But centrist Justice Minister Tzipi Livni, who also heads Israel’s negotiations with the Palestinians, immediately challenged the motion, and said she would use her powers to block the legislation from being voted on in the Israeli Knesset, or parliament.
Peace talks have shown few signs of progress since Kerry oversaw their renewal in July after a three-year deadlock.
The target is to reach an agreement by April towards achieving a “two-state solution” in which Israel and a new Palestinian state would co-exist side by side.
The Jordan Valley region of the West Bank which Israel captured in a 1967 war and Palestinians seek as part of their future state, has been a focus of recent disagreement. Palestinians reject Israel’s demand to maintain a security presence there.
Kerry said in Washington earlier this month that the need to resolve the dispute over the Jordan Valley was “a critical threading of a needle that has to happen in order to achieve an agreement.” He said he was coordinating with Jordan as well.
The Israeli proposal to incorporate the Jordan Valley within its borders, endorsed by the Cabinet’s legislative committee, was the first Israeli step in years to annex any territory captured in 1967.
Shortly after that war, in a move not recognized internationally, Israel annexed east Jerusalem and added some adjoining West Bank land to the city, which it regards as its capital.
The last time Israel annexed any land captured in the 1967 war was in 1981 when it applied its law to Syria’s Golan Heights, a strategic plateau that lies to the north.
The proposed legislation came up two days before Israel said it would free 26 Palestinian prisoners, the third of four groups of prisoners being released as an agreed confidence-building measure since peace negotiations resumed.
The prisoners had been jailed for deadly violence committed before a 1993 Israeli-Palestinian interim peace accord.
Also expected to weigh on Kerry’s visit this week is an Israeli plan to build 1,400 homes in Jewish settlements, which Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said would “destroy the peace process” and could be met with retaliation.
A document on housing starts released by the Central Bureau of Statistics showed that building in the West Bank jumped from 313 housing starts between January and March last year to 865 the same period this year.
The rise in building starts elicited criticism from the Palestinians, who insist they won’t return to peace talks unless Israel halts all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, areas they claim, along with the Gaza Strip, for a future state.
Israel, which captured those areas in the 1967 Mideast war, says talks should resume without any conditions.
The statistics bureau’s report detailed housing starts country-wide. The West Bank housing represents the highest relative spike since last year compared to other regions in Israel, but it made up the smallest portion of new building compared to overall construction around the country.
The report, released at the end of May, comes days before Kerry is set to arrive to Israel in his bid to persuade both sides to return to negotiations. Kerry has been shuttling between the sides in recent months in hopes of finding a formula to restart negotiations.
He is expected in the region this week on what would be his fifth visit since becoming secretary of State early this year.
The issue of Jewish settlements has been at the heart of a nearly five-year impasse in peace efforts. Negotiations broke down in late 2008 and have remained stalled since then. The Palestinians condemned the rise in housing starts.
“It’s clear not only to us Palestinians but also to the American administration and John Kerry that the current Israeli government is not interested in the peace process,” said Nimr Hamad, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. “The Palestinian position is clear. Israel has to be forced to stop the settlement activity.”
An Israeli government official said the housing starts were in response to the Palestinian move last year to seek state recognition at the United Nations. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak to reporters.
Kerry will face several other challenges. On Sunday, a senior Israeli official said that the ruling Likud Party will not accept a Palestinian state with the borders favored by the Palestinians and the international community, presenting a new hurdle to Kerry’s effort to restart peace talks.
In a TV interview, Danon said “there is certainly no majority” in the Likud for establishing a Palestinian state based on Israel’s borders before the 1967 Mideast war.
“A Palestinian state on the 1967 lines is something dangerous for Israel, and therefore I oppose that idea,” Danon told Channel 2 TV. He said it was possible that the broader coalition government, which includes other hard-line parties, also opposes a return to the 1967 lines.
Officials in Netanyahu’s office said that Danon had stated a personal opinion, and his comments did not reflect government policy.
In a veiled reference to Danon, Netanyahu told his Cabinet on Sunday “the government must function as one unit” in order to confront the many challenges facing the country.
