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In the Valley of Indecision – Israel’s Divided Electorate

Israelis went to the polls this week for the second time in 2019, following April’s polls which ended in a deadlock. The latest election resulted in some minor surprises, but a repeat of the deadlocked results between incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud party and former IDF Chief-of-Staff Benny Gantz of the Blue & White list. Both Netanyahu and Gantz expressed this week their strong aversion to holding a third election, and their agreement with the public’s preference for a national unity government. However, the path to those common objectives holds many potential pitfalls as well as opportunities.

For starters, there are the bare numbers to consider.

Over 4,431,000 votes were cast on Tuesday, slightly more than in the April elections, despite concerns that voter turnout would be low amidst a wave of fatigue and cynicism that analysts believed voters were feeling. This misjudgment of the public mood will surely be added to a long and growing list of credibility issues that Israel’s fraternity of political analysts and pollsters have been grappling with in recent years.

The Central Elections Committee was still counting ballots on Friday morning but issued the following “almost final” numbers, while cautioning that official results would only be posted on 25 September and also pointing out that ballots from a handful of stations would take longer to sort out due to allegations of voter fraud attempts.

But with all that in mind, the results as of Friday morning that were being reported in the media were as follows:

Blue & White: 1,148,700 – 25.93% – 33 seats
Likud: 1,111,535 – 25.09% – 31 seats
The Joint (Arab) List: 470,611 – 10.62% – 13 seats
Shas: 329,834 - 7.44% – 9 seats
Yisrael Beytenu: 309.688 – 6.99% – 8 seats
UTJ: 268.688 – 6.06% – 8 seats
Yamina: 260.339 – 5.88% – 7 seats
Labor-Gesher: 212.529 – 4.80% – 6 seats
Democratic Union: 192.261 – 4.34% – 5 seats

These numbers leave neither Gantz or Netanyahu with a clear path to the needed 61-seat majority to form a governing coalition, leading to talk of a unity government. On Thursday afternoon, Netanyahu issued a public appeal to Gantz, saying: “A broad unity government is what is demanded now. I propose that we meet as soon as possible without preconditions to cooperate in establishing a broad unity government for all those who believe in Israel as Jewish and democratic state. There is no reason to go to another election. I am against it.”

Then, in a statement broadly interpreted as an offer for a rotational arrangement for the Prime Minister’s desk, Netanyahu invoked the memory of the national unity government formed between Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir and Labor leader Shimon Peres from 1984-1988, saying: “When there was no clear outcome from the Knesset elections, Shimon chose national unity. He and Yitzhak Shamir agreed to cooperate - to navigate Israel's path to safety.”

“I hear, loud and clear, the voices calling for a broad and stable national unity government and I congratulate you, Mr. Prime Minister, on joining that call this morning," responded President Reuven Rivlin. "The responsibility for making it happens falls to you elected officials, especially the leaders of the major parties.”

“It is imperative that we convene as quickly as possible, as soon as the final picture of the votes is clear, in order to work towards forming a government that can serve the State of Israel and the people of Israel again,” Rivlin said. “For my part, I will do everything I can to prevent another general election. But the responsibility for this, as well as the responsibility for forming a government that serves all the citizens of Israel with the dedication it deserves, is yours."

However, shortly after Netanyahu’s public appeal, the leaders of Blue & White issued a statement of their own which appeared to agree that a national unity government was indeed the way forward but rejecting the idea of joining with the religious parties that are the traditional, “natural” partners of Likud. Some Blue & White leaders, including Moshe Ya’alon, who served as Netanyahu’s defense minister in a previous government and used to be one of his most loyal political allies, openly declared that they were ready to form a unity government with Likud immediately if Netanyahu himself would step aside and let someone else be the party leader.

In a related development, on Thursday evening a poll was published showing that there was broad support among Israeli voters for a national unity government including both Likud and Blue & White and perhaps some of the secular parties but specifically EXCLUDING Shas, United Torah Judaism and even Yamina, the party representing Israel’s national religious/modern Orthodox community.

Further increasing the chances that a national unity government will be the ultimate result is the difficulty either Gantz or Netanyahu would have in forming a coalition without each other due to the muddled mathematics of the election results.

