The Times of Israel liveblogged Monday’s events as they unfolded.
Another day, another cabinet quarrel.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Benny Gantz are clashing again as the coronavirus cabinet reconvenes to discuss when and how to roll back some lockdown restrictions, as well as a Likud-led proposal for financial aid to businesses.
Netanyahu remains in favor of continuing the closure of many businesses until next week, while Gantz wants to immediately start easing some restrictions. But the two sides appear to be chiefly concerned with attacking each other.
According to media reports based on leaks from the meeting, Netanyahu is accusing Gantz of preventing the handout plan from moving ahead.
“We need to open carefully,” Netanyahu is reported to tell Gantz and his Blue and White party. “When there are financial problems, the answer is not to open but rather the financial plan, but you are stopping it.”
Gantz is said to retort: “We are not stopping a financial plan, we are stopping vote-buying.”
He accuses Netanyahu of “playing with the data according to your needs.”
Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan accuses the United States of siding with “terrorists” after blaming outlawed Kurdish militants for executing 13 Turks in northern Iraq.
Erdogan’s comments come a day after Ankara said Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK) rebels killed 13 captives — most of them Turkish soldiers and police officers — they had allegedly abducted in southeast Turkey and kept in an Iraqi cave.
The PKK has been waging an insurgency against the Turkish state since 1984 that is believed to have left tens of thousands dead. The United States and Turkey’s other Western allies recognize the PKK as a terror group.
But Washington has supported another Kurdish militia in Syria that Turkey sees as an offshoot of the PKK.
“You said you did not support terrorists, when in fact you are on their side and behind them,” Erdogan says in televised remarks.
Israeli-Russian tennis player Aslan Karatsev has stunned the sporting world in recent days, becoming the first player in 25 years to reach the Australian Open’s quarterfinals on his debut tournament.
The 27-year-old Karatsev plays for Russia but grew up and trained in Israel and speaks fluent Hebrew. However, he left the country at age 16, and recent days have seen the leaders of the Israel Tennis Association shaking their heads at their failure to identify his talent while he was here.
Karatsev was a virtual unknown before the latest tournament started, but has already defeated several giants.
Karatsev, ranked 114, is the first Grand Slam debutant to reach the quarterfinals at a major since Romanian Alex Radulescu at Wimbledon in 1996 and only the seventh in the Open era.
He is the first qualifier to achieve the feat since Australia’s Bernard Tomic at Wimbledon in 2011 and only the third at the Australian Open after Bob Giltinan in 1977 and Goran Ivanisevic in 1989.
The bearded Karatsev has been on the verge of playing a Grand Slam for years, but on nine previous attempts the injury-dogged Russian fell in qualifying.
The New York Times reports on the Iranian drive to attack Israel and its Middle East allies, and Ethiopia’s recent arrest of several suspected cell members in a bomb plot against the United Arab Emirates embassy there.
Iran is seeking to avenge the killings of top Revolutionary Guards general Qassem Soleimani, killed in a January 2020 United States drone strike in Iraq, and Mohsen Fakhrizadeh, the architect of Iran’s nuclear program, killed in a November 2020 attack Tehran has blamed on Israel.
Iran has denied involvement, and Ethiopia has not accused it, but American and Israeli officials tell the paper the plot was definitely hatched by Tehran.
A US defense official ties that plot to another last year to assassinate the American ambassador to South Africa.
“Africa is a relatively easy place to operate, and Ethiopia is preoccupied with other issues,” former CIA officer Bruce Riedel tells the Times.
The report notes that Iran and Israel have over the years engaged in numerous activities against each other on African soil, where nations’ security is often not as robust as in stronger countries.
Israel has decided not to send a delegation of defense companies to a prestigious arms fair in the United Arab Emirates next week due to coronavirus restrictions that have forced the closure of Israel’s international airport, the Defense Ministry announces.
Dozens of Israeli companies, including state-owned Israel Aerospace Industries and Rafael Advanced Defense Systems, had planned on sending delegations to the IDEX arms fair. It was to mark the first time Israel has participated in the gathering, a result of last year’s US-brokered agreement establishing ties between Israel and the United Arab Emirates.
