The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they unfolded.
Former prime minister Ehud Olmert is defending fellow ex-premier Benjamin Netanyahu against the dishonor visited upon him by former US President Donald Trump.
A book by journalist Barak Ravid quotes Trump as raging at Netanyahu over the fact that he congratulated Joe Biden on winning the presidency: “He was very early. Like earlier than most. I haven’t spoken to him since. Fuck him.”
Speaking in English via video link at a leadership conference, Olmert calls Trump “a person, which for him, everything is personal.”
“This is crazy, I think he’s a pathetic person,” Olmert adds of the ex-US president, while noting that Netanyahu waited until “it became embarrassing for the state of Israel” to congratulate Biden.
Despite backing Netanyahu in this instance, Olmert still doesn’t display much love for his political foe, who he says he doesn’t, like, trust or “believe in his integrity or desire to do anything other than what suits his personal interest.”
EILAT — Israel’s Miss Universe contestant, Noa Cochva, faints backstage at rehearsals for the international competition in Eilat, say organizers.
Cochva, 22, is receiving medical treatment backstage and hopes to recover in time for the finals of the event, which kick off at 2 a.m. local time.
“Thank you all for your concern. I feel good and strong,” she says in a statement to her ostensible supporters, vowing to return in time for tonight’s competition.
In a subtle knock at Republicans who in recent years have become increasingly opposed to granting US humanitarian aid to the Palestinians amid concerns it could be funneled for use by terrorists, USAID chief Samantha Power laments the politicization of such financial support.
“For decades, there has been a broad consensus both in Israel and the United States that investments in the health and well being of Palestinians benefits everyone, including Israelis. That investing in a girl’s education is both righteous and necessary. Regardless of which side of the line it occurs on. That a lack of opportunity only fuels distrust and alienation,” she says in a pre-recorded address to the Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) winter gala. “Yet today it has become controversial, to provide life saving aid to the Palestinian people and invest in their development.”
“Thankfully, each of you understand, as we do at USAID, that peace is not some destination at which we arrive in the future. Peace is a process of building understanding and connection between peoples, a process the bit by bit, amid steps forward and setbacks, builds a foundation for reconciliation, and harmony,” Power says.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has touched down at the Royal Airport in Abu Dhabi, where he is greeted by UAE Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed, kicking off the first ever official visit to the Gulf nation by an Israeli premier.
Bennett tells bin Zayed, “I appreciate your warm hospitality. This is a wonderful welcome. I am very excited to be here on the first official visit by an Israeli leader here. I look forward to strengthening the relationship between our two countries.”
Despite critical acclaim and two years-worth of anticipation, Steven Spielberg’s lavish “West Side Story” revival made little noise at the box office, debuting with $10.5 million in ticket sales, according to studio estimates Sunday — a worrisome result for a movie industry struggling to recapture its finger-snapping rhythm.
A dazzling widescreen adaptation and Spielberg’s first musical, “West Side Story” was one of the year’s most eagerly awaited titles. With a script by Tony Kushner and Rita Moreno returning to her breakthrough film 60 years later, the $100-million “West Side Story” epitomizes a grand-scale prestige film that Hollywood infrequently produces anymore. It hit theaters on a wave of glowing reviews and expectations that it could play a starring role in March’s Academy Awards.
But “West Side Story” faced a challenging marketplace for both adult-driven releases and musicals. Audiences have steadily returned to multiplexes in the second year of the pandemic, but older moviegoers, who made up the bulk of ticket-buyers for Spielberg’s latest, have been among the slowest to return.
Education Ministry director Yigal Slovik has stepped down from his post, due to a spat with the office’s minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, Hebrew media reports.
It is not immediately clear whether Slovik resigned or was fired, nor the nature of his disagreement with Shasha-Biton.
Iran appears to be preparing for a space launch, as negotiations continue in Vienna over its tattered nuclear deal with world powers, according to an expert and satellite images.
The likely blast-off at Iran’s Imam Khomeini Spaceport comes as Iranian state media has offered a list of upcoming planned satellite launches in the works for the Islamic Republic’s civilian space program, which has been beset by a series of failed launches. Iran’s paramilitary Revolutionary Guard runs its own parallel program that successfully put a satellite into orbit last year.
