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President Barack Obama will not meet Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu when he visits in March to speak to Congress, the White House has announced.

Spokeswoman Bernadette Meehan cited a “long-standing practice” of not meeting heads of state close to elections, which Israel will hold in mid-March.

Benjamin Netanyahu was invited by House Speaker John Boehner in what is seen as a rebuke to Barack Obama’s Iran policy.

President Barack Obama has said he will veto attempts to add new sanctions on Iran.

He believes new measures will be harmful to negotiations over Iran’s nuclear program, talks Benjamin Netanyahu has opposed.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu has warned a deal between Iran and the US will pose a threat to Israel.Netanyahu obama israel

On January 22, Benjamin Netanyahu formally accepted the invitation from senior Republican John Boehner, saying it will give him the chance to “thank President Barack Obama, Congress and the American people for their support of Israel”.

Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to discuss Iran, as well as Islamic militant groups, in his address to Congress on March 3.

“As a matter of long-standing practice and principle, we do not see heads of state or candidates in close proximity to their elections, so as to avoid the appearance of influencing a democratic election in a foreign country,” Bernadette Meehan said in a statement.

She added President Barack Obama had “been clear about his opposition” about new sanctions legislation.

“The president has had many conversations with the prime minister on this matter, and I am sure they will continue to be in contact.”

Nancy Pelosi, the House’s top Democrat, said the visit, two weeks before Israel’s election and in the midst of “delicate” Iran talks, is not “appropriate and helpful”.

Benjamin Netanyahu is fighting a tough election against the Labor Party’s Yitzhak Herzog, who has focused on the prime minister’s cooler relations with Barack Obama.

Four Israelis have been killed and eight injured as two men armed with a pistol, knives and axes attacked a West Jerusalem synagogue, police say.

The attackers – Palestinians from East Jerusalem – were shot dead.

There have been several deadly attacks and clashes in Jerusalem recently amid tension over a disputed holy site.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has vowed to respond “with a heavy hand” to the attack – the deadliest in Jerusalem in six years.

Benjamin Netanyahu blamed “incitement” by Hamas and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and said the international community had ignored their actions.

Hamas and Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah party – rival Palestinian factions – agreed to form a unity government earlier this year, a move denounced at the time by Israel.

Mahmoud Abbas’s office issued a statement saying: “The presidency condemns the attack on Jewish worshippers in their place of prayer and condemns the killing of civilians no matter who is doing it.”

The Abu Ali Mustafa Brigades, the military wing of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, says it carried out the synagogue attack.

Militants from the far-left-wing Palestinian nationalist group have been behind many previous attacks on Israelis.

Hamas and another militant group, Islamic Jihad, praised the attack. Israel has designated both groups as terrorist organizations.

The attack happened at a religious seminary site on Harav Shimon Agassi Street – home to a largely Orthodox Jewish community in the Har Nof neighborhood. Among those killed was Rabbi Moshe Twersky, 60, head of the seminary.

Police say there was a shoot-out with the attackers, said to be cousins, when officers reached the scene.

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Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas has described the closure of the disputed Jerusalem holy site Temple Mount as a “declaration of war”, his spokesman has said.

The move came amid tension after the shooting of Jewish activist Rabbi Yehuda Glick.

Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu called for calm, saying Mahmoud Abbas was responsible for escalating tensions.

Rabbi Yehuda Glick, a campaigner for greater Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount/al-Haram al-Sharif, was wounded.

Israeli police later killed a Palestinian suspected of shooting him.

The man, named as 32-year-old Moataz Hejazi, was shot after opening fire when police surrounded his home.

Rabbi Yehuda Glick is a well-known US-born campaigner for the right of Jews to pray at the site, which they are currently prohibited from doing. The compound is known to Jews as the Temple Mount, and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.

It is the holiest site in Judaism, and also contains the al-Aqsa Mosque – the third holiest site in Islam.

Palestinians hold the Israeli government responsible for a “dangerous act”, Mahmoud Abbas was quoted as saying by Nabil Abu Rudeina, in remarks carried by AFP news agency.

“This dangerous Israeli escalation is a declaration of war on the Palestinian people and its sacred places and on the Arab and Islamic nation,” Nabil Abu Rudeina added.

“The state of Palestine will take all legal measures to hold Israel accountable and to stop these ongoing attacks.”

Rabbi Yehuda Glick is a campaigner for greater Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount

Rabbi Yehuda Glick is a campaigner for greater Jewish prayer rights at the Temple Mount

However, PM Benjamin Netanyahu called for calm and suggested Mahmoud Abbas was responsible for the increasing tension.

“We’re facing a wave of incitement by radical Islamic elements as well as by the Palestinian Authority chairman… who said that Jews must absolutely be prevented from going on to the Temple Mount,” he said, quoted by Haaretz newspaper.

Benjamin Netanyahu added that reinforcements for the security forces would be brought into Jerusalem to keep order.

The shooting of Rabbi Yehuda Glick is the latest in a series of incidents which have led to an escalation of tensions in Jerusalem.

Some districts of East Jerusalem have seen nightly clashes between Palestinians and Israeli security forces since the conflict in Gaza.

Last week a Jewish baby and Ecuadorian woman were killed when a Palestinian attacker drove his car into a group of pedestrians at a tram stop in Jerusalem.

Police said Rabbi Yehuda Glick’s suspected attacker, Moataz Hejazi, had served time in jail in Israel and was released in 2012, adding that he belonged to the Islamic Jihad militant group.

The police anti-terrorist unit along with the Israeli internal security service Shin Bet had received information that Yehuda Glick’s attacker was located in the Abu Tor neighborhood, Israeli officials said.

Police say they were fired at after surrounding the house and shot back, hitting the suspect.

Rabbi Yehuda Glick has had surgery for gunshot wounds to his chest and abdomen.

He had just attended a conference where delegates discussed Jewish claims to the compound, one of the most contentious areas of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Israel argues that it protects freedom of worship at the site but Palestinians claim it is unilaterally taking steps to allow larger numbers of Jewish visitors.

The site is administered by an Islamic body called the Waqf, while Israeli police are in charge of security.

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Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu has declared victory in Gaza after a seven-week conflict.

The Palestinian Islamist Hamas movement was “hit hard and got none of its demands”, Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Hamas has also claimed the truce represents a victory for Gaza and held a large rally to celebrate it.

On Tuesday a ceasefire came into effect after 50 days of fierce fighting in which more than 2,200 people died, most of them Palestinians.

In a televised news conference, Benjamin Netanyahu said Hamas had been “hit hard” and threatened an even tougher response should there be so much as a “sprinkle” of rocket fire from Gaza.

He added that Israel “didn’t agree to accept any of Hamas’ demands”.

On Wednesday, the UN’s World Food Programme (WFP) said one of its convoys had entered Gaza for the first time since 2007, carrying enough food to feed around 150,000 people for five days.

Fishing boats also ventured out to sea as restrictions were eased.

Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu has declared victory in Gaza after a seven-week conflict

Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu has declared victory in Gaza after a seven-week conflict

Thousands of Palestinians began to return to their homes as the truce held for the whole of Wednesday.

Engineers meanwhile struggled to repair infrastructure damaged by Israeli air strikes and shellfire.

In Israel, sirens warning of incoming rocket fire were silent and the military said there had been no violations of the ceasefire since it took effect.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon welcomed the end of hostilities, but warned that a brighter future for civilians who have been affected depends on a sustainable truce.

“After 50 days of profound human suffering and devastating physical destruction, any violations of the ceasefire would be utterly irresponsible,” Ban Ki-moon said.