The Defense Ministry, which oversees weapons exports, says it sought permission to allow the delegation to travel, but a governmental committee that grants exemptions allowing people to fly denied the request.
Israel’s Ben-Gurion Airport is closed to nearly all incoming and outgoing flights until February 21, the day the Emirati arms fair is to open. With infection rates in Israel still at high levels, the government may extend the airport closure.
Iranian authorities recently caught thieves digging a tunnel into a synagogue in Urmia with the purpose of stealing from it, Iran International TV reports.
The London-based network cites a local official as saying 13 diggers were arrested at the excavation site.
“These people had secretly dug a tunnel leading to the historical synagogue from inside their personal house located… adjacent to the Kalimiyan Synagogue in Urmia,” says Col. Behzad Hijabi, commander of the protection unit of the General Directorate of Heritage, Culture, Tourism and Handicrafts of West Azerbaijan Province.
The shuttered synagogue used to serve the local Jewish community. Most of Iran’s Jews fled following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, though a few thousand remain.
Iran says it opposes nuclear weapons as official policy laid down by its Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in the wake of controversial remarks by a minister.
“Iran’s position remains unchanged. Iran’s nuclear activities have always been peaceful and will remain peaceful,” foreign ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh tells a news conference.
“The supreme leader’s fatwa banning weapons of mass destruction and nuclear weapons is still valid,” he adds, referring to Khamenei’s religious edict.
The pledge comes a week after Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said it would not be Tehran’s fault if the country were ever “pushed” toward developing a nuclear bomb.
“Our nuclear industry is a peaceful industry. The supreme leader explicitly stated [that] in his fatwa,” Alavi said in a state television interview broadcast on February 8. “But if a cat is caught in a corner, it may behave differently… If they are pushing Iran in that direction, then it is not Iran’s fault, but those who pushed it.”
Iran has repeatedly denied seeking nuclear weapons, though Western intelligence services agree it sought such weapons at least until 2003, and European leaders recently warned that some recent Iranian actions in the nuclear field, including its work on producing uranium metal, have “no credible civilian use.”
Government coronavirus czar Nachman Ash warns the coronavirus cabinet that “irresponsible opening” of the commerce and education sectors “will lead to another lockdown.”
Noting that Israel is seeing some 5,000 new cases a day and 1,000 seriously ill patients, he says: “If someone had told you a month ago that these were the figures we were reopening under, you’d call them crazy, and here we are doing it.”
The political arm of the Masorti Movement warns against a proposal under review by the Jewish National Fund on the possibility of moving to purchase Palestinian lands in the West Bank for settlement expansion purposes.
It says “the proposed framework will damage [JNF] legitimacy in Israel and among Jews around the world and may even endanger its very existence.”
It warns such a decision would “impose a structure that reflects and favors the settlement policy of Israel’s extreme right, an act which is inconsistent with what has been a basic tenet of [JNF] throughout its history.”
And it says it would also “severely damage Israel’s foreign relations.”
Police say they’ve arrested several Israelis in the West Bank suspected of terror activity directed at Palestinians and security forces.
They are currently being questioned. Their identities and other details of the investigation are currently under gag order, a statement from the police says.
However, Kan News reporter Carmel Dangor tweets that at least three have been arrested, aged 18 and 19. They are suspected of rock-throwing incidents that injured Palestinians, illegally holding weapons and membership in a terror organization.
Health officials are proposing banning Purim parties and celebrations and restricting family gatherings to nuclear families only, according to Hebrew media reports.
Meanwhile they suggest allowing synagogues to operate on the holiday in a limited capacity: with up to 100 people in cordoned off “capsules” of 10 worshipers each.
The Palestinian Authority says it is pushing back the rollout of its coronavirus vaccination campaign due to a delay in deliveries.
