Netanyahu seeking immunity law to avoid corruption charges
The Financial Times, Guardian and the Times report that European powers have warned the US and Iran against igniting a conflict “by accident” as tensions in the Gulf rose following an attack on two Saudi oil tankers. The Financial Times reports that Jeremy Hunt, the British Foreign Secretary, issued the warning as Mike Pompeo, Washington’s top diplomat, met separately the foreign ministers of Germany, France and the UK in Brussels on Monday. Pompeo paid the surprise visit to the Belgian capital en route to Russia for what Sergei Lavrov, the country’s Foreign Minister, said would probably be a “frank talk” on US-Iran policy. The European ministers tried to calm tensions stoked by Washington’s plans for further military deployments in the Middle East and Iran’s announcement last week that it would no longer comply with important elements of its nuclear deal. Hunt said the UK was “very worried about the risk of a conflict happening by accident with an escalation that is unintended really on either side. What we need is a period of calm to make sure that everyone understands what the other side is thinking,” Hunt told reporters: “And most of all, we need to make sure we don’t end up putting Iran back on the path to re-nuclearisation . . . This would be a massive step in the wrong direction.”
The Telegraph reports that as he warned of the danger of an “accidental” US-Iran war, UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said Britain must “decisively increase” its defence spending to cope with future threats from all over the globe. Hunt made it clear that if he becomes prime minister he will pour billions more into “hard power” to restore the UK’s place in the world after Brexit. He said it was “not sustainable” for Britain to spend just 2 per cent of GDP on defence, and the Telegraph understands that Hunt favours matching the US model of allocating 4 per cent of GDP to the Armed Forces.
The BBC and the Times report that according to officials, an Iranian woman has been sentenced to 10 years in prison in Iran for spying for the UK. The BBC reports that Judiciary spokesman Gholamhossein Esmaili said the woman had been “in charge of the Iran desk” of the British Council, a cultural organisation. She confessed to “co-operating” with British intelligence, he alleged. Esmaili did not identify the woman. But a relative named her as Aras Amiri, a London-based British Council employee who was detained in Iran in March 2018.
In the Financial Times, Peter Navarro, assistant to the US President for trade and manufacturing policy writes: “Iran’s metals trade funds weapons development”, arguing that without the new US sanctions, the country’s steel export revenues would increase significantly. He says: “The US is determined to choke off external funding to Iran because we want to prevent it from financing missile development, fomenting regional conflicts and funding terrorist networks.”
In the Guardian, Martin Chulov writes: “Iran-US tensions are reaching new heights – and neither is likely to blink”. The long-term standoff threatens to turn into crisis after the alleged sabotage of two Saudi tankers.
The Independent reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is planning to push through a new law that would allow parliament to protect his immunity from prosecution, as he faces possible indictment in three corruption cases, according to leaks to the Israeli media. The new far-reaching bill would allow the Knesset, Israel’s parliament, and government ministers to essentially ignore any High Court of Justice ruling, Haaretz revealed, including the potential revocation of Netanyahu’s immunity.
The BBC reports that police in Israel have arrested a man suspected of poisoning nearly half of the rare vulture population in the Israeli Golan Heights. The suspect, in his 30s, was detained in the Bedouin village of Tuba-Zangariyye, police said. Eight out of 20 griffon vultures remaining in the area were found dead on Friday morning. The incident was a major blow to efforts to save the population, which has sharply declined in recent years. In a statement shared on social media on Sunday (in Hebrew), police did not give further details about the suspect or his alleged motive but said the investigation into the incident was continuing. Local media reports stated that the suspect was accused of spreading poison over the carcass of a cow to kill predators. He was said to be unaware that vultures might consume it.
The Times reports that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is pressing ahead with plans to name a settlement in the disputed Golan Heights after President Trump. Netanyahu announced to his cabinet that a village had been selected and would be called Ramat Trump, or Trump Heights. It would be “a new settlement and we’ve already begun the process of founding it”, said Netanyahu, although according to sources on the Golan local council, it will be an existing village that will be renamed. The location is in the northern part of the Golan Heights, which were captured by Israel from Syria during the Six-Day War of 1967. The village named Beruchim (meaning Blessed), was founded in 1991 for Jewish immigrants arriving from the former Soviet Union but failed to attract many residents and at present only about ten people live there.
