The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s news as it unfolded.
Al-Qaeda offshoot claims killing of Russian envoy in Turkey
The al-Qaeda offshoot formerly known as the Al-Nusra Front has claimed the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey earlier this week, according to Turkish reports.
The reports said Fateh al-Sham claimed responsibility in a letter posted online.
AG urges Knesset to strip phone-smuggling MK’s immunity
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit sends an urgent appeal to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein seeking to strip Joint (Arab) List MK Basel Ghattas of his parliamentary immunity after the lawmaker came under suspicion of passing contraband to Palestinian inmates in Israeli prison.
In light of the request, the House Committee is to vote later today on Ghattas’s immunity in a bid to advance the criminal proceedings against him. If the committee decides in favor of removing his immunity the matter will move to the Knesset itself, where Ghattas’s fellow lawmakers will have the final say.
Parliament doesn’t usually convene on Thursday so a special plenum session would be called, during which Ghattas would be given an opportunity to plead his case.
The development comes the day after Ghattas was questioned by the national serious crimes unit of the Israel Police over allegations he handed miniature cellphones and secret notes to two imprisoned Palestinians, one of whom is serving a 37-year sentence for murder, during a visit at Ketziot Prison south of Beersheba on Sunday.
Knesset members cannot be indicted so long as they enjoy parliamentary immunity.
— Stuart Winer and Marissa Newman
Basel Ghattas refuses to defend himself before committee
MK Basel Ghattas says he will not appear before the Knesset House Committee should it convene to rule on a motion to strip him of his parliamentary immunity.
In a letter to committee head MK Yoav Kisch (Likud), Ghattas claims the rushed process in organizing the meeting, and the manner in which the police and law enforcement authorities have handled the case thus far, has been unfair to him.
“In light of my knowledge that the debate that will be held today is nothing but than a political discussion whose outcome is a foregone conclusion, I am informing you that I will not attend the meeting,” he writes.
— Stuart Winer
Knesset committee begins debating Ghattas
The Knesset House Committee begins to debate the case of MK Basel Ghattas, and will likely decide to strip him of immunity to allow police to conduct an investigation into his actions.
But not only is Ghattas himself not present; neither are other members of his faction, the Joint List.
At the outset, MK Merav Michaeli appeals to Ghattas, urging him to surrender his immunity and face the allegations against him in court.
Report al-Qaeda claimed killing of Russian envoy may be bogus
Journalists cast doubt on the veracity of reports to the effect that an offshoot of al-Qaeda is claiming responsibility for the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey.
— Jenan Moussa (@jenanmoussa) December 21, 2016
Teen boys suspected of hacking girls’ phones, leaking ‘intimate’ pics
Police arrest two 13-year-old boys from northern Israel on suspicion of hacking the phones of teenage girls from around the country and disseminating their “intimate photos,” a spokesperson says.
— Ilan Ben Zion
Israeli military official says low chances of war in 2017
A senior Israeli military officer says the army believes the Middle East’s chaos has weakened the country’s enemies, creating a low probability of war involving Israel in 2017.
The official says the army concluded that neither Hezbollah in Lebanon nor Hamas in the Gaza Strip is interested in sparking a new conflict.
The official speaks on condition of anonymity according to military protocol. He is sharing an official year-end intelligence assessment.
He says Hezbollah is mired in the Syrian civil war while Hamas has lost much of its support from the outside. Still, the official cautions that an unexpected “dynamic of escalation” could always risk sparking a new conflict.
Joint List says Ghattas hearing is ‘incitement’
In a statement announcing that it is boycotting the Knesset committee session on stripping MK Basel Ghattas’s immunity, his Joint List faction says the debate is “incitement” and its results are a foregone conclusion.
“We decided not to participate in the Knesset meeting about the immunity of Basel Ghattas, as it is an inciting and grandstanding meeting, a field tribunal, whose results are known in advance,” the faction says.
— Dov Lieber
Knesset committee votes to strip Ghattas’s immunity
The Knesset House Committee votes unanimously, 15-0, to strip the parliamentary immunity of MK Basel Ghattas.
