TIME Middle East

Palestinians Hope FIFA Corruption Scandal Won’t Affect Motion to Expel Israel

Israel rejects Palestinian charges of preventing freedom of movement for Palestinian players and not cracking down on racism

Palestinians hope that the United States and Switzerland’s investigations into corruption in FIFA, soccer’s world governing body, won’t obscure the Palestinian Football Association’s call to expel Israel from the body.

Xavier Abu Eid, an advisor to Jibril Rajoub, the delegate of the Palestinian Football Association, insisted the discussion of Israel’s violation of FIFA’s laws would not be derailed by the corruption investigation which saw seven senior officials arrested for extradition to the U.S. during a dawn raid on Wednesday at a Zurich hotel.

“The issue of Israeli violation against Palestinian football is part of the agenda. It will be discussed and decisions must be made,” said Abu Eid on Wednesday.

Rajoub has proposed a controversial motion to have Israel suspended, one that is scheduled to be debated on either Thursday or Friday when FIFA’s congress meets in Zurich. In order to pass, the motion would require the support of three-quarters of its 209 member federations. Rajoub’s main contention is that Israel violates FIFA bylaws by preventing freedom of movement for Palestinian soccer players, maintains five FIFA-registered teams in settlements located in the occupied West Bank, and has done nothing to crack down on anti-Arab racist epithets sometimes chanted by extremist fans at games in Israel. The Israel Football Association rejects the charges.

This is the third time that Rajoub had made a motion to eject Israel from FIFA; the other two times he was persuaded to back down by FIFA president Sepp Blatter. But despite Blatter’s visit here last week to meet with Israeli and Palestinian leaders, this time Rajoub is not backing down, despite many “direct and indirect threats” he says he has received and what he describes as increasingly inappropriate treatment he receives from Israel.

“I have been treated in a humiliating way during the past four years. Come with me to the bridge and see how I am humiliated when I travel,” he says in an interview with TIME, speaking about his return from Jordan over the Allenby Bridge, a common land route for Palestinians traveling abroad. The border crossing is controlled by Israel, whom Rajoub also accuses of preventing his players from traveling freely in the Palestinian territories or going abroad, as well as barring players, coaches and training materials from being brought in from overseas.

Nasser Shiyoukhi—APHead of Palestinian football Association Jibril Rajoub speaks during a press conference in Ramallah in the West Bank on May 25, 2015.

Rajoub says that he has asked his Israeli counterpart to back him up on his requests, but to no avail. Israel Football Association President Ofer Eini has said that any restrictions faced by Palestinian footballers is a security matter that is beyond his power. Not good enough, says Rajoub.

“The Israeli team has chosen to be a tool for apartheid rather than for peace. Their football association is following the agenda of the extremist right-wing government now ruling in Israel,” Rajoub said at a press conference here Monday as he was preparing to leave for Switzerland. “We believe the Israeli association has to pay a price for systematically violating FIFA statutes. We would have expected the Israeli association to take our concerns seriously, and so they must be solved by the FIFA congress instead. If you don’t see a dramatic move,” he added, “you should see a suspension of the Israeli team by Thursday.”

Israeli officials say politics ought to be kept off the pitch. “The conflict is something that the United Nations and other bodies will deal with, it is not something FIFA should deal with,” says Shlomi Barzel, the spokesman for the Israel Football Association.

“If you want to take each one of Jibril Rajoub’s accusations, I don’t want to say he’s lying but to be polite, he’s twisting to the truth. For one, we’re not the only country in the world dealing with racism. In fact, our national team is a beautiful combination of Arab and Jewish players. This is part of a political agenda by the Palestinians, and football is just one part of it. I can’t say if there is going to be a solution, but we think a big majority of the members will support Israel staying in the association.”

It remains very unclear, however, as to whether Rajoub’s motion has a chance of passing. But he has succeeded in bringing some of the core complaints surrounding Israeli domination over Palestinian lives into the international arena as part of his campaign. Blatter says he opposed the motion because, as he put it, FIFA is the wrong address for political grievances. But he also noted in his visit here last week that he does not have the power to take the motion off the table or otherwise prevent the congress from passing it. In a statement, the organization indicated Tuesday it was looking at the question of whether Israel could actually be considered accountable for violating FIFA statutes.

“The FIFA president will report to the congress on this dossier later this week with the aim of providing a framework for strengthening the development of football in the region,” said the statement. “The executive underlined that a FIFA member association should not be suspended if it has not violated the FIFA statutes.”

TIME Israel

Israel’s New Government Promises Little Progress on Peace Talks and Unstable Rule

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2015, to announce reaching a coalition deal for forming a new government.
Gali Tibbon—AFP/Getty Images Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on May 6, 2015, to announce reaching a coalition deal for forming a new government.

Benjamin Netanyahu has created a government in which he is one of the most moderate members

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may have managed to patch together a new coalition government 90 minutes before the deadline to present a ruling majority to the country’s President, but it is one that offers little hope for new peace talks with the Palestinians or stable government for Israel.

The resulting government commands only 61 out of the Israeli parliament’s 120 seats and is comprised of parties that are either reluctant or outright opposed to restarting peace talks aimed at creating a Palestinian state alongside Israel. With few voices in the new government in favor of a two-state solution to the conflict, which is the desired outcome of the U.S. and most of the international community, Netanyahu is likely to continue to find himself on a collision course with the international community in general and the Obama Administration in particular.

The paper-thin majority Netanyahu sets out with in his fourth term as Prime Minister looks far from the “stable and broad-based government” he confidently asked voters to allow him to establish when he dissolved his coalition last December, deeming it ungovernable.

