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Final voting results show major setback for Israel’s Netanyahu

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Final voting results show major setback for Israel's Netanyahu

“It is clear that Netanyahu does not have a majority to form a government under his leadership,” said Gideon Saar, one of the former Netanyahu allies who now oppose him. “Action must now be taken to realize the possibility of forming a government for change.”

In order to form a government, a candidate must work with allied partners to secure a 61-seat majority in the Knesset, or parliament.

According to the final results released by Israel’s election commission, Netanyahu and his allies captured 52 seats, compared to 57 held by his opponents.

In the middle were two undecided parties: Yamina, a seven-seat nationalist party headed by a former Netanyahu lieutenant, and Raam, an Arab Islamist party that won four seats.

Neither Naftali Bennett of Yamina nor Mansour Abbas of Raam has committed to either camp. Yet deep divisions in both the pro-Netanyahu and anti-Netanyahu blocs could make it difficult for either side to secure a majority with them.

“Israel is experiencing its worst political crisis in decades. It’s apparent that our political system finds it very difficult to produce a decisive outcome,” said Yohanan Plesner, president of the Israel Democracy Institute. “This is as a result of inherent weaknesses in our electoral system, but it’s also because of the Netanyahu factor.”

Tuesday’s vote was widely seen as a referendum on Netanyahu’s leadership style and fitness to rule while under indictment. “Israelis are split right down the middle on this question,” Plesner said.

Netanyahu’s supporters see him as a statesman uniquely qualified to lead the country. He campaigned on his management of the country’s successful coronavirus vaccination program and diplomatic agreements reached last year with four Arab countries.

His opponents, however, say Netanyahu is untrustworthy and has bungled many aspects of the coronavirus crisis. They also say he should not be running the country at a time when he is on trial on multiple corruption charges. The evidentiary phase, in which a series of former aides are to take the stand against him, is set to begin on April 5.

Thursday’s results set the stage for weeks of uncertainty as the country’s figurehead president, Reuven Rivlin, consults with party leaders to see if they can agree on a candidate who can cobble together a new governing majority.

Merav Michaeli, whose center-left Labor party won seven seats, declared victory for the anti-Netanyahu camp. “Now it is time to form a government,” she told Channel 13 TV.

That may not be so simple. The anti-Netanyahu camp includes a diverse array of parties ranging from leftist Arab factions to hard-line nationalists opposed to cooperation with them.

One option floated on Thursday was the possibility of using their slim parliamentary majority to pass legislation that would disqualify an indicted politician from forming a new government, a measure aimed at barring Netanyahu from office. Several parties said they were leaning in that direction.

Netanyahu is on trial for fraud, breach of trust and accepting bribes in three cases. He has denied any wrongdoing and has dismissed the charges as a witch-hunt by a biased law enforcement and media. His opponents accuse him of leading the country into repeated elections in hopes of winning a parliament that would grant him immunity from prosecution.

Dani Dayan, a member of Saar’s New Hope party, said he wasn’t thrilled about pursuing a “personalized” law but said it was worth considering.

“Netanyahu has made such a mishmash between his lawsuit and the needs of the state. Therefore, there’s room for debate on the matter,” he said.

Netanyahu’s Likud party issued an angry statement comparing his opponents to the clerical leadership in Iran, which vets candidates for office. “The ‘change bloc’ is just a nice way of saying an ’anti-democratic bloc,” Likud said.

Despite the charges against him, Netanyahu’s Likud party received around a quarter of the votes, making it the largest party in parliament. A total of 13 parties received enough votes to enter the Knesset — the most since the 2003 election — leaving the parliament divided among a host of midsize parties representing ultra-Orthodox Jewish, Arab, secular, nationalist, and liberal factions.

For Netanyahu to secure a majority, he would likely need to bring in both Bennett, who leads a party popular with hard-line Jewish nationalists, and Abbas, whose party is inspired by the regionwide Muslim Brotherhood movement. Bennett has ruled out an alliance with Abbas.

In another blow to Netanyahu, Bezalel Smotrich, an ally of the prime minister and head of the far-right Religious Zionism party, said Thursday that “a right-wing government will not be established with support from Abbas. Period. Not on my watch.”

Netanyahu will also try to look for individual lawmakers on the other side of the aisle to “defect” and join him.