The Knesset plenum will have the final say in a special session tomorrow.
Knesset plenum to vote on stripping Ghattas’s immunity
The House Committee’s decision to strip Ghattas’s immunity paves the way for a final plenary vote on a motion that will enable the first-ever indictment and arrest of a sitting Knesset member.
A special session has been called for tomorrow afternoon in order to give Ghattas time to challenge the decision before the High Court of Justice.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit confirmed that Ghattas confessed to smuggling phones to Palestinian inmates in Israeli prison in a letter Wednesday, asking the committee to remove his immunity.
— Raoul Wootliff
Ex-president Katsav to get out of prison today
Former president Moshe Katsav will be released from prison today, after serving five years out of a seven-year sentence for rape and other sexual offenses.
The state prosecution paves the way for his release today when it doesn’t appeal the parole board’s decision to grant Katsav early release for good behavior.
“Appeals against parole board decisions are only filed when the prosecution is of the opinion that the decision is unreasonable in the extreme or illegal,” the prosecution says in a statement.
The parole board granted Katsav early release on Sunday after the former president showed contrition for his actions for the first time.
Police to heighten alertness during Hanukkah
The Israel Police will be deploying thousands of additional officers across the country ahead of the upcoming Hanukkah festival, with emphasis on malls and shopping centers, concerts and other crowded places, the spokesperson’s office says.
Police will be on a raised level of alert throughout the eight days, and will also intensify their crackdown on Palestinians entering Israel illegally and those who transport, house and employ them.
— Ilan Ben Zion
Iran the main source of Mideast terrorism — military official
An Israeli military official says Iran remains the main “source of terrorism” in the Middle East but it too has suffered in Syria, with more than 1,000 casualties.
He says that Iran’s entanglement in the Syrian war alongside Assad’s forces has led it to scale back in supporting Hamas.
The Palestinian terror group has seen its backing plummet from everywhere except Qatar, a staunch supporter of Gaza’s rulers.
The military officer also says that Israel has noticed a resulting shift in Hamas’ behavior, with the group making a real effort to stop rocket fire from the Gaza Strip toward Israel.
As for the Islamic State group, which has lost much territory in Iraq and Syria in the face of a US-led coalition campaign and an Iraqi government offensive to free the city of Mosul, the officer says it’s in retreat but that there are no signs of its imminent collapse.
Germany confirms hunt for new suspect in Berlin attack
German Interior Minister Thomas de Maiziere confirms that authorities have identified a new suspect in the deadly truck attack on a Christmas market in Berlin.
“There is a new suspect we are searching for — he is a suspect but not necessarily the assailant,” he tells reporters.
He declines to immediately confirm numerous media reports that the suspect is a Tunisian asylum seeker with links to the Islamic extremist scene.
Moscow doubts killer of ambassador was a lone wolf
The spokesman for President Vladimir Putin indicates Moscow doesn’t believe the gunman who killed Russia’s ambassador to Turkey acted on his own, but refuses to explain the reasons for the suspicion.
“We shouldn’t rush with any theories before the investigators establish who were behind the assassination of our ambassador,” says spokesman Dmitry Peskov, who offers no suggestions about who those people might be.
Al-Qaeda offshoot denies it killed Russian diplomat
The al-Qaeda offshoot, which was said in reports earlier today to have taken responsibility for the killing of the Russian ambassador to Turkey, denies its involvement.
Still, the Fateh al-Sham Front says, the assassination was a “natural response” to the situation in Syria.
Jaish al-Fatah denies assassinating Russian ambassador to Turkey, but calls it "natural reaction" to massacres by Russia in Aleppo https://t.co/qqbwyuyNG4
— Dov Lieber (@DovLieber) December 21, 2016
Katsav freed from prison
Accompanied by his wife, Gila, former president Moshe Katsav exists Maasiyahu Prison after serving five years of his seven-year sentence for rape.
Police bust Palestinian minors with weapons
Police say a covert operation overnight Tuesday by the army and border police busted a group of seven Palestinian minors who were crafting improvised weapons in the West Bank village of Beit Fajjar, near Bethlehem.
