The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s events as they happened.
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hosts visiting US National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan for talks in Ramallah, telling him that obstacles to closer American-Palestinian ties “must be removed,” according to a statement by Abbas’s office.
The Palestinian Authority recently restored formal ties with the United States after a four-year boycott that followed former president Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the American embassy there. However, the relationship has been plagued by difficulties: Ramallah has asked the Biden administration to allow it to reopen a mission in Washington and for the US to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem. Neither has yet happened.
Abbas also tells Sullivan that Israel must stop expanding settlements, halt evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem neighborhoods, respect the status quo at the Temple Mount holy site, and stop deducting funds from tax revenues it transfers to Ramallah.
“The President stressed the need to stop these unilateral Israeli practices that undermine the two-state solution,” the statement says.
Sullivan, for his part, repeats America’s stated commitment to a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, according to the statement.
A top South African doctor tells Israeli television that the Omicron variant appears much less deadly than the Delta strain of coronavirus.
“People are not dying as you have seen with Delta,” Dr. Angelique Coetzee says in an interview with the Kan public broadcaster. “Delta — it’s totally different.”
Coetzee, who heads the South African Medical Association, says cases have begun declining since December 9.
“We don’t see that doubling or increase that we had seen right in the beginning,” she says. “Maybe it will be a different picture in the rest of the world, but for now the caseloads in the hospitals are very low.”
She also says there has not been a significant increase in serious COVID-19 cases that is putting a strain on hospitals.
Coetzee stresses that the unvaccinated have been experiencing more “intense” symptoms than vaccinated people who contracted Omicron.
The first delivery of Pfizer’s anti-COVID pill is due to arrive in Israel in the coming week, Channel 12 news reports.
The network says the shipment will include tens of thousands of pills.
The report comes after US health regulators authorized the drug for anyone over 12 who tests positive for coronavirus and is considered to be at high risk from COVID-19.
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran is to mount an anti-missile system on the turrets of T-72M tanks to protect them from attack, the Fars news agency reports today.
The report comes during Iranian military exercises and after the United States said it was preparing “alternatives” in case negotiations to revive a deal to curb Iran’s nuclear program collapse in Vienna.
“The system has been tested and will be installed on the tank turrets. It will be able to deflect all types of missiles by jamming their systems,” Fars says, on the third day of land and sea military maneuvers in three of the Islamic Republic’s southern provinces.
The agency also reports Iran’s Revolutionary Guards land forces chief, General Mohammad Pakpour, as saying the tanks’ main gun has a three-kilometer (1.9-mile) range and precision night-time capabilities.
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman says he’s opposes a renewal of lockdown measures amid concerns over the Omicron variant of coronavirus.
“My stance is clear — yes to vaccines, no to closing the economy,” he tells Channel 12 news.
“The most dangerous virus in the world is not the coronavirus, it’s the stress and hysteria,” Liberman adds.
RABAT, Morocco — Morocco, Israel and the United States mark the first anniversary of the US-sponsored resumption of diplomatic relations between the North African kingdom and the Jewish state.
During a videoconference, the foreign ministers of the three countries — Nasser Bourita, Yair Lapid and Antony Blinken — welcome a partnership aimed at establishing what the US secretary of state calls “an achievement that has deepened ties, partnerships, and avenues to pursue shared goals.”
Bourita says Rabat is committed to helping achieve “a lasting peace in the region.”
Morocco renewed official relations with Israel in December last year, two decades after it cut ties with the outbreak of the second Palestinian intifada, or uprising.
The rapprochement came amid a string of normalization deals between Israel and several Arab countries, brokered by the administration of then-US president Donald Trump.
Today, Blinken hails what he calls “a positive step for the region as we aim to widen the circle of peace.”
Bourita also accepts an invitation from Lapid to visit Israel “as soon as possible.”
WASHINGTON — US President Joe Biden has tested negative for COVID-19, the White House says.
“This morning, President Biden received a PCR test and the test result was negative,” the White House press office says in a statement emailed to reporters, referring to a sensitive test used to detect the presence of coronavirus.
