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Israeli envoys in Ukraine border countries prepare for potential land evacuation

Diplomats stationed in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova visit border crossings to lay the groundwork to help Israelis and Ukrainian Jews flee potential war

Amy Spiro is a reporter and writer with The Times of Israel.

People carry their belongings as they cross the Russian border check point in the region of Avilo-Uspenka, on February 19, 2022. (Andrey BORODULIN / AFP)
People carry their belongings as they cross the Russian border check point in the region of Avilo-Uspenka, on February 19, 2022. (Andrey BORODULIN / AFP)

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

Netanyahu trial hearings canceled for the week after judge tests positive for COVID

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court, November 22, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu at the Jerusalem District Court, November 22, 2021. (Oren Ben Hakoon/Pool)

The hearings slated for this week in the ongoing corruption trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu are canceled after Judge Moshe Bar-Am tests positive for COVID.

Earlier today, the court canceled tomorrow’s hearing when it found out that Bar-Am had come in contact with a positive COVID case. Now, it cancels the hearings for the rest of the week, since Bar-Am will have to remain in quarantine.

The judges in the trial were slated to deal this week with the fallout from the police spying affair incident. Prosecutors have claimed that allegations that Israel Police illegally spied on witnesses in the case should have no bearing on the trial. But lawyers for Netanyahu have demanded that prosecutors turn over to the court any information found on the phone of state witness Shlomo Filber, whom police have admitted to hacking.

Sudanese man shot dead during anti-coup protests, say medics

Demonstrators march with a large banner reading in Arabic "[we are] angry" during ongoing protests calling for civilian rule and denouncing the military administration, in the Sahafa neighborhood in Sudan's capital Khartoum on February 20, 2022. (Ebrahim Hamid / AFP)
Demonstrators march with a large banner reading in Arabic "[we are] angry" during ongoing protests calling for civilian rule and denouncing the military administration, in the Sahafa neighborhood in Sudan's capital Khartoum on February 20, 2022. (Ebrahim Hamid / AFP)

A Sudanese man is shot dead during a crackdown on anti-coup rallies, medics say, as a United Nations human rights expert arrived in the country.

The 51-year-old man was hit with “a live bullet to the chest,” according to the Sudanese Doctors’ Committee, bringing the death toll during the crackdown on protests against an October military takeover to 82.

“The martyr was a patient at a hospital in Khartoum North… and went out to get some air after struggling with shortness of breath due to the heavy firing of tear gas which filled the hospital ward,” the committee says, adding that he was then shot dead.

UN human rights expert Adama Dieng meanwhile is visiting Sudan until Thursday, on a trip initially planned for last month but postponed at the request of Sudanese authorities.

Iranian teachers hold protests over their salaries in more than 100 cities

Students and their teacher attend class after the opening ceremony of the Hashtroudi school in Tehran, Iran, September 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)
Students and their teacher attend class after the opening ceremony of the Hashtroudi school in Tehran, Iran, September 5, 2020. (AP Photo/Vahid Salemi)

Thousands of Iranian teachers have protested in more than 100 cities against delays in salary and pension reforms, a local newspaper reports.

The demonstrations yesterday were the latest in a string of rallies by teachers as well as other public sector employees in recent months over the impact of soaring inflation on incomes.

Reformist newspaper Etemad says teachers demonstrated outside parliament in the capital Tehran and in front of education ministry offices in provincial capitals including Isfahan, Shiraz and Mashhad.

The teachers have for months demanded that the government speed up the implementation of reforms that would see their salaries better reflect their experience and performance.

Protesters also called on the authorities to release teachers detained in earlier protests. The educators chanted “The jailed teachers should be freed” and “From Tehran to Khorasan, teachers are in prison,” according to the newspaper.