Six weapons are confiscated by Israeli authorities.
The sting is one of several by Israeli security forces in an effort to crack down on the production of improvised guns by Palestinians.
— Ilan Ben Zion
Trump meeting security adviser after attacks abroad
President-elect Donald Trump is planning to meet with his incoming national security adviser in the aftermath of violence abroad as the process of filling top jobs in his administration presses on, marked by some infighting among advisers.
Trump’s meeting with retired Lt. Gen. Michael Flynn, his choice for national security adviser, will come a day after Flynn and several other members of the incoming national security team met with Vice President-elect Mike Pence in Washington.
Aides say the meeting was planned before the acts of violence in Germany and Turkey, though they were discussed.
Police grill Islamic leader suspected of incitement
An alleged senior member of Israel’s Islamic Movement is interrogated by the Israel Police’s 433 serious crimes unit on suspicion of incitement to terrorism and violence, as well as supporting an illegal organization, according to police.
The movement’s northern branch was outlawed a year ago.
According to a police statement, “on various occasions, all of them after the movement was outlawed,” quotes attributed to the unnamed suspect were published on various media confirming his role in the group.
Police say some of the statements, as well as confirming the man’s role in the movement, constituted incitement.
School to resume after municipalities end day-long strike
Local municipalities agree to end their day-old strike, after reporting progress in negotiations with the Prime Minister’s Office and the Finance Ministry over planned budget cuts.
Though no agreement has been reached, the umbrella organization representing some 190 local governments says schools and municipal services will resume on Thursday to prevent further strain on the public.
The Center for Local Government says talks with government ministries will resume early next week.
High schools, kindergartens and municipal offices were shuttered in dozens of cities across the country today, demanding the millions of shekels cuts cut from the 2017 state budget be canceled.
In a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon Monday, the Center for Local Government had said the slashes would leave local authorities with a total reduction of NIS 250 million in critical state support.
— Times of Israel staff
Erdogan says Russian envoy’s killer was member of outlawed group
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says the man who killed the Russian ambassador to Turkey was a member of an outlawed group headed by the exiled imam Muhammet Fethullah Gülen.
— AFP contributed to this report.
Turkish assassin provided security to Erdogan — report
Mevlut Mert Altintas, the policeman who killed Russian Ambassador to Turkey Andrey Karlov Monday, provided security for Turkish President Erdogan on eight separate occasions, according to Hurriyet Daily News.
Altintas, a riot policeman, was killed at the scene.
Trump adviser says he’s ditching ‘drain the swamp’
One of Donald Trump’s advisers says the president-elect is no longer interested in his rallying cry “drain the swamp.”
“I’m told he now just disclaims that. He now says it was cute, but he doesn’t want to use it anymore,” former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says in an interview aired on NPR. Gingrich, a vice chairman of the transition team, also predicts there will be “constant fighting” over Trump’s efforts to reduce the influence of lobbyists and Washington insiders.
Trump’s aides say he remains committed to his underlying swamp-draining policies, such as banning outgoing Trump transition and administration members from lobbying for five years. Trump also prohibits any lobbyists from joining his transition team or administration unless they de-register.
“President-elect Trump’s ethics reform policies are full speed ahead,” transition spokesman Jason Miller says. “We’re going to change the way business is done in Washington and start putting the American people first.”
“‘Drain the swamp'” became a staple of the final month of Trump’s campaign, with crowds chanting it as loudly as they had been shouting “build the wall” and “lock her up.” The slogan also appeared on T-shirts and signs.
It has remained part of Trump’s post-election “thank you” tour. Whether in Ohio or Florida, the crowd continued to shout along with the president-elect as he vowed to curtail corruption in Washington — even as he revealed that he wasn’t always crazy about the catchphrase.
“Funny how that term caught on, isn’t it?” Trump mused during a rally this month in Des Moines, Iowa. “I tell everyone, I hated it. Somebody said ‘drain the swamp’ and I said, ‘Oh, that is so hokey. That is so terrible.'”