Netanyahu linked the recent troubles along Israel’s front with Syria to the Palestinian issue, telling his Cabinet that the planned withdrawal of Austrian peacekeepers from the Golan Heights shows that Israel cannot rely on others to protect its security.
Austria announced the pullout from a U.N. peacekeeping force along the Israeli-Syrian frontier after rebels briefly overran a border crossing.
The incident “underscores the fact that Israel cannot depend on international forces for its security,” Netanyahu said. “They can be part of the arrangements. They cannot be the basic foundation of Israel’s security.”
Israel’s chief negotiator with the Palestinians, Tzipi Livni, said Sunday that she is working with the United States to restart talks, despite those within the government that oppose it.
“It is true that within the Likud there are radical elements and within the government there are those that oppose an agreement,” Livni told Israel Radio. “The prime minister is the one who will have to decide whether he surrenders to radical elements or will promote his policy that he declared,” she said.
Livni said Danon’s comments “look bad.”
The top Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, said Danon’s remarks reflect Israel’s policy. “I believe that a government that continues to tender settlements and rejects the two state solution will not go for peace,” he said.
JERUSALEM — Israeli Prime MinisterBenjamin Netanyahu‘s main coalition partner threatened to quit on Monday unless bickering ministers agreed to a proposal to end wholesale military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students.
A government-appointed committee failed on Sunday to finalize a draft law that limits the number of those exempted from compulsory army service each year to 1,800 ultra-Orthodox scholars, instead of the tens of thousands of students who are let off annually now.
Military service exemptions are at the heart of a national debate in Israel over privileges enjoyed by the ultra-Orthodox, who have long wielded political influence in a country where coalition governments have often depended on their support.
“Any attempt to hamper the . . . committee in order to pander to ultra-Orthodox politicians will lead to a breakup of this coalition,” Yesh Atid‘s leader, Finance Minister Yair Lapid, told reporters during a meeting of his party’s legislators.
“We will not participate in a government that does not pass a ‘sharing the burden’ law,” he said.
The panel is divided over a proposed clause, backed by the centrist Yesh Atid party but opposed by Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon of Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud, that would impose financial penalties on draft dodgers.
Netanyahu, speaking to Likud members of parliament, voiced confidence the differences would be ironed out.
“I am sure a solution can be found to the few clauses that remain unresolved. There will be a law,” Netanyahu said.
Yesh Atid came second to Likud in a January general election on a pledge to reduce state benefits for Israel’s fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority and end military service exemptions for the community.
For the first time in a decade, Israel’s government has no ultra-Orthodox members, and key coalition partners are pressing Netanyahu to break with political tradition and enact reforms.
“There is an historic opportunity to heal the wound that is bleeding in the heart of Israeli society,” Lapid said, referring to the views of many secular Israelis that they are carrying the ultra-Orthodox on their backs.
Naftali Bennett, whose Bayit Yehudi party is another influential member of the coalition, said he was “very optimistic” the dispute over the draft legislation would be resolved.
Most Israeli men and women are called up for military service for up to three years when they turn 18. However, exceptions are made for most Arab citizens of Israel, as well as ultra-Orthodox men and women.
After the proposed law is signed off by the government committee, it will pass to the cabinet and then to the Knesset for approval.
Nobody has a clue as to what our new government coalition is going to look like. Not the TV presenters, the Internet bloggers, the newspaper pundits. In fact, not even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu himself. By law, he has until March 15 to make it happen.
To create a government, Netanyahu must have a coalition of at least 61 Knesset members out of 120 sign on with him. But a minimal coalition always leaves an Israeli prime minister at the mercy of any one of his coalition partners who might threaten to bail for any reason—and thus collapse the government.
Out of the 34 parties that ran in the Israeli elections, 12 parties were voted in. From these, Netanyahu can realistically choose from seven who are rightist or centrist parties. The other five parties are too far left ideologically.
Netanyahu’s dream is to have a very wide coalition with 80 or so seats—so that no one party can bring his government down, or even threaten to if it doesn’t get its way.
