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Netanyahu rules out PM rotation agreement after March election

In interview with right-wing network, Likud leader says national vote presents ‘opportunity’ to create right-wing government ‘of our dreams’

Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit at a Covid-19 vaccination center in Zarzir, northern Israel, February 9, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit at a Covid-19 vaccination center in Zarzir, northern Israel, February 9, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

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

Health minister says Israel mulling law requiring teachers to vaccinate

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein says the government is considering passing a law requiring teachers to get vaccinated — or get tested frequently on their own dime.

Edelstein, in a briefing to reporters, says “no one has the right to endanger Israel’s children.”

“Those who don’t want to get vaccinated will be forced to get tested often, possibly at their own expense,” he says.

File: Children wearing face masks make their way to school in Safed, on their first day back to classes, November 1, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)


South Africa will start administering unapproved Johnson & Johnson vaccine

South Africa’s health minister says the country will begin administering the unapproved Johnson & Johnson vaccine to its front-line health workers next week.

The workers will be monitored to see what protection the J&J shot provides from COVID-19, and particularly against the coronavirus variant dominant in the country.

Health Minister Zweli Mkhize says that South Africa scrapped its plans to use the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine because it “does not prevent mild to moderate disease” of the variant dominant in South Africa.

Mkhize asserts that the J&J vaccine, which is still being tested internationally, is safe.

He says those shots will be followed by a campaign to vaccinate an estimated 40 million people in South Africa by the end of the year. The minister said the country will be using the Pfizer vaccine and others, possibly including the Russian Sputnik V, Chinese Sinopharm and Moderna vaccines.

Illustrative — Thabisle Khlatshwayo, receives her second shot at a vaccine trial facility for AstraZeneca at Soweto’s Chris Sani Baragwanath Hospital outside Johannesburg, South Africa, Nov. 30, 2020 (AP Photo/Jerome Delay)

Rouhani urges return to nuclear deal as Iran marks 1979 revolution anniversary

Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani urges the West to restore the 2015 nuclear deal as the nation marks the anniversary of the country’s 1979 Islamic Revolution — on wheels this time, rather than traditional rallies and marches, amid the worst COVID outbreak in the Middle East.

Rouhani says the “era of sanctions” is over and the agreement is the only way forward.

“There is no other way for the world and for the region,” Rouhani says during a televised speech in Tehran. “The only path is definitely the path of diplomacy. The only path is the world’s agreement with Iran. God willing, we will be successful in this path.”

Rouhani also says “God was the one who toppled” former President Donald Trump, who pulled the US out of the nuclear pact and imposed sanctions on Iran. He says Iranians who resisted Trump’s pressures also were effective in Trump’s overthrow.

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks at a cabinet meeting in Tehran, Iran, January 27, 2021. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

Trump lost the US November election to Democrat Joe Biden, who wants to revive the deal, but insists that Iran must first reverse parts of its nuclear program. That’s created a contest of wills between the nations. The 2015 atomic deal saw Iran agree to limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions.

On domestic issues, Rouhani urges a high turnout in the June presidential election that decides his successor. Traditionally, high turnout brings moderate presidents to office in Iran.

Meanwhile, waving Iranian flags, chanting “Death to America,” “Death to Israel” and obseerving the traditional ritual of burning US and Israeli flags, people in cars and on bikes commemorate the 42nd anniversary of the revolution that ousted the West-backed monarchy of king Mohammad Reza Pahlavi and brought Islamists to power.

Gantz and Russian defense minister discuss Syria, ICC ruling

Defense Minister Benny Gantz speaks with this Russian counterpart, Sergey Shoygu, about the situation in Syria, where Russia is fighting in support of Syrian dictator Bashar Assad and Israel is fighting against Iran and its proxies, his office says.

“The two agreed to continue the important discussions between Russia and Israel in order to ensure the safety of troops, and about the need to advance humanitarian efforts in the region,” Gantz’s office says in a statement.

Jerusalem and Moscow maintain a so-called deconfliction mechanism, to allow the two countries to coordinate their efforts in Syria and prevent accidental crossfire.

Gantz and Shoygu also discussed the recent decision by the International Criminal Court allowing it to open an investigation into alleged war crimes by Israel and Palestinian groups in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

“The two agreed that there was importance in continuing to act in order to preserve the ability of states to defend themselves against terrorist threats,” Gantz’s office says.

Rivlin attended funeral with 100 people in violation of health orders — report

President Reuven Rivlin attended a funeral that violated Health Ministry orders limiting the size of public gatherings, Army Radio reports.

The funeral, for one of Rivlin’s brothers-in-law, was held several weeks ago before the start of a current ongoing virus lockdown.

