The Times of Israel livebloggied Thursday’s events as they occured.

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Most Israelis, plurality of Palestinians still favor two states – poll

A majority of Israelis and a large plurality of Palestinians continue to support a two-state outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

According to the survey by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research and the Tami Steinmetz Center for Peace Research at Tel Aviv University, the survey, continued throughout December 2016 among a relatively large sample of 1,270 Palestinians and 1,207 Israelis, a two-state solution remains the preference of some 55 percent of Israelis and 44% of Palestinians.

In their Thursday publication of their findings, the researchers note that this marks a drop from a comparable poll conducted in June 2016, in which 59% of Israelis and 51% of Palestinians supported two states.

Even with the decline in the second half of 2016, the option remains by far the front runner among both groups. Respondents were also offered the options of a one-state conclusion to the conflict, and a confederacy of some sort between an Israeli polity and a Palestinian one. Both of these alternatives put together won just 28% of Israelis and one-third of Palestinians. Only Israel’s Arab citizens gave majority support to an alternative outcome to the two-state solution.

Saudis optimistic about relations with US under Trump

BAD NEUENAHR, Germany — Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister says his country expects to have a productive relationship with the Trump administration and is optimistic that US-Saudi cooperation can overcome challenges in the Middle East.

Adel al-Jubeir makes the comments on Thursday at the top of a meeting with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, who is on his first overseas trip as America’s top diplomat. Jubeir says Saudi Arabia is looking forward to working with the US on numerous issues.

He does not elaborate but Saudi Arabia has deep concerns about Iran’s increasing assertiveness in the region and he and Tillerson are to attend larger meetings on the crises in Yemen and Syria on the sidelines of a gathering of foreign ministers from the Group of 20 world powers in nearby Bonn.

Tillerson makes no substantive remarks in the presence of reporters, limiting his comments to polite chatter about his past business travel experience as CEO of Exxon Mobil.

— AP

2 Israelis held in Bulgaria over murder of fellow Israeli

Two Israelis are detained by Bulgarian police in the western Bulgarian town of Samokov on suspicion of murdering a third Israeli.

The two men are detained some two kilometers from the site where authorities find a mortally wounded Israeli man, and some 1,500 meters from an abandoned van believed to have been involved in the incident, the Sofia News Agency reports, citing private broadcaster bTV.

According to various local reports, the two detained Israelis are brothers, and are suspected of having dropped the victim in a forest outside Samokov. Local witnesses tell police they saw the brothers fleeing the site after leaving the victim behind.

The Israeli Foreign Ministry says it is looking into the report.

Netanyahu meets US Vice President Pence

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is meeting this hour with US Vice President Mike Pence in Washington, a day after Netanyahu’s first summit meeting with President Donald Trump.

Throughout his trip, which began Monday, Netanyahu has held a series of meetings with congressional leaders and other key figures in Washington, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson on Tuesday.

Air Force inquiry says F-16 crash caused by uneven weight

An Israeli Air Force investigation into last October’s F-16 crash at an airbase in southern Israel in which Maj. Ohad Cohen Nov was killed reveals that the cause of the accident was, as believed, an “asymmetric landing” in which the plane’s weight was not evenly distributed.

The finding is part of an army report whose conclusions are being made public by the military on Thursday.

The report, delivered to the head of the Air Force in recent days, finds that Cohen Nov and his navigator followed correct procedures, but that this could not prevent the development of “an inability to control the aircraft.”

The navigator successfully ejected from the plane just before the crash, followed shortly thereafter by Cohen Nov. The difference was just 0.4 seconds, according to the Ynet news site.

The navigator made it out of the plane largely unscathed, but Cohen Nov died during the ejection, the report finds.

In light of the report, IAF chief Amir Eshel is calling for a review of asymmetric landing procedures, including test flights and retraining for pilots and navigators, the army says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Arab League chief says Mideast peace requires two-state solution

CAIRO — Arab League chief Ahmed Abul Gheit says resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would require a two-state solution, a day after Washington signaled it would drop that demand.

