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As new election is called, PM blames Blue and White, predicts ‘huge win’

Netanyahu asserts Gantz decided to allow ‘continued dictatorship of the left in the justice system’; Gantz retorts: ‘More lies than words’ in premier’s statement

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks during a press conference at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 22, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

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

Hours to go until government falls, Knesset dissolves

Seven hours remain for the Knesset to pass a state budget for 2020 in three separate readings, or dissolve and send the country to a fresh election.

Since that is a virtual impossibility at this point, barring any last-minute magic tricks by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, it appears that is where we are headed at the stroke of midnight.

The liveblog will be with you to give you the latest updates from the political world and other areas of interest during these almost-certainly-final hours of the 23rd Knesset.

Pharmacist who accidentally got 4 doses of vaccine says he feels fine

A pharmacist who accidentally received four doses of coronavirus vaccine says he feels fine, some hours after the error occurred.

Uday Azizi tells Channel 12 he was sent to the hospital for examination and monitoring after officials at the Maccabi health care organization realized their mistake. But he says he’s only experienced mild, common side effects so far — local pain and some redness at the injection site.

Azizi says he kept his cool after being told of the mistake.

He adds he will likely still need to get the second dose of the vaccine in 3 weeks’ time. And he encourages others not to be afraid of the inoculation.

A medical worker prepares a dose of COVID-19 vaccine at Barzilai Medical Center in the southern coastal city of Ashkelon, on December 20, 2020. (Gil Cohen-Magen/AFP)

Brussels recommends EU members lift UK travel bans

The European Commission recommends that EU member states lift the blanket bans some have imposed on arrivals from Britain to allow essential journeys and cargo transport to resume.

“Flight and train bans should be discontinued given the need to ensure essential travel and avoid supply chain disruptions,” a statement from the EU executive says.

EU member states are responsible for their own borders, but representatives are to meet later today to study the Commission’s recommendations.

Several EU member states have imposed flight, train and ferry bans on UK arrivals since Britain announced the discovery of a new strain of coronavirus.

— AFP

US regrets Lebanon-Israel maritime stalemate, offers mediation

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo voices regret over a stalemate in maritime border talks between Israel and Lebanon and offers Washington’s mediation.

The two nations, which remain technically at war, opened negotiations in October after quiet US diplomacy, seeking to clear the way for offshore oil and gas exploration sought by both.

“Regrettably, despite goodwill on both sides, the parties remain far apart,” says Pompeo, who has one month left in office after US President Donald Trump’s electoral defeat.

Illustrative: US Secretary of State Michael Pompeo speaks during a press conference at the State Department in Washington, on August 19, 2020. (Mandel Ngan/AFP)

“The United States remains ready to mediate constructive discussions and urges both sides to negotiate based on the respective maritime claims both have previously deposited at the United Nations.”

— AFP

Netanyahu said set to convene cabinet Wednesday to call new lockdown

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has called a cabinet meeting for tomorrow, in which new steps will be taken to curb the spread of the spiking coronavirus pandemic, Channel 12 reports.

It is widely believed that the government will announce a new lockdown.

Vaccine-shy French could face public transportation ban

Amid reports that many in the world are hesitant to take new coronavirus vaccines, France takes action to encourage public vaccination: People who fail to get inoculated could be banned from using public transportation there, according to a draft law sparking angry protests from opposition politicians.

Prime Minister Jean Castex yesterday got his cabinet’s backing for a bill that is designed to provide a legal framework for dealing with health crises, including the coronavirus pandemic.

People walk past a tent set up for rapid COVID-19 testing on the pavement outside a pharmacy on December 21, 2020, in Paris. (Martin BUREAU / AFP)

According to the text, which will now be submitted to parliament, a negative COVID test or proof of a “preventative treatment, including the administration of a vaccine” could be required for people to be granted “access to transport or to some locations, as well as certain activities.”

Israeli is also believed to be weighing such measures.

— with AFP

Top US scientist Anthony Fauci receives COVID-19 vaccine

Anthony Fauci, the United States’ top infectious disease scientist, receives his COVID-19 vaccine along with other senior officials and six health workers at a livestreamed event at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The widely respected doctor says he took the shot “as a symbol to the rest of the country that I feel extreme confidence in the safety and the efficacy of this vaccine.

“I want to encourage everyone who has the opportunity to get vaccinated so that we could have a veil of protection over this country, that would end this pandemic,” he adds.

— AFP

Haredi protesters rally, block roads in Jerusalem over arrest of draft dodger

Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox protesters have been demonstrating near the main entrance to Jerusalem for the last few hours over the arrest of a yeshiva student who refused the military draft.