Israeli envoys in Ukraine border countries lay ground for potential land evacuation

Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center) takes part in a Foreign Ministry assessment on February 20, 2022, into the situation in Ukraine. (Courtesy)
Foreign Minister Yair Lapid (center) takes part in a Foreign Ministry assessment on February 20, 2022, into the situation in Ukraine. (Courtesy)

Israeli diplomats serving in countries bordering Ukraine — Hungary, Poland, Slovakia, Romania and Moldova — visit border crossings and meet with the officials in charge of the stations to discuss a potential land evacuation of Israelis and Ukrainian Jews should Russia invade.

As expected, Israel’s consular section in Kyiv opens today — which it generally does not do — in order to provide consular services to Israelis looking to leave the country. Few citizens show up, which the ministry interprets as a sign that those looking to leave have already done so.

A Foreign Ministry situational assessment headed by Foreign Minister Yair Lapid assesses that in the event of an escalation with Russia, Ukraine’s skies will be closed, and leaving the country will be difficult. The ministry also continues to weigh the possibility of moving the embassy temporarily to the western city of Lviv.

It has already opened a temporary consular section in a Lviv building owned by Israel’s honorary consul-general in the country.

Justice Ministry shuts probe into Arab nursing student gunned down in firefight

Thousands attend the funeral of 20-year-old nursing student Ahmad Hijazi near the Arab city of Tamra, northern Israel, February 2, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Thousands attend the funeral of 20-year-old nursing student Ahmad Hijazi near the Arab city of Tamra, northern Israel, February 2, 2021. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The Justice Ministry closes its investigation into a suspected police shooting of an Arab nursing student during a firefight with armed criminals, saying that police had acted appropriately.

Ahmad Hijazi, a nursing student from Tamra, was gunned down in the crossfire between police and suspected criminals last February.

The Justice Ministry’s Police Internal Investigations Division says it is closing the case, saying that the officers’ decision to fire was appropriate given the circumstances.

Nursing student Ahmad Hijazi, who was shot and killed in the crossfire between police and criminal gunmen on February 2, 2021. (Courtesy: Hijazi family)

Internal Affairs investigators found that Hijazi and another victim, Mohammad Armoush, left their home after hearing gunshots and stepped into the line of fire.

His funeral drew thousands of mourners, who saw his death as a reminder of the high toll of the gun violence plaguing Arab Israeli cities.

Last year saw a record 126 Arab Israelis and Palestinians killed inside Israel. Another nine, including Hijazi, were killed by police. The government has pledged to end the phenomenon. But according to the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, 13 Arabs were murdered inside Israel so far this year.

Bennett: Iran deal will lead to ‘more violent’ Middle East

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Conference of Presidents meeting in Jerusalem on February 20, 2022. (Screenshot)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett addresses the Conference of Presidents meeting in Jerusalem on February 20, 2022. (Screenshot)

Speaking in Jerusalem to the Conference of Presidents of the Major American Jewish Organizations, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett says the emerging Iran deal will lead to “a more violent, more volatile Middle East.”

The biggest problem is the sunset clause, which in two and a half years allows Iran to install and operate advanced centrifuges, he says. He emphasizes that Israel is not automatically against a deal, but the deal taking shape in Vienna strengthens Tehran at the wrong time.

“Right now they are very weak. The rial has depreciated. They are at their weakest spot in history, and we are going to pour tens of billions of dollars back into this apparatus of terror,” warns Bennett.

The prime minister warns that access to funds will give Iran more UAVs, more attacks on shipping, and more attacks on Israel.

“Iran is asking to let the biggest terror organization on earth off the hook,” he says of Tehran’s demands that the IRGC be delisted as a terror organization. “One way or another, I have no doubt that Israel will prevail with whatever circumstances we face,” he says to applause.

Bennett says that Iran wants to close “the open files of the” International Atomic Energy Agency. “If Iran gets its way on the inspectors, it would be a profound blow to the organization, he says. “Iran is in a very advanced phase of its uranium enrichment process,” says the prime minister. “This is the hand we were dealt. It is what it is. There is no point playing the blame game right now,” he says.