Biden had close contact on Air Force One last Friday with a staff member who later tested positive for the coronavirus and showed signs of COVID-19, the White House said.
That led to the further testing for the 79-year-old president, who is regularly tested for the coronavirus.
White House press secretary Jen Psaki said yesterday that Biden had had two negative tests since Sunday, and would be tested again today.
That’s the test result came back negative.
Psaki said the staff member spent about 30 minutes around the president on the flight from Orangeburg, South Carolina, to Philadelphia, last Friday.
She said the staffer is fully vaccinated, had received a booster shot and had tested negative before boarding Air Force One.
The High Court orders the state to approve an updated national program for cutting and preventing air pollution that should have been passed in 2018, and to report back to it by the end of February.
The order came in response to a petition submitted by the environmental advocacy organization, Adam Teva V’Din, which was instrumental in getting the Clean Air Act passed in 2008. The law, which came into force in 2011, mandated the creation of a national program to deal with air pollution, which had to be updated every five years.
The first program was approved in 2013, but the second — drafted by the end of 2017 — remained on the desk of then environmental protection minister Ze’ev Elkin until the country entered a prolonger period of political deadlock.
The Environmental Protection Ministry promised the court that a new program will be approved by the government within the next two months.
In a statement issued after the court hearing, the ministry says it had begun to work on a comprehensive update of the plan, but was unable to proceed because of the lack of a state budget. Knesset members approved a state budget last month, allowing the plan to advance.
The programs are drawn up by an inter-ministerial steering committee to ensure that all kinds of air pollution are included.
WASHINGTON — US health regulators authorize the first pill against COVID-19, a Pfizer drug that Americans will be able to take at home to head off the worst effects of the virus.
The long-awaited milestone comes as US cases, hospitalizations and deaths are all rising and health officials warn of a tsunami of new infections from the Omicron variant that could overwhelm hospitals.
The drug, Paxlovid, is a faster, cheaper way to treat early COVID-19 infections, though initial supplies will be extremely limited. All of the previously authorized drugs against the disease require an IV or an injection.
An antiviral pill from Merck also is expected to soon win authorization. But Pfizer’s drug is all but certain to be the preferred option because of its mild side effects and superior effectiveness, including a nearly 90% reduction in hospitalizations and deaths among patients most likely to get severe disease.
“The efficacy is high, the side effects are low and it’s oral. It checks all the boxes,” says Dr. Gregory Poland of the Mayo Clinic. “You’re looking at a 90% decreased risk of hospitalization and death in a high-risk group — that’s stunning.”
The Food and Drug Administration authorizes Pfizer’s drug for adults and children ages 12 and older with a positive COVID-19 test and early symptoms who face the highest risks of hospitalization. That includes older people and those with conditions like obesity and heart disease. Children eligible for the drug must weigh at least 88 pounds (40 kilograms).
The pills from both Pfizer and Merck are expected to be effective against Omicron because they don’t target the spike protein where most of the variant’s worrisome mutations reside.
National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata and his US counterpart Jake Sullivan chair a meeting of a bilateral forum that was established to discuss Iran and other regional matters.
“The delegations discussed the need to confront all aspects of the threat posed by Iran, including its nuclear program, destabilizing activities in the region, and support for terrorist proxy groups,” says a statement from the White House. “They agreed that Iran’s rapidly advancing nuclear program poses a grave threat to the region and to international peace and security.”
Sullivan, who is visiting Jerusalem, also updated the Israelis on the ongoing nuclear negotiations in Vienna and “the two sides exchanged views on the way forward,” according to the statement.
“The officials affirmed that the United States and Israel are aligned in their determination to ensure that Iran never gets a nuclear weapon,” the statement adds.
The head of an advisory panel that recommended Israel start offering fourth COVID-19 vaccine doses to people over 60 and others considered high risk says no decision has been made on when to begin administering the shots.
“[The recommendation] was made because if we don’t vaccinate the price will be very high — serious morbidity and a lot of quarantine,” Dr. Boaz Lev is quoted as saying by the Kan public broadcaster.