With Gantz holding the highest number of Knesset seats at 33, President Rivlin is likely to hand him the first mandate at trying to form a coalition government. He could start by bringing in all of the secular, socialist parties to his Left, and also the Joint (Arab) List, even though the Arab factions have never sat in an Israeli government due to concerns they may get access to sensitive security intelligence. But Gantz would still need either Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu or one of the parties in the Right bloc. Liberman will never sit with the Arabs, and Netanyahu managed this week to forge an agreement with Shas, UTJ and Yamina that they will negotiate over joining a coalition government as one bloc. The question now looming is whether Gantz could pry one of those parties out of that pact and into his government. And perhaps the biggest surprise of the last 24 hours is that the haredi parties Shas and UTJ have indicated a willingness to hear offers from Gantz. But he must also deal with the opposition to such a move from Yair Lapid, the leader of the secularist Yesh Atid faction within the Blue & White list.

Netanyahu, on the other hand, could easily form a coalition on the Right if Liberman of Yisrael Beiteinu simply returns to the fold he left in April. But Liberman, who has been both a supporter and a nemesis of Netanyahu for decades, triggered this second round of elections and has to come away with some big spoils to show for it. That means his demands will be high, including a haredi draft bill, as well as less religious coercion and power for the ultra-Orthodox parties. Reports indicate that this stalemate still exists between Lieberman and the religious parties. Meantime, it is highly unlikely that Netanyahu could sway one of the parties to the Left of Gantz (Amir Peretz of the Labor-Gesher faction or Ehud Barak’s Democratic Union), into a coalition deal with the Right, especially if Netanyahu is still at the helm of Likud.

This entire logjam could be broken if Netanyahu were to agree to step down as leader of the Likud. But he and everyone else will be playing brinksmanship over the coming weeks, in a game which closely resembles three-level chess. The bottom line is that after ten straight years in the premiership (13 years in all), the political fate of Netanyahu is in the hands of others and their willingness to compromise in order for him to at least share power going forward.

Finally, there is a whale of a footnote amongst all this in the form of the possibility that Ayman Odeh, leader of the Joint (Arab) List, will automatically become the leader of the Opposition in the Knesset, since his faction will be the largest one outside the government. In this case, the Minister of Defense would be legally obligated to provide Odeh with weekly security briefings that would include top secret information. Due to the history that Odeh and other Joint List MKs have of issuing statements deeply hostile to Israel, this raises serious legal and parliamentary issues which will have to be overcome.

In any event, the political future of the Jewish State is in for a turbulent ride over coming weeks as President Rivlin tries to shepherd the new Knesset factions through the always dramatic process of coalition building, beginning with his meetings with the party heads scheduled to start on Sunday.

Netanyahu Offers Gantz Unity Government

Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a public appeal to Blue and White leader Benny Gantz on Thursday morning, saying “We have no choice but to form a broad unity government, as broad as possible, that is made up of all the elements that care for the State of Israel,” Netanyahu said. “The nation expects us, both of us, to show responsibility and act in cooperation. We cannot and have no reason to go to a third election. I oppose it. A broad unity government is what is demanded of us today.”  Gantz responded with a statement that he was open to the idea but would not compromise.
 
"After an election campaign forced upon the citizens of Israel, the people went to the polls, voted, and made a clear decision - the people chose unity, the people chose Israel before all," he said at a press conference held at 2 PM on Thursday. "We will not concede to anyone. I will conduct the negotiations with responsibility and judgment in order to achieve the best for the citizens of Israel in the political circumstances that have been created. It will require determination and adherence to our principles. There will be no shortcuts. The government that I establish must be effective and capable of real action and governance."

Archeologists Uncover Evidence for Biblical Edom
Archeologists digging in southern Israel’s Arava Desert have found what they believe to be the remains of a highly sophisticated civilization dating from the 12th-11th centuries BC and lending support to the Biblical accounts of the Kingdom of Edom. “Using technological evolution as a proxy for social processes, we were able to identify and characterize the emergence of the biblical kingdom of Edom,” explained Tel Aviv University’s Prof. Ezra Ben-Yosef, who led the study with Prof. Tom Levy of the University of California, San Diego. “Our results prove it happened earlier than previously thought and in accordance with the biblical description.”

