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Latest News – 3 September

Updates from Israel and the Jewish World
compiled by Dr Ron Wiseman

Israel called off devastating strike on Hezbollah, says IDF source

One day after Hezbollah fired anti-tank missiles at Israeli positions near the Lebanese border, the Israeli military revealed that it was ready to deliver a decisive blow to the terror group’s missile program, according to report by a Channel 12 News.

The IDF sources that relayed the information to Channel 12 claimed that IAF fighter jets had taken flight on Sunday to initiate the counter-strike, but were sent back to Israeli territory when Hezbollah’s attack on Israel failed to cause any casualties.

According to Israeli officials, the terror group’s inability to inflict damage on Israeli positions “saved” Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah from Israel “crushing Hezbollah’s rocket project.” According to the quoted officials, the Israeli jets were armed and ready to strike Hezbollah facilities in Lebanon.

On Monday, Israeli officials also announced that Lebanese Prime Minisiter Saad Hariri contacted France, Egypt and the United States after the confrontation on Israel’s border to communicate that Hezbollah sought to avoid any further escalation.

Hariri took action after Israel launched around 100 shells at targets in Lebanon in retaliation for Hezbollah’s strike.

“The bottom line is that Hezbollah sent us messages to hold our fire,” said an Israeli official quoted by Times of Israel.

According to the Times, the same official implicitly took credit on Israel’s behalf for recent strikes in Iraq, Lebanon, and Syria that had been pinned on Israel.

All of these strikes involved factions and proxies backed by Iran.

“We were in simultaneous attack mode in multiple places,” the official stated.

On Monday, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu released a video statement, directly referencing Hezbollah terror chief Nasrallah, stating, “The man in the bunker in Beirut knows exactly why he is in a bunker.”

“We will continue to do everything necessary to keep Israel safe — at sea, on the ground and in the air — and we will continue to confront the threat of precision missiles,” Netanyahu added. (WIN)

ICC to open War Crimes probe against Israel

After years of attempting to go after top Israeli political and military officials in Turkish and European courts and before the ICC – for the deaths of 10 mostly IHH Humanitarian Relief Foundation activists killed by Israel Navy commandos – the split decision of the ICC Appeals Chamber keeps the case alive, although it does not mean that Israel will lose.

ICC prosecutor Fatou Bensouda can go further with criminally probing Israel, or she can decide to try closing the case for a third time, although her basis for doing so has narrowed.

The 2010 Mavi Marmara raid saw a group of rights activists, combined with a smaller group of IHH activists – which the quasi-government Turkel Commission Report identified as affiliated with the Muslim Brotherhood – board several ships in an attempt to break Israel’s blockade of Hamas in Gaza.

The case, filed by IHH Turkish allies on the Comoro Islands has been among the most controversial ones within the ICC system, with multiple split votes and multiple rounds of appeals.

In November 2014, Bensouda tried closing the file for the first time, saying that while the IDF’s conduct in the incident seemed to her to display elements of war crimes, the 10 activists killed simply did not constitute a high enough body count to warrant her involvement, since she focuses on mass killings.

Bensouda’s decided to end her review of the Mavi Marmara raid at a preliminary stage – without ordering a full criminal investigation, let alone filing indictments. This was viewed by the pro-Israel side as a first ICC victory.

But then the court’s Pretrial Chamber voted against Bensouda in a 2-to-1 split ruling over how to handle the flotilla raid, ordering her to open a full criminal investigation.

The prosecutor appealed to the ICC’s Appeals Chamber, and got a mixed result in November 2015.

In a close 3-to-2 vote against Bensouda’s appeal, the Appeals Chamber ordered her to review her conclusions a second time looking at some wider available information, but empowered her to come to the same decision as long as she performed that review.

In November 2017, she again decided to close the case against Israel’s soldiers.

After reviewing additional information, she explained that, even as “there is a reasonable basis to believe that war crimes were committed by some members of the Israel Defense Forces… no potential case arising from this situation can, legally speaking, be considered of ‘sufficient gravity’…therefore barring the opening of an investigation.”

Crucial to her decision was her finding that, “there was no reasonable basis to believe that the identified crimes were committed on a large scale or as part of a plan or policy.”