However, sources tell the station that over 100 people were at the funeral though at the time public gatherings were limited to no more than 20 outdoors or 10 indoors.

Photos from the funeral showed Rivlin surrounded by some 40 people, according to the station.

Rivlin’s office says in a response to the report that the president had attended after being told the event would keep to the ordered limits. According to the report, the family had made efforts to keep numbers down but many more people arrived than were expected.

Illustrative: President Reuven Rivlin attends a funeral at Givat Shaul cemetery in Jerusalem, on December 31, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Health minister signals negative coronavirus test won’t suffice to enter gyms, hotels, malls

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein signals that when malls, gyms, and hotels reopen, they will be accessible only by the vaccinated and those who recovered from COVID-19, but a negative test won’t suffice.

“There are essential areas where we cannot bar entry to any Israeli citizens,” he says. “But there is no shortage of additional areas that will soon reopen, and we certainly can’t allow the [testing] labs to crash because people couldn’t find time to get vaccinated.”

“I strongly recommend that anyone who wants to enjoy a hotel, gym and culture go get vaccinated,” he says.

A reported government plan has recommended reopening these facilities on February 23, provided a number of targets on vaccination and infection rates are met.

Health minister indicates gatherings to be limited over Purim holiday

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein says gatherings on the upcoming Jewish holiday of Purim will be limited to prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

He says this year’s holiday, usually marked with raucous parties and celebrations, will see “the joy be very limited, without gatherings, without dancing, and without Purim masks, but rather with the masks we’ve grown accustomed to.”

But he says a final decision has yet to be made.

“We’re very concerned, but we don’t yet have a practical recommendation. There’s still time, we will assess the morbidity and will announce close to the holiday whether there will be restrictions and what they will be,” says Edelstein.

Purim begins in the evening of February 25, with the exception of Jerusalem, where it starts on the 27th.

Israelis dressed up in costumes for the Jewish festival of Purim in downtown Jerusalem on February 27, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Likud’s health minister, New Hope trade barbs over pandemic response

Health Minister Yuli Edelstein criticizes his former Likud colleague Yifat Shasha-Biton, who defected to New Hope, saying that if the government had heeded her advice on the pandemic, tens of thousands of Israelis would have died.

Shasha-Biton has been a perennial critic of the government’s health policy and in her previous role as head of the Knesset Coronavirus Committee overturned numerous regulations enacted by her own party at the start of the pandemic, including the closures of restaurants, gyms and pools.

“If we would have listened to the advice of MK Shasha-Biton, we would have tens of thousands dead,” Edelstein tells the Ynet news site.

MK Yifat Shasha-Biton at a Knesset coronavirus committee meeting on July 19, 2020. (screen capture: Knesset livestream)

Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope hits back, saying: “Netanyahu and Edelstein are responsible for the deaths of thousands of Israelis and will be forced to answer to that before a government commission of inquiry that the New Hope government will form immediately after elections.”

Shasha-Biton is No. 2 on the New Hope list.

Houthi attack on Saudi airport leaves plane on fire — state media

A civilian plane was engulfed in flames in an attack by Yemen’s Houthi rebels on an airport in southern Saudi Arabia, the Riyadh-led coalition battling the insurgents says.

“A cowardly criminal terrorist attack launched against Abha International Airport in Saudi Arabia by the Huthi militia,” state-run Al-Ekhbariya television cited the coalition as saying.

“A fire that engulfed a passenger plane due to the Huthi attack on Abha Airport is under control,” it adds.

The coalition does not report any casualties, or say how the attack was carried out, but earlier in the day reported it had intercepted two “booby trap” drones in the south.

The incident was not immediately claimed by the Iran-backed Houthis.

But the rebels appear to be stepping up attacks on the kingdom as well as on Riyadh-backed Yemeni forces after the United States moved last week to delist the Houthis as a terrorist group.

The Huthis have also resumed an offensive to seize the Yemeni government’s last northern stronghold of Marib, according to a government source, with dozens of casualties on both sides.

Lapid urges Gantz to drop out of election race

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid urges his former ally turned rival Benny Gantz to drop out of the election race, predicting his Blue and White party won’t clear the electoral threshold in the March 23 vote.

“Blue and White won’t clear the electoral threshold,” Lapid tells the Walla news site. “If it continues running, it will throw 80,000-90,000 votes in the trash. If Benny Gantz is still a responsible man, he needs to quit.”

Lapid and Gantz ran on a joint ticket in the previous three rounds of elections. But Gantz split the alliance after the March 2020 elections and formed a government with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, despite his campaign promises to the contrary, while Lapid refused to do so, remaining in the opposition.