Conducting a launch amid the Vienna talks fits the hardline posture struck by Tehran’s negotiators, who already described six previous rounds of diplomacy as a “draft,” exasperating Western nations. Germany’s new foreign minister has gone as far as to warn that “time is running out for us at this point.”
But all this fits into a renewed focus on space by Iran’s hardline President Ebrahim Raisi, said Jeffrey Lewis, an expert at the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies who studies Tehran’s program. With Iran’s former president Hassan Rouhani, who shepherded the nuclear deal out of office, concerns about alienating the talks with launches that the US asserts aids Tehran’s ballistic missile program likely have faded.
“They’re not walking on eggshells,” Lewis said. “I think Raisi’s people have a new balance in mind.”
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has arrived in the United Arab Emirates’ capital, Abu Dhabi, a spokeswoman tells AFP, beginning the first official visit by an Israeli premier of the Jewish state.
Bennett is scheduled to meet with Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al-Nahyan on Monday.
— with AFP
The UK is raising its Covid Alert Level due to the “rapid increase” in cases of the Omicron variant, the country’s four chief medical officers say.
The advisers say the public health risk assessment moves from level three to four — the second-highest level — which indicates “transmission is high and pressure on healthcare services is widespread and substantial or rising.”
Police suspect that the car-ramming that took place earlier this afternoon at the Meitar checkpoint in the southern West Bank was not terror-related.
Police say the car used had been stolen from central Israel several months ago and the driver fled on foot after crashing into vehicles at the crossing.
Ali Bagheri, who is representing Iran at the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna, claims good progress has been made that could pave the way for more serious negotiations, Reuters reports.
“Our path during the negotiation was successful,” Reuters quotes him saying, on Lebanon’s pro-Iranian Al Mayadeen TV.
UN special envoy Geir Pedersen calls for a “step for step” approach in finding a political solution to Syria’s conflict, following his tour of Europe, the US, and Arab states.
Several rounds of United Nations-brokered negotiations in Geneva since 2019 between the government and opposition aimed at forging a new constitution have so far failed.
“I think there is a possibility now to start to explore what I call ‘a step for step’ approach, where you put on the table steps that is defined with precisions, that is verifiable, that hopefully can start to build some trust,” he says, after talks in Damascus with Foreign Minister Faisal Mekdad.
“My message is that there is another possibility to start to explore possible avenues, to start to move forward on this process,” he tells journalists.
Pedersen has toured all the main foreign players with a stake in Syria’s conflict.
With major fighting having subsided since 2020, Damascus has made inroads into easing its international isolation, especially with fellow Arab states.
“I think we should now analyze not only the Arabs but also the American position, the Europeans, the Turkish, the Russians, the Iranians,” the UN envoy says.
The war in Syria is estimated to have killed nearly half a million people and displaced millions more, since it began with a brutal crackdown on anti-government protests in 2011.
It quickly spiraled into a complex conflict that pulled in numerous actors, including jihadist groups and foreign powers.
Throughout the civil war, the UN has been striving to nurture a political resolution.
Police say a vehicle attempted to ram officers at Meitar Crossing, in the southern West Bank, during ongoing clashes in the area.
The car hit a number of other vehicles that were in the way, according to a police statement.
Officers opened fire into the air in an attempt to arrest the driver, who managed to flee the scene, police say.
No injuries are reported.
Republican Jewish Coalition executive director Matt Brooks dismisses a recently published “fuck him” remarks made by former US president Donald Trump against former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu as a “nothingburger.”
“Nothing in this story diminishes the historic accomplishments the two accomplished together, the fact that Trump was the most pro-Israel president EVER and received a historic share of the Jewish vote in Florida that helped him carry the state,” Brooks tells Haaretz.
In an interview with Israeli reporter Barak Ravid for the latter’s new book, Trump lambasts Netanyahu for congratulating US President Joe Biden on his election victory.
“The man that I did more for than any other person I dealt with,” Trump said. “I haven’t spoken to him since… Fuck him.”