Comoros appealed again, and in November 2018, the ICC Pretrial Chamber again ordered Bensouda to reconsider her decision in a split 2-1 decision.

She appealed again to the Appeals Chamber, which led to Monday’s decision.

Previously, Israel has succeeded in closing a range of other international cases against the Jewish state regarding the flotilla. Turkey closed its cases against Israel after the two countries reached a deal in August 2016. The ICC case was the last big one still open.

While Israel commandeered and stopped most of the ships without incident, Israel Navy commandos boarded the Mavi Marmara and were attacked by IHH activists, leading to the injury of some commandos and the eventual deaths of 10 IHH activists.

Turkey and many others in the international community accused Israel of war crimes. But the Turkel Commission and the UN-sponsored Palmer Report not only cleared Israel of said crimes, but validated some of Israel’s claims of fighting in self-defense. The Palmer Report did say that some of the IDF’s use of force was excessive.

The war crimes complaint to the ICC in the case came from the Comoro Islands in May 2013. Because of the law firm that filed the complaint, many viewed the Comoros as undertaking the issue on behalf of various IHH-Turkish contacts.

Bensouda’s alleged war crimes preliminary examination of the 2014 Gaza war and the settlement enterprise is still open, although there are indications that in November or December she may announce significant developments. (Jerusalem Post)

Netanyahu once again vows to annex settlements in Judea and Samaria

Speaking to children in the 4,000-resident town of Elkana in Samaria on their first day at school, Netanyahu said, “There will not be any more uprooting. With God’s help, we will extend Jewish sovereignty to all the ‘settlements,’ as part of the Land of Israel and as part of the State of Israel.”

Netanyahu’s last public statement in support of annexation came five months ago in the days leading up to the April 9 elections. The country is heading into repeat elections on Sept. 17.

“This is our land,” Netanyahu said in his speech, according to Reuters. “We will build another Elkana and another Elkana and another Elkana. We will not uproot anyone here.”

On Friday, Netanyahu said he believes that the Mideast peace plan crafted by U.S. President Donald Trump will be published soon after the elections.

Prime Minister Netanyahu responded to a pupil’s question about the security situation:

“Today we know that most of the terrorism comes from one source, is cultivated from one source, feeds off one source, is launched from one source and is organized from one source – and that is Iran. A new empire has arisen the goal of which is to defeat us. They dispatch proxies. They are building a proxy in Lebanon in the form of Hezbollah and are building another in Gaza in the form of Hamas and Islamic Jihad. They are also trying to entrench in Iraq in order to turn it not only into a conduit for weapons to Syria and Hezbollah, they want to turn it into a launch pad for missiles and incursions against us.

They are doing this in Syria of course. We are struggling on all of these fronts and, in effect, we have a very consistent and systematic line – to take action on all of these fronts and, above all, to prevent our main enemy, without which everything would collapse, from entrenching militarily in our region, and preventing it from attaining nuclear weapons which would absolutely change the balance here, not just what is termed the non-conventional, but also the conventional balance. If our enemies will have rockets that also carry atomic bombs aimed at us, their ordinary threat would be 100 times worse.

We are striking at terrorism in Judea and Samaria. The ISA thwarts around 500 terrorist attacks a year; this is almost two per day. We are thwarting it there because we are here. We are not only engaged in hot pursuit, we are constantly striking at the weeds. We are making arrests and from time to time tragedies – such as you have now read about – happen to us. It is impossible to stop them all – but we find them all in the end. In recent years we have found all of the murderers and if we did not, there would be hundreds more successful attacks here.

We are dealing with extremist Islam led by various elements, but in the end, the biggest threat to our existence comes from Iran. Over the long years, we have led a consistent struggle almost alone. I am pleased that President Trump has decided to adopt the unyielding stance and has withdrawn from this bad agreement. Of course, the US supports our efforts in Syria and in the region to confront those who champion our destruction.