Blue and White party chairman Benny Gantz (R) and No. 2 Yair Lapid, at a faction meeting in the Knesset on November 18, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

China spacecraft enters Mars orbit, 2nd in 2 days after UAE

A Chinese spacecraft enters Mars orbit on a mission to land a rover and collect data on underground water and possible signs of ancient life, state media says.

“China’s probe Tianwen-1 successfully entered the orbit around Mars on Wednesday after a nearly seven-month voyage from Earth,” the Xinhua News Agency says in a brief report.

The orbiter-rover combo became the second spacecraft in two days to reach the red planet. An orbiter from the United Arab Emirates led the way on Tuesday.

Next week, the US will try to land its Perseverance rover on the Martian surface. Only the US has successfully touched down on Mars — eight times beginning with two Viking missions. A lander and rover are in operation today.

All three Mars missions launched last July to take advantage of the planet’s close alignment with Earth that occurs only every two years.

The Chinese mission is the country’s most ambitious yet. If all goes as planned, the rover will separate from the spacecraft in a few months and attempt to touch down. China would then become only the second nation to successfully land a rover on Mars.

Tianwen, the title of an ancient poem, means “Quest for Heavenly Truth.”

1 in 3 Americans don’t plan to get COVID vaccine — poll

About 1 in 3 Americans say they definitely or probably won’t get a COVID-19 vaccine, according to a new poll that some experts say is discouraging news if the US hopes to achieve herd immunity and vanquish the outbreak.

The poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research finds that while 67% of Americans plan to get vaccinated or have already done so, 15% are certain they won’t and 17% say probably not. Many express doubts about the vaccine’s safety and effectiveness.

The poll suggests that substantial skepticism persists more than a month and a half into a US vaccination drive that has encountered few if any serious side effects. It finds that resistance runs higher among younger people, people without college degrees, Black Americans and Republicans.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading infectious-disease scientist, has estimated that somewhere between 70% and 85% of the US population needs to get inoculated to stop the scourge that has killed close to 470,000 Americans. More recently, he said the spread of more contagious variants of the virus increases the need for more people to get their shots — and quickly.

A health worker holds empty vials of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in East Jerusalem, on February 3, 2021. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

So is 67% of Americans enough?

“No. No, no, no, no,” says William Hanage, a Harvard University expert on disease dynamics. He adds: “You’re going to need to get quite large proportions of the population vaccinated before you see a real effect.”

Nearly 33 million Americans, or about 10% of the population, have received at least one dose, and 9.8 million have been fully vaccinated, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention.

The poll of 1,055 adults, taken Jan. 28 through Feb. 1, provides insight into the skepticism.

Of those who say they definitely will not get the vaccine, 65% cite worries about side effects, despite the shots’ safety record over the past months. About the same percentage say they don’t trust COVID-19 vaccines. And 38% say they don’t believe they need a vaccine, with a similar share saying that they don’t know if a COVID-19 vaccine will work and that they don’t trust the government.

Of those who probably will not get the vaccine but have not ruled it out completely, 63% say they are waiting to see if it is safe, and 60% say they are concerned about possible side effects.

Houthis claim drone attack on Saudi airport

Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels say they carried out a drone attack on a Saudi airport that left an aircraft in flames Wednesday, saying the facility was used to launch attacks on Yemen.

“The UAV air force targeted the airfields of warplanes at Abha International Airport — which is used for military purposes to target the Yemeni people — with four drones,” Yahya Sarie, spokesman for the Houthis’ armed wing, says in a tweet.

“The strike was accurate, thanks to God.”

Jewish Republican Josh Mandel joins race for open US Senate seat in Ohio

Jewish Republican Josh Mandel, a Marine veteran and former state treasurer, says he will make a third run for the US Senate in Ohio, taking a pro-Trump message in a bid for the seat being vacated by the GOP’s Rob Portman.

Mandel, 43, plans to launch his campaign Wednesday against the backdrop of a second round of impeachment proceedings against the former Republican president.

“This impeachment of President Trump is a complete sham and got my blood boiling to the point where I decided to run for the United States Senate,” Mandel says in an interview. He says he believes charges against Trump are unfounded and the proceeding is unconstitutional.

With his wife Ilana next to him, Republican US Senate candidate Josh Mandel concedes defeat to Sherrod Brown on election night in the ballroom at the Renaissance Hotel in Columbus, Ohio, on Tuesday, Nov. 6, 2012. (AP Photo/Mike Munden)

Mandel was the first statewide official in Ohio to back Trump in 2016 and he raised $500,000 for him in 2020, he says. His campaign will focus on common themes of economic freedom, individual liberty and the “America First” agenda.

