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Omicron spread in Israel may be wider than thought — report

Between five and nine cases, mostly concentrated in two cities, have no known source, Health Ministry officials tell Kan, indicating strain may have escaped containment efforts

Tourism workers protest government policies outside Ben Gurion International Airport on December 13, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Tourism workers protest government policies outside Ben Gurion International Airport on December 13, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Monday’s events as they occured.

F-15i fleet returning to service after malfunction grounded jets

The Israeli Air Force returns to service its fleet of F-15i fighter jets, known in Hebrew as the “Ra’am,” after one of the aircraft malfunctioned earlier this month, forcing it to make an emergency landing that damaged the plane.

In the incident, the right wheel of an F-15i failed to deploy, requiring the pilots to land the plane using only two of its three wheels. There were no injuries in the incident but the multi-million-dollar plane sustained damage.

IAF chief Amikam Norkin ordered an investigation into the incident and grounded the fleet of F-15s, both the newer Ra’am models and the older Baz models, until it was completed. A few days later, the Baz models were returned to service.

An Israeli F-15 military jet takes off from the military airport of Andravida in southern Greece, as part of the Hellenic Air Force’s ‘INIOCHOS 2021’ multinational aviation exercise on April 18, 2021. (ARIS MESSINIS / AFP)

The probe, which was presented to Norkin today, found that the malfunction occurred in a piston in the right wheel well of the plane, preventing it from deploying properly.

With the completion of the probe, Norkin ordered the full return to service of the F-15i fleet, beginning Tuesday morning.

Netanyahu threatens Facebook justice on MKs who miss votes

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu issued a stinging warning to lawmakers to not show any mercy to the governing coalition, threatening to publicly shame any MK who misses a vote, even to offset a coalition MK who must miss the plenum due to medical issues or otherwise, Channel 12 news reports.

In a recording of his remarks aired by the channel, Netanyahu warns that he will post on Facebook “with unusual ferocity” against anyone who breaks his rule to be present for all votes.

The warning comes after murmurs of protest following a decision to not offer to offset a lawmaker for Yesh Atid MK Shirly Pinto, who gave birth last week, as has been traditionally done.

“In Likud we can’t be sure of anything because people are offsetting, people are going abroad, people have personal matters, a wedding here, a bar mitzvah there, some obligation in the US or wherever… this is not happening,” he chides.

Netanyahu compares the issue to combat soldiers carrying a stretcher together a long distance: “It’s hard, and then someone says, I’m out. And then another person goes out. You’ll carry it. What do you mean you’re leaving?… In my unit, if someone left the stretcher or drank more from the canteen, so we didn’t say, ‘I get to drink more because he got to drink more, or I also get to leave the stretcher.’ The person is simply kicked out. So nobody is getting kicked out of the faction, but I will throw Facebook at you, because there will be a price.”

The comments are aired as the Knesset readies special arrangements for Prime Minister Naftali Bennett — who served in the same elite commando unit as Netanyahu — and Defense Minister Benny Gantz to be present  for votes despite needing to be in isolation due to travel abroad.

Top US official presses police minister on settler violence

US Undersecretary of State Victoria Nuland has apparently sought answers from Israel regarding settler attacks on Palestinians, during a meeting in Jerusalem with Public Security Minister Omer Bar-Lev.

In a tweet, Bar-Lev says Nuland “took an interest in, among other things, settler violence and how to lower regional tensions and strengthen the Palestinian Authority.”

Bar-Lev, who is in charge of police, says he told her that giving out more work permits to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza was “the key to lower tensions, just like implementing a plan for a joint industrial zone on the outskirts of Gaza and more. American help for projects of this kind could help a lot.”

As of last month, the Shin Bet had recorded nearly 400 settler attacks on Palestinians in 2021, up from fewer than 300 last year. Critics say few attacks lead to arrests or prosecutions. According to police, the number of indictments of Jewish extremists has doubled from 16 to 32 over the past year.