In a swipe at his predecessor Benjamin Netanyahu, Bennett says that Israel has prioritized rebuilding relations with its neighbors, and is committed to working with legislators from both parties.

“Israel is becoming bipartisan once again,” he says.

Relations with US President Joe Biden and the administration will remain close and robust despite disagreements over the Iran deal, Bennett pledges, noting the Republican and Democratic lawmakers who are in Israel this week.

Diaspora minister hails decision to reopen borders to all tourists

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai attends the Jewish People's Lobby, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai attends the Jewish People's Lobby, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on November 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai hails the government’s decision to allow all tourists — vaccinated or not — to enter the country, saying this was a boon to people around the world who have struggled to visit the country during the coronavirus pandemic.

“I am happy that the prime minister has responded positively to the requests of thousands of families around the world, Jews and non-Jews alike, who have sought to meet up once again after a long period of separation caused in part by restrictions such as the ban on entry for unvaccinated children,” Shai says.

Israel’s at-time total closures of its borders to non-citizens were harshly criticized by Jewish leaders around the world, who argued that as the nation-state of the Jewish people and the home to roughly half the world’s Jewish population, the country had a responsibility to keep itself open to Jewish visitors.

Addressing those criticisms at a conference on the Israel-Diaspora relationship last week, Shai said that while the country made extensive efforts to explain its thought process in closing the borders he “wasn’t sure those explanations were accepted” by Jewish communities abroad.

“After two years of the COVID-19 pandemic the time has come to return to a more normal reality and to live alongside this virus, along with appropriate measures to preserve public health. The opening of Israel’s skies is great news for anyone with family in Israel who can now come and celebrate Passover and Purim together here in Israel. We’re waiting for you!” he says.

Truck crashes into entrance to mosque in Iranian holy city

A cleric and a woman pray behind a closed door of Masoume shrine in the city of Qom, some 80 miles (125 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Monday, March 16, 2020. (AP)
A cleric and a woman pray behind a closed door of Masoume shrine in the city of Qom, some 80 miles (125 kilometers) south of the capital Tehran, Iran, Monday, March 16, 2020. (AP)

A trailer truck smashes one of the gates at an important place of worship in Iran’s Shiite holy city of Qom and its driver was arrested, the Fars news agency reports.

It was not immediately clear whether the incident was accidental or deliberate.

“A truck destroyed gate number six of the holy mosque of Jamkaran and entered the precincts of the sacred place,” Fars says, without specifying whether there have been any casualties.

It adds that the truck was carrying extra gasoline, but did not specify what led to the incident.

The Jamkaran mosque, which welcomes thousands of pilgrims every week, was built on the spot where most Shiites believe the Mahdi, the twelfth imam of Shiite Islam, will return. They believe he disappeared more than a thousand years ago and will return one day to usher in a new era of peace and harmony.

Following the incident, pilgrims are evacuated and law enforcement personnel establish a security cordon, Fars adds.

Netanyahu trial hearing delayed after judge exposed to COVID case

An illustration of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) facing Jerusalem District Court judges in his corruption trial, February 8, 2021. (Biana Zakutnik)
An illustration of then-prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) facing Jerusalem District Court judges in his corruption trial, February 8, 2021. (Biana Zakutnik)

A hearing scheduled for tomorrow in the ongoing corruption trial of former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been delayed after one of the judges was exposed to an individual with COVID, Haaretz reports.

Judge Moshe Bar-Am came in contact with a COVID patient and therefore the hearing has been canceled by president Judge Rivka Friedman-Feldman, according to the report.

The judges were supposed to be responding to an appeal by Netanyahu’s attorneys demanding that materials taken illegally from the phone of state witness Shlomo Filber be turned over to the court or to defendants.

