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Netanyahu Allies Urge Obama To Respect Israeli Election Outcome

By Calev Ben-David, Bloomberg News (TNS)

JERUSALEM — Israeli officials called on the U.S. to accept the results of last week’s election amid signs President Barack Obama may shift policy in response to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s victory.

Disputes should be resolved through “diplomatic discussions” and not U.S. support for unilateral steps against Israel, Ofir Akunis, a deputy minister in the prime minister’s office, told Israel Radio on Monday.

U.S. officials criticized Netanyahu for saying there would be no Palestinian state if he returned to office after the March 17 vote. He later backtracked, saying while he remained open to a two-state solution, “circumstances have to change” with the Palestinians.

Obama and Netanyahu have clashed over several issues in the past six years, including West Bank settlements and talks with Iran over its nuclear program. Netanyahu’s recent comments, and the prospect of his heading a new government even more resistant to peace with the Palestinians, could bring relations between the allies to an even lower point.

After Netanyahu backpedaled on Palestinian statehood, Obama said the U.S. takes Netanyahu “at his word when he said that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership,” and it was necessary “to evaluate what other options are available” to maintain stability in the Middle East.

“I expect the American people and its leader, President Obama, to respect the decision of the Israeli people to place at its head Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and my party, the Likud,” Akunis said.

U.S. Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro told Israel Radio on Sunday that if Netanyahu opposes a Palestinian state, “the question arises as to whether talks are possible and if not, what steps need to be taken.”

One measure being weighed is a joint U.S.-European initiative that would outline the contours of a two-state solution, Israel’s Channel 1 television said Saturday. The plan, which would not include any timetable, would base negotiations on lines Israel held before capturing the West Bank, east Jerusalem and Gaza Strip in 1967, a formulation Netanyahu opposes.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Tzachi Hanegbi told Channel 1 he is concerned the U.S. has “adopted a policy of coercion” toward his country, “instead of a policy of negotiation and agreement.”

Netanyahu’s Likud emerged strengthened from last week’s election with 30 parliamentary seats, and is negotiating with smaller factions to form a majority coalition in Israel’s 120-seat Knesset. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin is now overseeing the official process of forming the next government, which could take weeks.

Netanyahu secured sufficient backing on Monday to form a ruling coalition after he was endorsed by Kulanu, the party headed by Moshe Kahlon, the leading candidate for finance minister, according to Rivlin spokesman Jason Pearlman. Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which opposes any Palestinian state and supports more Jewish settlement in the West Bank, informed Rivlin on Sunday that it backs Netanyahu, as did the two ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions, Shas and United Torah Judaism.

Moody’s Investor Service said Monday that Netanyahu’s “surprising and decisive” election victory “will likely result in a more quickly formed and stable government coalition and cohesive economic policy than the preceding short-lived incongruent administration.”

The ratings company said in an emailed statement it expects the new Israeli government’s “fiscal rules to contain spending growth and keep credit metrics for Israel (A1 stable) on their well-established improving trend, a credit positive.”

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister and Likud Party’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu gives a statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s residence in Jerusalem, on March 17, 2015. Results tallied Wednesday showed Netanyahu’s party with a decisive win. (Xinhua/Zuma Press/TNS)

U.S. Doubts On Netanyahu Could Lead To ‘Other Steps’ In Pursuit Of Peace

By Calev Ben-David, Bloomberg News (TNS)

JERUSALEM –– The U.S. ambassador to Israel said on Israeli radio Sunday that if it’s impossible to reach a negotiated peace deal with the Palestinians as long as Benjamin Netanyahu is prime minister, a question arises: “If negotiations are impossible, what other steps can be taken?

Netanyahu said the day before Israel’s March 17 election that there would be no Palestinian state if he were re-elected. After the Israeli leader emerged from the vote with his Likud Party strengthened, he softened that stance, saying he wanted a two-state solution, though “circumstances have to change.”

President Barack Obama and Netanyahu have clashed over several issues in the past six years, including peacemaking with the Palestinians, how to best deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and Israeli settlement-building in the West Bank. Netanyahu’s recent comments and the prospect of his heading a new government even more resistant to peacemaking with the Palestinians could bring relations between the U.S. and Israel to an even lower point.

Shapiro’s comments followed remarks by Obama, published Saturday in a Huffington Post interview, reacting to Netanyahu ruling out a Palestinian state in the near future.

“We take him at his word when he said that it wouldn’t happen during his prime ministership, and so that’s why we’ve got to evaluate what other options are available to make sure that we don’t see a chaotic situation in the region,” Obama said.

