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Daily virus cases surpassed 3,000 on Sunday, with 4.4% of tests positive

Health Ministry records highest number of infections in months, as government deliberates over whether to impose a third lockdown

Jerusalem residents wearing a face mask shop for groceries at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on December 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90 )
Jerusalem residents wearing a face mask shop for groceries at the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, on December 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90 )

The Times of Israel liveblogged Monday’s developments as they unfolded.

Israel to force all those entering the country to isolate in hotels — reports

The coronavirus cabinet has approved a decision that will force all Israelis entering the country from Wednesday to quarantine in state-run hotels, according to Hebrew media reports.

In addition, foreigners will be banned from entering the country.

The decision is made amid concerns over the British mutation of the virus.

It’s not immediately clear how long the decision will be in effect.

French prosecutors to probe anti-Semitic messages against Miss France runner-up

French prosecutors open an investigation into a torrent of anti-Semitic social media messages aimed at the runner-up in the latest Miss France competition.

April Benayoum, 21, who holds the title of Miss Provence and competed for the national crown on Saturday, got hate messages after she said at the event that her father is of Israeli origin.

The insults, one of which read “Hitler forgot about this one” and another “Don’t vote for a Jew,” drew instant condemnation from politicians and associations.

“I am deeply shocked by the flood of anti-Semitic insults against Miss Provence,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin says. “We will not let this stand. Shame on the authors.”

Paris prosecutors say that they were investigating the messages for “racist insults” and “instigation of race hatred.”

The Miss France contest “is not an anti-Semitic competition,” says his deputy, Marlene Schiappa.

The International League against Racism and Anti-Semitism (Licra) said the messages had turned Twitter “into an anti-Semitic cesspool” and called on internet users to report the offending content with a view to launching a class action suit.

The contest organizers also condemn the attacks, as does the competition’s winner, Amandine Petit from Normandy in northwestern France, who calls the social media messages “inappropriate” and “extremely disappointing.”


April Benayoum. (Screen capture: YouTube)

Breaking ranks, Blue and White MK backs elections over budget delay

Blue and White lawmaker Michal Cotler-Wunsh announces she’ll oppose a two-week delay of the state budget — a proposal backed by her party — and support new elections.

Cotler-Wunsh, on Twitter, writes that she was forced “to weigh the bad option of elections against the intolerable reality of a dysfunctional government, which, through its actions, is destroying the rules of the game, including misusing Basic Laws.”


Man in isolation hotel dies by suicide

The IDF’s Home Front Command updates ministers that a man has died by suicide in an army-run quarantine hotel in Tel Aviv, Army Radio reports, shortly after the government orders all returning citizens to self-isolate in the hotels from Wednesday.

Attempts to revive the man were unsuccessful.

Soldier who failed to respond to Palestinian firebomber booted from unit

A soldier from the Golani Brigade’s reconnaissance battalion has been kicked out of his unit after he failed to open fire at a Palestinian man who threw a Molotov cocktail at him in the northern West Bank on Saturday night, the military says.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, the infantryman was stationed at a military post outside the Kedumim settlement, guarding the area. The Palestinian suspect approached the area by car and then got out of his vehicle and began walking toward a bus stop, while closely watching the guard post.

Seeing this as suspicious, the soldier approached the suspect and called for him to halt. The suspect then threw the firebomb at the soldier, missing him and causing neither damage nor injury, the IDF says.

“The event ended with the suspect throwing the Molotov cocktail at the soldier and fleeing, without the soldier opening fire,” the military says.

The IDF says that “despite the complexity of the situation” the soldier ought to have returned fire. In light of his failure to do so the commander of the Golani Brigade’s Reconnaissance Battalion decided to dismiss him from his postion, though he may be able to return in a few months, the IDF says.

Judah Ari Gross

Settler youth killed in car crash during police chase in West Bank — report

A far-right hilltop youth is killed in a car crash in the West Bank during a police chase, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

The report says a group of young settlers were throwing rocks at Palestinian vehicles near the West Bank settlement of Kochav Hashahar.

When police arrived at the scene, the group jumped into a car and attempted to flee. During the chase, the driver lost control of the vehicle, which flipped over, killing one of the occupants. Another three are lightly injured, Kan says.

Gideon Sa’ar to enter quarantine after exposure to COVID-19

The leader of the New Hope party Gideon Sa’ar will self-isolate after being exposed to a coronavirus carrier on Thursday, reports say.

Gideon Sa’ar visits Hadassah Hospital Ein Kerem in Jerusalem on December 16, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Travelers from Britain, forced into virus hotel, protest conditions

Travelers from Britain who were forced to self-isolate in a state-run hotel are protesting the order and their conditions.