Abul Gheit affirms that the conflict “requires a comprehensive and just peace based on a two-state solution with an independent Palestinian state,” according to a statement after Abul Gheit’s meeting with UN chief Antonio Guterres in Cairo.

His comments come a day after US President Donald Trump met Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington and suggested a two-state solution is not necessary.

Guterres also called for a two-state solution on Wednesday in a speech in Cairo, saying there is “no Plan B.”

The Arab League statement says he and Abul Gheit “agreed that the two-state solution remains the real way to achieving” peace.


Mattis: US not ready to collaborate militarily with Russia

BRUSSELS — Defense Secretary Jim Mattis says the US is not ready to collaborate militarily with Russia, appearing to close the door for now on any effort to work more with Moscow in the fight against Islamic State militants in Syria.

Mattis says the US will continue to engage politically with Russian President Vladimir Putin’s government to try to find common ground. He says Russia must “prove itself” and abide by international law.

The US ceased military to military relations with Russia in the wake of Moscow’s 2014 annexation of Ukraine’s Crimea region.

As a candidate, President Donald Trump repeatedly praised Putin, saying he wanted a new era of cooperation with Moscow.

Putin called Thursday for increased intelligence cooperation with the US and NATO.

— AP

NATO says boosted naval presence in Black Sea not meant to provoke Russia

BRUSSELS, Belgium — NATO will step up naval war games and surveillance in the Black Sea to complement its increased land and air force presence near a more assertive Russia, the alliance says Thursday.

NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg insists the decision taken by alliance defense ministers in Brussels was not designed to be a provocation at a time of heightened tensions with Russia, which annexed the Black Sea peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.

“We agreed on… an increased NATO naval presence in the Black Sea for enhanced training, exercises and situational awareness,” Stoltenberg tells a press conference.

A NATO official tells AFP on condition of anonymity the decision was taken to deal with Russia’s military buildup in the Black Sea and bolster the alliance’s southeastern flank after it sent troop reinforcements to the Baltic States and Poland in the northeast.

The official also says the goal is to boost intelligence gathering, such as on Russian ground-to-air missiles in the region.

“We will have an increased presence in the Black Sea but it will be measured, it will be defensive and it will in no way be provoking any conflict or escalating tensions,” Stoltenberg says.


Putin urges ‘restoring dialogue’ between Russia, US intel

MOSCOW — Russian President Vladimir Putin calls for Russian intelligence agencies to bolster ties with their US counterparts in the fight against terrorism.

“Restoring dialogue with the special services of the United States and other NATO members is in our mutual interest,” Putin tells the country’s FSB intelligence agency in a televised speech.

“It’s not our fault that it stopped and is not developing. It’s absolutely obvious that in the sphere of anti-terrorism all responsible states must cooperate.”

Putin’s comments come as Moscow is hoping new US leader Donald Trump makes good on his pledge to improve tattered ties with Russia and seek cooperation in the fight against the Islamic State jihadist group.

This combination of pictures created on December 30, 2016 shows a file photo taken on December 28, 2016 of then-US President-elect Donald Trump, left, in Palm Beach, Florida and a file photo taken on December 23, 2016 of Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking in Moscow. (AFP Photo/Don Emmert, Natalia Kolesnikova)

This combination of pictures created on December 30, 2016 shows a file photo taken on December 28, 2016 of then-US President-elect Donald Trump, left, in Palm Beach, Florida and a file photo taken on December 23, 2016 of Russian President Vladimir Putin speaking in Moscow. (AFP Photo/Don Emmert, Natalia Kolesnikova)

“Even a simple exchange of information about the channels and sources of terrorists, about people implicated in or suspected of terrorism seriously raises the effectiveness of our joint efforts,” Putin says.

Trump’s administration is currently facing heat over reports of its ties to Moscow — which follow allegations from the US intelligence community that Putin ordered a hacking and influence campaign to help get Trump elected.


