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Hamas warns Israel will bear responsibility if Palestinian elections postponed

With Abbas expected to announce delay of planned vote, terror group says that ‘no Palestinian can accept holding elections without Jerusalem’

Palestinians holding Hamas movement green flags attend a protest in solidarity with Muslim worshipers in Jerusalem, in Gaza City, April 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)
Palestinians holding Hamas movement green flags attend a protest in solidarity with Muslim worshipers in Jerusalem, in Gaza City, April 23, 2021. (AP Photo/Khalil Hamra)

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

High Court set to make precedential ruling after freezing Netanyahu’s minister pick

The High Court of Justice is set to rule in the coming hours on the unprecedented situation regarding the appointment of a justice minister, after it temporarily froze the appointment of Likud MK Ofir Akunis as minister yesterday. The cabinet — led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — had openly defied the attorney general’s forceful warnings that the move was illegal and pushed through the appointment.

The court issued the ruling less than two hours after a hearing on Akunis’s appointment, which was approved earlier in the day over the strident objections of Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit in a cabinet meeting that quickly devolved into a shouting match between Likud and Blue and White ministers.

By holding the vote, Mandelblit told Netanyahu during the meeting, the Likud-led bloc of the caretaker government had flouted a quasi-constitutional Basic Law, amended last year by Netanyahu and Benny Gantz, that reserved the position for a candidate backed by Gantz’s Blue and White-led bloc.

The High Court justices said Akunis cannot serve as justice minister until the court decides otherwise and said the position will remain vacant in the interim.

Netanyahu and Akunis originally had until 11 a.m. to justify why they believe the appointment should still go through, in violation of Likud’s coalition agreement with Blue and White, which was enshrined into a Basic Law.

However, they have requested a delay in the deadline to submit their response.

The judges are scheduled to reconvene at 3:30 p.m. to discuss the arguments before reaching a final decision.

High Court to live-broadcast ruling on validity of justice minister appointment

The High Court announces that it will broadcast live its decision on the validity of yesterday’s cabinet vote to tap Netanyahu ally Ofir Akunis as justice minister, after freezing the appointment yesterday.

The ruling is currently scheduled to be announced at 3:30 p.m., although that could be delayed.

Leaders of right-wing, Islamist parties meet in effort to form ‘change’ government

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett meets Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas in the first-ever political contact between the leaders of the two parties, amid efforts to form a government without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party.

The right-wing party and the Islamist faction have initiated unlikely cooperation lately in the Knesset’s Arrangements Committee, and the ties have gained steam as Netanyahu’s mandate to form a government nears its end.

Ra’am says in a statement following the meeting at Bennett’s Knesset office that the meeting dealt with the positions of both parties regarding the current political events, and was “conducted in a positive atmosphere.”

Biden unveils reversal of Trump tax cuts for most wealthy

US President Joe Biden wants to reverse his predecessor Donald Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthy to pay for a huge middle-class families spending plan, senior administration officials say.

Biden will use his speech to a joint session of Congress to unveil the $1.8 trillion American Families Plan, funded by ending Trump’s tax cuts and closing loopholes used by the most wealthy to escape paying their share, officials say.

“The president will be proposing a set of measures to make sure the wealthiest Americans pay the taxes that they owe, while also ensuring that no one making less than $400,000 a year will see their taxes go up,” one official, who has asked not to be identified, tells reporters.

PM tells court justice minister vote legal, judiciary not a ‘super-government’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu submits his response to the High Court of Justice regarding the validity of Ofir Akunis’s appointment as justice minister yesterday, saying yesterday’s cabinet vote on the matter is legal despite Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit insisting it violates legally binding parts of the coalition agreement.

Netanyahu argues that he is authorized to appoint a justice minister and that the court and the attorney general aren’t a “super-government.”

He says the court is “blocking the appointment of a vital minister and leading the system to a dead end.”

Netanyahu backs down, agrees to tap Gantz as justice minister

After insisting that yesterday’s vote to tap Ofir Akunis as justice minister was legal, Prime Minister Benjamin backs down and agrees to make Benny Gantz justice minister for the duration of the transitional government.

Gantz has been seeking the appointment, but until now Netanyahu had vehemently opposed that.

