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

Netanyahu-Gantz meeting on economic aid package canceled amid recriminations

A planned meeting today between Likud and Blue and White to discuss a Likud-led proposal for a new economic aid package has been canceled amid intense disagreements.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Israel Katz have been pushing the plan hard in recent days, saying the economy, private citizens and small businesses need a fresh injection of money to get through the next few months, beyond the unemployment payments and bimonthly stipends for businesses that are currently in effect until June.

But Blue and white chief Benny Gantz contends that Likud’s financial plan, which includes handouts to all Israelis below a gross monthly income of NIS 13,050 ($4,000), is insufficiently selective and amounts to an attempt by the prime minister to buy public support ahead of the March 23 elections.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has also warned aspects of the plan are legally problematic in the lead-up to an election.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

In a statement just now, Netanyahu says: “It is inconceivable that irresponsible politicians and bureaucrats and attorneys general will stand against the people, and won’t allow us to bring the money, and say ‘Wait a few months, whoever dies dies.’

“We are for the people. We’ll bring you the money. We won’t stop fighting for you.”

Gantz, meanwhile, issues a statement saying, “We will not hold a meeting about a fake economic plan, without sources or feasibility, whose purpose is vote-buying.”

Hamas blasts Israel for holding up some 2,000 vaccine doses for Gaza health workers

Hamas blasts Israel’s delay in allowing some 2,000 coronavirus vaccine doses destined for Gaza health workers into the territory as a “violation” of international law.

The Palestinian Authority, based in the West Bank, had planned to send the Russian Sputnik V doses through Israel to Gaza, a separate territory run by the terror group Hamas, which is sworn to the destruction of Israel.

But yesterday evening the PA health ministry said Israel had blocked the delivery.

Israel’s move marks “a real crime and a violation of all international laws and humanitarian standards,” Hamas spokesman Hazem Qassem says.

A Palestinian policeman waves on a truck as it enters through the Kerem Shalom crossing into the Gaza Strip on September 1, 2020, after a Qatari-mediated deal with Israel. (SAID KHATIB / AFP)

COGAT, the Israeli military department that runs civil affairs in the Palestinian territories, said yesterday that the PA had requested permission to transfer 1,000 vaccine doses to Gaza but that “this request is waiting for a political decision.”

The Knesset debated the matter yesterday, with some lawmakers calling for the conditioning of the delivery on Hamas releasing Israeli captives and soldiers’ bodies it holds.

The Palestinian Authority urges the World Health Organization to “condemn Israel” for the obstruction.

Iran, Russia start joint naval drill in Indian Ocean

Iran’s armed forces launch a joint naval drill with Russia in the north of the Indian Ocean designed to “enhance security” of maritime trade, state television reports.

The “Maritime Security Belt Exercise” is to cover an area of 17,000 square kilometers (6,500 square miles) and include units from the Iranian army and the elite Revolutionary Guards as well as Russia’s navy, the broadcaster quotes drill spokesman Rear Admiral Gholamreza Tahani as saying.

“The purposes of this drill are to enhance security of international maritime trade, confront maritime piracy and terrorism, and exchange information,” he adds.

Mandelblit opposes banning Labor candidate from running in election

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issues an opinion against banning the candidacy of an Arab Labor party candidate who has made controversial past statements.

The Central Elections Committee is set to consider a petition to bar Labor’s no. 7 candidate Ibtisam Mara’ana from running, over past insensitive comments about Holocaust remembrance and other statements her critics have claimed undermine Israel’s Jewish and Zionist character.

Director Ibtisam Mara’ana-Menuhin at a screening of a 2017 documentary film which she produced (courtesy)

Mandelblit says that after reviewing Mara’ana’s statements, some of which she has apologized for, he does not believe they pass the threshold determined by the law to justify preventing her from running.

Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party to review ties with Lincoln Project

The New Hope party, headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s former Likud party rival Gideon Sa’ar, says it is reviewing ties with the founders of the Lincoln Project — a Republican group that opposed former US president Donald Trump and whose leadership has been engulfed in a sexual harassment scandal.