Former Trump aide blames chaos on disloyalty

A former Donald Trump associate and campaign official is blaming the bumpy start of the billionaire’s presidency on mixed loyalties in the White House.

Roger Stone declines to name names in an appearance on NBC’s “Today” show Thursday, but he discusses “a division between those who are loyal to the president and those who are loyal to the Republican National Committee.”

When asked if he was referring to Reince Priebus, who headed the RNC before joining Trump’s team and becoming chief of staff in the West Wing, Stone demurs, indicating he doesn’t want to say who he is talking about.

Stone says, “The leaking that is coming out of the White House is a manifestation of the fact” that some of the people Trump hired “are not loyal.”

He adds, “I think it’s healthier to have people in the administration who share the president’s vision of where he wants to take the country.”

— AP

ADL: US deaths from terror, extremism at highest level since 1970

Deaths due to terrorism and extremist tick up slightly in 2016, according to the Anti-Defamation League.

At least 69 people were killed in the US last year, a modest jump from 65 in 2015, the Jewish anti-hate group says Thursday.

The figure “establishes 2016 as the second deadliest year for domestic extremist related deaths in the US since 1970, the earliest year for which ADL maintains such data,” the group notes.

The report is titled “Murder and Extremism in the United States in 2016.”

It notes that most of the deaths, 49, were of people “killed in the June 2016 shooting spree at the Pulse nightclub by terrorist Omar Mateen, who pledged allegiance to [Islamic State] and referred to the Boston Marathon bombers during the attack. That attack alone was the deadliest domestic terrorist incident since the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 and overshadowed all other extremist acts.”

Liberman offers Gaza seaport, airport, 40,000 jobs; asks for disarmament, hostages, soldiers’ bodies

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tells Gaza’s residents in an official statement Thursday that Israel might agree to the construction of a seaport, an airport and industrial zones, and the creation of 40,000 jobs in those zones.

But, he adds, it has a few conditions: Hamas must return three Israelis held hostage by the terror group, as well as the bodies of two IDF soldiers who died in battle during the 2014 war in the territory, and agree to Gaza’s disarmament and erasing the article in its covenant that calls for Israel’s destruction.

Liberman’s offer is published in Arabic on the website of the Defense Ministry’s Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories.

Gaza has been in an Israeli-Egyptian economic chokehold since Hamas’s takeover of the Strip in 2007. Israel says its blockade is meant to prevent Hamas from rearming between periodic wars, while Egypt accuses Hamas of abetting the Muslim Brotherhood during the country’s civil war in recent years, as well as supporting Islamic State affiliates in Sinai engaged in an insurgency against the Egyptian army in the peninsula.

Flooding in Gaza overwhelms battered infrastructure

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Heavy rains cause flooding across the Gaza Strip, overwhelming the territory’s beleaguered sewage system and forcing at least eight families to evacuate from their makeshift homes.

Basma al-Bishawi says some residents are using buckets to try to bail water from their homes “in vain” on Thursday, and that he pulled his own son from a river of sewage.

Rescuers can be seen evacuating people on small boats, while other residents wade through knee-high water to reach safety.

Israel and Egypt imposed a blockade on the Palestinian territory after the Islamic militant group Hamas seized power there in 2007. The restrictions, and three wars between Israel and Hamas, have taken a heavy toll on Gaza’s infrastructure.

— AP

Hezbollah’s Nasrallah threatens to strike Dimona nuclear reactor

Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah sarcastically suggests Israel dismantle its nuclear reactor in Dimona, saying that if it doesn’t the reactor will be targeted by his group in a future war with Israel.

“I call upon Israel not only to evacuate the ammonia tank from Haifa, but also to dismantle the Dimona nuclear reactor. The Israeli nuclear weapon that represents a threat to the entire region — we will turn it into a threat to Israel,” he says in a speech televised on the Hezbollah affiliate TV station al-Manar.

He calls the reactor “old, rusting, whose time is ended,” and adds, “you will be surprised at what we are hiding which could affect the course of any war.”