Germany offers $105,000 for arrest of suspect
German authorities are offering a reward of up to 100,000 euros ($105,000) for the arrest of a Tunisian man suspected of involvement in the fatal attack on a Christmas market in Berlin.
Federal prosecutors describe 24-year-old Anis Amri as of average height and weight, with black hair and brown eyes.
In a public notice, prosecutors warn that the suspect could be “dangerous and armed,” and urge members of the public to notify police if they see him.
‘Shipyard contracted to build Israeli warships owned by Lebanese defense minister’
A shipyard that was contracted by Israel to build war ships is owned by the family of Lebanon’s defense minister at the time, Channel 2 news reports. The report expands on a Yedioth Ahronoth report from earlier this month that stated the shipyard’s connection to Lebanon and Abu Dhabi but did not name its real owners.
According to the Channel 2 report, Lebanese then-defense minister and deputy prime minister Samir Moqbel’s siblings and daughter hold a 94 percent stake in the shipyard, Abu Dhabi MAR. Moqbel was replaced in the position of defense minister last week, by Yacoub Sarraf.
Construction of the ships, commissioned to defend Israel’s offshore gas fields, was agreed in a 2015 deal between Israel and the German company ThyssenKrupp, which subcontracted the work to the shipyard. Under 2015 deal, worth €430 million ($480 million), ThyssenKrupp would supply Israel with four warships over a period of five years.
The Channel 2 report, which names Zionist Union MK Erel Margalit as its source, also states that three Israeli businessmen — two former senior naval officers and a prominent attorney, all unnamed — representing the defense establishment pressured the shipyard to change its name so as to cover up its links to Abu Dhabi and Lebanon.
Margalit, in a letter, urged Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to open an investigation into the case, the report says.
“The fact that one of the owners of the company that’s building naval vessels for Israel is the defense minister of a country designated as an enemy state, and which, according to reports, cooperated with the Hezbollah organization and Iran, sets off a warning light,” he wrote.
Truck attack suspect had been under surveillance
German authorities say the suspect in Monday’s deadly truck attack in Berlin was under covert surveillance for several months this year.
Berlin prosecutors tell The Associated Press in a statement that they launched an investigation against Anis Amri on March 14 followed a tip from federal security agencies.
The tip warned that Amri, who was considered a potential threat by authorities in the western state of North Rhine-Westphalia, might be planning a break-in to finance the purchase of automatic weapons for use in an attack.
Surveillance showed that Amri was involved in drug dealing in a Berlin park and involved in a bar brawl, but no evidence to substantiate the original warning. The observation was called off in September.
Kremlin says almost all Russia-US dialogue ‘frozen’
The Kremlin says that nearly all the communication channels between Moscow and Washington were frozen.
“Practically all levels of dialogue with the United States are frozen,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov tells Mir TV, according to state news agency RIA Novosti. “We don’t communicate with one another. Or we do so minimally.”
Russia finds itself locked in its worst standoff with the West since the Cold War over its 2014 annexation of Crimea, the conflict in Ukraine and lingering disagreement about the conflict in Syria.
US State Department spokesman John Kirby assures later that “diplomatic engagement with Russia continues across a wide range of issues.”
“That we have significant differences with Moscow on some of these issues is well known, but there hasn’t been a break in dialogue,” Kirby says, adding that Secretary of State John Kerry and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov had spoken on the phone about the situation in Syria Tuesday.
10 Turkish soldiers killed fighting IS in Syria
Turkey’s state television says 10 Turkish soldiers have killed in three separate suicide attacks in the northern town of al-Bab, which Turkish troops and Turkey-backed Syrian opposition fighters are trying to capture from the Islamic State group.
The report by TRT television came hours after Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan says IS was fighting “for dear life” in al-Bab, carrying out suicide bombings and attacks with improvised explosive devices.
Earlier today four soldiers were also reported killed in the battle for al-Bab.
A total of 35 Turkish soldiers have died in northern Syria since August, when Turkey sent ground troops to support Turkey-backed Syrian opposition forces in clearing a border area of IS militants and to curb Syrian Kurdish territorial expansion.