Macron says Putin agrees to work toward ceasefire after phone call

Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin chairs a Security Council meeting via videoconference at the Novo-Ogaryovo residence outside Moscow, Russia, Friday, Feb. 11, 2022. (Alexei Nikolsky, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian leader Vladimir Putin agree to work toward a ceasefire in eastern Ukraine, Macron’s office says.

In a phone conversation lasting 105 minutes, they also agree on “the need to favor a diplomatic solution to the ongoing crisis and to do everything to achieve one,” the Elysee says, adding that French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov will meet tomorrow.

The French presidency says that Putin told Macron that he plans to withdraw troops from Belarus.

Macron’s office says that the French president will consult with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz and US President Joe Biden “within hours.”

“Intense diplomatic work will take place in the coming days,” Macron’s office says, with several consultations to take place in the French capital.

Macron may also consult with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi and “other close partners,” the French presidency said.

Herzog planned Greece visit before deciding on Turkey trip, but added Cyprus later

President Isaac Herzog speaks at the Haaretz Democracy Conference in Jaffa, on November 9, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)
President Isaac Herzog speaks at the Haaretz Democracy Conference in Jaffa, on November 9, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/ Flash90)

President Isaac Herzog’s visit to Greece on Thursday has been in the planning stages for some time, well before he decided on a visit to Turkey, The Times of Israel has learned.

However, the Cyprus visit next week was added in light of the upcoming Turkey visit, the date of which has not been finalized. In addition, Ankara was aware of the visits, and welcomes them.

Government approves Liberman’s NIS 4.4 billion plan to lower cost of living

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C), Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (R), and Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivai share the government's plan to address cost of living in a Jerusalem press conference, February 9, 2022. (Government Press Office)
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett (C), Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (R), and Economy and Industry Minister Orna Barbivai share the government's plan to address cost of living in a Jerusalem press conference, February 9, 2022. (Government Press Office)

The government votes to approve Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman’s NIS 4.4 billion ($1.4 billion) plan to lower the cost of living.

Some portions of the plan — including tax breaks for young working families with children — will require legislation that is expected to be introduced in the Knesset in the coming days.

The terms of the plan, unveiled earlier this month, also include childcare subsidies, a negative income tax to approximately 300,000 low-wage earners, canceling the excise taxes on coal and reducing tariffs on multiple imported products including food, toiletries and furniture.

Biden will meet Putin ‘at any time’ to defuse Ukraine crisis, says Blinken

President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, arrive to meet at the 'Villa la Grange', Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)
President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin, arrive to meet at the 'Villa la Grange', Wednesday, June 16, 2021, in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

US President Joe Biden is willing to meet Russian leader Vladimir Putin “at any time” to defuse Ukraine war tensions, his top diplomat says, warning that Russia appears on the verge of invading its neighbor.

In a rapid-fire round of US talk shows, Secretary of State Antony Blinken tells CNN that “everything we’re seeing suggests that this is dead serious, that we are on the brink of an invasion.”

“But until the tanks are actually rolling and the planes are flying, we will use every opportunity and every minute we have to see if diplomacy can still dissuade President Putin from carrying this forward.”

Blinken tells CBS’s “Face the Nation” that Biden has made “very clear that he’s prepared to meet President Putin at any time, in any format, if that can help prevent a war.”

Chief rabbis slam conversion reform legislation as divisive

Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, right,  and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend the the 'Yeshivas March' against conversion and kashrut reforms, in Jerusalem, January 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau, right, and Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attend the the 'Yeshivas March' against conversion and kashrut reforms, in Jerusalem, January 30, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel’s two chief rabbis — Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi David Lau and Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef — send a letter to cabinet ministers criticizing the approval of a bill that would reform the country’s conversion system, calling the proposal divisive and false.

“The government is discussing a law that will have an impact on many citizens and on Israeli society as a whole. Making decisions on a topic as sensitive and important as this while ignoring the stance of the chief rabbis and Israel’s rabbinic judges… makes a tear in the nation and will necessarily cause the formation of disparate communities in Israel,” the letter reads.