Sa’ar hired several consultants from the Lincoln Project in January as campaign advisers in the upcoming parliamentary election.

Last week, revelations surfaced that the Lincoln Project knew about allegations of sexual harassment involving John Weaver, one of its co-founders, several months before acknowledging them publicly.

Gideon Sa’ar, head of the New Hope political party, seen during an election campaign tour in Raanana, February 8, 2021. (Flash90)

New Hope says it has never worked directly with the Lincoln Project or Weaver; rather, it had engaged four consultants from the organization: co-founders Steve Schmidt, Rick Wilson, Stuart Stevens and Reed Galen. Schmidt resigned from the Lincoln Project last week.

“In any event, due to financial considerations, the contract with the consultants is under review, and in the coming days, we will examine the possibility of further cooperation,” the party says.

Animal rights activists block logistics center of dairy giant Tnuva

Earlier, Animal Rebellion activists blocked the entrance to a logistics center run by dairy giant Tnuva in Petah Tikva and unfurled banners saying “Meat, milk and eggs are bringing on the climate crisis” and “Tnuva, close the livestock industry and move to veganism.”

They threw blood-like liquid over a statue of a cow to symbolize the suffering and environmental damage caused by the livestock industry.

It is the first act of Israelis affiliated to the international Animal Rebellion movement, part of the larger Extinction Rebellion.

Tel Aviv participant Reut Eini, 28, called on the state and the public to stop “closing their eyes to the terrible suffering and pollution.”

Animal Rebellion activists protest at a logistics center of dairy giant Tnuva in Petah Tikva, February 16, 2021 (Animal Rebellion)

The livestock industry worldwide accounts for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions that lead to global warming, which is more than all transportation put together. It also uses some 70% of agricultural land and is a key cause of deforestation, water pollution and the loss of animal and plant species.

Ministerial committee signs off on purchase of new US aircraft

A ministerial committee for military acquisitions signs off on the purchase of another squadron’s worth of F-35 fighter jets, Boeing KC-46 refueling planes and advanced missiles and bombs, following government approval last week for a contentious funding scheme to pay for the equipment involving massive loans from the United States, the government says.

Final decisions regarding which heavy transport aircraft Israel will purchase to replace its aging fleet of Sikorsky CH-53 helicopters and what type of fighter jet will be purchased for a second new squadron has been put off for now.

Palestinian cars vandalized in West Bank after police dismantle settler structure

A number of masked vandals smashed windows and punctured tires of vehicles belonging to Palestinian workers near the settlement of Shilo this morning.

Footage of the violent act was caught on a security camera, showing the group damaging at least six cars.

The incident occurred just hours after police evacuated and dismantled an illegal structure constructed by settlers nearby, the Haaretz daily reports.

Police have opened an investigation into the incident.

Extremist settlers have often engage in so-called “price tag” attacks in retaliation for Palestinian violence or government policies perceived as hostile to the settler movement. Such attacks include vandalism and other hate crimes.

Passing 4 million mark, two-thirds of eligible Israelis have now received at least 1 COVID vaccine dose

Four million Israelis, or some 44 percent of the total population, have now received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, Channel 12 News reports, citing the latest Health Ministry data.

The latest data is not yet available on the ministry’s website, which shows the numbers at some 3.99 million, but those figures are only updated at the end of the day.

There now remain some 1,996,000 eligible Israelis who have not yet received any dose. This means some two-thirds of the eligible population has at least begun the vaccination process.

Meanwhile, about 2.6 million have received both doses — or some 43% of the eligible population.

Some 3 million Israelis are not eligible — either because they are under 16, or because they have recovered from the illness and are not currently prioritized, or for other reasons.

To celebrate the latest milestone, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein hold a photo op in Jerusalem with a young man symbolically designated as Israel’s 4th million vaccinee.

“I would like to appeal from here to the 570,000 people over 50 who have yet to be vaccinated. Almost 100% of the deaths and severe cases are concentrated in this group,” Netanyahu says.

