Knesset approves new coalition, ending Netanyahu’s long rule

Knesset approves new coalition, ending Netanyahu’s long rule
Israeli demonstrators gather near a screen showing a projection of the faces of the heads of a new coalition government. (AFP)
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Updated 13 June 2021

Knesset approves new coalition, ending Netanyahu’s long rule

Knesset approves new coalition, ending Netanyahu’s long rule
  • Sunday’s vote, passed by a 60-59 margin, ended a two-year cycle of political paralysis
  • Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament

JERUSALEM: Israel’s parliament approved a new coalition government on Sunday that sent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu into the opposition after a record 12 years in office and a political crisis that sparked four elections in two years.
Naftali Bennett, the head of a small ultranationalist party, was sworn in as prime minister after a narrow 60-59 vote in parliament. But if he wants to keep the job, he will have to maintain an unwieldy coalition of parties from the political right, left and center.
The eight parties, including a small Arab faction that is making history by sitting in the ruling coalition, are united in their opposition to Netanyahu and new elections but agree on little else. They are likely to pursue a modest agenda that seeks to reduce tensions with the Palestinians and maintain good relations with the US without launching any major initiatives.
Netanyahu sat silently during the vote. After it was approved, he stood up to leave the chamber, before turning around and shaking Bennett’s hand. A dejected Netanyahu, wearing a black medical mask, briefly sat in the opposition leader’s chair before walking out.
Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, remains the head of the largest party in parliament and is expected to vigorously oppose the new government. If just one faction bolts, it could lose its majority and would be at risk of collapse, giving him an opening to return to power.
The country’s deep divisions were on vivid display as Bennett addressed parliament ahead of the vote. He was repeatedly interrupted and loudly heckled by supporters of Netanyahu, several of whom were escorted out of the chamber.
Bennett’s speech mostly dwelled on domestic issues, but he expressed opposition to US efforts to revive Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers.
“Israel will not allow Iran to arm itself with nuclear weapons,” Bennett said, vowing to maintain Netanyahu’s confrontational policy. “Israel will not be a party to the agreement and will continue to preserve full freedom of action.”
Bennett nevertheless thanked President Joe Biden and the US for its decades of support for Israel.
Netanyahu, speaking after him, vowed to return to power. He predicted the incoming government would be weak on Iran and give in to US demands to make concessions to the Palestinians.
“If it is destined for us to be in the opposition, we will do it with our backs straight until we topple this dangerous government and return to lead the country in our way,” he said.
Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute, a nonpartisan think tank, said the new government will likely be more stable than it appears.
“Even though it has a very narrow majority, it will be very difficult to topple and replace because the opposition is not cohesive,” he said. Each party in the coalition will want to prove that it can deliver, and for that they need “time and achievements.”
Still, Netanyahu “will continue to cast a shadow,” Plesner said. He expects the incoming opposition leader to exploit events and propose legislation that right-wing coalition members would like to support but can’t — all in order to embarrass and undermine them.
The new government is meanwhile promising a return to normalcy after a tumultuous two years that saw four elections, an 11-day Gaza war last month and a coronavirus outbreak that devastated the economy before it was largely brought under control by a successful vaccination campaign.
The driving force behind the coalition is Yair Lapid, a political centrist who will become prime minister in two years, if the government lasts that long.
He called off a planned speech to parliament, instead saying he was ashamed that his 86-year-old mother had to witness the raucous behavior of his opponents. In a brief speech, he asked for “forgiveness from my mother.”
“I wanted her to be proud of the democratic process in Israel. Instead she, along with every citizen of Israel, is ashamed of you and remembers clearly why it’s time to replace you,” he said.
The new government is expected to win a narrow majority in the 120-member assembly, after which it will be sworn in. The government plans to hold its first official meeting later this evening.
It’s unclear when Netanyahu will move out of the official residence. He has lashed out at the new government in apocalyptic terms and accused Bennett of defrauding voters by running as a right-wing stalwart and then partnering with the left.
Netanyahu’s supporters have held angry protests outside the homes of rival lawmakers, who say they have received death threats naming their family members. Israel’s Shin Bet internal security service issued a rare public warning about the incitement earlier this month, saying it could lead to violence.
Netanyahu has condemned the incitement while noting that he has also been a target.
His place in Israeli history is secure, having served as prime minister for a total of 15 years — more than any other, including the country’s founder, David Ben-Gurion.
Netanyahu began his long rule by defying the Obama administration, refusing to freeze settlement construction as it tried unsuccessfully to revive the peace process. Relations with Israel’s closest ally grew even rockier when Netanyahu vigorously campaigned against President Barack Obama’s emerging nuclear deal with Iran, even denouncing it in an address to the US Congress.
But he suffered few if any consequences from those clashes and was richly rewarded by the Trump administration, which recognized contested Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, helped broker normalization agreements with four Arab states and withdrew the US from the Iran deal.
Netanyahu has portrayed himself as a world-class statesman, boasting of his close ties with Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has also cultivated ties with Arab and African countries that long shunned Israel over its policies toward the Palestinians.
But he has gotten a far chillier reception from the Biden administration and is widely seen as having undermined the long tradition of bipartisan support for Israel in the United States.
His reputation as a political magician has also faded at home, where he has become a deeply polarizing figure. Critics say he has long pursued a divide-and-conquer strategy that aggravated rifts in Israeli society between Jews and Arabs and between his close ultra-Orthodox allies and secular Jews.
In November 2019, he was indicted for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes. He refused calls to step down, instead lashing out at the media, judiciary and law enforcement, going so far as to accuse his political opponents of orchestrating an attempted coup. Last year, protesters began holding weekly rallies across the country calling on him to resign.
Netanyahu remains popular among the hard-line nationalists who dominate Israeli politics, but he could soon face a leadership challenge from within his own party. A less polarizing Likud leader would stand a good chance of assembling a coalition that is both farther to the right and more stable than the government that is set to be sworn in.