And here is the main point – you can negotiate with an enemy who has decided to stop being an enemy. We are always told ‘You make peace with an enemy.’ You make peace with an enemy who has decided to stop being an enemy. But an enemy that continues to fight you, openly declares that he wants to destroy you, an enemy who wants to destroy you – there is only one way to deal with him: Those who rise up to kill you, you kill them first, and you deny them equilibrium-breaking weapons. This is what we are doing. This is a continuing effort. In this effort there are heart-rending losses that devastate families, who like me can attest to this.

Relatively speaking, in the years that we have led the State of Israel, we see that the number of our losses – both civilian and military – is relatively lower, including the area adjacent to the Gaza Strip in which – to my sorrow – a soldier and several civilians have been killed. In the past five years, this is the smallest number since the Six Day War. This is the result of our readiness to engage. I am not happy to engage because I know the price that we pay with the best of our sons, and sometimes our daughters but when it is necessary – we are not deterred.

I reiterate to our enemies, especially Iran – whoever comes to destroy us places himself in similar danger.” (JNS)

PM, Trump said considering announcing plans for defense pact ahead of elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and US President Donald Trump are considering a grand presidential gesture on the US’s commitment to Israeli security in the coming days, including a possible statement on the two allies’ intent to enter into a defense pact, according to a report Monday.

The two leaders are hoping to use the move to boost the Israeli premier’s electoral prospects ahead of the September 17 vote, Haaretz reported.

The most likely action, the newspaper said, was a vow by Trump — with few practical implications — that the US will defend the Jewish state from an potential existential threat.

A more substantial option would be a joint declaration by both leaders that they will seek a mutual defense pact between the two countries, the main upshot of which is that each side is obligated to come to the aid of the other in the event of military conflict.

Recent months have seen talk of such an accord, with some Republican lawmakers seen to support it. Negotiations on a pact would likely take months, but the political benefits of an announcement could be felt immediately.

The two militaries already cooperate closely, sharing intelligence, holding joint drills and collaborating on defense on a regular basis. But a pact would deepen each side’s commitment to the other and potentially add new obligations.

Any potential defense pact is seen as highly controversial with the Israeli defense establishment, with officials concerned an accord on tighter defense cooperation could tie the hands of the Israeli military in certain undertakings, or at the very least limit its freedom to act independently.

In the past it would have been unthinkable for a US president to be seen as meddling in an Israeli election or preferring one side over the other, but the Trump-Netanyahu relationship has seen both leaders largely drop any pretense of not involving themselves in the internal politics of each other’s countries.

Just two weeks before the April election, Trump recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, in a seismic shift in US Mideast policy. And a day before the vote, the administration designated Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps a terrorist organization — another win for Netanyahu.

Israeli officials were said to be considering seeking additional diplomatic gestures to boost Netanyahu’s image ahead of the national vote: a potential meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin to bolster the premier’s portrayal as sharing close relations with top world leaders (also serving as a possible boon to his popularity with the much-coveted Russian vote); or another tripartite meeting of US, Russian and Israeli national security advisers to discuss regional security.

Two weeks before the September election, Netanyahu’s Likud party is neck and neck in the polls with rivals Blue and White, but the prime minister remains the most likely candidate to be tasked with forming the next government.

However, he does not necessarily have a clear path to doing so.

Netanyahu received the support of a majority of Knesset members following elections in April and was tasked with forming a government, but was unable to do so after Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman refused to join his prospective coalition unless a bill formalizing exemptions to mandatory military service for ultra-Orthodox seminary students was passed without changes.

Coming up one seat short of a majority without Yisrael Beytenu, Netanyahu pushed through a vote to dissolve the Knesset and call fresh elections rather than have another lawmaker get a shot at assembling a coalition. It was the first time in Israel’s history that elections failed to result in a government.

Liberman has vowed to force a unity government of Yisrael Beytenu, Likud and Blue and White if neither Netanyahu or the latter party’s leader Benny Gantz are able to form a coalition without him after the vote.

But Netanyahu has ruled out sitting with Blue and White, and Blue and White have said they will not join a government led by Netanyahu.

But, if polling is to be trusted, neither will be able to form a coalition without Liberman, who is projected to win around 10 seats in the next vote — double his current tally.

