Netanyahu hours away from deadline for forming coalition government

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu attends the weekly cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister's office in Jerusalem May 19, 2019. Ariel Schalit/Pool via REUTERS

By Jeffrey Heller

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had until late Wednesday to form a new ruling coalition with a recalcitrant ally or face the possible end of a decade of combative leadership of Israel.

As the hours ticked by, there was no sign of a breakthrough in talks with far-right former defense minister, Avigdor Lieberman. Parliament began a full-day debate on a motion to dissolve itself and call a new election if no deal is struck.

Political sources said Netanyahu was seeking agreement with the leaders of parties in the legislature for a mid-September election day.

Netanyahu had declared himself the winner of a national ballot last month, but he now has until midnight (2100 GMT) to tell President Reuven Rivlin whether he has put together an administration, and his political future hangs in the balance.

Failure to forge a coalition would take the task out of the 69-year-old Netanyahu’s hands, with Rivlin asking another legislator, either from the prime minister’s right-wing Likud party or from the opposition, to try.

That presidential move, which would sideline Netanyahu, can be avoided with a coalition agreement deal or if parliament approves an election.

Political commentator Chemi Shalev, writing in the left-wing Haaretz daily, said a last-minute agreement was still possible and Netanyahu would still be the favorite to win a new poll.

But he said Netanyahu’s critics now find themselves fantasizing about a world without him.

“It’s not an easy task, given his decade in power and the four more years he supposedly had coming. Young Israelis can’t even begin to imagine an Israel without him: Netanyahu as prime minister is all they’ve ever known,” Shalev wrote.

Lieberman has stuck to his guns in a battle with the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, a member of Netanyahu’s current interim government, to limit traditional military draft exemptions for Jewish seminary students.

Without the support of Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitenu party, which has five seats in the 120-member Knesset, Netanyahu cannot put together a majority government of right-wing and religious factions led by Likud.

Political commentators said that as the prospects dimmed for a compromise with Lieberman, Netanyahu would focus his efforts on enlisting the 61 votes needed in parliament to approve a new election.

The brinkmanship six weeks after the closely contested April ballot poses another challenge to Netanyahu’s decade-long rule and deepens political uncertainty in a country riven with division.


A new election could also complicate U.S. efforts to press ahead with President Donald Trump’s peace plan in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Even before it has been announced Palestinians have rejected it as a blow to their aspirations for statehood.

The White House team behind the proposal, including Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, is in the Middle East to drum up support for an economic “workshop” in Bahrain next month to encourage investment in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. The group is due in Israel on Thursday.

Lieberman said on Wednesday he was not backing down in what he termed a matter of principle over the conscription issue, and he denied Likud allegations his real intention was to oust Netanyahu and lead a “national camp”.

“I am not a vengeful man and I don’t hold a grudge,” said Lieberman, who last year resigned as defense chief in a dispute with Netanyahu over policy toward Gaza.

Despite looming indictments in three corruption cases,

Netanyahu had appeared to be on course for a fifth term as head of a right-wing bloc after he squeezed past centrist challenger Benny Gantz, a former head of the Israeli armed forces.

Public attention had been focused less on coalition-building and more on moves Netanyahu loyalists were planning in parliament to grant him immunity and to pass a law ensuring such protection could not be withdrawn by the Supreme Court.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing in the cases and is due to argue at a pre-trial hearing in October against the attorney-general’s intention, announced in February, to indict him on bribery and fraud charges.

(Editing by Angus MacSwan)

Centrist Democrats stray on votes, roiling House majority party

By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – Freshman Democrats determined to walk a centrist path in the U.S. House of Representatives are testing party harmony between moderates and liberals, just as work on major issues including gun control and healthcare policy is getting underway.

Democrats took control of the House from President Donald Trump’s fellow Republicans in Jan

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-PA) poses for a picture before his interview for Reuters on Capitol Hill, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

U.S. Rep. Joe Cunningham (D-PA) poses for a picture before his interview for Reuters on Capitol Hill, February 26, 2019. REUTERS/Yuri Gripas

uary thanks in part to party moderates who won seats formerly held by Republicans in November’s midterm elections.