Some 30 people have walked out of the Dan Panorama hotel in Jerusalem to demonstrate the order, demanding they be allowed to quarantine at home, according to Channel 12.

Others are seeking medicines and other amenities, noting they did not know in advance they would be forced into a hotel and were therefore lacking supplies.

Lawyers say cops caused fatal accident during West Bank pursuit

Police confirm a young settler was killed in a car crash in the West Bank during a chase, saying he and several others were throwing rocks at Palestinians, prompting police officers to pursue them. Four other passengers were lightly injured, police confirm.

Lawyers representing the group accuse the police of causing the accident, saying “a police car hit their vehicle with force from behind. From the force of the impact, their car ran off the road.”


Netanyahu condemns West Bank murder, vows to bring killers to justice

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemns the murder of Esther Horgen, 52, a mother of six, in a northern West Bank forest, vowing Israel will hunt down her killers.

“Esther Horgen was brutally murdered when she went for a run near her home. The security forces will apprehend the murderer as fast as possible and bring them to justice. I would like to send deep condolences to the family,” tweets Netanyahu.

Authorities are investigating the case as a suspected terror attack.

Police said in a statement that there were signs of violence to Horgen’s body and that the death was considered a suspected murder. The Shin Bet security service was also taking part in the investigation.

Esther Horgen, 52, who was found dead in the northern West Bank from a suspected terror attack on December 20, 2020. (Courtesy)

Iran nuclear deal parties eye US return to accord

The remaining parties to the ailing 2015 Iran nuclear deal say that they are preparing for the possible return of the US to the pact as President-elect Joe Biden readies to take office next month.

Biden, who takes office on January 20, has signaled Washington would rejoin the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), which was aimed at limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

The deal has been unraveling ever since outgoing President Donald Trump dramatically withdrew from it in May 2018 and imposed crippling economic sanctions on Tehran.

“Ministers acknowledged the prospect of a return of the US to the JCPOA and underlined their readiness to positively address this in a joint effort,” a statement on behalf of ministers from Iran, China, Russia, Germany, France and the UK says after Monday morning’s online meeting.

Tehran has retaliated to US sanctions by progressively abandoning limits on its nuclear activity laid down in the deal.

Most recently Iran announced it planning to install advanced centrifuges at Iran’s main nuclear enrichment plant in Natanz, a plan condemned by France, Germany and Britain — collectively known as the “E3” — as “deeply worrying.”

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas says that the change of administration in the US meant that there was “a last window” for progress that “shouldn’t be wasted.”

“There can be no more tactical maneuvers of the kind we have seen all too often recently,” Maas warned at a press conference, adding that such actions “would only further undermine the agreement.”

His British counterpart Dominic Raab says that at the meeting he had “made it absolutely clear Iran must not implement the recently announced expansions to its nuclear program.”

“To do so would undermine the opportunities for progress we hope to see in 2021,” Raab adds in a tweet.


Knesset committee approves budget delay bill for first vote

The Knesset House Committee approves a bill to briefly delay the upcoming state budget deadline and avoid going to new elections.

The bill — which requires three votes — will go up for its first vote in the plenum later this evening, according to Hebrew media reports.

It would delay the deadline to pass a budget for this year from December 23 to December 31. The deadline for approving a budget covering 2021 would be January 5.

Netanyahu warns British mutation could be ‘coronavirus 2.0’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu defends the decision to ban foreigners from Israel and force Israelis who return from other countries to self-isolate in state-run hotels.

“We have a new epidemic that is spreading, with a virus that we don’t yet understand. This mutation could become coronavirus 2.0.”

He says that’s why the government took steps to shut down international travel.

“I know this is a difficult decision. We have no choice. I understand the difficulty that it causes families, travelers, to all. But this decision is critical because we must protect your health and lives,” Netanyahu says.

The decision is in effect for 10 days and may be extended, he says, “until we understand the disease.”

Netanyahu says national security adviser, Kushner to meet Morocco king

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says his national security adviser, Meir Ben-Shabbat, and White House adviser Jared Kushner will meet the king of Morocco during their trip to Rabat.

“Please give him my warmest regards and the regards of the entire people of Israel for the brave and important historic decision he has made,” says Netanyahu at an event with Kushner.

Kushner links recognition of Jerusalem with Middle East normalization deals

White House adviser Jared Kushner says the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital yielded an “explosion of peace.”

“Over the last four months, we’ve now achieved four peace agreements and thanks to four years of hard work, I do think the benefits of that will be felt for years to come,” says Kushner.

Alongside Netanyahu, Kushner participates in a tree-planting ceremony at the Grove of Nations in Jerusalem.