Rocket warning sirens sound in northern Israel, Israeli military says

Rocket warning sirens sound in northern Israel, Israeli military says
Updated 30 sec ago

Rocket warning sirens sound in northern Israel, Israeli military says

Rocket warning sirens sound in northern Israel, Israeli military says
  • The military said in a statement the alerts sounded in at least three communities near the border with Lebanon

JERUSALEM: Rocket warning sirens sounded in northern Israel near the Lebanese border on Wednesday, the Israeli military said.
There were no immediate reports of damage or casualties. The military said in a statement the alerts sounded in at least three communities near the border with Lebanon.
The border has been mostly quiet since Israel fought a 2006 war against Hezbollah guerrillas, who have sway in southern Lebanon and advanced rockets.
But small Palestinian factions in Lebanon have fired sporadically on Israel in the past, and two rockets were launched at Israel on July 20, causing no damage or injuries. Israel responded to that incident with artillery fire.


Pope Francis back to full-time work with call for Lebanon aid

Pope Francis back to full-time work with call for Lebanon aid
Updated 22 min 30 sec ago

Pope Francis back to full-time work with call for Lebanon aid

Pope Francis back to full-time work with call for Lebanon aid
  • ‘Today I appeal to the international community to help Lebanon along the path to resurrection through concrete gestures, not just words’

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis returned to work full-time on Wednesday following a colon operation, urging the international community to help a struggling Lebanon.
The 84-year-old took time to bless children and pose for selfies in the Vatican at the weekly general audience one month to the day after the delicate operation, which saw him hospitalized for over a week.
“Today I appeal to the international community to help Lebanon along the path to resurrection through concrete gestures, not just words,” Francis said.
Lebanon was Wednesday marking a year since a cataclysmic explosion ravaged Beirut, killing at least 214 people in its worst peace-time disaster, when the country’s economy was already in tatters.
The spiralling economic crisis has been branded by the World Bank as one of the planet’s worst since the mid-19th century. Lebanon has also had to grapple with the coronavirus pandemic.
Francis said he hoped an international conference co-hosted by France and the UN on the day of the anniversary to raise humanitarian aid proves “productive.”
According to the Vatican News portal, the general audience marked the resumption of normal activities for the pope, who underwent planned surgery for inflammation of the colon at Rome’s Gemelli University Hospital on July 4.
Francis, who had previously been in fairly good health, had been taking it easy since the operation although he led the Sunday Angelus prayers both from hospital and from the Vatican window on his return.


As COVID-19 surges in Tunisia, oxygen is in short supply

As COVID-19 surges in Tunisia, oxygen is in short supply
Updated 04 August 2021

As COVID-19 surges in Tunisia, oxygen is in short supply

As COVID-19 surges in Tunisia, oxygen is in short supply
  • Traders have seized on an opportunity for profit, buying supplies of oxygen and other treatments and then renting them or selling them at higher prices
  • Tunisia consumed between 25,000 and 30,000 liters of oxygen daily before the pandemic

