The Times of Israel liveblogged Thursday’s events as they unfolded.
Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar suggests that there is not enough evidence to support establishing a state commission of inquiry into allegations that police hacked the phones of private citizens.
In an interview on Channel 13 news, Sa’ar says that “in order to set up a commission of inquiry, a factual basis must be established.”
“At the moment there is still no basis that justifies it,” he says, adding that if future evidence emerges, “I will not hesitate to go for it.”
Religious Zionism MK Itamar Ben Gvir is questioned by police about an incident in December, police say.
In the incident, Ben Gvir pulled a gun on Arab security guards in a parking lot in Tel Aviv during a dispute over a parking spot.
Police say the investigation is ongoing.
Ben Gvir, one of the most incendiary lawmakers in the Knesset, has several prior criminal convictions and is noted for his heated exchanges and regular clashes.
Jordan says it is easing COVID-related restrictions on foreign visitors, taking a key step toward reviving its critical tourism industry.
Jordan’s Tourism Board says that, as of March 1, visitors will no longer be required to take a PCR test before entering the country or take another PCR test upon arrival at airports and other entry points.
Visitors will still have to sign a pledge to get tested if they feel coronavirus symptoms and agree to self-isolate if they contract COVID-19.
“We hope the relaxing of previous restrictions will help once again the recovery of tourism to the kingdom and ease access for travelers planning their trips to Jordan,” says Abed Al-Razzaq Arabiyat, the tourism board’s managing director.
Thousands turn out to a right-wing rally in Tel Aviv demanding a state commission of inquiry into allegations that Israel Police illegally spied on citizens by hacking into their phones.
Earlier this week, opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu called on his supporters to attend the rally if they “want to ensure the future of our country.”
— כאן חדשות (@kann_news) February 17, 2022
Many Likud MKs attend the event, but Netanyahu himself is absent. He sends a video that is played on a screen, saying that “for reasons I cannot get into, I can’t be with you in Habima Square.” He tells the crowd that “it cannot be that the police that broke the law will investigate themselves.”
Reports have swirled over the past two weeks that the Israel Police used spyware without judicial approval to target many public officials and activists, including figures central to Netanyahu’s ongoing corruption trial.
Prosecutors in the trial have claimed that the only person connected to the trial who was improperly hacked is former Communications Ministry director-turned-state’s witness Shlomo Filber — but that no relevant information was found or used.
Supporters of Netanyahu say that the allegations are enough to throw out the ongoing trial on multiple corruption charges.
IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi is heading to Singapore to attend the country’s annual airshow, the Israel Defense Forces says.
According to the military, Kohavi will also conduct security meetings with defense officials while he is there.
In his absence, Deputy Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi will carry out the military chief’s responsibilities in Israel, the IDF says.
Defense Minister Benny Gantz held a secret five-day meeting in Singapore in October.
Israel formally announces that it will not cooperate with a special commission formed by the United Nations’ top human rights body to investigate alleged abuses against Palestinians, saying the probe and its chairwoman are unfairly biased against Israel.
The decision, delivered in a scathing letter to the commission’s head, Navi Pillay, further strains what already is a tense relationship between Israel and the UN-backed Human Rights Council in Geneva.
“It is obvious to my country, as it should be to any fair-minded observer, that there is simply no reason to believe that Israel will receive reasonable, equitable and non-discriminatory treatment from the Council, or from this Commission of Inquiry,” reads the letter, signed by Meirav Eilon Shahar, Israel’s ambassador to the UN and International Organizations in Geneva.
An upcoming visit to Israel by German Chancellor Olaf Scholz could be in jeopardy due to the threat of a Foreign Ministry workers’ strike, according to Hebrew media reports.
The trip, slated for next month, could be canceled after a meeting of the Foreign Ministry workers union ended with a declaration to stop working on the upcoming trip.
Foreign Ministry employees have been in a labor dispute on and off for years over their work conditions, including one launched in November.
A draft deal of the agreement between the US and Iran to revive the 2015 nuclear deal does not include the US waiving sanctions on oil in the first step, according to Reuters.
The report claims that the deal lays out several rounds of mutual steps aimed at bringing both the US and Iran back into compliance with the original deal. According to Reuters, most of the terms are already agreed upon but “thorny issues” remain.