“In 2017, President Trump was strongly warned that recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel would set off an explosion in the Middle East. As it turned out, there has been an explosion — just not the kind of explosion the experts thought might happen. President Trump’s bold decisions led to an explosion of peace.”

“It turns out Jerusalem is not the cause of the problem — it is the core of the solution,” says Kushner.

US Congress seals agreement on $900 billion COVID relief bill

After months of Washington gridlock, US Congress is set to act on a $900 billion pandemic relief package, finally delivering long-sought cash to businesses and individuals and resources to vaccinate a nation confronting a frightening surge in COVID-19 cases and deaths.

The relief package, agreed to on Sunday and expected to draw votes in Congress on Monday, would establish a temporary $300 per week supplemental jobless benefit and a $600 direct stimulus payment to most Americans, along with a new round of subsidies for hard-hit businesses and money for schools, health care providers and renters facing eviction.

House and Senate leaders plan votes for Monday, but the measure is still being finalized. Lawmakers are eager to leave Washington and close out a tumultuous year.


US Embassy in Jerusalem courtyard dedicated to Kushner

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman dedicates the courtyard of the American Embassy in Jerusalem to Jared Kushner, who led US President Donald Trump’s Middle East policies.

Friedman notes that dedicating portions of American embassies to individuals is “a rarity.”

The move comes toward the end of the Trump administration and just before Kushner takes part in a joint Israeli-American delegation to Morocco following a normalization agreement between Jerusalem and Rabat, which was brokered by the US.

Asked if any other normalization deals are on the table, Kushner says he is “very hopeful that there are more peace deals to be had.”

Judah Ari Gross

US Ambassador to Israel David Friedman dedicates the US embassy courtyard to Jared Kushner on December 21, 2020 (Judah Ari Gross/Times of Israel)

Denmark passes ban on mink farming through December 2021

Denmark’s parliament passes a law banning the keeping of minks for a year, following the country’s controversial cull of all minks over a mutated strain of the novel coronavirus.

The law, which bans mink husbandry until December 31, 2021, also contains a provision that dictates that in case the ban is not respected, the minks will be euthanized, effectively removing a legal challenge that has shaken the government after it in early November ordered all minks in country culled.

“The Danish mink breeders have sacrificed their life’s work for the common good. We owe them a big thank you,” agriculture minister Rasmus Prehn says in a post to Twitter, adding that there was now a compensation scheme for breeders.

In early November, Denmark — which is the world’s largest exporter of mink fur — announced it would cull all of the country’s more than 15 million minks after a mutated version of the novel coronavirus was discovered and believed to jeopardize the effectiveness of future vaccines.

Minks look out from their cage at the farm of Henrik Nordgaard Hansen and Ann-Mona Kulsoe Larsen as they have to kill off their herd, which consists of 3,000 mother mink and their cubs on their farm near Naestved, Denmark, on November 6, 2020. (Mads Claus Rasmussen/Ritzau Scanpix/AFP)

Once a mass gassing program had already begun, a court challenge to the order found that the executive’s decision had no legal basis, leading to the resignation of the previous agriculture minister.

Adding to the scandal, it was later revealed that the disposal of the dead animals posed an environmental threat amid fears that phosphorus and nitrogen could be released in large quantities into the soil surrounding mass graves due to the decomposition process.

In one grisly turn of the story, one mass grave saw dead minks, that had been buried too shallow, rising out of the ground.


EU regulator approves Pfizer vaccine

The European Medicines Agency says that it had approved the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine, paving the way for inoculations to start across the EU within days.

“I am delighted to announce that the EMA scientific committee met today and recommended a conditional marketing authorization in the EU for the vaccine developed by Pfizer and BioNTech,” EMA chief Emer Cooke tells an online press conference.


Revolt by Blue and White MKs may see elections called

Blue and White lawmakers may vote against a budget delay later tonight, a move which could cause the Knesset to dissolve Tuesday night and see new elections called in March, according to Channel 12.

The network says MKs in the centrist party are weighing whether to take the step, breaking ranks with party leader Benny Gantz.

The TV report says there are currently around 53 lawmakers in favor of the delay and 53 opposed, with the decisions of individual MKs liable to tip the result.

EU regulator: No evidence vaccine wouldn’t shield from British virus mutation

The head of the EU’s medicines regulator says it appeared the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine would protect against a new strain of the coronavirus found mainly in Britain.

“At this moment there is no evidence to suggest this vaccine will not work against the new variant,” European Medicines Agency chief Emer Cooke tells a press conference as she announced approval of the shot.


Vatican says it’s ‘morally acceptable’ to get vaccine despite fetal tissue use

The Vatican says it’s “morally acceptable” for faithful to receive COVID-19 vaccines whose research used cell lines from tissue obtained from abortions.