“When you do not go to be vaccinated because of this small jab, which is insignificant — in the worst case the side effects are a few hours’ discomfort — you take upon yourselves the risks of death and severe illness with effects that could be for life.”

Winter storm moves in with rains and drop in temperature

An expected winter storm is moving in, with rain and strong winds already reported in northern Israel.

Storm clouds are expected to move into the country’s center in the next few hours and temperatures will drop considerably. Expect a cold and rainy night.

Ministers summoned to urgent cabinet session on ‘security matter’ at 6 p.m.

Cabinet ministers have been called to attend an urgent cabinet session at 6 p.m., to be held via video conference.

According to Hebrew media reports, ministers have been told the meeting will deal with “a sensitive security matter.”

More info as it becomes available — if it becomes available.

Air Force completes 3-day exercise simulating war in the north

The Israeli Air Force has completed a three-day surprise exercise simulating large-scale war in the north, including mock strikes on thousands of targets, the military says.

According to the Israel Defense Forces, dozens of aircraft — fighter jets, cargo planes and drones — took part in the exercise, operated and assisted by conscripted and reservist forces, who were called up on short notice after the drill was announced on Sunday.

The military says the exercise simulated a major conflict on the country’s northern borders — Syria and Lebanon, home to the powerful Hezbollah terror group and allied Iranian proxies.

“During [the exercise], intense fighting was simulated, along with offensive operations, scenarios involving defending the country’s airspace, command and control operations, precise planning and widescale, powerful strikes. In addition, strikes on thousands of targets and the launching of many weapons were practiced to simulate war on the northern front,” the military says.

The surprise exercise came amid lingering tension in the region between Israel and Hezbollah over the death of one of the terror group’s operatives in Syria in an airstrike widely attributed to the IDF.

Syrian actor backs peace with Israel if it ‘returns occupied territories’

Popular Syrian actor Duraid Lahham has angered some of his countrymen by saying he would support peace with Israel if it “returns occupied territories” and accepts the Arab Peace Initiative. The 2002 Saudi plan called for Arab peace with Israel upon the formation of a Palestinian state and the return of the Golan Heights to Syria.

“Peace agreements and normalization will come and I don’t oppose them,” Lahham told CNN, “but on the condition it is in accordance with the Arab Peace Initiative. If Israel returns occupied territories to their states.”

According to Channel 12 many were surprised by the statements from Lahham, who was known in the past for his support of Iran and Hezbollah. And he has been attacked by some on social media who have accused him of “catching the normalization virus” — a reference to several Arab and Muslim states that recently agreed to establish ties with Israel.

Syrian actor Duraid Lahham (video screenshot)

Health Ministry issues draft bill to give local authorities data on unvaccinated

The Health Ministry is pushing forward with proposed legislation to enable giving local authorities data on residents who have not vaccinated, in order for them to contact such residents and encourage them to do so. Today it published a preliminary draft of the bill on the matter as it continues to advance the matter.

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has warned such legislation raises privacy concerns.

Israeli economy shrank by 2.4% in 2020, better than OECD average

The Israeli economy shrank by 2.4 percent in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.

But the data is better than expected, with economic officials having expected it to contract by at least 3.3%. And it was far better than the 5.5% average contraction in OECD countries last year.

The Bank of Israel expects a comeback in 2021, with as much as 6.3% growth if the country’s vaccination drive is successful.

US Rep. Adam Kinzinger shunned by relatives for rebuke of Trump

Some members of Republican US congressman Adam Kinzinger’s family have rebuked him and accused him of being a part of a “devil’s army” due to his strong criticism of former president Donald Trump and calls to remove him from office, the New York Times reports.

“What a disappointment you are to us and to God!” the letter from 11 relatives said. “It is now most embarrassing to us that we are related to you.”

The latter was dated January 8, two days after the attack on the Capitol by supporters of the president, and after Kinzinger said the 25th Amendment should be used to remove Trump.

