Israel to hold early election in April, says Netanyahu

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…As North Korea ordered to pay $501m in damages over Otto Warmbier’s death***

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced on Monday a snap election in less than four months.

The April 9 election would otherwise not have been due until November.

The prime minister is appealing directly to voters for a fresh political mandate that could help him weather possible charges in corruption investigations.

The government cited differences within Netanyahu’s coalition over a new military conscription bill affecting exemptions for ultra-Orthodox Jews as the main reason for the early ballot.

But there has long been speculation that the right-wing leader, whose popularity has held up  in spite of corruption allegations, could call an election .

Netanyahu wants to do this before the attorney general decides whether to follow police recommendations to indict him.

The indictment decision had been expected within weeks, but some Israeli media reports said the attorney general could opt to delay any indictments out of concern over influencing the outcome of the poll.

The Justice Ministry said work on the cases would continue “independent of political events”.

Netanyahu has denied any wrongdoing and has given no indication he will step down if charged.

“The voters, I think, understand exactly what we have done for Israel,” Netanyahu told lawmakers from his Likud party on Monday.

“We are coming to ask for a clear mandate from the voters to continue leading Israel our way.”

Leaders of parties in the ruling coalition met earlier in the day with Netanyahu and announced a decision to ask parliament to dissolve itself.

A Likud spokesman said the dissolution vote was likely this week.

Netanyahu has been governing with a majority of a single seat in parliament since November when Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman quit the government.

An electoral victory would give Netanyahu ammunition to fight a potential indictment, said Hebrew University political analyst Reuven Hazan.

“He wants to win. He wants to turn around to the attorney general and say, ‘before you decide to prosecute me, pay attention. The people of Israel have reelected me. You cannot overturn the results of a democratic election.’”

After the election was announced, the main Tel Aviv share indexes fell by more than 2 per cent and the Israeli shekel also weakened.

Since Lieberman’s resignation last month, Netanyahu took over as defense minister as well as prime minister.

He has been appearing regularly in photos with soldiers, seen as a bid to boost his image ahead of a likely early election.

In recent speeches, he has focused on what he called his main achievements in meeting security challenges posed by Iran and Palestinian militants, building a strong economy and pursuing diplomatic outreach with moderate Arab states.

No one in Netanyahu’s Likud has made a public challenge against him.

Outside Likud, Yair Lapid, head of the centrist Yesh Atid opposition party, is seen as the strongest candidate to succeed Netanyahu in any upset.

Former army chief Benny Gantz is seen as a dovish potential candidate who could tip the balance in favour of a centre-left bloc, but has not yet thrown his hat in the ring.

On the right, Lieberman and Naftali Bennett, head of the Jewish Home party, could both seek to head a right-wing bloc.

Netanyahu has been in power for three consecutive terms since 2009 and also led Israel from 1996-1999.

A fifth election victory would give him the most in Israeli history. 

In the meantime, a US court has ordered Pyongyang to pay $501m in damages for the torture and death of US college student Otto Warmbier last year, who died after being released from captivity in North Korea.

US district judge Beryl Howell in Washington ruled that North Korea should pay damages to Fred and Cindy Warmbier, the parents of the University of Virginia student.

Warmbier’s parents sued North Korea in April over their son’s death. The 22-year-old student died after being imprisoned in North Korea from January 2016 until he was returned to the United States in a coma in June 2017. He died a few days later and an Ohio coroner said the cause was lack of oxygen and blood to the brain.

Warmbier was a University of Virginia student who was visiting North Korea with a tour group when he was arrested and sentenced to 15 years of hard labor in March 2016 on suspicion of stealing a propaganda poster.

The judgment is largely a symbolic victory for now, since there is no mechanism to force North Korea to pay.

Fred and Cindy Warmbier said they were thankful that that the court found the government of Kim Jong-un “legally and morally” responsible for their son’s death.

“We put ourselves and our family through the ordeal of a lawsuit and public trial because we promised Otto that we will never rest until we have justice for him,” they said in a joint statement. “Today’s thoughtful opinion by Chief Judge Howell is a significant step on our journey.”

The lawsuit, filed in April, describes in horrific detail the physical abuse Warmbier endured in North Korean custody.

When his parents boarded a plane to see him upon arrival in the US, they were “stunned to see his condition”, according to court documents.

The 22-year-old was blind and deaf, his arms were curled and mangled and he was jerking violently and howling, completely unresponsive to his family’s attempts to comfort him. His once straight teeth were misaligned, and he had an unexplained scarred wound on his foot. An expert said in court papers that the injuries suggested he had been tortured with electric shocks.

A neurologist later concluded that the college student suffered brain damage, probably from a loss of blood flow to the brain for five to 20 minutes.

The complaint also said Warmbier, who was from a suburb of Cincinnati, Ohio, was pressured to make a televised confession and then convicted of subversion after a one-hour trial. He was denied communication with his family.

In early June 2017, Warmbier’s parents were informed he was in a coma and had been in that condition for one year.

Additional report from Guardian UK