But now, here is reality. Some months ago, the Prime Minister merged his Likud party with another right-wing party, Yisrael Beytenu (Israel our Home), run by the rough-tough immigrant from Russia, Avigdor Lieberman. Together, they had expected to win 45 seats out of the 120 in the Knesset. Alas, they won only 31 which means Netanyahu has a very difficult job to build a solid and stable government.
Netanyahu’s “natural partners” as he calls them, are the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) parties: Shas, which represents the Sephardic Jews—who immigrated from Muslim countries, and United Torah Judaism (UTJ)—Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated from European and the former Soviet Union countries. Together they won 18 seats.
Why does Netanyahu value his “natural partners” so? The reason is that the Haredi parties ask for: cheap prioritized housing for their large families; money (boatloads) for their non-working population; freedom from serving in the army; and total control over all religious functions in Israel. That’s all.
With all other issues, including the Palestinian conflict, the prime minister can do whatever he wishes. Most of all, if the Haredim get their four demands met, they will never leave him or bring down his government because their benefits would disappear.
The Biggest Surprise But Netanyahu has come face to face with a challenge that, a day before the elections, he wouldn’t have dreamed of. A brand new centrist party called Yesh Atid, (There is a Future) appeared on the horizon through the efforts of the appealing and magnetic personality of Yair Lapid. An actor, journalist, author and former TV presenter and news anchor, he is one of the most recognized faces in Israel for many years.
Expected to win five to 10 seats, he won an astounding 19, making him the second largest party in this election. Not one of his members, including himself, has ever served in the Knesset! They are mayors, a rabbi, a social activist, a former Shin Bet chief, a police commander, lawyers and journalists. (Observation: Israelis were tired of the same old faces.)
It would certainly be reasonable for Netanyahu to co-opt Lapid’s party into his new coalition. But there is an enormous obstacle. One of Lapid’s principle party pillars is that all Haredi men must serve in the army, just like everyone else.
Since this goal is a cornerstone of his party platform—even if it takes a few years to completely implement—Lapid’s credibility would be greatly diminished before he ever got started if he compromised on this issue. And the vast majority of Israelis agree with Lapid that the ultra-Orthodox must bear an equal burden with the rest of the Israeli soldiers.
Shas and UTJ see Lapid as their mortal enemy, and have made it clear that if Lapid does not back down from this demand, it would be a red line for the Haredim, and they would not join this new government. Such a scenario would give Netanyahu Lapid’s 19 members, but he would lose the 18 Haredi members.
Yet Another Suprise But there was another surprise. A young Orthodox businessman, Naftali Bennett, put together another brand new party called Bayit Yehudi (Jewish Home). He won 12 seats. All in his party are also new faces, never before seen in the Knesset.
His amazing success was explained by veteran journalist Gil Hoffman: The new Bennett backers support Bayit Yehudi “because its leader is a charismatic, young high-tech millionaire who served in an elite Reconnaissance Unit, speaks Hebrew slang, and knows how to relate to Israelis from many different backgrounds.”
(It is important not to confuse the Orthodox population with the ultra-Orthodox (Haredim), as the Orthodox (who wear a yarmulke) do serve in the army and many of them are in combat units.)
Born of American parents who immigrated to Israel, Bennett represents the settlement movement more than any other party. He is also a brilliant businessman who sold his start-up company for $145,000,000 after only six years.
Therefore it would seem that Bennett and his party would be a perfect fit for Netanyahu, except for one thing. Bennett served as Netanyahu’s bureau chief when the latter was in the opposition. To say it kindly, Bennett did not get along with either Netanyahu or his wife Sarah. He has since apologized and is also in negotiations with Netanyahu.
The average Israeli would love to see the Netanyahu-Liberman party (31 seats) team up with Lapid (19 seats) and Bennett (12 seats), as the latter two parties have many platform goals that sorely need attention—like changing the dysfunctional system of government, improving the educational system, and making it easier for small businesses to grow.