Rep. Adam Kinzinger, R-Ill., speaks as the House debates the objection to confirm the Electoral College vote from Pennsylvania, at the US Capitol early, Jan. 7, 2021. (House Television via AP)

Kinzinger was long a critic of the president, and thus an outlier on the Republican side of the House, which has largely fallen behind Trump, even after he lost reelection and claimed falsely that the 2020 vote had been rigged.

“I hold nothing against them,” Kinzinger tells the paper, “but I have zero desire or feel the need to reach out and repair that. That is 100% on them to reach out and repair, and quite honestly, I don’t care if they do or not.”

India’s dramatic fall in virus cases leaves experts stumped

When the coronavirus pandemic took hold in India, there were fears it would sink the fragile health system of the world’s second-most populous country. Infections climbed dramatically for months and at one point India looked like it might overtake the United States as the country with the highest case toll.

But infections began to plummet in September, and now the country is reporting about 11,000 new cases a day, compared to a peak of nearly 100,000, leaving experts perplexed.

People wait outside a health center to get tested for coronavirus in New Delhi, India, Thursday, Feb. 11, 2021 (AP Photo/Manish Swarup)

They have suggested many possible explanations for the sudden drop — seen in almost every region — including that some areas of the country may have reached herd immunity or that Indians may have some preexisting protection from the virus.

The Indian government has also partly attributed the dip in cases to mask-wearing, which is mandatory in public in India and violations draw hefty fines in some cities. But experts have noted the situation is more complicated since the decline is uniform even though mask compliance is flagging in some areas.

Read the full story by the Associated Press here.

Iran’s military slams spy chief for saying soldier tied to nuke scientist death

Iran’s military slams the intelligence minister for alleging one of its members was involved in a top nuclear scientist’s killing, and says the suspect had been ejected from the force years ago.

The suspect was a trainee in the Iranian year beginning in March 2014 and “dismissed the same year due to moral issues and addiction,” the armed forces general staff says in a statement carried by the IRNA state news agency.

The individual had “never been officially recruited” and as a civilian “would fall under the jurisdiction of the intelligence ministry” for monitoring, it says, in a rare public row between a security service and the military in the Islamic republic.

Top nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was traveling on a highway outside Tehran accompanied by a security detail on November 27 when he came under machine-gun fire, according to Iranian authorities, who have blamed Israel.

The scene where Mohsen Fakhrizadeh was killed in Absard, a small city just east of the capital Tehran, Iran, November 27, 2020 (Fars News Agency via AP); inset: Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in an undated photo (Courtesy)

Intelligence Minister Mahmoud Alavi said in an interview with state television on February 8 that a member of the armed forces “carried out the first preparations” for the killing, and that it was not possible for his ministry “to keep watch over the armed forces.”

The armed forces say they expect Alavi “to be more careful in his remarks to the media” so as not to serve the interests of Iran’s enemies and safeguard “the dignity of the armed forces” and his ministry.

Health Ministry: 1,787 minors hospitalized with COVID since start of pandemic

The Health Ministry has issued new data on COVID-19 morbidity in children. It shows that 1,787 Israelis up to age 18 have been hospitalized with the disease since the start of the pandemic, with 100 suffering serious illness and nine dying.

A majority of the cases, 1,021, were between the age of 0 and 4.

Currently there are seven children hospitalized in serious condition, three of them on ventilators.

Israeli children wearing face masks attend class at the Beit Hakerem school in Jerusalem, November 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Though Israel is experiencing a surge of cases caused by the UK variant of the coronavirus, which is believed to spread more easily in children, the data does not so far show a change in the incidence of serious cases.

Cabinet holds urgent session on ‘sensitive’ humanitarian issue tied to Syria

The cabinet just ended an urgent meeting called on short notice to deal with “a sensitive security matter.” Ministers met to discuss a humanitarian issue connected to Syria.

In recent days, top Israeli officials have been in contact with their Russian counterparts regarding the matter, the details of which are barred from publication.

Last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Russian President Vladimir Putin spoke over the phone about the issue, as did Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Russian Defense Minister Sergey Shoygu. Other diplomats have also held talks.

