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Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett convened what is likely his last Cabinet meeting as premier on Sunday, with parliament expected to dissolve itself this week, triggering new elections in the fall.

Bennett’s decision to head to elections puts an end to an ambitious political project that united eight ideologically disparate parties that chose to put aside their differences to oust former leader Benjamin Netanyahu, the current opposition leader, who now has an opening to return to lead the country. The elections, the fifth the country has held in three years, deepen an unprecedented political crisis in Israel.

At the meeting, Bennett listed a series of accomplishments under his year-old government and thanked his coalition partners, which included dovish parties that support Palestinian statehood, nationalist ones who don’t, and for the first time in Israeli history, an Arab political faction.

“It was an excellent government that relied, yes, on a complicated coalition. And here in this room there is a group of people that knew how to put aside ideological disagreements, to rise above, and to work for the state of Israel,” he said.

As part of the power-sharing agreement that brought Bennett to power, he is set to hand over the premiership to Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, a centrist former broadcaster, once parliament is dissolved. Elections are expected around the end of October and polls show Netanyahu’s Likud party is expected to garner the most seats.

But as in most rounds of voting during the current political turmoil, Netanyahu, who is on trial for corruption, has been unable to muster a majority to form a coalition government, with some of his traditional allies refusing to join him. That could further extend the crisis after the upcoming vote.

While Bennett’s government helped steady the economy and navigated the last year of the coronavirus pandemic, it was beset by disagreements over the very issues it sought to avoid, particularly Israel’s 55-year occupation of the West Bank. Bennett said he decided to put an end to his political experiment because the government was unable to renew regulations that enshrine separate legal systems for Jewish settlers in the territory and Palestinians.

Bennett’s own nationalist faction, Yamina, was dogged by defectors, legislators who said the prime minister, a former settler leader, had veered too much toward the center in his bid to keep the coalition intact.

Bennett, who entered politics a decade ago, hasn’t said whether he’ll run in the upcoming elections.

Arabic and international

Grease star Olivia Newton-John dies aged 73

Singer Olivia Newton-John, who gained worldwide fame as high school sweetheart Sandy in the hit musical movie Grease, died on Monday after a 30-year battle with cancer. She was 73.

Newton-John “passed away peacefully at her ranch in Southern California this morning, surrounded by family and friends”, said a statement from her husband John Easterling posted on her official social media accounts.

The multiple Grammy-winning entertainer, whose career spanned more than five decades, including chart-topping songs such as Physical, devoted much of her time in later years to charities after first being diagnosed with breast cancer in 1992.

The British-born and Australian-raised star dedicated a number of albums and concerts to raise funds for research and early detection of the disease, including the construction of a health center named after her in her adopted home Melbourne.

 

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Arabic and international

Mecca: Joy as pilgrims able to touch ancient Black Stone

Pilgrims in the Great Mosque of Mecca in Saudi Arabia can once again touch and kiss one of Islam’s most revered relics – the Black Stone set in the sacred Kaaba building.

A barrier around the Kaaba that was set up at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic has now finally been removed.

Pictures show excited worshippers clamouring to get near the Black Stone.

The barrier, set up for social distancing, has been removed just in time for the Umrah pilgrimage season.

The Hajj is a pilgrimage to Mecca that Muslims who are able to must perform at least once in their lifetime. It takes place at a set time of year: in 2022, it ran from 7 to 12 July.

The Umrah pilgrimage can be undertaken at any time of the year and attracts millions from around the world. Pilgrims may also visit the holy city of Medina.

Saudi Arabia dropped most of its stringent Covid-19 restrictions earlier this year, which meant that the Hajj pilgrimage last month was nearly back to normal for the first time since the pandemic started.

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Arabic and international

India’s faltering rice output can cause a new food crisis

Threat to the output of the world’s biggest rice exporter comes when food costs are soaring, inflation rampant globally.

Rice could emerge as the next challenge for global food supply as a shortage of rain in parts of India, by far the world’s biggest exporter, has caused planting area to shrink to the smallest in about three years.

The threat to India’s rice production comes at a time when countries are grappling with soaring food costs and rampant inflation. Total rice planted area has declined 13% so far this season due to a lack of rainfall in some areas, including West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh, which account for a quarter of India’s output.

Traders are worried that a drop in rice production will complicate India’s inflation fight and trigger restrictions on exports. Such a move will have far-reaching implications for the billions of people that depend on the staple. India accounts for 40% of global rice trade, and the government has already curbed wheat and sugar exports to safeguard food security and control local prices.

The jump in India’s rice prices reflect concern about output. Prices of some varieties have soared more than 10% in the past two weeks in major growing states such as West Bengal, Odisha and Chhattisgarh due to deficient rain and increased demand from Bangladesh, said Mukesh Jain, a director at Sponge Enterprises Pvt., a rice shipper. Export prices may climb to $400 a ton by September from as much as $365 now on a free-on-board basis, he said.

Most of the world’s rice is grown and consumed in Asia, making it vital for political and economic stability in the region. In contrast to the surge in wheat and corn prices after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, rice has been subdued due to ample production and stockpiles, helping to ward off a bigger food crisis.

Much is riding on the rice crop in India and the monsoon’s progress. Some agricultural scientists are optimistic that there’s still time to continue planting and make up for some of the shortfall. Rain is forecast to be normal for August to September, which may improve crop output.

 

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