Netanyahu’s office says that “after his compromise offers were once again rejected this morning, and to exit the dead end and enable the necessary activity of the Justice Ministry, the prime minister has decided to appoint Benny Gantz as Justice Minister in a transitional government.”

The statement says Netanyahu will bring the matter for cabinet approval later today.

Smotrich pans Bennett: ‘A government with Abbas is like a government with Hamas’

Religious Zionism party head Bezalel Smotrich assails Yamina leader Naftali Bennett after the latter met the leader of the Islamist Ra’am party, Mansour Abbas, for coalition talks aimed at forming a government without Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud.

“A government with Abbas is like a government with Hamas,” says Smotrich of Abbas, whose party is a branch of the Muslim Brotherhood and rejects Zionism.

Smotrich says Bennett will become an outcast on the right if he forms a government with Ra’am, the same way former premier Ariel Sharon was when he decided to evacuate Israel’s settlements from Gaza in 2005.

Smotrich has thwarted the option of Netanyahu himself relying on Ra’am to form a government, but the premier’s efforts have led to his rivals having more legitimacy to work with it.

Mandelblit said set to request cancellation of High Court hearing

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit is expected to ask the High Court to nix its planned hearing announcing whether yesterday’s cabinet vote to make Likud MK Ofir Akunis justice minister was legal, Channel 12 news reports.

The hearing has largely become unnecessary after Prime Minister Netanyahu backed down today and agreed to make Gantz acting justice minister, reversing a position he has been pushing for weeks.

Gantz’s party says it thwarted Netanyahu’s ‘scheme,’ vows to protect democracy

After Prime Minister Netanyahu’s U-turn agreeing to make Benny Gantz justice minister, Gantz’s Blue and White party says in a tweet that it will “continue to safeguard democracy.”

Blue and White claims it has thwarted a plot — nicknamed the “April scheme” — by Netanyahu to fire center-left ministers and take control over the power-sharing government.

Anti-Netanyahu party chiefs slam PM after reversal on justice minister appointment

Several other anti-Netanyahu lawmakers take a shot at the prime minister over his decision to appoint Blue and White head Benny Gantz as justice minister, ahead of a High Court of Justice hearing on the premier’s approval yesterday of a Likud party loyalist for the post despite the attorney general ruling that doing so was illegal.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman posts a headline of an article that says “Netanyahu folded,” in reference to the prime minister’s reversal on the justice minister appointment.

“Today Netanyahu folded [mekupelet], the next stage is a pesek zman [timeout],” Liberman tweets, in a play on the Hebrew names of two Israeli chocolate bars.

Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz slams Netanyahu’s conduct as “disgraceful” and says the Likud leader can’t continue as prime minister.

“Every day he’s in the post is damaging to the country,” Horowitz says in a statement.

Blue and White MK says he hopes Netanyahu’s U-turn on justice minister not a ‘trick’

A Blue and White lawmaker says he hopes Prime Minister Netanyahu’s decision to make party leader Benny Gantz justice minister is not a “trick” ahead of a High Court hearing on the premier’s appointment yesterday of a Likud loyalist to the post.

MK Eitan Ginzburg doesn’t further speculate on what such a “trick” would constitute, but says Netanyahu “understood that he went overboard” in holding a vote to make Likud MK Ofir Akunis, despite the attorney general ruling that such a vote was illegal.

“This is the necessary decision. It’s unfortunate that we reached in such a way, such a fatal blow to the law enforcement system, the rules of the democratic game. Things were done here that were never done before,” Ginzburg tells the Ynet news site.

Netanyahu asks High Court to scrap hearing on justice minister appointment

Prime Minister Netanyahu asks the High Court to cancel a scheduled hearing this afternoon to appoint a Likud loyalist as justice minister over the attorney general’s opposition, after the premier reversed himself and agreed to nominate Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for the post.

Netanyahu also tells the court that he’ll fill several other unstaffed ministerial roles at Sunday’s cabinet meeting.

Netanyahu’s U-turn came after he submitted an opinion to the court earlier today that the appointment of Likud MK Ofir Akunis was aboveboard, despite Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit saying it was illegal.

Ministers hold telephone vote to appoint Gantz justice minister

Government ministers are currently holding a telephone vote to approve Blue and White leader Benny Gantz’s appointment as justice minister.