“Our new findings contradict the view of many archaeologists that the Arava was populated by a loose alliance of tribes, and they’re consistent with the biblical story that there was an Edomite kingdom here,” explained Dr. Ben-Yosef of TAU’s department of archaeology and ancient Near Eastern cultures. “A flourishing copper industry in the Arava can only be attributed to a centralized and hierarchical polity, and this might fit the biblical description of the Edomite kingdom.”

Here is a video showing other interesting things to see and do in southern Israel



Israel Blesses the World
Researchers at Israel’s Weizmann Institute of Science recently published an article in Cell magazine giving details of their findings regarding the effectiveness of immunotherapy for treating melanoma and other types of cancers. The research gives hope for new treatments and refinements for the application of known treatments which could substantially reduce mortality rates among people fighting these diseases.

Iran Suffers Diplomatic Setbacks
A report published on Wednesday by the state Intelligence organization in the German state of Hesse gives details of efforts by Iran to obtain weapons of mass destruction during 2018, as well as carrying out several other illegal activities in Germany. The report confirms previous findings from intelligence agencies in other parts of Germany and Europe. In related news, the International Judo Federation (IJF) issued a statement on Wednesday suspending Iran from future competitions over its policy of boycotting Israeli athletes and other violations of IJF regulations.

Report: Israel and Saudi Arabia Hit Iranian Targets

Reports emerged in Arab media outlets Wednesday evening that recent strikes against pro-Iranian militias in the Albukamal area in Syria near the border with Iraq may have been carried out through a combined effort by Israel and Saudi Arabia, possibly with US assistance as well. The reports pointed to a widespread belief that the sites were being used as a staging ground for missile attacks such as the one which hit a Saudi oil facility last weekend, as well as a statement by US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following his meetings with senior Saudi officials in Riyadh that Washington supports Saudi Arabia’s "right to defend itself" and would not tolerate Iran's "threatening behavior."

On Wednesday, the Saudi military held a press conference where Defense Ministry spokesman Colonel Turki al-Malki displayed debris from the attacks on its oil facilities, which he said proved they were "unquestionably sponsored by Iran." US President Donald Trump meanwhile ordered the US Treasury to initiate strong new economic sanctions on Iran and that “war” with Iran was an option on the table for dealing with the current situation.

Meanwhile, Iranian President Hassan Rohani had some advice for his Saudi neighbors, insisting that it was the Shi’ite Houthi faction in Yemen that launched the attacks and saying they  “haven't hit a hospital, they haven't hit a school.... They just hit an industrial center...to warn you. Learn lessons from this warning and consider that there could be a war in the region."

The Houthis also had something to say on Wednesday, with military spokesman Brigadier Yahya Saree telling journalists at a press conference that “we have dozens of targets in the UAE, among them Abu Dhabi and Dubai, and that they can be targeted at any moment. If you want peace and security for your facilities, and towers made of glass that cannot withstand one drone, then leave Yemen alone."

Here is a podcast giving some analysis of the situation



Here is a video giving some analysis of relations between Iran and Russia

US Officials Weighing Response to Attacks on Saudi Arabia

US Vice President Mike Pence addressed the Heritage Foundation think tank in Washington on Tuesday, saying among other things that the U.S. military is "ready to defend" Washington’s allies and their interests in an obvious reference to the mounting tensions between Iran and US-ally Saudi Arabia. “As the president said yesterday, it’s ‘certainly looking like’ Iran was behind these attacks,” Pence said. “And our intelligence community at this very hour is working diligently to review the evidence.”


"Iran's strategic policy is to reduce tensions... through dialog, but the country is fully prepared to surprise aggressors through a crushing and comprehensive answer to possible evil actions," the Etemad daily newspaper quoted Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Shamkhani as saying.

Meanwhile, Congressional allies of US President Donald Trump in the US were urging caution on Wednesday, saying that more discussion and analysis are needed before deciding on a response to the attacks on Saudi Arabia.

“I think its appropriate that all of us get together and exchange ideas, respectfully, and come to a consensus―and that should be bipartisan,” said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jim Risch, R-Idaho. “I can tell you I’m sure there will be differing views; there always are on matters like this with complex options.”

