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Lapid praises ex-partner Gantz, says Netanyahu cannot manage coronavirus crisis

Opposition head urges creation of slim, stable government following early elections; whip accuses Blue and White of hitting ‘new low,’ following speech

Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Yair Lapid, left, share a laugh during a faction meeting at the Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Blue and White leaders Benny Gantz, right, and Yair Lapid, left, share a laugh during a faction meeting at the Knesset on October 3, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

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

Justice Minister says sexist remarks don’t disqualify prosecutor pick

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn has told State Prosecutor pick Amit Aisman that his sexually explicit comments toward female subordinates made in the past were unacceptable, but they do not disqualify him from the senior role, according to a statement carried in Hebrew-language media.

Aisman expresses “deep regret” and promises to work on maintaining “respectable dialogue,” according to the statement.

Aisman, picked for the post on Monday, has come under fire from women’s rights advocates over the comments.

The Israel Women’s Network called the selection “improper” on Monday.

Aisman must still be confirmed by the government.

 

Hamas chief Sinwar positive for COVID-19

The head of the Hamas terror group in Gaza, Yahya Sinwar, has tested positive for the novel coronavirus and entered quarantine, Hamas announces.

“A special coronavirus test was conducted for Yahya Sinwar, head of Hamas in Gaza, after symptoms manifested and it came back positive… We emphasize that Yahya Sinwar is fine and in good health, thank God. He is working normally according to safety protocols and medical quarantine,” Sinwar’s office says in a statement.

— Aaron Boxerman

Appeal in Daniel Pearl slaying case opens in Pakistan

An appeal against the controversial acquittal of a British-born militant convicted of murdering American journalist Daniel Pearl opens at a Pakistani court.

A Karachi court sparked outrage earlier this year when it overturned the 2002 murder conviction of Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, and acquitted three other men connected to the case.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the alleged mastermind behind the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnap-slaying, appears at the court in Karachi, Pakistan, March 29, 2002. (Zia Mazhar/AP)

Pearl’s parents and prosecutors lodged an appeal at Pakistan’s Supreme Court in May, putting the release of the four men on hold.

“The case has finally opened. It will be decided whether they should be convicted or acquitted. The case is heading to a final verdict,” Faisal Siddiqui, the lawyer representing Pearl’s parents, tells AFP.

The appeal, which has been repeatedly postponed in recent months, will hear opening arguments in the capital Islamabad tomorrow.

— AFP

EU agency could approve vaccines in late December, early January

The European Medicines Agency will convene a meeting on December 29 to decide if there is enough data about the safety and efficacy of the COVID-19 vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech for it to be approved, the regulator says.

The agency also says it could decide as early as January 12 whether to approve a rival COVID-19 vaccine developed by Moderna Inc.

The German pharmaceutical company BioNTech and its US partner Pfizer said earlier that they had asked the regulator for speeded-up, conditional approval of their coronavirus vaccine, concluding the rolling review process they initiated with the agency on October 6.

The move comes a day after rival Moderna said it was asking US and European regulators to allow the use of its COVID-19 vaccine.

BioNTech says if the vaccine, currently named BNT162b2, is approved, its use in Europe could begin before the end of 2020.

In a statement, the EU medicines regulator says it had already begun a “rolling review” of the Moderna vaccine based on laboratory data previously submitted by the company and would now assess data on how well that vaccine triggers an immune response and whether it is safe enough for broad use across Europe.

The agency says that “if the data are robust enough to conclude on quality, safety and effectiveness,” then it could approve the Moderna vaccine at a meeting scheduled for January 12.

— AP

Iran denies IRGC commander killed, vows ‘excruciating response’ over scientist hit

A spokesman for Iran’s foreign ministry is denying reports that a Revolutionary Guards commander was killed in a drone strike on the Syria-Iraq border, and vowing “excruciating” revenge for the killers of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Saeed Khatibzadeh (Screen capture: YouTube)

“We have not received any report in this regard, and it seems more of a media propaganda,” Saeed Khatibzadeh says, according to the semi-official Mehr news agency.

But he adds that questions should be directed to Iran’s armed forces.

Reports Sunday and Monday claimed that Muslim Shahdan was killed in a drone strike on his car. According to one report, the vehicle was also transporting weapons.

