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Democracy is working, but in danger, Blue and White’s Benny Gantz warns

Prime ministerial hopeful tells ToI’s David Horovitz he is open to partnering with ultra-Orthodox, says elections not being fought fair

Blue and White chair Benny Gantz speaking at a Times of Israel / Tel Aviv International Salon event on April 2, 2019. (Stephanie Bitan/Times of Israel)
Blue and White chair Benny Gantz speaking at a Times of Israel / Tel Aviv International Salon event on April 2, 2019. (Stephanie Bitan/Times of Israel)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Tuesday’s events as they unfolded.

Hamas denies reports of prisoner swap talks with Israel

The Hamas terror group denies reports in Palestinian media that indirect talks with Israel include negotiations over a prisoner swap deal that would see Palestinian terror convicts released in exchange for two Israeli citizens and the bodies of two IDF soldiers believed to be held in the Gaza Strip.

According to Dunya al-Watan, a news site in Gaza, senior Hamas member Ismail Radwan says the talks also are not focusing on a long-term ceasefire deal, but rather on stabilizing the truce agreed on after Operation Protective Edge in 2014, the current conditions of Hamas prisoners in Israeli jails and the status of the Al Aqsa Mosque and the Temple Mount compound in Jerusalem.

Hamas political bureau leader Ismail Haniyeh (Hamas website)

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh says the group has conveyed — through Egyptian mediators — three demands regarding the prisoners, who have rioted recently, attacked guards and are threatening to start a hunger strike which would also see them stop drinking water.

The demands are that Israel stop blocking cellphone reception in the jails, stop the Israel Prisons Service’s “punishing” of security prisoners, and renew family visits.

In Cairo, UN chief decries hate speech, including anti-Semitism

The UN chief has expressed solidarity with Muslims worldwide during a visit to Cairo, denouncing hate speech and racism, as well as anti-Semitism.

The remarks by UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres in the Egyptian capital come less than a month after the terrorist attack on New Zealand mosques killed 50 worshipers.

Guterres says “hate speech is entering the mainstream, spreading like wildfire through social media and radio.”

He says that “in this time of difficulties and division, we must stand together and protect each other. Nothing justifies terrorism, and it becomes particularly hideous when religion is invoked. … we must uphold and promote human dignity and universal human rights.”

Guterres’ comments come after his meeting with Egypt’s top Muslim cleric Sheikh Ahmed el-Tayeb, the grand imam in Cairo.

— AP

US-backed Syrian forces clash with Islamic State fighters hiding in caves

US-backed Syrian fighters say they are battling the Islamic State group in eastern Syria 10 days after declaring victory over the extremists.

Mustafa Bali, a spokesman for the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, says the troops are rooting out groups of militants who were hiding in caves in and near the village of Baghouz.

The Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the US-led coalition is still conducting airstrikes against IS. It adds that senior IS commanders and prisoners held by the extremists are believed to be in the caves on the east bank of the Euphrates River.

The SDF declared military victory over IS on March 23 after liberating what it said was the last pocket of territory held by the militants.

— AP

Court clears for publication name of doctor who allegedly molested, threatened 14-year-old boy

A court clears for release the name of a doctor from central Israel who was arrested last week on suspicion of molesting a 14-year-old boy and then blackmailing him by threatening to shame him in public.

Idan Barak, 37, is also suspected in another case of online pedophilia, Hebrew-language media reports.

He was arrested after the boy told his parents about the threats and blackmail attempt, and the parents filed a complaint with police.

Four injured in blast at Russian military academy – reports

Four people have been injured in a blast at a military academy in Russia’s second-latgest city of Saint Petersburg, news agencies report citing emergency services.

“As a result of an explosion, four cadets were injured according to preliminary information,” an emergency services official tells RIA Novosti state news agency after the blast at the Mozhaisky academy in the city center.

“What precisely exploded is not yet known,” the official says.

The academy is overseen by the defense ministry and trains officers to serve in air and space defense and other branches of the armed forces.


Gantz: After 13-year rule, Israel in danger of Netanyahu ‘becoming an Erdogan’

Prime ministerial candidate Benny Gantz lashes out at Benjamin Netanyahu, saying the premier is taking “extremist” steps in his election campaign that “harm Israeli democracy and take the discourse to low places that the political system in Israel has never known.”

In an interview with the Ynet news site, Gantz likens Netanyahu to Turkey’s autocratic Islamist president, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who has arrested thousands of dissidents and journalists and made far-reaching constitutional changes to ensure his continued rule.

