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Embattled Israeli PM fights for survival in do-over election
By JOSEF FEDERMAN | Sun, September 15, 2019 07:33 EDT
JERUSALEM (AP) — A visibly frantic Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is in the fight of his political life as the country heads to national elections for the second time this year.
With Netanyahu locked in a razor tight race and facing the likelihood of criminal corruption charges, a decisive victory in Tuesday’s vote may be the only thing to keep him out of the courtroom. A repeat of the deadlock in April’s election, or a victory by challenger Benny Gantz, could spell the end of the career of the man who has led the country for the past decade.
Netanyahu’s daily campaign stunts have helped him set the national agenda — a tactic the media-savvy Israeli leader has perfected throughout his three decades in national politics. But it may well be the things he can’t control — including a former political ally turned rival and Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip — that bring him down.
Throughout the abbreviated campaign, Netanyahu has seemed to create new headlines at will. One day he is jetting off for meetings with world leaders. The next, he claims to unveil a previously undisclosed Iranian nuclear site. Then he vows to annex parts of the occupied West Bank. Nearly every day, he issues unfounded warnings about the country’s Arab minority “stealing” the election, drawing accusations of incitement and racism.
“Netanyahu is always worried. That’s why he has survived this long,” said Anshel Pfeffer, a columnist at the Haaretz newspaper and author of a recent biography of Netanyahu.
“Every election campaign he enters convinced that he can lose, and that’s how he fights it, with his back to the wall,” he said.
By many counts, the strategy has worked. Netanyahu, the country’s longest-serving prime minister, has dominated the political discourse during a campaign that is seen as a referendum on his rule. His opponents, meanwhile, have been forced to react to his ever-shifting tactics.
Netanyahu has turned to a familiar playbook — presenting himself as a global statesman who is uniquely qualified to lead the country while also portraying himself as the underdog, lashing out at perceived domestic enemies who he claims are conspiring against him.
During a Channel 12 TV interview late Saturday, Netanyahu appeared distressed and combative. He smirked, shook his head and raised his voice as he accused the media of “inciting” against him, angrily rejected the legal case against him and issued dire warnings that his Likud party will lose. “Victory is not in our pocket,” he said.
At the same time, he claimed the country understands that only he can lead. His campaign ads portray him as being in a “different league” and show him embracing his friend, President Donald Trump, as well as Russian President Vladimir Putin, India’s Narendra Modi and other world leaders. Last week, Netanyahu rushed to Sochi, Russia, for talks with Putin about Iran.
“The public is saying, ‘We understand that you are a world-class leader,'” he told Channel 12.
Echoing Trump, Netanyahu routinely lashes out at the media, the judiciary, prosecutors and other alleged foes. But it has been his attacks on Israel’s Arab minority that have caused the most controversy. Netanyahu has long targeted Israeli Arabs to rally his working-class, nationalist base — implying that they are a fifth column threatening the county.
In the current campaign, he has taken these tactics to a new level. He sparked uproar by leading a failed effort to allow activists to film voters at polling stations, claiming without evidence that they were needed to prevent fraud in Arab districts.
That was followed by a message on his Facebook page calling on voters to prevent the establishment of a government that includes “Arabs who want to destroy us all.”
Facebook determined the post violated its hate speech policy and sanctioned the page for 24 hours. Netanyahu said the post was a staffer’s mistake and had been removed.
Ayman Odeh, leader of the main Arab faction in parliament, accused Netanyahu of fearmongering. During a parliamentary session on the voting booth cameras, Odeh mocked Netanyahu by approaching the prime minister and pointing his cellphone camera at him, sparking a brief scuffle with other lawmakers.
“He always looks for an enemy. Always,” said Odeh. “This man offers no hope. He only uses fear.”
Days before the election, the race appears too close to call. Polls published over the weekend showed Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’s Blue and White neck and neck. Both parties fall far short of a majority in the 120-seat parliament, with their “blocs” of smaller allied parties also evenly divided.