Khatibzadeh also says that “the Islamic Republic of Iran will give an excruciating response to the perpetrators and murderers of martyr Fakhrizadeh.”

Members of Iranian forces pray around the coffin of slain nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh during the burial ceremony at Imamzadeh Saleh shrine in northern Tehran, on November 30, 2020. (HAMED MALEKPOUR / TASNIM NEWS / AFP)

He notes that all regional countries “but one” condemned the killing, which Iran has blamed on Israel.

“All know that this condemnation is aimed at the occupying regime of Israel,” he says.

Iran says it won’t show restraint in response to assassination

Iran Foreign Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh says that Iran will not take heed of countries that are urging restraint in the wake of the killing of nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

“They can say whatever they want…. Iran will deliver a proportionate, independent response that will [inflict] maximum pain on those who ordered and perpetrated [the crime],” he says, according to semi-official PressTV.

Asked about various theories being forwarded about the ambush on nuclear scientist Fakhrizadeh, Khatibzadeh dismisses them as coming from Iran’s rivals, including the People’s Muhajideen dissident group, also known as MEK, currently based in Albania.

“Many Hollywood-style scenarios have been raised. The information campaign that has begun from Albania, Israel and Washington should not confuse us,” he says, according to Iran’s Tasnim news agency, which is closely linked to the IRGC.

Hospital head alleges political meddling holding up approval of Russian vaccine

Hadassah hospital head Zeev Rotstein is telling a Knesset panel that approval of a vaccine from Russia is being held up for “political reasons,” and due to anti-Russian sentiment.

Rotstein tells the State Control Committee that the Russian virus is just as effective as vaccines produced by Western firms.

A vial of Russia’s experimental Sputnik V coronavirus vaccine, in Moscow, Russia, September 15, 2020. (Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/AP)

“It’s already been given to 40,000 people with no immediate side effects. Yet there’s still no approval from the Health Ministry. I haven’t gotten any answer. It’s possible that the reason is political and the location of production is holding up the approvals,” says Rotstein, who has championed the Russian vaccine, known as Sputnik V.

Israel’s Health Minister is Yuli Edelstein, a Ukraine-born refusenik who spent three years in a Soviet gulag before moving to Israel, though it’s unlikely that history has weighed on any regulatory decisions.

Rather, Russia has been criticized for rushing the vaccine to the public before it was fully tested and for not being transparent about trial results. Some have suggested researchers might be cutting corners amid pressure from authorities to deliver.

Zeev Rotstein, director of Hadassah, at Hadassah Ein Karem, in Jerusalem, on September 3, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Rotstein has already ordered 1.5 million doses of the drug, and has looked to position Israel as a regional distribution hub.

He also refers to a report that because the vaccines are not approved, Israel may sell them to the UAE, which would then donate them to the Palestinians.

“It’s funny that in the end it will go to the PA and those within the [Green] Line won’t get the vaccine,” he says, according to a Knesset statement.

Palestinians report over 2,300 coronavirus cases in new high

Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip saw 2.357 new coronavirus infections over the past 24 hours, setting a record for the second consecutive day, the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry reports.

A record 1,532 new coronavirus infections were confirmed in the West Bank in the past 24 hours, according to Health Ministry statistics.

A man walks outside the Church of the Nativity, traditionally believed to be the birthplace of Jesus Christ, in the West Bank City of Bethlehem, November 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

Testing has doubled over the past few weeks to over 8,000 tests per day, but with around 17% of tests in the West Bank coming back positive, it’s likely that many cases are still spreading undetected.

The Palestinian Authority imposed a nightly curfew across the West Bank on Sunday. But the new regulations — which included a total lockdown on Friday and Saturday — have yet to make a dent in virus numbers. It usually takes 10-14 days before the results of a lockdown are seen.

The Hamas-run Gaza health ministry reports 815 new cases in the past 24 hours, with 32% of tests taken coming back positive, according to the Hamas health ministry.

— Aaron Boxerman

Two dead after car rams pedestrians in Germany

At least two people are dead after a car drove into pedestrians in the German city Trier, police say.

— AFP

Driver in deadly Trier incident arrested — police

Police in Trier say the driver of a car that plowed into a crowd has been arrested and the vehicle impounded. Police and rescue crews are on the scene and authorities have told people to avoid the city center.