KAIROUAN, Tunisia: As Tunisia faces a surge of COVID-19 cases, demand for life-saving oxygen has grown higher than the supply, leaving patients desperate and family members angry at the government as they say they are forced to find oxygen on their own.
As the misery grows, traders have seized on an opportunity for profit, buying supplies of oxygen and other treatments and then renting them or selling them at higher prices. The profitable enterprise that is growing online has prompted citizens to call on authorities for intervention.
“I was subjected to various types of blackmailing. People were trading and brokering with everything. Believe me, with everything,” said Abdou Mzoughi, 43, whose nearly 80-year-old mother died June 26 from COVID-19 after he spent six days trying, but failing, to get the lifesaving oxygen treatment she needed.
“We were looking for a bed with oxygen in any hospital,” he said. He couldn’t even find her a place in a field hospital, or obtain a larger oxygen concentrator for at-home treatment.
The pandemic comes as the nation in North Africa — the only success story of the Arab Spring of a decade ago — finds itself beset by overlapping political and economic crises. Last month President Kais Saied fired the prime minister, froze the parliament and took on executive powers in what he says is a bid to save the country. He began ruling by decree after nationwide protests over the nation’s deteriorating social and economic situation — topped by the raging coronavirus epidemic.
Tunisia, with a population of 12 million, has reported more deaths per capita in the pandemic than any African country and has had among the highest daily death rates per capita in the world in recent weeks. More than 20,000 Tunisians have died so far, and the vaccination rate remains low.
Mzoughi said the market price of oxygen has more than doubled as demand grows in Kairouan, an ancient desert city that is considered among the holiest in Islam and is recognized by UNESCO for its rich architectural heritage. It is also one of the poorest cities in Tunisia.
Renting an oxygen concentrator can now cost up to $200 a week — an amount that Mzoughi roughly makes in a month with a steady job in the regional office of an online newspaper.
Now he visits his mother’s grave daily and describes still being in a state of shock over her death.
Private hospitals and clinics are also witnessing unprecedented pressure and intense demand for resuscitation and oxygen beds. That has caused a shortage of liquid oxygen in hospital tanks, and prompted the health authorities to request supplies from Algeria to enhance its strategic stock and avoid interruption in health units.
It has also led to the use of spare oxygen bottles, or the transfer of some patients to other hospitals.
Authorities have now ordered private clinics to contribute oxygen until there is a return to the normal oxygen supply pattern.
Tunisia consumed between 25,000 and 30,000 liters of oxygen daily before the pandemic. Now, the North African nation consumes 10 times the amount, between 230,000 to 240,000 liters of oxygen per day. Meanwhile, it’s production capacity is only at 100,000 liters per day, according to the Ministry of Health.
An especially moving video posted in mid-July on social media showed a man described as an official of Mateur Hospital, in the north, collapsing in tears because there was no oxygen for his patients. The video, posted by a Tunisian journalist, made the rounds at home and was widely picked up by French media.
However, the ministry denies claims that the health system in Tunisia is collapsing, saying it has received adequate aid from Arab and European countries, including oxygen machines, vaccines and field hospitals.


One killed in fire on military bus in Damascus - state media

One killed in fire on military bus in Damascus - state media
Updated 04 August 2021

One killed in fire on military bus in Damascus - state media

One killed in fire on military bus in Damascus - state media

BEIRUT: One person died and three were injured when a fire broke out on a military bus in a heavily fortified army compound in Damascus early on Wednesday, Syrian state news agency SANA reported.
One source at the site of the explosion suggested an electrical fault had set the petrol tank on fire, the agency reported.
The explosion happened in the bus while it was near the entrance of a heavily fortified Republican Guards housing compound in the west of the Syrian capital, SANA said.
Another source with knowledge of the matter, who asked not to be named, said at least five military personnel were killed and 11 other personnel were wounded in the blast.
Blasts in Damascus have been rare since forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad took control of rebel enclaves around the city.
Ten years into Syria’s conflict, President Bashar al-Assad has survived the insurgency which started with peaceful protests in March 2011.
He now holds sway over most of the country, helped by Russia’s military presence and Iran’s Shi’ite militias.
There have been several attacks this year on army vehicles in eastern Syria by suspected Daesh militants who still operate in the sprawling desert area. 


UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots

UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots
Updated 04 August 2021

UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots

UAE expands provision of COVID-19 booster shots
  • The booster shot would be available to people considered at high risk three months after their second vaccine dose
  • The regional tourism and business hub has among the world’s highest immunization rates

DUBAI: The United Arab Emirates will start providing a booster shot against COVID-19 to all fully vaccinated individuals in the Gulf Arab state, the National Emergency Crisis and Disaster Management Authority (NCEMA) said on Tuesday.
It said on Twitter the booster shot would be available to people considered at high risk three months after their second vaccine dose, and six months for others.

The Gulf state, which has approved five types of COVID-19 vaccines, had in June begun providing booster shots to those initially immunized with a vaccine developed by the China National Pharmaceutical Group (Sinopharm).
The regional tourism and business hub has among the world’s highest immunization rates. Around 79 percent of the population of roughly 9 million had received one vaccine dose, while some 70 percent had been fully vaccinated, according to latest official data.