The State Department usually stays out of such matters unless they involve US citizens, but on October 1, it issued a rare rebuke following an attack, signaling a possible shift.

Ministry reportedly fears Omicron spreading through communities

Health Ministry officials say cases of the Omicron coronavirus variant are popping up in Israel with no known source of infection, indicating that the strain may be spreading through communities despite efforts to curb travel and keep the variant out, the Kan news station reports.

“It’s possible it has spread wider than we thought,” a ministry source is quoted saying.

“According to the station, there are 5-9 Omicron cases of unknown provenance, mostly in Modi’in and Ra’anana.

Travelers at the Ben Gurion Airport, on November 29, 2021. (Flash90)

Kan also reports that ministry planners say Israel could see 15,000 cases a day, if the strain, thought to be very contagious, gets out of control.

The ministry said Saturday that there were 55 confirmed Omicron cases in the country and another 51 suspected cases.

Report: Netanyahu refused to fund plans for strike on Iran

IDF chief Aviv Kohavi turned to former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu twice in 2019 seeking money to put together a plan for a military strike on Iran’s nuclear program, and was turned down both times, Channel 13 news reports.

The Defense Ministry was only able to find the money to begin planning in 2020, once Benny Gantz became defense minister, working out a deal by which the funds for planning and for necessary arms would be advanced against money expected to come in from the $3.8 billion Israel receives in US defense aid annually, according to the report.

The result, the channel says, is that planning has been delayed by a year and a half.

The country’s leadership has been criticized in recent weeks for failing to have a plan in place to deal with Iran, with drills currently only scheduled to begin sometime early next year, despite attempts by Jerusalem to hype up the military threat it poses to Iran’s nuclear program.

The funding issues seemingly stemmed from Israel’s inability to pass a budget in 2019 and 2020, during an unprecedented political crisis. Critics have accused Netanyahu of engineering the budget crisis in order to stay in power.

Speaking to his faction earlier this afternoon, Netanyahu denied having delayed funding, saying while he was in power, there had been money, plans and arms at the ready. “We are the ones who were pushing for it, sometimes against opposition,” he said.

Number of seriously ill COVID patients lowest since July

The number of coronavirus patients has dipped to 92, updated Health Ministry numbers show, the lowest number seen since late July.

However, the Health Ministry ups the number of infections yesterday to 487, which is 43 more than reported this morning, and says there have been 539 new cases since the start of Monday.

The death toll rises by seven to 8,223. The 13 deaths reported since Sunday appear to represent the highest number of fatalities in a single day since early October.



Abu Dhabi crown prince will visit Israel — reports

United Arab Emirates Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan says he will visit Israel after being invited by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Israel’s main  news channels report.

The reports do not include any sourcing. There is no confirmation of an invitation or visit from either Israeli or Emirati officials.

The reports also do not say when such a visit is being planned for.

Bennett, who is on his way back to Israel from a snap visit to the UAE, earlier said he was optimistic after meeting the crown prince and other top officials.

According to Channel 13 news, Bennett invited Nahyan during their talks, and he answered in the affirmative. Kan reports that Bennett told his staff to start preparing for a visit.

Death toll from US tornado outbreak up to 78, may still rise

At least 64 people have died in Kentucky from devastating tornadoes that left a trail of destruction across the US state, the governor says, with 14 people confirmed killed in other states.

Two days after the tornadoes hit, officials are still struggling to establish the toll as emergency responders pick through the rubble of thousands of damaged or destroyed homes and buildings.

“Undoubtedly there will be more (dead). We believe that it will certainly be above 70, maybe even 80,” says Kentucky Governor Andy Beshear.

Pete Desai, owner of the Cardinal Motel in Bowling Green, Kentucky surveys tornado damage on December 12, 2021. (Gunnar Word / AFP)

Thousands of people have been left homeless by what Beshear has described as the state’s worst storm on record.

Some 105 people in Kentucky remain unaccounted for, and “it may be weeks before we have final counts on both deaths and levels of destruction,” he says.