Several people are reported injured in the incident.

No details are immediately available on the cause of the crash, and police have not responded to requests for comment.

— AP

Deputy health minister says Hanukkah curfew being planned

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch tells Channel 12 news that Israel will impose a national curfew to stem family visits over Hanukkah and Christmas.

“We will impose a nighttime curfew over the December holidays to reduce gatherings and control infections,” he says.

The comments may be more aspirational than forward-looking. A final decision on any restrictions must be made by the cabinet, and many ministers may be wary of crimping people’s holiday plans, especially with early elections likely on the horizon. Ministers have in the past rejected Health Ministry proposals for lockdowns and other restrictions.

Kisch’s announcement comes hours after coronavirus czar Nachman Ash said Israel was in a “state of emergency,” reacting to virus numbers that have begun to climb again after falling off in October and much of November.

Trier mayor says driver went on ‘rampage’

Trier Mayor Wolfram Leibe tells regional broadcaster SWR that a driver who killed at least two people after running his car through a pedestrian shopping area had gone on “a rampage.”

He says there are 15 injuries.

There is still no word from police on a possible motive, but some press reports in Germany call it a “possible ramming attack.”

Footage from the scene broadcast on NTV shows several police vans and other emergency vehicles parked on a wide shopping street in Trier, a large section of which appeared to have been cleared.

Shoppers are seen huddling outside stores festooned with Christmas decorations, while sirens can be heard in the distance.

Although the incident has not been confirmed as an attack, it brought back memories of the 2016 truck rampage at a Berlin Christmas market that left 12 people dead. The driver, a failed Tunisian asylum seeker, was a supporter of the Islamic State jihadist group.

— with AFP

Arrested driver is a 51-year-old German man, Trier police say

Police in Trier say they arrested a 51-year-old man of German origin following the Trier vehicular ramming incident, according to German media.

No motive is known and police have asked people to avoid speculation and to not put videos and pictures from the scene on social media.

Die Welt reports that a child is among the victims in the incident, in which two people were killed and 15 injured, according to officials.

A square is blocked by the police in Trier, Germany, December 1, 2020, after a suspected vehicular homicide. (Harald Tittel/dpa via AP)

Submarine inquiry panel meets for preparatory work after order to wait

Members of a commission of inquiry looking into the submarine acquisition scandal have convened, Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s office says in a statement, days after Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ordered the panel to suspend its work until law enforcement concludes its own probe into the matter.

The statement says members Amnon Straschnov, Avraham Ben Shushan and Yisraela Friedman are meeting for talks on technical matters, such a timeline and securing sensitive information.

“The panel members are expected to conclude their logistical preparations later in the day in order to be ready to open expected hearings once guidelines from the attorney general are received,” the statement reads.

The establishment of the panel was seen as a challenge to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has been accused by other politicians of involvement in the bribery scandal. He was not charged in the case.

Gantz’s decision to allow the panel to meet despite Mandelblit’s order may be interpreted as a fresh crack against Netanyahu, with the Blue and White chief widely expected to back a motion to dissolve the Knesset and call early elections tomorrow, spelling the likely end of their power-sharing deal.

Gantz to give statement tonight amid rampant speculation on early elections

Defense Minister Benny Gantz will hold a “special” press conference at 8 p.m.

Gantz is widely expected to announce his decision to back a motion on dissolving the Knesset and calling early elections.

Iran says it opposes lawmakers’ plan to end nuclear inspections

The Iranian parliament’s backing on Tuesday of a plan to end nuclear inspections after the assassination of the country’s top nuclear scientist has met immediate opposition from the government.

“The government has explicitly announced that it does not agree with (this) plan” which it considers “neither necessary nor useful,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh tells a news conference.

Deputies supported a draft bill “for the lifting of sanctions and protection of the Iranian people’s interests,” saying they want to achieve the objectives of “martyred” scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh.

Fakhrizadeh was assassinated outside Tehran on Friday in a bomb and gun attack that the Islamic Republic has blamed on Israel.

— AFP

Israel may halt flights to Turkey over COVID-19 spike — report

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has ordered his National Security Council to look into the possibility of halting flights to Turkey, effective immediately, given the rise in coronavirus infections there, Army Radio reports.