“When I go to Washington, I’m going to go there to pulverize the uni-party,” he says. “The uni-party is what I call this group of Democrats and Republicans who sound exactly the same and are more interested in getting invited to the cocktail party circuit than they are in standing up for the Constitution.”

Mandel faces likely competition in a GOP primary from Jane Timken, who left her position as head of the Ohio Republican Party last week to explore a run, among others.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Israeli, Egyptian ambassadors to US hold ‘great meeting’

Israel’s Ambassador to the United States Gilad Erdan says he had a “great meeting” with his Egyptian counterpart.

“We discussed ways to enhance the strategic relations between Israel and Egypt. I look forward to working together to continue building upon the deep ties between our two countries,” tweets Erdan.

Israel to require negative coronavirus test to enter from land, sea

The government approves regulations requiring people entering Israel through land crossings or by sea to have a negative coronavirus test that was conducted in the previous 72 hours, as is mandated for air travel.

Those who violate the rule will be fined NIS 2,500 ($769), according to a joint statement by the Prime Minister’s Office and Health Ministry.

All travelers will also be required to take another test upon entering Israel, with violators fined NIS 3,500 ($1,076).

The rules go into effect in 24 hours.

Netanyahu rejects Gantz’s demand to release minutes from meetings on pandemic

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rejects Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s demand that the so-called coronavirus cabinet and the security cabinet publicize the transcripts of their meetings on the pandemic, following widespread leaks from the discussions.

The transcripts from the meetings are automatically classified for 30 years.

Cabinet Secretary Tzachi Braverman, in a letter to Gantz, dismisses the demand and says he has asked the attorney general to investigate the leaks.

Israel urges social media giants to label anti-Semitic content

Israeli ministers and lawmakers urge social media giants to flag anti-Semitic content, as it does misinformation.

The call comes in a policy paper formulated by the Strategic Affairs Ministry and Diaspora Affairs Ministry, and presented to a Knesset panel in the presence of representatives from the platforms.

“Among the measures called for is the labeling of anti-Semitic content, similar to industry practice with misinformation surrounding the US presidential election and COVID-19. It also calls on companies to implement clear definitions of hate speech, including implementing the IHRA Working Definition on Antisemitism, referencing it in its policy and labeling,” according to a statement.

Strategic Affairs Minister Michael Biton says: “The Jewish people and the State of Israel are constantly being attacked through incitement, the spreading of misinformation, and outright lies. We have a special interest in taking the initiative on this issue and are holding social media companies accountable to start taking responsibility and act to implement clearer, more effective and transparent policies.”

Israel medics begin vaccinating Palestinians with permits to work in Israel

Around 400 Palestinians — residents of East Jerusalem and Palestinians who work in Israel — were vaccinated against coronavirus today at a Magen David Adom station near the Qalandiya checkpoint, a Magen David Adom spokesperson tells The Times of Israel.

“Palestinians can come and be vaccinated, including those who have Palestinian Authority identity cards and work permits,” the spokesperson says.

The station will only be open until the end of today, the spokesperson says.

Today’s vaccines are the first official step to immunize Palestinians who work in Israel.

Around 120,000 Palestinians work legally in Israel or in Israeli settlements, according to Israeli government statistics. The constant movement of Palestinian workers back and forth across the Green Line has sparked concerns from both Israeli and Palestinian health officials that they could import fresh coronavirus cases to their areas. A union of construction companies appealed to the Health Ministry yesterday to provide vaccines for its employees.

Former Israeli ambassador to UN urges Biden to call Netanyahu

Former Israeli ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon tweets a plea to US President Joe Biden to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, adding a phone number he says is the premier’s.

WHO: AstraZeneca vaccine should be used despite virus variants

WHO vaccine experts say the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine could be used for people over the age of 65, and also in settings where variants of the virus are circulating.

“Taking the totality of available evidence into account, WHO recommends the vaccine for use in persons aged 65 years and older,” The 15-member Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) says in fresh recommendations.

It says the vaccine could also be used in places where “variants are present,” despite a recent study suggesting it was far less effective against a strain of the virus first detected in South Africa.

Virus czar troubled by school reopening, says mandating vaccination ‘an extreme step’

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash says the imminent reopening of some schools in low and medium infected areas keeps him up at night.

Ash, in an interview with Army Radio, says: “I don’t sleep restfully at night. If there was only the health consideration, I would recommend a closure for another month, but there are other aspects.”

He says the current proposal is “appropriate risk management.”