Communities are also digging out in five other states where tornadoes touched down Friday night into Saturday, in what US President Joe Biden has described as “one of the largest” storm outbreaks in American history.

Scientists push to cancel UAE oil deal as risks detailed

The Israel Society of Ecology and Environmental Sciences expresses “unequivocal” opposition to a controversial deal signed by the state-owned Europe Asia Pipeline Company with a consortium of Israeli and United Arab Emirates businessmen to bring Gulf oil into Eilat on the Red Sea and channel it overland to Ashkelon, on the southern Mediterranean coast, for reloading onto tankers bound for Europe.

The move comes after 46 senior scientists mapped the potential dangers of an oil leak for the environment, the populations of Eilat and Ashkelon and Israel in general, and desalination facilities in the Mediterranean Sea, in a new study.

Among many findings, the study says that an environmental risk survey conducted for the pipeline company failed to include a range of risks to the country’s water supplies, public health, terrestrial and marine ecosystems, and the economy of Eilat.

An Israel Navy ship operates off the coast of Eilat after an oil spill, on October 14, 2021. (Eli Warburg and Oz Goren/Environmental Protection Ministry)

The risk survey for the Gulf of Eilat was “not accurate” about the tides, a subject that has a “critical and immediate impact on oil dispersal and its implications,” the scientists say.

Public opposition to the deal is so widespread that the government has agreed to review it. The ministers of energy, environmental protection, health, foreign affairs, defense, and tourism all oppose the agreement.

Only the Finance Ministry and the Government Companies Authority have registered their support.

Bennett ‘optimistic’ after landmark UAE trip

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says he is “very optimistic” after a one-day trip to the United Arab Emirates — the first official visit to the Gulf country by an Israeli leader since the countries established relations last year.

Bennett met Monday with Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan, Abu Dhabi’s powerful crown prince and de facto ruler of the Emirates for some four hours, with more than half of the time spent in one-on-one talks, according to Bennett’s office.

“Throughout the day we had meaningful, in-depth and straightforward talks about our two nations, about the region and about our economy and technology and what we can do together. I am flying back to Israel very optimistic that this relationship can set an example of how we can make peace here in the Middle East,” Bennett says in a statement in English.

In a joint statement, the two countries say the visit marked “another milestone in the development of warm relations and a tremendous partnership.”

UAE Crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed whispers to Prime Minister Naftali Bennett in Abu Dhabi, on December 13, 2021. (Haim Zach/GPO)

The statement says the sides agreed to establish a joint research and development fund.

“This joint fund, and a corresponding joint business council, will harness leading economic and technological minds in the UAE and in Israel, and task them with commercializing solutions to challenges ranging from climate change and desertification to clean energy and future agriculture,” the statement says.

According to Kan, Bennett invited the crown prince to visit Israel.

AP contributed to this report.

Austrian minister rejects accusations of antisemitism

A literature Nobelist, Jewish students and other prominent figures in Austria want the country’s new interior minister removed from office because of allegedly antisemitic comments he made during a regional election campaign more than a decade ago.

Gerhard Karner, who became interior minister a week ago when predecessor Karl Nehammer became Austria’s new chancellor, says that he regrets what he said and wouldn’t say it now, but he rejected allegations of antisemitism.

According to a report in German news weekly Der Spiegel, the conservative Karner once accused Austria’s center-left Social Democrats of working “against the country with gentlemen from America and Israel,” and described them as “climate poisoners.”

Der Spiegel quoted a spokesperson for the minister as saying Karner was referring to suspected “dirty campaigning” by an Israeli political adviser.

An open letter from a group that included Jewish students, academics, Nobel Prize-winning playwright Elfriede Jelinek and others expressed dismay at Karner’s appointment.

“The antisemitic dimension of this comment is obvious,” the letter stated.

Karner says in a statement that fighting antisemitism and every form of extremism has been a “deeply personal concern” of his for decades.