That, for now, looks like a longshot given the hostility toward the prime minister.

Bennett, Saar and Avigdor Lieberman, leader of the secular nationalist Yisrael Beitenu party, are all former Netanyahu confidants who had messy breakups with the prime minister.

Benny Gantz, leader of the Blue and White party, formed a power-sharing deal with Netanyahu last year, only to see it quickly disintegrate amid nonstop infighting.

Netanyahu’s opponents will also explore various possible combinations that could secure the required 61-seat majority. This could include luring Netanyahu’s ultra-Orthodox allies and even disgruntled members of Likud.

The mind-boggling array of possibilities means that weeks of uncertainty most likely lie ahead, with a chance of an unprecedented fifth consecutive election if an alternative coalition cannot be found.

Late Thursday, Yair Lapid, whose centrist Yesh Atid party finished second with 17 seats, announced he had met with Michaeli and “discussed options for cooperation to build a coalition for change.”

It said they agreed to “meet again and continue discussions.”

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McConnell vs. Trump: Why the GOP Is Right to Worry

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McConnell vs. Trump: Why the GOP Is Right to Worry

From the history of these spats, it makes sense that Republicans are still kneeling to an out-of-power president.

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Blinken names State Department’s chief diversity and inclusion officer

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Blinken names State Department's chief diversity and inclusion officer

“It’s perpetuated by policies, practices and people to this day,” Blinken said.

Abercrombie-Winstanley was the former ambassador to Malta during President Barack Obama’s second term, served as a senior career diplomat for more than three decades, and was the first woman to lead a foreign diplomatic mission in Saudi Arabia.

“We have the talent to become a model in diversity, equity and inclusion in the workforce,” she said after being introduced by Blinken. “We will ensure the Department of State is the organization that deserves the devotion, sacrifice and the dedication that so many of us have freely given.”

The department has long struggled to reflect the diversity of the United States, and the problem has gotten more pronounced in recent years by several measures. For instance, Black employees make up a smaller share of its workforce than in 2002, according to 2020 Government Accountability Office data.

State has also faced internal pressure, particularly among younger staff, to meaningfully address the issue.

Abercrombie-Winstanley has previously spoken about her experience working in the department amid colleagues who were overwhelmingly white and male.

“In many ways, it was very lonely. It was very lonely,” she said during a 2019 POLITICO podcast. “Walking down those long halls of the Department of State, you didn’t see a lot of people who looked like you. You certainly had to deal with impostor syndrome.”

Diplomats of color have also raised concern to POLITICO and others about the unwritten rules they feel the need to abide by in order to advance their careers in the State Department.

Abercrombie-Winstanley will report directly to the secretary of State, Blinken said.

President Joe Biden has promised diversity will be a key facet of his administration, though outside groups have at times had to lobby for representation in the cabinet and for other high-ranking positions throughout the federal government.

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‘Felt like a setup’: WhatsApp chat shows Gaetz ally scrambling to contain fallout

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‘Felt like a setup’: WhatsApp chat shows Gaetz ally scrambling to contain fallout

Greenberg also said he was paying the legal fees for the woman, who is now 21 years old.

The WhatsApp messages shed light on key aspects of the scandal consuming the Florida Republican congressman and close ally of President Donald Trump — and on the state of mind of the man Gaetz once called his “wingman” as he sought to manage the fallout.

Greenberg went so far as to push Gaetz to use his influence with Trump for a pardon, according to two sources familiar with the discussions, including one who heard Greenberg say it repeatedly.

Asked about the request from Greenberg, Gaetz previously declined to confirm or deny that it occurred. But the congressman said he did not ask Trump to pardon Greenberg. Gaetz couldn’t be reached this weekend to discuss the WhatsApp messages that are the subject of this story.

Gaetz’s allies now fear that Greenberg is preparing to strike a deal with prosecutors to deliver Gaetz, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing. The congressman has not been charged and so far no evidence has surfaced against him beyond anonymous allegations he had sex with a minor or paid for prostitutes. But the scandal has seriously hobbled Gaetz, who built a national reputation as one of the staunchest defenders of Trump and has relentlessly attacked the very Department of Justice that’s now investigating him.