The 20-page draft text begins with Iran suspending enrichment above 5% purity, Reuters says according to three diplomats. In later stages of the agreement, Iran is supposed to return to the 3.67% cap on enrichment purity originally set in 2015.
The agreement also reportedly includes the release of Western prisoners held in Iran.
The Hamas terror group used one of its members who had a permit to enter Israel from Gaza for medical treatment to locate potential recruits for the organization inside Israel, the Shin Bet security service says.
According to the Shin Bet, 27-year-old Ahmad Abu al-Nour entered Israel for medical treatment last year but never returned to the Strip, instead staying in Israel illegally.
In Israel, al-Nour attempted to find people who may be interested in joining or assisting Hamas, sending back the names of potential recruits to his handlers in Gaza, the Shin Bet says.
Economy Minister Orna Barbivai is slated to visit Morocco next week, her office says.
She is expected to depart on Sunday — along with her husband, a native of Morocco — for the first economic working visit to the country since the two nations resumed diplomatic ties.
Barbivai is slated to sign an economic-commercial cooperation agreement as well as meet with ministers, senior government officials and senior members of the business community.
“Morocco is very important for Israel diplomatically, economically and culturally,” says Barbivai. “I am going there to lay the necessary economic infrastructure for productive bilateral trade.”
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken urges Russia to pull back from war and declare it has no plans to invade Ukraine.
If it seeks peace, Blinken tells the UN Security Council, “the Russian government can announce today with no qualification of equivocation or deflection, that Russia will not invade Ukraine.”
Blinken also says he invites Lavrov to meet in Europe “next week” to discuss the Ukraine crisis.
A senior Turkish delegation visits Israel’s Foreign Ministry and President’s Residence in preparation for President Isaac Herzog’s upcoming visit to Turkey.
The delegation is headed by İbrahim Kalın, spokesman and senior adviser to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and Deputy Foreign Minister Sadat Onal. They met with Foreign Ministry Director-General Alon Ushpiz and Director-General of the President’s Office Eyal Shviki.
In addition to the president’s visit, the sides discuss bilateral ties, which have suffered badly over the past decade, but have shown signs of potential improvement in recent months.
According to a joint statement from the Foreign Ministry and President’s office, Herzog entered the meeting to welcome the guests.
Ushpiz secretly visited Turkey in December 2021 to begin discussing a visit by Herzog.
Earlier this month, Erdogan said that Herzog will visit in March, and the two leaders spoke on February 6 after the Turkish leader was diagnosed with COVID-19.
Israel is said to see Herzog’s visit as a trial run for improving ties. Israel’s main concerns are Turkey allowing Hamas officials to operate in the country, and Ankara leading bitter international condemnation of Israel.
Three people are wounded in a violent fight between Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Old City, police say.
According to police, the fight began inside the Old City and progressed towards the area of Damascus Gate, and police were called to the scene and separated the two sides.
Medics say that two of those wounded were taken for treatment with minor injuries, and a third was treated on the scene.
One person is arrested and others are detained as police investigate the incident.
A tanker owned by a Los Angeles-based private equity firm likely took part in the illicit trade of Iranian crude oil at sea despite American sanctions targeting the Islamic Republic, an advocacy group alleges.
The firm says it is cooperating with US government investigators.
The group United Against Nuclear Iran raises its allegations in a letter to Oaktree Capital Management, which holds assets worth over $160 billion. Satellite images and maritime tracking data analyzed by The Associated Press correspond to the group’s identification of the vessels allegedly involved and shows them side-by-side off the coast of Singapore on Saturday.
The alleged oil transfer comes as world powers and Iran negotiate in Vienna over restoring the nuclear deal. That accord saw Tehran drastically limit its enrichment of uranium in exchange for the lifting of economic sanctions — including those targeting its crucial oil sales.
The IDF says troops downed a drone belonging to the Hezbollah terror group after it entered Israeli territory from Lebanon.
“The craft was monitored by air control units throughout the incident,” the IDF says.
It is not immediately clear what kind of drone was downed.
According to Israel’s Embassy in Kyiv, 23 flights have left Ukraine for Israel since Saturday, carrying 3,064 Israeli passengers.
There are no more flights scheduled this week on Israeli airlines.