“After 13 years [in power] we are in danger of Bibi becoming an Erdogan. It’s a danger to Israel democracy,” he says, using Netanyahu’s popular nickname.

Israel fires at Gazan incendiary balloon launchers — Palestinian media

An Israeli drone fires at a group of Palestinians launching incendiary balloons into southern Israel from east of Gaza City, local media reports.

There are no injuries reported.

The Israeli military does not immediately confirm the strike.

— Judah Ari Gross

Erdogan’s ruling party challenges results of local Turkish elections

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s ruling party is appealing the results of the local elections in Istanbul, where preliminary results give the opposition a razor-thin victory.

Nationwide, Erdogan’s party won a majority of votes in Sunday’s elections, but it lost the capital Ankara to the opposition and is trailing in the tight race for Istanbul.

Bayram Senocak, the ruling party’s top official in Istanbul, says he has filed appeals to challenge results in 39 districts, seeking a recount to fix alleged irregularities and a reassessment of invalid votes.

The party is also contesting the results in Ankara.

Meanwhile, the opposition’s candidate for Istanbul, Ekrem Imamoglu, has traveled to Ankara to visit the mausoleum of the secular republic’s founder, where large crowds gathered to greet him, chanting “Mayor Ekrem.”

— AP

AG says insufficient evidence of illegal propaganda by Likud via fake accounts

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit tells the head of the Central Elections Committee, Supreme Court Justice Hanan Melcer, that there isn’t sufficient factual evidence to determine that the Likud party is funding illegal propaganda via online bots and fake profiles.

Mandelblit issues his legal opinion in response to a petition by the rival Blue and White party following a report published yesterday by the New York Times and the Israeli Yedioth Ahronoth daily, which found a large number of alleged pro-Netanyahu fake accounts — without saying they were affiliated with Likud.

Haniyeh: Tel Aviv rocket an example of what Israel will face if it commits ‘stupidity’

Hamas politburo leader Ismail Haniyeh says last month’s rocket launched from Gaza at central Israel were unintentional, but was an “example” of what could happen again in the future.

“The rocket that hit Tel Aviv was [the result] of a technical malfunction, but it is a small example of what the occupation will face if it decides to perpetrate any stupidity,” Haniyeh tells analysts and writers in a meeting, according to Palestinian website Quds News Network. “That which is unknown is greater.”

5 German firms each give $1.1 million to Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial

Five well-known German companies, including the country’s only publicly traded soccer club, are donating 1 million euros ($1.1 million) each to Israel’s Yad Vashem memorial for the development of a facility to preserve, catalog and store Holocaust-related artifacts.

Borussia Dortmund managing director Carsten Cramer says the club thinks the project is important to preserve the memory of the Holocaust and the 6 million Jews killed by Nazi Germany, as well as fighting anti-Semitism today.

Daimler, railway operator Deutsche Bahn, Deutsche Bank and Volkswagen are also donating to the construction of the “Shoah Heritage Collections Campus,” which is scheduled to open in 2021.

The memorial has collected more than 210 million documents, 500,000 photographs, 131,000 survivor testimonies, 32,400 artifacts, and 11,500 works of art since it was established in 1953.

— AP

Hundreds of Druze protest against US Golan recognition

Some 300 members of the Druze community take part in a protest at the town of Majdal Shams against US President Donald Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights.

The demonstrators wave Syrian flags and chant: “The Golan Heights are forever Syrian,” according to the Ynet website.

Egypt sentences dozens to prison on terror charges

Egypt has sentenced more than 70 suspected members of the Muslim Brotherhood group to prison on terror-related charges.

The Ismailia criminal court sentences nine of the defendants to 15 years in prison and 43 others to 10 years. Another 22 were sentenced to three to seven years, and 14 were acquitted. Nearly half of the defendants were tried in absentia.

The defendants were accused of burning police vehicles and attacking a coffee shop. The violence came in response to the dispersal of two mass sit-ins in Cairo in 2013, in which security forces killed hundreds of Brotherhood supporters.

The Brotherhood won a series of free elections following Egypt’s 2011 uprising but was branded a terrorist group after the military overthrew an elected but divisive Islamist president in 2013.

— AP

Rona Ramon announced as winner of 2019 Israel Prize for lifetime achievement

Education Minister Naftali Bennett announces that the winner of this year’s Israel Prize for lifetime achievement is Rona Ramon, who died last December at the age of 54 after a battle with cancer.