The protesters have caused traffic problems by blocking roads in the area.

According to Ynet, one policeman was injured during the protests and taken to receive medical treatment.

Report: Indonesia, Oman may be next in line for normalization

Army Radio reports Israeli officials are hoping for further US-mediated normalization deals in the next few weeks. The station says Indonesia and Oman may be next in line for establishing ties with Israel, following the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

The report is unsourced.

Indonesia is the world’s most populous Muslim-majority country.

Notably, only 28 days remain until the end of the Trump administration.

As Israeli delegation lands in Morocco, Netanyahu hails ‘new era of peace’

With an official Israeli delegation landing in Morocco on an El Al flight, Prime Minister Benjamin sends his well-wishes from Jerusalem.

Netanyahu hails the “historic” direct flight and lauds the “additional breakthrough for peace, true peace, with mutual respect, out of strength.”

He says that with four agreements on relations with Arab countries in four months, “we are creating a new era of peace, prosperity and hope for our region.”

Israeli-American delegation to Morocco stops by Mausoleum of King Mohammed V

A joint Israeli-American delegation makes its first stop in the Moroccan capital, visiting the Mausoleum of King Mohammed V.

From there, National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Senior Adviser to US President Donald Trump Jared Kushner are traveling to the Royal Palace of Rabat to begin a series of meetings before signing a number of bilateral and trilateral agreements to solidify the normalization agreement between Israel and Morocco.

The mausoleum, which is technically a mosque, contains the remains of King Mohammed V, who died in 1961, along with his sons, King Hassan II and Prince Abdallah. The arabesque tomb is considered an important national monument.

Here is a short video of the mausoleum

The declarations that are due to be signed later today are expected to include agreements on aviation, tourism, health, water, agriculture and other matters. These are meant to make the renewed ties between the two countries, which Morocco ended in 2000 with the outbreak of the Second Intifada, more concrete and long-lasting.

Ben-Shabbat’s delegation is due to return to Israel in the predawn hours of Wednesday morning.

— Judah Ari Gross

Top Israeli, Moroccan diplomats end first meeting in Rabat

Senior officials in the Israeli and Moroccan foreign ministries have concluded their first meeting in Rabat, agreeing to deepen ties between the two countries by rapidly reopening their respective liaison offices, the Israeli Foreign Ministry says.

During the meeting, Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Upshitz and Moroccan Secretary of State in the Foreign Ministry Mahsan Al-Jazouri also discussed the details of several agreements due to be signed later in the day at the King’s palace.

Israel and Morocco maintained limited ties from the 1970s to 2000, when Rabat called them off with the outbreak of the Second Intifada. The ties included diplomatic offices — though not embassies — in each other’s countries. As these properties were never sold, the two countries can more easily reopen them.

“The two agreed that this was a new chapter in the relations between the nations, based on hundreds of years of deep ties. At the meeting, [the] director-general of the Foreign Ministry discussed the great emotion in Israel about the renewed ties between the two countries and the influence that the two societies had on one another,” according to the Foreign Ministry.

— Judah Ari Gross in Rabat

Netanyahu to give live statement to media at 8 p.m.

Prime Minister Netanyahu is planning to make a live statement to the press shortly after 8 p.m., less than four hours before the dissolution of the Knesset.

US slaps fresh sanctions on Syrian regime

The Trump administration announces more sanctions on Syria, intensifying pressure on President Bashar Assad to end the country’s vicious, nearly decade-long conflict. The sanctions target Syria’s central bank, an aide to Assad and others.

Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says the United States is intent on “holding accountable the Assad regime for the atrocities it has committed against its own people.”

Tuesday’s announcement deepens sanctions on the central bank. Syria’s economy already has seen prices soar and the value of the Syrian currency plunge amid earlier US financial sanctions and the fear of more.

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

The Treasury Department says the aim “was to discourage future investment in government-controlled areas of Syria” as part of the broader effort to compel Assad’s government to end human rights violations.

The new sanctions also target Lina Mohammed Nazir al-Kinayeh, whom the Treasury identified as an official in Assad’s presidential office, her husband and their businesses, and others.

— AP

Top army general’s car assaulted by Haredi protesters in Jerusalem, he pulls gun

The commander of IDF Ground Forces was assaulted by Haredi protesters earlier as his vehicle came by their protests near Jerusalem’s main entrance.

The vehicle was attacked by the protesters, and according to media reports Strick, who felt he was in danger, pulled out a handgun, which he did not use. Policemen helped open up a path and the car departed.

IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi condemns the “wild and unbridled behavior toward the commander of ground forces” Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick.

Maj. Gen. Yoel Strick in an undated photograph. (Israel Defense Forces)

He says Strick “has worked for years to defend the country and its citizens, including citizens from the group that behaved violently in the incident.”

The protests have now ended and all roads in the area have reopened. Police say three policemen were wounded, with two requiring medical care.

Two protesters were arrested.

Hours before Knesset dissolution, PM blames Blue and White, predicts ‘huge win’

Hailing his own achievements on the coronavirus pandemic and forging new peace deals, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insists he did everything to prevent fresh elections but promises his party will have “a huge win.”

“I didn’t want elections. Likud didn’t want elections. We voted again and again against elections,” he asserts. “Benny Gantz walked back his agreements with us.”

The prime minister, who is on trial on corruption charges, says Gantz “insisted on letting [Justice Minister Avi] Nissenkorn continue the dictatorship of leftist officials” in the justice system.

Gantz reportedly walked back an agreement to curb Nissenkorn’s powers after realizing his party would not back the move.

“Likud will bring ‘a huge win’ in the elections that are expected to be held on March 23, Netanyahu says. “Most Israelis recognize our leadership and huge achievements,” he adds, citing the success in securing vaccines for Israel, recent normalization deals with Arab countries and a strong economy.

He claims that “the decision in these elections [is] clear: Either a government dependent on [opposition leader Yair] Lapid and the left or a true right-wing government.”

Netanyahu says he spoke with global pharma chiefs on getting more vaccines

More from Netanyahu: The prime minister says he spoke with the heads of “several of the largest vaccine manufacturers in the world” about securing more vaccines. He does not give details on what was discussed, but says he believes “Israel can definitely be one of the first countries to emerge from the coronavirus crisis.”

He also says the pharma chiefs are “very optimistic that the vaccines will be effective” for the new strain of coronavirus that has spread through the UK and will likely reach other parts of the world.

He notes several more days are required in order to ascertain this.

An Israeli citizen receives a COVID-19 vaccine, at a Meuhedet vaccination center in Jerusalem, on December 21, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Blue and White: Man accused of criminality dragging country to elections

Blue and White responds to Netanyahu’s accusations:

“A man accused of criminality, with three indictments, is dragging the country to four election campaigns,” it says in a statement.

“If there were not a trial, there would be a budget and there would not be elections.”

Polls: Likud maintains lead, but no clear majority for Netanyahu

New polls by Channel 12 and Kan News show Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud maintain its lead ahead of the coming election, but it remains unclear if he’ll be able to form a government.

A survey by Channel 12 has Likud at 29 Knesset seats; Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope with 18; Yesh Atid-Telem 16; Yamina 13; Joint List 11; Shas 8; United Torah Judaism 8; Yisrael Beytenu 7; Meretz 5; Blue and White 5.

Kan has Likud at 28; New Hope 20; Yamina 15; Yesh Atid-Telem 13; Joint List 11; Shas 8; UTJ 7; Blue and White 6; Yisrael Beytenu 6; Meretz 6.

Israelis cast their ballot at a voting station in Jerusalem, March 2, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Netanyahu’s so-called right-wing bloc of Likud, Yamina, Shas and UTJ has 58 seats in both cases — not enough to form a majority coalition.

Sa’ar has said he will not enter a coalition led by Netanyahu.

TV report: Gantz, Ashkenazi considering departing politics

Channel 13 News reports that the leaders of Blue and White, Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, are considering stepping down from politics and not running in the next election.

Blue and White is collapsing in polls and is projected to win 5-6 seats in the next election, over its electorally disastrous decision to enter Benjamin Netanyahu’s government after pledging not to do so during its election campaign.

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz and MK Gabi Ashkenazi at an election campaign event in Kfar Saba, on Feb 12, 2020. (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

Israeli, American officials at Morocco’s royal palace to sign deals

The heads of a joint Israeli-American delegation to Rabat have completed a series of high-level talks with Moroccan officials, including King Mohammed VI.

National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat and Senior Adviser to US President Donald Trump Jared Kushner have arrived at the royal palace’s guest house to sign a number of bilateral and trilateral agreements on a variety of issues, including visas, water, tourism and agriculture.

Meir Ben-Shabbat (C) flanked by Jared Kushner (R) and David Friedman (L), speaks ahead of the departure of the first direct flight between Israel and Morocco, at Ben Gurion Airport, December 22, 2020 (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

An official familiar with the meetings said the talks were positive, achieving their goals.