These three parties would already give Netanyahu a majority of 62 seats. Netanyahu could then coax another eight members from small parties. That would give Netanyahu a 70-seat majority—a respectable ruling government, but not the 80-seat majority that would make Netanyahu’s dreams come true.
So he may end up choosing his “natural partners” the Haredim, first of all. That would give him a total of 49 seats. Add the eight from small centrist parties, he would have 57—not enough to form a government. All of the remaining parties are strong leftist or Arab parties—none of whom would join Netanyahu’s government.
Meanwhile, Yair Lapid of the centrist “There is a Future” party and Naftali Bennett of “Jewish Home” are rumored to have made a pact between them that either both go into the government or neither one will. Someone is going to have to bend.
My long-time friend Benjamin Netanyahu has not yet succeeded in putting together a coalition government. He must form a group that comprises a majority in the 120-member Knesset. This is proving extremely difficult in the deeply divided body. He is asking Israel‘s President Shimon Peres for an extension of up to two weeks.
The real battle being fought is a spirit war. Israel’s election was held on January 22 of this year. The prime minister’s party won 31 seats, but something else very important happened within that same twenty-four hour period of time: President Barack Obama was sworn in for his second term in office.
The significance of this is very existential. Why? It is no secret that President Obama dislikes the prime minister and does not want a Likud Party in office. The two parties Netanyahu most needs to form his government–the Labor Party, and the Yesh Atid Party–control 34 seats between them. Both have presently refused to join the Netanyahu government.
My friends in diplomatic circles in Jerusalem have told me what is happening is that President Obama’s advance team is in the city meeting with those party leaders and encouraging them to dig in their heels. My contacts believe that if Netanyahu is prohibited from forming a government, new elections will be forced on the Israeli people, and the prime minister will not be given a necessary mandate. This would give President Obama a Leftist party with which he could work to divide Jerusalem and quickly create a Palestinian state.
President Obama’s new secretary of defense Chuck Hagel is without question no friend to Israel, and the newly confirmed secretary of state, John Kerry, is not far behind. The president will visit Jerusalem the very week Netanyahu is faced with meeting his deadline to form a government. Mr. Obama will speak to the Knesset, meet with Palestinian leaders, Jordanians, and present his peace plan–not one that the prime minister can or will support.
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View PhotoReuters/Reuters – Israeli director Dror Moreh sits for a portrait in Tel Aviv February 14, 2013. REUTERS/Nir Elias
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – An Oscar-nominated Israeli documentary has brought little joy to PrimeMinister Benjamin Netanyahu‘s government, the focus of the film’s criticism of Israel’s policy toward the Palestinians.
Featuring searingly confessional interviews with six former chiefs of the shadowy security serviceShin Bet, “The Gatekeepers” portrays the 46-year-old West Bank occupation and Jewish ultranationalism as threats to Israel’s survival.
Its run for Sunday’s Academy Awards comes at an awkward time for the conservative Netanyahu. He narrowly won an election last month that favored centrist rivals who, echoing world powers, demand he revive long-stalled Palestinian statehood talks.
Usually quick to congratulate Israelis who succeed abroad, Netanyahu has kept mum on “The Gatekeepers”, which an aide said he had not seen. Reaction from other officials has been frosty.
Vice Prime Minister Moshe Yaalon said the Shin Bet veterans’ interviews, in which they discuss episodes such as the agency-ordered killing of two captured Gazan bus hijackers and a plot by Jewish extremists to blow up a major Muslim shrine in Jerusalem, had been edited “to serve the Palestinian narrative”.
“What was presented there was presented in a really one-sided manner, and therefore the film is slanted,” Yaalon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and a former military chief, told Israel’s Army Radio.
Asked about the film during last month’s World Economic Forum in Davos, Defence Minister Ehud Barak, the lone centrist in Netanyahu’s outgoing coalition, offered tepid praise for its “testament to the fact that in Israel you can talk more freely, perhaps, than in any other place”.
Also among the five contenders for the best documentary Oscar is “Five Broken Cameras”, a sympathetic account of the Palestinian struggle against land seizures involved in the erection of Israel’s West Bank barrier.