The PA had previously said it was anticipating a shipment by the middle of this month, enabling it to start vaccinations for the general public in the West Bank while sharing stock with Hamas, the terror group that controls Gaza.
“There has been a delay in the arrival of the vaccine,” PA Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh says ahead of a weekly cabinet meeting, without providing further details.
He says the launch of vaccinations for the general public will be announced “at a later time,” when sufficient supplies arrive.
The PA is expecting some two million doses ordered from various manufacturers, in addition to vaccines from the UN-backed COVAX program, set up to help less wealthy nations procure vaccines.
Iran’s Foreign Ministry once again warns that certain UN nuclear inspections under the “additional protocol” of the 2015 nuclear deal will cease next week if other parties to the deal “fail to meet their obligations” by February 21.
A bill passed by the conservative-dominated legislature in December, despite opposition from a reformist government, mandates the government to stop “the implementation of the additional protocol” to the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons (NPT) on February 21, if the US does not lift unilateral sanctions or other key parties to a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran do not help Tehran to bypass those sanctions.
The “additional protocol” is a document prescribing intrusive inspections of Iran’s nuclear facilities.
At present, such inspections are carried out under this protocol, in addition to regular IAEA inspections. Iran is threatening that the latter will continue but the former will stop.
The coronavirus cabinet has agreed on an arrangement that will see stores, gyms, hotels, sporting events and culture institutions reopen on Sunday, February 21, widespread reports indicate, based on leaks from the meeting.
The decision appears to constitute a compromise between health officials’ desire to wait for Tuesday, February 23, and Blue and White’s demand to start reopening this week.
Street-front shops, malls, markets, museums and libraries will be open to all.
But only those who have been vaccinated or have recovered from the virus will be able to use gyms, enter sporting and culture events, hotels and swimming pools.
The decision marks a major move toward normalcy in the country amid the ongoing vaccination drive. Many of the institutions set to open Sunday have been shuttered for the better part of the past year due to the pandemic.
Synagogues are set to reopen from Friday, with restrictions — 10 people inside and 20 outside.
Further ministerial discussions are planned for later this week regarding school openings.
Almost 4 million Israelis have now had at least one vaccination dose — out of a population of 9.3 million. Over 3 million Israelis, however, are not yet eligible for vaccination, being aged under 16 or having previously contracted COVID-19. Israel is weighing giving a single vaccine dose to those who have previously had the virus.
Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro says his government will seek emergency use authorization for an Israeli-developed nasal spray against COVID-19 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu described as a “miracle” treatment.
“EXO-CD24 is a nasal spray developed by the Ichilov Medical Center in Israel, with nearly 100 percent effectiveness — 29 out of 30 — against COVID in serious cases,” Bolsonaro tweets, two days after speaking on the phone with Netanyahu.
“A request to analyze this medication for emergency use will be sent shortly to [federal health regulator] Anvisa,” Bolsonaro writes.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, America’s top coronavirus official, has won Israel’s prestigious Dan David Prize for 2021.
The prize is named after the late philanthropist Dan David and administered by Tel Aviv University. The Dan David Foundation awards $1 million prizes in three categories — past, present and future — for scientific, technological and cultural accomplishments.
This year’s prizes were all given to medical and health officials for “an extraordinary contribution to humanity.”
The prizes will be officially awarded in an online ceremony on May 9.
Fauci has been the director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases at the National Institutes of Health since 1984 and is the chief medical adviser to US President Joe Biden.
The World Health Organization gives emergency use approval to AstraZeneca’s COVID-19 vaccines, allowing distribution to some of the world’s poorest countries to begin.
“The WHO today listed two versions of the AstraZeneca-Oxford COVID-19 vaccine for emergency use, giving the green light for these vaccines to be rolled out globally through Covax,” a WHO statement says, referring to the program aimed at equitable distribution of doses.
The two versions given the seal of approval are being produced by the Serum Institute of India (SII), and in South Korea.
“Countries with no access to vaccines to date will finally be able to start vaccinating their health workers and populations at risk, contributing to the Covax facility’s goal of equitable vaccine distribution,” says Dr Mariangela Simao, the WHO assistant-director general for access to medicines.
