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Israelis go to polls in referendum on Netanyahu’s record reign

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JERUSALEM: Israelis vote in an election that could hand conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a record fifth term or see him dethroned by an ex-general who has pledged clean government and social cohesion.

Dubbed “King Bibi” by both Time and Economist magazines, Netanyahu has rallied a rightist camp hardened against the Palestinians and played up Israeli foreign policy boons that are the fruit of his ties with the Trump administration.

But the 69-year-old Likud party leaders hope of overtaking Israels founding father, David Ben-Gurion, as longest-serving premier in July has been dented by a looming graft indictment. He denies any wrongdoing.

 

Critics warn of “Bibi fatigue” and argue that the parliamentary election should bring fresh faces to high office.

Stalking Netanyahu in the opinion polls has been Benny Gantz, a former chief of the armed forces and centrist political novice. Buttressed by two other former generals at the top of his Blue and White party, Gantz, 59, has sought to push back against Netanyahu`s self-styled image as unrivalled in national security.

“This is a choice between a strong right-wing government under Netanyahu or a weak leftist government under Gantz,” Likud said in a statement. Gantz told Reuters in response: “Netanyahu is not the messiah, nor an irreplaceable legend. The people of Israel long for something else.”

With little policy daylight separating the two candidates on Iran and the Palestinians, or on Israel`s humming economy, much of the voting will by guided by the question of their character.

In vitriolic campaigns waged largely over social media rather than in town squares or street corners, they have exchanged escalating allegations of corruption, of fostering bigotry and even of conspiring with Israel`s adversaries.

Netanyahu casts himself as the victim of media bias and judicial overreach. Gantz casts himself as a salve for Israel`s religiously and ethnically riven society and its relations with liberal Jews abroad.

“This election is about one thing – whether or not Netanyahu should remain in office. It`s the only thing that really defines 12 out of the 13 parties which will be in the next Knesset,” said Anshel Pfeffer, author of the biography “Bibi: The Turbulent Life and Times of Benjamin Netanyahu”.

Which man wins is unlikely to be decided when the polling stations close at 10 p.m. (1900 GMT). No party has ever won an outright majority in the 120-seat parliament, meaning days or even weeks of coalition negotiations will lie ahead.

Israel’s president, Reuven Rivlin, will consult with the leaders of every party represented in the Knesset and choose whoever he believes has the best chance of forming a government.


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International

51 dead as rainstorm lashes South Africa

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Durban: South African authorities said that at least 51 people were killed, including two Zambian minors aged six and nine, after a rainstorm lashed the provinces of Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal here.

Scores have been wounded and more than 1,000 have been displaced, according to South African President Cyril Ramaphosa.

“We want to commend rescue services at all levels of government for their rapid response. Resources have been mobilized and our teams on the ground have saved lives. More than 1000 people have been displaced and the government is providing shelter and support to those in need,” he tweeted.

 

“We thank the communities and individuals who risked their own lives to save loved ones, neighbours or strangers. We also thank the NGOs who are helping those in need by providing shelter, food and ablution facilities. I’ll be going to EC to assess the situation there as well,” he added.

The city of Durban was amongst the most affected areas, which faced flash floods and rainstorm.

The two Zambian children lost their lives after the roof of the house they were sleeping in collapsed, reports Xinhua. Their father sustained injuries and is currently receiving treatment, according to the Zambian embassy in South Africa.

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Sri Lanka troops join hunt for bomb attack suspects

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Colombo: Sri Lanka deployed thousands of additional troops countrywide overnight to help police hunt for suspects in the Easter Sunday suicide blasts that killed nearly 360 people, a spokesman said on Thursday.

Brigadier Sumith Atapattu said the army increased its deployment by 1,300 to 6,300, with the navy and airforce also deploying 2,000 more personnel.

“We are armed with powers to search, seize, arrest and detain under emergency regulations,” Atapattu told AFP.

 

“We are involved in static guard duties, patrolling and helping with cordon-and-search operations.”

The government also announced a ban on all drone flights and said licences issued to all commercial operators were suspended with immediate effect.

Police said they arrested another 16 suspects overnight with alleged ties to the National Thowheeth Jama’ath (NTJ) extremist group accused of the blasts at three churches and three luxury hotels.

Police said about 75 people were now being interrogated in connection with the deadliest attack against civilians in the country’s history.

Sri Lankan authorities are also investigating a security failure to act on prior information about the impending Easter bombings by the NTJ.

President Maithripala Sirisena, who is also the minister of defence and law and order, on Tuesday vowed a major security shake up with pledges to remove the heads of the police and armed forces “within 24 hours”, but there were no changes by Thursday morning.

Recriminations have flown since Sunday’s attacks and the country remained tense with many shops and offices closed and motorists staying off the roads.

Sirisena is due to meet with leaders of all political parties as well as religious leaders in two separate meetings on Thursday to discuss the situation.

Sunday’s bomb attacks were the first in the country since the Tamil insurgency ended almost 10 years ago in May 2009.

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Aafia Siddiqui does not want to return to Pakistan: FO

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Islamabad: Dr Aafia Siddiqui “does not want to come back to Pakistan” and reports of her possible repatriation are “mere chatter”, according to Foreign Office Spokesperson Dr Mohammad Faisal.

Dr Faisal, in an interview with Independent Urdu, said that “she (Dr Aafia) will not come back. She does not want to come back herself, as per the information I have.”
The FO spokesperson said that the only way the possibility of Dr Aafia’s return could arise is if Prime Minister Imran Khan and US President Donald Trump met in the future.

In that case, “the exchange of Aafia Siddiqui for Shakeel Afridi could come under discussion,” he added.

 

Dr Aafia’s sister Dr Fouzia contested the FO spokesperson statement, telling Independent Urdu that “if anyone says that Aafia herself does not want to come to Pakistan, it is completely untrue.” She also confirmed that the consulate office in Houston had met Aafia last month.

Dr Fouzia further said that “at one point it had seemed as if Aafia was going to come to Pakistan any moment.” She said that she had been reassured by the government that negotiations with the US were ongoing and that “there will be a good news between January and March, but now silence has set in again.”

“Aafia told me on the phone that she is ready to sign any document, and that she only wants to get out of jail somehow,” Dr Fouzia was quoted as saying.

It is pertinent to mention here that last year, Dr Aafia’s sister, Dr Fouzia, had requested Foreign Minister Shah Mehmood Qureshi to take up the matter with the US.

The foreign minister had said that the issue of Dr Aafia’s repatriation was “being considered”, following which Consul General in Houston Aisha Farooqui had met Dr Aafia and urged the US to “respect her human and legal rights”.

When asked about Aasia Bibi, the Christian woman who was acquitted by the Supreme Court over blasphemy allegations last year, Dr Faisal said that “she is still in Pakistan but could leave soon”.

“It is inaccurate to say that she has already left,” he said. “She is at a safe location in Pakistan but when there is a court order in her favour, she should leave. In my opinion, she will leave soon.”

The FO spokesperson was also asked whether “the foreign policy is influenced by politics or other departments”.

Dr Faisal, in his response, maintained that the foreign policy is formed at the office of foreign affairs. “But the foreign policy is a combination of all policies, including financial, commercial and security issues,” he said. “This happens world over. A country’s security is linked with its foreign policy.”

In response to a question regarding the future of Pakistan- India relations, Dr Faisal said: “Pakistan has kept a positive attitude with India even in difficult times. Whatever new government is formed in India, Pakistan would like to move forward with peace talks.

“We wrote to the Indian prime minister in September 2018, and invited them for peace talks but have not received a response yet. Hopefully the newly elected government will reply to the letter.”

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