Netanyahu’s remarks opposing a Palestinian state, and the concern he expressed about the influence of Israeli Arab voters in determining the next government, helped Likud get more votes from hawkish Israelis and win the most parliamentary seats. The prime minister still needs support from other factions to form a parliamentary majority, a process that began Sunday as Israeli President Reuven Rivlin began talks with party leaders.

“In a democracy, the majority decides — and the majority has spoken clearly,” Rivlin said Sunday. “We accept the democratic will fully, and with our blessing.”

Forming a new government may take several weeks, as Likud negotiates with parties to distribute senior Cabinet posts among the coalition factions. Netanyahu has said he sees Economy Minister Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which opposes any Palestinian state and supports more Jewish settlement in the West Bank, as Likud’s most natural ally among the factions.

Photo: World Economic Forum via Flickr

Israeli Lawmakers Clash Over Netanyahu Speech As Democrats Bail

By Calev Ben-David, Bloomberg News (TNS)

JERUSALEM — Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former envoy to the U.S., are attacking his planned speech to Congress on Iran, as more Democrats express opposition to the March 3 address.

Netanyahu should cancel the speech to avoid hurting Israel’s bipartisan relations with the U.S., his former envoy to Washington, Michael Oren, said on Tuesday at an election debate in Jerusalem. Oren, running for parliament with the newly formed Kulanu party, suggested Netanyahu instead use the annual conference of the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee being held in Washington, D.C., that same week to express his concerns over the nuclear deal the U.S. and other world powers are negotiating with Iran.

“While we think about our duty to prevent a bad deal, we have to think about our leeway and response should a bad deal be signed,” Oren said.

“If that is the case, we will need a very strong strategic relationship and a diplomatic ‘iron dome’ from the U.S.,” he added, in a reference to the Israeli anti-missile defense system.

Dov Lipman, an American-born parliament member from the Yesh Atid party, called the speech plan “a disaster.” He said supporters of Israel in the U.S. were calling him asking, “How could you get yourselves in a situation where you are in the middle of a Democratic and Republican spat in Congress? How did this happen, how did you let this happen?” Lipman said.

President Barack Obama has said he won’t meet Netanyahu during his Washington visit as its proximity to voting in the March 17 Israeli election “could be perceived as partisan politics.” Vice President Joe Biden has said he will skip the speech, which was arranged by House Speaker John Boehner without approval from the White House.

A petition is being circulated in Congress by Democratic representatives calling for a delay to Netanyahu’s speech, after some House members said they would boycott the event. Senator Bernie Sanders, a Vermont independent who caucuses with Democrats, said this week he won’t attend.

Obama and Netanyahu have clashed over the terms of a nuclear deal with Iran, with Israel insisting it end all uranium enrichment by the Islamic Republic, and the U.S. prepared to be more flexible on the terms. While Iran says its nuclear facilities are intended for peaceful purposes, Netanyahu has said its ultimate intent is to build weapons that would pose an existential threat to Israel.

Netanyahu on Monday reiterated his intention to go speak before Congress and again warned against the Iran deal being formulated.

“From the day Israel was established to this day, there have been essential differences between Israel and the U.S., and relations remained sound; this will be the case this time as well,” he told a meeting of Likud members.

Tzachi Hanegbi, a Likud lawmaker, defended the proposed address and said the timing was dictated by the current late-March deadline set for the nuclear negotiations with Iran.

“The prime minister was invited by the Congress, the most influential body in this context of the agreement with Iran, to appear and to try and help the Congress make its own decisions,” Hanegbi said. “It’s a critical junction, and we must make the effort.”

Election polls show Likud running about even with the main opposition Zionist Camp party, though they also indicate Netanyahu will have the best chance of forming a new ruling coalition and securing another four-year term.

According to a poll published Monday by Army Radio, 47 percent of Israelis believe Netanyahu should cancel the speech, 34 percent say he should proceed, and 19 percent haven’t reached an opinion. Sixty-three percent said their vote in the general election would not be influenced by the issue. The poll by Shiluv Millward Brown surveyed a sample of 509 Israelis and had a 4.5 percentage-point margin of error.

Photo: Israeli Prime Minister and Likud party leader Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speech to his supporters during an election campaign meeting at a Jerusalem hotel on February 8, 2015 (AFP/Menahem Kahana)

Some Cry Foul In Israel As U.S. Donors Give To Political Causes

By Calev Ben-David, Bloomberg News (TNS)

JERUSALEM — In a Tel Aviv storefront, 84-year-old volunteer Zelda Harris is working the phones for the V15 group, which is trying to unseat Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. U.S. billionaire S. Daniel Abraham, founder of Slim-Fast Foods, is helping pay for the effort.

