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Israelis Vote As Netanyahu Seeks Return To Power

Israelis Vote As Netanyahu Seeks Return To Power

Israelis were voting Tuesday in their fifth election in less than four years, with the hawkish ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu campaigning for a comeback alongside far-right allies.

The latest ballot follows the collapse of the so-called “change” coalition, which united eight disparate parties who succeeded in ousting Netanyahu last year after a record run as prime minister, but ultimately failed to bring political stability.

Israelis have until 2000 GMT to cast their ballot, after which complex bargaining to build a coalition will get underway.

Caretaker Prime Minister Yair Lapid is seeking to hold onto power, with his centrist Yesh Atid party lagging slightly behind Netanyahu’s right-wing Likud in the polls.

Lapid, a former TV anchor, on Tuesday urged the electorate to cast their ballot.

“Go and vote today for the future of our children, for the future of our country. Vote well!” he said at a Tel Aviv polling station.

In a political system where a shift in just one of the 120 Knesset seats up for grabs could cement a ruling coalition — or lead to further deadlock and possible new elections — the outcome remains uncertain once more.

At a polling station in Tel Aviv, left-wing voter Shai Barkan lamented the “terrible” impasse of recent years.

“I’m doing my civic duty, and I hope that these elections will be the last for the next four years,” the 66-year-old designer told AFP.

– Tight race –

Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption and breach of trust, has addressed party faithful from a bulletproof campaign bus, seeking to convince them that only he can keep the country safe.

“I ask you to go to all of your friends, all of your neighbours, all of your relatives, and tell them that nobody stays home,” the 73-year-old known as Bibi urged supporters at a recent rally.

Whoever is tapped to form a government will need the backing of multiple smaller parties to stand a chance of clinching the 61 seats necessary for a majority.

The extreme-right leader Itamar Ben-Gvir may be key to helping Netanyahu return to the premiership, as his Religious Zionism bloc has gained momentum in recent weeks and could come third in the election.

Ben-Gvir, who has faced dozens of charges of hate speech against Arabs, vowed Tuesday there will be a “full right-wing government” led by Netanyahu.

One of Ben-Gvir’s supporters, 40-year-old Jonathan Kern, said the politician “focuses on the things important to me” such as his Jewish identity and security.

“(But) I think that nothing will change, it’s going to be the same dead heat and the most intelligent will form a government,” Kern said in Tel Aviv.

The election is being held against a backdrop of soaring violence across Israeli-annexed east Jerusalem and the occupied West Bank.

At least 29 Palestinians and three Israelis were killed across the two territories in October, according to an AFP tally.

The Israeli military said it would shut checkpoints leading to the West Bank and close the crossing with the blockaded Gaza Strip throughout election day.

While many candidates have cited security as a concern, none have campaigned on a platform of reviving moribund peace talks with the Palestinians.

– Divisions and despondency –

The cost of living has been a hot issue this election as Israelis, having long endured high prices, are feeling the pinch even more amid global economic turmoil linked to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

But in repeated rounds of elections since April 2019, few voters have significantly shifted their allegiances.

The pacts agreed and broken by their political leaders have, however, changed over time and shaped short-lived governments.

Lapid was the architect of the last coalition, which for the first time brought an independent Arab party into the fold and included others from the right and left.

That unlikely alliance was made possible after Mansour Abbas pulled his Raam party from a united slate with other Arab-led parties, paving the way for him to join the coalition.

Recent months have seen further divisions within the Arab bloc, which is running on three separate lists in a move expected to weaken the minority’s representation in parliament.

Such a scenario has led to despondency among many Arab-Israelis — who make up around 20 percent of the population — potentially denting their turnout.

“We need to work harder, first of all, to convince people to go out and vote,” Aida Touma-Suleiman, from the Hadash-Taal alliance, told AFP.

“It’s one frustration on top of another.”

AFP

International

Guatemalan Leader, Deputy Jailed For Fraud

A Guatemalan court on Wednesday sentenced former President Otto Perez to 16 years in prison, finding him guilty of leading a massive customs fraud scheme while in office.