These sentiments were echoed by many other members of Congress from both parties.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is scheduled to land in Saudi Arabia on Wednesday to discuss the situation, while governments around the world weigh their own options in response to the crisis which has caused a sharp spike in energy costs. However, Saudi Energy Minister Prince Abdulaziz bin Salman issued a statement on Tuesday that at least half of the production capacity that was lost in the immediate aftermath of the attack had already been restored, leading to a rebound in market confidence and a drop in prices.

Here are some videos giving some analysis of the situation



Israel's Election Results Show Political Tie

Unofficial results from the election held in Israel on Tuesday began to be posted after the polls closed at 10 PM and by the early afternoon on Wednesday more official results were posted, including a projection that the Likud Party of incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had received 31 mandates for the 22nd Knesset while the Blue and White Party led by Benny Gantz had received 32. However, the results also showed that neither the Center-Right bloc led by Netanyahu or the Center-Left bloc led by Gantz had received enough support to form a governing coalition, leading to the possibility that the Joint (Arab) List Party, which is traditionally non-aligned and which received between 13-15 seats, might end up with a prominent position in the next government or leading the parliamentary opposition.

Here is a video posted on the eve of elections which gives some analysis of the relevant issues



Aliyah from Russia Increases
An increasingly authoritarian regime in Russia, accompanied by an extended economic downturn and a surge in violent crime has fueled a surge in Jewish emigration (Aliyah) to Israel, according to a recent report from the JTA. The number of Jews immigrating to Israel from Russia since 2015 is greater than in the 2005-2015 period, according to the Israeli government, which projects that over 15,000 will arrive by the end of 2019.

Strikes Reported on Iranian-backed Forces in Syria
Reports out of Syria Monday evening indicated that a strike by unidentified aircraft on a position occupied by pro-Iranian militias in Albukamal, near the Iraqi border, had killed at least 10 gunmen and wounded several others. The site, operated by the Iranian-backed “Popular Mobilization Forces” was known to be used to stockpile ammunition and other supplies. Some opposition groups claimed the strikes were carried out by Israel while the Assad regime denied that any strikes had occurred.

Sporting Success Gives Israelis Something to Cheer About
Israeli sports fans were given yet another reason to celebrate this week as rhythmic gymnast Linoy Ashram won two gold and two silver medals at the World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. In other sports news, Israel’s national gridiron football team departed on Tuesday evening for a match against Turkey in the Black Sea resort city of Samsun. The game, to be played on Thursday, is the opener of the Group B European Championship Qualification competition.

American Football in Israel President Steve Leibowitz said “The competition symbolizes a breakthrough in the organization, unification and expansion of American Football in Europe…we are still at the beginning of a long road, but I believe that when the campaign is over we will have a considerably higher ranking than the current 21.”

Today’s video shows some of the preparation Israelis receive for their military service

US Prepares to Respond to Attack on Saudi Arabia

US President Donald Trump Tweeted on Sunday evening that the US military is "locked and loaded" ready to respond to any further Iranian aggression following Saturday’s strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities which temporarily shut down 5.7 million barrels worth of production capacity, half of the Kingdom’s daily output and 5% of global output. Iranian officials angrily denied involvement in the attacks while begging to point out that the weekends events proved the need of the world for Iranian supplies and the inherent danger to the world economy of sanctioning the Islamic Republic. On Sunday, satellite photographs of the damaged Abqaiq oil processing facility at Khurais oil field were released, with analysts saying the images indicated that at least 17 drones or cruise missiles hit the facilities, including some which may have been fitted out with precision guidance systems. The images led many military analysts to opine that the attacks showed a level of technical sophistication beyond the abilities of the Iranian-backed Houthi rebels who have claimed responsibility for the attack.

Meanwhile, the price of crude oil jumped on world markets, despite Saudi assurances that at least a third of their production capacity would be restored by Monday and the assessment of many analysts that there was sufficient volumes in worldwide stockpiles to avoid a supply shortage in the near future. Finally, an Iranian government spokesman declared during remarks to journalists on Monday that there were no plans for Iranian President Hassan Rouhani and his US counterpart Donald Trump to meet at the United Nations General Assembly meeting later this month.