He says he has arranged a personal meeting with Austria’s main Jewish leader, Oskar Deutsch, who had asked for him to clarify what he said over 13 years ago, when Karner was a regional official with the conservative Austrian People’s Party.

Former Shin Bet head says Russia, US weren’t dealing with Syria

Israel is officially refusing to admit to hitting Syrian chemical sites, as reported by The Washington Post just now, but former Shin Bet head and current Likud MK Avi Dichter appears to confirm Israeli worries about Syrian chemical weapons.

“If the [Bashar] Assad regime did not hesitate to use chemical weapons against civilians, of course any Syrian outfitting of nerve weapons would be a real cause for worry in Israel. If the regime uses them against Syrians, imagine for yourselves what else it could do,” he says.

Chairman of the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Avi Dichter, leads a committee meeting at the Knesset, on April 30, 2018. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

He also seems to makes the case for why Israel would not trust international guarantees about its enemies, following a US-Russian-Syrian deal eight years ago to rid Syria of chemical arms.

“It’s hard to see the Russians taking aggressive action against Assad. He’s guilty not only of making chemical weapons but of using them against civilians, and despite that he’s remained as a figure that they hold onto and have even revived. One also has to admit that the Americans weren’t really in Syria,” charges Dichter, who previously headed the Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.

If the implications were not obvious, he intimates that Israel will take what action it needs to against Iran with or without the backing of the US, which is engaged in indirect talks with Tehran on reviving the 2015 nuclear deal.

“If the day comes that we have no choice, we’ll need to do something with what we have and not just with what we want,” he says.

Beitar owner Hogeg to be released on bail — reports

Beitar Jerusalem owner Moshe Hogeg is expected to be released from prison Tuesday on bail and bond totaling NIS 70 million ($22 million), according to reports.

Hogeg has been in jail nearly a month, along with seven others, on suspicion of involvement in alleged massive fraud involving crypto-currency investments. He is also suspected of sex crimes, including trafficking and underage prostitution offenses.

The report comes a day after Channel 12 news reported that investigators think the case against him over financial crimes has weakened, and while there is “strong” evidence of sexual offenses against Hogeg, it would be difficult to charge him, as there is no complainant.

Beitar Jerusalem owner Moshe Hogeg, on December 11, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

However, the Ynet news site reports Monday that police believe the case against him is stronger. At the same time, a police source appears to admit to the outlet that investigators have been challenged by putting together a case related to the cryptocurrency allegations.

“This is an area we’ve been learning for the first time. The probe is complicated and practically unknown in the finance world. The suspicions are growing and getting stronger,” the source is quoted saying.

Israel attacked Syrian efforts to restart chemical arms program — report

The Washington Post reports that Israeli jets attacked alleged Syrian chemical weapons sites on June 8.

According to the report, which cites four former and current US and Western intelligence officials “with access to sensitive intelligence at the time of the strikes,” the action was taken after Israeli intelligence identified efforts by the regime in Damascus to restart its chemical weapons program, including importing an ingredient used to make sarin gas.

The report claims that Israel took similar action on March 5, 2020. The strikes took place near Homs and north of Damascus.

Israel does not comment on the report, the latest of a series of leaks to foreign outlets detailing secretive Israeli military actions against Syria and Iran.

They come as Israeli threats to use force to stop Iran’s nuclear program have ramped up in recent weeks.

Over 1,000 monkeys bred for labs to be moved to Ben Shemen Forest sanctuary

A 30-year battle to save a group of monkeys bred for laboratory experiments overseas looks set to end happily.

At a meeting at the Environmental Protection Ministry, the KKL-JNF Jewish National Fund confirms that it will provide land in the Ben Shemen Forest in the center of the country to expand the existing Israel Primate Sanctuary so that nearly 1,100 macaque monkeys can be transferred from cramped cages at the Mazor Farm near Petah Tikva.

Activists protest against monkeys being shipped for medical research abroad from the Mazor Farm in Israel on December 19, 2014. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The ministry has already pledged NIS 10 million ($3.2 million) toward accommodation for the animals.

The monkeys had been looked after by a not-for-profit organization since 2015, but on December 1, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority formally took responsibility for the animals.

Eight taken to hospital with minor injuries after tunnel fire

The MDA rescue service says eight workers who had been trapped in a hydroelectric pumped storage tunnel by heavy smoke have been transported to a nearby hospital with minor injuries from smoke inhalation.

Rescuers at the scene of a fire inside a tunnel at a pumped storage hydroelectric facility at Belvoir Fortress in Israel on December 13, 2021. (Firefighting service)

All workers safe after tunnel fire scare

Police say all workers who were trapped in the smoke-filled hydroelectric tunnel have made it out without injury.

It says a fire at the site has been put out.

The Magen David Adom rescue service says it checked out 14 people who emerged and found they did not need medical attention.

Some 30 workers trapped by smoke in pumped storage tunnel

The firefighting service says some 30 workers are trapped in the Belvoir hydroelectric facility tunnel and unable to get out due to heavy smoke.

The service says rescuers are on their way and the workers’ lives are not in danger.

Rescuers search for workers trapped by fire at hydroelectric facility in north

A fire has broken out in a tunnel at a pumped hydroelectric storage power plant located near the Belvoir Fortress in northern Israel.

Four firefighting crews are trying to get into the smoke-filled tunnel to search for five people thought to be trapped inside.

Smoke rising from a pumped storage hydroelectric facility at Belvoir Fortress in Israel on December 13, 2021. (Screen capture)

The tunnel, being constructed and operated by Hong Kong-based firm Hutchinson, is designed to produce some 344 MW/H of power hydroelectric power. The project reportedly involved 5.5 kilometers (3.4 miles) of tunnels dropping 450 meters (1,476 feet) between two dams, which will use gravity and rushing water to create electricity.

The installation is located at the Belvoir Fortress National Park overlooking the Jordan river south of the Sea of Galilee.

Belvoir Fortress in northern Israel, February 3, 2018. (Anat Hermony/Flash90)


Lapid: There will be time for Western Wall deal later

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid appears to back his government’s apparent decision to shelve a compromise agreement that would create a permanent pluralistic prayer pavilion at the Western Wall with representatives of non-Orthodox streams of Judaism sharing a formal oversight role.

Lapid says there will be time to pursue the arrangement some other time. The arrangement was negotiated between Israel and Diaspora leaders over more than three years under former premier Benjamin Netanyahu before Netanyahu froze it under ultra-Orthodox pressure.

“I support the arrangement, but we can’t do everything at once,” Lapid says at a faction meeting. “We have four years and we’ll advance a lot of things in that time.”

Members of the coalition have vowed to fight the decision by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Religious Affairs Minister Matan Kahana to back off previous commitments to push ahead with the compromise, according to a Times of Israel report.

Sudden death of young child a month after coronavirus recovery puzzles doctors

Health experts are trying to figure out what led to the death of a 6-year-old boy in Netivot, who was rushed lifeless to a hospital after not waking up Monday morning.

The father’s child describes him to Hebrew-language media as generally healthy, though he suffered a bout of the coronavirus a month earlier, and had gone to bed with a fever after not feeling well. The father indicates that the child had suffered seizures in the past.

“We’re in shock, a healthy kid, he played soccer,” the father tells Channel 12 news.

The child’s four sisters are now being hospitalized with similar symptoms to what he had, though it’s unclear what caused them to fall ill.

“We don’t know what the cause of death is,” Barzilai Hospital director Hezi Levy tells Ynet news. “We’re checking all possibilities. Checking if it’s Omicron, PIMS, post-coronavirus. Everything is being looked at, but there’s no clear answer for now.”

Olmert backs foe Netanyahu vs. Trump: He’s a pathetic person

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 the opening session of the 13th Annual Leadership Dialogue on Israel-UK-Australia Relations, Olmert calls Trump “a person, which for him, everything is personal.”

Then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and former prime minister Ehud Olmert, left, attend the funeral of Likud MK Zeev Boim in Binyamina, March 21, 2011. (AP Photo/Moti Milrod, Pool)

“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.”

Opposition won’t commit to offset for MK who gave birth

A source tells Walla news that the opposition will not necessarily pull a lawmaker to offset the coalition’s temporary loss of MK Shirly Pinto, who is recovering after giving birth last week.

Offsets are traditionally offered as a courtesy for lawmakers who have no choice but to miss votes, usually due to bereavement, medical issues or even official travel.

“The offset will be decided on a case-by-case basis. We don’t have a blanket decision for or against,” the source says.

The Joint List, which is not aligned with other parties in the right-wing- and religious-dominated opposition, could still act independently, the news outlet notes.

Brits queue up en masse for booster jabs

Long lines have formed at vaccination centers in Britain as people heed the government’s call for all adults to get booster shots to help withstand a coronavirus “tidal wave” driven by the Omicron variant.

In a televised announcement late Sunday, UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson said everyone 18 and up would be offered a third vaccine dose by December 31 — less than three weeks away, and a month earlier than the previous target.

“We are now facing an emergency in our battle with the new variant, Omicron,” Johnson said. He said boosters would “reinforce our wall of vaccine protection” against an anticipated “tidal wave of Omicron.”

People queue at a vaccination centre in London, Monday, Dec. 13, 2021. (AP/Frank Augstein)

While the online appointment booking system will not be open to under-30s until Wednesday, Johnson said any adult could show up at a walk-in center to get a booster starting Monday.

Lines are reported at big London vaccination clinics on Monday morning. The line for shots at St. Thomas’ Hospital, on the south bank of the River Thames in London, stretches across Westminster Bridge toward Parliament.

Teams of military planners and thousands of volunteer vaccinators will help give the jabs at doctors’ offices, hospitals, pharmacies and pop-up vaccination centers.

The UK Health Security Agency says existing vaccines appear less effective in preventing symptomatic infections in people exposed to Omicron, though effectiveness appears to rise to between 70% and 75% after a third vaccine dose.

Israel to wait an extra day on marking UK, Denmark ‘red’ countries

The Health Ministry says it will wait until midnight Thursday-Friday before declaring Britain and Denmark “red countries” and significantly curtailing travel to and from those countries amid rising coronavirus infection rates there.

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, head of public health services at the Health Ministry, had said Sunday that the countries would be added to the list of “red” nations in the next 72 hours.

The announcement from the Health Ministry indicates that the delay aims to allow Israelis to rush back home from those locations before being subject to more strict quarantine restrictions meant to stem the spread of the Omicron variant.

“The decision to delay the decision by a day is meant to allow the public time to make more plans, mostly to get back to Israel before the decision goes into effect,” a statement from the Health Ministry reads.

If they can get into Israel in time, those coming from Britain and Denmark can avoid needing to quarantine at a state-run facility for at least 10 days, under new quarantine rules approved Sunday by a Knesset committee, and instead be able to isolate for only three days at home, pending two negative tests.

After outcry, Liberman sticks by call for tour guides to find another job

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman is standing his ground after sparking an outcry by advising people in the tourism sector unable to make a living amid coronavirus restrictions to find another job.

“Perhaps my words weren’t the best, but the numbers are correct,” Liberman says at the top of a faction meeting for his Yisrael Beyetnu party.

At a cabinet meeting on Sunday, Liberman said he didn’t see the tourism industry recovering anytime soon and indicated tour guides and others should give up trying to make a living from it.

“Start to change careers,” he advised travel agents and tour guides. “We went from 4 million tourists to 200,000, and it’s the same when you look at forecasts.”

Some 300 tour guides and others held a protest against Liberman outside Ben Gurion Airport earlier Monday, calling on him to change careers. Protesters blocked a road leading to Terminal 3 and scuffled with police, according to Channel 12 news.

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