After the signing ceremony, Ben-Shabbat, Kushner and Moroccan Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita will make statements to the press.

— Judah Ari Gross in Rabat

Gantz: ‘More lies than words’ in Netanyahu’s press statement

Blue and White chief Benny Gantz says there were “more lies than words” in Prime Minister Netanyahu’s statement to the press.

“Netanyahu is taking us to elections just to avoid entering the courthouse. Any other claim is a trick, or a shtick,” he tweets.

“We entered the government to protect democracy. Any speech like that only proves how important that move was.”

Defense Minister Benny Gantz arrives at the Knesset in Jerusalem, on December 2, 2020. (Alex Kolomiensky/Pool/AFP)

Watch press conference in Rabat with Israeli, American and Moroccan officials

Watch the press conference taking place in Rabat, with Israeli, American and Moroccan officials.

Live from Rabat

LIVE FROM RABAT: SA Jared Kushner, Israeli NSA Meir Ben Shabbat & Morrocan FM Nasser Bourita deliver statements recapping historic day in Morocco.שידור ישיר מרבאט: היועץ לנשיא ארה״ב ג׳ארד קושנר, ראש המל״ל מאיר בן שבת ושר החוץ המרוקאי נאסר בוריטה מסכמים יום היסטורי.مباشرة من قصر الضيافة بالرباط، في استضافة الملك محمد السادس. مسؤولون أمريكيون، مغاربة و اسرائيليون يقفون جنباً إلى جنب، في لحظة تاريخية هامّة.

Posted by U.S. Embassy Jerusalem on Tuesday, December 22, 2020

Israel, Morocco sign deals, will open mutual liaison offices within weeks

Liaison offices between Israel and Morocco will reopen within the next few weeks in Rabat and Tel Aviv, respectively, after being closed roughly 20 years ago, officials from the countries say.

Senior Adviser to US President Donald Trump Jared Kushner praises the efforts of Morocco and Israel to normalize ties, saying “huge strides” were made with a number of bilateral and trilateral agreements that will be signed in the coming days. Six of them will be signed today.

Israeli National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat, the son of Morocco-born parents, says — first in Arabic and then in Hebrew — that normalized ties with Rabat have more than just diplomatic value to the hundreds of thousands of Israelis of Moroccan descent.

Kushner jokes that while many Israelis have traveled to the United Arab Emirates after the signing of a normalization deal, he expects that Morocco will “give it a run for its money,” given the deep cultural ties between the two countries.

Senior White House adviser Jared Kushner speaks in Rabat alongside Israeli and Moroccan officials, December 22, 2020 (Judah Ari Gross)

Ben-Shabbat says the agreements that are being signed between the two countries deal with tourism, agriculture and other issues.

One agreement being signed now means visas won’t be needed for diplomatic passports. A second is to sort out civil aviation regulations. A third is on cooperation on water resource research and development. A fourth is on cooperation on finance and investment.

— Judah Ari Gross in Rabat

Plane brings 219 more Jewish Ethiopian immigrants to Israel

Earlier today a plan with 219 new immigrants from Ethiopia to Israel landed at Ben Gurion Airport.

The flight was the third to bring new Jewish olim from the African country as part of Operation Tzur Israel.

The operation is set to bring some 2,000 members of the community to Israel.

The immigrants were welcomed by Absorption and Immigration Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata and officials from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews and the Jewish Agency, which took part in the effort.

A child on a flight of immigrants from Ethiopia is seen after landing in Israel, December 22, 2020 (Avishag Shaar Yeshuv)

“Operation Tzur Israel is in full swing,” said Tamano-Shata. “Through the end of January, and in accordance with the government decision I approved last October, a plane carrying hundreds of Ethiopian immigrants will land in Israel almost every week, until the 2,000 people who have waited many years to arrive in Israel are reunited with their families.”

Tunisia says no intention of normalizing with Israel

Tunisia’s Foreign Ministry says in a statement it has no intention of normalizing relations with Israel, no matter what else happens in the international arena, Reuters reports.

The statement is issued as another North African nation, Morocco, signs agreements with Israeli officials to re-establish ties in the capital Rabat.

Arriving from London, Barak goes to quarantine at home as others sent to hotels

Former prime minister Ehud Barak was allowed to return to his home after stepping off a flight from London Tuesday night, while dozens of other passengers were forced to go to so-called coronavirus hotels for quarantine under observation, due to the new, more infectious UK strain of the virus.

Barak and the Health Ministry said the arrangement was necessary due to Barak’s security needs. They said he will isolate at his home and be tested as required.