On Monday, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan announced the most stringent lockdown measures yet to battle a spike in infections.

Turkish Health Ministry statistics on Monday showed 31,219 confirmed new infections and 188 new deaths. Daily fatalities in Turkey have hit record numbers for eight consecutive days, bringing the country’s acknowledged virus death toll to 13,746.

A Turkish Airlines flight seen at the airstrip at Ben Gurion International Airport. February 26, 2015. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

While ties between Ankara and Jerusalem are frayed, business ties between the countries remain intact. Istanbul is also a major transit hub for Israeli travelers.

According to the report, the possibility of halting flights to other locations may be explored as well. The other destinations were not detailed and there was no confirmation of the report.

— with AP

Ra’am still mulling position on Knesset dissolution

Joint List MK Mansour Abbas tells Army Radio his Ra’am faction has not yet decided whether to back a measure to dissolve the Knesset that’s set to come up for a vote Wednesday.

Abbas has been seen moving closer to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent weeks, drawing fire from the rest of the Joint List. He has defended the moves as pragmatic and in the best interest of the constituency of his Islamist faction.

“It’s too bad we haven’t learned from past experience and we are busy in just bringing down this government or another. Ra’am has not yet made a decision on tomorrow,” Abbas says.

Gantz to back motion for early elections, party source tells TV

Channel 12 news quotes an unnamed source in Blue and White saying that Benny Gantz and his party will support a measure to dissolve the Knesset and call early elections, set to be voted on tomorrow.

Gantz is expected to announce his decision on the motion later this evening.

Blue and White’s support is expected to be enough to pass the motion, though it must still go through several stages, which could take weeks or longer, before it becomes official and early elections are called.

According to the channel, talks between Likud and Blue and White to solve the rift between them and avoid early elections are continuing via backchannels. The report claims that Gantz is willing to back down on his demands for a two-year budget if a power-sharing rotation agreement is made more ironclad, while Netanyahu is willing to budge on the budget so long as his ability to break the rotation deal is maintained.

Court orders prosecution to give Netanyahu lawyers more materials

The Jerusalem District Court has ordered the state to hand over some investigatory material to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s defense team within seven days, as part of the criminal cases against him.

In doing so, the court partially accepts a claim by Netanyahu’s defense team, and the defense teams of the other defendants in the case, that the prosecution had “filtered out” some materials handed over in discovery.

The court also turns down some requests for more materials found to be irrelevant to the defense’s case.

 

China successfully lands probe on moon

An unmanned Chinese spacecraft has landed on the moon, state media reports, marking only the second time the country had successfully placed a probe on the lunar surface.

The Chang’e-5 spacecraft “landed on the near side of the moon late Tuesday,” the Xinhua report says, citing the China National Space Administration.

A Long March-5 rocket carrying the Chang’e 5 lunar mission lifts off at the Wenchang Space Launch Center in Wenchang in southern China’s Hainan province, early Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2020. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

— AFP

Bennett reportedly wooing Likud renegade Shasha-Biton

With early elections appearing to rear up, Naftali Bennett is reportedly courting the defection of a Likud MK who won cheers and jeers for her populist moves to rein in the government’s efforts to impose coronavirus restrictions.

Walla news reports that Bennett has offered Yifat Shasha-Biton the number 2 slot on his Yamina slate.

A source familiar with the matter tells the news outlet that Bennett was willing to give the lawmaker “anything she wants for her joining.”

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

Polls have shown Bennett nipping at the heels of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a new vote, partially on the strength of his efforts to hammer the government over its coronavirus policy. His party is expected to secure at least 20 Knesset seats, 15 more than he currently has.

Shasha-Biton heads the ad-hoc Knesset committee charged with reviewing and approving coronavirus restrictions passed by the government. She was threatened with punishment from the party after she helped overturned the government’s moves to keep gyms, pools and other venues closed earlier this year.

Health official raises alarms over ‘third wave,’ travelers

Health Ministry Public Health Director Sharon Alroy Preis says at a press conference that coronavirus infection numbers are “very worrying.”

She says the daily caseload is at 982 infections, based on a seven day average, noting that Monday saw over 1,200 new cases. “This rise does not include the opening of malls or the return of grades five and six, meaning there will be more rises. This is the start of the third wave.”

