Israel’s Arabs poised to gain new voice after tight election

In this Tuesday, Sept. 17, 2019. file photo, Israeli Arab politician Ayman Odeh casts his vote in Haifa, Israel. Israel’s Arab coalition appears poised to emerge as the main opposition bloc following Tuesday’s vote. (AP
Updated 18 September 2019

Israel’s Arabs poised to gain new voice after tight election

  • The Arab bloc appears to have met or fallen short of its performance in 2015, when it won 13 seats

JERUSALEM: Israel’s Arab coalition appears poised to emerge as the main opposition bloc following Tuesday’s election, a historic first that would grant a new platform to a long-marginalized minority.
Near-complete results Wednesday indicated the Joint List won about a dozen seats in the 120-member assembly, coming third after the Blue and White party of former military chief Benny Gantz and the right-wing Likud party of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
In absolute terms, the Arab bloc appears to have met or fallen short of its performance in 2015, when it won 13 seats.
But this time around, due to the shifting constellation of Israeli politics, it would be well-placed to lead the opposition if a national unity government of the two largest parties is formed, as seems likely.
That would put a representative of Israel’s Arab citizens closer to the center of power than ever before and strengthen their ability to influence the national agenda.
A TARGET OF INCITEMENT
Israel’s Arab minority makes up about 20% of the population of 9 million, and is descended from Palestinians who stayed in Israel after it was established as a state in 1948. They officially enjoy full citizenship, including the right to vote, but they lived under martial law until 1966 and still suffer widespread discrimination.
Decades of marginalization have bred voter apathy, and in April’s elections more than half the Arab electorate stayed home. This time around, Arab leaders joined forces and mobilized turnout, vowing to topple Netanyahu and push for improvements in public services.
Arab citizens have close family, cultural and historical ties to Palestinians in the occupied West Bank and Gaza, and largely identify with the Palestinian cause. That has led many Israelis to view them as a fifth column and a security threat. Netanyahu has repeatedly branded them as terrorists and traitors in a bid to energize his right-wing base, in remarks widely condemned as racist incitement.
In the closing hours of the 2015 elections, Netanyahu warned that Arabs were voting in “droves.” This time around, he pushed for the placement of cameras at polling stations in Arab districts based on unfounded claims of widespread fraud, saying Arabs were trying to “steal” the election . Facebook suspended an automated chat function on his account for 24 hours last week after it published a post saying, “Arabs want to annihilate all of us.”
Netanyahu appeared to double down in his election-night speech, saying no Israeli government could include “anti-Zionist Arab parties” that “reject the very existence of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state” and “praise bloodthirsty terrorists who murder our soldiers, citizens and children.”
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VICTORY AT THE POLLS
Netanyahu’s tactics appear to have backfired.
The increased turnout among Arab voters propelled the bloc to a strong showing and may have denied Netanyahu the right-wing coalition he had desperately sought.
“There is no other prime minister who incited against us like Netanyahu,” Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Joint List, told Israeli media as the initial results trickled in. “There’s a limit. The Arab citizens undoubtedly felt that they became a persecuted minority, an endangered minority.”
Arab leaders seemed to savor Netanyahu’s apparent comeuppance. “We voted in droves,” Ahmad Tibi, an Arab member of parliament, tweeted in Hebrew.
The Joint List is unlikely to sit in any Israeli government because that would entail endorsing military operations against the Palestinians. Many Jewish-majority parties still refuse to sit with Arabs as political partners.
But the Arab parties’ increased clout could allow them to block right-wing legislation like the law narrowly passed last year defining Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. An informal alliance supporting the ruling coalition from the outside could also help deliver legislation to improve housing, education and law enforcement in long-marginalized Arab communities.
The Arab bloc is also expected to advocate for a two-state solution to the conflict with the Palestinians at a time when none of Israel’s main parties has made the peace process a priority.
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A NEW PLATFORM
Neither Gantz nor Netanyahu have enough support to form a government without the Yisrael Beitenu party led by Avigdor Lieberman, who has emerged as kingmaker .
Lieberman, a right-winger with a history of incendiary remarks about Arabs, has demanded a national unity government with Likud and Blue and White. That would leave the Joint List as the largest party outside the government and make Odeh Israel’s first-ever Arab opposition leader.
In his official duties as opposition leader, Odeh would hold monthly consultations with the prime minister and meet with visiting dignitaries. He would be granted a state-funded bodyguard, access to high-level security briefings and an official platform to rebut the prime minister’s speeches in parliament.
“This is a very significant, unprecedented level for us,” Odeh told Army Radio. “When presidents from around the world come they’ll meet with us as well.” He has described the prospect of an Arab leader receiving security briefings as “interesting.”
Odeh says his bloc also mobilized support from Israeli Jews, some of whom welcomed its success.
Nahum Barnea, a prominent columnist with Israel’s main daily Yedioth Ahronoth, said the Joint List’s achievement should be measured not in the number of seats it won but in “its ability to build bridges to the mainstream of Israeli politics and society.”
“It is unthinkable to continue to exclude and to humiliate forever 20% of the electorate,” he wrote. “Their expectations in all that pertains to integration, influence and respect all emanate from the ground up. Those expectations have to be met somehow.”


Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

Updated 9 min 34 sec ago

Syrian and Russian troops sweep into Manbij as US withdraws

  • Standoff looms in northern Syrian town of Manbij as Turkish offensive continues
  • Trump's fresh sanctions fail to halt Turkish advance

MANBIJ, Syria: Turkey ignored US sanctions and pressed on with its assault on northern Syria on Tuesday, while the Russia-backed Syrian army roared into one of the most hotly contested cities abandoned by US forces in Donald Trump’s retreat.
Reuters journalists accompanied Syrian government forces who entered the center of the city of Manbij, a flashpoint where US troops had previously conducted joint patrols with Turkey.
Russian and Syrian flags were flying from a building on the city outskirts, and from a convoy of military vehicles.
US forces announced they had pulled out of the city.
A week after reversing US policy and moving troops out of the way to allow Turkey to attack Washington’s Syrian allies, Trump announced a package of sanctions to punish Ankara.
But the measures — mainly a hike in steel tariffs and a pause in trade talks — were less robust than financial markets had expected, and Trump’s critics derided them as too feeble to have an impact.
The Turkish lira, which had fallen on the expectation of tougher US measures, recovered after the sanctions were announced, as did its bond and stock markets, with traders noting that Trump had spared Turkish banks.
Trump’s unexpected decision to withhold protection from Syria’s Kurds after a phone call with Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan a week ago swiftly upended five years of US policy in the Middle East.
The withdrawal gives a free hand to Washington’s adversaries in the world’s deadliest ongoing war, namely Syrian President Bashar Assad and his Russian and Iranian allies.
The United States announced on Sunday it was withdrawing its entire force of 1,000 troops from northern Syria. Its former Kurdish allies immediately forged a new alliance with Assad’s Russia-backed government, inviting the army into towns across the breadth of their territory.
Russian-backed Syrian forces moved swiftly to fill the void left by departing Americans from Manbij west of the Euphrates river, which Turkey has vowed to capture.
“We are out of Manbij,” said Col. Myles B Caggins, spokesman for the US-led coalition in Syria. Troops “are executing a deliberate withdrawal from northeast Syria.”
A group of journalists accompanied by Syrian army personnel journeyed into Manbij city where upon their arrival a group of people gathered, waving the Syrian flag and pictures of Assad.
However the reporters left when gunfire was heard and a group of some 10 young men in Kurdish YPG uniforms began breaking cameras and yelling.
Syrian state media said SDF fighters had opened fire on a march organized by the people of Manbij to welcome the army.
Trump’s pullout ends joint US-Turkish patrols of the Manbij area under a deal aimed to persuade Turkey not to invade.
Syrian state television broadcast footage of what it said was government troops entering Manbij on Tuesday, under their new deal with the Kurds. A resident inside the city told Reuters the Syrian troops were on its outskirts. Turkey-backed Syrian fighters said they would continue their advance toward Manbij.
A Reuters cameraman on the Turkish frontier reported heavy bombardment on Tuesday morning of the Syrian border town of Ras Al-Ain, where a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces reported a fierce battle was taking place.
Trump has defended his reversal of US policy as part of a plan to withdraw the United States from “endless” wars in the Middle East.
But his critics, including senior figures in his own Republican Party, cast it as a betrayal of the Kurds, loyal allies who lost thousands of fighters as the principal ground forces in Washington’s battle against Daesh.
The Democratic speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, said Trump’s sanctions were too little, too late.
“His announcement of a package of sanctions against Turkey falls very short of reversing that humanitarian disaster.”
Turkey says it aims to defeat the Kurdish YPG militia, which it sees as terrorists for their links to separatists in Turkey, and to create a “safe zone” where millions of Syrian refugees can be resettled.
The United Nations says 160,000 people have fled their homes as Turkish forces advance. The Kurdish administration puts the number of displaced at 270,000.
The UN Human Rights office said on Tuesday Turkey could be held responsible for war crimes by fighters under its direction, potentially including the assassination of Hevrin Khalaf, a leading Kurdish politician killed on the side of a highway on Saturday by gunmen who posted the incident on the Internet.
Turkish-backed fighters have denied blame for her murder.
Erdogan, who has pledged to continue military operations come what may, said Turkey was giving the world a chance to bring peace to the region.
“The international community missed its opportunity to prevent the Syrian crisis from pulling an entire region into a maelstrom of instability,” he wrote in the Wall Street Journal. “The European Union — and the world — should support what Turkey is trying to do.”
The Syrian army deployments into Kurdish-held territory evacuated by Washington are a victory for President Bashar Assad and his most powerful ally, Russia, giving them a foothold in the biggest remaining swath of the country that had been beyond their grasp.
Trump allies insisted Washington had not given its blessing to the Turkish offensive, and demanded a cease-fire.
“The United States of America simply is not going to tolerate Turkey’s invasion in Syria any further,” Vice President Mike Pence said. “We are calling on Turkey to stand down, end the violence and come to the negotiating table.”
Trump’s sanctions include reimposing steel tariffs and halting talks on a trade deal. But bilateral trade between Turkey and the United States is small — around a tenth the size of Turkey’s trade with Europe. Washington’s most effective form of economic leverage would be to hinder Turkey’s access to US financial markets, a step Trump has so far avoided.
“The sanctions are not related to banking, so the markets will have a positive perception,” said Cem Tozge, asset management director at Ata Invest.
In a potentially more damaging blow, German carmaker Volkswagen said it was postponing a final decision on whether to build a 1 billion euro ($1.1 billion) plant in Turkey, citing concern over “current developments” after international condemnation of the incursion.
European countries have criticized the offensive but have limited their response so far to announcing suspensions of arms sales, although weapons account for only a small fraction of EU-Turkish trade.
Trump said US troops would remain at a small garrison at Tanf in southern Syria “to continue to disrupt remnants” of Daesh. The base on the southern border is hundreds of miles away from the Kurdish area in the north that had previously been the main US theater.