The cease fire deal calls for the relaxing of Israeli and Egyptian border controls to allow humanitarian supplies and construction materials into Gaza, and the widening of the territory’s fishing zone.

Both sides have agreed to address more contentious issues – including Palestinian demands for a seaport in Gaza and the release of Hamas prisoners in the West Bank, and Israel’s demand for Gaza’s militants to be disarmed – at indirect talks that should begin in Cairo within a month.

Israeli media reported that Benjamin Netanyahu had chosen not to put Egypt’s ceasefire proposal to a vote in his security cabinet because of opposition from ministers who wanted to continue the offensive on Gaza.

Israel launched Operation Protective Edge on July 8 with the stated aim of ending rocket fire.

At least 2,140 people, most of them civilians, have been killed in Gaza, according to the Palestinian health ministry. Another 11,000 people have been injured.

The Israeli authorities say 64 Israeli soldiers have been killed, along with six Israeli civilians and a Thai national.

The UN says more than 17,000 buildings in Gaza have been destroyed or severely damaged, and that there are at least 475,000 internally displaced people (IDPs), more than a quarter of the territory’s population.

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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has warned of a “prolonged” military campaign in Gaza, as it saw one of its heaviest nights of shelling since the conflict began.

Benjamin Netanyahu said Israel would continue to act until it had achieved its aim of destroying militant group Hamas’s network of underground tunnels.

Israel made 60 air strikes on targets in Gaza overnight including TV stations and the house of a key Hamas leader.

It said militants had launched three rockets at Israel.

At least 13 Palestinians are reported to have been killed in the overnight attacks, including six victims in one house in the Bureji refugee camp, while Israel’s army lost 10 soldiers in the past 24 hours.

Officials say more than 1,100 Palestinians, most of them civilians, have been killed in the fighting since July 8. Israel says 53 of its soldiers and three civilians – two Israelis and a Thai worker, have been killed.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has warned of a prolonged military campaign in Gaza

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has warned of a prolonged military campaign in Gaza

Early on Tuesday, Israeli aircraft fired at the unoccupied house of former Hamas PM Ismail Haniyeh, while Hamas TV and radio stations were also hit.

Three rockets were fired from Gaza, with one rocket successfully intercepted and two hitting open spaces in central Israel, Israel’s military said.

At least 10 people – eight of them children – were killed in blasts in Gaza City on Monday afternoon, Palestinian health officials said. It is unclear if they were killed by an Israeli attack or a misfiring militant rocket.

Five Israeli soldiers were killed on Monday when militants infiltrated the border, while a mortar bomb killed four earlier and a tenth died in a clash in southern Gaza, the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) said.

Benjamin Netanyahu described Monday as a “painful day”.

“We will continue to act aggressively and responsibly until the mission is completed to protect our citizens, soldiers and children,” he said.

On Monday, UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon criticized both sides for firing into civilian areas, and called for an immediate, unconditional humanitarian ceasefire in Gaza during the Muslim Eid al-Fitr holiday.

His spokesman later added that Ban Ki-moon was concerned at reports that leaflets had been dropped by the IDF warning residents in the northern Gaza Strip to evacuate to Gaza City.

“If true, this would have a further devastating humanitarian impact on the beleaguered civilians of those areas of the Gaza strip, who have already undergone immense suffering in recent days,” his spokesman said.

Rocket fire and air strikes between the two sides increased after the abduction and killing of three Israeli teenagers in June, which Israel blamed on Hamas and which led to a crackdown on the group in the West Bank. Hamas denied being behind the killings.

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Gaza and Israel have both suffered their deadliest day since the beginning of the current offensive.

Israel says that 13 of its soldiers died since Saturday night, the biggest one-day loss for its army in years.

At least 87 Gazans were reported killed on Sunday – 60 of them in the district of Shejaiya alone. The total death toll in Gaza now stands at more than 425.

Hamas said on Sunday evening that it had captured an Israeli soldier, but this has not been confirmed by Israel.

Celebratory gunfire and shouts could be heard in Gaza City after the claim was made.

Sunday’s death toll for the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) is higher than that sustained by the IDF during the entire three-week duration of Operation Cast Lead in 2008-2009, the last time that Israel sent ground troops into Gaza.

It brings the number of Israeli soldiers killed in the current offensive to 18.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu vowed to continue operations in Gaza “as much as we need to” despite the casualties.

He said the Israeli government felt “deep pain” over deaths of its soldiers, and that Hamas, not Israel was responsible for the escalation in Gaza.

The UN says 83,695 people have now been displaced in Gaza and have taken refuge in 61 shelters

The UN says 83,695 people have now been displaced in Gaza and have taken refuge in 61 shelters

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said the deaths in the Shejaiya district east of Gaza City were a “massacre”.

The UN says 83,695 people have now been displaced in Gaza and have taken refuge in 61 shelters and that the figure is “rising all the time”.

Witnesses spoke of bodies lying in the street.

A humanitarian truce was agreed in the area, but lasted less than an hour with both sides blaming each other for violating the truce.

Paramedics said that rescue workers had not been able to get to the eastern part of Shejaiya, an area very close to the Israeli border and about 1.2 miles away from Gaza City, which has seen heavy shelling.

Benjamin Netanyahu said Israeli troops had no choice but to enter densely populated areas and that they had asked civilians to leave.

The death toll in Gaza rose sharply over the weekend, with the number of Palestinians killed now standing at more than 425 since the operation began, according to Palestinian health officials.

They say the number of wounded from the operation now stands at more than 3,000.

The majority of those killed are civilians, the UN says.

The Israel Defense Forces (IDF) sent ground troops into Gaza on Thursday after days of heavy air and naval barrages failed to stop rocket fire from Gaza.

Two Israeli civilians have died since the offensive began on 8 July.

Israel says the operation is necessary to target Hamas tunnel networks, which it says it could not do from the air alone.

Lt. Col. Peter Lerner, an IDF spokesman, said the offensive was being expanded “to restore security and stability to Israel’s residents and citizens”.

Meanwhile, the UN warned it was running out of supplies to help more than 50,000 Palestinians who have sought shelter at its schools in Gaza.

Qatar is expected to host a meeting between President Mahmoud Abbas and Ban Ki-moon on Sunday before the UN chief continues on to Kuwait, Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian Territories and Jordan.

Mahmoud Abbas is also due to meet Hamas leader Khaled Meshaal.

Hamas rejected an Egypt-brokered ceasefire last week, saying any deal with Israel must include an end to a blockade of Gaza.

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According to Palestinian sources, the death toll from Israeli air strikes on Gaza has risen to 100.

The latest deaths were of two people in a car in the Bureij area on Friday, they said.

Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes since launching its operation on Tuesday to stop rocket fire from Gaza. Militants there continue to fire on Israel, causing damage and injuries.

The US earlier offered to help with a truce in a call to Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Egypt and Turkey have both criticized Israel’s use of force.

The Palestinian health ministry says in addition to those killed, 675 people – mainly civilians – have been injured in Israel’s Operation Protective Edge.

Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes since launching its operation to stop rocket fire from Gaza

Israel has carried out hundreds of strikes since launching its operation to stop rocket fire from Gaza

Israel says “dozens of terrorists” are among the dead.

Overnight in Gaza, an Israeli air strike on a house in Rafah killed five people – three men and two women – the health ministry said.

A second strike, it added, killed a girl in Rafah, while one militant was killed when his motorcycle was hit north of Gaza City.

In Israel, one person was seriously injured when a rocket hit a petrol station in Ashdod on Friday morning, Israeli officials say.

Three rockets were also shot down by Israel’s Iron Dome anti-missile system over Tel Aviv, the Israeli military said.