Deputy health chief predicts virus restrictions to be ‘completely’ lifted in 3 weeks

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch predicts coronavirus restrictions will be fully rolled back in three weeks if Israel’s already low morbidity figures continue to decline.

“We’ll free up and remove the restrictions completely,” Kisch tells the Knesset plenum.

High Court hearing on justice minister appointment pushed back to 5 p.m.

A High Court hearing on Prime Minister Netanyahu’s appointment yesterday of a Likud loyalist as justice minister has been pushed back to 5 p.m., after the premier agreed to tap Blue and White chief Benny Gantz for the post.

Netanyahu had asked for the hearing to be canceled after reversing himself on appointing Likud MK Ofir Akunis as justice minister, despite insisting the appointment was kosher. Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has said the vote on Akunis’ appointment was illegal.

BioNTech co-founder says he’s confident that vaccine works against Indian variant

BERLIN — BioNTech co-founder Ugur Sahin voices confidence that the vaccine his company jointly developed with Pfizer works against the Indian variant of the coronavirus.

“We are still testing the Indian variant, but the Indian variant has mutations that we have already tested for and which our vaccine works against, so I am confident,” says Sahin.

“The vaccine is cleverly built and I’m convinced the bulwark will hold. And if we have to strengthen the bulwark again, then we will do it, that I’m not worried about,” he adds.

India is facing surging new cases and deaths in the pandemic, and fears are rising that the variant could be contributing to the unfolding catastrophe.

The World Health Organization has said the B.1.617 variant of COVID-19 first found in India had as of yesterday been detected in “at least 17 countries.”

The health agency recently listed B.1.617 — which counts several sub-lineages with slightly different mutations and characteristics — as a “variant of interest.”

But so far it has stopped short of declaring it a “variant of concern,” which would have indicated that it is more dangerous than the original version of the virus by, for instance, being more transmissible, deadly or able to dodge vaccine protections.

The BioNTech-Pfizer vaccine was the first to win authorization in the West, and has since been deployed in dozens of countries worldwide.

Giving an update of the authorization process in China, Sahin says approval is “very possible in July.”

“We are almost through with all questions,” he says.

Cabinet appoints Gantz as justice minister after U-turn by Netanyahu

Government ministers approve Blue and White Benny Gantz’s appointment as justice minister, a day after backing a Likud loyalist for the post despite Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit saying the vote was illegal.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted yesterday’s appointment of Likud MK Ofir Akunis was legal, but reversed himself and agreed to appoint Gantz as justice minister before a High Court of Justice hearing on the matter later today.

To protest Gantz’s appointment, Akunis did not take part in the vote.

AG asks High Court to scrap hearing after Gantz approved as justice minister

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit asks the High Court of Justice to cancel today’s scheduled hearing on Likud Minister Ofir Akunis’ appointment as justice minister yesterday, after the cabinet approved Blue and White leader Benny Gantz for the post following Prime Minister Netanyahu’s one-eighty on the matter.

Greek former neo-Nazi leader held in Belgium refuses extradition

BRUSSELS — An MEP and former leading member of Greece’s banned neo-Nazi Golden Dawn movement, arrested in Belgium, has challenged moves to send him home for imprisonment, prosecutors say.

Ioannis Lagos was held on a European arrest warrant in Brussels yesterday, immediately after the European Parliament voted to strip him of his immunity.

But, brought before a Belgian magistrate today, he challenged the move to send him to Greece to serve a 13-year jail term, deputy public prosecutor Katrien Meulemans says.


Pfizer CEO: Pill for treating COVID could be available by end of 2021

Pfizer CEO Albert Bourla tells CNBC that the US pharma firm’s take-at-home pill for treating COVID-19 could be available by the end of 2021.

Iran’s Rouhani: Israel ‘directed’ US assassination of top general Soleimani

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani claims that Israel “directed” the assassination of former top general Qassem Soleimani, who was killed last year in a US airstrike after arriving in Baghdad.

“The martyrdom of General Soleimani was directed by the Zionists, even though Trump was the commander and killer,” Rouhani says, without providing any evidence for the claim.

Rouhani, who was speaking during a cabinet meeting, makes the remarks after a leaked recording of Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif bemoaning Soleimani’s power. Soleimani headed the Quds Force, the overseas branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, and was considered the architect of Iran’s regional security strategy.

