The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they unfolded.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu assails protesters who gathered around the home of MK Tali Gotliv, whose daughter has special needs.
“When protesters prevent public representatives from coming to the Knesset to vote, and make an autistic girl miserable, that isn’t a legitimate protest,” he says in a statement.
“The protesters who preach about democracy are the ones ending democracy by preventing public representatives from realizing a basic right in a democracy — voting,” Netanyahu adds.
“I call on the police to act immediately and allow all Knesset members to come to parliament.”
Justice Minister Yariv Levin has promised the leaders of all coalition parties that the deeply controversial bill introducing an override clause — allowing the Knesset to re-legislate laws struck down by the High Court of Justice — will be brought to its first Knesset plenum vote this week, the Kan public broadcaster reports.
Last week, the bill was removed from the plenum agenda at the last minute, reportedly to allow chances for negotiations with opposition figures, brokered by President Isaac Herzog, to reach a widely agreed-upon compromise on the government’s sweeping judicial overhaul.
But the legislative process is moving ahead at full speed now, according to the report, which also says the law aimed at reinstating Shas party chief Aryeh Deri as a minister, by eliminating all High Court oversight on ministerial appointments, will be brought for a vote this week.
The report adds that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu intends to personally take part in tomorrow’s plenum votes on the first parts of the legal overhaul — giving the coalition total control of the Judicial Selections Committee and barring the High Court from intervening in quasi-constitutional Basic Laws — since he has a legal opinion saying that doing so would not breach his conflict of interest agreement.
The agreement bars him from personally dealing with the overhaul process, since it could affect his own corruption trial down the line.
Inspectors from the US atomic agency discovered uranium enriched to 84 percent purity in Iran last week, closer than ever to weapons-grade levels, Bloomberg reports, citing two unnamed senior diplomats.
Iran has been known thus far to have enriched uranium to 60%. A purity of 90% is needed to produce nuclear weapons.
IAEA inspectors are reportedly trying to determine whether Tehran intentionally made the move or if it was an “unintended accumulation within the network of pipes connecting the hundreds of fast-spinning centrifuges used to separate the isotopes.”
Despite being widely viewed as the most right-wing in Israeli history, the current government led by Benjamin Netanyahu plans to bar Jews from entering the Temple Mount holy site during the last 10 days of the Muslim month of Ramadan, the Kan public broadcaster reports.
The report cites a stormy discussion held over the weekend regarding the Israeli policy in recent years, which has prohibited non-Muslims from entering the flashpoint Jerusalem holy site during the culmination of Ramadan, when Muslims traditionally sleep at the site they revere as the Al Aqsa Mosque compound, or the Noble Sanctuary.
Kan reports the measure has faced staunch opposition from National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, a longtime proponent of changing the current status quo in which Jews are not allowed to pray at the Temple Mount and face numerous other restrictions on entry.
Ben Gvir reportedly argued during the meeting that the previous government, led by Naftali Bennett and which included centrist and left-wing parties, and an Islamist party, “closed the Temple Mount for fewer days than what you want” — nine versus 10. He also made clear he believes the site should not be off-limits to Jews at all.
Last year, Ben Gvir and his far-right running mate Bezalel Smotrich — now the finance minister — slammed the Bennett government’s move as a “surrender to terror.”
Far-right Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich will make his first trip to the US since joining the government in March, when he will speak at the annual Israel Bonds conference in Washington, a source familiar with the matter confirms to The Times of Israel.
It is not yet clear whether Smotrich will also meet with officials from US President Joe Biden’s administration during the visit.
The Treasury Department has not responded to a query as to whether its officials will meet with Smotrich, who has a long history of remarks against Arabs, Palestinians, the LGBTQ community, and non-Orthodox Jews.
The Biden administration has yet to engage with Smotrich’s electoral partner, National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, and US officials say they view Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as their main interlocutor in the new hardline Israeli government.
