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'Bibi whisperers': Republican strategists bolster Netanyahu's grip on Israeli politics – FRANCE 24 English

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Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu first stormed to power a quarter of a century ago and has since refashioned Israeli politics with the help of Republican strategists from the United States. In power continuously since 2009, Israel’s longest-serving leader is seeking a record sixth term in Tuesday’s election, the fourth such vote in just two years.

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As Israelis voted in an election Netanyahu was tipped to lose in March 2015, the incumbent prime minister released an election day video message aimed at drumming up support among his traditionally loyal base.

“Arab voters are heading to the polling stations in droves,” Netanyahu warned, seeking to scare his religious and nationalist base into turning out en masse

Netanyahu went on to win that election, confounding most predictions of a narrow defeat. He would repeat the stunt four years later, this time on the eve of another general election, appearing alongside then US president Donald Trump’s pollster John McLaughlin to warn of an impending “leftist” takeover.

“Mr Prime Minister, right now we are losing the race,” McLaughlin told Netanyahu in a video message designed to alarm supporters of his Likud party and its allies on the right. 

Once again, the defeat that was forecast for Netanyahu failed to materialise. An April 2019 vote in which he faced off against challenger Benny Gantz and his Blue and White party instead ushered in a cycle of inconclusive elections and beleaguered attempts at a unity government, sending Israeli voters back to the polls Tuesday for the fourth time in two years. 

Another referendum on ‘Bibi’

McLaughlin’s collaboration with Netanyahu, which began ahead of the 2015 vote, fits into a long history of partnerships between Republican strategists and the US-educated Israeli PM. Those ties go back to Netanyahu’s very first election win – the 1996 upset masterminded by Arthur Finkelstein, an influential conservative consultant who worked for former US presidents Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan.

“Netanyahu proved to be a good student, learning all the best tactics from the many consultants he worked with,” says Dahlia Scheindlein, a pollster and political adviser who has worked on multiple Israeli campaigns

“He’s very skilled at dominating the media, he knows how to generate headline news,” she tells FRANCE 24.

“That’s a classic hallmark of populists – and he’s very good at it.” 

Much has been said about the enduring appeal of “Bibi”, his natural charisma and his baritone voice. Over the years, none of his rivals have succeeded in matching his relentless campaigning or his ability to absorb the media’s attention. 

While campaign issues and alliances have shifted during the country’s recent two-year political morass, Tuesday’s contest is again being framed as a referendum on Netanyahu – a narrative that has dominated recent elections and underscores the extent to which Israel’s longest-serving prime minister has personalised the country’s politics.

“It’s a referendum [on Netanyahu’s leadership] because he’s the reason we’re having this election in the first place,” says Scheindlein, referring to the prime minister’s decision to engineer the collapse of the power-sharing deal he agreed last year with centrist rival Gantz. 

“It’s also seen as a referendum because Netanyahu has become a symbol of the many burning issues dividing Israel today,” she says – from the steady religious encroachment on public life, advocated by his ultra-Orthodox allies, to his own assaults on the independence of the judiciary.

Bannon’s protégé

But this time Israel’s five-term prime minister, who has been in power since 2009, is running for re-election while also standing trial on corruption charges. Critics say his main aim is to secure enough support in parliament to ensure MPs grant him immunity from prosecution. His still loyal supporters, however, say the charges levelled at “King Bibi” are politically motivated.

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While Gantz is now largely sidelined, Netanyahu faces stiff opposition from rival nationalist parties. He is stumping on the success of the country’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign and the normalisation deals with four Arab states orchestrated by the Trump administration.

The former US president, with whom Netanyahu had forged a close bond, has been conspicuously absent from the latest campaign. Gone are the giant billboards on highways and high-rises showing the two men together, a fixture of Israel’s most recent elections. But Trump’s legacy continues to shape Israeli politics, particularly in the prime minister’s camp.

Last year, Netanyahu hired and soon fired two former Trump campaign aides, Corey Lewandowski and David Bossie, who had been brought in to advise the Likud campaign. He also tapped Aaron Klein, a protégé of Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon who rapidly became an influential member of the prime minister’s inner circle and whom some Israeli media dubbed “the Bibi whisperer” .

A former Jerusalem bureau chief for Bannon’s alt-right media outlet Breitbart, Klein has co-authored several books about former US president Barack Obama, including “The Manchurian President: Barack Obama’s Ties to Communists, Socialists and Other Anti-American Extremists”. Following Trump’s election in 2016, Bannon credited Klein with hatching a plan to destabilise Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton during a presidential debate by inviting women who had accused her husband – former president Bill Clinton – of sexual assault.