The chief rabbis say Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana’s proposal amounts to “deceit of the convert, as anyone who goes through this [conversion] process will not be considered a righteous convert by the majority of rabbis and rabbinical judges of Israel.”

The bill was drawn up with advice from several leading rabbis in the Modern Orthodox movement, including Rabbi Chaim Druckman, a top figure in religious Zionism. However, ultra-Orthodox rabbis have rejected Kahana’s reform outright.

Putin blames Kyiv for escalation, but says diplomacy should ‘intensify’

Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to leave a news conference in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 18, 2022. (Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)
Russian President Vladimir Putin prepares to leave a news conference in the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, Feb. 18, 2022. (Sergei Guneyev, Sputnik, Kremlin Pool Photo via AP)

Russian President Vladimir Putin blames Kyiv for a military escalation in east Ukraine in a call with French President Emmanuel Macron, but says diplomatic efforts to find a resolution need to intensify.

Putin “noted that the cause of the escalation is provocations carried out by the Ukrainian security forces,” according to a Kremlin readout of the call, which adds, however, that the two leaders “believe it is important to intensify efforts to find solutions through diplomatic means.”

Putin also repeats a call for “the United States and NATO to take Russian demands for security guarantees seriously.”

After infections in US, Israel follows suit with recall of 2 Similac baby formula products

Similac Gold Alimentum (Courtesy)
Similac Gold Alimentum (Courtesy)

Following reports of illnesses among babies overseas, the Israeli importer of baby formula has announced its own recall of two products that are only sold under a prescription: Similac’s Alimentum and Human Milk Fortifier.

Abbott Israel, the local importer, says that it will collect about 700 units of the Abbott products as a precautionary measure, following a warning from the US Food and Drug Administration, as these were produced in the Michigan plant highlighted in the US recall.

Alimentum is sold under prescription in pharmacies, and cannot be found on supermarket aisles. Human Milk Fortifier is found in prenatal units at hospitals, and given only under prescription.

The FDA said last week that it is investigating four reports of infants who were hospitalized after consuming the formula, including one who died. The agency said one of the cases involved salmonella and three involved Cronobacter sakazakiim, a rare but dangerous germ that can cause blood infections and other serious complications.

Abbott, one of the largest infant formula makers in the US, said it is recalling all potentially affected products manufactured at the facility. The recall affects certain lots of Similac, Alimentum and EleCare with expiration dates of April 1, 2022, or later. The product was distributed throughout the US and overseas, the company said in a statement.

Abbott said parents can identify the recalled products by examining the number on the bottom of each container. The affected formulas have a number starting with 22 through 37, contain K8, SH, or Z2 and have an expiration date of April 1, 2022, or later.

AP contributed to this report.

Iranian lawmakers lay out conditions for accepting new nuclear deal

Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks before parliament in the capital Tehran on August 21, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)
Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi speaks before parliament in the capital Tehran on August 21, 2021. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

The Iranian parliament’s news agency, ICANA, reports that 250 lawmakers urge President Ebrahim Raisi and his negotiating team in a statement to obtain guarantees from the US and the three other European countries that they won’t withdraw from a nuclear deal after it is renegotiated.

Iran’s hardline-dominated parliament has the power to approve or reject any proposed agreement between Iran and the other parties in Vienna.

According to Reuters, the lawmakers lay out six conditions for agreeing to return to the 2015 deal, including a guarantee from the US and European parties not to trigger the “snapback mechanism” returning sanctions on Iran if it violates nuclear compliance.

The letter also says that Iran should only approve returning to the deal if all sanctions are lifted, including those tied to terrorism, missile technology and human rights.