The Independent reports that Poland has cancelled a visit by an Israeli delegation over suggestions it would focus on the issue of returning former Jewish property. The delegation was due to be headed by Avi Cohen-Scali, director general of the Israeli Ministry for Social Equality, and was scheduled for Monday. Poland’s Foreign Ministry announced the cancellation on Sunday and claimed “the Israeli side made last-minute changes in the composition of the delegation suggesting that the talks would primarily focus on the issues related to property restitution”. Former Jewish property in Poland has emerged as an emotional issue during campaigning ahead of European parliament elections this month and national elections later this year. Poland was once home to 3.3 million Jews, but most were murdered by the Nazis during the Holocaust and their properties were often looted and later nationalised by the communist regime.
In the Times, Carol Midgley reviews BBC Two’s “One Day in Gaza”, writing that: “a look at one of Gaza’s bloodiest days is wretchedly compelling”.
The Jewish News reports that Britain’s new ambassador to Israel, Neil Wigan, has expressed his excitement at the prospect of returning to Tel Aviv, where he served at the embassy’s political attache between 2002 and 2006. “I had a fantastic time the first time I was there, and I always wanted to go back”, says the ambassador. A fantastic time is an understatement: he met his Israeli wife, Yael Banaji, while serving in Tel Aviv, and the couple, who now have two sons, are really looking forward to their posting.
The Financial Times reports that a vulnerability in the messaging app WhatsApp has allowed attackers to inject commercial Israeli spyware on to phones, the company and a spyware technology dealer said. WhatsApp, which is used by 1.5bn people worldwide, discovered in early May that attackers were able to install surveillance software on to both iPhones and Android phones by ringing up targets using the app’s phone call function. The malicious code, developed by the Israeli company NSO Group, could be transmitted even if users did not answer their phones, and the calls often disappeared from call logs, said the spyware dealer, who was recently briefed on the WhatsApp hack. NSO’s flagship product is Pegasus, a program that can turn on a phone’s microphone and camera, trawl through emails and messages and collect location data. NSO advertises its products to Middle Eastern and Western intelligence agencies, and says Pegasus is intended for governments to fight terrorism and crime. NSO was recently valued at $1bn in a leveraged buyout that involved the UK private equity fund Novalpina Capital.
Reuters reports that Pop superstar Madonna on Tuesday explained her decision to perform at the Eurovision Song Contest in Israel this week, saying that she will always speak up to defend human rights and hopes to see “a new path toward peace.” “I’ll never stop playing music to suit someone’s political agenda nor will I stop speaking out against violations of human rights wherever in the world they may be,” the singer said in a statement to Reuters. “My heart breaks every time I hear about the innocent lives that are lost in this region and the violence that is so often perpetuated to suit the political goals of people who benefit from this ancient conflict. I hope and pray that we will soon break free from this terrible cycle of destruction and create a new path towards peace,” she added.
The Times reports that an Arab pro-democracy campaigner under government protection in Norway believes he is being targeted by Saudi Arabia for work he inherited from the murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi. Iyad al-Baghdadi said he was one of three activists warned by the CIA of threats from Riyadh after they took over digital projects begun by Khashoggi to combat account hacking and the hounding of critical voices on social media. Baghdadi believes he was targeted, in particular, for helping to investigate the alleged hacking and blackmail of Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and owner of the Washington Post, which published Khashoggi’s work. Bezos’s security chief, Gavin de Becker, who led the investigation, accused the Saudi government of hacking into the billionaire’s phone to gain access to intimate messages that were allegedly used in an attempt by the National Enquirer magazine to blackmail him.
The Times reports that supermodel Bar Rafaeli has been ordered to pay £1.7 million to the Israeli tax authorities after medical receipts showed that she spent months in the country while claiming to live abroad. Rafaeli, 33, has one of the most famous faces in Israel and is due to present the Eurovision Song Contest in Tel Aviv on Saturday. She has spent the past year trying to convince a court that between 2009 and 2010 she lived in Hollywood with the actor Leonardo DiCaprio, her former boyfriend. Now the court has allowed details to be published from its verdict, reached last month, which ruled that she must pay eight million shekels in taxes and another 120,000 shekels (£26,000) in court fees.
Yediot Ahronoth reports on the ‘War over Immunity’ – the new laws the Prime Minister and his future coalition partners are allegedly working on: an infiltrators bill [that would allow for African migrants to be deported], a bill to allow families of terrorists to be deported and an override clause that would curtail the High Court of Justice’s ability to strike down laws passed by the Knesset and cabinet decisions. The paper adds that prominent politicians are convinced this is a personal effort to avoid prosecution. One senior coalition figure said: “Netanyahu is preparing public opinion for the dramatic changes that he is going to make immediately after the coalition is formed so as to prevent the possibility of his being indicted.”