Recent weeks have seen growing claims by both Liberman and Blue and White’s leadership that Likud officials have indicated to them they will move to replace Netanyahu as party leader if he fails to form a government for a second time. (the Times of Israel)

Netanyahu and Nasrallah’s survival instincts

Both men, Nasrallah and Netanyahu, have great survival instincts, and both have no interest in ratcheting up the conflict to a point where it could spiral out of control and topple them both.

by Herb Keinon The Jerusalem Post

The year is 2019, not 2006; the Israeli prime minister is Benjamin Netanyahu, not Ehud Olmert; and Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah is no longer the same Hassan Nasrallah.

And that explains why Sunday’s tension along the border ended in a skirmish, without casualties on the Israeli side, rather than a 34-day Second Lebanon War, as was the case in the summer of 2006 – the last time tensions along the northern border ran so high.

Neither Netanyahu nor Nasrallah have any interest in a war right now. Nasrallah because he wants to survive, and knows that to trigger a war with Israel would bring upon Lebanon a degree of devastation not seen before. That message has been passed on repeatedly over the last months and years.

And Netanyahu because he is naturally reticent about launching a war. The last thing he needs two weeks before Election Day is a major military conflagration in the North. Netanyahu knows well that it is easy to launch a war, and that in the beginning there is usually a great deal of public support for such a move, but that this support sours the minute Israeli casualties begin to mount.

This is the reason he has also steadfastly withstood calls, including just before the last election in April and over the last month, to launch a widespread military campaign in Gaza.

While such a move could actually help him politically in the short term – both with residents of the South tired of living under the threat of rockets, and in being able to fend off charges of weakness that are being hurled in his direction both from his political right and left – in the long-term he is well aware of the cost, both human and political.

Netanyahu has now been prime minister for 13-and-a-half years, and during this time Israel has not been involved in a major war. Relative small bore campaigns in Gaza, such as Operation Pillar of Defense in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014, yes; but not a full-scale war.

Contrary to his image in certain quarters abroad, Netanyahu is not at all a military adventurist or trigger-happy. On the contrary: he has cultivated a doctrine over the years of projecting a willingness to use preponderant force but actually using it only as a last resort and when absolutely necessary.

On Sunday, after a week of Nasrallah’s bravado and threats, he did not feel compelled to use preponderant force against a Kornet rocket attack that did indeed violate Israeli sovereignty, but did not cause any deaths.

With alleged IDF actions over the last few weeks in Iraq, Lebanon and Syria, Netanyahu is enforcing the redlines he established against allowing Iran to entrench itself militarily in Lebanon or transfer game-changing weapons to Hezbollah. That is something he did feel compelled to do. But to launch a major military campaign because Hezbollah was trying to save face? That is not – and has never been – in his repertoire.

Nasrallah, too, does not want an escalation. He tested Israel in 2006 with the kidnappings and killings of Ehud Goldwasser and Eldad Regev, triggering the Second Lebanon War, and did not anticipate the wrath of Israel’s response. He admitted after the war that if had known Israel would respond the way it did, he would not have triggered that war.

At a time when Nasrallah is trying to build a precision-missile capability in Lebanon, facing a financial crunch because Iran is unable to fund Hezbollah as in the past, and with his organization now part of the Lebanese government, Nasrallah does not want to provoke a large-scale Israeli retaliation at this time.

He knows that in the fury of the response, Lebanon will take a crushing beating, costing Hezbollah public support; his organization will face Israel’s devastating firepower and give it an excuse to target his massive missile arsenal; and he himself may well not survive.

Both men, Nasrallah and Netanyahu, have great survival instincts, and both – for their own domestic and personal reasons – have no interest in ratcheting up the conflict to a point where it could spiral out of control and topple them both.

How Israeli elections work … if they work

Quite remarkably, Israel has been through 20 smooth transitions of power. And despite the dispersal of the Knesset following Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to form a majority coalition in April, the mandate to govern has been returned to where it belongs in a democracy: the voters.

by Dov Lipman JNS

In less than three weeks, Israelis will head to the polls for their second national election in just six months. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s inability to form a majority coalition following the April elections, and the subsequent dispersal of the Knesset, raise significant questions about the viability and stability of Israel’s imperfect parliamentary system.