Iran’s president also calls former US president Donald Trump “a mercenary of the Zionist regime” and says “all his actions were provoked by the Zionists.”

“Of course, the previous US presidents were friends with the Zionists, but were not mercenaries,” he says.

Netflix releases trailer for new Israeli series ‘Hit and Run’

Netflix releases the trailer for “Hit and Run,” a new series by “Fauda” star Lior Raz and his co-creator and co-writer Avi Issacharoff, who is also an analyst for The Times of Israel.

The show, which Netflix describes as “about a man looking for answers after his wife was killed by a hitman,” is currently under development and set to come out this summer.

High Court cancels 5 p.m. hearing on appointment of justice minister

The High Court of Justice cancels a hearing scheduled for 5 p.m. on the appointment of Likud lawmaker Ofir Akunis as justice minister, after Prime Minister Netanyahu reversed himself and called a cabinet vote to appoint Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to the post.

Germany to spy on COVID skeptics over concerns of extremist ties

BERLIN — Germany’s domestic intelligence agency will monitor leading protesters against COVID restrictions, the interior ministry says, over concerns they pose a threat to democracy and have ties to right-wing extremism.

The monitoring will focus on members of Germany’s “Querdenker” (Lateral Thinkers) movement, which has emerged as the loudest voice against coronavirus curbs and an active promoter of conspiracy theories that deny basic facts about the pandemic.

Some protest organizers “have clearly demonstrated that their agenda goes beyond simply mobilizing protests against the government’s corona measures,” a ministry statement says.

Their main aim appears to be to “permanently undermine trust in state institutions and their representatives,” it adds.

They are also suspected of seeking links with right-wing extremists such as “Reichsbuerger” (Citizens of the Reich) who question the legitimacy of the modern Federal Republic of Germany, and of spreading antisemitic messages and QAnon myths, the ministry says.

The extremists encourage supporters to ignore official orders and challenge the state monopoly on the use of force, it adds.

France unveils new counterterrorism bill to increase surveillance of suspected extremists

PARIS — The French government unveils a new counterterrorism and intelligence bill aiming at better preventing attacks, notably via a greater surveillance of extremist websites.

The bill, which had been in preparation for months, is formally presented in a cabinet meeting just days after a French police official was killed inside her police station in what authorities are investigating as a terrorist attack.

In a news conference, Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin says the text will strengthen French intelligence services’ power to watch people’s online activities.

Extremists “are using less and less phone lines and more and more internet connections,” he says.

One measure will extend the use by French intelligence services of algorithms to track down extremists online, a method already being trialed since 2015 to monitor messaging apps.

Darmanin says that using algorithms will notably enable intelligence services to spot someone who has accessed extremist websites several times.

The Tunisian national who killed a police employee in Rambouillet, south of Paris, on Friday had watched extremist videos just before carrying out his attack, a counterterrorism prosecutor said.

Prime Minister Jean Castex stresses that the bill has been part of the government’s broader counterterrorism policies since the beginning of French President Emmanuel Macron’s term in 2017.

Rivlin hails France’s Macron for backing change to law after Jewish woman’s killer avoids trial

President Reuven Rivlin pens a letter to his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron concerning a ruling by France’s top court that a man who killed a Jewish woman in Paris was not criminally liable as he was high on marijuana at the time.

In the letter, Rivlin calls Sarah Halimi’s murder “antisemitic, brutal and terrible,” while hailing Macron’s support for changing French law to prevent another such case.

“Your quick and clear response sends a clear message to the family of the victim and to France as a whole that law as it currently stands is deficient, and that deficiency has allowed a despicable murderer to evade justice and punishment,” Rivlin tells Macron.

He adds: “The facts of the case are accepted. Dr. Sarah Halimi was a victim of a despicable murder by a cruel murderer because she was Jewish, and everything must be done to send a clear message that there is, and will not, be any tolerance of sick and despicable antisemitism and attacks on Jews because of their ethnicity and religion.”

Saudi crown prince says seeking improved ties with rival Iran

RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman strikes a conciliatory tone towards the kingdom’s arch-nemesis Iran, saying he seeks “good” relations, after sources said the rivals held secret talks in Baghdad.