The parties in Israel’s new government are all right-wing or religious, with the exception of Kulanu (in English-All of Us), headed by Moshe Kahlon, who defines himself as centrist and brings with him pragmatists such as Michael Oren, Netanyahu’s former ambassador to Washington. Kahlon, however, is a former member of Netanyahu’s Likud party and does not appear to have moved significantly far from that party’s conservative positions on security and defense issues. It is only if Netanyahu’s government runs so afoul of the international community that it winds up hampering Kahlon’s economic agenda as Minister of Finance that the new government could be forced to be more moderate, says Professor Reuven Hazan, a political scientist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

“This is a government that is very cohesive ideologically on the security agenda. The hawkish parties would prefer not to give anything up and to build more settlements,” Hazan says. “Kahlon has a domestic economic agenda and he may be the most moderate in this cabinet. But he is a former Likudnik who is very comfortable with Netanyahu’s security agenda, and unless the world acts very harshly and it seems like it will affect Kahlon’s economic plan, such as with threats of boycotts, Kahlon is unlikely to interfere with Netanyahu’s stance.”

In a dramatic turn of events in the 48 hours before the deadline to form a government, Netanyahu’s one-time ally and now rival, Avigdor Lieberman, announced that he would not be joining the new government. Lieberman heads the hardline Israel Beitanu party, and allied himself with Netanyahu’s Likud in the 2013 election, resulting in Lieberman’s re-appointment as Foreign Minister. But Lieberman, who has a base of conservative voters who are immigrants from the former states of the Soviet Union, saw his support in the March 17 elections dwindle, giving him just six Knesset seats. Subsequently given short shrift in the coalition-building process, Lieberman decided to turn his back on Netanyahu and deprive him of six seats that would have allowed for a more comfortable governing majority.

Netanyahu was left having to give in to the demands of the last party with whom he needed to sign a coalition agreement, the Jewish Home party led by Naftali Bennett. That party’s main agenda includes expanding settlements, increasing the Jewish nature of the Israeli state, and upholding an uncompromising stance on Palestinian demands for statehood. During Israel’s war with Hamas last summer, Bennett was continually critical of Netanyahu for not hitting “hard enough” and publicly opposed Netanyahu’s decision to withdraw Israeli ground forces from the Gaza Strip, promoting instead a full re-occupation of the Palestinian territory that Israel left in 2005.

“Bennett was a relentless public critic of his own cabinet, demanding harsher action in Gaza, bemoaning the stewardship of the conflict,” Times of Israel editor David Horovitz notes in a column questioning the achievements of Netanyahu’s gambit to dissolve his last government with the intent of forming a stronger and more stable one.

In the final days of haggling over posts, Bennett took the education ministry for himself, and demanded that Ayelet Shaked, a 39-year-old politician who became a first-time legislator in 2013, be appointed Justice Minister.

“She replaces Tzipi Livni as Justice Minister, which puts her in charge of the ministerial committee for legislation, and that is the committee that has to approve every piece of legislation that comes through the Knesset,” Hazan explains. “This is a bottleneck. Laws in the Israeli parliament can only pass if the ministerial committee approves them, and this committee can block it. This committee is one that Netanyahu fought to get control of again, and with Shaked there he’s closer to doing that, but it gives her enormous power.”

Netanyahu has not appointed a new Foreign Minister, holding that portfolio for himself as he is permitted to do under Israeli law. Analysts believe this holds open the possibility that he can still convince Isaac Herzog, the leader of the Zionist Union, which includes the left-of-center Labor party, to join the government at a later point. Moshe Yaalon, who was Netanyahu’s last Defense Minister, will retain his position, making it likely that Israel’s position on local and regional defense issues — including for example Israel’s opposition to a potential Iran nuclear deal — will remain unchanged.

TIME Israel

Why the Latest Protest Against Police Brutality Is Happening in Israel

Demonstrators confront Israeli policemen, during a demonstration of Ethiopian Jews at RABIN Square in Tel Aviv on May 3, 2015.
Omer Messinger—AP Protesters confront Israeli policemen during a demonstration of Ethiopian Jews in Tel Aviv on May 3, 2015

Scores are hurt in weekend protests in Tel Aviv as Ethiopian Israelis rally against what they say is long-running racism

Masses of protesters gathering in the streets, some throwing rocks and bottles at the police. In full riot gear, the police respond in force, shooting tear-gas canisters, percussion bombs and water guns. By the end of the evening, 46 injured people are sent to area hospitals.

Scenes of violent protest are something that people in Israel are used to seeing periodically, though it is usually in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This time, though, the rage involves youth Israelis of Ethiopian descent who are angry at their own government.

Complaints of discrimination in all sectors of society — including housing, education and the workplace — are common from Ethiopian Israelis. But the issue of police brutality toward the group came to the forefront in the past week when a video surfaced last Thursday showing police beating a young Ethiopian-Israeli soldier in uniform. A protest against police brutality spilled over into violence in Jerusalem last Thursday night. Those protests continued over the weekend, and on Sunday evening, Rabin Square in the heart of Tel Aviv began to look like an intifada-era conflict zone.

What are Ethiopian-Israelis angry about? Since they began immigrating to Israel in the 1980s, Ethiopians have struggled to integrate into Israeli society. There are more than 135,00 Israelis of Ethiopian origin, according to the most recent figures from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. Some came to escape famine and persecution, and all grew up on the idea of Israel as their ultimate homeland. By now, a new generation is Israeli-born, but they still face discrimination that, in the words of one activist, “is more latent than official.” In addition, some of Israel’s Orthodox rabbinical establishment question their Jewishness, which makes it difficult for them to get married in a country where civil marriage doesn’t exist.