But these centrists already have upset some Democratic elders including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the party’s liberal wing by voting on occasion with the Republicans during their first couple of months in office. Republicans are in the minority in the House, but control the Senate.

Tensions flared this week after House Republicans managed to successfully amend a gun control bill with votes from 26 Democrats. Many of the Democrats who broke with the party line on Wednesday represent swing districts that had voted for Trump in 2016.

“How did Nancy Pelosi let this happen?” Justice Democrats, a liberal political action committee that helped elect new Democratic star Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York in November, asked on Twitter after the vote.

The episode highlights the political tightrope being walked by several dozen freshman who helped to clinch the House majority for Democrats in November by expanding into Republican territory. There currently are 235 Democrats, 197 Republicans and three vacancies in the 435-seat House.

The centrists have not gotten as much attention as Ocasio-Cortez during their first months in office, and their differing positions from the party’s liberals on policies such as government-run healthcare have at times put them at odds.

They also already have Republicans on their backs for the next election in 2020. Many of the 55 seats Republicans plan to target next year are held by freshman Democratic lawmakers who captured a previously Republican-held seat last year or prevailed in districts Trump won in 2016.

Representative Joe Cunningham, 36, did both when he won a South Carolina district in November that had not elected a Democrat to the House since before he was born. Cunningham defeated Republican rival Katie Arrington by less than 2 percentage points in a district Trump won by 13 percentage points in 2016.

On Wednesday, Cunningham was among the Democrats who supported the Republican amendment calling for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), an agency criticized by liberals like Ocasio-Cortez, to be notified when an illegal immigrant in caught trying to buy a gun.

Cunningham, a gun owner, said the next day he saw the amendment as minor. He added that it should not detract from the fact that the House had passed a gun control measure for the first time in two decades, calling for universal background checks on gun purchases.

In an interview on Tuesday, Cunningham was unapologetic for sometimes siding with Republicans. He has done it around a dozen times since January, mostly on procedural votes.

“I will be an independent check and not toe the party line whenever I disagree,” Cunningham told Reuters. “I’m not going to let the national party or the national message drive my message at home.”

Representative Jeff Van Drew of New Jersey, another Democratic freshman, said, “I just do what I think is right,” after straying from his party’s line on a previous Democratic proposal banning funding for Trump’s U.S.-Mexico border wall. Van Drew also supported the Republican gun amendment.


The House Democratic leadership was divided this week on members breaking with the party line. Pelosi told reporters on Thursday she did not approve, even on procedural votes.

“Just vote no, because the fact is, a vote yes is to give leverage to the other side,” Pelosi said.

Other Democratic leaders took a more relaxed view.

“It’s OK to vote your district,” said Representative James Clyburn, a member of the House Democratic leadership who, like Cunningham, represents a South Carolina district.

“We have a very diverse caucus,” Clyburn added. “I wish people would not compare us to the Republicans, where everybody looks alike. We’ve got varied backgrounds and experiences that we have to take into account.”

Ocasio-Cortez’s communications director, Corbin Trent, said the congresswoman believes Democrats who have broken with the party on such votes “are putting themselves on a list for Republicans, to divide the party.”

At a closed-door party meeting on Thursday, Ocasio-Cortez, who describes herself as a “democratic socialist,” said Democrats who voted for the Republican gun amendment had put her in a difficult spot because the measure endangered some in her community, Trent said.

Despite the ongoing debate, the party has said it will work hard to defend Democrats in swing districts.

Representative Cheri Bustos, who chairs the committee that works to elect Democrats to the House, has announced a list of 44 lawmakers including Cunningham in the party’s “frontline” program that helps the most vulnerable Democrats with fundraising and campaign guidance. The list includes 41 first-term House members.

“We want to make sure that our members come back,” Bustos, a fourth-term congresswoman who represents an Illinois district won by Trump in 2016, said in an interview. “We want them to be successful, and they’ve got to do what they’ve got to do to be successful.”

(Reporting by Susan Cornwell; Editing by Colleen Jenkins and Will Dunham)