The March 12-14 trip falls precariously close to the March 23 deadline on passing the state budget, indicating Smotrich is not worried about the chances of approving it.
Reaffirming that his government is working towards a peace deal with Saudi Arabia, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says that achieving an accord with the Sunni Arab state would be a diplomatic “quantum leap.”
Among the reasons for this, Netanyahu predicts that establishing warm relations with Saudi Arabia would change Israel’s relationship with the rest of the Arab world, bringing about the “effective ending of Israeli-Arab — not Israeli-Palestinian — conflict.”
Netanyahu also shares his dream of an infrastructure project linking the Arabian peninsula to Haifa port, via a railway running through Jordan.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells the Conference of Presidents that, while Israel is “in the midst of a little debate on judicial reform” and he would like to discuss it at length and tell his audience “why you shouldn’t worry,” he cannot elaborate.
He is prevented from doing so “because I’ve been given a gag order,” he tells the US group’s annual mission event in Jerusalem. “I’m not making this up…. After all, who am I? I’m just the prime minister of Israel — what have I got to say about this thing that is gripping the nation?”
He calls the order — a reference to the 2020 conflict of interest agreement that allows him to continue to serve as prime minister while on trial, but not to deal with matters that might affect the trial — “patently ridiculous.” And he says he and colleagues, including President Isaac Herzog, are “working on it.”
He says there are three key points he will make, however.
One, “Israel is a democracy and will remain a democracy, with majority rule and proper safeguards for civil liberties.”
Two, “All democracies should respect the will of other free peoples, just as we respect their democratic decisions.” The comments follow the remark by US Ambassador Tom Nides yesterday that Israel should “pump the brakes” on its contentious plan — a call Nides has just repeated to the conference.
And three, “There’s been a lot of rhetoric that is frankly reckless and dangerous, including calls for bloodshed in the streets and calls for civil war.” This is a reference to rhetoric voiced during the widespread protests against the judicial shakeup, which the coalition says constitutes incitement to political violence.
He says this has encouraged Hezbollah and other enemies “to believe this nonsense.”
He says Israel’s enemies will be disappointed. “Israel’s enemies, if you are waiting for civil war — there will be no bloodshed, I hope, none at all.”
Israel has heated debates and is a rambunctious democracy, he says. But “we are one people, with one destiny, with one country, one faith,” he says, vowing to continue to build the one and only Jewish state.
“We will continue to work to secure that homeland for generations to come.”
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara issues a statement stating that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can make public statements calling for unity on the judicial overhaul without breaching his conflict of interest agreement.
Netanyahu is barred from directly dealing with the government’s radical plan, since it could affect the outcome of his corruption trial down the line.
But a public letter written by Baharav-Miara’s deputy Gil Limon says the conflict of interest agreement does not restrict Netanyahu’s ability to make “public statements the purpose of which is to keep public order and calm the situation among the public.”
Netanyahu’s office retorts that the premier “didn’t wait for the attorney general’s letter” and has been urging calm for weeks.
Conference of PresidentsConference of Presidents live from Jerusalem
Posted by Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Sunday, February 19, 2023
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides says the Iran nuclear deal is currently on ice, as the US will not indirectly negotiate with Iran while it supplies Russia drones for use in the war in Ukraine.
“The Iranians are providing drones to Russia and those drones are killing innocent Ukrainians. There is no chance today of us going back to the negotiating table,” Nides tells the Conference of Presidents, at the group’s event in Jerusalem.
“As President [Joe] Biden has said, we will not stand by and watch Iran get a nuclear weapon, number one. Number two, he said, all options are on the table. Number three, Israel can and should do whatever they need to deal with and we’ve got their back,” Nides adds.
“The threat of a nuclear Iran is not just for Israel, it is for the Middle East and America. We are focused on this,” says the ambassador. “The cooperation between Israel and the US vis-a-vis Iran is lockstep. Every day.”
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides says “we” need to do a better job advocating for Israel on US college campuses, where he says the Jewish state’s supporters face pressure.