Here are some media giving in-depth analysis of different aspects of this situation

(This Video Starts at 42:00)




 
Israeli Athletes Shine In International Competitions
Israeli sports fans had much to cheer about in recent days as Mark Mallar won the Gold Medal and set a new world record in the Men’s 400m Freestyle event last Tuesday at the 2019 World Para Swimming Championships in London. Then on Friday, Israel’s national Baseball team defeated France at the European Baseball Championship in Germany. The Israeli team finished the tournament in fourth place and earned a chance to compete in the WBSC Olympic Qualifying Tournament for European and African nations which be held this week in Italy.

“The hard work has already started paying off,” says Team General Manager and Israel Association of Baseball President Peter Kurz. “For months it’s been a dream for us to reach the Olympic Games qualifiers alongside the very top teams in Europe… this dream came true, which is a very exciting achievement. We still have more games to win, but our players are motivated to go all the way to Tokyo 2020.”

Turkey Criticizes Israel for West Bank Annexation Plans
Turkish Foreign Minister Mevlut Cavusoglu addressed a special meeting of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation in Jeddah on Sunday, saying among other things that the plans recently put forward for Israel to annex West Bank settlement blocs and parts of the Jordan Valley were a “despicable” attempt by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to gain votes ahead of Tuesday’s elections. “Israel, encouraged by the support of certain countries, is continuing its aggressive policies that are turning it into a racist, apartheid regime,: he said. “If the whole Muslim community had reacted together, the reckless plans, policies and behavior of the United States and Israel would never have reached this point.”
 
Israeli Foreign Minister Israel Katz retorted that the regime of Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan “systematically violates human rights, brutally persecutes the Kurds, and supports the terrorists of Hamas. He is the last person who should be preaching morals to Israel.”

Meanwhile, Erdogan was hosting Russian President Vladimir Putin and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in Ankara Monday for talks over the future of Syria and other topics of mutual concern. The talks follow a statement over the weekend by Turkey’s military that it has received a second S-400 air defense system from Russia and subsequent statements by US officials that military and intelligence cooperation with Turkey should be further curtailed in response to its actions.

Israel Blesses the World
The spokesperson’s officer for Bar-Ilan University near Tel Aviv announced recently that an information mining tool built at the University and called ProtFus holds great promise in assisting researchers pursuing new treatments for various forms of cancer. In related news, engineers at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology announced that they have developed a new hydrogen production technology which would improve production efficiency from approximately 75% to 98.7%, vastly reducing the amount of pollution caused by many industrial processes.

Israel Prepares for Elections on Tuesday

Leaders of Israel’s political factions were busy over the weekend, appearing at campaign events, giving interviews to media outlets and otherwise making a last-minute push to convince their supporters to go to the polls on Tuesday amidst fears of historically low turnout. Incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spoke with Army Radio Monday morning saying, among other things, that he is prepared to annex Kiryat Arba and the Jewish areas of Hebron should he be re-elected. The pledge came a day after he presided over a Cabinet meeting symbolically held in the Jordan Valley.

“I said this to Trump, I plan to apply sovereignty on all of the settlements, including in the blocs, and the territory [around it] and all the settlements and the sites that have importance from a security or Israeli heritage perspective,” Netanyahu said during his interview. “I said that no one will be uprooted, I won’t recognize the [Palestinian] right of return and I said that Jerusalem must remain united. All these things were said.” He added, in regards to the much-anticipated “deal of the Century” plan from the Trump Administration that “We are determining Israel’s final borders, so it has strategic depth and heights.”

“We will apply sovereignty in the Jordan Valley and the Northern Dead Sea as soon as the next government is established in the next Knesset,” Netanyahu told his Cabinet ministers on Sunday at the Jordan Valley meeting. “Today I have appointed a working team led by the director-general of my ministry, Ronen Peretz, to formulate an outline for applying sovereignty to the Jordan Valley and the northern Dead Sea.”