But what touched off the current rage, so strikingly similar to the street protests over police brutality that have taken place over the past few months in the U.S., was a CCTV video. It captured an Ethiopian-Israeli soldier being thrown to the ground and beaten by two white policemen. In the video we see the policemen accost the soldier and push him, who then pushes back, and then the two men throw him to the ground and kick him.

“After being beaten up, after being violated again and again and being discriminated against, many Ethiopians wind up in jails,” says activist Fentahun Assefa-Dawit. He notes that 40% of minors in the Israeli correction system are of Ethiopian descent. “What’s different this time is the footage. And all the youngsters who might have been through this something like this, now they have proof that it occurs.”

Assefa-Dawit is the executive director of Tebeka–Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis, an organization that receives more than 1,000 complaints of discrimination and abuse a year. It takes up the strongest cases of Ethiopians who have suffered discrimination, some of which have gone to Israel’s Supreme Court. But for young people outraged by what they’ve experienced, change is coming far too slowly.

“When an Ethiopian applies for a job, as qualified as he might be, as impressive as his CV might be, he is not going to be invited for the interview because he has an Ethiopian name,” Assefa-Dawit told journalists on Monday in a conference call before heading to a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is conferring with Ethiopian community leaders in an effort to calm the outrage. “When a local rabbinate office refuses to register a couple who wants to get married because they’re Ethiopian, when you see a school that says we cannot take more children because they have a quota of how many Ethiopians they will enroll, you can imagine what the feeling of young people will be,” he says.

Shimon Solomon, who came to Israel from Ethiopia in 1980 at the age of 12, was a member of the Israeli parliament in the last government with the Yesh Atid party. He says that although he has repeatedly brought the issue of police brutality towards Ethiopians to the authorities for several years, nothing has been done.

“What we saw in the video is nothing compared to what goes on, in fact it was less shocking that what happens to people in our community at the hands of police,” Solomon tells TIME. “When we speak to people in their neighborhoods, we hear that it’s happening all the time, that the police allow themselves to act brutally and take people aside and beat them for no reason. We turned to the police and ask them to fix this situation, but it just continued like nothing happened.”

Solomon says that the protest on Sunday started with peaceful intentions, but a small group of “anarchists — some Ethiopian and some not” wanted to push things in a more radical direction. “We wanted an aggressive demonstration, not a violent one,” says Solomon. “The point of a protest is to bring attention to a situation, not to make the situation worse.” Solomon says he was disappointed that as the anger across the Ethiopian community grew, there was silence from Israel’s leaders. “It’s too bad that he didn’t come out immediately to decry the violence and hatred.”

Netanyahu met on Monday with Ethiopian leaders in an attempt to douse the flames amid reports that there would be further protests this week. The Prime Minister is moving closer to forming a government but has still not presented one since his re-election on March 17. On Monday he decried racism and violence, and arranged a meeting with Damas Pakedeh, the soldier who was filmed being beaten by two policemen.

“I was shocked by the pictures that I saw,” Netanyahu said in comments released by his office. “We cannot accept this and the police are dealing with it. We need to change things.”

TIME Israel

Israel Dismayed by Iran Nuclear Agreement

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a statement to the media in Jerusalem on Apr. 1, 2015.
Debbie Hill—Reuters Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivering a statement to the media in Jerusalem on Apr. 1, 2015.

The agreement unveiled Thursday was criticized by politicians and officials on right and left

A framework agreement on curbing Iran’s nuclear development program announced Thursday was met with concern and criticism across the political spectrum in Israel, with recently re-elected Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu saying it would “threaten the existence of Israel.”

Netanyahu, who has long criticized the negotiations between Israel and six world powers, said his cabinet was united in opposition to the outline deal. “The proposed agreement would constitute a real danger to the region and the world, and it would threaten the existence of Israel,” he said. Any deal, he added, must recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Earlier, an official close to Netanyahu’s office told reporters late Thursday that in the Prime Minister’s eyes, the framework agreement “kowtows to Iranian dictates” and that it “will not lead to a nuclear program for peaceful purposes, but rather to a military nuclear program.”

The official, who provided reaction in the form of an written statement, said the deal would allow Iran to continue progress toward a nuclear bomb unimpeded. “Iran will retain extensive nuclear capabilities. It will continue to enrich uranium, it will continue in is research and development of centrifuges, it will not close even one of its many nuclear facilities, the underground facility in Furdow, and much more.”

The official concluded that there was “no demand that Iran stop its aggression in the region, its terrorism around the world or its threats to destroy Israel, which it has repeated again over the past several days.” (That is a reference to comments made Tuesday by Mohammad Reza Naqdi, the commander of the Basij militia of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, who said that “erasing Israel off the map” was “non-negotiable.”)

That reaction might have been expected of Netanytahu, whose stout opposition to the deal has helped cause a public rift between the U.S. and Israel. But even the Prime Minister’s opposition, which has been critical of his handling of the issue and his March 3 speech to Congress against the wishes of the Obama administration, said it was deeply concerned about the framework agreement.

Omer Bar-Lev, a leading member of Knesset of the left-wing Zionist Union, Netanyahu’s main opposition, said that Israel should work to convince Obama and U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry that the one-year period in which Iran, if the agreement collapses, could weaponize its nuclear capabilities – often referred as a “breakout time” – was not nearly enough to assuage Israel’s greatest fears. “If we can convince them to work on these small details, maybe we can get to a point where there will be an expansion of that time period, and perhaps we can get something that is less bad than what we’re seeing here,” Bar-Lev said in an interview with Israel’s Channel One.

