The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they unfolded.
Netanyahu sues journalist for libel in NIS 200,000 lawsuit
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sues journalist Ben Caspit for libel, demanding NIS 200,000 ($53,000) over “false and baseless” claims voiced in his weekly Friday column in the Maariv newspaper.
Caspit wrote in his last column that Netanyahu’s “emissary” MK Miki Zohar (Likud) in June handed a NIS 6 million ($1.6 million) pension benefit to the Knesset legal adviser Eyal Yinon, shortly before he was due to step down from the position.
Caspit also pointed out that that Yinon’s romantic partner, Amit Marari, is also the deputy attorney general in charge of criminal affairs, and is overseeing corruption cases into the prime minister — suggesting an illicit attempt to influence the outcome of those investigations.
In his lawsuit, Netanyahu’s lawyers say the column “didn’t contain many facts and was mainly composed of blatant and serious slander against the prime minister, lies and baseless libel.”
Netanyahu says he’ll keep promise to name immigration minister today
Facing criticism over the numerous ministerial portfolios he currently holds, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells his cabinet ministers he will fulfill a promise to appoint one of them as immigration minister by tonight.
“I have to announce the minister of immigration and absorption by midnight, and I will do so,” he tells ministers during the weekly cabinet meeting, according to a coalition source, saying that a cabinet vote on the appointment will take place by telephone.
Netanyahu, who inherited the ministry from Yisrael Beytenu’s Sofa Landver when her party quit the government in November, is not obliged by law to appoint someone else, but promised his ministers earlier this month that he would do so by today.
He also tells them that he will keep another promise to appoint a foreign minister by next month, after holding the position since the formation of his government in 2015.
— Raoul Wootliff
UK police free 2 drone suspects in Gatwick travel chaos
British police release a man and a woman arrested in connection with the drone incursions at London’s Gatwick Airport that disrupted holiday plans for tens of thousands of travelers.
Sussex police say the two cooperated with police and are no longer considered suspects in the case. They were arrested late Friday. Both live in Crawley, a town that is a five-minute drive from Gatwick, Britain’s second-busiest airport.
Flights to and from Gatwick have been operating normally today, airport authorities say, after days of disruptions began Wednesday night when drones were seen over the airfield.
Authorities fear that a drone could damage a plane in flight or be sucked into a plane’s engine, causing a deadly crash.
Lebanese, some in yellow vests, protest political gridlock
Hundreds of Lebanese are protesting against deteriorating economic conditions as politicians are deadlocked over forming a new government.
The protesters march to the government building in central Beirut, carrying placards that call for an end to the deadlock and corruption. Some protesters sport the yellow vests worn by anti-government protesters in France.
The call for the protests began on social media, with some using the yellow vest symbol with a cedar tree in the center.
Demonstrators chant “the people want to bring down the regime,” a slogan from the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings.
Protests have spread in Lebanon in recent weeks as rival politicians have failed to form a government following elections in May.
Saudi prince who backed women’s rights and called for reforms dies at 87
Prince Talal bin Abdulaziz, a senior member of the Saudi royal family who supported women’s rights and once led a group of dissident princes, has died at the age of 87.
Prince Talal was an older brother to King Salman and the father of businessman Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. The royal court says prayers for Prince Talal, who died yesterday, will be held today in Riyadh.
In the 1960s, he led a group of princes who called for a constitutional monarchy that distributes some of the king’s powers. He led the group from Beirut and Cairo, which under Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser was an adversary of Riyadh.
After rifts emerged between Prince Talal and Cairo, he was allowed to return to Saudi Arabia in 1964.
Egypt security forces kill 14 jihadists in Sinai raid
Egyptian security forces have killed 14 Islamist terrorists in an exchange of fire in the country’s turbulent northern Sinai region, the interior ministry says.
The jihadists were under surveillance ahead of security forces raiding their hideout in the town of El-Arish, the ministry says in a statement.
An exchange of fire lasting several hours killed eight militants, the ministry says without detailing when the raid took place. The other six attempted to flee but were killed in a police chase.