The stakes are especially high for Netanyahu. Israel’s attorney general has recommended that Netanyahu be indicted in three corruption cases, pending a hearing scheduled in October.
Although Netanyahu denies all charges, it is widely believed that he hopes to be able to form a narrow coalition of hard-line and religious parties willing to grant him immunity from prosecution.
If he falls short, he could find himself in the opposition or forced into a partnership with centrist rivals who have no interest in protecting him from prosecutors.
“He has no limits, because his only goal today is to avoid going to trial,” said Stav Shaffir, a candidate with the leftist Democratic Union party. “He’s afraid. But the thing is his fear is now used to threaten Israeli democracy. He’s tearing apart Israeli society,” she said.
This week’s election was triggered by Avigdor Lieberman, a longtime ally turned rival who refused to join Netanyahu’s coalition last April, robbing him of a majority, because of what he said was excessive influence by Jewish ultra-Orthodox religious parties.
Lieberman is once again playing hard to get. His Yisrael Beitenu party has emerged as a likely kingmaker, and he is demanding the formation of a secular unity government.
Lieberman also has repeatedly seized on the prime minister’s failure to stop rocket fire launched by Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip.
Despite Netanyahu’s attempts to divert attention from the issue, he was embarrassed last week when air raid sirens disrupted a campaign rally in southern Israel and he was whisked away to safety. The clip spread quickly on social media and was repeatedly played on Israeli TV stations.
Even Netanyahu’s much-hyped friendship with Trump has not delivered major results. During the first campaign early this year, Trump gave Netanyahu a boost by inviting him to the White House, where he recognized Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which Israel seized from Syria in the 1967 war.
This time around, Trump has instead alarmed the Israelis by declaring his readiness to meet with the president of Iran, Israel’s archenemy, and then firing National Security Adviser John Bolton, an Iran hawk who was a strong Israel supporter in the White House.
“It seems that the gift that never stops giving, Donald Trump, has stopped cooperating with Netanyahu at the most critical junction in time,” columnist Ben Caspit wrote in the Maariv daily.
“But no one should eulogize Netanyahu just yet,” he added. “He still has a few days left. More dramatic announcements still lie ahead.”
Late on Saturday, Trump delivered a small election gift, announcing on Twitter that he was exploring a possible defense pact with Israel.
While less dramatic than the Golan announcement last spring, Netanyahu happily accepted the gesture, thanking his “dear friend” and trumping it as “historic.”
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White House says bin Laden son killed in US operation
By ZEKE MILLER 02:53 EDT
WASHINGTON (AP) — The White House announced Saturday that Hamza bin Laden , the son of the late al-Qaida leader who had become an increasingly prominent figure in the terrorist organization, was killed in a U.S. counterterrorism operation in the Afghanistan-Pakistan region.
A statement issued in President Donald Trump’s name gave no further details, such as when Hamza bin Laden was killed or how the United States had confirmed his death. Administration officials would provide no more information beyond the three-sentence statement from the White House.
American officials have said there are indications that the CIA, not the U.S. military, conducted the strike. The CIA declined comment on whether the agency was involved.
The White House statement said Hamza bin Laden’s death “not only deprives al-Qaida of important leadership skills and the symbolic connection to his father, but undermines important operational activities of the group.” It said Osama bin Laden’s son “was responsible for planning and dealing with various terrorist groups.”
The U.S. officials had suspected this summer that Hamza bin Laden was dead, based on intelligence reports and the fact that he had not been heard from in some time. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss intelligence matters. Defense Secretary Mark Esper told Fox News Channel in a late August interview that it was “my understanding” that Hamza bin Laden was dead.
A U.S. official familiar with the case who spoke on condition of anonymity about intelligence-gathering said bin laden was killed in the past 18 months. Confirming such a high-profile death can take a long time, said the official, who declined to say what led the U.S. to report bin Laden’s death with certainty.
The younger bin Laden had been viewed as an eventual heir to the leadership of al-Qaida, and the group’s leader, Ayman al-Zawahri, had praised him in a 2015 video that appeared on jihadi websites, calling him a “lion from the den of al-Qaida.” Bin Laden’s death leaves Zawahiri with the challenge of finding a different successor.