Yair Lapid, the head of centrist party Yesh Atid, which was part of Netanyahu’s last government but refuses to join the coalition he is trying to form, says the deal troubles all Israelis. “On the Iranian nuclear issue there is no opposition and coalition. We are all concerned that the Iranians will circumvent the deal and Israel must protect its own security interests,” Lapid said in a statement to reporters. “There is no basis for the determination that today Iran was prevented from attaining a nuclear weapon. Israel needs to work with the United States and the international community to ensure there is no Iranian fraud, something which would threaten Israel’s security and that of the world.”

Dr. Ephraim Asculai, a former member of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) and an expert who served as a senior member of the Israel Atomic Energy Commission for over 40 years, says he is most troubled by the lack of scrutiny into his former group’s assessment that Iran was testing a nuclear explosive mechanism.

“That is a serious issue I haven’t heard a word about in any statement,” says Asculai, a Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University. Moreover, he said, he would have expected a more aggressive inspections regime, and for Iran to be left with far fewer centrifuges.

“This deal is not enough. It doesn’t give the right for inspectors to look anywhere in Iran at any time, and Iran is a huge country — it can set up a mechanism anywhere,” he told TIME. “Keeping 5,000 to 6,000 centrifuges is a large number.”

Finally, he said, one year of breakout time hardly reassures anyone in Israel, just a few hundred miles away from the Iranian border. “I think it is too short a period to deal with this problem, because by the time you discover it, it takes a long time to do something about it … I think that President Obama depends too much on intelligence to uncover any wrongdoing. Unfortunately, intelligence has been known to fail – and we know that Iran is very good at concealing what it’s up to.”

TIME Israel

Netanyahu Divides as He Conquers in Israeli Election

Benjamin Netanyahu addresses supporters.
Salih Zeki Fazlioglu—Anadolu Agency/Getty Images Israeli Prime Minister and the leader of the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu greets supporters at the party's election headquarters after the first results of the Israeli general election on March 18, 2015 in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Hard-right shift leaves him with a remarkably raw relationship with Israeli Arabs

Much of Israel and the rest of the Middle East went to bed late Tuesday with initial exit polls showing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud party in a virtual tie with its main rival, the center-left Zionist Union, but awoke Wednesday to a vastly different outcome.

Not only was Netanyahu re-elected in a landslide that had been undetected by most pollsters ahead of Tuesday’s ballot, grabbing 30 of the Knesset’s 120 seats, but for the first time in Israeli history the third-largest party is Arab, comprising a bloc of 14 seats.

With this ascendency of Israeli Arabs — some of whom prefer to be called Palestinian Israelis — increasingly apparent in the weeks leading up the elections, Netanyahu played on fears of their empowerment on election day. He sent out controversial videos, text messages and tweets saying that “the Arabs are streaming to the polls in droves,” and accused the left wing of “busing them in.” In the 48 hours before the vote, an intense period in which Likud seemed to be trailing three or four seats behind the Zionist Union, an alliance under the leadership of Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, Netanyahu vowed there would be no Palestinian state if he was elected.

These moves by Netanyahu may well have helped him win an election that he looked slated to lose just a few days earlier.

Netanyahu said on Wednesday that he would work to form a coalition within two to three weeks, adding that he was “thrilled by the heavy responsibility of his victory.” In a trip to the Western Wall, where he appeared to give thanks for his surprise success at the polls, he also promised that he would work for the benefit of all Israel’s citizens — a sore spot after the tactics of a day earlier. “I appreciate the decision by Israel’s citizens to elect me and my friends, against all odds and in the face of powerful forces,” he said, “and I will do everything I can to care for the security and welfare of all Israelis.”
Those friends with whom he’s likely to form a coalition are the Jewish Home party, the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism, and centrist parties such as Kulanu and Yesh Atid.

But his checkered campaign leaves him with a remarkably raw relationship with the 20% of Israeli citizens who are Arab, following his public painting of their voting power as an existential threat to Israel, and it leaves him with no bridges left to burn with the Palestinian Authority, much less moderate Arab countries that have been pushing for a two-state solution since the launch of the Arab Peace Initiative a decade ago. All this, of course, comes amid an historic low point in relations between Washington and Jerusalem. Tuesday’s elections came about two weeks after Netanyahu addressed a joint session of Congress to warn of a “bad deal” on a nuclear Iran, much to the chagrin of the Obama Administration.

MORE: What Netanyahu’s Victory in Israel Means for the World

Senior officials in the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ office said the election outcome proved that Palestinians had no partner in Israel — a reversal of the accusation that Netanyahu and other right-wing Israeli politicians have often lodged at the Palestinian Authority.

Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat blamed the international community for not doing more to protest Palestinian rights, and indicated that its tolerance of Netanyahu’s policies had paved the way to his successful bid to consolidate his power.

“Such a result would not have been possible had the international community held Israel to account for its systematic violations of international law,” Erekat said in a media statement. “Now, more than ever, the international community must act. It must rally behind Palestinian efforts to internationalize our struggle for dignity and freedom through the International Criminal Court and through all other peaceful means.” Palestinians have been trying to advance a case in the ICC against Israel over its conduct during last summer’s war, when more than 2,100 Palestinians and about 80 Israelis died.

Netanyahu thumbing his nose at the U.S.-brokered peace process and turning his back on the landmark speech he made at Bar-Ilan University in 2009, during which he said he was in principle open to a Palestinian state, was clearly an attempt to lure back right-wing voters. Many of them had drifted over to parties like Jewish Home, headed by Naftali Bennett, who was a key coalition partner in the last government and will almost certainly be in the next one as well. Many others, says pollster Avi Dejani, president of the Geocartography Knowledge Group, for weeks indicated that they were undecided.