The terrorists were suspected of planning attacks on “important and vital facilities,” armed forces and police personnel, the interior ministry says.
Egypt has for years been battling an insurgency in North Sinai, which upsurged following the 2013 military ouster of Islamist president Mohamed Morsi.
Hundreds of police and soldiers have since been killed in militant attacks.
Security forces have since February been conducting a major operation focused on the Sinai Peninsula, aimed at wiping out a local affiliate of the Islamic State terror group which is spearheading the insurgency.
Turkey masses troops near Kurdish-held Syrian town
A Syrian war monitor and Turkish media say Turkey is massing troops near a town in northern Syria held by a US-backed and Kurdish-led force.
Turkey says it will delay a promised offensive in Syria following US President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw US troops.
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has vowed to dislodge the Kurdish fighters, who Turkey views as an extension of the insurgency within its borders. The US had partnered with the Syrian Kurdish militia to drive out the Islamic State group.
The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says the reinforcements were sent to the front line with Manbij, where US troops have been based. The Turkish IHA news agency reports that a convoy of Turkish troops was sent into Syria overnight.
After filing libel lawsuit, PM says journalist Ben Caspit will ‘pay dearly’
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu goes on a Twitter tirade against Maariv journalist Ben Caspit, against whom he filed a libel lawsuit earlier today, calling him a “habitual liar” for hinting that the premier made an illicit payment to a legal official designed to influence the outcome of graft probes into his conduct.
“Spoiler: The habitual liar Ben Caspit, who has been persecuting me for decades, will again be forced to pay,” Netanyahu writes on Twitter.
In 2017, the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court resolved a lawsuit filed seven years earlier against Caspit by the premier’s wife Sara Netanyahu.
Caspit apologized and paid Sara Netanyahu NIS 50,000 ($13,300) for claiming she had been involved in the sacking of a 70-year-old janitor at the Prime Minister’s residence.
Hitting below the belt, Netanyahu invokes the journalist’s brother’s arrest 17 years ago.
“Ben Caspit’s sickening obsession will again cost him… dearly,” the prime minister says in a follow-up tweet, sharing a screenshot from a 2001 article about the arrest of Caspit’s brother, Uri, on suspicion of large-scale fraud.
“Had Ben Caspit looked a little more after his family instead of persecuting my family, maybe we would’ve been spared such unfortunate incidents,” Netanyahu says.
Netanyahu calls Erdogan an ‘anti-Semitic dictator’ in escalating war of words
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu calls Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan an “anti-Semitic dictator,” escalating a war of words between the leaders after Turkish officials called the Israeli premier a “cold-blooded murderer.”
“I now saw today’s lunacy from the anti-Semitic dictator Erdogan,” Netanyahu says in an address to Christian IDF soldiers ahead of Christmas.
“He has an obsession with Israel because he knows what a moral army is and what a real democracy is, in contrast with a military that massacres the Kurds,” he adds.
“Once Erdogan would be attacking me every two hours, now it’s every six hours. Turkey is becoming more and more of a dictatorship by the day.”
Pedestrian, 82, killed in car crash in northern Israel
Medical officials say an 82-year-old man died after he was hit by a vehicle on Bayit Vagan Boulevard in the northern city of Kiryat Ata.
The Magen David Adom ambulance service says paramedics were unsuccessful in their attempts to save the pedestrian’s life and pronounced him dead.
SpaceX launches US Air Force’s ‘best GPS yet,’ ends banner year
SpaceX has launched the US Air Force’s most powerful GPS satellite ever built.
A Falcon 9 rocket blasts off from Cape Canaveral, Florida, hoisting the satellite toward orbit.
The satellite was supposed to soar Tuesday but rocket concerns and then weather delayed the flight.
Heather Wilson, secretary of the Air Force, says this next-generation GPS satellite is three times more accurate than previous versions and eight times better at anti-jamming. It’s the first in a series and nicknamed Vespucci after the 15th-century Italian explorer who calculated Earth’s circumference to within 50 miles (80 kilometers).