The Vatican office on doctrinal orthodoxy notes in a statement that bishops and Catholic groups have made conflicting pronouncements on the matter. The statement says “it is morally acceptable to receive COVID-19 vaccines that have used cell lines from aborted fetus” in the research and production process when “ethically irreproachable” vaccines aren’t available to the public.

Pope Francis ordered the publication of the statement, which also stressed that the licit use of such vaccines “does not and should not in any way imply” moral endorsement of such cell line use.

The statement by the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith cites the circumstance of citizens not being allowed by health authorities to choose which vaccine to be inoculated with. It also notes that vaccination “is not, as a rule, a moral obligation” and therefore must be voluntary. Still, the Vatican cites the “duty to pursue the common good” by protecting the weakest and most exposed to the virus through vaccination.


Elections loom as coalition said to fail to win majority to back budget delay

Officials tell Channel 12 and 13 that the government is unlikely to muster a majority to support a delay in advancing the budget, meaning elections — the fourth in two years — are expected to be called by tomorrow.

“We’re going to elections,” a source in the Blue and White party tells Channel 13.

Blue and White lawmakers are meeting to discuss their next steps.

Settler youth killed during police chase identified

The settler youth killed in a car accident in the West Bank during a police chase is identified as Ahuvya Sandak from the settlement of Bat Ayin, according to Hebrew media reports.

The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Department is investigating the incident, after lawyers representing the car accident victims claimed police ran their vehicle off the road, causing Sandak’s death and the injury of several others.

Police said the group was pelting rocks at Palestinian cars, prompting the chase.

Gantz lays out 5 demands to Netanyahu to avert elections

Speaking to his party members during a video-conference, Blue and White leader Benny Gantz says he laid out five demands to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to avert elections.

“If they want it, they’ll take it. If they don’t, there will be elections,” he says.

The demands are: passing a 2020-2021 budget; approving all the senior appointments that have been held up; closing all loopholes that would allow Netanyahu to avoid handing over power to Gantz as part of their rotation agreement; keeping Avi Nissenkorn as justice minister; and approving the Knesset rules of procedure.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz attend a graduation ceremony for new Air Force pilots at the Hatzerim air base near Beersheba, June 25, 2020. (Ariel Schalit/ Pool/AFP)

If Netanyahu accepts, says Gantz, Blue and White will support a bill to delay the budget deadline, thus preventing elections from being called on Tuesday night when the current deadline expires.

US House probe: Trump officials tried to block, change CDC virus reports

Trump administration political appointees tried to block or change more than a dozen government reports that detailed scientific findings about the spread of the coronavirus, a House panel investigating the alleged interference says.

Rep. James Clyburn, a Democrat of South Carolina, says his coronavirus committee investigators have found evidence of a “political pressure campaign” to “bully” professionals at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in what may have been an attempt to “cripple the nation’s coronavirus response in a misguided effort to achieve herd immunity.”

Herd immunity is shorthand for a theory — rejected by most public health experts — that society can be best protected by allowing younger people to get infected and develop natural immunity until vaccines are widely available.

US President Donald Trump walks on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington before boarding Marine One, December 12, 2020. (Patrick Semansky/AP)

Accusing Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar and CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield of stonewalling his investigation, Clyburn issues subpoenas compelling them to turn over reams of documents and emails by December 30.

The committee’s topline findings so far were detailed in a 20-page letter to Azar and Redfield that centered on the actions of two political appointees earlier this year at HHS. New York political operative and Trump loyalist Michael Caputo was installed as the department’s top spokesman during a period of high tension between White House officials and Azar. Caputo brought health researcher Paul Alexander with him as an adviser. Both men have since left the agency.

But for months, the letter alleges, they waged a campaign to block or change articles on the COVID-19 pandemic in a CDC publication called the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, or MMWR, which is closely followed by the public health community.

With Alexander taking the lead, investigators say the campaign:

• Sought to block or change more than a dozen MMWR articles, sometimes succeeding in getting changes to draft language and at other times delaying publication as internal arguments raged.

• Intensely challenged articles that detailed scientific findings on the spread of COVID-19 among children. This came during a time when President Donald Trump was adamantly urging a return to in-person schooling in the fall. Those included reports about outbreaks in summer camps, data on hospitalization rates among children, and findings about a dangerous condition called “multi-inflammatory syndrome,” which afflicts some children who get sick from the coronavirus.

• Attacked a draft MMWR article showing a jump in prescriptions for hydroxychloroquine, an anti-malaria drug that Trump embraced early on as a “game changer” only to ultimately learn it could do more harm than good. HHS even went so far as to draft an op-ed rebutting the CDC article, although it was never published. The op-ed accused the MMWR authors of trying to grab headlines, calling them a “disgrace to public service.”