“This is exactly how the second wave started. Many of the sick are coming from red countries — it’s a serious vector,” she adds, referring to countries with high infection rates.

She says that officials are looking into the possibility of reopening isolation hotels for those returning from abroad.

But her boss, ministry head Chezy Levy, tells Kan that he does not think the government will, or necessarily can, ban travel to Turkey, after a report that Netanyahu has ordered his top national security aide to explore the matter.

Major Hanukkah virus restrictions not on table — senior official

Health officials are not planning on attempting to impose a lockdown over the winter holidays, Health Ministry Public Health Director Sharon Alroy Preis says at a press conference.

“We’re on the verge of restrained steps — right now every sick person is infecting more than one other. It’s possible that limited measures can slow the advance of the disease, and we won’t need significant steps,” she says.

Earlier in the day, Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch said the ministry would push for a nightly curfew over the holidays.

Alroy Preis also says that the main infection zones are in the Arab community, but they are seeing high numbers in the general population as well.

And she advises against relying on a vaccine getting here anytime soon.

“We’ll likely need to get through the winter with most Israelis not vaccinated,” she says.

Sudan ties may fall apart as Congress balks at Khartoum’s demands — report

An agreement by Sudan to establish ties with Israel may be in danger after Sudanese officials demanded that the US approve legislation protecting it from terror-related lawsuits by the end of the year, The New York Times reports.

Without the legislation, Khartoum could possibly renege on its agreement to pursue ties with Israel, which was heavily pushed by the Trump administration.

The report says that US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has assured Sudan that the legislation will be passed in the coming weeks and a signing ceremony is already being planned at the White House.

However, lawmakers quoted in the report say there are several hurdles regarding compensation for victims of terror, including from the September 11 attacks. Lawmakers have also raised hackles over another part of the deal negotiated by the State Department, which regards compensation for attacks on US embassies in East Africa in 1998.

Virus death toll rises by 12 — ministry

The Health Ministry reports that the death toll from the coronavirus has risen to 2,877, adding 12 fatalities since this morning.

The new deaths come after two days in which only a single death was reported.

The ministry also revises its tally for Monday up slightly, reporting that 1,244 new cases were found. So far Tuesday, there have been 789 new cases, though preliminary figures show only 1.8% of tests came back positive, which would be the lowest rate in a week.

The number of active cases continues to rise, hitting 10,707, a day after crossing the 10,000 threshold for the first time in a month.

The ministry says 264 patients are in serious condition, including 84 people on ventilators.

Gantz says Blue and White will vote to dissolve Knesset

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz begins his widely anticipated announcement, saying he can no longer support the government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and that Blue and White will vote to dissolve the Knesset, setting the stage for early elections.

“Netanyahu has decided to take apart the government and lead back to elections,” he charges, banging the podium, and calling the Likud leader’s foot-dragging over the budget a “terror attack.”

He says he wants to avoid an “ugly election campaign” and accuses Netanyahu of refusing to keep up his end of the power-sharing deal, describing his disappointment that the premier did not “rise to the occasion,” as he thought he would.

“He didn’t lie to me, he lied to you. He didn’t deceive me, he deceived you,” he says.

He says Netanyahu should not be allowed to lead the government himself.

“If Netanyahu forces us into early elections, I will fight to create a broad government with true unity of the type that is needed now,” he says. “This will be a functioning government in which Netanyahu will have no part.”

He also defends his own party’s actions during its time in government with Likud. “Against Netanyahu’s maneuvers, we acted for the security of the country,” he claims.

 

Gantz leaves Netanyahu opening if he halts budget delays

Benny Gantz ends his speech by offering Netanyahu an opening to avoid the Knesset being dissolved and new elections, if he immediately acts to pass the 2020-2021 budget as agreed to in the coalition deal.

 

Netanyahu to Gantz: I want unity, don’t be dragged behind Lapid and Bennett

In a statement released moments before Benny Gantz’s speech, Benjamin Netanyahu urges Gantz to stay in the government, alleging that Blue and White is “being dragged behind [Yair] Lapid and [Naftali] Bennett.”

“This is not the time for elections — this is the time for unity,” he says.

He also repeats his accusation that Blue and White was working against the government from inside the coalition and breaking agreements, but says they should “put that to the side.”