Lebanon’s military also confirmed that militants in the south of the country had fired three rockets into northern Israel in the early hours of Friday and that Israel had shelled the area in response. No injuries were reported.

One Israeli soldier was injured by mortar fire in Eshkol on Thursday.

In his telephone conversation with PM Benjamin Netanyahu, President Barack Obama said: “The United States remains prepared to facilitate a cessation of hostilities, including a return to the November 2012 ceasefire agreement.”

Condemning rocket fire by Hamas, Barack Obama also “expressed concern about the risk of further escalation and emphasized the need for all sides to do everything they can to protect the lives of civilians and restore calm”.

Middle East peace envoy Tony Blair said on Friday it was necessary to tackle the “longer-term questions at the heart of this violence and conflict”.

“Without that long-term solution in place I think it’s going to be very difficult to create any short-term peace,” he said.

Some 20,000 Israeli army reservists have been mobilized amid speculation of a ground offensive into Gaza.

Israel says its targets in Gaza have been militant fighters and facilities, but the Palestinian health ministry says many women and children have been killed.

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Israel is holding the funerals of three teenagers who were abducted and murdered while hitch-hiking in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli has blamed the Palestinian militant group Hamas for the deaths.

Hamas has denied any involvement.

The teenagers’ bodies were found on Monday evening more than two weeks after the youths went missing.

Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu has said Hamas will be made to “pay” a price for the killings.

The abductions of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel sparked a massive search operation in Israel

The abductions of Eyal Yifrach, Gilad Shaar and Naftali Frenkel sparked a massive search operation in Israel

Overnight, Israel launched more than 30 air strikes on facilities linked to militant groups in the Gaza Strip after 18 rockets were fired into Israel since Sunday night, the Israeli military said.

Benjamin Netanyahu, who will attend the joint funeral held for Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar and Eyal Yifrach, said the teenagers had been “kidnapped and murdered in cold blood by animal”.

The funeral will take place from 17:30 local time at Modiin cemetery in central Israel. Modiin, which is between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is close to the boys’ family homes.

The teenagers’ bodies were found under a pile of rocks near the Palestinian town of Halhul. An Israeli official said it appeared the youths had been shot soon after their abduction.

Israeli troops flooded into Halhul after the discovery.

Its Shin Bet security agency had named two Hamas members from Hebron – Ayoub al-Kawasma and Abu Aisheh – as suspects. The Israeli military raided the homes of both men, setting off explosives.

Palestinian witnesses said Abu Aisheh’s home was destroyed.

The disappearance of the teenagers on June 12 sparked a huge search operation in Palestinian towns and cities across the West Bank.

More than 400 Palestinians were arrested, while five were killed in fighting with Israeli troops.

Benjamin Netanyahu has said the incident is a consequence of “the partnership” between Hamas, which rejects Israel’s right to exist, and the Fatah movement of Mahmoud Abbas.

Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu signed a reconciliation deal in April after years of division and formed a unity government last month.

Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu has accused the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas of kidnapping three Israeli teenagers.

The students went missing on Thursday near an Israeli settlement in the West Bank on their way back from lessons.

Hamas has denied it was involved in their disappearance.

The disappearance is being seen as the biggest strain on relations between the two sides since a Palestinian unity government was announced in April.

As tensions mounted, Israeli troops surrounded a house in the West Bank city of Hebron late on Sunday and gunfire was heard.

Unconfirmed reports said two men were arrested. It is not clear if the incident was connected to the search for the missing teenagers.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu has accused the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas of kidnapping three Israeli teenagers

PM Benjamin Netanyahu has accused the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas of kidnapping three Israeli teenagers

“Those who carried out the kidnapping of our youngsters are Hamas people,” Benjamin Netanyahu said.

Benjamin Netanyahu pointed to the fact that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas recently announced a unity government backed by Hamas.

Israel suspended crisis-hit peace talks with the Palestinians when the government was announced and insists it will not deal with a Palestinian government backed by Hamas.

Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri called Benjamin Netanyahu’s statements “silly” and said the arrests of Hamas figures were “aimed at breaking the will of the Hamas movement in the West Bank”.

The Israeli army says it has arrested about 80 Palestinians in the search for the teenagers.

Israel says an “intensive operation” is under way to find the two 16-year-olds – Naftali Frenkel, Gilad Shaar – and 19-year-old Eyal Yifrach.

They were last seen in the area of Gush Etzion, a bloc of Jewish settlements located between Jerusalem and the predominantly Palestinian city of Hebron.

Palestinian officials have said they are co-operating with the search.

Benjamin Netanyahu previously said he holds the Palestinian Authority responsible for the teenagers’ wellbeing but Palestinian officials have pointed out that the three went missing in an area under full Israeli control.

Israel has said it suspects militants may try to trade the teenagers for Palestinian prisoners, as happened after the 2006 kidnapping of Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit.

Sgt. Gilad Shalit was freed in 2011 after Israel and Hamas agreed a deal under which more than 1,000 Palestinians were released from Israeli detention.

Also on Sunday, the Israeli army said it had conducted aerial raids on the Gaza Strip overnight in retaliation for rockets fired from the Strip into Israel.

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Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has apologized for quotes that appeared in a newspaper that lambasted US Secretary of State John Kerry’s role in the Middle East peace process.

Moshe Yaalon was quoted as saying that John Kerry was acting out of “misplaced obsession and messianic fervor”.

The US state department expressed anger at the remarks.

However, in a statement, Moshe Yaalon’s office said that he had no intention to cause any offence.

“The defense minister… apologizes if the secretary was offended by words attributed to the minister.”

Israel and the US shared “a common goal” of advancing peace talks with the Palestinians, the statement said.

“We appreciate Secretary Kerry’s many efforts towards that end.”

The White House said the alleged comments were “inappropriate” given America’s support to Israel’s security.

It was a rare rebuke to America’s ally.

Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has apologized for comments that lambasted John Kerry's role in the Middle East peace process

Israel’s Defense Minister Moshe Yaalon has apologized for comments that lambasted John Kerry’s role in the Middle East peace process

Moshe Yaalon’s alleged comments – first published by Yediot Ahronot newspaper – may reflect the mind-set of other government officials, but Israelis want to protect their relationship with their strongest ally.

The minister said a security plan that John Kerry had presented to Israel was “not worth the paper it was written on”.

“John Kerry – who has come to us determined and is acting out of an incomprehensible obsession and messianic fervor – cannot teach me anything about the conflict with the Palestinians,” he was quoted as saying.

Moshe Yaalon expressed the hope that John Kerry, who has made 10 trips to Israel since March, would terminate his drive for peace and focus his energies elsewhere.

“The only thing that might save us is if John Kerry wins the Nobel Prize and leaves us be,” he was quoted as saying.

Moshe Yaalon made his comments in private conversations in Israel and the US, the Israeli newspaper said.

White House spokesman Jay Carney accused the minister of misrepresenting John Kerry’s proposals.

“Secretary Kerry and his team have been working non-stop in their efforts to promote a secure peace for Israel because of the deep concern the United States has, and the deep commitment the United States has for and to Israel’s future and the Israeli people.

“To question his motives and distort his proposals is not something we would expect from the defense minister of a close ally.”

Moshe Yaalon’s comments also drew criticism from PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

John Kerry has in recent months attempted to inject momentum into Israeli-Palestinian peace talks re-launched last July.

But the talks have so far shown little sign of progress.

Earlier this month, he held talks with Israeli and Palestinian representatives in an effort to secure a “framework” for a final Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

However, Israel is said to be demanding that it maintains a military presence under any future peace deal with the Palestinians.