Trump also told Ravid that Netanyahu wasn’t really interested in peace with the Palestinians, unlike Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has entered Saudi Arabia’s airspace on his way to the UAE for the first-ever official visit there by an Israeli premier.
— איתי בלומנטל Itay Blumental (@ItayBlumental) December 12, 2021
Senior health official Sharon Alroy-Preis announces that the UK, Denmark and Belgium will be added to the list of “red” countries.
Israelis may not travel there, foreigners from there may not enter and those who return must do seven days of quarantine, even if they have three shots, Sharon Alroy-Preis says at a press conference with Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz says additional countries will be added to the government’s “red list” from which travelers will face strict restrictions upon their return.
However, he clarifies that the government does not currently plan to bar travel entirely.
“There is a feeling in the public that everything is fine, but we must act now,” Horowitz says during a press conference.
“We know for sure that Omicron is much more contagious, spreads at a very high rate and that whoever is vaccinated with a booster is better protected from serious illness,” he says.
“Those who do not get vaccinated endanger themselves and those around them.”
“More than 5 million children over the age of 5 in the US have already been vaccinated and no unusual side effects have been reported. I urge parents, do not leave your children at risk.”
The Omicron coronavirus variant is more transmissible than the Delta strain and reduces vaccine efficacy but causes less severe symptoms according to early data, the World Health Organization says.
The Delta variant, first identified in India earlier this year, is responsible for most of the world’s coronavirus infections.
But South Africa’s discovery of Omicron — which has a large number of mutations — last month prompted countries around the world to impose travel bans on southern African countries and reintroduce domestic restrictions to slow its spread.
The WHO says Omicron had spread to 63 countries as of December 9. Faster transmission was noted in South Africa, where Delta is less prevalent, and in Britain, where Delta is the dominant strain.
But it stresses that a lack of data meant it could not say if Omicron’s rate of transmission was because it was less prone to immune responses, higher transmissibility or a combination of both.
Early evidence suggests Omicron causes “a reduction in vaccine efficacy against infection and transmission,” the WHO says in a technical brief.
“Given the current available data, it is likely that Omicron will outpace the Delta variant where community transmission occurs,” it adds.
Omicron infections have so far caused “mild” illness or asymptomatic cases, but the WHO said the data was insufficient to establish the variant’s clinical severity.
South Africa reported Omicron to the WHO on November 24. Vaccine manufacturers Pfizer-BioNTech last week said three doses of their shots were still effective against Omicron.
Countries with sufficient vaccine supplies such as Britain and France have encouraged their populations to receive a third, “booster,” shot to fight Omicron.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz says in a press conference that Israel is “in a good place” relative to other countries in terms of its handling of the new Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Horowitz says the government identified the rise of the new variant quickly and took immediate steps that have prevented the country from being hit as hard as others.
Updating our earlier post that did not specify how many had been killed, AFP reports that three members of Hamas died when shooting erupted at the funeral procession of a member of the terror group in a Palestinian refugee camp in south Lebanon.
Hamas official Raafat al-Murra says members of the rival Fatah movement “shot at the funeral procession” of a Palestinian killed Friday in a blast in the Burj al-Shemali camp, outside the port city of Tyre. A camp resident told AFP armed clashes followed the shooting.
— with AFP
Knesset panel authorizes gov’t decision extending hotel quarantine for returnees from ‘red’ countries
The Knesset’s Law Committee votes to authorize the government decision extending by 10 days the directive requiring travelers returning from “red” countries with high COVID rates to quarantine in state-run hotels.
However, such travelers who receive a test result showing they are negative for the Omicron variant will be released and allowed to continue their quarantine at home.
Veteran Fox News anchor Chris Wallace says that he is leaving the network after 18 years and was “ready for a new adventure.”
Wallace makes the announcement at the end of the weekly news show he moderates, “Fox News Sunday.”
“After 18 years this is my final ‘Fox News Sunday.’ It is the last time, and I say this with real sadness, we will meet like this. Eighteen years ago, the bosses here at Fox promised they would never interfere with a guest I booked or a question I asked. And they kept that promise.”