“So we asked, if you do vote, for whom will it be — and for whom did you vote in the past? Likud, they said,” Dejani explained, in a conference call arranged by The Israel Project. “Many, many voters who are politically allied with the Likud got scared that the left may actually win, and they came back home.”

The scare tactics included a video sent out early on election day, telling supporters to rush out and vote because Arabs were supposedly voting in high numbers. Arab voter turnout was higher than in previous years — around 68%, members of the United List say. This upsurge in a sector where so many express feeling disenfranchised and marginalized came in large part from the new wings that Israeli Arab politicians got from their constituents by having put aside their internal differences and uniting.

In an ironic twist, this effort to put all four Arab parties on one list, called the Joint List, was born in part of the efforts of right-wing parties to marginalize Arab lawmakers and force some of them out of the Knesset. These right-wing parliamentarians authored legislation that made it necessary for the first time for any party running for office to earn at least 3.25% of the vote to earn a mandate. This means smaller parties under that new threshold would no longer make it into the Knesset, a change that was most likely to affect smaller Arab parties.

“There were really no buses, by the way,” says Yousef Jabareen a new member of Knesset. “When that video came out, the voter turnout then was still very low. So it was factually misleading, and unfortunately, Netanyahu gained some support because of that.”

The video, he said, raised “a feeling of anger” and some degree of shock that a sitting Prime Minister could portray Israeli citizens going to the ballot box on election day as a threat. “He is the top official in Israel, and you would expect him to encourage people to vote and to be part of the democratic process,” says Jabareen. “However, in Israel apparently, the standards are different. Can you imagine if in Europe the French premiers said he’s worried about too many Jews voting?”

That sentiment was reverberating through the American Jewish community as well. Influential Haaretz columnist Chemi Shalev, also the left-wing paper’s U.S. editor, tweeted: “To Netanyahu’s many American friends: what if a US President had said ‘too many Jews are voting?'” Shalev’s comment was retweeted more than 500 times. Rick Jacobs, the leader of Reform Jewish movement spoke out against “disheartening” statements in the campaign and said “Israel deserves better.”

As news of Netanyahu’s win began to settle in, the U.S. rebuked the Prime Minister over his words in the last few days of the campaign, as he aimed to shore up support. “The Obama Administration is deeply concerned by the use of divisive rhetoric in Israel that sought to marginalize Arab Israeli citizens,” White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest said.

Netanyahu is now trying to find coalition partners with whom to build a new government, which may be an uphill battle. But repairing relations with his international partners, like the “special relationship” between Jerusalem and Washington, may prove even harder.

Read next: American Donors Give to the Israeli Right

TIME Israel

Netanyahu Defeats Main Rival in Israeli Vote

Focus quickly shifted toward the formation of a coalition government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s ruling Likud party handily beat its main rival in Tuesday’s elections, official results showed as Israelis awoke Wednesday morning, despite initial exit polls that suggested a closer vote.

Likud won 30 of the 120 seats up for grabs in Knesset, Israel’s Parliament, over the Zionist Union’s 24 seats, according to the elections committee’s tally. That’s a far cry from Tuesday evening, when exit polls conducted by three major Israeli television channels had indicated a relative tie, at 27, between the two parties.

Netanyahu declared victory in an early morning speech as the votes were still being counted.

“Dear friends, against all odds we have achieved a great victory for Likud, for the national camp which is headed by Likud, for our people,” he told supporters at his campaign headquarters in Tel Aviv. “Now we must form a strong and stable government that will care for the security and welfare of all of Israel’s citizens.”

The results are a disappointment for the Zionist Union — headed by Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni — which for weeks had shown a four-seat lead over Netanyahu in various opinion polls, and for members of a nonpartisan campaign calling itself V15 (Victory 2015), which declared its main goal was to get Israelis out to vote for any party that would dislodge Netanyahu from power.

When, at one point in the night, the Zionist camp appeared to have won an equal number of seats to Likud, it too claimed to have received a mandate to form a new government. Herzog, speaking a little after midnight, told his supporters that the result of the election would “bring Labor back into power” after 16 years on the sidelines.

“This is a big victory for the Labor Party, which hasn’t done this well since Yitzhak Rabin won in 1992,” he said. He called on the “social parties” — all those who campaigned to help Israelis weather the skyrocketing cost of living here — to unite under him to form “a real reconciliation government.”

Herzog called Netanyahu on Wednesday to congratulate him on his victory, but would not say whether the Zionist Union would consider joining a Netanyahu-led government.

With more than 99% of the votes counted, focus is quickly shifting toward the formation of the coalition government. Israeli President Reuven Rivlin had announced late Tuesday night that he would call on the two leading parties to construct a government. With Likud enjoying such a clear lead, it’s likely Rivlin will put it to Netanyahu to form one.

After each election, Israel’s President is charged with inviting the head of one or more of the largest parties to form a coalition. But in Israel’s fractured political system, being the party with the most votes does not necessarily mean having enough votes to cobble together a government. Given the bitter invective Likud and the Zionist Union have used against each other in the past few months, however, it is difficult to envision them coming together to form a unity government with a rotating premiership, as had been done in decades past. It is possible, however, that Netanyahu will have made so many enemies of late that he’ll find it tough to get to the seats he needs to form a coalition.