Perez, who was forced to resign in 2015, was found guilty of racketeering and fraud targeting the customs system, Judge Irma Valdes said as she read out the sentence.

Perez was sentenced to eight years on each count.

His former vice president Roxana Baldetti received the same sentence.

A United Nations-backed anti-corruption body revealed several scandals in Guatemala before it was shut down in 2019 by then-President Jimmy Morales after it began investigating him.

One of its key successes was uncovering a multimillion-dollar scheme to cheat Guatemala’s customs duty system, which ultimately led to Perez’s resignation.

Those involved in the scheme – known as “La Linea” (The Line) – received bribes of some $3.5 million, according to investigators, who estimate that Guatemala was defrauded out of almost $10 million in tax revenue.

After the sentence was handed down Perez, 72, told reporters, “I truly feel frustrated, I feel disappointed.”

He said he would appeal the ruling.

Sixteen other people involved in the scam were convicted during the sentencing and 11 others were acquitted.

“The ‘La Linea’ case is one of the most symbolic and is a milestone in Guatemalan history,” director of Transparency International’s local chapter, Citizen Action, Edie Cux, told AFP.

“It is important that in some way the people of Guatemala have justice and that the case does not go unpunished,” she added.

(AFP)

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International

Trump Organization Convicted Of Tax Fraud

Donald Trump’s real estate company was convicted on Tuesday of carrying out a 15-year-long criminal scheme to defraud tax authorities, adding to the legal woes facing the former U.S. president as he campaigns for the office again in 2024.

The Trump Organization – which operates hotels, golf courses, and other real estate around the world – was found guilty of paying personal expenses for top executives including former chief financial officer Allen Weisselberg, and issuing bonus checks to them as if they were independent contractors.

The company faces up to $1.6 million in fines after being convicted on all charges, including scheming to defraud tax authorities, conspiracy and falsifying business records. Trump was not charged in the case.

Justice Juan Merchan, who presided over the trial in state court in New York, set a sentencing date for Jan. 13.

While the fine is not expected to be material for a company of the Trump Organization’s size, the conviction could complicate its ability to do business.

Weisselberg, 75, testified as the government’s star witness as part of a plea deal that calls for a sentence of five months in jail.

Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg, whose office prosecuted the case, called the verdict “very just.”

“The former president’s companies now stand convicted of crimes,” Bragg said in the New York courthouse after the verdict, speaking of the Trump Corporation and Trump Payroll Corporation, the two units of the Trump Organization which were convicted.

Asked if he regretted not charging Trump in the case, Bragg did not respond.

He has said that the office’s investigation into Trump is continuing.

(Reuters)

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International

Forbes says Elon Musk Is No Longer World’s Richest Man

Twitter owner and Tesla (TSLA.O) boss Elon Musk briefly lost his title as the world’s richest person on Wednesday, according to Forbes, following a steep drop in the value of his stake in the electric-car maker and a $44 billion bet on the social media firm.

Bernard Arnault, the chief executive of luxury brand Louis Vuitton’s parent company LVMH (LVMH.PA), and his family briefly took the title as the world’s richest, but were back at No. 2 with a personal wealth of $185.3 billion, according to Forbes.

Musk, who has held the top spot on the Forbes list since September 2021, has a net worth of $185.7 billion. Musk took over the title from Amazon.com (AMZN.O) founder Jeff Bezos.

Tesla shares, which have lost more than 47% in value since Musk made his offer to buy Twitter earlier this year, were down 2.7%.

Musk’s net worth dropped below $200 billion earlier on Nov. 8 as investors dumped Tesla’s shares on worries the top executive and largest shareholder of the world’s most valuable electric-vehicle maker is more preoccupied with Twitter.

Tesla has lost nearly half its market value and Musk’s net worth has dropped by about $70 billion since he bid for Twitter in April. Musk closed the deal for Twitter in October with $13 billion in loans and a $33.5 billion equity commitment.

Besides Tesla, Musk also heads rocket company SpaceX and Neuralink, a startup that is developing ultra-high bandwidth brain-machine interfaces to connect the human brain to computers.

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