The two countries, locked in a fierce struggle for regional dominance, cut ties in 2016 after Iranian protesters attacked Saudi diplomatic missions following the kingdom’s execution of a revered Shiite cleric.

“Iran is a neighboring country, and all we aspire for is a good and special relationship with Iran,” the prince says in a television interview.

“We do not want Iran’s situation to be difficult. On the contrary, we want Iran to grow… and to push the region and the world towards prosperity.”

He adds that Riyadh is working with regional and global partners to find solutions to Tehran’s “negative behavior.”

That marks a change in tone compared to the Saudi royal’s previous interviews, in which he lashed out at Tehran, accusing it of fueling regional insecurity.

The prince doesn’t mention any negotiations with Tehran.

Syria finalizes list of candidates for upcoming presidential vote

DAMASCUS, Syria — Syrian lawmakers vote for their preferred presidential candidate as nominations close ahead of next month’s polls, which are expected to return Bashar Assad for a fourth term.

Fifty-one Syrians, including seven women, had submitted their names before a constitutional deadline passed on Wednesday, the official SANA news agency says.

In order to run, they need to garner support from at least 35 members of the 250-seat parliament, which is dominated by Assad’s Baath party.

Lawmakers are only allowed to endorse one candidate.

“Members of parliament continue to submit their written endorsement for their preferred candidate for presidential polls,” SANA says.

It remains unclear when the final list of names will be announced.

The May 26 election will be the second since the start of a decade-long conflict that has killed over 388,000 people and forced more than half of Syria’s pre-war population from their homes.

Damascus has invited lawmakers from allied countries such Russia, Iran, China, Venezuela and Cuba to observe the electoral process, SANA said.

With the exception of Assad, who has been in power for 21 years, the contenders are mostly little-known figures who are unlikely to mount a serious challenge.

Electoral law stipulates that candidates need to have lived in Syria continuously for at least the past decade, ruling out all exiled opposition figures.

Assad was elected by referendum in 2000 and 2007.

For the first multi-candidate poll in 2014, only two candidates besides Assad out of 24 applicants were allowed to run.

Syria is grappling with a severe economic crisis that has seen the value of the pound plummet against the dollar on the black market.

Assad took power following the death of his father Hafez, who ruled for three decades.

A horse walks into an elevator… of a luxury Tel Aviv apartment building

Police have arrested two suspects on suspicion of bringing a horse into the elevator of a luxury apartment building in Tel Aviv.

The arrests come as security camera footage showing them bringing the horse into the elevator is shared widely on social media. The horse is led into the elevator by one of the suspects, and the door closes behind them, but horse and suspect then come back out.

“I came to visit a friend. I didn’t think it would be a problem to bring a horse into the building. It wasn’t written anywhere that it’s forbidden to bring a horse in. I couldn’t leave it outside. It’s an expensive horse and it would be stolen from me,” the horse’s owner tells police investigators, according to Channel 12 news.

A horse is led into the elevator of a Tel Aviv apartment building, April 28, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)

The network says the two were arrested after a resident of the building saw the security video and contacted police.

One of the suspects was released under conditions, while the second remains in custody over suspicions he violated house arrest in an unrelated matter.

A horse is led into the elevator of a Tel Aviv apartment building, April 28, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)

The two are suspected of abusing the horse and police have asked Tel Aviv Municipality veterinarians to verify the animal was not abused.

IDF drone falls in Gaza, military says no fear of leaked data

The Israel Defense Forces say a military drone fell in northern Gaza during a “routine operation” in the coastal enclave.

“There is no concern of leaked information,” the IDF says.

EU Parliament passes motion condemning ‘hate and violence’ in UNRWA textbooks

The European Parliament has passed a resolution expressing concern about “hate speech and violence” taught in textbooks and schools run by the UN’s agency for Palestinian refugees, or UNRWA.

The resolution urges the agency to remove the offending content, stressing EU aid should be made conditional on educational materials “complying with UNESCO standards of peace, tolerance, coexistence and non-violence.”

Israeli watchdog IMPACT-se, which analyzes Palestinian textbooks, hailed the “unprecedented” resolution.

“This is a really important step in the fight to prevent UNRWA from inciting many thousands of children every school day to violence, extremism and antisemitism. It is the very first time a legislature has stepped up said to UNRWA, ‘enough,’” IMPACT-se chief Marcus Sheff says in a statement.