“Five Broken Cameras” was partly funded by an Israeli government-run cultural trust and involved an Israeli filmmaker, but its Palestinian director, Emad Burnat, has shunned suggestions that it augurs reconciliation between the sides.
While mostly well-received by Israeli audiences and film critics, “The Gatekeepers” broke little new ground politically. Four of the ex-Shin Bet chiefs had jointly aired similar public criticism against former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2003.
But interest has been piqued by the film’s slick archive footage and digital reenactments, its international accolades and the fact its interviewees span current ideological divides.
One of them, Avi Dichter, is Israel’s civil defence minister and a member of Likud and Netanyahu’s inner security cabinet. Another, Yaakov Peri, is a lawmaker in Yesh Atid, the centrist party that was runner-up to Likud in the January 22 ballot.
“When you leave the service (Shin Bet), you become a bit of a leftist,” Peri says in the film.
A third interviewee, Ami Ayalon, who once ran for the leadership of the centre-left Labour party, tells director Dror Moreh that Israelis suffer a strategic shortsightedness that could imperil their survival as a democracy.
“We win every battle, but lose the war,” Ayalon says.
Moreh told Reuters this month that U.S. President Barack Obama should intervene in the conflict in his second term, comparing Palestinians and Israelis to kindergarten children.
“They need a grown-up to tell them, ‘Enough! Israel, Palestine, this is what you need to do, do it.
Dichter, who said this week he had not yet seen the film, said it was “skewed, improper and tendentious” to criticise a serving prime minister, telling Israel’s Channel Two television:
“The prime minister sets policy that is good for the State of Israel, not policy that is good for the Oscars.”
(Writing by Dan Williams; Editing by Alistair Lyon)
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took a first step in forming a new government on Tuesday, announcing a coalition deal with former Foreign Minister Tzipi Livniand naming her to handle efforts to renew stalled diplomacy with the Palestinians.
Netanyahu’s choice of Livni, a moderate voice for a government led by his right-wing Likud party, seemed a positive signal ahead of U.S. President Barack Obama‘s visit next month on a push to resume peace talks deadlocked since 2010.
In televised remarks, Netanyahu said the union with Livni, a longtime rival, was intended to provide his emerging government with a “wide and stable government that unites the people”.
He said he wanted to face down what he called “tremendous challenges” posed by a nuclearising Iran and the violence of neighboring Arab revolts.
Netanyahu said Israel had to “make every effort to promote a responsible peace process with the Palestinians,” adding that he hoped for resumption of talks that froze after a dispute over Jewish settlement building.
Without expressly giving a title for her new diplomatic role, Netanyahu said Livni would become a “senior partner in the effort” to revive Middle East diplomacy. She would also become justice minister, a job Livni has also held previously.
The coalition union with Livni’s six-member faction will likely ratchet up pressure on Israel’s other fractious centrist and religious parties to come on board Netanyahu’s emerging new government as well.
After winning a January 22 election, though short of a majority in parliament, Netanyahu has another month to secure enough coalition partners to control at least half of the legislature’s 120 seats so that he can govern.
Likud, running on a joint ticket with another right-wing party, won 31 seats in the vote. Livni heads a small centrist party that won six.
Livni, 54, said she had decided to join Netanyahu’s next government “because of a strategic and moral imperative to leave no stone unturned, to exhaust any possibility and become a part of any government that commits to bringing peace”.
As foreign minister in 2006-2009 with the centrist Kadima party, Livni headed inconclusive talks with the Palestinians. She formed her own party last year after quitting Kadima following a lost leadership contest.
Livni had rejected Netanyahu’s offers to join his current government formed after a 2009 election, amid disputes over policy and jobs, after her party polled the most seats though Netanyahu mustered more political allies than she could.
Netanyahu said they had agreed “we need to set our differences aside and overcome old rivalries and combine forces for the sake of the country”.
(Additional reporting by Ari Rabinovitch; Editing by Michael Roddy)