Israel to open to unvaccinated tourists, end pre-flight test for returning Israelis

Travelers at the Departure Hall in the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, on January 4, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)
Travelers at the Departure Hall in the Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, on January 4, 2022. (Arie Leib Abrams/Flash90)

Ministers agree to reopen Israel’s skies to unvaccinated tourists of any age, but still require two negative PCR tests, while canceling one test requirement for returning Israelis.

Under the new guidelines, set to come into effect on March 1, tourists of all ages, both vaccinated and unvaccinated, will be allowed to enter Israel, as long as they submit a negative PCR before boarding and take another PCR after landing.

Israelis returning to Israel will not have to take a pre-flight test, but only need to take a PCR upon landing.

Even unvaccinated Israelis will not have to quarantine upon returning to Israel as long as they test negative upon landing, the ministers agree.

“We are seeing a consistent decline in morbidity data, so it is time to gradually open what we were the first in the world to close,” says Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. “At the same time, we will keep our finger on the pulse and in the case of a new variant, we will respond quickly once again.”

Mandatory weekly tests for schoolchildren will also come to an end — for middle schools on Thursday, and for elementary schools on March 10.

Amid tensions at home, 75 Ukrainian immigrants arrive in Israel

Ukrainian immigrants arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport on February 20, 2022. (Courtesy)
Ukrainian immigrants arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport on February 20, 2022. (Courtesy)

Approximately 75 new immigrants from Ukraine land in Israel, with an additional 22 slated to arrive this evening, as tensions between Ukraine and Russia reach new highs.

“Our message to the Jews of Ukraine is very clear — Israel will always be their home; our gates are open to them during normal times as well as in emergencies,” says Immigrant Absorption Minister Pnina Tamano-Shata. “Today we are happy to greet dozens of immigrants from Ukraine, and we are prepared to absorb thousands who want to move to Israel… we are waiting with open arms.”

Jana Kovlenko, who arrives from Kyiv with her husband, Evgeni, and their daughter, says that “right now it’s scary in Ukraine. Everyone is only talking about war. Until the last moment we were worried that the flight would be canceled due to the situation.”

Gidi Schmerling, of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which helped organize the arrivals, said the immigrants had been tense in the hours before the flight. “When the plane took off,” Schmerling, who was on board, told Army Radio, “there was applause.”

He said the new arrivals had been scheduled to immigrate, rather than rushing to do because of the current crisis.

Cabinet okays conversion reform bill, sends it to Knesset

Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The cabinet approves Religious Services Minister Matan Kahana’s bill to reform the state-sponsored process for converting to Judaism.

The proposal is meant to introduce greater competition in religious conversion, allowing not only the national rabbinate to approve conversions — as is the case today — but also regional and municipal rabbinates. However, critics argue that the reform may ultimately have little impact as those local authorities are ultimately controlled by the national rabbinate and other provisions of the bill may similarly keep final say in the hands of the chief rabbi.

Having been approved by the cabinet, the bill will now head to the Knesset for a first reading. If it passes, it will then head to committee for further review and potential changes, before being brought back to the plenum for a second and third reading.

The proposed reform has drawn sharp criticism from ultra-Orthodox figures, including the chief rabbi, as well as some in the national-religious camp.

In a tweet following the approval of the bill in the cabinet, Kahana hails the reform as “history.”

“Together we have taken a step toward preserving the Jewish identity of the State of Israel: a state-sponsored conversion law, in accordance with Jewish law, under the auspices of the rabbinate,” Kahana says.

Bennett sends best wishes to Queen Elizabeth following COVID diagnosis

Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, during her visit to Wolferton Pumping Station in Norfolk, England, on February 5, 2020. (Adrian Dennis/ Pool/ AFP)
Britain's Queen Elizabeth II, during her visit to Wolferton Pumping Station in Norfolk, England, on February 5, 2020. (Adrian Dennis/ Pool/ AFP)

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett wishes the UK’s Queen Elizabeth a speedy recovery after news that she tested positive for COVID.

“Wishing Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II a speedy and full recovery,” Bennett tweets. “Our thoughts and prayers are with you.”

Olympic officials hand over flag to Italy at close of Beijing Games

Flag bearers walk into the stadium for the closing ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 20, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)
Flag bearers walk into the stadium for the closing ceremony of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Feb. 20, 2022, in Beijing. (AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko)

The president of the International Olympic Committee and the mayor of Beijing hand over the Olympic flag to the mayors of Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo in Italy, which will host the 2026 Winter Games.

This is the first time two cities will officially host the Olympics together. Cortina hosted the games in 1956. This will be the third Winter Games in Italy – Turin hosted in 2006.

Athletes who are still in Beijing after competing at the Winter Games are parading into the stadium for the closing ceremony as “Ode to Joy” plays.

There’s a modest but enthusiastic crowd of invited guests shaking hand clappers and doing the wave at the Bird’s Nest stadium.

Despite COVID concerns ahead of the Games, a strict system that basically turned the Olympics into a giant bubble kept coronavirus cases to a minimum. There have only been 463 positive tests among thousands of visitors inside the bubble since Jan. 23.

Macron calls Zelensky following 105-minute talk with Putin

(From L) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a meeting on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace,in Paris, on December 9, 2019. (Thibault Camus/ POOL/ AFP)
(From L) Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, French President Emmanuel Macron, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel attend a meeting on Ukraine at the Elysee Palace,in Paris, on December 9, 2019. (Thibault Camus/ POOL/ AFP)

French President Emmanuel Macron speaks with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky on the telephone, the French presidency says, shortly after he ended a call with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Macron called Putin about the situation in Ukraine in a last-ditch effort to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine, his office says.

The Macron-Putin call, which lasted 105 minutes, came two weeks after Macron went to Moscow to persuade Putin to hold back from sending troops massed on the border into Ukraine.

It represented “the final possible and necessary efforts to avoid a major conflict in Ukraine,” the Elysee said ahead of the conversation.

Ahead of Turkey trip, President Isaac Herzog to visit Greece, Cyprus

President Isaac Herzog speaks at Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates,  Jan. 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)
President Isaac Herzog speaks at Expo 2020 in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Jan. 31, 2022. (AP Photo/Jon Gambrell)

President Isaac Herzog will depart on Thursday for a state visit to Greece, his office announces, at the invitation of Greek President Katerina Sakellaropoulou.

His office also announces a state visit to Cyprus next Wednesday, March 2, during which he will meet his Cypriot counterpart Nicos Anastasiades.

In Athens, Herzog is slated to meet with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, other senior officials, and members of the local Jewish community. His visit will begin with a wreath-laying at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, after which he will meet Sakellaropoulou at the Presidential Mansion. Herzog will then meet with Mitsotakis, then will be hosted at a state lunch by Sakellaropoulou.

He is also slated to meet the speaker of the Hellenic Parliament, Konstantinos Tasoulas, and opposition leader Alexis Tsipras, a former prime minister.

The following week in Cyprus, Herzog will have a one-on-one meeting with Anastasiades followed by an expanded meeting between the delegations. Anastasiades will also host Herzog at a state lunch.

In a statement, Herzog says that during both trips, he will discuss “steps to broaden and deepen the rich collaboration between our nations.”

“In particular, we will discuss possibilities for regional collaboration in the Mediterranean Basin in the fight against the climate crisis,” the statement continues.

Calling the three nations “partners in an alliance of stability in the Mediterranean,” Herzog calls the upcoming state visits “expressions of the profound friendship between our peoples and of our strategic partnership.”

Anastasiades and Mitsotakis were in Israel in December for a trilateral summit with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett. Herzog hosted separate working meetings with both leaders as well.

The visits to Greece and Cyprus, both bitter adversaries of Turkey, come as preparations are underway for Herzog to visit Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. They may be meant to allay concerns by Israel’s eastern Mediterranean allies over a potential Jerusalem-Ankara rapprochement.