Rona Ramon, who died on December 17, 2018. She was the widow of first Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died in a fatal accident aboard the space shuttle Columbia on May 9, 2013, and the mother of IAF pilot Asaf Ramon, who died in a crash during a training flight in September 2009. (Flash90)

Ramon, a practitioner of holistic medicine, had been a public figure since her husband — Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon — became Israel’s first person in space, when he blasted off aboard the Columbia in 2003, and then perished when the shuttle broke up upon re-entry, weeks later.

In 2009, she also buried her eldest son, Capt. Asaf Ramon, who was killed when his F-16 warplane crashed during a routine training flight.

Ramon started the Ramon Foundation, which promoted academic and social leadership among Israeli youth.

“Rona Ramon is an Israeli hero full of giving and light,” Bennett says. “Despite losing two of those dearest to her, Rona chose life and devoted her life to working for society.

“Rona, Ilan and Asaf will be remembered by the nation as three beloved heroes who gave the State of Israel everything they had to give.”

Pittsburgh approves gun control bills; lawsuits expected

The Pittsburgh City Council has given final approval to gun restrictions proposed after last year’s synagogue massacre.

The legislation places restrictions on military-style assault weapons like the AR-15 rifle that US authorities say was used in the October 27 rampage at Tree of Life synagogue that killed 11 and wounded seven.

It also bans most uses of armor-piercing ammunition and high-capacity magazines, and allows the temporary seizure of guns from people who are determined to be a danger to themselves or others.

The council approves the measures 6-3. They now head to Democratic Mayor Bill Peduto for his expected signature.

Pennsylvania state law forbids municipalities from regulating guns, and pro-gun advocates say they’ll sue to block the laws from taking effect.

— AP

French shop chain apologizes over swastika money belts

French supermarket chain Auchan admits that it sold military-style money belts bearing the Nazi swastika at its Polish stores, in what it calls an “oversight.”

“Our 2018 product offerings did indeed include these money belts from a Polish manufacturer, though our chain wasn’t aware of it,” Auchan Poland spokeswoman Dorota Patejko tells AFP.

“It was an oversight on our part, a situation that we regret,” she says, adding that the group is currently checking stores nationwide and will recall any of the belts left in stock.

“Only one money belt with the Nazi symbol has been located so far. It’s been pulled from shelves.”

The Gazeta Krakowska regional daily yesterday reported the case of a woman who bought one of the belts in an Auchan store in the southern city of Krakow.

“It’s sewn out of camouflage fabric and has various bits of text,” the client said, adding that she only recently realized there was a swastika.

“I’m in shock. I’ve been walking around with a purse with a Nazi symbol for weeks,” she said, quoted by the Gazeta Krakowska.

“I never would have thought a supermarket chain would sell something like this.”


Palestinian dies from wounds sustained at Gaza border protest — Hamas ministry

A Palestinian in the Gaza Strip has succumbed to wounds he sustained at a protest in the border region between Israel and the coastal enclave, the Hamas-run Health Ministry says.

26-year-old Fares Hajres was shot in the stomach in the border area near Khan Younis, the ministry says.

— Adam Rasgon

Gantz said to plan swift deal with key parties after election to win premiership

Benny Gantz has formulated a plan to become prime minister after next week’s election if his Blue and White wins four seats more than Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s rival Likud, according to a report.

Gantz has been presenting a plan in closed party meetings that would see the party quickly contact several key parties that could potentially join a coalition headed by either himself or Netanyahu, the Haaretz website reports citing sources in Blue and White.

He would propose that they join his government for a full four-year term rather than joining Netanyahu’s government, which he alleges will fall after eight months when the premier is indicted in corruption cases following a hearing process.

Finance Minister Moshe Kahlon and Interior Minister Aryeh Deri in Jerusalem on December 27, 2015. (Flash90)

The parties are Moshe Kahlon’s center-right Kulanu and Moshe Feiglin’s quasi libertarian Zehut — both of whom have left the door open to supporting either Netanyahu or Gantz — and ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism — despite them having vowed not to join a Gantz-led government.

The sources say that while Gantz doesn’t expect all of them to recommend him as prime minister, he hopes that would prevent them from recommending Netanyahu, leading President Reuven Rivlin to task him first with the challenge of assembling a coalition.

US blames Tehran for devastating flood damage in Iran

The Trump administration is blaming the Iranian government for damage from devastating floods that have killed at least 50 people.