He adds: “The European Parliament has shown the way for all those who do not want to write blank checks to this deeply flawed organization. It is crystal clear that an external audit of UNRWA’s teaching materials is necessary before millions of taxpayer dollars are transferred to finance the daily radicalization of children.”

New Justice Minister Gantz okays extension of virtual hearings for inmates

Newly minted Justice Minister Benny Gantz signs off on an order allowing detainees and prisoners to attend court hearings by video conference, due to concerns that bringing unvaccinated inmates to courthouses could lead to the spread of COVID-19.

A statement from Gantz’s office says he instructed ministry officials to weigh options for having inmates attend more in-person hearings, “to minimize the damage to their rights while ensuring maintaining health guidelines.”

Federal investigators search Rudy Giuliani’s NYC home

NEW YORK — Federal investigators have executed a search warrant at the Manhattan home of former US president Donald Trump’s attorney Rudy Giuliani, a law enforcement official tells The Associated Press.

The former New York City mayor has been under investigation for several years over his business dealings in Ukraine. Details of the search were not immediately available, but it comes as the Justice Department continues its investigation into the former New York City mayor and staunch Trump ally.

The official can’t discuss the investigation publicly and speaks to the AP on condition of anonymity. News of the search was first reported by The New York Times.

The federal probe into Giuliani’s overseas and business dealings stalled last year because of a dispute over investigative tactics as Trump unsuccessfully sought reelection, and amid Giuliani’s prominent role in subsequently disputing the results of the contest on Trump’s behalf.

The full scope of the investigation is unclear, but it at least partly involves the Ukraine dealings, law enforcement officials have told the AP.

Giuliani was central to the then-president’s efforts to dig up dirt against Democratic rival Joe Biden and to press Ukraine for an investigation into Biden and his son, Hunter — who himself now faces a criminal tax probe by the Justice Department. Giuliani also sought to undermine former US ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch, who was pushed out on Trump’s orders, and met several times with a Ukrainian lawmaker who released edited recordings of Biden in an effort to smear him before the election.

A message left for Giuliani’s lawyer isn’t immediately returned. Giuliani had previously called the investigation is “pure political persecution.”

Rivlin laments ‘illusion of constitutional functionality’ amid political impasse

President Reuven Rivlin takes an apparent swipe at Prime Minister Netanyahu, after the premier appointed a loyalist as justice minister over the objections of the attorney general, before reversing himself before a High Court hearing on the move.

Speaking at an interfaith event in Abu Ghosh, Rivlin credits the “miracle” of Israel’s existence to the “hard work to which we are committed, and it is based, in part, on the foundations of laws, good governance and justice.”

“For some time now, we have been living with the illusion of constitutional functionality between one election campaign and the next, but it appears that yesterday another fence collapsed,” Rivlin says, seemingly referring to the Netanyahu-led transition governments over the past two years of political deadlock.

The president adds: “We must return to the principle according to which the government serves the people, not that the people serves the government.”

Bennett, Sa’ar hold extensive talks on forming government with Lapid

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett and New Hope chief Gideon Sa’ar have been holding extensive talks at the Knesset today on forming a government led by Bennett and Yesh Atid head Yair Lapid, according to Hebrew media reports.

The two are seeking to wrap up the talks by the start of next week, the Kan public broadcaster reports, while Channel 13 news says Lapid and Bennett have agreed to finalize all ministerial appointments by Saturday evening.

However, the network says it is unclear if Bennett and Lapid will meet the deadline, citing significant gaps that still exist between the sides on expectations, the allocation of ministries and what issues there needs to be consensus on.

An unnamed source tells the Walla news site that Bennett and Sa’ar have been discussing key issues in the next government and also “aligning the right-wing demands” they’ll make of Lapid.

The talks come as Prime Minister Netanyahu has six more days to put together a government before his mandate for doing expires.

As part of these efforts, Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked met today with United Torah Judaism MK Meir Porush to see if the ultra-Orthodox party will back or abstain on a vote of confidence in a prospective Bennett-Lapid government, Walla reports.

Meir told her UTJ would not do so if Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman — a fierce opponent of the Haredi parties — becomes finance minister, but “there may be something to discuss” if someone else is tapped for the post, the report adds.