A diplomatic reporter for Channel 12 notes that Russia “has influence in Syria” and “it may be that this, too, relates to Russian influence in the Middle East.”

He stresses that this is “a humanitarian issue with diplomatic aspects” but not anything to do with “any IDF attack, nor an escalating security incident.”

Channel 12 says the issue is not related to the bodies of any Israelis in Syria — including soldiers killed in the 1982 Lebanon War, legendary spy Eli Cohen, or missing airman Ron Arad.

Earlier this month, ToI reported that, according to Syrian media, the Russian military had begun searches in a cemetery near a Palestinian refugee camp outside Damascus, in attempts to locate the remains of two Israeli soldiers missing since 1982.

Tzvi Feldman and Yehuda Katz went missing in the 1982 First Lebanon War’s battle of Sultan Yacoub, along with Zachary Baumel, whose remains were recovered and returned to Israel in 2019.

The Yarmouk refugee camp, home to one of the largest Palestinian refugee communities in Syria and the site of the remains of Baumel, was once again being searched for remains by the Russian military, the Syrian Capital Voice site reported. The unverified report said the search would include DNA testing.

Spain probes anti-Semitic speech at neo-Nazi rally

Prosecutors in Madrid say they have opened an investigation into anti-Semitic comments made at a neo-Nazi rally held on the weekend which drew ire from Spain’s Jewish community.

The incident took place Saturday when around 300 people gathered at La Almudena cemetery, with footage on social media showing several people in the crowd repeatedly giving the Nazi salute.

The rally, which was also attended by a Catholic priest, was a commemoration of the so-called “Blue Division,” a unit of Spanish military volunteers that fought for the Nazis during World War II. At the cemetery, they laid flowers in front of the memorial to the fallen Blue Division soldiers. During the rally, a young woman gave an inflammatory speech echoing rhetoric from the 1930s.

The region’s prosecutors confirm they’ve opened a criminal investigation “to gather information about the anti-Semitic statements” which could constitute an offense relating to the exercise of fundamental rights and public freedoms, according to a statement received by AFP.

White House says Biden’s first call with regional leader will be to Netanyahu

White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki addresses questions regarding the fact that US President Joe Biden has yet to call Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, which has raised some eyebrows in Israel and America.

“His first call with a leader in the region will be with Prime Minister Netanyahu,” Psaki says.

“It will be soon. I don’t have an exact date for you, but it is soon. Stay tuned,” she says, adding that “Israel is of course an ally. Israel is a country where we have an important strategic security relationship, and our team is fully engaged — not at the head of state level quite yet, but very soon, but our team is fully engaged, having constant conversations at many levels with the Israelis.”

French lawmakers approve bill to battle radical Islam

France’s lower house of parliament votes in favor of a law to battle “Islamist separatism” that is billed by the government as a riposte to religious groups attempting to undermine the secular state.

The draft legislation, which has been criticized for stigmatizing Muslims and giving the state new powers to limit speech and religious groups, is backed by a clear majority of MPs in the National Assembly.

President Emmanuel Macron’s centrist party rallies around the law, with 347 National Assembly lawmakers voting in favor, 151 against and 65 abstaining.

French President Emmanuel Macron wears a face mask on August 26, 2020 (Ludovic Marin / AFP)

The text will now be submitted to the upper house Senate, where Macron’s party does not hold a majority.

“It’s an extremely strong secular offensive,” Interior Minister Gerald Darmanin told RTL radio ahead of the vote. “It’s a tough text… but necessary for the republic.”

Among the more than 70 separate articles, the law expands the ability of the state to close places of worship and religious schools, as well as to ban extremist preachers.

Amid concerns about the funding of mosques by Turkey, Qatar or Saudi Arabia, it requires religious groups to declare large foreign donations and have their accounts certified.

Poll shows public slightly less critical on government’s handling of pandemic; Yamina weakening

A poll by Channel 12 News and the Midgam Institute appears to indicate the public view of the government’s handling of the pandemic is improving slightly.