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says Tehran’s “mismanagement” of urban planning and emergency preparedness led to the disaster. He’s rejecting allegations from Iran’s foreign minister that US sanctions against Iran are to blame.

Pompeo says the US is sympathetic to the victims and is willing to provide assistance for flood relief efforts but only through the International Red Cross and Red Crescent societies.

Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif said last night that US sanctions have prevented Tehran from getting badly needed equipment, including relief helicopters.

Iran has seen a decades-long drought but the latest flooding is also blamed on disregard for safety measures and construction near rivers.

— AP

Watch live: Benny Gantz speaks with Times of Israel’s David Horovitz

Blue and White party chief begins his conversation with Times of Israel editor David Horovitz at the Dan Panorama hotel in Tel Aviv, a week before he tries to become prime minister in the Knesset election.

Watch the interview live here.

Netanyahu: Rivlin ‘looking for a pretext’ to task Gantz with forming government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu accuses President Reuven Rivlin of “looking for a pretext” to task rival Benny Gantz with forming the next government, in a recording published by Channel 12.

“A two, three seat gap he’ll give it to him,” Netanyahu tells associates, accusing Likud supporters of being too sure of his win and many of them won’t plan on casting a vote.

“They intend to come to the ballots in far lower numbers than Gantz voters. Wake up or we’ll lose.”

Poll: Likud overtakes Blue and White as largest party; support for Labor surges

A television poll aired by Channel 13 news this evening says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud will be the largest party after Knesset elections on April 9, followed by retired military chief Benny Gantz’s Blue and White.

Blue and White has consistently polled ahead of Likud since it was formed in February as an alliance between Gantz’s Israel Resilience and Yair Lapid’s centrist Yesh Atid party, but has recently seen its lead over Likud slip in the polls.

According to Channel 13, Likud would receive 29 seats, just beating out Blue and White with 28.

They are followed by the opposition Labor Party with 14 seats, a marked rise from its recent poll results.

After Labor was the Union of Right-Wing Parties with seven seats, followed by Zehut, Hadash-Ta’al and United Torah Judaism with six seats apiece.

Shas, the New Right, Meretz and Ra’am-Balad all received five seats in the survey, which was rounded out by Kulanu with four seats.

Neither Yisrael Beytenu or Gesher clear the electoral threshold of 3.25 percent of the vote.

— Alexander Fulbright

In ToI event, Gantz attacks Netanyahu for putting Israeli democracy in danger

Speaking to Times of Israel’s founding editor David Horovitz, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz attacks Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, saying Culture Minister Miri Regev is “attacking culture,” Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked is “attacking the justice system,” and the defense minister — Netanyahu himself — is neglecting Israel security.

“He’s attacking everyone. We need to fix our house,” he says in an English-language interview at Tel Aviv’s Dan Panorama hotel.

“If we will be the biggest party, we will have a sufficient basis” to form the next government, Gantz says, adding that cooperation with the ultra-Orthodox parties would be possible, but less so with Arab parties since the foundation of his government would be the recognition of Israel as Jewish and democratic.

Benny Gantz speaking in Tel Aviv on April 2, 2019. (Stephanie Bitan/Times of Israel)

On the other hand, Gantz says he won’t legitimize “extremists” such as far-right Itamar Ben Gvir of the Union of Right-Wing Parties.

Asked on peace with the Palestinians, Gantz says: “We must maintain the Jordan Valley as a security border, we can’t withdraw to the ’67 lines, and Jerusalem must stay the undivided capital of Israel. But it’s very important that we have someone to talk to. Currently, that is not the situation. Only if we have both sides can we eventually move on.”

Asked about the election campaign, which has seen daily below-the-belt attacks from both sides of the political map, Gantz says: “Democracy is functioning, but it is in danger. It is in our interest to try and keep democracy safe.”

Asked if the elections are being fought legally and fairly, in light of a report of an online network of fake pro-Netanyahu social media accounts, he says: “I don’t think it’s really fair. I think we should investigate. In our party every shekel is reported. There is also responsibility on the traditional media, because social media is full of fake news.”

“I think I’m serving something stronger than myself. Nothing will distract me from my goal which is to lead Israel.”

Rivlin slams Netanyahu’s ‘despicable attempt’ to discredit him

The office of President Reuven Rivlin, who is on a state visit to Canada, hits back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was recorded accusing him of “looking for a pretext” to task rival Benny Gantz with forming the next government.