Israel’s coronavirus czar Prof. Nachman Ash visits the Ziv hospital in Safed, December 24, 2020 (David Cohen/Flash90)

Under the Health Ministry proposal, kindergartens and grades 1-4 and 11-12 will open Thursday in cities designated as “green” and “yellow” in the government’s color-coding system for morbidity rates. Some medium-to-high infection cities, flagged as “orange,” will also see these grades opened, depending on various statistics and provided that at least 70 percent of their residents aged 50 and up are vaccinated. Most “orange” cities don’t meet the criteria. Those that do include Kiryat Motzkin, Tirat Carmel, Kfar Yona, Karmiel, Mevaseret Zion, Ness Ziona, Savyon, Ramat Gan, Ramat Yishai and Raanana.

Ash also expresses disappointment in President Reuven Rivlin’s reported attendance at a funeral that violated the gathering rules, saying it harms public trust.

And he opines that requiring Israelis to vaccinate — as suggested by some in the government — would be “an extreme step.” His comment comes after Health Minister Yuli Edelstein floated the possibility of government legislation to enable employers to restrict activity by non-vaccinated workers.

“It could be that there will be situations in which we’ll say, either you get vaccinated or you get tested. We’re weighing this option, including its legal angles,” says Ash.

Teva says it’s negotiating to manufacture COVID vaccines — report

Israeli pharmaceutical firm Teva says it’s negotiating with coronavirus vaccine companies on manufacturing some shots, according to Reuters.

“We do have some discussions with originators of the original vaccines. We have not come to any conclusion,” says Teva chief executive Kare Schultz, who does not name the companies.

“In principle, we are positive towards contributing by manufacturing some of those vaccines that either have been approved or are just about to be approved.”

View of freezers that were designated to be used to store coronavirus vaccines at the Teva Pharmaceuticals logistics center in Shoham, on November 26, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

French far-right leader Le Pen appears in court in hate speech trial

French far-right leader Marine Le Pen appears in court on charges she broke hate speech laws by tweeting pictures of Islamic State atrocities, a case she slammed as a politically motivated attempt to silence her.

The trial comes as opinion polls show Le Pen will likely face off again against Emmanuel Macron in next year’s presidential contest, after her National Rally made its strongest showing ever in the 2017 vote.

Le Pen shared the gruesome images in December 2015, a few weeks after Islamic State group jihadists killed 130 people in attacks in Paris, in response to a journalist who drew a comparison between IS and her party.

One of the pictures showed the body of James Foley, an American journalist beheaded by the jihadists

Another showed a man in an orange jumpsuit being run over by a tank, and the third a Jordanian pilot being burned alive in a cage.

A courtroom sketch made on February 10, 2021 shows leader of far-right Rassemblement National (RN) Marine Le Pen attending a hearing in her trial along with RN Member of Parliament Gilbert Collard for tweeting images of Islamic State group’s atrocities in Nanterre, outside Paris (Benoit PEYRUCQ / AFP)

“Daesh is this!” Le Pen wrote in a caption, using an Arabic acronym for IS.

“I am obviously the victim of a political trial,” Le Pen tells journalists at the courthouse in Nanterre, a Paris suburb.

“The media published them, editorialists, newspapers, TV channels, and nobody was ever prosecuted for doing so — only Marine Le Pen is being prosecuted,” she says.

CDC research: Two masks are better than one in shielding against virus

US government researchers find that two masks are better than one in slowing coronavirus spread, but health officials stopped short of recommending that everyone double up.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports the results of a lab experiment that spaced two artificial heads 6 feet from each other and checked to see how many coronavirus-sized particles spewed by one were inhaled by the other.

The researchers found that wearing one mask — surgical or cloth — blocked around 40% of the particles coming toward the head that was breathing in. When a cloth mask was worn on top of a surgical mask, about 80% were blocked.

When both the exhaling and inhaling heads were double-masked, more than 95% of the particles were blocked, says the CDC’s Dr. John Brooks.

Illustrative: A grandson visits his grandmother at her home in Moshav Haniel in central Israel. She is wearing a face mask as a COVID-19 precaution. (Chen Leopold/Flash90)

“The first challenge is to get as many as people as possible masking. And then for those that do mask, to help them get the best benefit out of that mask,” Brooks says.

The study had many limitations: The researchers used one brand of surgical mask and one kind of cloth mask, and it’s not clear if results would be the same with every product. But it echoes some earlier research that suggests two masks are better than one.

“It works,” Brooks says.

The CDC also is updating its guidance to address wearing two masks. If done correctly, a cloth mask worn over a surgical mask can tighten the gaps around the mask’s edges that can let virus particles in, the CDC says.

Georgia prosecutor opens criminal probe into ‘attempts to influence’ US election

A Georgia prosecutor says in a letter that she has opened a criminal investigation into “attempts to influence” the outcome of last year’s general election. Former President Donald Trump is not specifically named in the letter, but he has come under intense criticism for a call he made to the state’s top elections official.