As Likud and the Zionist Union now start totaling up their potential partners’ projected Knesset seats to see if they might be able to come up with the right sum to present a ruling coalition — a minimum of 61 of the 120 — centrist parties become the cornerstones for building a new government. In this, all eyes are on Moshe Kahlon, a former Likud party member and government minister under Netanyahu who broke away to form the Kulanu party. Exit polls showed it winning nine or 10 seats, with the latter as the final count. While that only makes it the fifth-largest party to be elected, Kahlon’s preferences can either make or break a coalition on offer by either Netanyahu or Herzog.

But Kahlon already rejected an eleventh-hour promise from Netanyahu to be Finance Minister in favor of an endorsement, saying the Premier has too often failed to keep his word. The waters were further muddied on the eve of the elections when a fabricated ad — essentially an audio-clip job put out by the Likud campaign — made Kahlon sound as if he were fully behind Netanyahu. Supreme Court Judge Salim Joubran, who heads the Central Elections Committee, forced Likud to stop using the ad and ordered it to pay a fine of about $5,000. Kahlon said the tape was deceitful and added he could he no longer support a party that “lost its compassion and its social way,” according to the website of the newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth. “That is exactly why I left the Likud.”

Getting slightly more votes than Kahlon was the Yesh Atid party, clocking in at 11 seats. Its leader, Yair Lapid, was Netanyahu’s Finance Minister in the last government but was fired in November when he opposed the Prime Minister on several fronts, from economics to a controversial “nation-state bill” that opponents say is a step back for Israeli democracy. Given that his falling-out was part of the reason Netanyahu dissolved his government and called for new elections in December, he doesn’t make for a promising coalition material either.

The third-largest party, meanwhile, is the Joint List, a recently unified slate of several Arab parties. This party might join in a government led by Herzog — if at all. In the hours before the polls, Netanyahu released a video and a tweet urging his supporters to go out to vote because the “the Arabs are voting in droves,” and saying that “left” had been “busing Arabs to the polls.” The message led to charges of racist campaigning from Netanyahu’s critics and made it unlikely that Netanyahu could find a way to mend fences with Israel’s Arab minority, or the Palestinians, for that matter. On the eve of the elections, he said that if he remains Prime Minister there would be no Palestinian state.

Despite all of that, many analysts said Netanyahu still looked like he had the upper hand in being able to form a coalition. Although he moved well ahead of the Zionist Union, he still has many other coalition partners to choose from, including the ultra-Orthodox parties as well as Naftali Bennett’s Jewish Home party, which largely represents the interests of West Bank settlers and their hopes of expansion.

Bennett’s party won eight seats compared to the 13 it had in the last Knesset. But the party’s relative strength and Bennett’s alliance with Netanyahu points to a path of expanded settlement growth, something that keeps Israel on a collision course with the international community, including the Obama administration, which has called them a hindrance to the peace process. Bennett has long expressed opposition to a Palestinian state.

“Netanyahu has withstood with most serious challenge he faced in continuing as Prime Minister and at the moment has the better chance of forming a government, though it’s certainly not going to be as easy,” said Yehuda Ben-Meir, a public-opinion expert at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University.

“Netanyahu has to make a major decision: whether he wants to form a small, narrow coalition” of center and right-wing parties, added Ben-Meir, or whether to “form a national unity government based on parity between the two largest parties … which is a surprise because the expectation was that neither one of these would be so high, certainly the Likud. What we can say is that Israel has kept to its tradition of surprises in elections. And that nothing is really clear until all the votes are counted.”

TIME Israel

The Kingmaker Who May Decide Israel’s Closely Contested Election

Moshe Kahlon's Kulanu Party could end up holding the key to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's fate

Correction appended, March 17

Shmuel Khavilio is cab driver who hasn’t voted in several elections, as his disillusionment with Israeli politicians and their promises has grown. But this time around he is planning to vote — and he’s casting a ballot for a brand-new party that didn’t even exist four months ago.

That party is Kulanu, and its leader, Moshe Kahlon, had been a longtime member of the ruling Likud, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But Netanyahu is facing stiffer-than-expected competition on Tuesday as Israelis vote in a national election that the right-wing premier himself called for back in December. Frustrated with dissent within his own government, Netanyahu dissolved it and asked voters to re-elect him and “give me a real mandate to lead the people and the country.”

That doesn’t look likely to happen. Instead, polls suggest voters will hand Likud only about 20 out of the 120 Knesset seats up for grabs, whereas some 24 or more seats are predicted to go to the Zionist Union, headed by Labor Party chairman Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, who as justice minister headed talks with the Palestinians in the last government before falling out with Netanyahu.

Livni isn’t the only Israeli to part ways with the three-time Likud leader whom Israelis roundly refer to as “Bibi.” Netanyahu’s traditional voting base is being drained by parties declaring themselves centrist, such as Kulanu and Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid party, as well as those further to the right, such as the Jewish Home party led by economy minister Naftali Bennett, and hardliner Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beitanu party.

But Kahlon, a former Minister of Communications who is credited with breaking up the country’s cell phone monopoly and drastically bringing down prices, may be the biggest threat of all to Netanyahu’s pool of voters — and could yet decide the premier’s future.

One of the most prestigious names to join Kahlon’s slate is Michael Oren, who served as Netanyahu’s ambassador to Washington until two years ago. In an interview with TIME, Oren says that he was never a member of Netanyahu’s Likud, but had gladly accepted the invitation to help explain Israel’s position in the United States. That included the pivotal issue of Iran’s nuclear program, over which Netanyahu has publicly butted heads with the Obama administration to the point of outright crisis between Jerusalem and Washington. Oren was a key player in many of those discussions in recent years.