His remarks come shortly after Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz said those eligible could start getting the shots next week, though Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash must still approve the move.
ANKARA, Turkey — Turkish authorities have arrested an American diplomat working for the US Consulate in Lebanon for allegedly providing a fake passport to a Syrian man, Turkey’s state-run news agency reports.
The Anadolu Agency says the suspect, identified by his initials D.J.K., was detained at Istanbul Airport on November 11, and was later formally arrested on suspicion of selling the forged passport for $10,000.
Anadolu says the Syrian was detained for questioning after he attempted to travel to Germany on the false passport, which was in D.J.K.’s name.
Police later determined through an examination of security camera footage, that D.J.K. gave him the passport at the airport and the two also exchanged clothes. Police also seized an envelope containing $10,000 from the diplomat, the report said.
The American was jailed while the Syrian was released pending possible proceedings for falsifying documents, Anadolu reported.
The US Embassy in Ankara wouldn’t comment on the report. The US Embassy in Beirut doesn’t respond to a request for comment.
LONDON — The UK government reports 106,122 new virus cases in the last 24 hours, the first time the daily figure has topped 100,000, as the Omicron variant spreads rapidly.
The UK is one of Europe’s most affected by the virus with 147,573 deaths since the pandemic began and more than 11 million positive cases. The government is urging the public to get third vaccine shots and more than 30 million have received boosters so far.
Shas party leader Aryeh Deri has reached a plea deal with prosecutors that will see him admit to two tax offense charges in exchange for resigning from the Knesset and paying a fine of some NIS 180,000 (around $57,000).
Deri, who previously served time behind bars for a bribery conviction, will not be charged with a crime that will bar him from running again for the Knesset.
Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz tells Kan public radio that staring next week, Israelis over 60 will be able to get a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose without an appointment.
He also says he hopes the Omicron variant is “less violent” than other coronavirus strains but stresses those who are more vulnerable should be as well protected as possible.
GENEVA — The World Health Organization chief warns that the rush in wealthy countries to roll out additional COVID-19 vaccine doses was deepening the inequity in access to shots that is prolonging the pandemic.
“No country can boost its way out of the pandemic, and boosters cannot be seen as a ticket to go ahead with planned celebrations,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tells reporters ahead of the Christmas holidays.
NEW YORK — A jury resumes deliberations today at the sex trafficking trial of British socialite Ghislaine Maxwell.
The jury enters its second full day of considering the fate of Maxwell after hearing from witnesses and seeing evidence for three weeks as prosecutors tried to prove that Maxwell was the crucial enabler of financier Jeffrey Epstein’s proclivity to sexually abuse teenage girls.
Maxwell, 59, was arrested in July 2020 on charges she groomed girls as young as 14 to think it was acceptable and normal for them to engage in sexualized massages with Epstein, her onetime boyfriend and eventual close friend and employer, in return for $100 bills.
Prosecutors say she sometimes joined in the abuse between 1994 and 2004 after recruiting girls with promises that Epstein’s wealth and connections to powerful people could fund and enable their dreams. Often, the girls came from financially strapped families living in desperate or strained circumstances, the government said.
Yesterday, the jury signaled that a verdict was not imminent when it asked to finish deliberating today at 4:30 p.m. The judge has told jurors that they can deliberate tomorrow as well, if they wish.
Israel is expected to begin administering fourth doses of the COVID-19 vaccine on Sunday, Channel 12 news reports.
According to the network, health maintenance organizations have been instructed to gear up to begin giving the additional booster shots to those over 60, the immunocompromised and healthcare workers.
The decision to offering fourth shots, which was recommended by an advisory panel, must still be approved by Health Ministry Director-General Nachman Ash.
Military prosecutors file charges against an officer accused of secretly filming female soldiers in intimate situations.
After Lt. Col. Dan Sharoni is indicted, a military court extends his remand until January 4, rejecting prosecutors’ request that he be held until the legal proceedings are over.
Sharoni, who led the IDF’s driving academy, was removed from his position last month over the allegations.
GENEVA — A Jewish artist plans to pull her paintings from one of Switzerland’s largest art museums over its decision to permanently house a controversial Nazi-era collection, according to media reports.
Swiss artist Miriam Cahn writes a letter, published today by the Jewish weekly Tachles, saying she no longer wanted her work displayed at Zurich’s Kunsthaus museum.
“I don’t want to be represented by this Kunsthaus and want to withdraw all of my paintings from it,” she writes.
The controversy centers on one of Europe’s most prestigious private art collections, which was acquired by industrialist Emil Buhrle during World War II, and which has been on display at Kunsthaus since October.
The decision by one of the country’s biggest museums to permanently house the collection, previously displayed at a discreet private museum on the outskirts of Zurich, has rekindled debate over long-simmering suspicions around the provenance of some pieces.
Buhrle (1890-1956) amassed a fortune selling weapons to both the Nazis and the Allies during the war, using his wealth to buy around 600 artworks by the end of his life.
The Buhrle Foundation itself confirms that 13 paintings bought by the German-born industrialist, who later acquired Swiss citizenship, had been stolen by the Nazis from Jewish owners in France.
Following a series of court cases after the war, Buhrle in the 1940s returned all 13 pieces to their rightful owners then repurchased nine of them, the foundation said.
The Immigration and Absorption Ministry, Jewish Agency and Nefesh B’Nefesh announce that 27,050 new immigrants arrived in Israel this year.
The new arrivals included 4,000 immigrants from the United States, the highest figure since 1973.
Overall, immigration rose by 30 percent this year compared to 2020 but it remains below the annual figures recorded in the years preceding the COVID0-19 pandemic.
BEIRUT — The conflict in Syria killed 3,746 people in 2021, a monitor says, significantly fewer than in 2020, which had already seen the decade-old war’s lowest death toll.
According to figures compiled by the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, 1,505 of them were civilians and among those 360 were children.
The figure is by far the lowest tally since the start of the war in Syria and confirms a downward trend that saw 6,800 people killed last year and just over 10,000 in 2019.
The Observatory, an organization based in the UK but with a network of sources in all regions of Syria, says 297 people were killed in 2021 by landmines and various explosive remnants.
The Landmine Monitor said in November that Syria had overtaken Afghanistan as the country with the highest number of recorded casualties from landmines and explosive remnants of war,
The fighting, which erupted in 2011 after the brutal repression of anti-government protests, has abated over the past two years.
Russian-backed government forces still sporadically strike targets in the northwestern rebel enclave of Idlib but a ceasefire deal has largely held.
Fighters from the Islamic State jihadist group who went underground after their “caliphate” was crushed in 2019 have also carried out deadly hit-and-run attacks in eastern Syria.
The war in Syria has killed close to half a million people and spurred the largest conflict-induced displacement since World War II.
President Isaac Herzog calls for Iran’s nuclear program to be “neutralized” regardless of whether an accord is inked between Tehran and world powers.
“Iran is a ticking time bomb that threatens Israel and the whole Middle East,” Herzog says at a ceremony for graduates of the Israeli Air Force’s pilot course.
“I am following the negotiations surrounding the nuclear deal, and I call on the international community not to be led astray and not to underestimate the gravity of the threat,” he adds. “The Iranian nuclear threat must be neutralized once and for all, with or without an agreement. Iran must not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons capabilities.”
The president’s comments come after he met with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, who is visiting amid talks in Vienna on restoring the 2015 accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program in exchange for sanctions relief.
The European Jewish Association says it will seek an injunction against an Israeli auction house selling Nazi memorabilia.
Among the items being auctioned by Pentagon that the organization flagged are a postcard of a Jewish man on which a Nazi logo was stamped across his forehead.
“The State of Israel must enact a law against auctions of Nazi items,” the group’s chairman, Rabbi Menachem Margolin, says in a statement.
LONDON — The UK government announces it is buying millions of doses of new COVID-19 treatment pills as the Omicron variant takes hold, while cutting the isolation period for positive cases.