While some HHS career officials apparently tried to defuse Alexander’s criticism by making changes in wording or headlines of MMWR articles, at least one confronted the pressure tactics.


Health Ministry says it’ll take until mid-January to give 60,000 vaccines a day

The Health Ministry says it will take until January 19 for the country to administer 60,000 vaccinations a day, the benchmark laid out by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Channel 12.


Likud says Gantz walked back on agreements, elections to be called

Blue and White is walking back all the agreements it reached with Likud, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party says, signaling elections will imminently be called.

“Due to an internal fight in Blue and White, Gantz has retracted all the agreements reached in negotiations between Blue and White and Likud,” the party says.

“It’s unfortunate that Gantz has decided to drag the country to unnecessary elections at the height of the coronavirus crisis,” the party says.

Channel 12 reports that Israel is heading to elections, saying Gantz has walked back on his compromise deal with Netanyahu.

Gantz sent into quarantine over exposure to virus carrier

Defense Minister Benny Gantz is entering quarantine after meeting Blue and White MK Hila Shay-Vazan, who was later diagnosed with COVID-19, on Thursday.

His office says he’s been given a coronvirus test and will self-isolate until Saturday.

Gantz: I sent Netanyahu my final offer, believe he’ll refuse

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz tells his party members he thinks elections will be called tomorrow, according to the Walla news site.

“I gave Netanyahu my final offer and he’s supposed to get back to me,” Gantz is quoted saying. “I think he’ll say no and the Knesset will be dissolved tomorrow.”

“If I hear tonight that something can be done on this matter, I will update you. If not, the Knesset will turn into a pumpkin tomorrow night,” he says, referring to the midnight deadline for the state budget that will see the parliament automatically dissolved if no action is taken to postpone it.

Deputy health minister: Netanyahu seeking lockdown, Gantz blocking it

Deputy Health Minister Yoav Kisch, a member of the Likud party, says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to impose a nationwide lockdown but Defense Minister Benny Gantz is against it.

Kisch tells Army Radio: “The prime minister wanted to make a decision in the coronavirus cabinet on a lockdown. Gantz claimed this isn’t the right time and is blocking the decision.”

The comments come as the number of daily coronavirus infections has swelled to over 2,800 since last week. Israel has had two lockdowns since the start of the pandemic.

MK Yoav Kisch, then chairman of the Interior Affairs Committee at the Knesset, on July 12, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

“The coronavirus cabinet must act. The price of any delay is human lives. I hope Blue and White comes to its senses,” says Kisch.

Kisch also expresses support for mandatory coronavirus testing for Israelis returning from abroad.

“We must change the law to allow for coerced medical procedures,” he says.


32 years on, US charges Libyan bombmaker in Lockerbie attack

The Justice Department unseals charges accusing a Libyan bomb expert in the 1988 explosion of Pan Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland, an attack that killed 259 people in the air and an additional 11 on the ground.

The charges are announced on the 32nd anniversary of the bombing and in the final news conference of Attorney General William Barr’s tenure, underscoring his personal attachment to a case that unfolded during his first stint at the Justice Department.

He announces an earlier set of charges against two Libyan intelligence officials in his capacity as acting attorney general nearly 30 years ago, vowing that the investigation would continue. Though Barr had not appeared at a press conference in months, he led this one two days before his departure as something of a career bookend.

In presenting new charges, the Justice Department is revisiting a case that deepened the chasm between the United States and Libya, laid bare the threat of international terrorism more than a decade before the September 11 attacks and produced global investigations and punishing sanctions.


A policeman walking away from the damaged cockpit of the 747 Pan Am airliner that exploded and crashed over Lockerbie, Scotland, with 259 passengers on board, December 22, 1988. (ROY LETKEY/AFP)

IDF chief warns Iran of strong Israeli retaliation to any attack

Israel Defense Forces chief of staff Aviv Kohavi warns Iran against attacking Israel, saying the Jewish state will retaliate forcefully.

“Recently, we have heard increased threats from Iran against the State of Israel. If Iran and its partners, members of the radical axis [Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Palestinian terror groups], whether in the first circle of states or the second, carry out actions against Israel — they will discover their partnership to be very costly,” says Kohavi.

“The IDF will forcefully attack anyone who takes part, from near or far, in activities against the State of Israel or Israeli targets. I am saying this plainly and am describing the situation as it is — the response and all the plans have been prepared and practiced,” he adds.

Iran has threatened to attack Israel since the assassination of its top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in late November, in a raid blamed on the Jewish state.

Gulf countries close borders over British virus variant

Gulf countries say they will halt all passenger flights and close their borders for a week or longer, after a new strain of coronavirus spreads quickly in England.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Oman say they are suspending commercial travel and banning entry and exit via their land and sea borders, other than for cargo.