While the peace talks have been continuing, Israel last week announced plans to build 1,400 new homes in Jewish settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem.

A dispute over settlement construction led to the collapse of the last peace talks.

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Israel has freed a group of 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a US-brokered agreement to resume direct peace talks.

The prisoners were greeted by cheering crowds on their return to the West Bank and Gaza.

Israel approved the releases on Saturday, but they were delayed to allow victims’ families to appeal.

The prisoners committed murder or attempted murder before the 1993 Oslo accords and have served 19 to 28 years.

They make up the third tranche of a total of 104 prisoners to be freed.

Eight of the men were driven late at night to checkpoints leading into Gaza and East Jerusalem.

The other 18 prisoners were heading to Ramallah in the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas greeted the prisoners at his headquarters in Ramallah and pledged to continue pressing for the release of other long-serving and sick prisoners.

“We will not sign a final peace deal with Israel before all the prisoners are released,” he said.

President Mahmoud Abbas has previously hailed the prisoners as heroes of the Palestinian cause.

Israel has freed a group of 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a US-brokered agreement to resume direct peace talks

Israel has freed a group of 26 Palestinian prisoners as part of a US-brokered agreement to resume direct peace talks

Palestinians celebrate the releases as victories over Israel – something deeply resented by families of Israeli victims of political violence.

Relatives of the victims of the latest prisoners being freed – 18 from the West Bank, three from Gaza and five from East Jerusalem – have staged days of protests against the releases and appealed to the Supreme Court to block them.

In the past, the court has allowed such releases to take place.

“One of the things we knew when we captured these detainees is that they needed to stay in prison for the maximum period,” Meir Indor of Israeli victims’ association, Almagor, told the Jerusalem Post.

“These men are time-bombs. Wherever they go they kill, because that’s the purpose of their lives.”

The Israeli government has stressed that if any of the prisoners “resume hostile activity” they will have to serve the remainder of their sentences.

PM Benjamin Netanyahu also defended the decision to free those behind deadly attacks at a meeting of his Likud party on Monday.

“Leadership is judged by the ability to implement decisions, difficult as they may be,” he said.

“We were not elected to make easy decisions.”

The Palestinian minister for prisoner affairs, Issa Qaraqai, dismissed the Israeli complaints, saying: “Israel is a murderous state and these prisoners are freedom fighters.”

After the two previous releases, the Israeli government has sugared what the right-wing parties within its coalition regard as a bitter pill by making announcements about Jewish settlement plans in the occupied West Bank.

Israeli media reports suggest Benjamin Netanyahu is likely to unveil plans to build an additional 1,400 housing units, including 600 at Ramat Shlomo in East Jerusalem.

About 500,000 Jews live in more than 100 settlements built since Israel’s 1967 occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem. The settlements are considered illegal under international law, though Israel disputes this.

Palestinians say continued settlement construction undermines the direct peace talks, which have shown little sign of progress since resuming in July after a three-year hiatus.

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The new Iran nuclear deal has been called a “historic mistake”by Israel and some Republicans in US Congress.

“What was achieved last night in Geneva is not a historic agreement. It was a historic mistake,” Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu told a cabinet meeting Sunday morning.

“Today the world become a much more dangerous place, because the most dangerous regime in the world took a significant step towards getting the most dangerous weapon in the world.” 

The agreement between Iran and the US, France, Germany, Britain, China and Russia aims to halt the progress of the Iranian nuclear program and rolls back key parts of it.

Earlier, Israel’s Deputy Defense Minister Danny Danon called the agreement “extremely dangerous for the free world.”

“It goes without saying that all options remain on the table and that Israel has the capability – and the responsibility – to defend itself using any means necessary,” Danny Danon said in a statement.

The West and Israel fear that Iran has been seeking to develop a nuclear weapons capability. Tehran denies this, saying its nuclear program is a peaceful energy project.

The White House has tried to reassure Israel that its fear that a deal would leave it vulnerable was unfounded. Late Saturday, President Barack Obama admitted huge challenges remain and said Iran’s promises will be put to the test over the next six months.

“As we go forward, the resolve of the United States will remain firm, as will our commitment to our friends and allies – particularly Israel and our Gulf partners, who have good reason to be skeptical about Iran’s intentions,” the president said.

Israel's PM Benjamin Netanyahu called the new nuclear agreement with Iran as a historic mistake

Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu called the new nuclear agreement with Iran as a historic mistake

Emphasizing the US commitment to Israel as well as his personal relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, John Kerry said on Sunday that the two allies continue to share the same strategy and the US will not tolerate a nuclear Iran threatening Israel.

“There is no difference whatsoever between the United States and Israel about what the end goal is,” John Kerry said.

Earlier in the news conference, John Kerry said the agreement could not have been reached without the Iranians’ decision to come to the negotiating table. He said the next phase of talks, while even more difficult will also be more important

“If this first step leads to what is our ultimate goal – which is a comprehensive agreement – that will make the world safer,” he said.

An agreement with Iran will likely also affect US relations with Saudi Arabia, a Sunni nation, which is threatened by signs of improved US relations with Shiite Iran.

The UAE officially has welcomed the deal but at least one senior Gulf diplomat was much more critical and expressed skepticism over the deal.

The deal stipulates that Iran will commit to halt uranium enrichment above 5% and also to neutralize its stockpile of near-20% uranium. The Islamic Republic has also committed to halt progress on its enrichment capacity. Iran will also halt work at its plutonium reactor and provide access to nuclear inspectors.

In exchange, the US and its allies have agreed to offer Iran “modest relief” from economic sanctions and access to a portion of the revenue that the country has been denied through these sanctions. No new sanctions will be imposed.

The Obama administration also faces skeptics in Congress. Reaction poured in late Saturday and early Sunday and appeared to be divided along party lines.

Rep. Ed Royce, R-California, chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, warned that the deal does not meet the standards necessary to protect the US and its allies.

“Instead of rolling back Iran’s program, Tehran would be able to keep the key elements of its nuclear weapons-making capability.  Yet we are the ones doing the dismantling – relieving Iran of the sanctions pressure built up over years,” Ed Royce said in a statement.

House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, echoed those concerns, saying in a statement he found it “troubling” that the agreement “still permits the Iranians to continue enriching.”

“Iran’s long history of noncompliance with the U.N. Security Council is well known, as is its use of secret facilities to pursue its nuclear program,” Eric Cantor added.

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Israel announces it will release a number of Palestinian prisoners as part of an agreement made with US Secretary of State John Kerry to resume peace talks.

Yuval Steinitz, minister responsible for international relations, said it would involve “heavyweight prisoners in jail for decades”.

John Kerry announced on Friday that initial talks would be held in Washington “in the next week or so”.

The Israeli minister’s remarks are the first details of the deal.

John Kerry had declined to tell reporters in Amman what the two sides had agreed to, saying that the “best way to give these negotiations a chance is to keep them private”.

The agreement came at the end of four days of frenetic shuttle diplomacy, on John Kerry’s sixth visit to the region in the past few months.

Yuval Steinitz told Israeli public radio that the deal adhered to the principles set out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for kick-starting the talks.

The release of prisoners would take place in stages, he said.

While the number of detainees to be freed is unclear, one Palestinian official said discussions had earlier focused on the release of 350 prisoners over a period of months, including around 100 men held since before 1993, when Israel and the Palestinians signed the Oslo peace accords.

According to Israeli human rights group B’Tselem, 4,817 Palestinians are held in Israeli jails.