According to the news site, Shaked has been seeking in recent weeks to get the ultra-Orthodox to vote in favor or abstain on a Yamina-Yesh Atid coalition, preferring this to a government that is sworn in with the abstention of Arab parties.

US astronaut Michael Collins, Apollo 11 pilot, dies of cancer at 90

Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins, who piloted the ship from which Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin left to make their historic first steps on the moon in 1969, died today of cancer, his family says. He was 90.

Collins was part of the three-man Apollo 11 crew that effectively ended the space race between the United States and Russia and fulfilled US president John F. Kennedy’s challenge to reach the moon by the end of the 1960s.

Though he traveled some 238,000 miles to the moon and came within 69 miles, Collins never set foot on the lunar surface like his crewmates Aldrin and Armstrong, who died in 2012. None of the men flew in space after the Apollo 11 mission.

“It’s human nature to stretch, to go, to see, to understand,” Collins said on the 10th anniversary of the moon landing in 1979. “Exploration is not a choice really — it’s an imperative, and it’s simply a matter of timing as to when the option is exercised.”

Collins spent the eight-day mission piloting the command module. While Armstrong and Aldrin descended to the moon’s surface in the lunar lander, Eagle, Collins remained alone in the command module, Columbia.

“I guess you’re about the only person around that doesn’t have TV coverage of the scene,” Mission Control radioed Collins after the landing.

“That’s all right. I don’t mind a bit,” he responded.

Collins was alone for nearly 28 hours before Armstrong and Aldrin finished their tasks on the moon’s surface and lifted off in the lunar lander. Collins was responsible for re-docking the two spacecraft before the men could begin heading back to Earth. Had something gone wrong and Aldrin and Armstrong been stuck on the moon’s surface — a real fear — Collins would have returned to Earth alone.

US disagrees with rights group’s accusation that Israel committing ‘apartheid’

The United States voices disagreement with Human Rights Watch’s allegation that Israel is committing “apartheid” against the Palestinians but says it is committed to condemning abuses.

“It is not the view of this administration that Israel’s actions constitute apartheid,” a State Department spokesperson says.

US President Joe Biden’s State Department, however, says it won’t “offer public evaluations of reports by outside groups” — a shift from Donald Trump’s administration which loudly berated advocacy groups that criticized ally Israel.

The spokesperson renews a call on both Israel and the Palestinians to “refrain from unilateral actions that exacerbate tensions” including settlement activity and incitement to violence.

Human Rights Watch in a report yesterday said that Israel is “committing the crimes against humanity of apartheid and persecution,” saying Israel had an “overarching” policy to “maintain the domination of Jewish Israelis over Palestinians.”

Israel, which is facing an investigation at the International Criminal Court opposed by the United States, denounced the report and accused the New York-based group of having an anti-Israel agenda.

Israel’s ambassador to the United States said the report was full of “lies and fabrication” that were “bordering on antisemitic.”

Senior health official: ‘Disgrace’ that government didn’t approve Lag B’Omer restrictions

A top Health Ministry official says it is a “disgrace” that the government did not approve restrictions for Lag B’Omer celebrations tomorrow night at Mount Meron.

Sharon Alroy-Preis, who heads the ministry’s public health department, warns of a “danger of contagion” from vast crowds gathering at the site in northern Israel.

She says a plan for holding the festivities was drawn up carefully “by all sides,” but not implemented by the government.

Alroy-Preis also says there is not yet enough information on the “Indian variant” of COVID-19 and that she has not seen research showing the Pfizer-BioNTech is effective against it.

Earlier today, the CEO of BioNTech said he was confident the vaccine his firm developed with Pfizer is effective against the Indian strain and yesterday an Israeli expert on the COVID pandemic said the current assessment is that existing vaccines protect against the Indian variant.

The Health Ministry has called for restricting travel from India and several other countries it has flagged as high risk, but the government has yet to approve them.

Hamas warns Israel will bear responsibility if Palestinian elections postponed

Hamas issues a warning that if Palestinian elections are postponed, Israel will bear responsibility.

In a speech tomorrow, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is widely expected to announce a delay of the vote to an unknown date. It is believed he will blame Israel, saying it has rejected allowing elections to be held in East Jerusalem — though his actual reason is thought to be a fear that his Fatah movement will take a serious hit at the polls.