Another seven flights are scheduled this week on Ukrainian carriers — two on Thursday, three on Friday, and two on Saturday.
The United Nations urges restraint by all parties in eastern Ukraine amid fresh shelling that violates a ceasefire under the Minsk Agreement.
“If verified, these must not be allowed to escalate further. We call on all sides to exercise maximum restraint at this sensitive time,” Rosemary DiCarlo, the UN undersecretary general, tells a Security Council meeting on Ukraine.
State Comptroller Matanyahu Englman vows to carry out an “in-depth” investigation of bombshell claims that Israel Police improperly spied on Israeli citizens.
“Maintaining privacy is a cornerstone of a democratic state,” says Englman in comments at a conference in Jerusalem. “We will carry out an in-depth examination of all the conduct of law enforcement agencies through technological means.”
Englman announced last month that he would conduct an investigation into claims that police used the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware to hack into the phones of private citizens who were not suspected of crimes without any warrant or judicial oversight.
The comptroller says the investigation is ongoing into the police and the state attorney’s office. Englman says he respects the current probe being run by the Justice Ministry, but says “there is an importance for an audit of the State Comptroller, which is an independent body.”
Englman says his investigation will involve a series of internal and external experts as well as individuals who previously served in intelligence positions.
COVID czar Salman Zarka says it is “too early” to say that the country’s fifth coronavirus wave is already over, despite comments to the contrary made earlier today by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett.
“It’s too early to declare that the fifth wave is behind us,” Zarka says in a live briefing. He adds that the virus is “still here,” noting that there are still more than 20,000 new COVID cases per day.
Zarka notes the importance of “remaining prepared for the next wave,” which he says is only a matter of time.
He notes the government decision to end the Green Pass vaccination proof system, and says that in the coming days a decision will be made on lifting further restrictions on travel and tourism.
A Syrian military helicopter crash-lands in a rugged mountainous area during a training mission in the country’s northwest, leaving two of the five crew members dead.
State media quotes an unnamed military official saying that the helicopter experienced technical problems while flying over the coastal province of Latakia.
The official provides no detail on the condition of the three crew members who survived.
Israel’s Ambassador to Ukraine Michael Brodsky is summoned for a reprimand at the Ukrainian Foreign Ministry in Kyiv.
The meeting just ended, says Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Haiat. The reprimand centers on a conversation that Foreign Ministry director-general Alon Ushpiz had with Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Bogdanov, President Vladimir Putin’s envoy to the Middle East.
Ushpiz told Bogdanov that Israel is committed to the security of its citizens living in Ukraine, and asked Russia to help Israel rescue them in the event of war and the potential occupation of Ukrainian territories by the Russians.
Brodsky tells Ukrainian diplomats in the meeting that Ushpiz sought to relay two messages in his phone conversation with Bogdanov: de-escalation, and concern over the welfare of Israeli representatives and diplomats.
Israel has been open about its requests to neighboring countries to allow a land evacuation of Jewish Ukrainians. On Sunday, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid thanked Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Moldova for their willingness to open their borders should the need arise.
Russia says in a set of written responses to US proposals on European security that it has no plans to invade Ukraine, as Western officials warn that an attack by Moscow could be imminent.
“There is no ‘Russian invasion’ of Ukraine, which the United States and its allies have been announcing officially since last fall, and it is not planned,” the foreign ministry says in a public statement.
US President Joe Biden says there is a “very high” risk of a Russian invasion of Ukraine within “several days.”
Biden says he has no current plans to speak to Russian President Vladimir Putin.
His comments came immediately after Russia expelled the number two US diplomat in Moscow as tensions build over the threat to invade Ukraine.
“We can confirm that Russia expelled US Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) to Russia Bart Gorman,” a State Department spokesperson says.
“Russia’s action against our DCM was unprovoked and we consider this an escalatory step and are considering our response,” the spokesperson says. “Now more than ever, it is critical that our countries have the necessary diplomatic personnel in place to facilitate communication between our governments.”
Russia expels the deputy chief of the US diplomatic mission in Moscow amid escalating tensions over Ukraine.
A senior US official also says that Russia has delivered its response to American and NATO proposals about Ukraine and European security.
The Kremlin’s response was given to the US ambassador in Moscow, John Sullivan. No details about the letter were immediately released.
