Israeli president meets Netanyahu, Gantz in bid to break deadlock

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Israeli President Reuven Rivlin speaks with members of the Joint List during a consulting meeting on September 22, 2019 to decide who to task with trying to form a new government. (AFP)
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Ayman Odeh, Israeli Arab politician and head of the Hadash (Democratic Front for Peace and Equality) party which is part of the Joint List electoral alliance, waves before supporters at the alliance's campaign headquarters in the northern Israeli city of Nazareth on September 17, 2019, as the first exit polls are announced on television. (AFP)
Updated 24 September 2019

Israeli president meets Netanyahu, Gantz in bid to break deadlock

  • The key meeting comes as the deadlocked vote results threaten Benjamin Netanyahu’s long tenure in office
  • Israeli Arab parties broke with longstanding precedent to endorse Benny Gantz for prime minister

JERUSALEM: Israel's president met Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his main opponent Benny Gantz together on Monday as he pressures their two parties to form a unity government after last week's election.
The key meeting was the first between the rival leaders since the deadlocked vote, the results of which threatened Netanyahu's long domination of Israeli politics.
But the veteran premier has shown no sign of willingly giving up his post.
President Reuven Rivlin ushered both men into his office in Jerusalem around 8:00 pm (1700 GMT) after shaking each of their hands.
It was not clear how long the meeting would last, but no major breakthroughs were expected Monday evening since Rivlin is yet to announce who he will choose to try to form a government.
Rivlin called for the meeting after wrapping up consultations with political parties elected to parliament to hear their recommendations for who should form the next government.
Gantz's centrist Blue and White alliance finished with 33 seats out of 120 in the September 17 elections, while Netanyahu's right-wing Likud won 31.
Despite Gantz's slim lead, neither has a clear path to a majority coalition.
Both Netanyahu and Gantz, who had no previous political experience when he mounted his challenge to the premier, have backed calls for a unity government.
Gantz however says he should lead it since his party is the largest. A compromise seems a long way off.
The standoff has even raised the possibility of yet another election -- which would be the third in a year after April polls also ended inconclusively with Netanyahu unable to form a governing coalition.
Rivlin has said he will do all he can to avoid another election, and Monday's meeting may see him seek to play a mediator role.
Netanyahu on Monday reiterated his call for Gantz to join him in a unity government, again acknowledging he was unable to form the right-wing coalition he hoped for.
"The only government that can be formed in these conditions is a united and large one between us," Netanyahu said at a meeting of Likud lawmakers.
"The only way to reach it is to sit down and talk."
Rivlin has said clearly that he wants both Likud and Blue and White in a unity government to form a "stable" coalition -- but how to reach such an accord remains unclear.
The end of the Netanyahu era would be an extraordinary moment in Israeli politics.
He has been prime minister for a total of more than 13 years, the most in Israeli history. But he also faces potential corruption charges in the weeks ahead, pending a hearing set for early October.
The meeting at the president's office followed a dramatic day on Sunday, when Israeli Arab parties broke with longstanding precedent and said they were endorsing Gantz for prime minister.
In announcing the move, the mainly Arab Joint List alliance said its decision was not meant as an endorsement of the policies of the ex-military chief, but as a way of helping oust Netanyahu.
Netanyahu has repeatedly been accused of political rhetoric and actions amounting to racism toward Israel's Arab population.
The Joint List won 13 seats in the election, making it the third-largest force in parliament.
Rivlin is expected to designate a candidate to try to form a government on Wednesday, when final official election results are delivered to him.
That person would then have 28 days to do so, with a possible two-week extension.
If all attempts fail, Rivlin can then assign the task to someone else.
In Rivlin's consultations, Gantz received the endorsements of 54 parliament seats, while Netanyahu received 55.
Those totals do not include eight seats for ex-defence minister Avigdor Lieberman's nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, which has endorsed neither candidate for now and could emerge as a kingmaker.
Gantz and Lieberman met on Monday, their first talks since the election.
"We exchanged opinions and viewpoints and if needed, will speak again in the future," Gantz said in a statement.
The tally also does not include three seats for one of the Arab parties that unlike the rest of the Joint List alliance, did not agree to endorse Gantz.


Iraqi blogger returns day after kidnapping

Updated 8 min 23 sec ago

Iraqi blogger returns day after kidnapping

  • “Around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms” took Al-Khafaji from his home, the blogger’s father said
  • Twenty-four hours later, hei was “abandoned in a street with $20 to pay for a taxi home”

BAGHDAD: A prominent Iraqi blogger resurfaced Friday a day after he was seized by masked gunmen, his father said, as Amnesty International denounced a “climate of fear” in the country after protests and deadly violence.
Shujaa Al-Khafaji’s family said armed men had snatched him from his home on Thursday without identifying themselves or showing an arrest warrant.
Khafaji’s Facebook page, Al-Khowa Al-Nadifa (Arabic for “Those Who Have Clean Hands“), carries posts on political and social issues and has some 2.5 million followers.
“Around 15 men wearing masks and black uniforms” took Khafaji from his home, the blogger’s father, Fares Al-Khafaji, told AFP.
He said they seized his son’s phones and computers, but were not violent.
Twenty-four hours later, Khafaji was “abandoned in a street with $20 to pay for a taxi home,” his father added.
The report of Khafaji’s seizure sparked an outcry from activists and influential political leaders.
Rights watchdog Amnesty International denounced a “relentless campaign of intimidation and assault against activists in Iraq” by authorities.
“The Iraqi authorities must immediately rein in the security forces and dismantle the climate of fear they have deliberately created to stop Iraqis from peacefully exercising their rights to freedoms of expression and assembly,” said Lynn Maalouf, the group’s Middle East research director.
The group said other activists, including a doctor and a lawyer, were “forcibly disappeared more than 10 days ago,” and called on Iraqi authorities to reveal their whereabouts.
Firebrand Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr wrote on Twitter that “any act of aggression (against journalists or activists)... by the state constitutes an attack on freedom of speech.”
Former prime minister Haider Al-Abadi’s parliamentary bloc called on the government “to stop abuses of free media.”
Iraq was gripped by anti-government protests between October 1 and 6, during which 110 people, mainly demonstrators, were killed in clashes with security forces.
During the protests, unidentified armed men in uniforms raided several local television stations in Baghdad, destroying their equipment and intimidating their staff.
Journalists and activists also reported receiving threats, mostly by phone, from unidentified callers accusing them of having sided with the protesters.
Khafaji faced online harassment last month after a string of attacks on bases of the Hashed Al-Shaabi, a paramilitary force dominated by pro-Iran groups.
The group on Thursday denied any involvement in the disappearance of activists, threatening legal action against anyone making such accusations.
But according to Amnesty, the Hashed was involved in at least one abduction — that of lawyer Ali Hattab, who represented protesters and was seized on October 8 in the southern city of Amara.
He was snatched by “suspected members of a faction of the Popular Mobilization Units (Hashed),” Amnesty said quoting Hattab’s relatives.
It happened two days after “two armed men from the PMU came to (his) home to warn him to stop being vocal about the killing of protesters on Facebook, otherwise they would kill him,” Amnesty added.