“It’s not just BDS,” Nides tells the Conference of Presidents at the group’s Jerusalem event. “It is very hard on college campuses today to stand up and talk about Israel without some level of grief. We need kids out there to be advocates, to be educated.”
“We need to be focused on college campuses like never before. We need a moonshot program. Not just playing defense, we need an offense,” he adds. “This is a magical place, and all of us need to do a better job of breaking the cycle.”
Nides also says the US has stepped up its oversight efforts to police the flow of its funds to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), which has been accused of directing resources towards Hamas in the Gaza Strip.
“We are working with the leadership of UNRWA to understand this,” Nides says. “They have initiated a lot of reforms. We have a lot of understanding about how this money is spent. But I would be lying to you if I said it was perfect.”
“There is no question that UNRWA has serious flaws,” Nides adds.
“But the United States government,” he says, is committed to making sure that the money it contributes towards UNRWA “is used in the right places.”
US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides reiterates his headline-catching comments that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government should “pump the brakes,” in its push to overhaul the judiciary, but stresses he didn’t call for it to stop altogether.
“I didn’t say put the brakes on, I said pump the brakes… slow down,” he says, noting that this did not amount to a call for a complete halt. “I’m not involved in how Israelis pick their Supreme Court,” Nides tells the annual National Leadership Mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, held in Jerusalem.
“This is a vibrant, vibrant democracy,” Nides says. “What binds us together is this love of democracies, this love of institutions. This is what enables us to defend Israel in the UN, time and time again, which we will continue to do.”
“On occasion, we express some views… I said, you know, we believe in building some consensus,” he says, noting that President Isaac Herzog has made similar pleas.
Regarding Netanyahu, Nides said: “I don’t question his goals, or anyone in his coalition’s goals. They all want democracy; they all want the same thing.”
US Ambassador to Israel Thomas Nides is speaking at the annual National Leadership Mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, held at the Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem.
After him, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will speak.
Conference of PresidentsConference of Presidents live from Jerusalem
Posted by Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations on Sunday, February 19, 2023
Facebook and Instagram owner Meta will launch a paid subscription service allowing users to verify their accounts, among other features, CEO Mark Zuckerberg says.
Meta Verified will be “a subscription service that lets you verify your account with a government ID, get a blue badge, get extra impersonation protection against accounts claiming to be you, and get direct access to customer support,” Zuckerberg says.
“Meta Verified starts at $11.99 / month on web or $14.99 / month on iOS,” he continues in a statement posted to his Facebook account, adding that the product will launch first in Australia and New Zealand “this week and more countries soon.”
A day before the first Knesset plenum votes on parts of the government’s deeply controversial judicial overhaul plan, President Isaac Herzog says he’s still optimistic about chances of securing a compromise reform that would be broadly accepted.
Despite his call last week for negotiations not bearing fruit so far — with the bone of contention being whether the legislative process would continue during such talks — Herzog says that after holding many meetings with politicians and other officials from across the political spectrum, “I say unequivocally, from my experience: We can reach agreement.”
Speaking at a Bible lesson as part of the 929 initiative, the president says that based on the conversations he has held, “agreements can be created, on the basis of the principles I laid out last week, in a relatively short period of time. Even a few days. Not years and not months.”
“We are facing a fateful test,” he adds. “I see before my eyes the rifts and schisms among us, which are currently getting deeper and more painful, and can’t avoid pondering seriously about there being twice in history in which a Jewish state was created in the Land of Israel, and twice in which it collapsed before reaching its 80th year.”
Israeli soldiers foiled an attempt to smuggle four handguns from Lebanon into northern Israel overnight, the military says.
According to the Israel Defense Forces, soldiers monitoring surveillance cameras spotted a suspect hurling a package over the border to another suspect, near the Bedouin village of Aramsha.