Haaretz reports comments by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in which he argues that the government intends to restore balance between the Government and the judiciary. The Prime Minister said that his policy had always been to keep the supreme court strong and independent but added that that did not mean that the court was omnipotent. He said that tendentious reports and distorted analyses have been leaked to the media with the goal of sowing fear and in an attempt to block the restoration of the necessary balance between branches of government. Netanyahu said: “These are bills that the public expects us to pass: the deportation of terrorists’ families, the death penalty for terrorists and a bill to remove infiltrators. I’m determined to act fearlessly on your behalf, the citizens of Israel. That is the reason you elected me.”
Maariv reports comments from the opposition that Netanyahu wants to turn the country into Turkey. Blue and White leader Benny Gantz said in his first speech to the Knesset: “The many efforts that are being dedicated to advancing the override clause and an immunity bill, in order to establish for himself a coalition [that is a] legal fortress, demonstrates that he, Netanyahu, has placed himself above all else.” MK Yair Lapid said: “Netanyahu is playing for time in order to form his get-out-of-jail coalition.”
Israel Hayom reports that, while no one in the Likud has yet officially confirmed that the next coalition intends to pass an immunity law that will grant all MKs, including the Prime Minister, automatic immunity from prosecution, Israel Hayom has learned that the Likud currently is trying to ensure that the coalition has a huge majority in the Knesset’s House Committee. The House Committee will be required to vote either for or against lifting MKs’ parliamentary immunity, in the event that the immunity bill is passed and if the Attorney General decides to indict an MK. If that happens, the Attorney General will be required to ask the House Committee to lift the MK’s immunity, which is why the Likud wants to ensure a majority to prevent that from happening.
In Yediot Ahronoth Ben-Dror Yemini argues that: “There is [normally] no need to be alarmed by constitutional changes or even by an override clause. But this time, contrary to the prime minister’s declarations, there are good reasons to be alarmed. One can criticise the High Court of Justice, and often that criticism is justified. One can argue that the voters’ wishes must be respected—but it was the Likud leaders, including Netanyahu himself, who said the day before the elections that there would be no immunity law that would exempt him from criminal proceedings. So don’t talk about a ‘majority of the public.’”
Shlomo Pyuterkovsky in Yediot Ahronoth argues that: “The idea of passing a bill that would grant the prime minister immunity is, fundamentally, a bad idea, but the level of hysteria over that needs to be dialled back. Did you ever stop to think for a moment that it might actually make sense to pass an override clause that would restore sanity to the relationship between the Supreme Court and the sovereign, the Knesset? For over 40 years governmental power has been flowing in only one direction: from the political establishment to the justice system.” He concludes that: “The attempt to paint this as a war of survival by Prime Minister Netanyahu distorts reality. That is not the story. The story is an attempt to strengthen democracy by means of passing an override clause. When the pendulum swings so strongly in one direction, there is no choice but to take drastic measures, such as passing an override clause, which will strengthen Israeli democracy and restore ruling power to the people by means of its elected officials.”
Maariv reports that the IDF will reinforce the Gaza Division with several battalions, snipers and other troops in advance of Nakba Day, which will be commemorated tomorrow. All signs indicate that a significantly higher number of demonstrators will make their way to the Gaza border fence than have turned out in the last several demonstrations on Fridays, and that tens of thousands of people will attend, as was the case on Land Day at the end of March, in which 40,000 demonstrators took part in the protests. Security officials don’t anticipate that Islamic Jihad will act on orders from its sponsors in Tehran to spark a conflict in Gaza on account of the tensions between Washington and Tehran. Israeli security officials believe that the most recent attacks that were carried out by Islamic Jihad up until the last round of fighting, were carried out autonomously by Islamic Jihad, and were not directed by Iran.
Haaretz reports that one year after the US Embassy’s move to Jerusalem, the world is in no rush to follow Trump. Despite Netanyahu’s attempts to present a different picture and a few public declarations of support from Eastern Europe, the EU remained united throughout the last year in its principled stance not to relocate its members’ respective embassies to Jerusalem except as part of a peace deal resolving the wider Israeli-Palestinian conflict.