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Netanyahu out, Bennett in as Israel marks end of an era

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Benjamin Netanyahu’s record 12-year run as Israel’s prime minister ended on Sunday with parliament approving a new “government of change” led by nationalist Naftali Bennett, an improbable scenario few Israelis once could have imagined, write Jeffrey Heller and Maayan Lubell.

But the razor-thin 60-59 vote of confidence in a coalition of left-wing, centrist, right-wing and Arab parties with little in common except a desire to unseat Netanyahu, only underscored its likely fragility.

In Tel Aviv, thousands turned out to welcome the result, after four inconclusive elections in two years.

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"I am here celebrating the end of an era in Israel," said Erez Biezuner in Rabin Square. "We want them to succeed and to unite us again," he added, as flag-waving supporters of the new government sang and danced around him.

But a combative Netanyahu, 71,said he would be back sooner than expected. "If we are destined to go into the opposition, we will do so with our heads held high until we can topple it," he told parliament before Bennett was sworn in.

The new government largely plans to avoid sweeping moves on hot-button international issues such as policy toward the Palestinians, and to focus instead on domestic reforms.

Palestinians were unmoved by the change of administration, predicting that Bennett, a former defence chief who advocates annexing parts of the occupied West Bank, would pursue the same right-wing agenda as Likud party leader Netanyahu.

Under the coalition deal, Bennett, a 49-year-old Orthodox Jew and high-tech millionaire, will be replaced as prime minister in 2023 by centrist Yair Lapid, 57, a popular former television host.

With his far-right Yamina party winning only six of parliament's 120 seats in the last election, Bennett's ascension to the premiership was a political jaw-dropper.

Interrupted by non-stop shouts of "liar" and "shame" from Netanyahu loyalists in parliament, Bennett thanked the former prime minister for his "lengthy and achievement-filled service."

But little love has been lost between the two men: Bennett once served as Netanyahu's chief of staff and had a rocky relationship with him as defence minister. Although they are both right-wingers, Bennett spurned Netanyahu's call after the March 23 election to join him.

US President Joe Biden congratulated Bennett andLapid, saying he looked forward to strengthening the “close and enduring” relationship between the two countries.

Party leaders of the proposed new coalition government, including United Arab List party leader Mansour Abbas, Labour party leader Merav Michaeli, Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz, Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid, Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett, New Hope party leader Gideon Saar, Yisrael Beitenu party leader Avigdor Lieberman and Meretz party leader Nitzan Horowitz pose for a picture at the Knesset, Israel's parliament, before the start of a special session to approve and swear-in the coalition government, in Jerusalem June 13, 2021. Ariel Zandberg/Handout via REUTERS
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu looks on during a special session of the Knesset, Israel's parliament, to approve and swear-in a new coalition government, in Jerusalem June 13, 2021. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

"My administration is fully committed to working with the new Israeli government to advance security, stability, and peace for Israelis, Palestinians, and people throughout the broader region," Biden said in a statement.

Netanyahu - widely known as 'Bibi' - was Israel's longest-serving leader, serving as prime minister since 2009 after a first term from 1996 to 1999.

The most dominant Israeli politician of his generation, he had become the face of Israel on the international stage, with his polished English and booming baritone voice.

He used his global stature to resist calls for Palestinian statehood, describing it as a danger to Israel's security. Instead, he sought to bypass the Palestinian issue by forging diplomatic deals with regional Arab states, on the back of shared fears of Iran.

But he was a divisive figure at home and abroad, weakened by repeated failure to clinch a decisive election victory, and by an ongoing corruption trial in which he has denied any wrongdoing.

His opponents have long reviled what they see as Netanyahu's divisive rhetoric, underhanded political tactics and subjection of state interests to his own political survival.

He hoped to prevail on the back of Israel's world-beating COVID-19 vaccination rollout, but was dogged by opponents who called him "Crime Minister" and accused him of earlier mishandling the coronavirus crisis and its economic fallout.

Addressing parliament, Bennett echoed Netanyahu's call for the United States not to return to the 2015 nuclear pact between Iran and world powers, a deal abrogated by Biden's predecessor, Donald Trump.

"Renewal of the nuclear agreement with Iran is a mistake, an error that would again grant legitimisation to one of the darkest and violent regimes in the world," Bennett said. "Israel will not allow Iran to equip itself with nuclear weapons."

Thanking Biden for his "years of commitment to Israel's security", and for "standing by Israel" during fighting with Hamas militants in Gaza last month, Bennett said his government would pursue good relations with U.S. Democrats and Republicans alike.