Asked what they thought of the government’s handling of the COVID-19 crisis, 50% have a negative view while 47% have a positive view. However, the trend is generally positive, with a previous poll (the date of which Channel 12 did not provide) showing the ratios as 57% negative to 40% positive.

Asked specifically on the economic aspects of the pandemic, 67% have a negative view of the government’s conduct while 29% have a positive one — an improvement on 72% to 25% in a previous poll.

Meanwhile, Naftali Bennett’s Yamina party appears to be weakening in election polls and is on the verge of dropping down to single digits in projected Knesset seats.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at a protest outside the Knesset in Jerusalem, on August 12, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The survey shows Likud winning 29 seats; Yesh Atid 18; New Hope 13; Yamina 10; the Joint List 9; Shas 8; UTJ 7; Yisrael Betyenu 7; Labor 6; Religious Zionism 5; Meretz 4; and Blue and White 4.

The anti-Netanyahu bloc has 61 seats; the Likud plus ultra-Orthodox parties bloc has 44 seats, with the presumed Netanyahu ally Religious Zionism adding 5 more; and Yamina, as an undecided factor, has 10.

No party leader has a clear path to a Knesset majority.

The poll was conducted among 503 adults who are a representative sample of the Israeli population, with a margin of error of 4.4%.

Trump sued for Capitol attack under ‘Ku Klux Klan Act’

A senior Democratic congressman sues former US president Donald Trump, accusing him of violating the 19th century “Ku Klux Klan Act” by supporting the January 6 attack on the US Capitol.

Bennie Thompson accuses Trump, his lawyer Rudy Giuliani, and extremist groups the Proud Boys and Oath Keepers of violating the 1871 act by supporting efforts to stop Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the new US president.

File: Committee Chairman Rep. Bennie Thompson, D-Miss., speaks during a House Committee on Homeland Security hearing, on Capitol Hill, Sept. 17, 2020 (John McDonnell/The Washington Post via AP, Pool)

Thompson, who is Black and the chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, cites a law originally created to protect the rights of African Americans after the Civil War and the end of slavery.

The lawsuit is filed in federal court in Washington two days after Trump was acquitted of supporting insurrection in an impeachment trial in the Senate.

Poll: Some 25% of Israelis who haven’t vaccinated have no intention of doing so

Channel 12 polls Israelis who have not vaccinated on why they have not done so.

Of the respondents, who were allowed to give more than one answer, 41% said they fear possible side effects; 30% are not sure the vaccine is effective; 27% will vaccinate soon; 10% cited information on social media and 4% said the incentives are insufficient.

About 25% said they had no intention of vaccinating.

Asked if the planned limitations on access to various activities to those who don’t vaccinate may persuade them to get the shots, 46% said no, 31% said yes and 23% said they don’t know.

A foreign resident living in Israel receives a dose of a COVID-19 vaccine at Tel Aviv Sourasky Medical Center, on February 9, 2021 during a campaign to vaccinate foreign workers and refugees against the novel coronavirus. (JACK GUEZ / AFP)

The survey was conducted as part of a larger poll on Israelis’ political views (see previous post), which was carried out among 503 adults who are a representative sample of the Israeli population, with a margin of error of 4.4%.

However, it was not made clear how many of those queried constituted the unvaccinated group.

Biden will not host foreign leaders for ‘couple’ of months, White House says

US President Joe Biden will not be hosting foreign counterparts at the White House for at least a couple of months, his spokeswoman says, underlining the administration’s strict adherence to COVID-19 protocols.

“It will be a couple of months before the president has an in-person or invites a foreign leader to meet in person here at the White House,” Press Secretary Jen Psaki tells reporters.

Imminent foreign trips for Biden are also not expected, the White House has said.

US President Joe Biden speaks about the economy in the State Dining Room of the White House, Feb. 5, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Canada’s Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — the first foreign leader to get a phone call from newly sworn-in Biden in January — sparked speculation that an in-person summit was being planned for February. “The two leaders agreed to meet next month,” Trudeau’s office said after the call.

However, Psaki says only a video link is planned. “We can meet over video, as you all know,” she says.

read more: