• Israel now ‘major strategic partners’ of US

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    WASHINGTON D.C.: United States lawmakers voted unanimously on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila) to pass legislation making Israel a “major strategic partner” of the US, deepening a bilateral bond that has recently shown signs of strain.

    In Jerusalem, Israeli political leaders agreed on Wednesday to hold a snap election next March, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gambling on a return to power after his ruling coalition collapsed.

    In a voice vote, the House approved the United States-Israel Strategic Partnership Act of 2014, which expands cooperation in defense and security, energy, research and development, business, agriculture, water management and academics.

    The measure reflects “the sense of Congress that Israel is a major strategic partner of the United States,” and declares Washington’s “unwavering support” for Israel as a Jewish state.

    The bill, which passed the Senate unanimously in September, now goes to President Barack Obama for his signature.

    The legislation would expand the US weapons stockpile in Israel by some $200 million in value, to a total of $1.8 billion, so that the Pentagon can be better prepared to conduct military operations in the volatile Middle East.

    It also crucially allows Israel to use the weapons in the event of an emergency, as it did this summer during its operation “Protective Edge” in Gaza.

    Earlier this year Congress dramatically increased US funding for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defense system, to $351 million for fiscal year 2015 from $235 million the previous year.

    “Israel is a bright light in a very, very dark region,” veteran Democrat Eliot Engel said on the House floor shortly before the vote.

    He noted how the bill was aimed in part at helping Israel maintain a “qualitative military edge” over its adversaries.

    “We must always be working to ensure that our support for Israel keeps pace with the threats proliferating against the country – from Iran to Hamas,” House Foreign Affairs Committee chairman Ed Royce added in a statement.

    The legislation also requires the Obama administration to move toward allowing Israel to be included in the top-tier category for license-free exports of certain US technologies and products, and it places Israel on the US list of countries that participate in the visa waiver program.

    Snap polls
    On the snap polls in Israel, parliament’s spokesman said the vote would be held on March 17, after Netanyahu tore apart his fractious coalition government by firing two centrist ministers and calling for the early polls.

    With Israeli-Palestinian tensions running high, polls show Netanyahu’s Likud and other rightwing parties are likely to increase their share of the vote from the previous election held just last year.

    Another win for the Israeli right would leave little hope for Middle East peace talks, after the last round of negotiations collapsed with no progress and following a spate of violence in Jerusalem and the West Bank.

    Netanyahu appealed to voters to grant Likud a “clear mandate,” expressing frustration at nearly two years of coalition politics.

    “Against the serious challenges facing the state of Israel – security, economic and regional – there is a need for a large and experienced ruling party,” he told a meeting of Likud lawmakers.

    “Anyone who wants to give a clear mandate to a prime minister from Likud needs to give many seats to the party,” he said.

    The procedure to adopt a law to dissolve the legislature began Wednesday, with lawmakers at the 120-member Knesset passing a preliminary reading of the bill.

    The law will need to gain approval another three times at parliament before the Knesset is dissolved. It is unclear how long that will take but there is little doubt the bill will be approved.

    The last general election was in January 2013, and the next poll had not been officially due until November 2017.

    AFP

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