The government says it has signed deals to buy 4.25 million courses of two new antiviral drugs: Pfizer’s Ritonavir and US rival Merck/MSD’s Molnupiravir, which will be available early next year.
This comes on top of government announcements in October of the procurement of several hundreds of thousands of doses, and was hailed as a “mammoth deal” by Health Secretary Sajid Javid.
The UK has seen a surge in infections since Omicron became the dominant variant, with 90,629 cases reported yesterday. The country is one of the hardest hit in Europe, with a death toll of 147,433.
Prime Minister Boris Johnson has resisted calls to impose stricter virus restrictions over Christmas in England, unlike the devolved governments in other UK nations.
From today, those who have caught the virus but feel well can come out of self-isolation after seven days instead of 10, potentially allowing more to join family celebrations.
This rule only applies to people who have taken two negative lateral flow tests, NHS England says.
At the same time, UK leaders were expected to announce fresh virus measures for the post-Christmas period.
Large New Year’s Eve events have already been cancelled in London and Edinburgh.
Far-right MK Itamar Ben Gvir defends pulling a gun during a confrontation with Arab security guards over a parking spot at a Tel Aviv conference center.
“What bothers them is not that I held a gun in my hand, but that I dared to defend myself,” Ben Gvir writes on Twitter.
One of the guards tells Channel 12 news that the altercation began because they noted to Ben Gvir that his car was in a prohibited spot.
“He aimed his gun at us and called us ‘Arab dogs’ — and we were we the ones who were investigated all night,” he says.
TRIPOLI, Libya — Authorities overseeing war-torn Libya’s first presidential election have confirmed that holding it on Friday as scheduled is “impossible” and suggested a month-long delay.
The vote was intended to mark a fresh start for war-torn Libya, a year after a landmark ceasefire and more than a decade after its 2011 revolt that toppled and killed dictator Muammar Gaddafi.
But speculation of a delay had been mounting for weeks, amid bitter disputes over the vote’s legal basis, the powers of the winner and the candidacies of several deeply divisive figures.
Today, the chairman of the parliamentary committee wrote to the assembly’s speaker saying that “after consulting the technical, judicial and security reports, we inform you of the impossibility of holding the elections on the date of December 24, 2021.”
It did not propose an alternative to Friday, a date set last year during UN-led peace talks in Tunis.
The election, intended to go hand-in-hand with parliamentary polls, was part of a United Nations-led peace process overshadowed by corruption allegations and the resignation of special envoy Jan Kubis just weeks before the elections.
The process was also mired by rancorous divisions over whether controversial figures should be allowed to stand.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz meets with visiting US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan to discuss Israeli and American efforts against Iran and its nuclear program, Gantz’s office says.
During the meeting, which was held at the Knesset, the defense minister also spoke with Sullivan about Israel’s efforts to strengthen ties with the Palestinian Authority, according to his office.
The focus of the meeting, however, was on Iran, amid ongoing talks between Tehran and the world powers in Vienna regarding its nuclear program. In addition to Gantz, the meeting was attended by IDF chief Aviv Kohavi and director-general of the Defense Minister Amir Eshel.
“During the meeting, a variety of strategic and cooperative issues were discussed, chief among them the Iranian nuclear fight and Iran’s regional aggression,” Gantz’s office says
The Knesset Guard summons MK Itamar Ben Gvir for a “refresher on the rules” after the far-right lawmaker pulled out a pistol during an altercation with Arab security guards over a parking spot.
Ben Gvir was authorized to carry the gun by the Knesset Guard.
Meanwhile, Meretz MK Mossi Raz submits a parliamentary question to the Public Security Ministry asking about gun licenses for convicts. Ben Gvir, who heads the extreme-right Otzma Yehudit party, has numerous past convictions, including for supporting a terror group.
“I call on the public security minister to thoroughly examine the policy that allows Ben Gvir, who has been convicted of grave criminal offenses, to hold a weapon in his hand,” Raz says after video emerged of the incident.
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