The mayor of Eilat, Israel’s southernmost city, and the governor of the greater Aqaba region in Jordan agree to renew direct ties and cooperation following a rare public meeting in Eilat yesterday.
Eilat Mayor Eli Lankri and Aqaba Special Economic Zone Authority leader Nayef al-Bakhit meet with other Jordanian and Israeli officials to agree to new ties between the two closely neighboring cities.
The officials agree to reestablish joint committees that will examine increasing the quota of Jordanians who work in Israel and expanding the sectors in which they can work, as well as look into cooperation on issues of the environment and pest management.
Lankri says “the strengthening of ties constitutes an important means of deepening peace relations in the region.”
The Israeli Navy wraps up its participation in the US Navy’s massive IMX exercise, in which dozens of countries took part, including some with whom Israel does not have formal ties.
This was Israel’s first time participating in the International Maritime Exercise, as it increasingly cooperates with the US military’s Central Command and its 5th Fleet, which operates in the waterways around the Middle East.
“The participation of the Navy in the American exercise demonstrates the strengthening connection between our fleets, based on power, mutual learning, and strategic partnership. We are coordinated and working together with our American partners to prevent terror in the maritime arena and to strengthen the security of the region’s waters,” Israeli Navy chief David Salama says in a statement.
The head of the US 5th Fleet, Admiral Brad Cooper, who in the past month has met with Salama, Defense Minister Benny Gantz and Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, similarly hails the growing ties between the two navies.
“This joint exercise demonstrates our determination to protect international law and order. This is a special opportunity to expand our interoperability as we strengthen our naval ties,” Cooper says.
In the IMX exercise, the Israeli Navy says it trained with the 5th Fleet, simulating neutralizing naval mines, above- and under-water search-and-rescue operations, as well as conducting medical exercises at sea.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett welcomes Australia’s decision earlier today to declare all of Hamas a terror organization.
“Hamas’s attempts to paint itself as ‘legitimate’ are a farce,” he says. “And they’re not fooling anyone. The world is growing to see Hamas for what it is: It’s a radical Islamic group that targets innocent civilians, Israelis — mothers, fathers, children — and is dedicated to the destruction of Israel.”
Bennett thanks “my friend, Prime Minister Scott Morrison, for the action he’s taking following our discussions on this matter… I thank Australia for standing strong in the face of terror and for remaining a strong and true friend of Israel.”
The US envoy to the United Nations warns that evidence on the ground suggests “Russia is moving toward an imminent invasion” of Ukraine as Washington disputes Moscow’s claims of a troop pullback.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield says she asked US Secretary of State Antony Blinken to attend a UN Security Council meeting on Ukraine today “to signal our intense commitment to diplomacy.”
At the same time, US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin warns that Russia could be looking to create a pretext for invasion after “troubling” reports of shelling on Ukraine’s frontline with Moscow-backed separatists.
“We’ve said for some time that the Russians might do something like this in order to justify a military conflict. So we’ll be watching this very closely,” Austin tells journalists after a meeting with NATO defense ministers.
Kuwait’s constitutional court strikes down a contentious law long used to criminalize transgender people by forbidding the “imitation of the opposite sex.”
After weeks of deliberation and years of campaigning by human rights groups, the court rules that the vague law policing people who dress and behave like the opposite sex was “inconsistent with the constitution’s keenness to ensure and preserve personal freedom.”
The decision is hailed as a liberal counterweight to the conservative politics in Kuwait, a Gulf Arab sheikhdom where homosexual relations are criminalized with up to seven years in prison.
Conservative Islamist lawmakers in Kuwait blast the court ruling as shameful and vow to fight it.
Nine people, six of them women, die in an explosion triggered by a gas leak in a building located in the southern suburbs of Tehran, according to an Iranian Red Crescent official.
“An explosion on Wednesday evening in a building in Robat-Karim, south of the capital, left nine dead and nine injured,” Iranian Red Crescent director Shahin Fathi tells state television.
The three-story building was destroyed in the detonation produced by the gas leak, adds Fathi. He says that the rescue operation ended early this morning after 11 hours of searching for survivors.
Attorneys for former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu file an appeal to the court to order prosecutors to turn over information illegally obtained from the phone of key state’s witness Shlomo Filber, the former director of the Communications Ministry.