“I know better than almost anyone that a nuclear-armed Iran poses an existential threat,” he says by telephone while campaigning for Kulanu in small towns along the coastal plain north of Tel Aviv. “But Israelis overwhelmingly list the price of living in this country and the price of housing as the biggest existential threat of all. My joining this party was an ‘it’s the economy, stupid’ kind of moment.”

That’s a reference, of course, to a popular slogan of the Clinton-Gore campaign in 1992, when the two Democratic candidates initially looked like a long shot for replacing the incumbent, George H. W. Bush. While salaries here have remained flat, housing and cost-of-living prices have skyrocketed in the last few years. A state auditor’s report released a few weeks ago showed that home prices have jumped by 55 percent and rents by 30 percent from 2008 to 2013, which includes most of Netanyahu’s recent tenure.

Like Clinton, Kahlon comes from a modest background. He’s a child of Libyan immigrants to Israel who was raised in a two-bedroom house with seven children, but went on to earn two higher degrees and take on big business while in the cabinet. It was while Kahlon was on a trip to Washington as a Knesset member that they first met. “He made a big impression on me,” Oren says. “He’s very personable and charismatic – but also very grounded and honest, unlike many politicians I’ve met.”

That’s exactly the sentiment that is getting many average Israelis like Khavilio, the cab driver, out to vote. “It’s just hard to make a living here anymore,” says Khavilio, who finds Kahlon – like him a Jew of Middle Eastern descent – more trustworthy than the others. “Most people I know don’t make it through the month without going into debt. By the time you pay your rent or your mortgage, there’s hardly enough left over to buy food, or to get your kid a pair of sneakers.”

Although Oren has chosen a party in fierce competition with his former boss, he says that wasn’t the intention. Ever the diplomat, he treads lightly on any criticism aimed directly at Netanyahu, and with good reason: they may yet end up working together. Even if Likud doesn’t win the most seats, the current prime minister could still end up being invited by Israel’s president to form a coalition of centrist and right-wing parties that would naturally include Kulanu.

In that configuration, Kahlon would almost certainly ask for the finance ministry; in fact, Netanyahu has already offered it to him, but Kahlon declined, saying he had no interest in committing to a government with a man who had failed to keep his word on many occasions. It’s also possible that Kahlon, as the new “kingmaker” who is willing to pair up with a left or right-leaning premier, will demand the foreign minister position for Oren.

But when the election stations close at 10 p.m. on Tuesday and the first exit polls by Israel’s three leading station release their unofficial results, the demands on the leading vote-getters will be immense, and the game of coalition building will begin. It’s a particularly difficult election to call, analysts say, because Israeli voters have been surprised before. Netanyahu’s first victory, in 1996, came the morning after exit polling had predicted a win for Shimon Peres and the Labor Party. And in 2009, Livni’s Kadima party won the highest number of seats — but it soon became clear that only Netanyahu could put together a government because most of the available Knesset seats were center or right-wing.

If the same thing happens again, Kahlon’s role could be decisive. But hours before polls close, no one is placing bets on what might happen. “The Israeli electorate has become very volatile. There are too many voters up for grabs,” says Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Usually in a Western democracy, you’re talking 10 to 20 percent to voters who are willing to switch parties. Here it’s anywhere between two to three times as much, and you’re speaking about tremendous volatility in the last couple of days.”

Israeli voters, he says, seem to be in a search for something they still haven’t found. “Voters are looking for someone who’s going to make them feel better off in terms of security and deliver – or someone who will make them feel better economically and deliver,” he says. “Everybody is fighting for every vote.”

Correction: The original version of this story misstated the incumbent U.S. President during the 1992 election. It was George H. W. Bush.

TIME Israel

Is This the Man Who Could Beat Netanyahu and Become Israel’s Next PM?

Isaac Herzog has maintained a lead in opinion polls but winning the election is not enough to become prime minister

When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chose to dissolve his government last November and call for new elections he didn’t expect a formidable challenge from the Labor party leader Isaac Herzog.

Herzog is the closest thing Israel has to a patrician politician. His father, Chaim Herzog, was an Israeli army general and the sixth president of Israel and his grandfather was the first chief rabbi of Ireland. And while the 54-year-old Isaac Herzog has served four times as a government minister since 2004, few have seen him as having the charisma some believe is necessary to be Israel’s prime minister.

But opinion polls show Herzog, who heads an electoral list which combines the Labor and Hatnua parties, with a clear lead. At least three polls released Friday—the last day polling can be released before the March 17 vote—showed Herzog’s Zionist Union with a four-seat lead in the Knesset over Netanyahu and his Likud party.

If these numbers remain true on election day, it will be a major achievement for Labor, which has not won an election in 16 years despite dominating Israeli politics before that.

Herzog appears confident that he can beat Netanyahu. He is attacking the three-term prime minister on his foreign policy; Netanyahu’s handling of the Iran nuclear issue, tensions with the Obama administration and lack of progress with the Palestinians. And on economic problems that trouble average Israelis as much as foreign policy.

“Housing costs have risen 70%. How come the social gaps have grown so substantially?” Herzog said in a press conference with foreign journalists in Jerusalem. “Netanyahu has failed on security, and on all these economic issues. He has to answer these questions, but he hasn’t. He’s run away from any debate with me.”

Election ads pump up Herzog’s wide-ranging experience in government and his service as a major in the Intelligence Corps; a history in an elite unit of the Israeli army is still considered vital for anyone who would serve as prime minister. Eyal Zisser, the Dean of the Faculty of Humanities at Tel Aviv University, served with Herzog in the army. In those days, he was considered a “mensch,” says Zisser – Yiddish for a good guy – who was modest despite his political family.

“In many cases, when someone is from a well-known family, you know it,” says Zisser. “But in his case, no one could observe it because he didn’t show it off. He was always trying to prove himself not based on family affiliation but on his own merits, and people liked that about him.”

Unlike his father, who rose to the rank of general, Herzog left the army after four years to study law and then joined the family law firm. The pedigree aside, he didn’t necessarily act like someone who was destined to be prime minister. “He’s not full of charisma, and still, in his own quiet way, he’s a very smart politician,” says Zisser.

Herzog’s advisors have tried to turn his lack of charisma into an advantage. Herzog has focused on issues rather than trying to get ‘Bougie’ — as he’s popularly know here — to compete with the charisma of ‘Bibi’, as the prime minister is nicknamed.

“People are outgrowing that notion[the need for a charismatic prime minister],” says Asaf Eisin, a campaign strategist for Herzog’s Zionist Union. “We’ve heard people asking over and over again where did all those charismatic leaders bring them, and longing for a leader who works for them. It’s not about making speeches, it’s about actions. People have identified in Herzog a man who works for the country first, not himself. He can put his ego aside, and people want that.”

Herzog told reporters he is interested in resuming peace negotiations with the Palestinians, which collapsed last April. He said he would halt all West Bank construction outside of the major “settlements blocs” that Israel would like be annexed to Israel in a peace deal. But success in resuming talks would depend on how ready the Palestinian Authority is to negotiate with him. “I do not know what kind of mood I’ll find after the 17th of March,” he said.

Even if he emerges as the winner of the general election, Herzog is not guaranteed the job of prime minister. He still has to create a coalition by uniting a group of parties with sometimes contradictory positions. And that takes different skills from winning an election. In the 2009 election, Herzog’s running mate Tzipi Livni emerged as the leader of the largest party but only Netanyahu could form a government.

But Herzog will have an added advantage this time. He hails from an Irish family and the election takes place on St Patrick’s Day.

TIME Israel

Israel is Left Divided By Netanyahu Address to Congress

Opposition attacked the Prime Minister for antagonising Obama while supporters say he has a point

After nearly two months in which the controversial address of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to Congress has dominated the headlines here, Israelis received the long-awaited talk with a mix of reactions that demonstrated just how divided the country is two weeks before heading to national elections.

Much of the prime-time coverage of Netanyahu’s speech on Tuesday, which focused on what he calls an impending “bad deal” on Iran’s nuclear development program as being negotiated with the US and other Western nations, took a critical view of the premier’s decision to make the speech despite the unprecedented tensions it has sparked with the administration of President Barack Obama.

Israel’s main opposition leader, Isaac Herzog, gave a prime-time speech soon after the televised address, in which he said that Netanyahu had failed to shift policy — or make history as he’d promised — but had simply succeeded in angering the White House.

“There’s no doubt that that Netanyahu knows how to give an address. But his speech today didn’t stop the Iran nuclear program,” Herzog said. “It did not change US policy, and now Israel stands isolated and alone.”

Alon Pinkas, a former Israeli diplomat and chief of staff to several Israeli foreign ministers, told Israel’s Channel One that Netanyahu focused his persuasive efforts in the wrong direction.

“It was too bad that this was a speech to Congress, because this talk needed to be held inside the White House,” Pinkas said. “All of the behavior that surrounded this speech has been a bit like a circus, which I don’t think serves Israel’s interests. There aren’t huge differences within Israel in terms of our outlook on Iran’s nuclear program,” he added, as many Israelis are troubled by Iran’s threats to “wipe Israel off the map.” But Netanyahu’s decision to defy the Obama administration’s wishes by accepting the invitation of Republican House Speaker John Boehner has Israelis worried about damaging relations between Jerusalem and Washington, with few gains to show for it.

Ben Caspit, a widely followed analyst for Maariv and al-Monitor, wrote on Twitter that from the point of view of the polls — where Netanyahu is lagging slightly behind the Zionist Union headed by Herzog and Tzipi Livni — the speech to Congress is like the last bullet in a faulty gun. It could misfire — or might not fire at all.

Barak Ravid, the diplomatic correspondent of the Haaretz newspaper, said little if anything new was said by Netanyahu in Washington. “We can sum this up like this — one big nothing,” he said in a tweet. His colleague Chemi Shalev, the U.S. editor of the left-leaning paper, was similarly unimpressed: “Don’t know how speech plays in Congress/America but most Israelis have heard this before and are already bored to tears.”

But not all of Israel’s opinion-makers were critical of Netanyahu, and some supporters called his speech powerful and moving. Some pundits argue that he has a point about the dangers of leaving Iran with so-called break-out capability — the ability to weaponize atomic material in a short period of time.

“Netanyahu is right,” tweeted Moav Vardi, the diplomatic correspondent for Israel’s Channel 10 news. “In another 10-15 years when this deal expires, Iran can manufacture as many bombs as it wants. To this argument, Obama doesn’t really have an answer.” He also predicted that the speech would not do either of the things Netanyahu’s friends and foes predict: It will neither stop a deal on Iran nor destroy relations with the U.S. Both of those things are beyond the power of a speech to Congress, Vardi noted.

Netanyahu was accompanied on his trip Washington by Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing Jewish Home party. Although the two men are competitors for votes in the March 17 ballot, Bennett touted his backing of Netanyahu on a critical mission for Israel’s defense, and suggested that those who stayed home were not sufficiently worried about the country’s survival. To the criticism that Netanyahu presented no alternative to the ongoing negotiations, Bennett tweeted that the answer was to increase sanctions against Iran.

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