It is SpaceX’s 21st and final launch of the year, a company record.
Macron says ‘an ally must be reliable’ after US Syria pullout announcement
French President Emmanuel Macron criticizes US President’s Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw American forces from Syria, saying “an ally must be reliable.”
Speaking in the Chad capital N’Djamena, Macron says “I deeply regret the decision” by Trump to pull out US troops.
Macron also pays tribute to US Defense Secretary James Mattis, who said he was resigning on Thursday after Trump’s Syria announcement.
Egyptian court reviews case on presidential term limits
Dozens of supporters of Egypt’s president have gathered outside a Cairo courthouse as a judge hears a case calling on parliament to debate amending the constitution to allow the Egyptian leader to stay in office longer.
The supporters carry portraits of President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, reelected to a second, four-year term earlier this year, running virtually unchallenged after authorities jailed or intimidated out of the race potentially serious candidates. He ran against a little known politician ranked among his supporters.
A progressive charter adopted in 2014, the constitution limits to two the number of terms a president can serve.
The lawyers behind the case say el-Sissi needs more time to realize his goals and the constitution must not constrain popular will. The case resumes January 20.
Ahead of Friday protest, Palestinian terror groups threaten new round of violence
The military wings of Gaza-based Palestinian terror groups warn in a joint statement that this Friday will be “decisive” in determining their response to the killing of four people during last Friday’s border protests and riots.
“We will follow the behavior and the intentions of the enemy against our people in the March of Return,” the statement says, as quoted by Hebrew-language media, referring to weekly demonstrations and often violent riots pushed by Hamas.
“It seems like the enemy has been missing the rounds of violence and the powerful reactions of the resistance — which will discipline it and stop it in its tracks,” the statement says.
The Palestinian terror groups warn that they have prepared retaliation steps, and that their use will be dependent upon Israel’s policy.
Drones are fun, but Trump just wants an ‘old fashioned Wall’
On the second day of the partial government shutdown, |US President Donald Trump is again turning to Twitter to try to make his case for a border wall with Mexico — the sticking point in the budget impasse with Congress.
He says aerial drones and other measures “are wonderful and lots of fun” but they’re not the right answer to address the problem of “drugs, gangs, human trafficking, criminal elements and much else from coming into” the United States.
Trump says what the country needs is “a good old fashioned Wall that works!”
The only way to stop drugs, gangs, human trafficking, criminal elements and much else from coming into our Country is with a Wall or Barrier. Drones and all of the rest are wonderful and lots of fun, but it is only a good old fashioned Wall that works!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018
The president is demanding billions of dollars for that wall, but Democrats are opposing it. The stalemate has shut down the government, and it looks like Christmas will be over and done with before the government will have a chance to get fully back to business.
Bennett: Trump’s peace plan includes Palestinian statehood
Education Minister Naftali Bennett says the Trump administration’s peace plan for Israel and the Palestinians involves the creation of a Palestinian state.
“Trump’s deal of the century includes a Palestinian state under certain conditions,” he tells Army Radio, without explaining.
“We will oppose it because that means another Arab entity on the west side of the Jordan,” he says.
The Trump plan has remained a tightly guarded secret, with administration officials only saying it may released in the coming months.
Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner, seen as a key architect of the plan, has described it as having elements that both Israel and the Palestinians will not like.
The administration had initially broken with traditional US policy by refusing to endorse a two-state solution, which Trump only backed in September.
Palestinians reportedly fear that the plan calls for the creation of a Palestinian state only in Gaza.
Shutdown could last into 2019, top official says, as fresh wall offer mulled
A top White House official says it’s “very possible” the partial government shutdown will stretch into next year.
Acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney tells “Fox News Sunday” he’s awaiting word from Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York after the White House presented a counteroffer in a dispute over funding for US President Donald Trump’s border wall.
Mulvaney declined to outline the offer. But he says it’s between Trump’s $5.7 billion request and the $1.3 billion Democrats offered.
A stalemate over the wall led parts of the government to shut down Saturday after funding for numerous departments and agencies expired.
The shutdown was expected to last through Thursday. Both the House and Senate have adjourned until later in the week.
Fresh bread protests roil Sudan
New protests against bread price hikes in Sudan have hit two cities, as riot police ensured an uneasy calm in the capital Khartoum five days into demonstrations that have claimed at least eight lives.
Residents in Um Rawaba, 200 kilometers southwest of Khartoum, tell AFP that some 600 people gathered in the market chanting the slogan “the people want the fall of the regime.”
Protesters burned tires and branches in the streets and attempted to storm a government building before being rebuffed by security officials, witnesses say.
In Atabara, 300 kilometers northeast of the capital, riot police and plain-clothed operatives deployed tear gas against hundreds of protesters, a witness says.
A wave of unrest has rocked Sudan since Wednesday after the government hiked the price of a loaf of bread from one Sudanese pound to three from about two to six US cents.
Prayer planned as slight improvement seen for soldier hurt in Givat Assaf attack
People are planning on gathering at the Western Wall on Sunday evening for a special prayer vigil for Netanel Felber, an Israeli soldier who was critically injured in a shooting attack near the Givat Assaf outpost earlier this month.
Doctors have been fighting to save Felber, who was shot in the head several times. Two other soldiers were killed in the attack.
The Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem said earlier Sunday that Felber, who had emergency neurosurgery after the attack, is still in a life-threatening condition, but that he has improved slightly and begun breathing on his own.
UPDATE REGARDING NETANEL FELBER:Netanel is now breathing on his own. He is still in the ICU and he is on the breathing…
On Thursday, Felber’s family had called on Jews throughout Israel and around the world, no matter what their religious outlook, to pray for the recovery of their son over Shabbat.
Felber made aliyah with his parents and siblings from Silver Spring, Maryland in 2006.
The US State Department, in response to a query from JTA, said in a statement: “The U.S. Department of State and our embassies and consulates abroad have no greater responsibility than the protection of U.S. citizens overseas. We are aware of reports of a terrorist attack involving a U.S. citizen in the West Bank on December 13. We provide all appropriate consular services to U.S. citizens in need overseas. Due to privacy considerations, we have no further comment.”
— with JTA
Mattis to leave next week, months earlier than planned
A Trump administration official says Defense chief James Mattis will leave as of January 1, some two months before his planned departure of February 28.
Trump will name Deputy Secretary of Defense Patrick Shanahan as acting secretary on January 1.
Trump says Shanahan ‘will be great’ as Mattis replacement
Donald Trump tweets confirming that Patrick Shanahan will take over for Mattis on January 1.
“He will be great,” Trump says.
I am pleased to announce that our very talented Deputy Secretary of Defense, Patrick Shanahan, will assume the title of Acting Secretary of Defense starting January 1, 2019. Patrick has a long list of accomplishments while serving as Deputy, & previously Boeing. He will be great!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018
Trump talks Syria pullout with Turkish president
US President Donald Trump says he held another conversation with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the removal of US troops from Syria and other subjects.
“We discussed ISIS, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home. We also discussed heavily expanded Trade,” Trump says in a tweet.
I just had a long and productive call with President @RT_Erdogan of Turkey. We discussed ISIS, our mutual involvement in Syria, & the slow & highly coordinated pullout of U.S. troops from the area. After many years they are coming home. We also discussed heavily expanded Trade.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018
Erdogan reportedly convinced Trump to pullout US troops in a call last week, despite advisers and other allies urging him to stay the course.
The call comes as Turkey has reportedly begun amassing troops in northern Syria, ahead of what many fear will be a bloody operation to push out Kurdish fighters who were allied with the US against the Islamic State.
It also comes as Erdogan and Israeli premier Benjamin Netanyahu have been involved in a two-day Twitter spat, with each leveling harsh accusations against the other.
Ex-wife of slain Argentina prosecutor removes self from suit, citing threats
Argentinean federal Judge Sandra Arroyo Salgado, ex-wife of the late AMIA Jewish center prosecutor Alberto Nisman, has removed herself from a lawsuit that prompted an investigation into the death of her former husband.
Nisman and Arroyo Salgado have two daughters, Iara and Kala. The written statement that Arroyo Salgado presented to her colleague, Federal Judge Julian Ercolini, who is overseeing the investigation into Nisman’s death, mentions ongoing “threats.”
She made the decision out of the “need to guarantee the protection and safety of the family,” she wrote in her request on Friday to be dropped from the lawsuit.
In the role of plaintiff, Arroyo Salgado was able to read reports of the investigation, suggest new measures, present written requests to the judge, and offer testimony. With her removal from the lawsuit, Arroyo Salgado and her daughters will have no part in the investigation.
The remaining complainant is Nisman’s mother, Sara Garfunkel, who will continue in her active role.
Nisman’s body was found on January 18, 2015, hours before he was to present evidence to Argentine lawmakers that President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner covered up Iran’s role in the attack on the AMIA Jewish center in Buenos Aires that left 85 dead and hundreds wounded.
Judges reject attempt to stop Rona Ramon cremation
The High Court has rejected a petition by a central Israel lawyer to keep the family of Rona Ramon from cremating her body.
Ramon — wife of Israeli astronaut Ilan Ramon, who died aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia — and mother of fighter pilot Asaf Ramon, who died on a training mission — had asked to be cremated to avoid making her children go through another funeral.
Ramon died last week, at age 54, after a battle with cancer.
Cremation is exceedingly rare in Israel, as it goes against both Jewish and Muslim tradition, and lawyer Shimon Ashur had argued it was illegal and would harm the public’s sensibilities.
However, the judges said the lawyer had no standing to “intervene in a matter between a person and their family,” and ordered him to pay NIS 3,000 (some $800) for the frivolous lawsuit.
Trump didn’t understand Mattis’s resignation letter, now he’s fuming — report
The New York Times reports that Donald Trump’s decision to replace Jim Mattis early comes as he has gotten increasingly more angry over the Pentagon chief’s rejection of him.
According to an aide cited by the paper, Trump initially did not understand that Mattis’s resignation letter included criticism of the president’s move to pull out of Syria.
“When Mr. Trump first announced that Mr. Mattis was leaving, effective Feb. 28, he praised the defense secretary on Twitter, saying he was retiring ‘with distinction.’ One aide said that although Mr. Trump had already seen the resignation letter when he praised Mr. Mattis, the president did not understand just how forceful a rejection of his strategy Mr. Mattis had issued,” the paper reports.
As negative news coverage has spread, his anger over the resignation and backlash has grown, and his tweets and public statement about Mattis have gotten less laudatory.
When President Obama ingloriously fired Jim Mattis, I gave him a second chance. Some thought I shouldn’t, I thought I should. Interesting relationship-but I also gave all of the resources that he never really had. Allies are very important-but not when they take advantage of U.S.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 23, 2018
Israel frets over stock market dive, and points finger at Trump
Israel’s main prime-time news broadcasts are leading with the sharp drop in the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange, reflecting jitters over changes underway on both sides of the Atlantic.
The dive, which saw main indices lose some five percent over Sunday — the sharpest drop since 2011 — is seen as a direct result of the US Federal Reserve Bank raising interest rates, and President Donald Trump raising questions over the Fed’s independence, sparking uncertainty in markets.
“This is a reflection of a lack of trust in Trump in all fields,” Channel 10 analyst Nadav Eyal says.
Israel’s central bank recently raised rates itself for the first time in years, a move that was criticized over the fact that new bank chief Amir Yaron still has not taken up the post.
Jerusalem top cop says he won’t be police commish
Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevi has preemptively taken himself out of the running to become national police commissioner, and will retire from the force.
Halevi asked Public Security Minister Gilad Erdan not to consider him for the post, Hebrew-language media report.
Erdan has been searching for a replacement for former chief Roni Alsheikh since his nominee Moshe Edri was rejected by a vetting panel.