“This is another attempt to discredit the president regarding the exercise of his legal authority,” the President’s Office says. “Once again, we will make it clear that the president will accept his decision in the language and spirit of the law, as did all previous presidents of Israel. This is another despicable attempt to undermine public trust in the president’s decision after the elections.

“The president will not be tempted by flattery, and will not fear such attacks, which are repeated irresponsibly and motivated by cynical political considerations.”

— Raphael Ahren

Right-wing NGO demands High Court order PM to demolish Khan al-Ahmar

A right-wing NGO has filed a petition to the High Court of Justice against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, demanding that the top legal body order the premier to fulfill his promise to carry out the demolition of the Bedouin hamlet Khan al-Ahmar.

Last May, the Supreme Court ruled to green light the state’s plans to demolish the central West Bank Palestinian village, which was built without the necessary permits. The government subsequently announced that it intended to raze the compound the next month. However, following intense international pressure, it pushed off its plan in order to attempt to reach an agreement with the roughly 180 residents, where they would agree to leave on their own.

The West Bank Bedouin community of Khan al-Ahmar, Sunday, October 21, 2018. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

Nearly a year has passed and negotiations have failed to bare fruit. Being behind the initial petitions calling for the demolition of Khan al-Ahmar, the Regavim NGO is once again appealing to the High Court after an unsuccessful months long public campaign urging Netanyahu to keep his word.

The group’s petition highlights several public statements made by the prime minister in which he assured that the Palestinian village would be flattened.

“It will be evacuated, with or without consent. It will not take many weeks, it will be much shorter [than that]. A number of vital preparations were made in the international arena and a last chance was given, but in any event, Khan al-Ahmar will be evacuated,” Netanyahu told his cabinet in October.

The following month, he told ministers, “Khan al-Ahmar will be evacuated very soon … This is our policy, and it will be implemented. I have no intention of postponing this until further notice, contrary to what’s being published, but for [it to be carried out] in a short time.”

The state will now have until May 1 to provide a response to the petition.

However, it is unclear what authority the High Court has over the demolition of the hamlet as its decision last May ruled to green light the state’s plan if it chooses to carry it out.

— Jacob Magid

Britain to seek another ‘short’ delay of Brexit

British Prime Minister Theresa May says she will seek another “short” extension of Brexit in order to pass the deal she agreed with the European Union.

May comes out of seven hours of crunch talks with her ministers and also offers to meet opposition Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn for negotiation on a joint approach that could break the current impasse in parliament.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May gives a statement inside 10 Downing Street in London on April 2, 2019 after chairing a day-long meeting of the cabinet. (Photo by Jack Taylor / POOL / AFP)

“Leaving with a deal is the best solution,” May says from her Downing Street office in nationally-televised remarks.

“We will need a further extension to Article 50, one that is as short as possible, and which ends when we pass a deal,” she says.

Article 50 is the withdrawal notice May sent to Brussels in March 2017.

EU leaders have agreed to extend the original March 29 Brexit deadline until April 12 to avoid a chaotic “no-deal” ending to the 46-year EU-UK partnership.


Gantz would be ‘flattered’ to be compared to Yitzhak Rabin

Speaking with Times of Israel’s David Horovitz, Benny Gantz answers a question from the crowd by saying he would be “flattered” to be compared to former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a right-wing activist in 1995 after signing the Oslo Accords with the Palestinian Authority.

“This is a country that should be preserved and developed,” Gantz says at the end of the event. “I’m telling, this is a time of emergency. If you want to vote Netanyahu, that is your right. But whoever thinks change is needed, that things are exaggerated, must vote for us.”

David Horovitz (L) interviewing Blue and White leader Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv, April 2, 2019. (Raoul Wootliff/Times of Israel)

Twitter says action taken against pro-Netanyahu network of fake accounts

Twitter says it has “taken action” after an Israeli watchdog exposed an alleged network of fake social media accounts spreading propaganda in support of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and smearing his opponents.

Noam Rotem, one of the researchers behind the report, says he has seen Twitter shut down 258 of the over 400 automated and fake accounts his team identified.

Twitter does not comment on the number of accounts removed, but says that the platform prohibits fabricated accounts and “has taken action where violations are identified” to ensure healthy dialogue online during election cycles.

With just a week until the national vote, the pro-Netanyahu network discovery jolted Israel’s already turbulent campaign season.

Netanyahu lambasted the report as “libel,” and his challenger Benny Gantz accused him of “trying to steal the election.”

— AP

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