At home, Bennett has angered right-wingers, however, by breaking a campaign pledge in joining forces with Lapid, having to fend off allegations from Netanyahu that he defrauded the electorate. Bennett cited the national interest, arguing that a fifth election would have been a disaster for Israel.

Both Bennett and Lapid have said they want to bridge political divides and unite Israelis.

But the new Cabinet, which met for the first time late on Sunday, faces huge foreign, security and financial challenges: Iran, a fragile ceasefire with Palestinian militants in Gaza, a war crimes probe by the International Criminal Court, and post-pandemic economic recovery.

Bennett listed as priorities reforms in education, health, cutting red tape to grow businesses and lower housing costs. Coalition leaders have said it would pass a two-year budget to help stabilise the country’s finances.

Iran

Bennett: Iran behind attack on Israeli-managed ship near Oman coast, UK and US join Israel in blaming Tehran

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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has blamed Iran for the attack that left two dead on the Israeli-managed oil tanker Mercer Street off the coast of Oman in the Arabian Sea last week, writes Yossi Lempkowicz.

Speaking at the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday (1 August), Bennett said: ‘’The world recently received a reminder of Iranian aggression, this time on the high seas. The Iranians, who attacked the ship ‘Mercer Street’ with unmanned aerial vehicles, intended to attack an Israeli target. Instead, their act of piracy led to the deaths of a British citizen and a Romanian citizen. From here, I send condolences to Britain and Romania and, of course, to the families of the victims.’’

He added: ‘’I just heard that Iran, in a cowardly manner, is trying to evade responsibility for the event. They are denying this. Then, I determine, with absolute certainty that Iran carried out the attack against the ship. Iran’s thuggishness endangers not only Israel, but also harms global interests, namely freedom of navigation and international trade.’’

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He concluded: ‘’The intelligence evidence for this exists and we expect the international community will make it clear to the Iranian regime that they have made a serious mistake. In any case, we know how to send a message to Iran in our own way.’’

The Japanese-owned ship Mercer Street is managed by Zodiac Maritime Ltd., a London-based company owned by Israeli tycoon Eyal Ofer. It sails under a Liberian flag.

According to Zodiac Maritime’s website, when the incident occurred the vessel was in the northern Indian Ocean, en route to Fujairah in the United Arab Emirates from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, with no cargo aboard.

The United States and the United Kingdom joined Israel in accusing Iran for carrying out the attack, putting further pressure on Tehran as it denied being involved in the assault.

Calling it an “unlawful and callous attack,” British Foreign Minister Dominic Raab said his country and its allies planned a coordinated response over the strike.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said there was “no justification for this attack, which follows a pattern of attacks and other belligerent behavior.”

While no one has claimed responsibility for the attack, Iran and its militia allies have used so-called “suicide” drones in attacks previously, which crash into targets and detonate their explosive payloads.

In his statement, Raab said it was “highly likely” Iran attacked the tanker with one or more drones.

“We believe this attack was deliberate, targeted and a clear violation of international law by Iran,” said Raab. “Iran must end such attacks, and vessels must be allowed to navigate freely in accordance with international law.”

Blinken similarly described the US as “confident” Iran carried out the attack, using multiple drones.

“These actions threaten freedom of navigation through this crucial waterway, international shipping and commerce, and the lives of those on the vessels involved,” he said in a statement.

On Monday (2 August), Romanian Foreign Minister Bogdan Aurescu said that his country will work with international partners on a response to the Iranian attack.

“Based on the available info, Romania strongly condemns the Iranian drone attack against Mercer Street, during which a Romanian citizen was killed,” Aurescu tweeted. “There is no justification whatsoever for deliberately attacking civilians.”

The Iranian threat remains the Israeli government’s highest priority, both in their ambition to become a nuclear threshold state and their plans for regional hegemony and supporting proxies against Israel in Lebanon, Syria and the Gaza Strip

Israel hopes this latest attack and the clear intelligence that Iran was responsible will strengthen the resolve of the international community to recognise the dangers inherent within the Iranian regime

Iran will likely be the top agenda item when Prime Minister Bennett travels to the US to meet President Biden later this month.

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Africa

Rapprochement between Israel and Arab countries set to drive economic growth in MENA

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Over the past year, several Arab countries have normalized relations with Israel, marking a significant geopolitical shift in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region. While the details of each normalization deal vary, some of them include trade and tax treaties and cooperation in key sectors such as health and energy. Normalization efforts are set to bring countless benefits to the MENA region, boosting economic growth, writes Anna Schneider. 