Israel announces it will release a number of Palestinian prisoners as part of an agreement made with US Secretary of State John Kerry to resume peace talks

Israel announces it will release a number of Palestinian prisoners as part of an agreement made with US Secretary of State John Kerry to resume peace talks

For their part, the Palestinians had committed themselves to “serious negotiations” for a minimum of nine months, said Yuval Steinitz, who is a member of the prime minister’s Likud party.

But he made clear that Israel had not accepted Palestinian pre-conditions, including a halt to settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem.

“There is no chance that we will agree to enter any negotiations that begin with defining territorial borders or concessions by Israel, nor a construction freeze.”

Israel and the Palestinians last held direct talks in 2010, which were halted over the issue of settlement-building.

Settlements are considered illegal under international law, although Israel disputes this.

Announcing the agreed resumption of talks, John Kerry warned that while it was significant, it was still “in the process of being formalized” and the issues that needed to be tackled were “complicated”.

One of the major sticking points for the two sides is the issue of territorial borders.

Palestinian officials say a core demand is that Israel recognizes pre-1967 ceasefire lines but right-wing members of Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition had refused to accept talks based on the issue.

John Kerry praised the Arab League’s decision to back the plan and said Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat and Israeli Justice Minister Tzipi Livni would be travelling to Washington to hold the “initial talks”.

Israeli commentators point out that while Saeb Erekat has been in discussions with the Israeli PM, the Washington talks will not yet involve Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

A spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas said “progress has made it possible to agree on the principles that allow for the negotiations to resume”.

The Middle East Quartet, made up of the US, Russia, the EU and UN, welcomed the “huge achievement” made by John Kerry and his team.

Tzipi Livni responded optimistically to Friday’s developments on her Facebook page, saying “four years of diplomatic stagnation” were about to end, after “months of skepticism and cynicism”.

She promised to protect Israel’s “national and security interests”, saying that she was convinced the talks were “the right thing” for Israel’s future.

Hamas, the Islamist movement that rules Gaza, has rejected the announcement of a return to talks.

“Mahmoud Abbas does not have the legitimacy to negotiate on fateful issues on behalf of the Palestinian people,” spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri said.

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President Barack Obama is ending his Middle East tour with a trip to the famous ruins of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan.

The diplomatic part of his visit ended on Friday when he met King Abdullah and pledged an additional $200 million to help Syrian refugees in Jordan.

Correspondents say Barack Obama’s four-day visit has yielded mixed results.

The US president brokered an Israeli rapprochement with Turkey but there was little progress on the Palestinian issue.

Barack Obama’s Marine One helicopter touched down near Petra after an hour-long flight from the Jordanian capital, Amman.

The site of the ancient city, which is carved into rose-red stone, dates back 2,000 years and is Jordan’s top tourist attraction, drawing more than half a million visitors each year.

President Barack Obama is ending his Middle East tour with a trip to the famous ruins of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan

President Barack Obama is ending his Middle East tour with a trip to the famous ruins of the ancient city of Petra in Jordan

Most of Barack Obama’s time in the Middle East was spent in Israel where he held several meetings with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

A highlight of the visit came when Benjamin Netanyahu apologized to Turkey for “any errors that could have led to loss of life” during the 2010 commando raid on an aid flotilla that tried to breach the Gaza blockade.

Benjamin Netanyahu also agreed to compensate the families of the nine Turkish activists who were killed.

Turkey’s PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said he had accepted the apology, “in the name of the Turkish people”.

Barack Obama also briefly visited Ramallah in the West Bank to meet Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority.

The US president urged Palestinians to drop their demands for a freeze in Israeli settlement-building as a precondition for peace talks.

However, a spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas said the Palestinian leader had told Barack Obama the precondition remained in place.

Speaking to an audience of young Israelis in Jerusalem, Barack Obama praised Jewish nationhood before turning the argument around by stressing the need for Palestinians to share these same values of self-determination and justice.

“It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own living their entire lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day,” Barack Obama said.

President Barack Obama is due to return to Washington later on Saturday.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has apologized to Turkey for “any errors that could have led to loss of life” during the 2010 commando raid on an aid flotilla that tried to breach the Gaza blockade.

Benjamin Netanyahu also agreed with Turkey’s PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan to compensate the families of the nine activists who were killed.

Israel’s prime minister had previously only expressed regret for the deaths.

The deal was brokered by US President Barack Obama during his visit to Israel.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said he had accepted the apology, “in the name of the Turkish people”.

In the past, Recep Tayyip Erdogan has always given two conditions for restoring bilateral relations with Israel – an apology and compensation for victims’ families.

Nine people were killed on board the Turkish aid ship, Mavi Marmara, when it was boarded by Israeli commandos while trying to transport aid supplies to Gaza in May 2010 in spite of an Israeli naval blockade.

The Israeli government admitted mistakes were made in intelligence-gathering and planning, but insisted its commandos used lethal force because activists had attacked them.

The activists said the troops had opened fire as soon as they boarded the vessel, which was in international waters at the time.

The incident provoked an international outcry and led to a major deterioration in relations between Turkey and Israel.

Benjamin Netanyahu has apologized to Turkey for "any errors that could have led to loss of life" during the 2010 commando raid on an aid flotilla that tried to breach the Gaza blockade

Benjamin Netanyahu has apologized to Turkey for “any errors that could have led to loss of life” during the 2010 commando raid on an aid flotilla that tried to breach the Gaza blockade

Before departing for Jordan on Friday afternoon, Barack Obama revealed that Benjamin Netanyahu and Recep Tayyip Erdogan had just spoken by telephone.

“The United States deeply values our close partnerships with both Turkey and Israel, and we attach great importance to the restoration of positive relations between them in order to advance regional peace and security,” President Barack Obama said in a statement released by the White House.

A statement issued by Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said that in the telephone conversation with Recep Tayyip Erdogan he had expressed regret over the deterioration in bilateral ties and noted his “commitment to working out the disagreements in order to advance peace and regional stability”.

“The prime minister made it clear that the tragic results regarding the Mavi Marmara were unintentional and that Israel expresses regret over injuries and loss of life,” it added.

“In light of the Israeli investigation into the incident, which pointed out several operational errors, Prime Minister Netanyahu apologized to the Turkish people for any errors that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete the agreement on compensation.”

The two leaders had also agreed to continue to work on improving the humanitarian situation in the Palestinian Territories, the statement said.

A statement from Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s office said the two prime ministers had agreed on making arrangements for compensation for families of the dead activists.

“Erdogan told Benjamin Netanyahu that he valued centuries-long strong friendship and co-operation between the Turkish and Jewish nations,” it added.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s change of heart is a clear indication of the diplomatic clout that the US still wields with its two key allies in a turbulent region.

The prime minister’s call to his Turkish counterpart was apparently made from a trailer at Tel Aviv airport while Air Force One sat on the ground waiting to depart.

The unglamorous setting and the last-minute nature of the call suggests the deal may not have been easy to broker.

Israeli officials said the apology had become possible after Recep Tayyip Erdogan qualified earlier comments about Zionism in an interview with a Danish newspaper.

Benjamin Netanyahu expressed “appreciation” for the comments, his office said.

Former Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman called the decision to apologize a “serious error”, Israeli news site Walla reported.

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President Barack Obama has met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a historical visit to the West Bank.

Barack Obama has said that the US is “deeply committed” to creating a sovereign state of Palestine.

Speaking after talks with Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, Barack Obama said Israeli settlement activity was not “appropriate for peace”.

US Secretary of State John Kerry would, the president added, devote time and energy trying to bring the two sides closer.

Mahmoud Abbas said the two men had held “good and useful” talks in Ramallah.

However, Palestinian expectations of Barack Obama’s visit have been low, analysts say.