“But we must keep up the pressure to meet the needs of priority populations everywhere and facilitate global access. To do that, we need two things — a scale-up of manufacturing capacity, and developers’ early submission of their vaccines for WHO review.”
Another apparent decision out of the coronavirus cabinet is that grades 5-6 and 11-12 will join grades 1-4 in returning to class on Sunday — in locales with low-to-moderate infection rates.
A decision on grades 7-10 will be made later.
Gaza parents and guardians have new powers to block adult children or dependents from traveling, the territory’s Hamas rulers say, in a decision condemned by rights groups.
The ruling allows “males over the age of 18 to be banned from traveling by court order based on the wishes of the father or grandfather, and bans virgin, widowed, or divorced women from traveling without permission from a guardian,” the decision says.
“One of the parents or the grandfather may prevent a male child over the age of 18 from traveling if genuine harm will result from the travel, by bringing a case at the relevant court,” it says, without elaborating on what constitutes “genuine harm.”
The decision, authored by the head of the Supreme Sharia (Islamic law) Council in Gaza with immediate effect, was circulated in the Mediterranean enclave late Sunday, with no further explanation.
The secular Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine condemns the edict as “a violation of basic Palestinian law and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” The Geneva-based Euro-Mediterranean Human Rights Monitor says the measure is “a flagrant violation of the right to movement” and demands its immediate withdrawal.
In a letter to the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, Defense Minister Benny Gantz says authorities have looked into claims that Palestinian construction in early February damaged an archeological site on Mount Ebal in the West Bank that many believe to contain the biblical Joshua’s altar.
Gantz says no damage was caused to the altar site itself, but only to an external retaining wall of the complex.
He says local Palestinian leadership said the damage was caused by mistake and have since repaired it.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defense Minister Benny Gantz, and several other ministers will meet tomorrow to discuss the finance minister’s proposal for a new aid package to businesses affected by the pandemic.
Gantz has attacked the plan as “vote-buying” by the prime minister and his party, and says it must be far more selective than it currently is regarding who receives fresh stipends.
Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has also warned that some aspects of the plan cannot be executed during an election campaign, as they could be seen as payments to voters.
Gantz ally Orit Farkash-Hacohen, the tourism minister, tells Ynet that her party will consider the proposal. “If the plan has aspects that help businesses and citizens and are not propaganda — we’ll agree to them,” she says.
The plan currently sees every citizen earning less than NIS 13,050 ($4,000) of gross income a month get a handout of NIS 750 ($230). Parents in that same group will get another stipend of NIS 500 ($154) per child, up to five children.
It also sees businesses with a turnover of NIS 18,000 to NIS 300,000 a year who have lost income with get stipends of between NIS 8,000 and 15,000. Businesses with a turnover over NIS 300,000 will be around NIS 30,000.
Employers will also get benefits to encourage bringing furloughed employees back to work.
Speaking to Channel 12 News, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says 570,000 people over 50 who have not yet vaccinated will decide whether the current lockdown is Israel’s last.
“That is where the fatalities are, nearly 100 percent, that’s where the seriously ill are, nearly 100%,” he says. “When they go to the hospitals they block them for others, so the young start to get ill and some die.
“We need the utmost national effort…to vaccinate these 570,000 people… Go get vaccinated, not just for your health but for all of our health… When they’re vaccinated, there’ll be no more need for lockdowns.”
He calls the cabinet decision to start reopening Israel “wonderful news… The cabinet approved my green passport [framework],” he says. “In two stages… people with green passports will be able to go to the movies, to soccer and basketball matches — and later to restaurants and on foreign flights — and those who don’t vaccinate won’t be able to.”
He explains: “I want first and foremost to protect those who are vaccinated, and to encourage those who haven’t vaccinated.”
“We’ll be the first in the world to get out [of Covid],” he says.
