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Poll: Netanyahu graft allegations don’t hurt Likud at the ballot box

Ruling party maintains lead by similar margins with or without Netanyahu, Channel 10 survey finds; Hadashot poll: 50% say PM should leave office over latest suspicions

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend the inauguration of a new emergency ward at the Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon on February 20, 2018. (Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara attend the inauguration of a new emergency ward at the Barzilai hospital in Ashkelon on February 20, 2018. (Flash90)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s events as they happened.

Jerusalem court extends remand for workers involved in deadly gas blast

A Jerusalem court extended the detention of two suspects involved in a gas explosion at a parking garage in the residential southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka yesterday.

One man, a laborer at the site, was killed and two other people were lightly injured in the blast. The dead man’s body was found beneath rubble following the explosion.

Police have arrested one of the workers and a contractor who was managing the work. Their remands have been extended until February 25 and 23 respectively.

A leak in one of the gas pipes, which officials say was not handled according to required safely procedures, is believed to have caused the explosion.

Prisoners injured in fire at maximum-security prison near Tel Aviv

A fire injures a number of prisoners at the maximum-security Rimonim Prison northeast of Tel Aviv.

The fire is extinguished quickly, and no evacuation was required, according to police.

There is no immediate information on the severity of the prisoners’ injuries.

— Judah Ari Gross

3 prisoners seriously hurt, four lightly in Rimonim Prison fire

At least three prisoners were seriously hurt and four others lightly hurt in the fire at the Rimonim maximum-security prison north of Tel Aviv.

The blaze appears to have been caused when one prisoner set his mattress on fire.

All the injuries are linked to smoke inhallation.

Rimonim Prison fire toll raised to eight hurt, including two jailers

The number of people hurt in the fire at the maximum-security Rimonim Prison north of Tel Aviv is raised to eight. One prisoner is evacuated by paramedics in very serious condition, and another five with varying degrees of smoke inhalation and burns.

Two jailers were lightly hurt as they worked to put out the fire.

The wing of the prison affected by the fire has been evacuated, authorities say.

New strikes kill 10 in rebel-held suburbs of Syrian capital

New airstrikes and shelling on the besieged, rebel-held suburbs of the Syrian capital kill at least 10 people, a rescue organization and a monitoring group say.

Syrian government forces and Russian aircraft are showing no signs of letting up their indiscriminate aerial and artillery assault on eastern Ghouta since they stepped up strikes late Sunday.

In this photo released on Tuesday, February 20, 2018 provided by the Syrian Civil Defense group known as the White Helmets, members of the Syrian Civil Defense extinguish a fire in a store during airstrikes and shelling by Syrian government forces, in Ghouta, a suburb of Damascus, Syria. (Syrian Civil Defense White Helmets via AP)

At least 260 people have been killed since Sunday night, according to the Britain-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights monitoring group, including 10 people in a wave of strikes on the town of Kafr Batna on Wednesday.

The Syrian Civil Defense search-and-rescue group, also known as the White Helmets, says government forces targeted the town with airstrikes, artillery fire, and barrel bombs — crude, explosives-filled oil drums dropped from helicopters at high altitudes. It reports that several other people are wounded.

— AP

Global cybercrime costs $600b annually, study says

The annual cost of cybercrime has hit $600 billion worldwide, fueled by the growing sophistication of hackers and proliferation of criminal marketplaces and cryptocurrencies, researchers say.

A report produced by the security firm McAfee with the Center for Strategic and International Studies found theft of intellectual property represents about one-fourth of the cost of cybercrime in 2017.

Russia, North Korea and Iran are the main sources of hackers targeting financial institutions, while China is the most active in cyber espionage, the report found.

The researchers say ransomware is the fastest-growing component of cybercrime, helped by the easy availability of marketplaces offering hacking services.

The global research report comes days after the White House released a report showing cyberattacks cost the United States between $57 billion and $109 billion in 2016, while warning of a “spillover” effect for the broader economy if certain sectors are hit.

— AFP

France to unveil controversial migrant law

PARIS, France — The French government is set to unveil a tough new immigration bill that is proving one of the most divisive of Emmanuel Macron’s young presidency.

The legislation, which criminalizes illegal border crossings and aims for quicker deportation of those deemed economic migrants, has sparked widespread anger from NGOs who have branded it repressive.

The government says the law balances “efficiency” with “humanity,” offering faster asylum to refugees found to have fled conflict or repression.

But it has opened divisions in the left-right coalition that newcomer Macron set up when he came to power in May, with even some members of his Republic On The Move (LREM) party breaking ranks to criticize it.

— AFP

Scores of girls ‘missing’ after new Boko Haram school attack

KANO, Nigeria — Fears grow in northeast Nigeria on Wednesday about the fate of potentially scores of girls who have not been seen since a Boko Haram attack on their school two days ago.

The jihadist group stormed the Government Girls Science Secondary School in Dapchi, Yobe state, on Monday evening. Locals initially said the girls and their teachers fled the attack.

The jihadists gained worldwide notoriety in April 2014 when they abducted 276 girls from their school in Chibok, in neighboring Borno state. A total of 112 are still being held.

Monday’s incident sparked fears of a repeat and on Wednesday morning some 50 parents and guardians were gathering at the school demanding information.

“Our girls have been missing for two days and we don’t know their whereabouts,” Abubakar Shehu, whose niece is among those missing, tells AFP.

— AFP

President says Egypt ‘scored a goal’ with Israel gas deal

CAIRO — Egypt’s president says his country “scored a goal” by signing a $15 billion deal with an Israeli company to supply natural gas that will help turn Egypt into a regional energy hub.

Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi says in televised comments on Wednesday that the project “has a lot of advantages” for Egyptians.