In a phone call last month, Trump pressed Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger to “find” enough votes to overturn Joe Biden’s victory in the state.

In a letter to Raffensperger obtained by The Associated Press, Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis informs him an investigation has been opened and that all records related to the administration of the election should be preserved, particularly those that may be evidence of attempts to influence the actions of people administering the election.

US President Donald Trump speaks with reporters as he walks to board Marine One on the South Lawn of the White House, Wednesday, January 20, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Russia wants Navalny ally arrested abroad; Lithuania refuses

A Moscow court orders the arrest of an exiled ally of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, but Lithuania, where the associate lives, bluntly rejects the demand to take him into custody.

The action against Leonid Volkov by the Basmanny District Court is seen as part of an effort by authorities to squelch demonstrations demanding the release of Navalny, a top Kremlin foe who has been jailed since Jan. 17.

Volkov, a chief strategist for Navalny, was charged with encouraging minors to take part in unauthorized rallies, which could land him in jail for up to three years. He had already been put on an international wanted list.

Volkov, who has lived abroad since 2019, has rejected the charges, and Lithuania’s government has refused to carry out the Russian court’s order.

“Using international tools for politically motivated prosecution is a wrong practice,“ Lithuanian Interior minister Agne Bilotaite says.

“This raises serious doubts about Russia‘s membership in these organizations,“ she says, referring to the Russian arrest warrant sent through Interpol.

Pig meat left outside 2 Swiss synagogues

Pig meat was left at the entrance to two synagogues in Switzerland.

The incidents last week were a deliberate attempt to desecrate the CIL Orthodox synagogue in Lausanne and the GIL Reform synagogue in Geneva, the Swiss Federation of Jewish Communities writes in a statement.

Far-right activists in Europe place pig meat, parts and carcasses at mosques, and more rarely at synagogues, as pigs are considered unclean in both Islam and Judaism.

Different individuals carried out each act, the federation’s statement says. Police are investigating the synagogues’ complaints.

At the Lausanne synagogue, the perpetrator left a stuffed pig toy and a pack of bacon, the federation says. In Geneva it was several pieces of pig meat.

Prominent Saudi women’s rights activist released from prison

The family of a leading Saudi women’s rights activist says she has been released from prison after nearly three years behind bars.

The sisters of Loujain al-Hathloul announces the news on Twitter.

Al-Hathloul, who pushed to end a ban on women driving in Saudi Arabia, was convicted last December on charges including agitating for change and pursuing a foreign agenda, accusations that rights groups describe as politically motivated.

File: This image made from a video released by Loujain al-Hathloul, shows her driving towards the United Arab Emirates-Saudi Arabia border before her arrest on Dec. 1, 2014. (AP/Loujain al-Hathloul, File)

She was sentenced by a counterterrorism court to almost six years in prison, but the judge suspended part of her sentence and gave her credit for time already served, advancing her release date.

The release of 31-year-old al-Hathloul closes a years-long case that has drawn sharp international criticism of the kingdom’s human rights record.

Al-Hathloul’s family has said she would remain under strict conditions, including a five-year travel ban and three years of probation.

Bnei Brak to distribute cholent at Thursday night vaccine drive

The predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak is taking creative measures to encourage its residents to get vaccinated, including distributing steaming bowls of cholent on Thursday night in a late-night drive.

The city says its inoculation centers will remain open on Thursday night until midnight, with snacks and cholent, in a bid to drive up the numbers of vaccinations, according to Channel 12.

According to the Health Ministry, just 17% of Bnei Brak’s residents have received the first dose of the vaccine and 9% the second.  The city is among the worst-hit in the pandemic.

Democrats: Trump is ‘inciter in chief’ of US Capitol attack

Prosecutors in Donald Trump’s impeachment trial say they will prove that Trump was no “innocent bystander” but the “inciter in chief” of the deadly attack at the Capitol aimed at overturning his election loss to Joe Biden.

Opening the first full day of arguments, the lead House prosecutor says they will lay out evidence that shows the president encouraged a rally crowd to head to the Capitol, then did nothing to stem the violence and watched with “glee” as a mob stormed the iconic building. Five people died.

“To us it may have felt like chaos and madness, but there was method to the madness that day,” says Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md.

The day’s proceedings are unfolding after an emotional Tuesday start to the trial that left the former president fuming after his attorneys delivered a meandering defense and failed to halt the trial on constitutional grounds. Some allies called for yet another shakeup to his legal team.

Trump is the first president to face an impeachment trial after leaving office and the first to be twice impeached. The riot followed a rally during which Trump urged his supporters to “fight like hell,” words his lawyers say were simply a figure of speech. He is charged with “incitement of insurrection.”