Lawyers for Netanyahu and for co-defendants Shaul and Iris Elovitch, former Bezeq controlling shareholders, demand prosecutors share with the defense or with the court the information obtained.
Yesterday, prosecutors admitted that Filber’s phone was hacked with the NSO Group’s Pegasus spyware without appropriate judicial oversight, but claimed that no relevant information was found or used in the case and therefore the trial should proceed as scheduled.
The proceedings are tied to Case 4000, in which Netanyahu is alleged to have advanced regulatory decisions as communications minister and prime minister that immensely benefited Elovitch. In exchange, Netanyahu was allegedly granted editorial control over Elovitch’s Walla news site.
The Kremlin says that Russia’s withdrawal of forces from around Ukraine’s borders would take place over an extended period, after reports of Moscow’s drawdown drew skepticism from Kyiv’s allies.
“This is a process that will take some time,” Kremlin spokesperson Dmitry Peskov says, after Moscow had announced two separate pullbacks following drills that raised fears of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“The defense ministry has reported that certain phases of the exercises are coming to an end, and as they do, military units are returning to permanent bases,” Peskov says.
He adds, however, that forces “can’t just take to the air and all fly away,” adding that on the drawdown the defense ministry “has a schedule.”
Democratic Congresswoman Pramila Jayapal is accusing former president Donald Trump’s ambassador to Israel David Friedman of presenting an “unequivocally false account” of a 2018 meeting they held in his new book “Sledgehammer,” which was released earlier this month.
In Friedman’s telling, the former envoy met with a congressional delegation visiting Israel that was organized by the dovish Middle East lobby J Street.
Friedman writes that Jayapal opened up the meeting by tying her experience visiting the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum to her visit to the Palestinian village of Khan al-Ahmar, which is slated for demolition by Israel.
“I certainly have a good sense of the tragedies that have befallen the Jewish people… and I must say that [in Khan al-Ahmar] Israel is committing a war crime,” Friedman recalls her as having said.
The envoy proceeds to tear into the congresswoman for tying the two matters together. “I turned to J Street’s leader and then back to the congresswoman: ‘You have been ill served by your tour guides.’ And I walked out,” Friedman writes.
In a statement to The Times of Israel, Jayapal says Friedman’s account is “deeply troubling.”
“As is corroborated by contemporaneous notes, the Holocaust was not a topic of debate nor did Mr. Friedman storm out of the meeting,” she says.
“The libelous account is particularly galling because, while it was clear that our views differed, it was a generally lengthy and respectful meeting that ended cordially as most meetings of this nature do. Mr. Friedman’s attempt to sow false controversy does nothing other than undermine his own credibility,” Jayapal adds, saying she would not allow Friedman to undermine her efforts to work toward a two-state solution to the Israeli Palestinian conflict.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett meets with US Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi in Jerusalem and thanks her for her longtime support of the State of Israel.
“I would like to thank you personally for your continued support of Israel,” Bennett says. “Israel is a wonderful country with great people in a complex area. You supported Israel and your late father supported the Jews in our most difficult time in history, during the Holocaust, when support for Jews was not taken for granted. Thank you for everything.”
According to the Prime Minister’s Office, the pair also discuss “the central strategic challenges facing Israel, most prominently the Iranian nuclear program.”
Bennett also thanks Pelosi for supporting US funding for the Iron Dome “and stressed the importance of completing the process as soon as possible.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei dismisses as “absurd” claims his country wants to acquire atomic weapons, in remarks amid signs of a breakthrough in nuclear talks.
The Islamic Republic is locked in negotiations with world powers to revive a 2015 deal that offered it sanctions relief in return for curbs on its nuclear program.
In comments on state television, Khamenei says Iran “has to think about tomorrow” and that “sooner or later we will urgently need peaceful nuclear energy.”
“You can notice how the enemy alliance is pressing cruelly our nuclear issue,” the supreme leader says. “They have imposed sanctions on our nuclear energy, when they know very well that it is peaceful.”
“They claim Iran will produce the bomb in some time, absurd words that make no sense and they know it very well themselves,” says Khamenei.
“They know we are not looking for nuclear weapons, but for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. They are pushing to prevent the Iranian nation from achieving this significant progress.”
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