Wallace says he had been “free to report to the best of my ability, to cover the stories I think are important, to hold our country’s leaders to account. It’s been a great ride.’’
He says he was leaving after 18 years at the network because “I want to try something new, to go beyond politics to all the things I’m interested in. I’m ready for a new adventure and I hope you’ll check it out.’’
Wallace does not give any details about that “adventure.”
Iran plans to cut oil output and prioritize defense spending in its 2022-2023 draft budget because of sanctions and US-Israeli threats linked to its nuclear program.
Iranian news agencies reports that the draft projects GDP growth of eight percent.
President Ebrahim Raisi submitted the draft to parliament for a vote expected by the end of 2021.
In Iran, the New Year starts on March 21.
Iran plans to produce 1.2 million barrels per day at a projected price of $60 a barrel. That is down from 2.3 million bpd at a price of $40 a barrel, leaving revenues of $26.3 billion against $33.5 billion in the last budget.
Industry experts say the estimate is too high, given that Iran currently sells around 600,000 barrels a day.
Oil sales account for a quarter of revenues in the budget, with another 25 percent from a sharp increase in taxes.
The 2022-2023 budget allocates about $5 billion to boost “defense capacities and strategic research,” the Tasnim news agency said, up from $4 billion the previous year.
US rescuers are desperately searching for survivors after tornadoes killed at least 94 and left towns in ruin, with emergency crews racing against time to find dozens still missing from a collapsed Kentucky factory.
US President Joe Biden calls the wave of twisters, including one that traveled more than 200 miles (320 kilometers), “one of the largest” storm outbreaks in American history.
“It’s a tragedy,” a shaken Biden, who pledged support for the affected states, says in televised comments. “And we still don’t know how many lives are lost and the full extent of the damage.”
With the death toll all but certain to rise, scores of search and rescue officers were helping stunned citizens across the US heartland sift through the rubble of their homes and businesses overnight.
More than 80 people are dead in Kentucky alone, many of them workers at a candle factory in Mayfield, the state’s Governor Andy Beshear says as he raised the confirmed toll by 10 fatalities.
And the forecast was grim. “That number is going to exceed more than 100,” Beshear tells CNN.
Meanwhile, at least six have died in an Amazon warehouse in Illinois where they were on the night shift processing orders ahead of Christmas.
Emergency crews worked through the night into Sunday at both locations, but the Kentucky governor’s somber remarks suggested his state’s residents should brace for the worst.
An armed clash breaks out in the Burj Shamali refugee camp in Lebanon during the funeral of a Hamas member who was killed in an explosion in the Palestinian camp two nights ago.
According to reports, several people are killed and injured during the firefight.
It is not clear what instigated the fight, but local reports claim it was between members of the Hamas terror group and the Palestinian Fatah movement.
Hamza Shaheen was killed after an alleged Hamas weapons depot, hidden underneath a mosque in the camp, located near the port city of Tyre, exploded on Friday night.
Last week, the Yedioth Ahronoth newspaper reported that Hamas quietly established a Lebanon branch of its Gaza-based terror group in recent years in order to open up an additional front against Israel in future conflicts.
اشكال و اطلاق نار خلال تشييع في مخيم البرج الشمالي و سقوط جرحى pic.twitter.com/lkXZxjT1XD
— Jamal Chaiito (@Jamalchaiito1) December 12, 2021
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett boards a plane at Ben Gurion Airport for his trip to the United Arab Emirates, the first ever by an Israeli premier.
“The visit is meant to deepen cooperation between the countries in all fields. The ties are excellent and diverse and we must continue to nurture and strengthen them, and build a warm peace between the two nations,” Bennett says in a video statement from the tarmac before departing.
Current and former American military and intelligence officials tell The New York Times that a covert US army cell operating repeatedly killed civilians as collateral damage in its operations against the Islamic State terror group in Syria.
The unit called Talon Anvil was active between 2014 and 2019 striking convoys, car bombs, command centers and squads of enemy fighters, NYT says.
But NYT sources says the cell “circumvented rules imposed to protect noncombatants,” sometimes killing farmers in the middle of their harvest, children on the street, fleeing families, and villagers sheltering in buildings.
“They were ruthlessly efficient and good at their jobs,” says one former Air Force intelligence officer who was with the unit from 2016 to 2018. “But they also made a lot of bad strikes.”
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett apologizes for claiming during today’s cabinet meeting that two British boys who died due to complications from the coronavirus had been infected with the Omicron variant.
Bennett tweets that he was made aware afterward that the boys were infected with another strain of COVID-19.
“Either way, the coronavirus endangers us and our children. I call on all parents: protect your children and protect them from the coronavirus and its variety of variants,” he says.
“There’s no need to make an appointment in advance. Just go straight to the immunization centers. Let us protect the health of the citizens of Israel and the health of the Israeli economy,” he adds.
Israel’s consul general to the US Midwest presents the country’s first ever social impact grants to three grassroots organization in Minneapolis as Jerusalem looks to make inroads with diverse communities across the US.
Three $5,000 checks have been presented to A Mother’s Love, which works to prevent gun violence in the Twin Cities; Minnesota STEM Partnership, which provides people of color with opportunities in math and science; and Her Time to Play, a WNBA-affiliated group empowering young women to develop life skills through basketball. They were selected from applications submitted by hundreds of organizations.
“These three Minnesotan grassroots organizations reflect a value that is also important in Israeli society: looking out for each other and looking out for others,” says Consul General of Israel to the Midwest Yinam Cohen in a statement.
After presenting the grants to the three groups, Cohen meets with Minnesota Governor Tim Walz and Minneapolis Mayor Jacob Frey. After which, he says, “it’s clear that our visions for community-centered change are aligned. So, we are excited for the road ahead, paved by Israel and Minnesota’s shared values of social impact.”
Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai responds to The Times of Israel’s report that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana have decided to walk back the government’s plan to implement the long-frozen Western Wall compromise, which would see the formalization of an egalitarian prayer space at the Kotel
“This week marks a half year of the government’s blessed activity. But a government that wants to last is first and foremost advised to learn to respect coalition agreements,” Shai says in a statement.
“The Government of Israel will continue to strive for the implementation of the Western Wall compromise. As long as [the Labor Party] sits in government, we will push for equality for all streams of Judaism.”
“This matter is far from the responsibility of Kahana’s office, and rightly so,” Shai adds. “Have a good week.”
The ministerial committee that oversees the operations of the Shin Bet security agency votes to stop providing security for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wife and adult sons, six months after the longtime leader was ousted from power.
The decision, which goes into effect Monday, came despite pleas from Netanyahu that his family is regularly subjected to threats against their lives.
While his sons Yair and Avner, and wife Sara, will lose their security detail, Netanyahu himself will be protected by the Shin Bet for the next 20 years.
Under standard procedures, security and a chauffeured vehicle are granted to the family of a former prime minister for the first six months after he leaves office. But in January, at Netanyahu’s insistence, that limit was extended by a ministerial committee to one year.
Now, the same ministerial committee has adopted a recommendation from the Shin Bet security service to reduce the period back to six months.
In a return to the warnings that became a staple of previous waves of the pandemic, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says during the weekly cabinet meeting that “if we do not take immediate and difficult steps now, we will reach a lockdown.”
“Right now our immunization rate is horrible,” Bennett adds as the government pushes to up vaccine numbers, particularly the booster shot, to curb the spread of the Omicron COVID-19 variant.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz says that he, too, is “very troubled by Omicron.
“There are all sorts of indications that it could cause serious illness. We have decided on a series of measures and an extension of existing regulations. The more enforcement there is, the faster we can get past this.”
A 25-year-old was shot to death on the street in Haifa, Magen David Adom says in a statement.
Medics were forced to declare his death shortly after their arrival at the scene, MDA says.
Police believe the murder is not terror-related.
Labor MK Gilad Kariv says Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana doesn’t have the authority to shelve the so-called Western Wall compromise following a Times of Israel report that the latter has decided with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to freeze the plan, which would accommodate mixed-gender prayer at the Jerusalem holy site.
“The Western Wall compromise was discussed directly with the president along with the prime minister and his bureau. The issue is not at all within the purview of Minister Kahana,” Kariv — a Reform rabbi and advocate of the agreement — says in a statement.
“Despite [opposition head Benjamin] Netanyahu and [Shas party chairman Aryeh] Deri’s false attempts to set fire to the Western Wall and deepen the division among the Jewish people for political and personal reasons, the current government has renewed its strategic dialogue between the State of Israel and the liberal streams on the Western Wall and many other issues,” Kariv says, referring to the Shas campaign backed by Likud to prevent the implementation of the 2016 deal that was reached when both Netanyahu and Deri were in government.
“As stated in a statement to the High Court delivered a few days ago, the current government is committed to the process of establishing an egalitarian and state-owned prayer plaza at the Western Wall,” Kariv says.
“A clear majority of Knesset members from the coalition and the opposition support this outline and we will stand by its promotion, without playing into the hands of those who use incitement and discourse of hatred in favor of short-term political gains.”
A 2,000-year-old synagogue from the Second Temple Period was recently uncovered at Migdal, on the northwestern edge of the Sea of Galilee, making it the second such synagogue found in the ancient community, the University of Haifa says in a statement.
It is the first time that two synagogues have been found within the same settlement from the period when the Jewish temple was still functioning in Jerusalem, a discovery that researchers said changed their understanding of religious life at the time.
Archaeologists had assumed that as long as the temple was still standing there was not such a great need for synagogues, Prof. Adi Erlich of the University of Haifa explains in the statement.
“At this time the Temple still exists and so the explanation was that the paucity of evidence about synagogues stemmed from the fact that it may not have been a common structure. That is, in light of the centrality of worship in Jerusalem, there may not have been a need for many synagogues in the localities themselves,” she says.
HOLLYWOOD BEACH, Florida — By the end of the year the number of new immigrants to the country in 2021 is to reach 27,000, a rise of 30 percent compared to the year before, Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata tells the Israeli American Council’s national summit in Florida.
Tamano-Shata says the numbers surpass the target she had set of 25,000 new arrivals.
Shata calls it “a very good year, even when compared to regular years when there was no coronavirus.”
The figure matched that of 2016. In 2017 there was a slight climb to 29,000 and that continued into 2018 with 30,000, reaching a record of 35,000 in 2019. However, with the start of the coronavirus pandemic and the restrictions it caused to international travel, numbers tumbled.
In 2020 there were just 22,000 who moved to start a new life in Israel.
Tamano-Shata highlighted increased immigration from North America and France.
There was a 34% increase in immigration from the US, with 4,000 arriving this year. France saw a 41% leap, with 3,380 arriving so far in 2021 and over a hundred more expected by the end of the month. There were 7,000 immigrants from Russia and 2,800 from Ukraine this year.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett offered Israeli assistance to the communities in Kentucky ravaged by deadly tornadoes over the weekend.
“Sending thoughts & prayers to all those affected by the devastating tornadoes that hit several US states, especially the people of Kentucky,” the premier tweets. “Israel is ready to offer any assistance needed.”
Israel’s Ambassador to the US Mike Herzog joins the call, tweeting, “Our heartfelt condolences to those who lost loved ones in last night’s devastating storms, and wishes of a speedy recovery to the wounded. Israel stands together with the American people and is ready to offer any assistance needed.”
Rescuers are combing through fields of wreckage after the tornado outbreak roared across the middle of the US, leaving dozens dead and communities in despair.
A twister carved a track that could rival the longest on record as the stormfront smashed apart a candle factory, crushed a nursing home and flattened an Amazon distribution center.
In Kentucky alone, 22 were confirmed dead by late Saturday, including 11 in and around Bowling Green. But Governor Andy Beshear said upwards of 70 may have been killed when a twister touched down for more than 200 miles (320 kilometers) in his state and that the number of deaths could eventually exceed 100 across 10 or more counties.
The death toll of 36 across five states includes six people in Illinois, where an Amazon facility was hit; four in Tennessee; two in Arkansas, where a nursing home was destroyed; and two in Missouri.
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