Greenberg faces decades of prison time from a total of 33 different charges, including identity theft, a host of financial crimes and stalking a political opponent he falsely smeared as a pedophile. But the alleged sex-trafficking of the former 17-year-old is the most serious charge and carries a 10-year mandatory-minimum prison sentence.

In the Aug. 14 WhatsApp chat with a politically influential Republican mutual friend of Gaetz and Greenberg, Greenberg initially referred to the young woman as “Vintage 99” — a fine-wine reference to her birth year that she used as her online name on SeekingArrangement, a dating website that connects women with so-called sugar daddies.

“I’m having to pay for vintage 99 to retain [a] lawyer,” Greenberg wrote in the WhatsApp chat to the friend, who discussed the messages with POLITICO on condition of anonymity. “They [federal agents] contacted her and are wanting her to talk. She doesn’t want to talk to them.”

Nor does she want to talk to the press. She blocked a POLITICO reporter on social media and her iPhone after she was called and texted to discuss the case Monday. Her attorney couldn’t be reached. POLITICO is withholding her name because she is the alleged victim of a sex crime.

Greenberg’s defense attorney, Fritz Scheller, said his client is not paying anyone else’s legal bills that he’s aware of, and noted he couldn’t speak to Greenberg’s arrangements before Scheller began to represent the defendant in December.

Scheller suggested his client might cut a deal.

“I am sure Matt Gaetz is not feeling very comfortable today,” Scheller said after a hearing last Thursday.

It’s not illegal for a suspect to pay the legal bills of a potential witness against him, but attorneys say the arrangement could raise questions about the case against him.

“Imagine if this was a drug case and the drug lord was paying the lawyer of a prosecution witness. What would people say?” said an attorney representing an individual who spoke to prosecutors in the case, and who was not authorized to speak on the record.

“Any time you get something of value, it’s a potential problem and you’re subject to impeachment. It can make a witness less credible,” the attorney said. “At the same time, to make this case [against Gaetz] work, the evidence just needs to be piled on … They’re interviewing everyone.”

In the WhatsApp chat obtained by POLITICO, Greenberg told the friend that his attorney at the time informed him that “everyone is going to need a lawyer.” But the friend then called Greenberg’s attorney — and determined that Greenberg wasn’t telling him the truth.

“I have nothing to do with any of this and think it is incredibly uncool you are trying to lawyer me up to be a part of it, Joel,” he wrote back via WhatsApp. “Not. F—ing. Cool.”

The friend told POLITICO that Greenberg’s message “felt like a setup.”

“It’s the same playbook he used against the teacher he falsely smeared as a pedophile,” the friend said, referring to a separate charge against Greenberg. “And he’ll do the same thing to Gaetz if he can get less prison time.”

Greenberg and Gaetz shared girlfriends, according to interviews with friends and associates who know the two men, and Greenberg introduced him to young women he met on SeekingArrangement. One friend who spent time in the company of both men said he was of the impression that the two engaged with women in more of a “sugar daddy relationship” where money changed hands, though it wasn’t explicitly prostitution.

“I know Joel and Matt paid some of their bills, rent, tuition, things like that,” the friend said. “This is a thing that happens when you’re successful and you have these relationships: ‘Are we not supposed to help these women who mean something to us and that we care about?’ Is that prostitution? Maybe if you’re a Puritan.”

Since many of the transactions in question took place on Venmo, Greenberg speculated in his WhatsApp messages that those mobile payment records were the likely evidentiary link to the woman who was allegedly sex-trafficked as a minor.

“I’m trying to let everyone know who came into contact with any of these girls that the feds are going through my Venmo history and don’t want anyone to be caught off guard,” Greenberg wrote to his friend, who promptly replied that he wasn’t on Venmo, had no such history with any of these women and begged him to “absolutely positively leave my name the f— out of any of this. I’m serious about this Joel.”

“Understood,” Greenberg replied. “My only concern is I don’t know what could possibly come out of their mouths, and if any of them mentioned places where we met etc. I would think you would want to at least have a heads up if some chick says she partied at your house or something. That’s all. I’m trying to cover every possible angle I can think of. I wouldn’t want anyone to be blindsided.”

The friend insisted that he had nothing to do with what Greenberg was describing and was not involved in his schemes.

“I know you aren’t. I didn’t mean to alarm you. You’ve done nothing wrong,” Greenberg replied.

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