President Barack Obama has met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a historical visit to the West Bank

President Barack Obama has met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during a historical visit to the West Bank

On his first visit to Israel as US president on Wednesday, Barack Obama vowed strong support for the country.

At talks on Wednesday, Barack Obama and Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu reaffirmed their commitment to a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict

Speaking in Jerusalem, President Barack Obama said a central element of securing a lasting peace in the Middle East “must be a strong and secure Jewish state where its security concerns are met, alongside a sovereign and independent Palestinian state”.

Two rockets were fired from Gaza into southern Israel on Thursday morning, Israeli officials say, but there were no reports of anyone being hurt. A further two rockets fired from Gaza reportedly fell inside Gaza itself.

Mahmoud Abbas condemned “violence against civilians, whatever its source, including the firing of rockets”, according to a Palestinian spokesperson.

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Barack Obama has arrived in Tel Aviv for his first trip to Israel as US president.

After landing in Tel Aviv, BarackObama also referred to the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process, saying “peace must come to the Holy Land”.

US officials have tried to lower expectations of any significant headway on restarting the peace process.

Syria, and Iran’s nuclear ambitions are expected to loom large in talks.

Correspondents say Israelis are more preoccupied with instability in the wider Middle East region than with breathing new life into the peace process, which broke down in 2010 amid a dispute over continued Israeli settlement construction.

Settlement supporters are a big force in Israel’s new coalition government.

Barack Obama was welcomed at Ben Gurion airport by Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Israel’s President Shimon Peres.

After being introduced to Israeli ministers and dignitaries, Barack Obama said the US would “never lose sight of an Israel at peace with its neighbors”.

The US president added: “The United States stands with Israel because it is in our fundamental security interests to stand with Israel. Our alliance is eternal. It is forever.”

PM Benjamin Netanyahu said: “Thank you for defending Israel’s right to unequivocally defend its right to exist.”

Barack Obama has arrived in Tel Aviv for his first trip to Israel as US president

Barack Obama has arrived in Tel Aviv for his first trip to Israel as US president

Barack Obama is due to hold separate talks with Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his three-day visit.

In the US, Barack Obama has been criticized for not having visited Israel in his first term as president, with some saying it shows he is not close enough to the country.

That is despite his administration’s repeated assertion that the two countries share an “unbreakable alliance”.

Thousands of Israeli and Palestinian security officers have been assembled in Jerusalem and the Palestinians’ de facto capital in the West Bank city of Ramallah, ahead of his trip.

The state of the economy and social issues dominated Israel’s last election, and Barack Obama has said he is not going to the region bearing any grand peace plan.

Barack Obama’s relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu has been notoriously frosty and one recent opinion poll suggested a mere 10% of the Israeli public had a favorable opinion of the US president.

The main event of this trip is a speech to the Israeli people – Barack Obama’s main task is to build bridges and improve his image, which could give him more leverage over the new Israeli government.

Yesterday, Palestinian protesters gathered in Ramallah and Bethlehem, some throwing shoes at images of Barack Obama and others driving over his portrait, reports said.

Demonstrator Huwaida Arraf told Reuters news agency that Barack Obama’s visit was “a slap in the face”.

“People are angry and disappointed that this far into his presidency, Obama has done nothing, and aid to Israel’s occupation continues to flow,” he said.

Meanwhile, Israeli demonstrators gathered in Jerusalem to demand barack Obama free Jonathan Pollard, imprisoned in the US in 1987 for spying for Israel.

Barack Obama’s three-day visit to Israel:

  • Wednesday: Meets PM Benjamin Netanyahu
  • Thursday: Meets Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas
  • Friday: Visits Bethlehem’s Church of Nativity and later departs for Jordan

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Israel’s new coalition government, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, has been sworn in after nearly two months of negotiations between political parties.

Benjamin Netanyahu will return as prime minister, heading a coalition that includes parties that support Jewish settlements on Palestinian land.

Settlement supporters have secured the defence and housing ministries.

But ultra-Orthodox Jewish factions have been excluded from government for the first time in a decade.

The swearing in began after Israel’s parliament voted to approve the new government, after national elections in January gave no party a clear majority.

Speaking to parliament Benjamin Netanyahu repeated a pledge to make “a historic compromise” in order to make people with the Palestinians.

“With a Palestinian partner who is willing to conduct negotiations in good faith, Israel will be prepared for a historic compromise that will end the conflict with the Palestinians forever,” he said.

The coalition includes Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Beitnu bloc, the centrist Yesh Atid party and the right-wing Jewish Home party.

The new line-up includes a strong showing of pro-settlement ministers.

Both the defence and housing ministries, which must approve construction in the occupied territories, have gone to pro-settlement activists.

Benjamin Netanyahu will return as Israel’s prime minister, heading a coalition that includes parties that support Jewish settlements on Palestinian land

Benjamin Netanyahu will return as Israel’s prime minister, heading a coalition that includes parties that support Jewish settlements on Palestinian land

The new defence minister, Moshe Yaalon, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, opposes any curbs on settlement-building.The new housing minister, Uri Ariel, is a Jewish settler and member of Jewish Home.

He said on Sunday the new cabinet would continue to expand settlements “more or less as it has done previously”.

This could hamper any efforts to revive peace talks with the Palestinians, which have failed to progress through Benjamin Netanyahu’s last four-year term.

The Palestinians are demanding a cessation of settlement construction as a precondition to return to negotiations.

Palestinians say that the settlements, illegal under international law, will deny them a viable state.

The settlement issue is expected to be high on the agenda when President Barack Obama visits Israel in two days’ time, along with Israeli concerns at Iran’s continued nuclear programme.

Iran insists its nuclear programme is peaceful while Israel and the West accuse it of trying to make nuclear weapons.

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Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu has reached a deal to form a new coalition government.

Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-Yisrael Beitenu alliance signed the agreement with the centrist Yesh Atid and the pro-settler Jewish Home, the parties in the coalition say.

It is the first time in a decade that an Israeli coalition government will not include any ultra-Orthodox groups.

The deal follows weeks of deadlock since Benjamin Netanyahu’s election win on January 22.

It comes a day before a deadline passes for Benjamin Netanyahu to legally form a coalition.

“The prime minister welcomes the coalition agreements that have been signed between the Likud and Yisrael Beitenu (on one side) and the Yesh Atid party and the Jewish Home,” a statement from Benjamin Netanyahu’s office said.

“On Saturday evening, the prime minister will inform President Shimon Peres that he has completed the task” of forming a government.

The government is expected to sworn in on Monday, two days before a visit by President Barack Obama.

Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu has reached a deal to form a new coalition government

Israel’s PM Benjamin Netanyahu has reached a deal to form a new coalition government

According to Israeli media reports, there will be 22 ministers, making it the smallest government in decades.Likud will reportedly run the interior ministry, while Yesh Atid has secured five portfolios – including finance and education – and Jewish Home will have three.

In the new cabinet, it is believed Yair Lapid – a former TV presenter who leads Yesh Atid – will be finance minister and Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett, a high-tech millionaire, will be economic and trade minister.

After tough negotiations, it was apparently decided that Yair Lapid’s deputy, Rabbi Shai Piron would take the education portfolio while Likud would have the interior ministry.

Benjamin Netanyahu is expected to act as foreign minister while Avigdor Lieberman, who leads his partner Yisrael Beitenu, faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in a trial.

The defence ministry will be headed by former IDF chief of staff, Moshe Yaalon, a Likud member.

Tzipi Livni, whose Hatnua party holds six seats, will be justice minister and chief negotiator in talks with the Palestinians.

In total Benjamin Netanyahu will control 68 Knesset seats.