The U.S. government in February said it was offering $1 million for help tracking down Hamza bin Laden as part of the State Department’s Rewards for Justice program. The department’s notice said he was married to a daughter of Abdullah Ahmed Abdullah, an al-Qaida leader and Egyptian charged for his role in the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in East Africa. They were said to have two children, Osama and Khairiah, named after his parents.
He was named a “specially designated global terrorist” in January 2017, and he had released audio and video messages calling for attacks against the U.S. and its allies. To mark one 9/11 anniversary, al-Qaida superimposed a childhood photo of him over a photo of the World Trade Center.
Video released by the CIA in 2017 that was seized during the 2011 U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden showed Hamza bin Laden with a trimmed mustache but no beard at his wedding. Previous images have only shown him as a child.
Hamza bin Laden is believed to have been born in 1989, the year of the Soviet withdrawal from Afghanistan, where his father became known among the mujahedeen fighters. His father returned to Saudi Arabia and later fled to Sudan after criticizing the kingdom for allowing U.S. troops to deploy in the country during the 1991 Gulf War. He later fled Sudan for Afghanistan in 1996, where he declared war against the U.S.
As al-Qaida’s leader, Osama bin Laden oversaw attacks that included the 1998 bombings of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania, as well as the bombing of the USS Cole off Yemen. He and others plotted and executed the 2001 attacks against the United States that led to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan. U.S. Navy SEALs killed the elder bin Laden in a raid on a house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, in 2011.
This past March, Saudi Arabia announced that it had revoked the citizenship of Hamza bin Laden. The kingdom stripped Osama bin Laden’s citizenship in 1994 while he was living in exile in Sudan when Hamza bin Laden was just a child. It was unclear where Hamza bin Laden was at the time of the Saudi action.
Hamza bin Laden began appearing in militant videos and recordings in 2015 as an al-Qaida spokesman.
“If you think that your sinful crime that you committed in Abbottabad has passed without punishment, then you thought wrong,” he said in his first audio recording.
After the Sept. 11 attacks, a U.S.-led invasion of Afghanistan sought to topple the Taliban, an ally of al-Qaida, and seize the elder bin Laden. He escaped and split from his family as he crossed into Pakistan. Hamza was 12 when he saw his father for the last time — receiving a parting gift of prayer beads.
“It was as if we pulled out our livers and left them there,” he wrote of the separation.
Hamza and his mother followed other al-Qaida members into Pakistan and then Iran, where other al-Qaida leaders hid them, according to experts and analysis of documents seized after U.S. raid that killed Osama bin Laden. Iran later put the al-Qaida members on its soil into custody. During this time, Hamza married.
In March 2010, Hamza and others left Iranian custody. He went to Pakistan’s Waziristan province, where he asked for weapons training, according to a letter to the elder bin Laden. His mother left for Abbottabad, joining her husband in his hideout. On May 2, 2011, the Navy SEAL team raided Abbottabad, killing Osama bin Laden and his son Khalid, as well as others. Saber and other wives living in the house were imprisoned. Hamza again disappeared.
In August 2015, a video emerged on jihadi websites of al-Zawahri introducing “a lion from the den of al-Qaida” — Hamza bin Laden. Since then, Hamza had been featured in al-Qaida messages, delivering speeches on everything from the war in Syria to Donald Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia on his first foreign trip as president.
But he hadn’t been heard from since a message in March 2018, in which he threatened the rulers of Saudi Arabia.
Associated Press writers Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Lolita C. Baldor in Ljubljana, Slovenia, and Deb Riechmann in Washington contributed to this report.
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Poll: Outsider, jailed tycoon top Tunisian presidential vote
By BOUAZZA BEN BOUAZZA | Sun, September 15, 2019 07:06 EDT
TUNIS, Tunisia (AP) — A jailed media magnate and an independent outsider appeared likely to face off in Tunisia’s presidential runoff, after a roller coaster first-round race in the country that unleashed the Arab Spring pro-democracy uprisings.