Across Israel, men and women in red jumpsuits hand out copies of Israel Hayom, a pro-Netanyahu daily. The paper is financed by American gambling tycoon Sheldon Adelson.

Critics are concerned that cash from overseas donors will affect next month’s vote. “I would like to see foreign money out of Israeli politics,” said Hebrew University of Jerusalem political science professor Menachem Hofnung. “Legally, it would be very difficult to do” because “you can’t stop people from funding certain ideas,” he said.

The law prohibits foreigners and Israelis living overseas from donating directly to candidates’ campaigns in the general election. The influence wielded on the public by a daily newspaper or a privately-funded organization can’t be quantified.

Although foreigners have been active in Israeli elections for the past two decades, the issue has assumed a higher profile this time.

Netanyahu’s Likud, which has pulled slightly ahead of his Labor-led chief rival in most polls, has attacked V15 — short for Victory 15 — and dredged up old allegations of foreign campaign funding violations against Labor Chairman Isaac Herzog. He was never charged.

Likud asked the Central Elections Committee and police to investigate whether V15 has violated election campaign laws because of its ties to OneVoice, a group that advocates peace between Israelis and Palestinians. OneVoice had Labor figures on its advisory board and has received funding from the U.S. and European governments.

“V15 and its sub-organization One Voice have numerous Labor lawmakers and candidates for the current Knesset who serve on their boards and as key activists,” the Likud said in an emailed statement. “Their actions can only be understood as endorsing Isaac Herzog’s Labor party.”

Netanyahu allies have also asked whether V15’s hiring of Jeremy Bird, national field director for President Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign, is a sign that the White House is backing efforts to defeat the prime minister.

A Netanyahu backer in Congress, Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX), asked Secretary of State John Kerry whether U.S. funds to OneVoice have been used for V15 “or any similar effort to exert undue influence over the Israeli political process.” State Department spokeswoman Jen Psaki called the allegations an “absolutely false report.”

Netanyahu critics find Likud’s attacks on foreign funding ironic given his backing from Adelson, perceived support for Mitt Romney when he challenged Obama in the 2012 presidential race, and a planned speech to Congress that’s expected to attack U.S. policy on Iran. That address, they add, lets him leverage U.S. ties for an unfair profile boost just two weeks before Israel’s election.

“This corrupts the Israel-U.S. relationship for campaign purposes,” Labor lawmaker Nachman Shai wrote on Facebook.

Labor Chairman Herzog called the Likud attacks on V15 an attempt to divert attention from accusations that Netanyahu and his family illicitly accepted free travel and that his wife pocketed state money from empty bottle returns. The Netanyahus deny wrongdoing and no charges have been filed.

“We have no connection whatsoever to the activities of V15,” Herzog said on Channel 2 on Feb. 1.

V15 spokesman Ori Ramati describes the group as a purely grassroots Israeli movement that’s been transparent about its funding and abides by the law.

“The attacks on us reflect the panic and hysteria of the Likud and the right,” he said.

The anti-Netanyahu Haaretz daily said in a Feb. 2 editorial that both V15 and Likud should be investigated for possible campaign misconduct.

Most polls show Likud leading the Labor-led slate of parliamentary candidates by one to three seats, and returning as many as 26 members to the 120-member Knesset.

Foreign support for Israeli politicians stretches back to the state’s earliest days. It became a high-profile issue when Australian mining magnate Joseph Gutnick financed a publicity campaign before the 1996 election. The slogan was, “Netanyahu is good for the Jews.”

Foreign donations to candidates are permitted only for party primaries. Almost all of the $320,000 Netanyahu received for his Likud leadership race in December came from U.S. contributors, according to the Central Elections Committee, which limits individual donations to about $12,000. Herzog received a third of his funding from foreign donors in his party’s 2013 leadership race.

At V15’s Tel Aviv headquarters, Harris, the British-born octogenarian activist, brushes off the controversy swirling around the group, focusing on the effort to oust Netanyahu.

“I believe there’s a chance, because I’ve been in this country 65 years and I’ve never seen a dynamic like this in an election,” Harris said.

Eytan Gilboa, professor of political science at Bar-Ilan University outside Tel Aviv, deplored the outside influence.

“Just as Israelis should not be seen interfering in U.S. politics, Americans should not be seen interfering in Israeli politics,” he said by phone.

Photo via Wikimedia Commons