Riyadh said it is stopping international flights for at least one week and possibly two, the official Saudi Press Agency reported late on Sunday night.

“Entry to the kingdom through land and sea ports will also be suspended for a week, which can be extended by another week,” SPA added, citing the interior ministry.

The suspension does not apply to international aircraft currently in the kingdom, which will be allowed to leave, SPA said.

Cargo into Saudi Arabia will only be permitted from countries where the new strain has not been identified as having broken out.

The Gulf sultanate of Oman announces it will close its “land, air and sea border starting 1:00 am local time on Tuesday” for a week, the official Oman News Agency reports.

The decision was based on what “authorities in a number of countries announced regarding the emergence of a new Covid-19 strain,” it says, but would not affect cargo flights or cargo vessels.

Neighboring Kuwait — which had on Sunday initially placed a ban on passenger flights from Britain — announced that it will now suspend all commercial flights until at least January 1, according to a government statement.

The developments come after several European countries banned travel from Britain on Sunday as the UK government warned that a highly infectious new strain of the virus was “out of control.”


Likud members told to enter election mode, coordinate talking points

Likud lawmakers are told they must receive permission to be interviewed by the media, citing the yet-to-be-officially-called election, according to reports.

“Starting from today, we are beginning election discipline,” a message from the party to its MKs says, adding that they must coordinate their talking points and ask permission before speaking to the media.

Likud MK: Blue and White ‘committing political suicide’

Likud MK Miki Zohar, who is the coalition whip, says Blue and White is “committing political suicide” — and expresses hope the party won’t survive another election.

“Blue and White decided to knowingly commit political suicide. Emotion triumphed over reason. They are going to elections just so Avi Nissenkorn remains in his position [as justice minister] for three more months to try and uphold the judicial hegemony,” says Zohar in a tweet.

He expresses confidence that Blue and White will “disappear from the political map” with Likud picking up their supporters.

Likud MK Miki Zohar seen at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu: I don’t want elections, but Gantz refused to compromise

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says Israel is heading to elections, blaming Benny Gantz for the fourth national vote in two years.

“We worked very hard to avoid elections, unnecessary elections. We reached agreements with Blue and White. I thought they were promising, they were good agreements that could have averted these elections. Unfortunately, because of internal pressure inside the party, Benny Gantz decided to renege on [the agreement] and this is dragging the country to unnecessary elections at the height of the coronavirus crisis.”

He cites Gantz’s insistence that Avi Nissenkorn remain justice minister as a factor that led to the breakdown of talks.

“We cannot let the left trample our democracy,” he says, speaking alongside Jared Kushner at a press conference.

“It really saddens me. Because instead of enabling a stable government that works for its citizens, and really works in harmony, they are insisting on upholding a ‘government within a government,'” he says.

“We don’t want elections. That’s why we were willing to vote in the Knesset to avoid it. But if elections are imposed upon us, we will win,” he says, underlining Israel’s vaccine campaign and the four normalization agreements.

Netanyahu thanks Kushner for normalization deals, Israeli-Palestinian peace plan

Netanyahu tells Kushner he proved the “naysayers” wrong.

When Trump appointed Kushner in 2017, “all the experts, the so-called experts, belittled the appointment,” the prime minister tells the visiting Trump adviser.

“Now, you can say, I can say, how wrong these naysayers were.”

Many have tried, and “none had greater success than you, Jared.”

Netanyahu says Kushner “reinforced American influence in the Middle East and in Middle East peacemaking.”

“I think you greatly enhanced America’s standing in the region,” says Netanyahu.

The Trump administration peace plan “is the only realistic peace plan that has been presented so far,” he says.

Netanyahu also thanks Donald Trump for his support for Israel, says the country is “deeply indebted.”

Kushner says isolation of Israel, anti-Semitism held world back for too long

Jared Kushner tells Netanyahu: “Scapegoating, anti-Semitism, and isolating Israel have led to destructive behavior that has held the world back for far too long.”

“You’ve shown that Israel is willing to compromise for true peace, just not her security,” says Kushner. “I urge the world as it goes forward to take the time to understand Israel’s perspective and to ask yourself if you would make the compromises Israel has been asked to make if you were in the prime minister’s shoes.”

Netanyahu says the normalization deals will improve ties between Jewish and Arab Israelis.

“This peace between Jews and Arabs outside of Israel is creating a new positive dynamic between Jews and Arabs in Israel. It says that the old enmities can be put aside and we can have peace and life and hope and prosperity,” he says.

with Jacob Magid

Initial reports: Police officer attacked near Jerusalem’s Old City

A police officer has been attacked at the Lion’s Gate near Jerusalem’s Old City, according to preliminary reports.