— Dov Lieber and Times of Israel staff

Senate confirmation hearing gets underway for Israel envoy-designate Friedman

David Friedman, US President Donald Trump’s designated ambassador to Israel, is facing his first hearing in his Senate confirmation process.

The hearing at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee is getting underway.

At confirmation hearing, Joe Lieberman vouches for David Friedman

Former senator Joe Lieberman introduces Israel envoy-nominee David Friedman as Friedman’s confirmation hearing at the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee gets underway in Washington.

Friedman is “a patriotic, proud” American who “knows a lot about Israel and cares deeply about its relationship with the United States,” Lieberman affirms.

Lieberman addresses concerns over Friedman’s past comments on left-wing Jewish groups, whom he has called “kapos.”

“Has David ever said or written anything that he now wishes he could rephrase or hadn’t said at all? I think he has. Who hasn’t?” Lieberman says.

He asks committee member to consider Friedman’s candidacy “in the larger context of his life, his character, his capability and his deep desire to serve his country.”

Palestinian activists disrupt Friedman nomination hearing

Activists opposed to David Friedman’s ambassadorship — and, in some cases, to Israel — look set to attempt to disrupt Friedman’s nomination hearing in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

After Friedman’s first sentence, thanking the committee for hosting him, a young man stands up, holds up a Palestinian flag, and yells that he is the grandson of a Palestinian refugee. “We were there, we are there, and we will always be in Palestine,” he shouts as he’s escorted out by security.

A second protester stands, also waves a Palestinian flag and shouts that “Mr. Friedman supports building in settlements” and has contributed money to construction in the West Bank.

Jewish protesters blow shofar at Friedman Senate hearing

Jewish activists carry out the third round of disruptions at the Friedman Senate confirmation hearing.

The disruption begins with a shofar blowing, then, one after another, several activists stand and shout against Friedman, accusing him of not representing American Jews, calling him a “war criminal,” and various other epithets before being escorted out by police.

Friedman accepts criticism of his comments against J Street, Democrats

David Friedman acknowledges his problematic remarks in his initial comments at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on his confirmation as the US envoy to Israel.

Sen. Ben Cardin, a Maryland Democrat, challenges Friedman on his past comments calling American Jewish progressives who support J Street “kapos,” and comments he directed against Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-New York, and others.

“Some of my comments…have come in for criticism and rightfully so,” Friedman agrees.

“I want to assure you I understand the critical difference of partisan rhetoric of a political contest, and a diplomatic mission.”

Top minister: Lebanon will pay steep price if Nasrallah initiates conflict

Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan is the first, and may turn out to be the only, high-level minister to respond to threats earlier today by Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah to attack Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona in a future conflict.

In an interview with Channel 2, Erdan is asked about Nasrallah’s threat. He shrugs, smiles, and says there was no need to respond.

Nasrallah was speaking out of “distress,” he explains. “He knows very well that his group and Lebanon as a whole will pay a very steep price if he initiates a conflict in the north…. It’s no accident that we’ve seen relative quiet in the north for the past ten years.”

Netanyahu, Pence look for ways to coordinate on settlements

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with US Vice President Mike Pence in Washington on Thursday, with the discussion including the planned establishment of a mechanism to discuss Israeli settlement building.

“We will formulate as soon as possible the creation of a mechanism to discuss with the White House construction in the settlements, with the intention of reaching an understanding on this matter,” a member of Netanyahu’s delegation to Washington says.

The two leaders also agree to “work together in a systematic manner” to change the United Nations’ treatment of Israel, a member of Netanyahu’s delegation to Washington says after the meeting.

It is possible that Washington would demand drastic changes in the UN’s approach to the Jewish state, including the threat to withhold US funding, the official says.

Netanyahu also brings up concerns over Jonathan Pollard, a former American spy who was released recently but is prevented from moving to Israel. It is agreed that Israel’s envoy to Washington, Ron Dermer, would personally take on this portfolio.