Rioters loyal to US President Donald Trump storm the US Capitol in Washington, January 6, 2020. (AP Photo/John Minchillo, File)

Netanyahu: Election could bear out right-wing government ‘of our dreams’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he won’t agree to another premiership rotation agreement after the March elections.

“We need one prime minister,” he tells the right-wing Channel 20. After the previous elections, Netanyahu agreed to share the office with Benny Gantz, though the coalition did not survive long enough to see the transfer of power.

“And if we get enough votes, and we will, we have a historic opportunity to form a full right-wing government, to achieve the government of our dreams. But for this, we need a large Likud,” he says.

The prime minister appears to be hinting at a future alliance with his former colleague and now rival Gideon Sa’ar, who has vowed not to join a government led by him and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seen at a COVID-19 vaccination center in Zarzir, northern Israel, February 9, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Another 3,735 virus cases diagnosed since midnight

The Health Ministry says another 3,735 virus cases have been diagnosed since midnight, bringing the number of active cases to 68,077.

There are 1,031 people in serious condition, including 318 on ventilators.

The death toll climbs to 5,244, up 11 fatalities since this morning.

According to the ministry, over 34,000 people received the first dose of the vaccine since midnight, and nearly 46,000 get the second dose, as the number of daily inoculations remains lower than previous weeks.

Sa’ar says he’ll hold off on annexation if elected PM, though he supports move

New Hope chairman Gideon Sa’ar says that if elected prime minister, he will respect the commitment made by his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu to suspend plans to annex large parts of the West Bank as part of normalization negotiations with the United Arab Emirates.

“I will not deny that I support the idea of implementing Israeli law over our communities in Judea and Samaria. It is something that continues to be an Israeli objective,” Sa’ar tells a webinar organized by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.

“But the prime minister committed himself in a dialogue with the Trump administration at the time… to suspend the idea of implementing sovereignty for a couple of years. As the prime minister of Israel I will respect the commitment that was given by an Israeli prime minister to an American administration.”

Netanyahu has yet to publicly reveal how long he agreed to shelve his annexation plans, but several officials with direct knowledge of the normalization negotiations told The Times of Israel that the US agreed to refrain from offering its blessing for the move until at least 2024.

New Hope leader Gideon Saar talks to a reporter during a visit to an outdoor shopping center in Ra’anana on February 8, 2021. (GIL COHEN-MAGEN / AFP)

Hours before some schools set to reopen, many cities unsure where they stand

Twelve hours before schools in low and medium-infection cities and towns are set to reopen after over a month of lockdown, dozens of cities are still unsure whether they qualify, Channel 13 reports.

The network says numerous medium-infected zones are pressing the government to allow them to reopen.

Government planning to rein in gatherings over Purim — TV

The government is hammering out a plan to limit gatherings over the upcoming  Purim holiday, according to Channel 13.

The emerging plan, as reported by the network, would see synagogues divided into pods of up to 10 people, with four square meters designated for each worshiper. The maximum amount of people per synagogue would be 100, it says.

The festive Purim meals will likely be celebrated within nuclear families, or with a set limit of people allowed indoors — which currently stands at five.

Parties, parades and events will be canceled.

A young girl dressed for the Jewish holiday of Purim poses for a picture at her home in Efrat, in Gush Etzion, on February 25, 2020. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Central Elections Committee urges media to fairly cover March vote

The head of the Central Elections Committee, Judge Uzi Fogelman, in a letter to media outlets urges them to offer balanced coverage of all the parties running the upcoming March elections.

“I urge you to give fair representation to all the lists running in the election and  their views, professionally and fairly. This will preserve the equality in the elections and the spirit of the law that anchors it,” he writes, while stressing that he is not intervening in the media coverage or suggesting how much air time each party should get.

People walk next to election campaign billboards for Likud Party, shows Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in Bnei Brak, Israel, March. 1, 2020 (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Health officials estimate 1.5 million Israelis must be convinced to get vaccine

Health Ministry officials believe they must persuade just 1.5 million Israelis to get vaccinated, whether through incentives or sanctions, Channel 13 reports.

Of Israel’s over 9 million citizens, 3.6 million have received at least the first shot of the vaccine. Children under 16, who cannot be vaccinated, account for over 2 million. Another 708,000 have recovered from COVID, and the ministry believes 10 percent of Israelis will not be convinced to get the immunization under any circumstances.