“Over the weekend, I spoke with my friend President Trump,” Netanyahu said. “We agreed to advance a historic defensive alliance between the US and Israel at our upcoming meeting at the UN General Assembly. This is historic because it adds a powerful component of deterrence against our enemies, alongside maintaining the ability to act, and freedom of action, of our forces. On this we will always insist, and it will always be in this defensive agreement just as it has entered into the other defensive agreements.”

“I am proud to convene this special cabinet meeting in the Jordan Valley,” said Netanyahu. “This is not only the eastern gate of the State of Israel; it is a defensive wall from the east because the Jordan Valley, together with the areas that control it – which will be part of the State of Israel – ensure that the IDF will be here forever. Instead of having a state that is only a few kilometers wide, this will be a state with strategic depth and strategic height.” He continued by saying he would be “applying Israeli sovereignty over all of the communities in Judea and Samaria, both in those blocs – including the area of the blocs – and also those outside the blocs, as well as additional areas that are vital for our security and for ensuring our heritage. These things will come up in the plan of the century; it will come very fast after the election.”

The Palestinian Authority, the Organization of the Islamic Conference, various Arab and Moslem governments and Netanyahu’s domestic political opponents all condemned the meeting while leaders of various Right-wing factions noted it but urged their supporters to cast their ballots for them and not switch to Likud.

Here is a video posted by the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs regarding the upcoming elections

FRIDAY FEATURE - ELECTION PRIMER

With Israelis headed to a second round of elections next Tuesday, the final polls came out this Friday and they continue to show a virtual dead-heat between incumbent Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud and his main rival Benny Gantz of the Blue & White list, with each polling at around 30-32 Knesset seats. A couple outlier surveys did show Likud with a last-minute surge to as many as 36 seats, but the Right bloc is still falling one or two seats short of the 61 majority needed to form a government. This has been a somewhat lackluster race by Israeli standards, marked by a very quiet summer hiatus from the campaign trail, as well as much voter fatigue and frustration over having to go through this whole exercise a second time in 2019. Indeed, voter turnout is projected to be low on Tuesday. However, we can expect a very intense drama to start playing out once the ballots are counted and the crucial horse-trading begins in talks over who will form the next government, with what coalition partners and on what terms.

If anyone benefitted from this second round of elections, it was the man who forced them, Avigdor Lieberman of Yisrael Beiteinu. True to his calculations, he has risen from five to likely 9-10 Knesset seats, cementing his place as the ‘kingmaker’ at the center of Israeli politics. He forced the nation into a second go-round by challenging Netanyahu not to cave to the demands of the ultras-Orthodox parties in a Right-wing government – the same old alignment that has basically kept Bibi in power (with Liberman at his side) for the past decade.

Liberman has recently suggested he would recommend to President Reuven Rivlin that Benny Gantz should serve as the next prime minister, which would radically reshuffle the deck, although even the end-result of such a move is still filled with uncertainty. Gantz has ruled out sitting in a government with the Joint List of Arab MKs as well as with a Netanyahu-led Likud, which means he will need Liberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu, plus Labor/Gesher and Democratic Union to his left, and then one or more parties to the right of Likud – parties that could be highly reticent to join him.

One foreseeable scenario has a humbled Netanyahu quickly stepping down as head of Likud to make way for a successor, who would then take the party into a centrist, national unity government with Gantz and Liberman. That normally would call for a rotation deal between Gantz and the new Likud leader to take turns as prime minister, but such an outcome is complicated by the rotation agreement Gantz already has with his current campaign partner Yair Lapid of Yesh Atid.

It also cannot be ruled out that Netanyahu could still pull out a last-second victory, like so many times before. But he conceded this week that Likud’s own internal polls indicate the Right will not get enough seats for him to continue as premier. And unlike the April ballot – when Netanyahu got an election-eve boost from US recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan and Russia helped return the body of a long-missing IDF soldier – the waning days of this campaign have been marked by an uncharacteristic show of “weakness”, his critics insist. First, he was chased from the stage of a Likud rally in Ashdod by a Hamas rocket barrage on Tuesday evening, and then Vladimir Putin made him sit and wait for three hours before their meeting in Sochi on Thursday.