The Hamas terror group says in a statement this evening that “no Palestinian can accept holding elections without Jerusalem.”

It adds: “Elections are a basic right of the Palestinian people, the execution of which has been delayed many times. This national right should not be harmed in any way.”

EU slams ‘manipulation’ of vaccine info by China, Russia

Beijing and Moscow have stepped up “state-sponsored disinformation” campaigns denigrating Western-developed vaccines against COVID-19 while promoting their own, the EU says.

“The so-called ‘vaccine diplomacy’ follows a zero-sum game logic” that seeks to “undermine trust in Western-made vaccines, EU institutions and Western/European vaccination strategies,” says a report from the EU’s foreign service.

Since December, Russian media, authorities and state companies have united behind pushing the Sputnik V vaccine while using “antagonistic messaging” to accuse the EU of “sabotaging” the Russian jab, the report says.

“Pro-Kremlin media outlets, including the official Sputnik V Twitter account, have sought to undermine public trust in the European Medicines Agency and cast doubt on its procedures and political impartiality.”

Beijing meanwhile is promoting its vaccines as “more suitable for developing countries,” including those in the Western Balkans, while deploying “misleading narratives” about the safety of Western vaccines and even on the origin of the coronavirus, the EU report says.

US, European countries reject Syria election results in advance

Western members of the UN Security Council, led by the United States, France and Britain, reject the outcome of Syria’s May 26 presidential election in advance, a position denounced by Russia as “unacceptable.”

“The failure to enact a new constitution is proof positive that the so-called election on May 26 will be a sham,” US ambassador to the UN Linda Thomas-Greenfield says during a monthly session of the Security Council on Syria.

The regime of President Bashar Assad — projected to win the vote under the current circumstances — “must take steps to enable the participation of refugees, internally displaced persons, and the diaspora in any Syrian elections. Until then, we will not be fooled,” she says.

Syrian President Bashar Assad listens to Russian President Vladimir Putin during their meeting in Damascus, Syria, January 7, 2020. (Alexei Druzhinin/Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

“France will not recognize any validity to the elections planned by the regime at the end of May,” says the French ambassador to the UN, Nicolas de Riviere.

“Elections that take place in the absence of a safe and neutral environment, in an ongoing climate of fear, when millions of Syrians depend on humanitarian aid… do not confer political legitimacy, but instead demonstrate disregard for the Syrian people,” British diplomat Sonia Farrey says.

Their Russian counterpart, Vassily Nebenzia, whose country is a strong supporter of Damascus, calls the idea that some nations have already rejected the results “distressing.” He denounces “unacceptable interference in Syria’s internal affairs.”

India COVID infections set new global record; millions vote in local election

NEW DELHI — India sets another global record in new virus cases, as millions of people in one state cast votes despite rising infections and the country gears up to open its vaccination rollout to all adults amid snags.

With 379,257 new infections, India now has reported more than 18.3 million cases, second only to the United States. The Health Ministry also reports 3,645 deaths in the last 24 hours, bringing the total to 204,832. Experts believe both figures are an undercount, but it’s unclear by how much.

India has set a daily global record for seven of the past eight days, with a seven-day moving average of nearly 350,000 infections. Daily deaths have nearly tripled in the past three weeks, reflecting the intensity of the latest surge. And the country’s already teetering health system is under immense strain, prompting multiple allies to send help.

A country of nearly 1.4 billion people, India had thought the worst was over when cases ebbed in September. But mass public gatherings such as political rallies and religious events that were allowed to continue, and relaxed attitudes on the risks fed by leaders touting victory over the virus led to what now has become a major humanitarian crisis, health experts say. New variants of the coronavirus have also partly led the surge.

Amid the crisis, voting for the eighth and final phase of the West Bengal state elections begins today, even as the devastating surge of infections continues to barrel across the country with a ferocious speed, filling crematoriums and graveyards.

The state recorded more than 17,000 cases in the last 24 hours — its highest spike since the pandemic began.

Starting yesterday, all Indians 18 and older were allowed to register on a government app for vaccinations, but social media were flooded with complaints the app had crashed due to high use, and once it was working again, no appointments were available.

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