The attacker has been disarmed, the reports say.

Police: Gunman attempted to fire at officers near Jerusalem’s Old City

A suspect attempted to open fire at a group of police officers stationed near the Lions Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City, police say.

Officers returned fire, apparently killing the suspect.

No officers are reported injured.

The Magen David Adom medical service says the assailant was “neutralized,” without elaborating.

According to MDA, one person was lightly injured, having fallen while running away from the scene.

It appears the weapon used was a Carlo-style submachine gun, which seems to have jammed. These makeshift guns are relatively common in Jerusalem and the West Bank, but are generally of poor quality and are prone to malfunction.

Judah Ari Gross

Bar Refaeli’s imprisoned mother seeks presidential pardon

Tzipi Refaeli, the mother of supermodel Bar Refaeli, asks President Reuven Rivlin to commute her sentence.

Refaeli began serving a 16-month prison term in September over her daughter’s tax evasion. She cites her declining health and her “contribution to society” in her request to the president, reports say.

Israeli top model Bar Refaeli, right, and her mother, Tzipi Rafaeli wear face masks, during the coronavirus pandemic, as they leave a courtroom in Tel Aviv, September 13, 2020. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit, Pool)

Health Ministry: Over 3,000 new virus cases diagnosed Sunday

The Health Ministry, in its evening update, says 3,046 new virus cases were diagnosed on Sunday, the highest in months, with 4.4 percent of tests returning positive.

Another 1,929 new cases have been recorded since midnight.

The number of active cases in the country stands at 26,275, with 463 in serious condition, 115 of them on ventilators. Another 184 are in moderate condition, with the rest showing mild or no symptoms.

The death toll stands at 3,111.

According to the ministry, 4.4% of tests returned positive on Sunday, when 69,000 were administered. That is higher than in recent weeks. Last week, the positivity rate hovered around 3%.

US nuclear submarine crosses Strait of Hormuz, in show of force at Iran

A US nuclear submarine crosses the Strait of Hormuz in a new show of force directed at Iran, as the anniversary of the killing of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani by a US drone approached.

The USS Georgia can carry 154 Tomahawk cruise missiles and 66 special forces soldiers, according to a statement from the US Navy, which usually does not disclose the presence of its submersibles around the world.

The statement is illustrated with photos showing the USS Georgia at the surface, escorted by the cruisers USS Port Royal and USS Philippine Sea, in the strategic strait that Iran regularly threatens to block.

The Georgia’s presence “demonstrates the United States’ commitment to regional partners and maritime security with a full spectrum of capabilities to remain ready to defend against any threat at any time,” the Navy warns.

US military officials fear an attack by Tehran to avenge the powerful Soleimani, who was assassinated on January 3, 2020, in a US drone strike near Baghdad airport in Iraq.


No officers hit by gunfire in Jerusalem — police

The suspect in an attempted shooting attack in Jerusalem’s Old City approached a group of officers at a guard post with a makeshift submachine gun, according to police.

The man then fled the scene, with the officers chasing after him, with the assailant continuing to shoot at the officers, police say.

None of the officers was hit, though one was lightly injured as he tripped and fell during the chase.

The police officers opened fire at the suspect, killing him. The gun was recovered at the scene.

Judah Ari Gross

The makeshift gun used by a suspect in an attempted shooting attack, outside Jerusalem’s Old City on December 21, 2020. (Magen David Adom)

Contradicting Trump, US justice chief blames Russia for hack

US Attorney General Bill Barr says that Russia is behind the massive hack of US government computer systems, contradicting President Donald Trump’s suggestion that China could be involved.

Two days after Trump downplayed what intelligence experts have called the most devastating break in US computer security in years, Barr says he agrees with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s attributing the hack to Moscow.

“From the information I have, I agree with Secretary Pompeo’s assessment. It certainly appears to be the Russians,” he says, declining to add any details.

Last week, the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency (CISA) said US government agencies, critical infrastructure entities, and private sector organizations had been exposed in the months-long cyberattack, in which hackers broke through a widely used piece of security software created by the US company SolarWinds.

Officials are still combing their systems to see what kind of information could have been stolen — including possibly from US spy agencies — and whether they are still vulnerable.


New coronavirus variant ‘not out of control’ — WHO

The new coronavirus variant discovered in Britain with a higher transmission rate is not yet out of control, the World Health Organization says, urging measures to help stop its spread.

“In some senses it means we have to work harder. Even if the virus has become a little bit more efficient in spreading, the virus can be stopped,” WHO’s emergencies chief Michael Ryan says in a press conference.

