New Israel elections loom as Gantz says can't form govt

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during an extended faction meeting of the right-wing bloc members at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2019. (AP)
Updated 20 November 2019

New Israel elections loom as Gantz says can't form govt

  • If Israel is forced into a third election, it would be entering uncharted waters, with opinion polls already predicting a very similar deadlock

JERUSALEM: Israel edged ever closer to a third general election in a year Wednesday, as Benny Gantz announced his Blue and White coalition -- the winner of the most seats in September's national poll -- was unable to form a government.
The centrist former army general, whose party was narrowly ahead of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's right-wing Likud after those elections, said he had tried everything during his 28-day negotiation period to secure a majority in Israel's 120-seat parliament.
"I raised every stone to try and form a national unity government," he said in a speech after informing President Reuven Rivlin he would be handing back the mandate.
"I ran into a wall of losers who did everything to prevent Israeli citizens from benefitting from a government under my leadership."
Incumbent Netanyahu, who has been in power since 2009, had been the first to be handed a 28-day negotiation period by Rivlin, but was unsuccessful in the task of forming a coalition, prompting the president to give Gantz the same opportunity.
Rivlin will now hand the mandate to the Israeli parliament, which has three weeks to try and find a candidate capable of getting the backing of the majority of the country's 120 lawmakers.
If that period passes without a breakthrough, new elections will be called for early 2020 -- the third national polls within 12 months.
Polls held last April also led to stalemate in a proportional system reliant on coalition building.
Netanyahu, who is fighting corruption allegations he denies, would remain caretaker leader until the new elections.
Netanyahu responded immediately after Gantz's announcement, saying he remained open to talks in the coming weeks.
"Israel needs a government of national unity and that is why in the name of the security of Israel and in the name of the will of the people, we must form this government together," he said, addressing Gantz.
Gantz's negotiation period was due to expire at midnight Wednesday but his hopes of forming a government were in effect dashed at lunchtime when potential kingmaker Avigdor Lieberman announced he would not back him.
The former defence minister's Yisrael Beitenu party has eight seats and held the balance of power between Gantz's and Netanyahu's blocs.
Lieberman had refused to join either coalition, accusing Gantz of being reliant upon the support of Israel's Arab parties and Netanyahu of being slave to the whims of ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.
Instead, the former defence minister favoured forming a unity government between his party, Likud and Blue and White.
Both Gantz and Netanyahu said they supported the proposal -- which would entail rotating the premiership -- but disagreed who should be prime minister first.
Talks had continued late into Tuesday but collapsed into mutual accusations of blame.
Lieberman said both Gantz and Netanyahu had put their personal interests ahead of the country's.
"If we are dragged to new elections it will be because of a lack of leadership," he said.
A 60-year-old former paratrooper, Gantz had no previous political experience when he declared himself Netanyahu's electoral rival in December.
But he has posed the most serious challenge to Netanyahu since he became premier in 2009.
New elections would be deeply unpopular with the public, but columnist Ben Caspit, writing in the Maariv daily Wednesday morning, said they were now all but inevitable.
"The path towards establishing a government in Israel has never been at a greater impasse," he wrote.
"We are going to need a miracle to avert a third election."
Netanyahu also faces a threat to his political career from the corruption allegations.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is due to decide by December whether to charge him over a series of accusations he denies.
An indictment might permanently damage Netanyahu's support, whereas a reprieve could give him a new lease of life.


Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

Updated 11 August 2020

Lebanon family restless as it awaits missing ‘heroes’

  • Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast
  • The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors

QARTABA, Lebanon: Three firefighters. One Lebanese family. The same restless wait. Rita Hitti has not slept a wink since the Beirut port blast, when her firefighting son, nephew and son-in-law went missing.
“In one piece or several, we want our sons back,” she told AFP from the Hitti family’s home in the mountain town of Qartaba, north of Beirut.
“We have been waiting for the remains for six days,” she added, dark circles under her eyes.
Najib Hitti, 27, Charbel Hitti, 22 and Charbel Karam, 37, all relatives, left together in one firetruck to douse a port blaze believed to have sparked the August 4 mega-blast that killed 160 people and wounded at least 6,000 others across town.
They were among the first rescuers at the scene. They have not been heard of since.
Near the entrance to their Qartaba home, the three men are praised as “heroes” in a huge banner unfurled over a wall.
The double exposure shot shows them in the foreground dressed sharply in suits.
In the background, the blast’s now-infamous pink plume rises above their heads as they try to douse a fire.
An eerie calm filled the stone-arched living room, where dozens of relatives and neighbors gathered around Rita, the mother of Najib Hitti.
The women were mum, the men whispered between themselves, the young shuffled in and out of the room, quietly.
Karlen, Rita’s daughter, looked among the most sombre, with her husband Charbel Karam, brother Najib and cousin Charbel all missing.
Sitting next to her mother on the couch, she fought back tears and did not say a single word.
The Hittis’ hopes of seeing their loved ones alive have dimmed since the army on Sunday said it had concluded search and rescue operations with little to no hope of finding survivors.
The health ministry has said the number of missing stands at less than 20, while the army announced it had lifted five corpses from beneath the rubble.
A large blaze was still ripping through the blast site when the Hittis and other relatives of port employees dashed to the disaster zone to check on their loved ones.
But they were stopped by security forces.
“I told them I would know my boys from their smell,” Rita said she told an officer who barred her from the site.
“Let me enter to search for them and when I whiff their smell I will know where they are,” the mother said she pleaded.
Ever since, her hopes have gradually dwindled, but her anger is boiling.
Lebanese authorities have pledged a swift investigation but the exact cause of the blast remains unclear.
Authorities say it was triggered by a fire of unknown origin that broke out in a port warehouse where a huge pile of highly volatile ammonium nitrate fertilizer had been left unsecured for years.
Whatever the cause of the fire was, the popular consensus is that the blame rests squarely on the shoulders of officials in charge of the port as well those who have ruled Lebanon country for decades.
“We gave them heroes and they returned them to us as ‘martyrs’,” Rita said, scoffing at the label officials have used to brand blast casualties.
“What martyrs? What were they protecting? The noxious things (authorities) were hiding in the port?” she asked rhetorically.
“They are martyrs of treachery.”
George, father of Charbel Hitti, also rushed to the blast site to look for his son and relatives after the explosion.
“I started to scream their names: Najib, Charbel... I was like a mad man,” he told AFP.
“We waited until 6 in the morning the next day for clues to what happened,” he said.
“In the end, I started crying.”
He did manage, however, to get one piece of information from a port security official close to the family who was at the scene of the blaze when the firefighting team first arrived on August 4.
The security official had told him that the firefighters were trying to break open the door to the ammonium nitrate warehouse because they could not find the keys before the explosion ripped the whole place apart.
A week has since passed and George said hopes of finding the three men alive have faded.
Assuming they are dead, George said he now wants one thing: “We just want DNA test results that are compatible with those of Charbel, Najib and Charbel,” he said.
“Imagine. This is everything we now wish for.”