The opposition will consist of Labour, the third-biggest party in the parliament with 15 seats, the ultra-Orthodox and Arab parties and centrist Kadima.

One of the first challenges for the new government will be passing the 2013 budget which will include austerity measures.

Benjamin Netanyahu called for an early election last October because he said bickering among his coalition partners made it impossible to pass a “responsible budget”.

During the drawn-out coalition talks, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett formed a pact and got commitments to a new draft law that will compel more ultra-Orthodox men to perform national military service or other civilian duties.

Sharing the “social burden”, as it is known, was a contentious issue in the election.

Many secular Israelis object to the exemptions from army service given to students at religious seminaries or yeshivas and to the large state subsidies that their institutions receive.

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Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been heavily criticized by the US, Israel and the UN for branding Zionism a “crime against humanity”.

Recep Tayyip Erdogan told a UN forum this week: “As with Zionism, anti-Semitism and fascism, it is inevitable that Islamophobia be considered a crime against humanity.”

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu called the comments “dark and mendacious”.

New US Secretary of State John Kerry is expected to raise the issue when he meets Turkey’s leaders on Friday.

John Kerry is in Ankara for talks on the crisis in Syria.

But his visit has been overshadowed by Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s comments, comparing Zionism with fascism, anti-Semitism and Islamophobia, at a meeting of the UN Alliance of Civilizations Forum in Vienna earlier this week.

His words drew strong condemnation from Benjamin Netanyahu’s office, which called them “a dark and mendacious statement the likes of which we thought had passed from the world”.

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been heavily criticized by the US, Israel and the UN for branding Zionism a crime against humanity

Turkish PM Recep Tayyip Erdogan has been heavily criticized by the US, Israel and the UN for branding Zionism a crime against humanity

In the US, National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor said “the characterization of Zionism as a crime against humanity… is offensive and wrong”.

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s office said he heard Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s speech through an interpreter, and called it “unfortunate that such hurtful and divisive comments were uttered at a meeting being held under the theme of responsible leadership”.

Relations between Israel and Turkey have deteriorated since May 2010 when nine Turkish activists aboard a flotilla of aid ships trying to break Israel’s naval blockade of Gaza were killed in clashes with Israeli troops.

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Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to form “as broad a government as possible” after his alliance won a narrow election victory.

His right-wing Likud-Beitenu bloc will have 31 seats in parliament – a sharp drop from 42, exit polls suggest.

In a major surprise, the centrist Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party came second with a predicted 18-19 seats, with Labour next on 17.

Analysts now predict weeks of political horse-trading to form a new cabinet.

They say that there is even a possibility that Benjamin Netanyahu’s alliance would end up being in opposition.

Although the Likud-Beitenu alliance is the largest seat-winner, the split of right and left political blocs is a dead heat at 60-60 in the 120-member Knesset, the Israeli Central Elections Committee website showed, with 99.5% of votes counted.

Thirty-two parties were competing under a system of proportional representation. Parties must win at least 2% of the total vote to secure seats.

Full election results are expected on Wednesday, and the official ones will be announced on 30 January.

Speaking shortly after the voting ended on Tuesday evening, Benjamin Netanyahu thanked the voters “for the opportunity to lead the state of Israel for the third time”.

In an apparent reference to his electoral setback, the prime minister promised to reach out to “many partners” to form a wide coalition.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to form as broad a government as possible after his alliance won a narrow election victory

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu has pledged to form as broad a government as possible after his alliance won a narrow election victory

“Tomorrow we start anew,” Benjamin Netanyahu said.

He also said that preventing Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons remained the government’s first challenge.

Other top priorities, he added, would be stabilizing the economy, striving for peace in the region, more egalitarian military and civilian services and reducing the cost of living.

In a brief speech, Yisrael Beitenu leader Avigdor Lieberman said: “I’m happy that our two main missions were achieved. We have ensured a continuity in the rule of the national camp and the continued leadership of Prime Minister Netanyahu.”

Benjamin Netanyahu is now widely expected to seek an alliance with a new nationalist party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home), which is projected to have 12 seats.

The party – led by Benjamin Netanyahu’s former chief-of-staff Naftali Bennett – has been recently challenging Likud-Beitenu’s dominance on the right.

Analysts say the 18 or 19 seats predicted for Yesh Atid, headed by journalist-turned-politician Yair Lapid, is a stunning result for a newcomer.

Yair Lapid has said he will not join Benjamin Netanyahu’s team unless the prime minister promises to push for peace with Palestinians.

“We have red lines. We won’t cross those red lines, even if it will force us to sit in the opposition,” Yaakov Peri, one of Yesh Atid’s leaders, told Israeli TV.

Labour is expected to get 17 seats – up from just seven in the outgoing parliament. Labour leader Shelly Yachimovich said: “There is a high chance of a shake-up and an end to the Netanyahu government.”

The wider world will examine these results for clues about Israel’s future attitude towards peace talks with the Palestinians or the possibility of a pre-emptive strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities, our correspondent says.

He adds that the truth of the matter is that it’s far too early to make those judgements which will depend on the balance of forces within a future coalition more than on the outcome of the popular vote.

But the sudden and decisive lurch to the right that many predicted has not happened, our correspondent says. The results show that there is plenty of life on the left and the centre of Israeli politics too.

Benjamin Netanyahu, 63, has been in office since the 2009 election. He also served one term as prime minister between 1996 and 1999.

In recent years he has accelerated home construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, drawing anger from Palestinian leaders and criticism from Western partners.

However, unlike in previous elections, the campaign focused largely on social and economic issues, rather than the prospects for a permanent peace agreement with the Palestinians.

There have been unprecedented protests against the rising cost of living and a recent report said nearly one in four Israelis lived in poverty.

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Israel has begun voting in a general election, with polls suggesting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will return to office but with a reduced majority.

Benjamin Netanyahu said the choice was between parties that would lead to “a divided and weak Israel or a united and strong Israel”.

Analysts say he is likely to form a new right-wing coalition.

Unlike previous elections, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process has not been high on most parties’ campaign agendas.

Social and economic issues have emerged as key concerns among voters in the run-up to the polls.

According to final opinion polls, the joint electoral list of Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the ultra-nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party of his former foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman will win about 32 seats. That would be 10 fewer than their combined total from the previous election but still enough to form a majority with right-wing parties.

Other right-wing and religious parties are expected to give Benjamin Netanyahu a majority of about 63 seats in the 120-member Knesset (parliament).

Benjamin Netanyahu called early elections last October after his coalition failed to agree the annual budget.

His joint party ticket has consistently led opinion polls, but recently lost support to a new ultra-nationalist party, Habayit Hayehudi (Jewish Home).

Israel has begun voting in a general election, with polls suggesting PM Benjamin Netanyahu will return to office but with a reduced majority

Israel has begun voting in a general election, with polls suggesting PM Benjamin Netanyahu will return to office but with a reduced majority

Some 1,000 polling stations opened on Tuesday at 07:00 local time and will close at 22:00. About 5.66 million people are eligible to vote.

For the first time the public is able to follow the counting of ballots in real time on a government website, Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reports.

Final results are expected by Wednesday morning, after which coalition talks that could take several weeks will begin.

Speaking at his final campaign appearance in Jerusalem on Monday, Benjamin Netanyahu said he was confident of a late surge in support.

“I have no doubt that many, many people will decide at the last minute to come home to Likud-Yisrael Beitenu.

“I have a good feeling. And at the last minute, I appeal to each and every citizen going to the ballot box: Decide for whom you are going to vote – for a divided and weak Israel or for a united and strong Israel and a large governing party.”