In November 2019, as Netanyahu’s legal troubles worsened, Axios news site said Klein had volunteered to help the prime minister fight his corruption indictments. Months later, Netanyahu publicly thanked Klein, then his chief strategist, for his “clever” advice ahead of Israel’s 2020 election. He promoted him to campaign manager for the 2021 vote.

Battle of the US consultants

Netanyahu is not the only Israeli politician to have tapped US strategists. One of his main rivals on the right, former Likud heavyweight Gideon Saar, briefly recruited consultants from the Lincoln Group of anti-Trump Republicans – in what some described as an Israeli extension of the rivalry inside the GOP. 

Another key challenger from the right, Naftali Bennett, has hired Netanyahu’s former chief of staff George Birnbaum, while a Democratic strategist is advising the main centrist candidate, Yair Lapid. 

“The battle of the American consultants has been going on for a long time,” says Scheindlein, who was part of the team of Democrats that helped counter Finkelstein in Israel’s acrimonious 1999 election, in which Labor’s Ehud Barak defeated Netanyahu. 

More than two decades later, Scheindlein argues that negative campaigning and demonisation of the left are still hallmarks of Netanyahu’s election tactics. 

“This time he’s making Yair Lapid into the big enemy, branding him a leftist. But he’s done much more negative campaigning in the past, such as linking the left to ISIS (the Islamic State group) in 2015,” she says. “Negative campaigning is part of who he is.”

Enter ‘Abu Yair’

Gideon Rahat, a professor of political science at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a member of the Israel Democracy Institute, sees negative campaigning and personality politics as two things that are “very American” that Netanyahu has helped introduce into Israel’s multi-party, parliamentary system. 

However, he notes that an increasingly fragmented political landscape and the rise of challengers on Netanyahu’s right have made it very difficult for the prime minister to use the kind of tactics he deployed against Gantz.

“It’s very easy to target one opponent but very hard to use the same strategy when under attack from the centre and the right,” Rahat explains in an interview with FRANCE 24.

Rahat says Netanyahu’s attempts to cling on to power and stave off prosecution at the same time have pushed him further into Trump-style populist terrain, “first targeting the media, then prosecutors, then the courts”. He has also been forced to seek out new supporters in the most unlikely places. 

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Six years after his infamous comments on Arabs voting “in droves”, Netanyahu has made an unprecedented push to woo Arab Israelis, campaigning in areas he used to shun and embracing the nickname “Abu Yair” (father of Yair), following the Arab custom of referring to parents as the father or mother of their eldest son.

Arabs count for just over a fifth of the Israeli population, a marginalised constituency that could help break the country’s protracted political deadlock. Just 2 percent voted for Netanyahu’s Likud at the last election. But should he succeed in winning over a larger share  even as he cultivates far-right parties that advocate the expulsion of Arabs  it would certainly buttress his reputation as the magician and master manipulator of Israeli politics.

“He can wear a galabiya (tunic) and call himself Abu Yair from now until the election,” Ahmed Tibi, a leader of the Joint List coalition of Israel’s Arab parties, told The Economist last week.

“Whoever believes him, deserves him.”

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Biden offers tax credits for COVID-19 vaccination and paid time off

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By Trevor Hunnicutt

WASHINGTON (Reuters) –President Joe Biden on Wednesday announced tax credits for certain businesses that pay employees who take time off to get COVID-19 shots, a new effort to involve corporate America in his vaccination campaign.

“I’m calling on every employer, large and small, in every state to give employees the time off they need with pay to get vaccinated,” the Democratic president said.

The tax credits will apply to businesses with fewer than 500 employees, he said.

In a speech, Biden also said he expects the United States to reach his 100-day goal of getting 200 million coronavirus vaccine shots in arms by the end of the day, even as the nation faces an increase in infections.

“Today we hit 200 million shots,” Biden said. “It’s an incredible achievement for the nation.”

Biden said the vaccine effort is entering a new phase with everyone over age 16 becoming eligible to be vaccinated. Biden said 80% of all seniors have received at least one shot, leading to a dramatic decline in the deaths of elderly Americans.

“If you’ve been waiting for your turn, wait no longer,” Biden said.

Biden administration officials said the government plans to reimburse businesses for the cost of giving workers as many as 80 hours in paid time off to get their shots or recover from any side effects.

The tax credit is for up to $511 per day for each worker, through September. Businesses with fewer than 500 employees employ roughly half of U.S. private-sector workers. The tax credits were authorized under Democratic-backed COVID-19 pandemic relief legislation passed by Congress and signed by Biden over Republican opposition.

The administration’s chief problem in its response to the pandemic is now shifting from securing enough vaccine supply to persuading enough Americans to seek out the available shots.

More than half of American adults have had at least one vaccine dose, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). A third of U.S. adults are fully vaccinated, as well as 26% of the population overall.

The U.S. COVID-19 death toll of more than 568,000 leads the world. The coronavirus is still killing hundreds of Americans daily and many Americans have shown a reluctance to get vaccinated.

Countries around the world with less successful vaccination campaigns than the United States are dealing with a spike in infections.

Biden, who has loaned some unused vaccines to Canada and Mexico and donated funds to a multilateral vaccination effort for poor countries, said the White House is still looking at its options for eventually sending vaccines to Canada, Central America and elsewhere. Biden told reporters after his speech that he spoke with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau earlier on Wednesday.

“We don’t have enough to be confident to send it abroad now, but I expect we’re going to be able to do that,” Biden said.

“We’re looking at what is going to be done with some of the vaccines that we are not using. We’ve got to make sure they are safe to be sent.”

(Reporting by Trevor Hunnicutt and Steve Holland; Editing by Will Dunham and Jonathan Oatis)

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The Liberal Government rolls out post-pandemic spending plan ahead of likely election

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By Julie Gordon

OTTAWA (Reuters) -Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s government on Monday lined up billions in new spending to provide emergency support during a virulent third wave of COVID-19 and to help launch an economic recovery ahead of an election expected later this year.

The budget, the Liberal government’s first in two years because of the pandemic, is aimed squarely at boosting near-term growth and includes a long-promised national daycare plan.

It also follows through on stimulus promised late last year, outlining a C$101.4 billion ($81 billion) “growth plan” over three years, with nearly half of that spending coming in the first year.

“We have to finish the fight against COVID – and that costs a lot of money,” Finance Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters, adding that hundreds of thousands of Canadians remain out of work because of the pandemic.

Liberal insiders expect Trudeau to seek an election later this year to try to secure a majority in parliament. The Liberals currently need the support of at least one other party to pass legislation, including the budget.

Opposition lawmakers were unimpressed with the budget. But the leader of the left-leaning New Democratic Party said he was not prepared to bring down the government over it.

“It is clearly irresponsible to have an election or in any way to trigger an election while we are in the midst of this third wave,” Jagmeet Singh told reporters. “The impact on people would be devastating and we are not going to do that.”

Erin O’Toole, who heads the official opposition Conservatives, said: “This is an election budget and a poor one at that.” His party trailed the Liberals by 37% to 29% in an Abacus Data poll published last week.

Business groups were pleased with the added certainty of finally having a full budget, but remained unsold on the need for a massive stimulus plan with the economy already set to surge later this year as pent-up demand is unleashed.

“There’s a lot of spending in a lot of programs. But the effects of all of those combined together for me is just a bit unsure,” said Robert Asselin, senior vice president of policy at the Business Council of Canada.

The deficit for the fiscal year that started on April 1 will be the second largest in recent decades, with the closely watched debt-to-GDP ratio hitting 51.2%, although Freeland promised a return to restraint as the economy gets back to normal.

“I think the key here is the debt-to-GDP (ratio) is expected to peak this year … and it’s expected to come down in the years ahead,” said Doug Porter, chief economist at BMO Capital Markets. “I think that’s a credible plan if they can stick to it.”

THIRD COVID WAVE

Trudeau’s Liberal government has been buoyed in opinion polls by its response to the COVID-19 pandemic. But a third wave of infections is pounding the country’s largest city, Toronto, and its suburbs – a key Ontario region for securing an electoral majority – and the coronavirus vaccine rollout has trailed other wealthy countries like the United States and Britain.

Of the nearly C$50 billion in new spending this year, C$27 billion is set aside to extend pandemic recovery measures like wage and rent subsidies for businesses and for a new program to help transition companies back to hiring.

The budget also aims to create a national childcare program and to make a more aggressive effort to reduce carbon emissions, both measures that polls show are important to Liberal voters.

While Freeland said historically low interest rates allowed significant investment, she also pledged to unwind deficits and reduce the debt-to-GDP ratio over the medium term. A senior government official said, however, that a fiscal anchor should not be seen as a “straitjacket.”

The official also said that the government had run stress tests on the accumulating debt and was confident of its abilities to service that debt even as interest rates rise in the future.

“It’s hard for us to draw a conclusion that we’re out over our skis. We don’t believe we are. We think we’re in very solid terrain,” the official told reporters.

Surging growth should also increase revenues, with 5.8% growth forecast for this year, after a 5.4% contraction in 2020.

The deficit in the current year is projected to hit C$154.7 billion, less than half that of the previous fiscal year, with total national debt soaring to C$1.23 trillion this year, up from C$1.08 trillion in the previous year.

The Canadian dollar steadied at about 1.2530 to the greenback, or 79.81 U.S. cents, after the budget was released. Canada‘s 30-year yield extended its rise, up 7.5 basis points at 2.060%.

($1 = 1.2526 Canadian dollars)

(Reporting by Julie Gordon; Additional reporting by David Ljunggren, Steve Scherer, Fergal Smith and Moira Warburton; Editing by Peter Cooney)

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Beijing huddles with friends, seeks to fracture U.S.-led ‘clique’

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By Gabriel Crossley and Yew Lun Tian

BEIJING (Reuters) – China is shoring up ties with autocratic partners like Russia and Iran, as well as economically dependent regional countries, while using sanctions and threats to try to fracture the alliances the United States is building against it.

Worryingly for Beijing, diplomats and analysts say, the Biden administration has got other democracies to toughen up to a rising, more globally assertive China on human rights and regional security issues like the disputed South China Sea.

“China has always resolutely opposed the U.S. side engaging in bloc politics along ideological lines, and ganging up to form anti-China cliques,” the Chinese foreign ministry said in a statement to Reuters.

“We hope relevant countries see clearly their own interests…and are not reduced to being anti-China tools of the U.S.”

After last month’s stormy talks between top U.S. and Chinese diplomats in Anchorage, Beijing also appeared to engage more urgently with countries like Russia, Iran and North Korea, which are also on the wrong end of U.S.-led sanctions.

COLD COMFORT

“China is very worried about U.S. alliance diplomacy,” said Li Mingjiang, associate professor at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, pointing to what he calls attempts to “huddle for warmth” with governments shunned by the West.

Days after the Alaska meeting, the Chinese government’s top diplomat, State Councillor Wang Yi, received Russia’s foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, who called for Moscow and Beijing to push back against what he called the West’s ideological agenda.

A week later, Wang flew to Iran and signed a 25-year economic pact, which Renmin University professor Shi Yinhong said “effectively exposes every Chinese company participating to direct or indirect U.S. sanctions.”

President Xi Jinping, meanwhile, exchanged messages with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, calling for a deeper partnership with another country whose ambitions for nuclear arms has drawn sanctions.

China is also wooing its economically dependent neighbours. Wang hosted foreign ministers from Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, Singapore and South Korea in China’s southeastern Fujian province in recent weeks.

Li said Beijing will be holding out promises to help these countries revive their economies after the COVID-19 pandemic, making them think twice about siding with the United States.

After Philippines diplomats and generals accused China of sending militia-manned vessels into their waters, President Rodrigo Duterte said he was not going to let territorial disputes in the South China Sea get in the way of working with China on vaccines and economic recovery.

BUILDING BLOCS

Biden has continued to pressure Beijing on many of the same issues the Trump administration did, but with a more alliance-focused strategy.

At a meeting between Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga on Friday, the two countries presented a united front against China’s assertiveness, on issues ranging from the disputed East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, to rights issues in China’s Hong Kong and Xinjiang region.

Last month, the United States, the European Union, Britain and Canada imposed coordinated sanctions over reports of forced labour in China’s western Xinjiang region, while over a dozen countries jointly accused China of withholding information from an investigation into the origin of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Germany, Britain, the Netherlands, Canada and France all recently joined the United States in sending warships through the disputed South China Sea, or announced plans to do so.

Washington also said it wants a “coordinated approach” with allies on whether to participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, amid concerns over human rights violations, particularly related to the treatment of Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in Xinjiang.

BREAKING THE ‘CLIQUE’

China has responded angrily to shows of unity by Washington’s allies, with its diplomats dubbing Japan a “vassal” and Canada‘s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau a “running dog” of the United States.

China’s strategy to weaken this unity revolves around encouraging U.S. allies to engage independently with Beijing, and put the economic benefits first, while punishing them if they engage in joint-action against China.

Beijing responded to the EU’s sanctions of Chinese officials over Xinjiang with disproportionately harsh counter-sanctions, analysts said, potentially torpedoing a long-awaited investment agreement.

Janka Oertel, director of the Asia Programme at the European Council on Foreign Relations, believes Beijing is prepared to sacrifice economic benefits for core interests if they are threatened by the U.S.-EU alliance.

Xi drove home the message in a recent phone call with German Chancellor Angela Merkel, telling her that he hoped “the EU will make a correct judgment on its independence”.

But China still needs European technology and investment, said Joerg Wuttke, president of the European Chamber of Commerce in China.

“They still talk to us, despite the sanctions, business keeps going, and that’s very reassuring.”

Beijing has not given up persuading Washington that cooperation is better than competition, as demonstrated last week when it assured U.S. climate envoy John Kerry of support for Biden’s virtual climate summit this week.

“China hopes Washington can appreciate that it is in U.S. interests to have China as a friend rather than as a foe,” said Wang Wen, a professor at the Chongyang Institute of the Renmin University of China.

 

(Reporting by Gabriel Crossley and Yew Lun Tian; Editing by Tony Munroe & Simon Cameron-Moore)

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