“If those 570,000 people over 50 get vaccinated, it’s not only the last lockdown, we’ll be done with COVID. Period… We’re leading the world on vaccines; we’ll be the first to emerge from the coronavirus.”
Netanyahu tells Channel 12 that he wants Itamar Ben Gvir, the leader of the far-right Otzma Yehudit party, to be a part of his coalition after the March 23 election, but says he “is not fit” to be a member of his cabinet.
He won’t be a minister, he won’t be in government and he won’t be a Knesset committee head, the PM says.
Netanyahu orchestrated a deal between Ben Gvir and Religious Zionism’s Bezalel Smotrich for a joint run that recent polls have shown will ensure the joint slate will pass the Knesset electoral threshold. Netanyahu hopes to thus avoid a loss of right-wing votes and bolster his chances of forming a government after the election.
Asked repeatedly why Ben Gvir cannot be a cabinet member if he is good enough to be a part of his coalition, Netanyahu refuses to answer. Asked if he believes Ben Gvir, who has called to expel “disloyal” Israeli Arabs, is racist, Netanyahu says: “His positions are not mine.”
But you brokered the alliance that is likely to see Ben Gvir get elected, interviewer Yonit Levy notes. “That’s legitimate?”
“Certainly, I want to bring the votes,” he replies.
But he adds, “Arab doctors and nurses, Israeli citizens, took care of my parents and my wife’s parents. I won’t forget that… It’s fantastic. We’re changing Israeli society,” he says, including with greater funding and security for the Israeli Arabs.
Ben Gvir’s views on Israeli Arabs, he reiterates, are not views he shares.
Asked about Ra’am party leader Mansour Abbas, and the possibility of his support for a Netanyahu coalition, he says: [My coalition] won’t rely for its majority on anybody who opposes Zionism. I won’t do that…. I’m competing against Mansour Abbas for [Arab] votes. I’m seeking Arab votes. When I walk along the beach at Caesarea, young Arabs from [nearby] Jisr, call out to me “Abu Yair” [father of Yair]…”
He says their support brings tears to his eyes.
“I say to them, why vote for extremist [Arab parties] who have done nothing for you? … [Mansour Abbas] is not my partner.”
Netanyahu, in what is proving a very extensive interview, rules out a repeat of the rotation of the prime ministership that he agreed to with Defense Minister Benny Gantz, but that he did not allow to come to pass, in the outgoing coalition.
“The citizens of Israel are fed up with rotation. We have a historic opportunity to establish a right-wing government, led by me, real, full [right-wing],” he says. “I think we’re going to win with much more than 61 seats, much more. I see the shift.”
But he will need Naftali Bennett’s support for such a coalition, interviewer Levy prompts.
“Let’s see who I’ll need. We can’t go back to rotation… The people of Israel will say no to the rotation. It’s ultimately a choice between me and Yair Lapid, and that’s the reason there won’t be rotation.”
There’ll be no need for further elections, he goes on: “People will ask themselves, Who brought and who bring millions of vaccines… Who’ll heal the economy… Who’ll stand up to Iran — me or Lapid?”
Netanyahu is now pressed on his ongoing trial, in three corruption cases. If re-elected, Levy asks him, “Will you advance a French law [under which you cannot be tried while still PM] or any other move to stop your trial?”
Netanyahu replies: “I won’t need to, because these surreal and fabricated cases are collapsing … This trial is going ahead as you can see. And the further it goes, the more surreal and fabricated it is seen to be.”
Citing claims he and his lawyers have made many times about the purported fabrication of the case against him, he lists: “Witness intimidation. Conflicts of interest from here to Cyprus. The invention of a crime that doesn’t exist on the books in any democratic country. Opening investigations against a prime minister without the attorney general’s approval….”
“You said [in the past that] you’d seek immunity,” Levy notes.
“My attorneys raised it as a possibility. I said I don’t need it… I didn’t ask for it,” he replies..
“So the trial will go on to its end?” she asks.
“It will collapse long before,” he says.