“What we need now is a U-turn from politics for the good of Israeli citizens,” he says.

Most analysts believe that while Netanyahu wants early elections, he prefers they be timed later in the year. Both sides also appear to be trying to cast the other as having caused the dissolution of the coalition and the return to elections for the fourth time in two years.

Likud whip Zohar attacks Gantz for hitting ‘new low’

Coalition whip Miki Zohar, a close Netanyahu ally, says Gantz’s speech was “the start of his election campaign.”

“His personal attack on Netanyahu was a new low,” Zohar tells Army Radio. “Blue and White is dissolving the Knesset and dismantling the government for a political caprice.”

Gantz is also criticized from the left, with Meretz chief Nitzan Horowitz telling the station that “without the betrayal of some parts of [our] camp, foremost Gantz, we could have replaced Netanyahu.”

Report details Netanyahu effort to avoid being blamed for new vote

Highlighting the blame game shaping up between Likud and Blue and White over who is responsible for new elections, if it comes to that, Kan reports that in the last several days Likud members have been attempting to lobby Netanyahu on calling new party primaries.

But according to the report, Netanyahu told them to hold their horses until Gantz makes a move.

“This way they won’t think we’re the ones causing elections,” he’s quoted saying by the report.

Death toll in Germany rises to 4; driver may have had mental issues

The man who drove his car through a pedestrian shopping street in the German city of Trier on Tuesday appears to have been suffering from “psychiatric problems,” prosecutor Peter Fritzen says, as the death toll rises to four.

Police say among those killed was a baby.

Early indications “suggest that psychiatric problems possibly played a role,” he tells reporters, adding the driver was also under the influence of alcohol at the time.

Prosecutors are considering requesting that he be placed in psychiatric care, Fritzen adds.

— AFP

Lapid praises Gantz for decision to support Knesset break-up

Opposition leader Yair Lapid releases a statement saying he praises Benny Gantz for his decision to vote in favor of dissolving the Knesset when the Yesh Atid head’s bill comes up for a vote tomorrow.

“It’s clear to all that Netanyahu cannot lead the country out of the coronavirus crisis. Israel needs a government that will work for the public. A svelte, stable government that will deal with real life. Real problems. Small businesses, unemployed, health. Not politics, not corruption and not press conferences,” he says.

UAE coronavirus infection spike may dampen travel plans

Hebrew-language news outlets report that Israel is considering removing the United Arab Emirates from the list of countries Israelis can visit without needing to isolate upon their return.

The news comes hours after the first-ever Israeli commercial flight flew from Tel Aviv to Dubai, which has begun to welcome an influx of Israelis. A visa-free travel agreement is set to go into effect later this month.

The UAE has recorded at least 1,000 cases each day over the last 43 days, according to Dubai-based The National. On Monday, it saw 1,289 new cases, just 45 more than Israel, albeit on nearly 130,000 tests, more than double the number here.

The Health Ministry tells Channel 12 news that the country can remain okay for travelers so long as its positivity rate stays less than 1%, but according to reports, officials fear that may change as cases there pile up.

Meanwhile, Israeli media has picked up on a video showing what appears to be the Gulf kingdom’s first ultra-Orthodox wedding, with masks and social distancing in short supply.

Head of US fight against Islamic State quits

The civilian official overseeing the Pentagon’s campaign to defeat the Islamic State group in the Middle East has resigned, in the latest jolt to Pentagon leadership in the waning weeks of the Trump administration.

The Pentagon says in a statement that the acting defense secretary, Christopher Miller, on Monday accepted the resignation of Christopher Maier, who had provided policy oversight of the military’s counter-IS effort since March 2017.

Maier was director of the Defeat-ISIS Task Force, which has been disbanded. Its responsibilities have been absorbed by counterterrorism staffs headed by appointees whom US President Donald Trump placed in senior Pentagon positions in a shakeup that included his firing of Defense Secretary Mark Esper on November 9.

The New York Times reports that Maier was forced out.

In its statement, the Pentagon gives no reason for Maier’s departure but says the decision to disband the task force he led was a recognition of the “success of the military fight to destroy” the Islamic State’s grip on territory in Iraq and Syria. Critics say that while the militant group has lost its physical empire, it remains a threat and has been biding its time in search of ways to regroup and re-emerge.

— AP

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