“So this situation is not in that sense out of control. But it cannot be left to its own devices.”


In message to Iran, Israeli submarine crosses Suez Canal — report

An Israeli submarine openly crossed the Suez Canal last week, in a show of force against Iran, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

The move was approved by Egypt, according to the report, which cited Arab intelligence sources.

The submarine surfaced and faced the Persian Gulf, which lies on the other side of Saudi Arabia.

The IDF declined to comment on the report.

At least 5 Blue and White MKs said mulling leaving the party

At least five Blue and White lawmakers are considering leaving the party if new elections are called, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

One party lawmaker says he will pull out if the television polls predict that the centrist party will only win 4-5 seats.

US administers first Moderna vaccines

A nurse at a hospital in Connecticut becomes one of the first people in the United States to receive the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine.

Mandy Delgado, who works for Hartford Healthcare, was administered the shot around 11:40 a.m. (1640 GMT), according to a live feed of the event.

“I’m excited. I feel privileged,” the critical care nurse says afterwards, to a loud round of applause.

The first Moderna inoculations come after the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced late Friday that it had granted emergency approval for the vaccine.

It also comes exactly a week after the US, the country hardest hit by the coronavirus, began administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine.

The Moderna vaccine can be stored at -20 degrees Celsius (-4 degrees Fahrenheit), much less cold than Pfizer’s vaccine, which must be stored at -70 degrees Celsius (-94 degrees Fahrenheit), making the Moderna easier to distribute.

Since the FDA granted Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine emergency authorization one week ago, some 2.9 million doses have been delivered in the US, officials say.


Despite breakdown of talks, Knesset debating budget delay

The Knesset will still vote tonight on whether to delay the budget deadline — despite the total breakdown of talks between Blue and White and Likud.

The bill is up for its first vote.

From Wednesday, 10 p.m.: Returning Israelis will be forced to isolate in hotels

Ministers approve new regulations, effective from Wednesday at 10 p.m., banning foreigners from the country and forcing all returning citizens to self-isolate in state-run hotels.

The coronavirus cabinet earlier today drew up the plans, which are aimed at preventing the British variant of the coronavirus from spreading to Israel.

Passengers at the Ben Gurion Airport departure hall on December 14, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Top US scientist believes vaccine will be effective against British variant

Moncef Slaoui, the chief science adviser for the US government’s COVID-19 vaccine effort, says scientists are still working to confirm whether the virus strain in the United Kingdom spreads more easily.

Although that could be why it has become more prevalent in the UK, Slaoui says in a briefing with reporters Monday that another possible explanation is that “seeding happened in the shadows,” before scientists started looking for it.

Animal studies are needed to confirm that the strain spreads more easily. Slaoui says that process takes several weeks.

In the meantime, he says there is no evidence the variant causes more severe disease or is more deadly. He also says the expectation is that vaccines would still be effective against the virus strain, and that scientists are working to confirm that.


Michael Cohen says he deserves early release from home confinement

Michael Cohen, President Donald Trump’s former lawyer, says he deserves early release from home confinement, but federal authorities refuse to credit him for good behavior and hundreds of hours of work and prison courses completed behind bars. Cohen filed court papers Monday contending he “could be eligible for release in a matter of weeks or months” under the First Step Act, a sweeping criminal justice reform Trump signed into law in 2018.

Once one of Trump’s closest advisers, Cohen was sentenced to three years in federal prison after pleading guilty to tax evasion, campaign finance fraud, and lying to Congress. His convictions included orchestrating payments to two women to keep them from talking publicly about alleged affairs with Trump.

Cohen had been scheduled to remain in prison until next November, but was released in May to serve the remainder of his sentence at home as part of an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19 in federal prisons.

Michael Cohen arrives at his Manhattan apartment in New York after being furloughed from prison because of concerns over the coronavirus, on May 21, 2020. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

The US Bureau of Prisons, Cohen says, told him in a letter last week that he is “not entitled to any credits for his work performed at FCI Otisville,” the federal lockup in New York where he served more than a year.

Cohen says the letter left him “at a loss” and did not address time credits owed to him under the First Step Act, which encourages inmates to participate in programs aimed at reducing recidivism.

“This absurd response by the government is nothing more than a stonewall tactic,” Cohen writes in the filings. It is possible, he adds, “that he has already served well past his release date.”

The Bureau of Prisons does not immediately respond to a request for comment.

After his initial release, Cohen returned to prison for two weeks in July after an earlier run-in with the Bureau of Prisons. Prison officials said Cohen had refused to sign routine paperwork. Cohen said the prison system wanted him to agree not to publish a tell-all memoir ahead of the November presidential election. He was sent back to his Manhattan apartment after a judge ruled that he had faced retaliation.


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