In August 2020, the United Arab Emirates (UAE) became the first Gulf Arab nation to normalize relations with Israel, establishing formal diplomatic, commercial, and security ties with the Jewish state. Shortly after, the Kingdom of Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco followed suit. Some experts have suggested that other Arab nations, such as Saudi Arabia, may also consider fostering relations with Israel. The string of normalization efforts is historic, as hitherto, only Egypt and Jordan had established official ties with Israel. The agreements are also a major diplomatic win for the United States, which played a critical role in fostering the deals. 

Historically, Arab nations and Israel have maintained distant relations, as many were staunch supporters of the Palestinian movement. Now, however, with the growing threat of Iran, some GCC nations and other Arab countries are beginning to lean towards Israel. Iran is investing significant resources in expanding its geopolitical presence by way of its proxies, Hezbollah, Hamas, the Houthis, and others. Indeed, several GCC countries recognize the danger Iran poses to the region’s national security, critical infrastructure, and stability, leading them to side with Israel in an effort to counterbalance Iranian aggression. By normalizing relations with Israel, the GCC can pool resources and coordinate militarily. 

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Furthermore, the trade agreements featured in the normalization deals allow Arab nations to purchase advanced US military equipment, such as the famed F-16 and F-35 fighter jets. Thus far, Morocco has purchased 25 F-16 fighter jets from the U.S. The U.S. has also agreed to sell 50 F-35 jets to the UAE. Although there are some concerns that this influx of weaponry into the already-unstable MENA region could ignite current conflicts. Some experts believe such advanced military technology could also augment efforts to combat Iran's presence. 

Mohammad Fawaz, director of Gulf Policy Research Group, states that “advanced military technology is essential in obstructing Iranian aggression. In today’s military arena, aerial superiority is perhaps the most critical advantage an army can possess. With Iran’s military equipment and weaponry heavily dampened by decades-long sanctions, a formidable airforce will only work to further deter the Iranian regime from escalating provocations.” 

The normalization agreements could also enhance cooperation in the health and energy sectors. For example, during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic, the UAE and Israel developed technology to monitor and combat the coronavirus. The two nations are also exploring collaboration opportunities in the area of pharmaceuticals and medical research. In June, the UAE and Israel also signed a double taxation treaty, citizens to generate income in both nations without paying double tax. Additionally, Bahrain, the UAE, Israel, and the US  have agreed to cooperate on energy issues. In particular, the quartet aims to pursue advancements in petrol, natural gas, electricity, energy efficiency, renewable energies, and R&D. 

These noteworthy agreements could help boost economic growth and social benefits in the region. Indeed, MENA nations are currently battling with a new outbreak of COVID-19, thanks to the Delta variant, which is severely impacting economies and health industries. In order to improve the region’s critical institutions, such normalization deals are sure to improve the region’s reliance on oil. In fact, the UAE has been working on reducing its own dependence on oil, diversifying its economy to include renewable energy and high tech, such progress is sure to spill over to others in the region. 

The normalization of relations between a handful of Arab nations and Israel will have major benefits on the geopolitical and economic structure of the Middle East and North Africa region. Facilitating cooperation across the Middle East will not only boost economic growth, but it will also foster regional stability. 

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Germany

100-year-old former death camp guard to go on trial in Germany

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An empty square is seen at the former Nazi concentration camp in Sachsenhausen on the 75th anniversary of its liberation by Soviet and U.S. troops, during the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) near Berlin, Germany, April 17, 2020. Picture taken with a drone. REUTERS/Hannibal Hanschke

A 100-year-old former guard at the Sachsenhausen Nazi concentration camp near Berlin will face trial in the autumn, 76 years after the end of the Second World War, German weekly Welt am Sonntag reported, writes Arno Schuetze, Reuters.

The district court of Neuruppin admitted the charges of accessory to murder in 3,500 cases, and the trial is slated to start in October. The defendant should be able to stand trial for 2 to 2-1/2 hours a day, a court spokesman told the paper.

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The court was not available for comment at the weekend.

The accused, who was not named in accordance with German media laws concerning suspects, was said to have worked as a camp guard from 1942 to 1945 in Sachsenhausen, where around 200,000 people were imprisoned and 20,000 murdered.

While the number of suspects in Nazi crimes is dwindling prosecutors are still trying to bring individuals to justice. A landmark conviction in 2011 cleared the way to more prosecutions as working in a concentration camp was for the first time found to be grounds for culpability with no proof of a specific crime.

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