Stray Nigeria airstrike kills 7 children in Niger

An airstrike by the Nigerian army targeting “bandits” kills seven children and wounds five others by mistake in Niger, a local governor tells AFP.

“There was a mistake with the Nigerian strikes on the border that resulted in victims on our territory in the village of Nachade” on Friday, says Chaibou Aboubacar, the governor of the Maradi region. “The victims are 12 children, seven of them dead and five wounded.”

Amos Gilead: History will judge Netanyahu harshly for his failures on Iran

Amos Gilead (right) speaks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem on February 20, 2022 (Courtesy)
Amos Gilead (right) speaks to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem on February 20, 2022 (Courtesy)

Amos Gilead, the former director of the Political-Military Affairs Bureau at the Defense Ministry, tells the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations meeting in Jerusalem that “history will judge [former prime minister Benjamin] Netanyahu harshly” for his handling of Iran’s drive to nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu’s high-profile efforts to dissuade the US from signing the 2015 nuclear deal failed, says Gilead, and “we are now facing an Iran that can cross the Rubicon, and develop a nuclear weapon that might be an existential threat to Israel.”

Israel’s contribution to the US withdrawing from the deal under the Trump administration was a major misstep, he adds. “You don’t cancel international agreements,” says Gilead, “if you don’t have an alternative” to put in place instead.

Gilead also accuses Netanyahu of having “destroyed” Israel as a bipartisan cause in the US by siding so strongly with the Trump administration.

Former Supreme Court chief Grunis to head submarine inquiry

Former Supreme Court president Asher Grunis (Alex Kolomoisky/Flash90)
Former Supreme Court president Asher Grunis (Alex Kolomoisky/Flash90)

Asher Grunis, a former president of the Supreme Court, will head up the state commission of inquiry into the submarine affair.

The other members of the panel that will examine the murky $2 billion deal to purchase submarines from Germany — which has already resulted in several indictments — include former Supreme Court justice Zvi Zylbertal, former Bank of Israel governor Karnit Flug, former Israel Navy commander Avraham Ben-Shoshan and former head of the Israel Air Force procurement division Jacob Burtman.

Ministers criticize government economic plan over minimum wage

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Labor party leader Merav Michaeli speaks during a faction meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem on December 13, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli offers criticism of the recently unveiled government economic program.

Michaeli, the head of the Labor party, says at the cabinet meeting that the current government has succeeded in preserving the economy alongside COVID, “and precisely because of that, this government cannot afford to harm the minimum wage of so many workers and vulnerable populations, as stated in the current package deal.”

Under Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman’s new plan, unveiled earlier this month, the minimum wage would rise by just 0.54 shekels — drastically less than would be seen in legislation that many have been pushing to advance, and below the rate that the average wage has risen.

“That is why we in the Labor Party will continue to work so that the minimum wage is not harmed, and I am sure that a way to raise it can be found.”

Environment Minister Tamar Zandberg also criticizes the plan, saying that the rise listed in the deal “is actually an erosion of wages, and not an increase. The proposal needs to be improved.”

Macron, Putin speak by phone about Ukraine crisis

Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron after their talks, Feb. 7, 2022 in Moscow. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, Pool)
Russian President Vladimir Putin, right, listens during a joint press conference with French President Emmanuel Macron after their talks, Feb. 7, 2022 in Moscow. (AP Photo/Thibault Camus, Pool)

A telephone conversation between French President Emmanuel Macron and Russian leader Vladimir Putin about the situation in Ukraine is underway, Macron’s office says.

The call, described by the French side as part of a last-ditch effort to avert a Russian invasion of Ukraine, began at 11 a.m., the presidency said.

It comes two weeks after Macron went to Moscow to persuade Putin to hold back from an invasion.

The talks are seen as “the final possible and necessary efforts to avoid a major conflict in Ukraine,” the Elysee says.

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