Official preliminary results are expected in the next couple of days from Sunday’s voting, in which corruption, unemployment and Islamic extremism were among key campaign issues. A second-round vote is expected by Oct. 13, the electoral commission chief said.
An exit poll by agency Sigma Conseil forecast what would be a surprising result: A top showing of 19.5% for independent Rais Saied, a constitutional law professor without a party.
Tycoon Nabil Karoui, jailed since last month on money laundering and tax evasion charges, was predicted to come in second with 15.5%, according to the poll.
Karoui’s supporters quickly declared victory, and his wife Salwa said his legal team is pushing for his release as soon as Monday. She read a letter he wrote from jail in which he said the apparent results reflected “the Tunisian people’s wish to see change, to say no to injustice, no to poverty, no to marginalization and yes to a fair state.”
The polling agency projected the candidate of moderate Islamist party Ennahdha, Abdelfattah Mourou, would come in third, followed by Defense Minister Abdeldrim Zbidi and then Prime Minister Youssef Chahed, who had been considered a top contender.
Sigma Conseil said it questioned 38,900 people at 778 of Tunisia’s 4,554 polling stations, spread out over 27 of the country’s 33 regions. It claimed the poll had a margin of error of 1%.
The electoral commission announced that overall turnout was a relatively low 45%. If no candidate wins more than 50% of Sunday’s vote, the election goes to a second round. The exact date of the runoff will be announced once the final first-round results are declared.
Both Saied and Karoui promised to fight unemployment, a key problem in Tunisia that also helped drive its 2011 revolution.
Saied has no political background but notably picked up support among young voters with his straightforward, anti-system image and constitutional law background. Corruption frustrates many voters, which might have increased the appeal of an outsider candidate.
Karoui meanwhile positioned himself as the candidate of the poor, notably using his TV network to raise money for charity. His arrest appears to have mobilized voters in the struggling provinces or those who feel sidelined in the Tunisian economy. Karoui was allowed to remain in the race because he has not been convicted.
The voting followed a noisy but brief campaign — 12 days — marked by backbiting and charges of corruption among the contenders. All vowed to boost the country’s flagging economy and protect it from further deadly attacks by Islamist extremists.
Tunisia is in many ways an exception in the Arab world, with its budding democracy lurching forward despite challenges. Some 6,000 Tunisian and international observers, including from the European Union and the United States, monitored the vote.
More than 100,000 security forces were on guard Sunday as 7 million registered voters were called to the polls. Military surveillance was especially tight in border regions near Algeria and Libya where Islamist extremists are active.
Sunday’s election follows the death in office in July of the nation’s first democratically elected leader, Beji Caid Essebsi. His widow, Chadlia Saida Farhat, died Sunday at age 83, as Tunisians were voting.
This is only the second democratic presidential election that Tunisia has seen since the 2011 popular uprising brought down autocrat Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and triggered uprisings across the Arab world.
“The most important thing is that the vote be transparent … and reflect the choice of voters,” said retired journalist Radhia Ziadi, alluding to the days when Ben Ali won election after election with well over 90% of the votes.
Tunis voter Sonia Juini summed up the overall sentiment as she cast her ballot, expressing hope the new president would make Tunisia more secure and “improve living conditions and take care of marginalized areas.”
Tunisia is also holding its parliamentary election on Oct. 6, another challenge since the new president’s success will depend on having support in parliament.
Mosa’ab Elshamy and Mehdi El Arem in Tunis and Elaine Ganley in Paris contributed.
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Drug company attorneys seek to disqualify federal judge
By MARK GILLISPIE 04:27 EDT
CLEVELAND (AP) — Attorneys for eight drug distributors, pharmacies and retailers facing trial next month for their roles in the opioid crisis want to disqualify the federal judge overseeing their cases, saying he has shown bias in his effort to obtain a multibillion-dollar global settlement.