According to what is perhaps the most objective and comprehensive poll in recent weeks, the non-partisan Israel Democracy Institute found that most Israelis feel Netanyahu has improved Israel’s international standing and strengthened its national defense, but has failed to reduce economic and social gaps and remains tarred by corruption suspicions. They also prefer a unity government over one dominated by the Right or the Center/Left. Finally, the double election of 2019 has undermined the public’s confidence in the political process to deal with the nation’s problems and provide a better future for their children.

Whatever the outcome on Tuesday, this rather blase election season will nevertheless be historic, as it either will mark yet another surprise election victory by Israel’s longest serving prime minister, or the likely end of Netanyahu’s long and storied political career. Nearing 70, it would be hard to envision a defeated Bibi staying on as Opposition leader, or even his Likud party keeping him at the helm.

For more on the recent Israel Democracy Institute survey on the second round of Israeli elections, click HERE

Iran Blames ‘US-Israel Plot’ for IAEA Probe

Iran's ambassador to the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), Kazem Gharibabadi, said in a statement to an IAEA Board of Governors meeting this week that "Since two days before this session of the Board, we are witnessing a U.S.-Israeli plot with the support of their affiliated media." So far this is the only response Iranian officials have given to questions raised by the IAEA regarding traces of uranium its inspectors found at a site in Teheran which Israeli officials have said was used for the clandestine development of nuclear weapons but which Iranian officials insist was a carpet cleaning factory.

Meanwhile, Israeli Ambassador to the US Ron Dermer, told his guests at a diplomatic event he hosted at Israel’s embassy in Washington on Tuesday that “What is important now is to stay the course, stand up to Iran’s aggression and continue ratcheting up the pressure until Iran abandons its nuclear ambitions once and for all. Israel looks forward to working with the Trump administration to do just that in the year ahead.”

On Wednesday, Iranian President Hassan Rohouni told a meeting of his cabinet in a statement meant for US officials and partially in response to the firing by US President Donald Trump of his National Security Advisor John Bolton that Washington "must understand that bellicosity and warmongering don't work in their favor. Both...must be abandoned."

Here is a video giving some analysis of the standoff with Iran

Netanyahu Says Likud Likely to Lose Upcoming Election

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave an interview with KAN Radio Thursday morning in which he said his Likud Party’s internal polling indicated that he is headed for defeat in next weeks Knesset elections due to a low level of motivation to vote among his supporters. In the interview he also lamented statements and actions taken by some of his senior advisors which he felt had not been helpful in the political campaign as well as blaming Attorney-General Avichai Mandelblit for preventing him from annexing the Jordan Valley, which he said he’d rather do before the election.

Netanyahu also spoke on Thursday with Russian news site RBC ahead of his planned trip to Moscow. Referring to his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin he declared that "through talks with him we were able to avert a near-unavoidable crash between the the Russian Air Force and our own forces during an operation in Syria." He added that "I don't think Russia and Iran are getting closer, quite the opposite in fact, I see many situations in which [Russians] and Iranians have different interests."

IDF Strikes Gaza in Response to Rocket Barrage
Following another barrage of rockets into southern Israel from the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip Wednesday evening, IDF tanks and aircraft fired on several Hamas positions inside the Strip overnight Wednesday. Reports emerged that gunmen inside the Strip fired at IDF aircraft in an attempt to bring them down, while some additional rockets fired at southern Israel during the engagement fell inside Gaza.

Israel’s National Baseball Team Advances
Israel’s national baseball team ended the first round of the European Baseball Championships with a 4-1 record, advancing to the quarterfinals in a strong position. The team will be in action Friday morning against France as the surviving teams vie for a chance at the championship and qualifications for next summer’s Olympic Games. “We looked very strong throughout the week,” said Israel Association of Baseball President Peter Kurz. “We are ready for the next phase and look forward to representing Israel in general and Israel Baseball in particular with pride.”

Israel Blesses the World
Researchers at Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa announced this week that they have developed a deep learning-based method for mapping critical receptors on cancer cells, a process which offers hope to millions of people around the world suffering from various forms of the disease. "A human pathologist cannot infer the tumor features from its shape because of the sheer number of variables," members of the research team said in a statement. "The good news is that artificial intelligence technologies, and especially deep learning, are capable of doing so."

Today's media is a podcast about the resurgance of the Islamic State (IS) terror militia

 

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