Halevi was thought to have been the preferred candidate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu because of his personal relationship with Sara Netanyahu, but had said scuttlebutt about his candidacy and personal connections were hurting him and his family.
Halevi associates blame Alsheikh over end of career
Haaretz reports that Jerusalem police chief Yoram Halevi announced he would be leaving the police and should not be considered for the police commissioner role after he was made to understand that he would not be nominated.
The paper quotes associates close to Halevi pointing an accusatory finger at former chief Alsheikh, who they say ran a campaign of character assassination against Halevi to make sure he would not get the job.
According to reports, Alsheikh raised questions over Halevi’s connection to the Netanyahu’s and tried to torpedo his nomination.
According to Haaretz, Halevi will not leave his post until a replacement in in place.
Honduras mulling moving embassy to Jerusalem — report
Honduras has dispatched a delegation to Israel that is reportedly exploring the possibility of moving its embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, after secret talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
According to the report, Honduras would demand Israel open an embassy in Tegucigalpa and deepen its bilateral trade relationship in exchange.
Foreign Ministry spokesperson Emmanuel Nahshon confirms the delegation’s visit, but says only that it is an “ongoing process of discussions that has yet to mature.”
He says the delegation has yet to decide how to proceed.
There is no immediate confirmation from Tegucigalpa.
— with Raphael Ahren
British Jewish group spanks Hazan over re-education camp tweet
The Board of Deputies of British Jews issues rare criticism of an Israeli MK, slamming comments made by Likud’s Oren Hazan expressing support for China’s method of incarcerating members of its Muslim minority in “re-education camps.”
“These are deeply reprehensible comments. It is a betrayal of the Jewish conscience to suggest placing any ethnic or religious group into camps. Oren Hazan clearly needs an urgent and sharp lesson in Jewish history,” a spokesman for the umbrella body of UK Jewish communities says in a statement.
— Raoul Wootliff
Petrified remains of harnessed horse unearthed in Pompeii
Archaeologists have unearthed the petrified remains of a harnessed horse and saddle in the stable of an ancient villa in a Pompeii suburb.
Pompeii archaeological park head Massimo Osanna tells Italian news agency ANSA that the villa belonged to a high-ranking military officer, perhaps a general, during ancient Roman times.
Osanna says the remains of two or three other horses were also discovered.
The villa’s terraces had views of the Bay of Naples and Capri island. The area was previously excavated, during the early 1900s, but later re-buried.
The volcanic eruption of Mount Vesuvius destroyed flourishing Pompeii, near present-day Naples, in 79 A.D.
Osanna says suffocating volcanic ash or boiling vapors killed the horses. He hopes the villa will eventually be open for public visits.
Trump, Erdogan agree to avoid power vacuum in Syria — Turkey
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan and US counterpart Donald Trump agreed in a phone conversation on Sunday to prevent a power vacuum in Syria after American ground forces withdraw, the Turkish presidency says.
“The two leaders agreed to ensure coordination between their countries’ military, diplomatic and other officials to avoid a power vacuum, which could result following any abuse of the withdrawal and transition phase in Syria,” the presidency says in a statement.
MKs demand government answer questions about spurned Russia-Syria deal
Three opposition Knesset members have sent a letter to MK Avi Dichter, the head of the powerful Knesset Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, demanding he show them a letter presented to Israel from Russian officials on a rejected deal to remove Iran from Syria, Channel 10 news reports.
The offer was part of a pitch Russian Security Council Secretary Nikolai Patrushev gave to his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat in September, and was aimed at fostering better ties between the United States and Russia through a deal on Iran and Syria, the Axios news site reported Thursday.
According to the report, the deal would have seen US forces leave Syria and Iranian militias pushed out, but was rejected by Netanyahu because it would also involve easing sanctions on Tehran.
The three MKs, Merav Michaeli, Ofer Shelach and Omer Bar-Lev demand Dichter have the letter presented to the Knesset committee and Netanyahu subpoenaed to appear before the lawmakers to answer questions about the scotched deal.
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