Israel’s system of governance differs sharply from that of the United States, and even differs from that of the very nation whose system it attempted to emulate. Former deputy foreign minister and Israeli ambassador to the United States Danny Ayalon explained to JNS that upon founding the Jewish state, “Israeli leaders simply took the electoral system of the United Kingdom, since the British had control over the region leading up to Israeli independence.”

Ayalon noted that the British system was vastly simplified by removing regional representation—a move that can only make sense in a small state such as Israel. Ayalon said this was done “because after the [1948] War of Independence it was simply easier to declare national elections without having to deal with dividing the country into regions and making the elections more complicated.”

Party primaries—or not

In Israel’s parliamentary system, citizens do not vote for a specific candidate but rather for their preferred political party. Prior to elections, each party submits a list of candidates to the Central Elections Committee, which is headed by a Supreme Court Justice.

Each party determines for itself how it selects and orders its Knesset candidates. While some parties, including Likud and Labor, hold primaries, other parties, including Blue and White, manufacture candidate lists via a special internal committee or permit the party chairman to hand-pick the list.

Paper ballots

On election day, all citizens at least 18 years old currently residing in the country are assigned a polling location close to their registered address. Israelis living abroad are not permitted to vote. Active-duty soldiers, prisoners, the disabled and others who cannot reach their designated polling stations vote via a system called “double envelopes.”

In “double envelope” votes, the envelope containing the ballot is placed inside a second envelope signed by and bearing the details of the voter. The “double envelopes” are then brought to the Central Elections Committee, which begins to count them on the day after the election.

Unlike in the United States where electronic voting kiosks are standard, Israelis vote by placing paper ballots in boxes.

Jonny Kirsch, an attorney for the government who has been responsible for overseeing a polling station for the past five elections, told JNS, “When voters arrive, my polling station committee, made of representatives from different parties, check their identification to make sure they are at the correct location, check their name off the list of voters for that station and hand the voter an envelope.”

In the voting booth, voters see slips of paper representing each party. The slips bear large “ballot letters” (between one and three Hebrew or Arabic letters) and the full official name of the party underneath. In the privacy of the voting booth, voters choose the slip representing their desired party and put the slip inside their envelope. Then, after sealing it, the voter leaves the voting booth and places the envelope into the ballot box in front of the polling station committee.

Counting votes

Polls close at 10 p.m., at which time a complicated vote-counting operation begins and the media’s (historically inaccurate) exit polls are released to the public.

Kirsch explained to JNS that once polls close “we begin counting the votes by hand, again with representatives of the party involved. We document the results, and then bring the results along with the actual ballot box to one of 25 vote counting centers throughout the country. Our documentation is checked there for any irregularities and then the results are entered into the Central Election Committee’s closed software system, where they are rechecked. If the software detects irregularities, this is brought to the attention of a district judge who is present for this centralized vote counting process and makes decisions regarding validating and invalidating votes.”

Double envelope votes are counted later to ensure each eligible voter voted only a single time.

Dividing Knesset mandates

Following the vote counting, the Knesset’s 120 seats are divided up proportionally to the number of votes each party received. Thus, for example, if a party wins 25% of the total votes, that party receives 30 of the 120 Knesset seats and the top 30 candidates on that party’s list become Knesset members.

If a party receives less than 3.25 percent of the overall vote, then all the votes that party received are disqualified and do not factor into the equation determining the division of the 120 Knesset seats. For this reason, smaller parties often choose to run together on joint lists to improve their chances of crossing the threshold.

After the vote tally for each party that passed the threshold is tabulated, the total number of valid votes is divided by 120. This number is called the “index.”

The number of valid votes each party has received is then divided by the index to calculate the number of seats each party has won. However, the total number of seats resulting from this calculation usually comes out to a number under 120.

The “excess” seats are distributed first among pairs of lists that signed “surplus vote agreements” prior to the election. After determining which list-pairs receive additional seats, which lists within the pair receives each additional seat is then calculated.

Once the final results are tallied and calculated, the 120 MKs are announced. The new Knesset is inaugurated two weeks after the election.

Who gets to form a government?

Selecting the prime minister is even more complicated. Immediately after the party totals are divided, the process determining which MK will get the first shot at forming a government shifts to Israel’s president.