The prime minister also reiterates his request that the US recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, something he asked of President Donald Trump yesterday during their Oval Office meeting.

— Raphael Ahren

Israel envoy-designate Friedman grilled on two states

At his confirmation hearing in the Foreign Relations Committee of the US Senate, America’s Israel envoy-designate David Friedman is grilled on his views on the two-state solution.

Asked by Virginia Sen. Tim Kaine about the prospects of a one-state outcome to the conflict, and whether he could confirm the US could not accept a situation in which the Palestinians are “deprived of full and equal legal rights,” Friedman responds in the affirmative, saying: “I think so.”

He adds: “I don’t think anyone would like a state where different classes of citizens have different rights.”

He also tells senators he will be “a fierce advocate against BDS,” the movement to boycott and sanction Israel.

— Eric Cortellessa

German cities to increase security during Carnival

BERLIN — Cities across Germany are planning to increase their security at this year’s Carnival celebrations citing the continued terror threat the country faces.

Cologne Mayor Henriette Reker says Thursday that trucks will be banned from the city’s downtown area and several streets will be barricaded with concrete blocks, according to the dpa news agency.

The measures are being put into place to avoid attacks like the one in Berlin in December when a Tunisian man drove a truck into a crowded Christmas market, killing 12 people and wounding dozens of others. It was the first mass-casualty Islamic extremist attack in Germany.

The western cities of Duesseldorf, Essen and Bonn also announce additional security measures, including arming police officers with submachine guns, to protect the popular street parades.

— AP

US ‘absolutely’ supports two-state solution: US ambassador to UN

The United States “absolutely” supports a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but is thinking of new ways to advance towards a peace deal, US Ambassador Nikki Haley says Thursday.

“We absolutely support a two-state solution, but we are thinking out-of-the-box as well,” Haley tells reporters following a Security Council meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.


US and Russia agree to boost military communications: Pentagon

The US and Russian militaries agree to “enhance communications” after a meeting between their top commanders in Azerbaijan on Thursday, the Pentagon says.

Chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff Joe Dunford and his Russian counterpart Valery Gerasimov discuss military relations between the two countries as well as security in Europe, the Middle East and elsewhere during their meeting in the capital Baku.

The two sides “have undertaken efforts to improve operational safety of military activities in order to decrease the prospects for crisis and avoid the risk of unintended incidents,” the Pentagon says in a statement. “The leaders further agreed to enhance communications on such stabilizing measures.”

The United States and Russia already maintain a permanent military communications line over their air operations in Syria to avoid incidents between their aircraft.

In Brussels on Thursday, US Defense Secretary James Mattis rejected a Russian call to immediately restore cooperation with the Russian military.

“We are not in a position right now to collaborate on a military level, but our political leaders will engage and try to find common ground or a way forward,” he told reporters.

Washington suspended all military cooperation with Moscow following Russia’s annexation of Ukraine’s Black Sea peninsula of Crimea in 2014.


David Friedman: ‘No excuse’ for past rhetoric on liberal Jews

WASHINGTON — David Friedman at the launch of US Senate hearings to confirm him as ambassador to Israel says there was “no excuse” for his past rhetoric targeting liberal Jews.

In his opening remarks, Friedman says his attacks were “partisan rhetoric” during a heated presidential election campaign. Friedman is Trump’s longtime lawyer and was a key surrogate to the Jewish community during the campaign.

He has called the liberal Middle East policy group J Street “kapos” and the Anti-Defamation League “morons.” He has also likened Sen. Charles Schumer, D-New York, to Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister who appeased Adolf Hitler.

Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Maryland, the ranking member of the Foreign Relations Committee, which must approve Friedman to advance his nomination to the full Senate, says the terms seemed to go beyond partisan rhetoric.

Cardin says he and Friedman had in common that “our parents were proud Zionists who worked and did everything they could in support for the State of Israel.” But noting his father was the president of a synagogue – Friedman’s was a rabbi – Cardin added, “My father taught me to respect different views.”