The man on the Israeli side of the fence has been arrested by IDF troops dispatched to the scene, and the four handguns in his possession, worth an estimated NIS 150,000 ($42,000), are seized, the IDF says.
The suspect and the weapons are handed over to police for further investigation.
כוחות צה״ל זיהו במהלך הלילה ניסיון הברחת אמצעי לחימה משטח לבנון לשטח ישראל, סמוך לכפר עראמשה שבמרחב חטיבה 300>> pic.twitter.com/hkFgY96vwe
— צבא ההגנה לישראל (@idfonline) February 19, 2023
In his speech to a Religious Zionism party conference, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich also takes aim at US Ambassador to Israel Tom Nides, telling him not to intervene in the government’s radical legal reform program, after the ambassador urged the government to “pump the brakes” on the issue.
“We very much appreciate the friendship and the strong and strategic alliance between Israel and the US,” says Smotrich.
“We have always been diligent not to intervene in internal US matters, and therefore we expect that they too not intervene in our internal matters such as the legal reforms or the division of authorities between myself and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant,” Smotrich continued.
Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich unleashes a broadside attack on Opposition Leader Yair Lapid, accusing him of stymieing dialogue over the government’s judicial overhaul, and alleging that Lapid is seeking a civil war.
“Yair Lapid is the one that is purposefully harming the chances of dialogue,” the leader of the Religious Zionism party tells a party conference.
Smotrich says he spoke with President Isaac Herzog, who recently proposed a compromise outline for the government’s deeply controversial judicial overhaul, and says he gave the president his agreement to “immediately begin a process of dialogue, including a willingness for concessions and compromises.”
“Lapid isn’t interested in broad national agreement, he is not interested in the good of the State of Israel, he isn’t interested in preventing a rift in the nation. Yair Lapid wants a civil war,” Smotrich alleges.
“Don’t make a mistake, Yair Lapid hasn’t declared war on the coalition, he has declared on each and every one of you,” he concludes. “Yair Lapid has declared war on the State of Israel.”
Smotrich says his party is nevertheless forging ahead with the judicial overhaul plan, and insists that the first part of the program — giving the government complete control over the process of selecting Supreme Court justices — will pass its first reading in the Knesset plenum tomorrow.
Herzog’s proposal included a requirement that the government temporarily halt the legislative process during the talks, which the coalition hasn’t accepted.
After its observer delegation was kicked out yesterday from the African Union summit opening ceremony in Addis Ababa, Israel is choosing to stay away from the closing ceremony this evening, an Israeli diplomatic official tells The Times of Israel.
Israel blames the incident on Algeria and South Africa, and will summon South Africa’s charge d’affaires to the Foreign Ministry for a reprimand from Director General Ronen Levy.
Last week, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra flew to South Africa to coordinate ahead of the summit, according to Algerian outlets. Israeli sources said the countries were discussing ways to boot Israel, among other topics.
Israel was granted observer status in 2021, but under pressure from South Africa and Algeria, the AU chairman created a six-country committee to examine the issue. Israel and its allies in the organization say that its observer status was never rescinded, while its foes argue that it is suspended until the committee comes back with a recommendation.
The African Union seeks to be a consensus-based body, and is trying to find some common ground on Israel’s status.
Israel has reportedly reached agreements with the Palestinians to delay respective unilateral actions by several months, with the aim of lowering tensions in the West Bank during the sensitive month of Ramadan.
According to the Walla news site, which cites two Israeli sources with knowledge of the matter, the understandings have been reached under heavy pressure from the United States.
The Palestinian Authority will reportedly delay its motion to call a UN Security Council vote tomorrow against Israel’s settlement expansion — which Washington wants to avoid vetoing since it supports its content, and also since it fears a veto could in itself inflame tensions.
Instead, the Security Council members are said to be preparing a symbolic, non-binding statement. This statement would include a condemnation of both settlement construction and recent Palestinian terror attacks.