Likud-Beitenu’s right-wing dominance has been challenged by Habayit Hayehudi, led by millionaire businessman Naftali Bennett – Benjamin Netanyahu’s former chief-of-staff.

Naftali Bennett has advocated annexing large parts of the occupied West Bank and rejected the idea of a two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

“I pray to God to give me the power to unite all of Israel and to restore Israel’s Jewish soul,” Naftali Bennett said on Monday during a campaign appearance at Jerusalem’s Western Wall.

Habayit Hayehudi is forecast to take up to 14 seats and become the third-largest party in the Knesset.

The second-largest party is expected to be Labour, which currently has eight seats but is predicted to make a comeback with about 17, due in large part to growing anger over the rising cost of living.

Labour’s leader, Shelly Yachimovich, has ruled out joining a coalition led by Benjamin Netanyahu.

The new secular centrist party, Yesh Atid (There is a Future), led by TV personality Yair Lapid, and centrist Hatnua (The Movement), led by former foreign minister Tzipi Livni, are also set to do moderately well. Both leaders have said they would consider joining a Netanyahu-led coalition.

Israel elections:

  • Polls opened at 07:00 a.m.; close 22:00
  • 5,656,705 eligible voters
  • 34 parties standing
  • 120 seats contested
  • parties elected by proportional representation

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Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been forced to resign after prosecutors decided to charge him with breach of trust.

Avigdor Lieberman has also resigned as deputy prime minister, and said he would fight to clear his name of the charges.

The case against him relates to a financial scandal dating back more than a decade.

His resignation comes five weeks before Israel’s general election.

“Though I know I committed no crime… I have decided to resign my post as foreign minister and deputy prime minister,” Avigdor Lieberman said in a statement released by his office.

He also said he would waive his parliamentary immunity and suggested he hoped to settle the case before the elections, due on January 22nd, allowing him to stand as a candidate as planned.

“I am doing this because I am convinced that Israel’s citizens should be able to go to the polls after this matter has been settled… and I can continue to serve the state of Israel and Israel’s citizens as part of a strong united leadership,” Avigdor Lieberman said in the statement.

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been forced to resign after prosecutors decided to charge him with breach of trust

Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has been forced to resign after prosecutors decided to charge him with breach of trust

Avigdor Lieberman is the leader of Yisrael Beitenu, the second largest party in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud-led coalition government.

The two parties were due to run together in January’s general election, with polls suggesting they were on course to win before the charges against Avigdor Lieberman were announced.

Police had been investigating allegations of money laundering and bribery against Avigdor Lieberman, but prosecutors instead announced plans to charge him with the lesser offence of breach of trust.

That relates to him receiving confidential documents concerning the investigation against him from the former Israeli ambassador to Belarus, who he later promoted to another post.

The more serious charges of bribery and money laundering relate to allegations that Avigdor Lieberman received millions of dollars from businessmen with interests in Israel, and laundered the money through shell companies and bank accounts.

Israeli prosecutors said they had been forced to close the case due to a lack of evidence.

Avigdor Lieberman has denied any wrongdoing, and described the investigations as a witch hunt.

He is seen as one of Israel’s most outspoken politicians. Born in Moldova, he is one of the million Israelis who immigrated from the former Soviet Union.

Seen as to the right of Benjamin Netanyahu, Avigdor Lieberman has been a harsh critic of the Palestinian Authority and its leader Mahmoud Abbas. He lives in an Israeli settlement in the West Bank.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has returned to a hero’s welcome in the West Bank after his successful move to upgrade the Palestinians’ UN status.

“Now we have a state,” Mahmoud Abbas told cheering supporters in Ramallah.

“Palestine has accomplished a historic achievement.”

On Thursday the United Nations General Assembly voted to recognize the Palestinians as an observer state.

In response Israel halted the transfer of tax revenues to the Palestinian Authority (PA).

The decision, announced on Sunday by the Israeli finance ministry, means 460 million shekels ($120 million) will be withheld in December.

The Palestinian Authority (PA), which governs in the West Bank, is heavily dependant on tax revenues Israel collects on its behalf.

A ministry spokesman said the money would instead be used to offset the PA’s debts, which include millions owed to Israel’s electricity company.

The Israeli decision was announced as Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas returned to the West Bank from the UN in New York.

He told thousands of flag-waving supporters in Ramallah that the vote to upgrade the Palestinians’ status from “non-member observer entity” to “non-member observer state” had shown the international community stood behind the Palestinian people.

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has returned to a hero's welcome in the West Bank after his successful move to upgrade the Palestinians' UN status

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has returned to a hero’s welcome in the West Bank after his successful move to upgrade the Palestinians’ UN status

“The march was a long one, and the pressures were enormous,” Mahmoud Abbas added.

“But we stood fast and we prevailed, because we are the voice of these people.”

Mahmoud Abbas also called for reconciliation between Palestinians – a reference to the split between the PA in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza.

On Friday Israel announced it would move ahead with building thousands of new homes in Israeli settlements in the West Bank, in another apparent response to the UN vote.

At a meeting on Sunday, Israel’s cabinet formally rejected the UN’s decision.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called the campaign for Palestinian statehood spearheaded by President Mahmoud Abbas “a gross violation of the agreements signed with the state of Israel”, a reference to peace accords signed in the 1990s.

He said that only negotiations with Israel could lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state.

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A ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Hamas movement has come into effect.

Under the deal, Israel has agreed to end all hostilities and targeted killings, while Hamas will stop attacks against Israel and along the border.

At least 157 people have died since the flare-up of violence began last week.

Both sides continued to fire on each other as the 21:00 ceasefire deadline approached, but no incidents have been reported since.

Earlier, a bomb exploded on a bus in the Israeli city of Tel Aviv, leaving three people needing surgery.

Wednesday also saw at least 13 people die in Gaza.

Israel has agreed to “stop all hostilities on the Gaza Strip, land, sea and air including incursions and targeting of individuals”, the ceasefire deal says.

“All Palestinian factions shall stop all hostilities from the Gaza Strip against Israel, including rocket attacks, and attacks along the border,” it stipulates.

Egyptian Foreign Minister Kamel Amr announced the ceasefire at a news conference in Cairo with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who joined negotiations on Wednesday.

A statement from the office of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he had agreed to a US suggestion “to give a chance to Egypt’s proposal for a ceasefire and so give an opportunity to stabilize the situation and calm it before there will be need to apply greater force”.

For the truce to hold, Hillary Clinton said, “the rocket attacks [from Gaza] must end and a broader calm must return”.

“Now we have to focus on reaching a durable outcome that promotes regional stability and advances the security, dignity and legitimate aspirations of Palestinians and Israelis alike,” she added.

US President Barack Obama praised the Israeli leader for accepting the deal and said he would seek additional funding for the Iron Dome missile defence system, which destroyed dozens of rockets from Gaza in mid-air during the past week.

Barack Obama also thanked Egyptian President Mohammed Mursi for his efforts.

Ties between Hamas and Egypt have strengthened since Mohammed Mursi was elected earlier this year. Hamas was formed as an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood, to which Mohammed Mursi belongs.

Also on Wednesday, Palestinian militants fired more rockets at Israel, while Israel renewed its naval artillery bombardment of Gaza.

Israel launched its current offensive a week ago with the killing of Hamas military leader Ahmed Jabari.

The Israeli government says his assassination, and the subsequent offensive, were aimed at ending rocket fire from Gaza.

More than 150 Palestinians and five Israelis have since been killed.

Israeli officials described Wednesday’s bus explosion as a “terrorist attack”. Hamas praised it but has not said it was behind the blast.

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