, New Right party put out a statement quoting Justice Melcer and stating that “the results as they were published are not final.”

“We would expect the media to show a bit more gravitas in its reports,” the party said. “As we have said, we are not giving up… We will accept the voter’s decision, but will not rest until we find out what that decision truly is.”

United Torah Judaism said it would appeal the results.

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COMMENTS

Israel: Have You Looked At The Sky Today?

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Recently, someone in my neighborhood in Tel Aviv has been spray-painting the question, “Have you looked at the sky today?” on walls of buildings and at the dog park and local train station. Have you looked at the sky today? It’s a reminder to take our eyes off the phone in our hands, and look up, for a moment, to see what’s going on around us.

Over the past two months, I found myself lifting my eyes to the sky more and more, as I followed the trajectory of Beresheet’s elliptical path to the moon.

Over the same two months, as Israel has been wrapped in a divisive election and an almost-war in Gaza, a group of passionate engineers has tried to shift the entire country’s gaze towards the sky, to see the universe beyond the borders of our country and our planet.

As we and the world watched on Thursday night, holding our collective breath in anticipation for Israel to become the fourth country to land on the moon, Beresheet smashed into the lunar surface, scattering into thousands of pieces.

ToI’s Melanie Lidman

The landing sequence started so perfectly, with a large cheer going up as the spacecraft passed the point of no return, meaning the automatic landing was engaged, and there was no turning back. But then communication with the spacecraft started going in and out.

Things got tense, but it was happening so quickly that the evening’s emcees, Ido Antebby of SpaceIL and Opher Doron of Israel Aerospace Industries, barely had a chance to explain what was going on.

One of the last photos taken by Beresheet before crash landing into the moon on April 11, 2019. (Courtesy SpaceIL)

The main engine stopped working, and then miraculously, started working again. Some people in the audience clapped, but Ehud Hayun, a space systems engineer at IAI sitting next to me, already knew it was over. The spacecraft was too close to the surface to properly slow its descent and drop gently to the ground.

“There is a concern that we haven’t landed in the best possible way,” Alex Friedman, the systems engineer manager overseeing the control room observed dryly at 10:24 p.m.

The engineers, stoic as always, barely registered emotion, as it became clear that their project, which some had worked on for upwards of eight years, had smashed into the surface on which it had been supposed to settle.

SpaceX’s Nusantara Satu Mission, bearing an Israeli moon lander, takes off from Florida’s Cape Canaveral on February 22, 2019 (screenshot: YouTube)

Have you looked at the sky today? Have you looked at the moon?

Somewhere, up there, are the remains of a crazy idea that was hatched by three friends at a bar in Holon, that somehow, along the way, garnered $100 million in donations, harnessed a team of dozens of engineers, and captured the attention of Israel and the world.

What does it mean to fail? What does it mean to have the courage, the audacity, to stand up and say, why not? Why not try and get to the moon?

Beresheet engineers released this photo on April 1 of the Arabian peninsula at a height of 16,000 kilometers, photographed from the spacecraft’s external cameras. (courtesy Beresheet)

Over the past two months, as I followed every hiccup and maneuver and selfie of the spacecraft, I found myself not just immersed in the day-to day news of this country, but looking up at the sky and remembering that this country is a small dot on a tiny planet amidst an entire universe.

It’s the smallness I used to feel devouring my father’s battered copies of Isaac Asimov’s science fiction: how beautiful it is to dream about what can exist beyond our horizons. How crucial it is to remember how small and unimportant we are. How beautiful to know that there is more out there than what we can see.

A picture taken by the Beresheet spacecraft of the moon’s surface with the Earth in the background on April 5, 2019. (courtesy Beresheet)

More than a million students in Israel spent class time learning about Beresheet, either through presentations from SpaceIL’s army of educators (the non-profit organization employs more educators than engineers), or the educational kits available for free on SpaceIL’s website. Even writing articles, I learned so much more about space and physics than I ever thought I’d know.

At some point, in between a conversation about the perilune (closest point of the elliptical orbit around the moon) and the apilune (farthest point of the elliptical orbit around the moon), and trying to clarify between geostationary and geosynchronous orbits, I realized that despite my defiant insistence to the contrary, my 10th grade geometry teacher Mrs. Haupt was right. One day, I would need to know basic geometry.