In return, the report says, Jerusalem has promised to postpone the approval of additional construction in West Bank settlements by several months, in addition to pushing off planned demolitions of Palestinian homes built without permits in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, delay evictions of Palestinians, and lower the number of IDF raids in Palestinian cities.
The outlet says senior American officials, including in the State Department, have confirmed that understandings have been reached on delaying the Security Council vote “until further notice,” following mediation by US Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
An Israeli diplomatic source claims there are no understandings and that all settlement construction plans for the coming months were approved last week in a meeting of a planning committee that anyway wasn’t planned to reconvene over the next three months.
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says China is considering providing weapons to Russia in its war against Ukraine, warning Beijing that any supplies would “cause a serious problem.”
“The concern that we have now is based on information we have that they’re considering providing lethal support,” Blinken tells CBS’s “Face The Nation.”
Asked what lethal support would entail, he says “everything from ammunition to the weapons themselves.”
The international Conservative-Masorti movement calls on the government to halt its planned judicial overhaul, warning that parts of it would “eviscerate” the country’s system of checks and balances.
Masorti Olami, representing some 2 million Conservative Jews around the world, says the government must enter into negotiations and moderate its proposals.
The movement says that specifically, the plan to permit the Knesset to overrule the High Court with 61 votes would “eviscerate the already fragile balance of power between the branches of Israel’s government.
“Weakening Israel’s highly-regarded judicial system would undermine the message we have proudly and successfully promoted for decades around the world that Israel is both a Jewish AND a democratic state,” it says.
Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara responds to the accusations voiced today by MK Simcha Rothman, chairman of the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee, accusing him of attempting to “silence” her representatives.
“Legislative advisers are dedicated public servants who do their jobs professionally and faithfully, including at discussions held by the government and the Knesset,” Baharav-Miara’s office says in a statement.
“Legal counsel to the government will continue fulfilling its role, despite the silencing attempts and the baseless hurling of accusations, as occurred again this morning at the committee.”
Shouts are heard once again at the Knesset’s Constitution, Law and Justice Committee as it considers the next phase of the government’s radical judicial reform package, with committee chairman MK Simcha Rothman accusing Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara of sending her deputies to “mislead the public” and “manipulate public opinion.”
The incident happens as Deputy Attorney General Avital Sompolinsky presents a legal opinion objecting to a bill that all but eliminates the High Court’s ability to strike down laws, requiring a unanimous ruling by every single one of its 15 justices.
The government’s legal overhaul plans are being blitzed through the committee — and its first phase faces initial Knesset plenum votes tomorrow — despite the clear opposition of the attorney general.
Sompolinsky presents a comparison to other countries on the top court’s ability to strike down laws deemed unconstitutional, saying no democracy demands a unanimous decision and even a special majority is not common, “so this is one way that severely restricts the court’s option to intervene in laws that harm rights anchored in international treaties.”
At one point, Rothman starts shouting at her, accusing her of evading his questions and selectively choosing when to compare the situation with other countries, arguing that in New Zealand and several other countries, the top court doesn’t have the power to strike down laws at all and the judges are selected by the governing coalition.
“The fact that I need to say this and not you is a shame,” Rothman says angrily, accusing Baharav-Miara of sending Sompolinsky “to present [the international comparison] in a misleading way to the public. This is a scandal.”
Opposition MKs retort that Rothman is “humiliating” Sompolinsky and “treating her rudely and with violence.”
Russia condemns a strike blamed on Israel that killed five people and injured 15 in Syria’s capital, Damascus.
Moscow, a key backer of the Syrian regime in the over decade-long civil war, calls the attack a “flagrant violation” of international law.
Israel’s need to coordinate with Russia — which controls Syrian airspace — to carry out strikes has been cited as a chief reason for Jerusalem’s reluctance to supply Kyiv with weaponry amid the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“We strongly urge the Israeli side to stop armed provocations against the Syrian Arab Republic and refrain from steps that are fraught with dangerous consequences for the entire region,” Russian foreign ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova says, according to Reuters.