Ehud Barak during a press conference in Tel Aviv, on July 25, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Biden says huge cyberattack cannot go ‘unanswered’

US President-elect Joe Biden says that the perpetrators of a massive cyberattack on the US government must face consequences, and calls out President Donald Trump over his response to the threat.

“We can’t let this go unanswered,” Biden says in pre-holiday remarks to the American people. “That means making clear and publicly who is responsible for the attack and taking meaningful steps to hold them in account.”

“This assault happened on Donald Trump’s watch when he wasn’t watching,” Biden charges. “Rest assured that even if he does not take it seriously, I will.”

— AFP

Knesset speaker taps Sagit Afik as parliament’s next legal adviser

Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin (Likud) announces he has chosen attorney Sagit Afik to serve as the Knesset next legal adviser.

Afik is currently serving as parliament’s deputy legal adviser.

Her appointment will need to be approved by the House Committee.

Visits to Israel’s parks plummeted in 2020 due to virus, but wildlife thrived

Visitor numbers at Israel’s national parks and nature reserves almost halved this year, thanks to the coronavirus, the Nature and Parks Authority reports in its annual summation.

Total visits dipped 49 percent, from 10.6 million between January and October last year to 5.4 million over the same period this year. Visits by foreign tourists were down by 77% and those by Israelis decreased by 37%, with nationwide lockdowns during the peak visitor periods of Passover and the Fall High Holy Days and limits on visitor numbers outside of lockdowns compounding the hit taken by the tourism industry.

But while humans stayed away, wildlife thrived, with 220 vultures counted this year, compared with 180 last year, and 48 vulture nests counted in 2020, up slightly from 45 in 2019. The year also saw an all-time record number of turtle nests identified along the Mediterranean coast — 380, compared with 230 last year.

— Sue Surkes

Report: New election expected to cost up to $30 million more due to coronavirus

As if the economic waste of a fourth election within two years weren’t enough, Channel 12 is reporting that the next election is expected to cost NIS 80-100 million ($25-$30 million) more than a regular one due to the need to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic, adding health precautions and ensuring voter safety.

All in all, the cost to the economy is expected to stand at some NIS 2.6 billion ($800 million) — with most of the sum being a result of the loss of a national workday.

Health minister says 70,000 Israelis have been vaccinated so far

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein says 71,876 Israelis have already been vaccinated for coronavirus, at the end of the third day of Israel’s inoculation push.

“This number is only the vaccinations reported so far, and there are many reports on the way. We’ve already vaccinated tens of thousands in medical teams and Israelis in risk groups,” Edelstein says.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Herzliya, December 20, 2020 (Flash90)

Knesset officially dissolves, Israel heads to new elections

The 23rd Knesset, one of the most dysfunctional Israel has ever known, has now officially dissolved, some 9 months after the last election.

Israel heads to a new election, set for March 23, the country’s fourth national vote in two years, with polls indicating the country is nowhere near solving its ongoing political mess.

With chairmanship up in the air, Yad Vashem names Ronen Plot as acting head

The Yad Vashem directorate elects Ronen Plot to serve as its deputy chairman, meaning he will be acting chairman once Avner Shalev retires at the end of the year.

Plot, the mayor of Nof HaGalil, will serve in the position until a permanent chairman is named by the Knesset.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has tapped far-right Israeli politician Effi Eitam to the post, to much outrage. But the new elections have precluded a vote on Eitam taking place for some time.

Knesset speaker calls on all sides not to ‘exacerbate tensions’ during campaign

As he announced the dissolution of the Knesset a short time ago, Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin called on all sides to avoid “exacerbating tensions” that could lead to violence.

“We are embarking on a difficult election campaign. I call on each and every one of us, and on each and every Israeli citizen, to avoid exacerbating tensions and to do everything possible so this election takes place in an orderly fashion and without violence,” he said.

Former justice minister says he’s sorry for calling Netanyahu a ‘political pig’

Former justice minister Haim Ramon apologizes for calling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “political pig.”

In an interview with Radio 103FM on Tuesday, Ramon — who represented Blue and White in coalition negotiations with Likud — blamed Netanyahu for the collapse of the government.

“You want to know why we are going to elections? Benjamin Netanyahu, a political pig,” he said.

On Wednesday, he tells Galey Yisrael radio: “I didn’t mean that Netanyahu was a political pig and I apologize to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for it.”

Former justice minister Haim Ramon at the Knesset, in Jerusalem on September 5, 2012. (Yoav Ari Dudkevitch / FLASH90)
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