Jason Pearlman, who served as foreign media adviser to the President’s Office from 2014 to 2018, told JNS that Israel’s president—as official head of state—has the responsibility of “bestowing the task of forming a government upon the MK he feels has the greatest chance of doing so. In order to understand who has the most support he convenes a series of consultations with representatives of each of the parties.”

While the law doesn’t dictate a timeline for when the president should hold these meetings, Pearlman told JNS that “President [Reuven] Rivlin has made clear that the efficiency of this process is a duty to the people, to ensure they have a functioning and stable government with minimal delay. As such he has on both previous elections during his term worked to conduct the consultations as quickly as possible.”

Pearlman noted that “in the past, aside from brief press statements at the beginning, these consultations were held behind closed doors. However, President Rivlin moved in the April 2019 election to have the whole meeting broadcast and open to the public, a testament to the importance of transparency in democracy.”

During these meetings, party representatives express their goals and parliamentary agendas, and then give their recommendations for who should be given the right to try to form a government coalition with a basic majority of 61 mandates. Based on these recommendations, the president tasks the MK he believes has the best chance to successfully form a coalition with the job. While this right is usually given to the leader of the party with the most seats, this is not always the case and is not required by law.

Coalition negotiations

The MK selected by the president then has 28 days to negotiate with the other parties to form a coalition. During this period of complex negotiations parties will all seek ministerial posts, committee chairmanships, and for their policies to be included in the government’s agenda as conditions for joining the coalition.

Once the candidate secures coalition agreements with enough parties to pass the 61-seat majority threshold, the candidate presents the coalition to the Knesset plenary. If the Knesset approves the proposed government—with at least 61 votes—then the government is formed and the leader of the coalition becomes prime minister.

If the candidate fails to form a coalition in the 28 days, a request can be made for a 14-days extension. If the candidate still fails to form a coalition, the president can empower another MK to attempt to form a government. That candidate then has 28 days to form a government, and no extensions are permitted.

Following April’s election, when Netanyahu failed to form a coalition within the allotted time, Rivlin was prevented from handing the mandate to another MK by the Knesset voting instead to disperse itself, forcing the country into to a new election. (Based on the initial recommendations made to the president in April, it can be assumed that challenger Benny Gantz also did not have adequate support to form a coalition.)

When are elections scheduled?

Officially, Israeli law calls for national elections to be held on a Tuesday in the Jewish month of Cheshvan four years following the previous elections. That date generally falls between late September and early November. However, it is possible for there to be early elections. This occurs when a majority of MKs vote “no confidence” in the government, or if the Knesset votes to disperse itself.

A prime minister may bring a vote to disperse the Knesset if managing the various interests of coalition parties becomes too difficult, or if the prime minister believes there will be an advantage in doing so, as opposed to the risk of waiting for the scheduled date. By law, an early election also occurs if the Knesset does not approve the annual budget by March 31 (three months after the start of the fiscal year), or three months following the approval of a new government.

Are electoral changes likely?

There is a growing movement in Israel to explore changes to the electoral system. In the past, Israel has held direct elections for prime minister in addition to parliamentary elections. While this arrangement made the choice of prime minister clear, it made governance more complicated, as many voters opted to cast their parliamentary votes for smaller, sectoral parties after selecting a prime ministerial candidate from one of the larger parties. As a result, the presence of the prime minister’s party in the government was diminished, enhancing the negotiating power of the smaller parties.

There have also been calls to shift towards regional parliamentary representation. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, broke away from the Labor Party in 1968 because the party refused to adopt electoral reform.

Ayalon told JNS that “many want to change the system today, but the smaller, sectarian parties are against it because regional representation will significantly reduce their power.” Thus, these smaller parties have prevented electoral reform from becoming part of the Knesset or government agenda.

Quite remarkably, despite the emergency circumstances in which this system was hastily established during the early years of the state, Israel has been through 20 Knesset elections with smooth transitions of power. And despite the failure to form a majority coalition following the April election, the mandate to govern has been returned to where it belongs in a democracy: with the voters.

And with that, voters in the Middle East’s beacon of democracy will again attempt to select their Knesset members and prime minister on Sept. 17, this time with more definitive results.