The Maryland lawmaker also notes that some of Friedman’s statements – particularly his attack on Schumer, made during the heat of the battle over the 2015 Iran nuclear deal – came before the campaign and in many cases were written comments.

“I’m having difficulty understanding your use of those descriptions and whether you really can be a diplomat,” Cardin said.

Friedman appears chastened.

“I provided some context for my remarks, but that was not in the nature of an excuse,” he says. “These were hurtful words and I deeply regret them. They’re not reflective of my nature and character.”

Cardin also presses Friedman about past statements that appear to oppose a two-state solution addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and notes his backing for settlements, including some deep inside the West Bank.

Friedman replies that he had been skeptical of a two-state solution, but would welcome any solution arrived at by the Israelis and Palestinians that ended suffering for both peoples.

Protesters interrupted the hearings at least three times, including by a contingent from the Jewish protest group If Not Now who sang as they were ejected “Olam Chesed Yibaneh,” “Build a world of kindness.”


Anti-Jewish hate crimes in NY double so far in 2017, police say

NEW YORK – Hate crimes against Jews more than double in New York City since the start of the new year from the same period in 2016, police report.

The city’s Police Department says 56 hate crimes are reported from Jan. 1 to Feb. 12, with 28 of the incidents targeting Jews, according to Politico. In the same period last year, the total number of hate crimes was 31, with 13 targeting Jews.

A children’s playground in Brooklyn Heights, New York was vandalized with a swastika in November 2016. (Screenshot from Twitter via JTA)

A children’s playground in Brooklyn Heights, New York was vandalized with a swastika in November 2016. (Screenshot from Twitter via JTA)

In December, the NYPD said it witnessed “a huge spike” in hate crimes following the election of President Donald Trump, with the majority of incidents directed at Jews.


Bomb warning is reported at Israel’s Miami consulate

Israel’s Foreign Ministry says there is a bomb warning against the country’s consulate in Miami, Florida.

“Police and the security team [of the consulate] are handling,” says a brief statement from the Foreign Ministry says.

Top minister says ‘all of Lebanon will be struck’ if Hezbollah attacks Israel

Minister of Intelligence Yisrael Katz calls for sanctions against the Hezbollah terrorist organization and threatens attacks against Lebanese infrastructure, after the group’s leader Hassan Nasrallah released a message threatening to attack Israel’s Dimona nuclear reactor and ammonia tank in Haifa.

“The days of the Second Lebanon War, when Israel declines to target Lebanon’s infrastructure, are over. If Nasrallah dares to shoot at the Israeli home front or at national infrastructures, all of Lebanon will be struck,” says Katz, who chairs the security cabinet while Netanyahu is visiting the US.

“Nasrallah,” he added, “is a proxy and stooge of Iran, and is willing in [Iran’s] service to allow all of Lebanon to be destroyed.”

Katz, who is also transportation minister, calls for “paralyzing sanctions on Hezbollah,” and says there must be “heavy pressure on Iran to stop arming and funding the group.”

Earlier in the day, Nasrallah threatened to attack Israel’s ammonia storage facility in Haifa, as well as Israel’s nuclear facility in Dimona.

“The Israeli nuclear weapon that represents a threat to the entire region, we will turn it into a threat to Israel,” he says in a speech televised on the Hezbollah affiliate TV station al-Manar.

“You will be surprised with what we are hiding which could the course of any war,” he says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Miami consulate bomb scare ends, no threats found

Israel’s Foreign Ministry says the consulate in Miami is returning to “business as usual,” after staff are briefly evacuated due to a bomb warning.

Miami Police say no threats are found in the building.

— Raphael Ahren and Times of Israel staff

Arkia flight to Eilat turns back over stormy weather

An Arkia airlines flight from Tel Aviv to Eilat is called back to Ben Gurion Airport due to inclement weather in the country’s south.

The flight is rescheduled for tomorrow.

Israel is experiencing two days of winter storms and heavy rains in various parts of the country.