Will he seek a plea bargain? “I’m not seeking any plea bargain. Quite the opposite… I’m not begging for a plea bargain. I’m standing firm. Because I know that there is nothing there [to these cases].”
But these allegations could lead to a jail term, she says.
The whole indictment is “absurd,” he replies. “The prosecution is now trying to get to the evidentiary stage before the elections — a crude intervention in the elections… I greatly hope the judges won’t surrender to that pressure… But I’ll win the elections in any case.”
Does he believe he’ll get a fair trial?
“I hope so. I can only hope so. But everyone knows the charges are fabricated.”
Some critics from your camp say you cannot run the country while on trial, Levy notes.
He answers: “I brought millions of vaccines… Four historic agreements… I stand firm against Iran; we’re hitting them on every front…. I’m leading the economy to new heights… What I can do in an hour, Yair Lapid is not capable of doing in a lifetime.”
So you’re saying the whole of Israeli law enforcement is rotten, Levy asks him.
“I’m talking about the state prosecution,” says Netanyahu, claiming that even Attorney General “Mandelblit said they fabricate cases.”
Will he run for the presidency, he is now asked: “No. I’m not interested in that. I want to finish the work I’m doing.”
Tonight’s Channel 12 interview now turns to Netanyahu’s ties to the US and its new president.
Joe Biden hasn’t called, notes interviewer Yonit Levy.
Netanyahu: “He’ll call.”
“Aren’t you bothered?”
“We’ve had friendly relations for almost 40 years…. We know each other. We agree on a lot… There are differences: on Iran and the Palestinians.”
Are the Americans distancing from him? Isn’t Israel harmed, she asks, apparently because it is now less regarded as a bipartisan US cause?
“I have excellent relations with the Democrats,” he says, noting that he has met with hundreds of Democratic and Republican lawmakers over the years — on what he has checked and confirms is a 50-50 basis.
It is not a matter of Republicans and Democrats, he says. “It’s a question of policy,” he says. “Whoever supports our policy, I’m with them. And whoever endangers us, for example [on policies] regarding a nuclear Iran, which is an existential threat to us, so I oppose that. And I don’t care if it’s Democrats or…”
Biden has said he intends to re-enter the 2015 JCPOA Iran nuclear deal, which Netanyahu bitterly opposed when it was being negotiated in the Obama era and which he has warned it would be a mistake to reenter in its original form. Trump withdrew from the accord in 2018.
As the interview winds down, the prime minister is asked about his son Yair’s inflammatory social media posts: “I don’t control him…”
As the Channel 12 interview comes to a close, Netanyahu announces that he is negotiating with Pfizer and Moderna for additional tens of millions of vaccines in the years ahead.
He adds: “I’m negotiating with them to build two factories in Israel — making us a world center for the struggle against COVID.”
The Moderna facility will be a filling center for vaccine vials, he indicates.
The Pfizer facility will be for R&D for the battle against future viruses.
A Channel 13 survey, 36 days before the March 23 elections, offers no conclusive picture of a likely next coalition.
It forecasts the parties as follows: Likud 28 seats; Yesh Atid 17; New Hope 13; Yamina 11; the Joint List (of Arab-dominated parties) 8; Shas 7; United Torah Judaism 7; Labor 6; Meretz 5; Religious Zionism 5; Yisrael Beytenu 5; Blue and White 4, and Ra’am 4.
The poll shows Likud down a little since the last survey by the channel last week, Avigdor Liberman’s Yisrael Beytenu slipping, and Mansour Abbas’s Ra’am clearing the Knesset threshold, with Benny Gantz’s Blue and White also just above the threshold.
In terms of blocs, Netanyahu, Religious Zionism and the two ultra-Orthodox parties have 47 seats; the anti-Netanyahu bloc has 58; with Naftali Bennett’s Yamina and Ra’am as the potential kingmakers.
Asked their preferred prime minister, respondents chose Likud PM Benjamin Netanyahu (34%), ahead of New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar (18%), Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid (17%) and Bennett (10%).
The survey was taken today, among 703 respondents, with a 3.7% margin of error.
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