Prosecutors file an indictment against the older brother of a Palestinian teenager who carried out a shooting attack in Jerusalem last month.
According to the indictment, Omar Aliwat, 29, left a handgun and two full magazines in a bin in a storage area adjacent to their home in East Jerusalem’s Silwan neighborhood.
Muhammad Aliwat, 13, found the gun and used it in the attack on January 28, seriously wounding a father and son.
The elder Aliwat is charged with various weapons offenses, and he is to be held until the end of legal proceedings.
A year after Russia invaded Ukraine, starting a war that caused a flood of refugees to many countries, including Israel, a rights group accuses the Jewish state of “withholding adequate health and welfare services from Ukrainian refugees.”
Assaf, an Israeli nonprofit dealing with refugee rights, estimates that some 14,000 Ukrainian citizens without Jewish roots fled to Israel over the past year, in addition to 20,000 others who were in the country before the February 24, 2022, invasion.
“Both of these groups of Ukrainian citizens are currently protected from deportation to Ukraine and legally reside in Israel,” Assaf says in its report. “Now, a full year later, some of the Israeli government’s aid to them, inadequate to begin with, is being withdrawn. The refugees’ plight is intensifying.
“The State of Israel must come to its senses. There is a need to map the current needs of those who cannot return to their homes and to give them the necessary social support services so they can live in Israel with dignity.”
South Africa’s governing ANC party welcomes the “encouraging” expulsion of an Israeli observer delegation from the African Union (AU) summit in Addis Ababa on Saturday.
The delegation, headed by Foreign Ministry Deputy Director General for Africa Sharon Bar-Li, was escorted out of the AU assembly in the Ethiopian capital in what Jerusalem considers a grave diplomatic incident.
The Foreign Ministry said the incident showed the AU “has been taken hostage by a small number of extremist countries such as Algeria and South Africa, driven by hatred and controlled by Iran.”
The Foreign Ministry has said the charge d’affaires at the South African embassy in Israel would be summoned in the coming days for a dressing down by the ministry’s director-general Ronen Levy.
In a statement today, the African National Congress (ANC) party, which regards Israel as an “apartheid state,” gives clear support for the delegation’s ousting.
The ANC says her removal was aimed at “thwarting an attempt to undermine the current sitting AU Summit from considering a report that is supposed to guide discussions on whether Israel must be granted an observer status.”
The issue of Israel’s observer status has caused deep discord in the 55-member bloc.
At last year’s summit, a debate on the issue was suspended in a bid to avoid a vote that would create an unprecedented rift in the Union.
Instead, a committee was set up that was supposed to give its recommendations at this year’s summit.
The Israel Defense Forces says troops came under fire at a military checkpoint near the West Bank city of Tulkarem overnight.
No soldiers were hurt in the attack, and the alleged Palestinian gunmen fled.
The IDF says troops found several shell casings in the area.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says a special panel will be formed to combat Palestinian incitement that encourages the murder of Israelis, headed by National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir, who has himself been convicted in the past of incitement against Arabs.
At the start of the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu says the new team will include investigators, police officers and prosecutors, in coordination with the Justice Ministry, with representatives from the Shin Bet security agency, the Israel Defense Forces and the National Cyber Directorate.
Some news outlets initially misreport Netanyahu’s comments as referring to a different panel — whose formation was announced last night by the Israel Police — aimed at taking action against online incitement against government leaders by Israeli critics of the plan to overhaul the country’s judiciary.
Netanyahu subsequently tweets a clarification that the panel headed by Ben Gvir will aim to counter “Palestinian incitement against Israeli citizens.”
As The Times of Israel’s political correspondent, I spend my days in the Knesset trenches, speaking with politicians and advisers to understand their plans, goals and motivations.
I'm proud of our coverage of this government's plans to overhaul the judiciary, including the political and social discontent that underpins the proposed changes and the intense public backlash against the shakeup.
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