The last shot Beresheet sent of landing before crashing onto the moon’s surface. (Youtube screenshot)

My neighbor, Yisrael, doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about. He can’t get over the price tag: $100 million! What about all the hungry people in Israel? he asks. Never mind that Beresheet cost a fraction of the estimated $1.5 billion for each Apollo mission. Why not take that money and build a hospital or something more practical? Yisrael has spent his entire life working with his hands, building things, creating concrete objects you can touch.

A child’s drawing about space included in the time capsule that has been inserted into the Beresheet spacecraft (Courtesy)

I tried to explain to Yisrael just why I have loved writing about this little craft hurtling through space, learning about the intricacies of elliptical orbits and the pull of lunar gravity and the growing problem of space trash.

But I also found myself struggling to find the words. Can you put a monetary value on inspiration? Is it cost-effective to convince a young girl that she can be a space engineer when she grows up? At the end, I could only say to Yisrael, can you imagine a more beautiful thing than a group of friends believing that they can send something to the moon? Can you put a price tag on beauty?

In the moments after Friedman’s announcement, after the screen that was showing the position of the spacecraft reverted to the background of someone’s desktop computer, it didn’t feel real that Beresheet had crashed.

It’s strange to lose something you’ve never touched.

Beresheet photographs the dark side of the moon on April 10, 2019 from a height of 2500 km. (courtesy Beresheet engineers)

What does it mean to fail? Space is hard, Hayun said to me, with a sigh and a shrug of his shoulders, just moments after the spacecraft crashed. Cameras were already in his face, waiting to ask how he felt, what it was like to lose the project he had worked so hard to build. Space is hard.

Perhaps the lesson we should take from Beresheet is not the fact that it failed, but the fact that we tried at all. That for a moment, we widened our horizons beyond our tiny lives, expanding the diameter of our world to a point 400,000 kilometers (250,000 miles) away, joining with millions of people to follow the trajectory of a crazy dream.

Have you looked at the sky today?

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Rabbi Achiad Ettinger dies after being shot near Ariel in northern West Bank

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Father of 12 succumbs to injuries from Sunday terror attack

Rabbi Achiad Ettinger dies after being shot near Ariel in northern West Bank; relatives say he managed to fire at attacker after being wounded

Rabbi Achiad Ettinger, who was shot March 17 at the Ariel junction and succumbed to his injuries the following day (Nadav Goldstein/TPS)

Rabbi Achiad Ettinger, who was shot March 17 at the Ariel junction and succumbed to his injuries the following day (Nadav Goldstein/TPS)

Rabbi Achiad Ettinger died of his injuries Monday, a day after being shot by a Palestinian terrorist during an attack in the northern West Bank, a family spokesperson said.

Ettinger, 47, was a father of 12 from the settlement of Eli. Doctors had been working to save his life since the attack near Ariel Sunday morning in which a soldier, Gal Keidan, was also killed.

Ettinger was shot in the head and neck as he drove by the Ariel Junction by terror suspect Omar Abu Laila, 19, who had stolen Geidan’s gun and opened fire on passing cars, according to the IDF.

He was rushed to Beilinson Hospital in Petah Tikva in critical condition and doctors worked for a day to save his life before he succumbed to his injuries, the hospital said.

IDF soldiers seen during a raid in the village of Bruqin near the West Bank town of Salfit on March 17, 2019. (Flash90)

Relatives of Ettinger told reporters Sunday that despite having been shot and bleeding profusely, he turned his car around and fired four bullets in the direction of the attacker, who managed to escape in a vehicle abandoned by a fleeing driver.

“This self-sacrifice characterized him over the years,” his family said in a statement, noting his decision to live for several years in south Tel Aviv “to strengthen Jewish identity” in the working class neighborhood.

His family asked that his organs be donated, Ettinger’s sister told reporters.

“We hope that after the great mourning we will see this nation unite, and from this great unity we will also see great joy,” the statement from the family read.

Ettinger leaves behind a wife and 12 children; his oldest daughter is 22 and his youngest is a year old.

Undated photo of Rabbi Achiad Ettinger (L) and his family. (courtesy Ettinger family)

“We are shocked and in pain, and we expect that Israel will deal harshly with the murderers,” a family friend told the Ynet news site on Monday. “A family with 12 children who now must bury their father is hard to grasp.”

Ettinger was the founder of south Tel Aviv’s Oz V’emuna hesder yeshiva, which combines Torah study with military service for young men. He was also active in the campaign against African migrants in the city’s southern Neve Sha’anan neighborhood.

Israeli forensic workers inspect a car near the scene of a deadly terror attack near the Ariel Junction in the West Bank on March 17, 2019. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

A number of Ettinger’s students gathered at the seminary to pay condolences to the man many of them looked up to as a father figure.

“He was like a father to me,” one student told Ynet. “He used to always tell me ‘I’m not impressed by success, I’m impressed by hard work.’ He called me 14 minutes before the attack, but I was studying and I missed the call.”

The funeral procession for Ettinger was scheduled to leave Eli at 2 p.m. and pass through Ariel Junction, where the attack took place, before concluding at the Segula cemetery in Petah Tikva.

Israeli security forces at the scene of a deadly attack near the Gitai junction in the West Bank, on March 17, 2019. (Flash90)

“The people of Israel mourn over the murder of the late Rabbi Achiad Ettinger. I wish to send condolences to his family at this difficult time. May his memory be a blessing,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tweeted.

“Rabbi Ettinger’s life’s work will continue with us even after his passing, and the strength he gave his students and the community he led will continue to strengthen us through this enormous grief and sorrow,” said President Reuven Rivlin in a statement.

Ettinger’s colleague Rabbi Yaron Adorian eulogized him as a “wonderful man” who worked tirelessly for others.

“Everyone has their own personal story about this wonderful man,” Adorian said. “There aren’t many people like him, who put aside his personal like and entirely devoted himself to the community, the Jewish people and the rest of the world.”

An Israeli police officer is seen at the scene of a deadly terror attack near the West Bank settlement of Ariel, Sunday, March 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Alexander Dvorsky, a soldier shot and injured by Abu Laila when he drove to nearby Gitai junction and opened fire again, remained in serious condition Monday.

The manhunt after Abu Laila was still ongoing Monday. Israeli security forces detained his father and brother in the nearby town of Az-Zawiya, according to the Ma’an Palestinian news site. Authorities believe Abu Laila fled into the village of Bruqin on foot after the attacks.

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Outcry as top minister calls largest-ever daily Hamas rocket onslaught ‘minor’

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Outcry as top minister calls largest-ever daily Hamas rocket onslaught ‘minor’

Netanyahu condemns remarks by Tzachi Hanegbi, who said it would have been ‘a different story’ had Gaza terrorist groups fired rockets at Tel Aviv, not just at southern towns

Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi at a meeting of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee in the Knesset. November 19, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Likud MK Tzachi Hanegbi at a meeting of the Defense and Foreign Affairs Committee in the Knesset. November 19, 2015. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Senior Likud cabinet minister Tzachi Hanegbi on Thursday drew widespread condemnation, including from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for calling the barrage of rockets fired at Israel earlier this week “minor” and “measured” because the Gaza terrorist groups did not target Tel Aviv.

The Hamas rocket fire was minor, and mostly concentrated around the southern Israeli Gaza-adjacent area, Hanegbi told Army Radio in an interview Thursday morning. While the suffering of Israelis in the areas close to Gaza was “a nightmare” and “not negligible,” he said, had Hamas fired at Tel Aviv or Ben Gurion Airport, it would have been a different story.

According to the military, over 460 rockets and mortar shells were fired at southern Israel on Monday and Tuesday — more than twice the rate at which they were launched during the 2014 war. The Iron Dome missile defense system intercepted over 100 of them. Most of the rest landed in open fields, but dozens landed inside southern Israeli cities and towns, killing a Palestinian man in Ashkelon, injuring dozens, and causing significant property damage.

The flare up was triggered by an Israeli raid into Gaza that went awry on Sunday, and set off clashes resulting in the deaths of seven Palestinian fighters, including a local Hamas commander, and a senior Israeli military officer.

In response to the rocket and mortar attacks, the Israeli military said it targeted approximately 160 sites in the Gaza Strip connected to the Hamas and Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror groups, including four facilities that the army designated as “key strategic assets.”

Israel and Hamas have since reached an informal ceasefire agreement to end the fighting. The truce prompted Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman to resign on Wednesday and has drawn criticism from some residents of southern Israel who accuse the government of being soft on Hamas.

Netanyahu swiftly condemned Hanegbi’s characterization on Thursday, saying: “Hamas’s aggression is not ‘minor’ and there is no distinction between Hamas fire against the residents of the south and fire against any other area of the State of Israel.”

In the Tuesday security cabinet meeting that led to the informal ceasefire, Hanegbi said in the interview, “we all thought it was right to put an end to the violence from Gaza.” Liberman advocated “a harsh blow” and the other option was “to see if a [ceasefire] arrangement was possible. We’re testing that second option now.”

Liberman’s suggested harsh blow, Hanegbi said, “would mean entering a lengthy operation during which Tel Aviv would be paralyzed by hundreds of rockets daily, for days or weeks, if not longer.” Israel, he said, would have no way to stop that “except by sending our soldiers to every hole in Gaza.” The airport, he added, would also be “paralyzed for weeks, with all the implications for the economy and tourism.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends a meeting of the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee alongside the committee’s then chairman, MK Tzach Hanegbi, on October 26, 2015 (Knesset spokesman)

But there are no wars without a price, challenged his interviewer. Hanegbi responded: “That’s the issue. At the end of that operation [proposed by Liberman], with hundreds of funerals of young Israeli soldiers, we’d be back in the same place where we are now.”

He said most ministers shared the view of the entire security establishment, and of the prime minister, that now was not the appropriate moment for a major operation, when the same result could be achieved at a low price.

He derided those who, he said, had been talking of this week’s flareup “as though it was almost the Yom Kippur War,” and then detailed his view of how the escalation unfolded:

“We initiated a [special forces] operation deep inside [Gaza on Sunday evening]. This was apparently in contravention of the agreed truce [hitherto in force with Hamas]. We believed it was a vital operation. It went awry. To extricate our forces [one of whom was killed], we killed seven terrorists.”

Explaining the Hamas rocket response, he continued: “It wasn’t that Hamas acted without a pretext. It had a pretext — to try to exact revenge. Its revenge was minor. In all, it managed, with 400 rockets, to kill one Palestinian.”

Those rockets, he acknowledged, “are a nightmare for the residents of the south.” But practically, he went on, “270 of them fell in the Gaza area.”

When it was put to him that one rocket fell on an empty kindergarten, Hanegbi replied: “The empty kindergarten — that’s always talked about. But those 500 coffins — of the Israeli youths that would come back if we sent them into [Gaza’s] Jabalaya [refugee camp] — would not be empty.”

Urged Hanegbi: “Let’s keep a sense of proportion… We had no interest in now being drawn into a wider operation… The Gaza [border] area [in southern Israel] is not negligible, but there’s a difference between that and Tel Aviv and the airport.”

Hanegbi also said he was “amazed,” in a good way, by a Hadashot TV news survey on Wednesday night that showed 74% of respondents were not satisfied with Netanyahu’s handling of the escalation and that the Likud would win 29 seats (from its current 30) if elections were held today. “In light of the anger” so widespread in the country after Israel and Hamas agreed to halt their fire, seeing the Likud down by merely one seat,  he said, was “as surprise… for the better.”

An Israeli woman inspects the damage in an apartment that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip, in the southern Israeli town of Ashkelon on November 12, 2018. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Hanegbi’s remarks, seen as an effort to shelter Netanyahu from growing criticism over his handling of the two days of heavy fighting in Gaza, were quickly condemned by lawmakers from both sides of the aisle.

Fellow Likud Minister Miri Regev tweeted that Hanegbi’s remarks were “inappropriate,” although she also indicated that she opposed Netanyahu’s decision to accept a ceasefire.

“Tzachi, my friend, you are wrong and your statement is inappropriate. Gaza-adjacent areas and Tel Aviv are the same,” she said. “Rocket fire endangering the safety and security of Israeli citizens must be met with an equally harsh response.”

Opposition leaders also slammed Hanegbi, with Zionist Union chairman Avi Gabbay accusing the Netanyahu government of discriminating against its own citizens.

Missiles from the Iron Dome air defense system in the south of Israel destroy incoming missiles above Ashkelon fired from the Gaza Strip on November 13, 2018. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN/AFP)

“According to Hanegbi, residents of Tel Aviv are off-limits, but the southern residents are fair game,” Gabbay said in a statement. “A government with no values that distinguishes between its citizens needs to go home.”

Yesh Atid party leader Yair Lapid called Hanegbi’s distinction a “moral outrage.”

“It’s a moral outrage and a disgrace to security,” Lapid tweeted. “Gaza-area residents may be boring to Netanyahu, bu they are citizens and they deserve to be protected from rockets.”

In the radio interview, Hanegbi also weighed in on Liberman’s abrupt resignation in protest of Netanyahu’s decision to accept an Egypt-brokered ceasefire that brought an end to the violence.

He slammed fellow minister and Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett for threatening to withdraw from the coalition unless he was given the defense portfolio in the wake of Liberman’s departure.

“Being appointed a senior position by issuing a violent dictate to the prime minister goes against the concept of a coalition partnership,” he said.

A house that was hit by a rocket fired from the Gaza Strip in the southern Israeli city of Ashkelon, on November 13, 2018 (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Hangebi said that while he believed himself to be “more suitable for the job than others,” Netanyahu would most likely keep the defense portfolio for himself.

“From what I know about the prime minister, he does not like to give up [control],” he told the radio station.

Earlier on Thursday, Liberman officially tendered his resignation, and was holding his final meetings at the defense headquarters in Tel Aviv. Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu party is also quitting Netanyahu’s coalition, leaving the premier with only a two-seat advantage over the opposition in parliament and throwing his government into turmoil.

A Likud official said Wednesday Netanyahu would take charge of Liberman’s portfolio at least temporarily, and said the prime minister had begun consultations with heads of parties in order to stabilize his coalition.

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Netanyahu defends freezing Western Wall deal

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Blaming ‘ultra-Orthodox street,’ Netanyahu defends freezing Western Wall deal

PM tells US Jewish leaders in Tel Aviv that spats over the site and conversion can easily be overcome and that he’s worried more by the loss of Jewish identity in the Diaspora

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jewish federation's annual General Assembly in Tel Aviv, on October 24, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jewish federation’s annual General Assembly in Tel Aviv, on October 24, 2018 (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Addressing North American Jewish leaders in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defended his controversial freezing of a compromise deal to expand the pluralistic prayer platform at the Western Wall, blaming pressure from the “ultra-Orthodox street,” and arguing that religion and state issues in Israel have always been settled with “ad hoc compromises” and “slowly evolving arrangements.”

While the agreement — made in January 2016 and suspended a year and a half later — will not be fully implemented, he vowed that a new “refurbished” prayer platform will open very soon.

Dismissing the discussion over the wall and other contentious matters, such as conversion, as issues that can easily be “overcome,” Netanyahu said the biggest problem facing world Jewry today was the loss of Jewish identity, and that the development of Jewish consciousness and pride in the minds of young Jews was the Diaspora’s most important mission.

Asked about Diaspora Jews’ concerns regarding the lack of religious pluralism in Israel, Netanyahu replied by noting that even the country’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, had failed to bridge the gap between the secular majority and an ultra-Orthodox minority, without which he was unable to form a government.

“These are two conflicting principles — you can’t resolve it with a unifying principle. You resolve it by a series of ad hoc compromises, and they evolve over time,” Netanyahu said at the closing plenary of the Jewish Federations of North America’s annual General Assembly.

“From time to time, the status quo is challenged. It evolves in step-functions. By the way, most of human progress until recently has been step functions. You sort of settle on a status-quo and it goes up to a certain point, and then it changes,” he continued.

On the matter of who would be authorized to perform conversions to Judaism, Netanyahu said that during his first term as prime minister he had found a good compromise with the Yaakov Ne’eman Commission, which survived for 20 years before it was challenged. The current government then commissioned a report by Moshe Nissim, which Netanyahu said was a “good compromise,” but added that he is currently unable to pass it. “It depends on the political realities,” he said.

Turning to the Western Wall, he recounted negotiating a compromise deal calling for a pluralistic prayer platform at the holy site that would be “accessible in an uplifting way” to everyone. That blueprint included the creation of a joint entrance to all three prayer areas — the pluralistic one and the two gender-separated sections to be used by Orthodox worshipers.

“We had technical drawings, the whole thing. Part of that [agreement] had explanatory notes, when I brought it to the government, which would imply an indirect recognition in Israel of the Conservative and Reform streams,” Netanyahu said. “And that was okay. People agreed. Then it was challenged, immediately, by the ultra-Orthodox street, and they basically said, you know, ‘Choose: You have a government, no government.’”

Netanyahu also said that members of the opposition may attack him for caving to the pressure, but that he has proof that they had themselves had made offers to the ultra-Orthodox parties “that exceed the ones given by Likud.”

Rather than canceling the agreement, he merely suspended it, Netanyahu said. “Keep it there. Don’t cancel it. But move with what the agreement actually says you do, which is refurbish the plaza.”

Netanyahu noted that work started on Tuesday to put back the boulder that fell out of the wall on to the egalitarian platform in July.

“This should speed up the conclusion and I expect the plaza to be completed [soon],” he said. “We finished nearly all the regulatory work, which was just impossible, but we’re getting there. That plaza will be there, refurbished, new, safe, very beautiful.”

Israel is and will remain the home of all Jews, the prime minister went on, to applause from the audience. “I don’t care whether they’re Conservative or Reform or Orthodox, and I don’t care if they’re completely secular or non-believing.”

The egalitarian prayer platform at the Western Wall’s Robinson’s Arch archaeological area. (Eilat Mazar)

The balance between religion and state in Israel is different from the system that exists in the US or elsewhere, he went on, “But it is what it is here. This is what we have: a series of slowly evolving arrangements.” Ultimately, those arrangements reflect the “evolution of the Israeli electorate,” he said.

Toward the end of his appearance, as his host, outgoing JFNA chair Richard Sandler, was about to bid the prime minister farewell, Netanyahu asked to make another point, stressing what he said really worries about him about Diaspora Jewry.

“What I’m concerned with when it comes to the Jewish people is one thing, and that’s the loss of identity. It’s not the question of the Wall or conversion; we’ll overcome that. It’s the loss of identity,” he said.

Paraphrasing an article by Ammiel Hirsch, Netanyahu said that those who are not concerned with Jewish survival will not survive as Jews.

“There is some basic truth to that,” he said. “Jewish survival is guaranteed in the Jewish state, if we defend our state. But we have to also work at the continuity of Jewish communities in the world by developing Jewish education, the study of Hebrew, having the contact of young Jews coming to Israel.”

What is needed is a new approach, suitable for the internet age, that will help Diaspora Jews “understand that their own future as Jews depends on continuous identity,” Netanyahu said.

“It’s protecting Jewish identity and developing Jewish consciousness that is the most important thing. It transcends politics; it touches on the foundations of history,” he concluded. “We’re one people. Let’s make sure that every Jewish child in the world knows how proud they should be to be Jews.”

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Hamas leader: We’ll fire hundreds of rockets at central Israel if talks fail

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE TIMES OF ISRAEL)

 

Hamas leader: We’ll fire hundreds of rockets at central Israel if talks fail

Yahya Sinwar says no deal reached yet, but talks continue; reportedly warns terror group can make alarm sirens wail in the Tel Aviv region for six months straight

Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, speaks during a protest east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Yahya Sinwar, leader of Hamas in the Gaza Strip, speaks during a protest east of Khan Younis, in the southern Gaza Strip on April 6, 2018. (AFP/Said Khatib)

Hamas leader Yahya Sinwar on Wednesday said there was no concrete ceasefire agreement yet with Israel, but warned that if hostilities resume the terror group could launch hundreds of rockets deep into the Jewish state.

“Until now, there is no final text for a ceasefire. What is being circulated is proposals and ideas,” Sinwar told Palestinian writers and analysts in Gaza, according to the Hamas-linked Shehab news agency. “We decided to end the siege on our people, who have the right to live a dignified life.”

Sinwar warned that if talks broke down Hamas would fire hundreds of rockets in Israel.

“What the resistance launched in 51 days in the last war, it can launch in five minutes during any [future] Israel aggression,” he said, referring to the 2014 conflict.

Illustrative: Flames from rockets fired by Palestinians are seen over Gaza Strip heading toward Israel, in the early morning of May 30, 2018. (AP Photo/Hatem Moussa)

The Hebrew Walla news site quoted him as saying that “Hamas could set off rocket warning sirens in the Tel Aviv region for six months straight.”

Indirect negotiations between Hamas and Israel have reportedly included discussion on easing the blockade, but by no means a complete lifting of it. Israel says the blockade is in place in order to prevent weapons and other military equipment from entering the Strip.

Sinwar said that talks on a prisoner exchange were progressing on a separate track and were not connected to the ceasefire agreement. Hamas holds the bodies of two Israeli soldiers and two civilians. Israel has said in the past it would not ease the blockade until they are released.

Recent months have seen repeated rounds of intense violence between Israel and Hamas, along with weekly border protests at the Gaza border that have regularly included rioting, attacks on Israeli troops and attempts to infiltrate and sabotage the border fence.

Around 170 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli fire since the weekly protests began, a Hamas ministry says. Hamas has acknowledged that dozens of those killed were its members.

One Israeli soldier was shot dead by a Palestinian sniper.

In addition to the border clashes, southern Israel has experienced hundreds of fires as a result of incendiary kites and balloons flown over the border from Gaza. Over 7,000 acres of land have been burned, causing millions of shekels in damages, according to Israeli officials.

Sinwar also warned the Palestinian Authority against taking steps to foil the nascent deal.

“Any punitive measures the PA imposes on the Gaza Strip will be in violation of the rules of the game. We respond to any such measures appropriately,” he said.

His comments come after Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly lambasted the potential ceasefire agreement, saying such a deal would only be reached “over my dead body.”

“If the agreement is signed without the PA’s permission, it is illegal and constitutes treason,” Abbas said in private conversations, according to Hissein al-Sheikh, a senior member of Abbas’s Fatah party.

“Over my dead body will there be a ceasefire and calm between both sides,” Abbas said, according to al-Sheikh.

Regarding intra-Palestinian reconciliation talks, which have stalled recently, the Fatah member said disagreements between the factions were mounting and that such a deal “never looked more distant.”

Abbas was also said to be furious at Egypt, which has been brokering Israel-Hamas truce talks, for being willing to sit down with members of the terror group that rules the Gaza Strip without his presence.

“The Egyptians aren’t reading the map correctly and are harming the Palestinian national interests,” al-Sheikh said. “Talks with Hamas, which took control of Gaza by force and without the consent of the Palestinian Authority, are unacceptable and are an act of defiance against Palestinian leadership.”

Abbas’s Fatah party and Hamas have been deeply divided for more than a decade. Hamas, an Islamist terror group which openly seeks to destroy Israel, seized control of Gaza from the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority in 2007 and several attempts at reconciliation since then have failed.

Palestinians wave the national flag during a demonstration in Gaza City on December 3, 2017, in support of the reconciliation talks between Hamas and Fatah. (AFP/Mohammed Abed)

The PA government has been putting pressure on Hamas to reach a reconciliation deal that would return Fatah rule to Gaza, and earlier this year began to scale back electricity payments and other financial support in an effort to force Hamas to cede ground in Gaza.

Abbas is demanding that Hamas hand over complete control of Gaza to the PA, and that the switch be conducted in a single stroke rather than in stages.

He has warned against a reported deal taking shape between Israel and Hamas for a long-term ceasefire in Gaza if it does not include the PA.

Hamas responded to the criticism with a rare statement slamming the PA and saying that there is a “national consensus” among the Palestinian people in favor of a long-term Gaza ceasefire with Israel.

The terror group was referring specifically to a deal that would lift the blockade of Gaza, which would ostensibly require some sort of agreement with Israel.

“We aren’t moving toward a political agreement or a part of an international deal that gives up our lands, recognizes the occupier or destroys the national project, as you did,” Hamas said, addressing the PA. “We didn’t recognize the Zionist entity and sanctify the security coordination, as you did at the expense of our people.”

Hamas spokesperson Abdel Latif al-Qanua dismissed the PA criticism as “worthless” and added they were “not fooling anybody — the people still supports the resistance and we will keep our hand on the trigger to defend the Palestinian people from the Zionist occupation.”

AFP contributed to this report.

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COMMENTS

Missile Strikes on 2 Syrian Military Base’s Kills Dozens

(THIS ARTICLE IS COURTESY OF THE WALL STREET JOURNAL)

 

Missile Strikes on Syrian Military Base Kills Dozens

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 27 people were killed in Hama, the majority of whom were Iranian

A Syrian fighter in Tadef in Aleppo province on Friday.
A Syrian fighter in Tadef in Aleppo province on Friday. PHOTO: SAMEER AL-DOUMY/AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE/GETTY IMAGES

BEIRUT—Missile strikes on Syrian government bases overnight killed dozens of pro-regime forces, including Iranians, according to a monitoring group, in what could mark an escalation of hostilities between foreign powers fighting for influence.

“Enemy missiles” targeted military bases in Aleppo and Hama, Syrian state news agency SANA reported Monday. Footage circulated on social media showed a large ball of fire, purportedly from an explosion at a military base in Hama believed to house Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces.

There were conflicting reports about the death toll. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights said 27 people were killed in Hama, the majority of whom were Iranian, without providing further details. There were no immediate details about casualties in Aleppo.

Some Iranian media outlets, citing local sources, reported that 18 Iranians were killed in the strikes, but the reports later omitted the Iranian death toll. The semiofficial Iranian Students’ News Agency, which carried the original report, later quoted an intelligence source saying that no Iranian forces were killed in the attack outside Hama.

It wasn’t immediately clear who carried out the attack. Israel has conducted dozens of strikes against Syrian government positions, some of them targeting Iranian personnel. Israeli military declined to comment. It has a policy of neither confirming nor denying strikes in Syria.

Addressing allegations that Israel was behind the strikes, the country’s Intelligence Minister Yisrael Katz told Army Radio: “The policy is clear: Iran won’t be allowed to establish a northern front [on Syria’s border with Israel].”

The explosions occurred hours after U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Tel Aviv. On Saturday, Mr. Netanyahu also spoke with President Donald Trump by phone.

Syria’s Chemical Weapons and the West: From Diplomacy to Military Action

The airstrikes against the Syrian regime, in response to a suspected poison gas attack, underscore the West’s shift from pursuing a diplomatic solution to a militaristic one. Will this approach work?

The attack comes on the heels of U.S.-led airstrikes on Syrian chemical weapons facilities, in retaliation for an alleged attack with chlorine and nerve gas in a Damascus suburb earlier in April.

In the wake of the attacks, Syrian regime forces have continued to bomb areas outside of their control, in a push to continue gaining ground and end the seven-year war.

Iran has been a vital ally of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during the war, sending thousands of elite Revolutionary Guard forces into Syria and training and arming foreign militias.

The semiofficial Iranian Labor News Agency reported that none of Iran’s Afghan Shiite troops were killed in the strikes on Aleppo. According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, the target in Aleppo was the Nayrab military airport.

“The base of this division near Aleppo is safe and none of the forces of this group have been martyred in the media-claimed strikes,” an unnamed commander of the troops was quoted as saying.

As Mr. Assad has gained ground—in part due to Russia’s intervention in 2015—Iran has extended its presence in Syria, causing concern in Israel, which views Tehran as its main regional adversary.

Israel for years largely stayed neutral in the Syrian war, launching airstrikes only against weapons convoys bound from Iran to Hezbollah, the Lebanese militia supported by Iran, which helps prop up Mr. Assad. But fearing that Tehran would establish weapons factories and military sites in Syria, threatening Israeli territory, Mr. Netanyahu’s stance has shifted, ordering the Israeli air force to repeatedly hit sites in Syria, raising the prospects of a wider regional war.

On April 9, in a strike that Russia blamed on Israel, missiles struck another Syrian base, killing at least 14 pro-regime forces, including seven Iranians.

Referring to the most recent attack, Amos Yadlin, a former head of Israeli military intelligence, told The Wall Street Journal that, “The magnitude and accuracy of the attack in Northern Syria is the capability of a state and not the Syrian opposition.”

“From the Iranian perspective, there is an open account with Israel. If they blame Israel for this attack, there is a higher risk of retaliation,” Mr. Yadlin said.

After the latest attack, an Israeli open source intelligence site posted purported satellite imagery on Twitter, saying that the target of the attack was an Iranian base recently erected north of Hama airport.

The site claimed that an Iranian plane had recently arrived from Tehran, likely carrying weapons, and showed images of an alleged Iranian drone at the base.

Write to Sune Engel Rasmussen at [email protected]