An Israeli receives a COVID-19 vaccine in Jerusalem, February 10, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu says Kahanist Itamar Ben Gvir will be part of his coalition, but not his government

Left photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speach at the Likud party's election rally in Ramat Gan on February 29, 2020.  (Gili Yaari/Flash90) Right photo: Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Left photo: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu delivers a speach at the Likud party's election rally in Ramat Gan on February 29, 2020. (Gili Yaari/Flash90) Right photo: Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Otzma Yehudit party, holds a press conference in Jerusalem on February 26, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the far-right political candidate Itamar Ben Gvir will be part of the coalition he hopes to form after next month’s election, but won’t have a position in his government — apparently ruling him out as a minister or deputy minister.

Netanyahu makes the distinction in an interview with the right-wing Channel 20 station.

Ben Gvir “won’t be part of the government,” he says. “Ben Gvir made a technical bloc with the Religious Zionism party, so he will plainly be part of the coalition,” he adds.

Ben Gvir is a disciple of the late far-right extremist rabbi Meir Kahane. His Otzma Yehudit party — which recently joined forces with the Religious Zionism party at Netanyahu’s prodding — supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel and expelling Palestinians and Arab Israelis who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state, whose sovereignty would extend throughout the West Bank.

Ben Gvir is in the third slot on the merged slate, which most polls have shown clearing the Knesset threshold and clinching 4-5 seats in the March 23 elections.

Poll: Netanyahu still unable to assemble gov’t; Yamina could be kingmaker

A Channel 12 poll predicts Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud would win 28 seats if elections were held today but would struggle to form a governing coalition, and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina could have a kingmaker role in the creation of the next government.

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid placed second in the poll after Likud with 18 seats; Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope would follow with 13; Naftali Bennett’s Yamina would win 11 seats; the Joint List would pick up nine; followed by Shas with eight; United Torah Judaism and Yisrael Beytenu with seven each; Labor with six; Religious Zionism with five; and Meretz and Blue and White would each win four.

Party leaders ahead of the 2021 elections (from left): Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett, Benjamin Netanyahu, Gideon Sa’ar, Benny Gantz (Courtesy)

The poll sees Likud losing one seat compared to recent surveys and Yesh Atid gaining one seat, slightly narrowing the gap between the two largest parties.

The poll gives Netanyahu’s bloc of right-wing and religious parties that have agreed to join a Likud-led government 48 seats, with Yamina bringing it up to 59 — two seats short of a majority government in the 120-seat Knesset.

Netanyahu’s rivals could seemingly pull together 63 seats with Yamina, though there are vast ideological differences between the parties.

Netanyahu is still seen as best-suited for prime minister (30%), followed by Lapid (23%), Sa’ar (12%) and Bennett (10%).

The combined internet and phone survey was conducted on 500 respondents on Wednesday. It has a margin of error of 4.4%.

Steven Spielberg wins Israel’s Genesis Prize for films, philanthropy

Steven Spielberg has been awarded Israel’s prestigious 2021 Genesis Prize in recognition of his contribution to cinema, his philanthropic works and his efforts to preserve the memory of the Holocaust, organizers announce.

The $1 million award is granted each year to a person for their professional achievements, contributions to humanity and commitment to Jewish values. Previous recipients have donated the prize to philanthropic causes, though Spielberg, who was only notified of the honor late Wednesday, does not immediately comment on his plans.

“The Genesis Prize celebrates Steven Spielberg’s unique talent, his commitment to making the world a better place, and his unparalleled contribution to teaching the post-war generations about the horrors of the Holocaust,” says Stan Polovets, co-founder and chairman of the Genesis Prize Foundation.

Spielberg is one of the most successful and influential filmmakers of all time, with a string of blockbusters to his name. They include “Jaws,” “E.T. the Extra Terrestrial,” “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jurassic Park.” He has won three Academy Awards for his work on “Schindler’s List” and “Saving Private Ryan” and numerous other industry recognitions.

Filmmaker Steven Spielberg at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel, in Beverly Hills, California, February 28, 2019. (Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)

Iran produces uranium metal in violation of nuke deal — WSJ

The UN’s atomic agency says Iran has produced a small amount of uranium metal at a facility in Isfahan, in a further violation of the 2015 nuclear deal, the Wall Street Journal reports, citing a confidential IAEA report.

Uranium metal can be used as a component in nuclear weapons. Iran had signed up to a 15-year ban on “producing or acquiring plutonium or uranium metals or their alloys” under the so-called Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) signed in 2015 with world powers.

Iran previously told the UN nuclear watchdog that it was advancing research on uranium metal production, saying it is aimed at providing advanced fuel for a research reactor in Tehran.

In a joint statement last month, European foreign ministers warned there was no civilian use for the material.

“The production of uranium metal has potentially grave military implications,” said the foreign ministers of Britain, France and Germany, the so-called E3, said.

An Iranian technician walks through the Uranium Conversion Facility just outside the city of Isfahan 255 miles (410 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, February 3, 2007. (Vahid Salemi/AP)
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