According to the motion filed late Friday in U.S. District Court in Cleveland, where Judge Dan Polster presides over most of the 2,000 lawsuits filed by state, local and tribal governments, the judicial code requires judges to recuse themselves when there is an appearance of prejudice or bias.
The attorneys wrote that Polster has made comments during hearings, media interviews and public forums about the importance of getting help to governments struggling to contain a crisis that has killed 400,000 people nationally since 2000.
“Defendants do not bring this motion lightly,” the motion said. “Taken as a whole and viewed objectively, the record clearly demonstrates that recusal is necessary.”
Polster has not responded to the motion filed by attorneys for the drug distributors AmerisourceBergen Drug Corp., Cardinal Health Inc., McKesson Corp. and Henry Schein Inc.; drugstore chains CVS, Rite Aid and Walgreens; and retailer Walmart.
Next month’s trial on behalf of the Ohio counties of Summit, which includes Akron, and Cuyahoga, which includes Cleveland, are viewed by Polster as a bellwether that could shape how other lawsuits are resolved. Several drug manufacturers have settled with the counties ahead of trial.
The attorneys say Polster’s comments about his intentions to get plaintiffs help during hearings, media interviews and public forums are evidence of his bias and prejudice. They cited a remark made during the first court hearing in January 2018 for the multidistrict litigation when Polster said, “My objective is to do something meaningful to abate the crisis and to do it in 2018.”
The motion said: “Under settled law, any one of these statements would be enough to cause a reasonable person to question a judge’s impartiality.”
A statement released Saturday by the executive committee for attorneys representing the government plaintiffs gave Polster their full-fledged support, calling him a judge with “great integrity, intelligence, and impartiality” who has served on the federal bench for decades.
The statement calls the defense attorneys’ motion “a desperate move on the eve of trial by opioid companies that created, fueled and sustained the crisis following rulings by the court concluding that there is sufficient evidence to find that these companies created a public nuisance and conspired together to avoid regulation and sanctions.”
This story has been updated to correct the name of one of the drugstore chains to Walgreens, instead of Walgreen.
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Death toll rises to 6 in torrential rains in southeast Spain
By JOSEPH WILSON | Sat, September 14, 2019 12:06 EDT
BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Record rainfall claimed two more lives in southeastern Spain as it caused widespread flooding, raising the overall death toll to six from the storms, authorities said Saturday.
Emergency rescue workers saved thousands of people during the storm that slammed into the Mediterranean coastal regions of Valencia, Murcia and eastern Andalusia this week. Local authorities said some towns and cities reported their heaviest rainfall on record. The downpour forced the closure of airports in Almeria and Murcia as well as intercity train lines, major roads and schools.
A fifth victim was found late Friday by police in the village of Redován. News agency Europa Press reported that police said the 58-year-old man was swept away by rushing waters when he got out of his vehicle.
A sixth victim was confirmed by authorities on Saturday — a 41-year-old man in the town of Orihuela, where the Segura River overflowed its banks on Friday.
Acting Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez flew over the devastated areas in a helicopter on Saturday.
“We deeply lament the news of a new victim in Orihuela,” Sánchez wrote on Twitter. “All my warmth and solidarity for the people affected by the heavy rains. Together, we will deploy all our resources and aid to help the population and return things to normal.”
The storms in this area are a yearly metrological phenomenon, but they have been particularly fierce this fall, turning fields into lakes and roads into surging rivers of mud that sweep away everything in their path.
The rain let up a bit Saturday after drowning the area for two days. Spain’s weather service decreased the alert for rain from “extreme danger” to “at risk” as the storm moved westward toward the country’s central region.
Some residents trapped by the floods had harrowing escapes. Some had to be airlifted by helicopter from the rooftops of buildings surrounded by water. Four people were stranded on top of cars in a flooded tunnel until help arrived by boat and jet ski. Sixty other people were pulled from rising waters at a campsite that was completely surrounded by rushing water.
Interior Minister Fernando Grande-Marlaska said Friday that 3,500 people had been rescued from perilous situations. Police and emergency workers answering calls for help were backed up by 1,000 soldiers.