Delek Drilling and its US partner Noble Energy signed the agreement on Monday to sell a total of 64 billion cubic meters of gas over a 10-year period to Egyptian company Dolphinus Holdings. The gas is expected to start flowing next year.

— AP

IDF chief calls latest return of terrorists’ remains a ‘mistake’

The IDF chief of staff on Wednesday tells cabinet ministers that it was a “mistake” to give the bodies of two Palestinian terrorists to their families for burial last Friday.

The comment comes in response to public criticism over the decision, officials say.

The remark does not seem to be directed toward the return of terrorists’ remains generally, but to the specific cases last Friday and the way in which they were handled.

IDF chief Lt. Gen. Gadi Eisenkot says the protocols for returning bodies had been changed following the criticism.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman’s office says the army chief “clarified things” during the security cabinet meeting and that “the minister accepted” Eisenkot’s remarks.

The decision to give back the bodies was approved by Liberman.

In recent years, Israel has returned the bodies of dozens of terrorists, but generally does so in ways designed to not arouse public notice, often late at night or on weekends and holidays. It is also generally contingent upon the terrorists’ families agreeing not to hold a public funeral, as Israel believes these events encourage additional terror attacks.

— Judah Ari Gross

Government vows to High Court before returning terrorists’ remains

The government tells the High Court of Justice it will notify the court before returning the remains of Palestinian terrorists in future.

The return of two terrorists’ bodies last Friday drew widespread criticism as it came in the middle of a High Court appeal against the return of terrorists’ remains to their families by the family of an Israeli soldier, Hadar Goldin, whose remains are being held by Hamas in Gaza.

According to the government statement, the High Court Division in the State Attorney’s Office will inform the court ahead of time of any impending returns of the remains of terrorists until the court hears the state’s official response to the Goldins’ petition, which calls for a moratorium on returning terrorists’ bodies until the bodies of Hadar Goldin and fellow soldier Oron Shaul are given back to Israel.

Airstrike victims overwhelm doctors in Damascus suburb

A Syrian doctor in the opposition-held suburbs of the capital Damascus says the number of casualties from a Syrian government air blitz is overwhelming hospitals in the besieged region.

Waleed Awata is an anesthesiologist working at a hospital in the town of Zamalka, part of the eastern Ghouta suburb under attack. He says the hospital with just 17 beds received 82 patients Tuesday night, overwhelming its modest capabilities.

“We had to give them IVs and treat them on the floor,” he tells The Associated Press.

He says the hospital was struck by barrel bombs on Tuesday, as well as sporadic artillery fire. Like many hospitals in the area, patient facilities have been moved underground to shield them from airstrikes.

No one was wounded but the generator, water tanks and several ambulances were damaged.

— AP

Likud’s Miri Regev slams media coverage of Netanyahu graft cases

Culture Minister Miri Regev is one of the few top Likud officials publicly backing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu Wednesday amid a storm of corruption allegations against the premier and his closest confidants.

“You’re shaming the prime minister,” Regev says from the Knesset podium in a question-and-answer session with fellow lawmakers.

Pointing to the explosion of cases around the prime minister, she sarcastically reports to lawmakers about “Case 7000” — a reference to the police designations for the other cases involving Netanyahu or his close associates, cases 1000, 2000, 3000 and 4000.

“I have to update you. They just reported on Case 7000, serious allegations against the kindergarten teacher Shoshana, who allegedly gave [a 5-year-old] Netanyahu an extra cookie at his kindergarten’s end-of-year party. Police are now looking into suspicions that this is why she is still the kindergarten’s teacher today,” Regev mocks. “Tomorrow, of course, there will be a big photo of Netanyahu and the cookie on the front pages of the newspapers.”

She rails against the media, charging, “This is how you work. Every quarter-rumor, every half-leak turns instantly into the top story and a public indictment.”

But, she assures, “you have one problem: the public isn’t buying it.”

Jewish students disrupt Austrian minister’s speech

VIENNA, Austria – Austrian Jewish students disrupt a cabinet minister’s speech at a conference on anti-Semitism over the fact that his government includes politicians from the far-right Freedom Party.

The students Wednesday unfurl a banner reading “Mr. Kurz! Your government is not kosher!” during an address by Education Minister Heinz Fassmann.

Sebastian Kurz was elected Austrian Chancellor in October. He heads the Austrian People’s Party, a center-right movement. In December, Kurz’s party formed a coalition government with the far-right Freedom Party, which former Nazis established in the 1950s.

The action triggers applause from the audience that had gathered in a University of Vienna auditorium to hear Fassman speak during the European Jewish Congress’s “An End to Anti-Semitism” conference held this week in the Austrian capital.

The protesters are then escorted out of the auditorium by ushers.

— JTA

A year later, charges filed against 8 Ofra evacuation protesters

The Israel Police announces that it has filed indictments against eight men accused of disrupting police efforts to carry out the March 2017 demolition of nine homes in the Ofra settlement that were built on private Palestinian land.

But while at least 21 officers suffered various injuries that required hospital treatment, none of the charges against the demonstrators are for assault.

Instead, each of the men was indicted for preventing officers from carrying out their duties, while a number of them were indicted for carrying knives and brass knuckles with intent, the statement from the Israel Police’s West Bank District says.

— Jacob Magid

IDF reveals it foiled Islamic State attack against Australian airline

The IDF reveals its Military Intelligence Unit 8200 foiled an attack on an Australian airline planned by the Islamic State group last year.

“The unit provided exclusive intelligence that led to the prevention of an air attack by the Islamic State in 2017 against Australia,” a senior IDF officer says.

Ordinarily mum on the operations of its famed signals-intelligence unit — similar in its role to that of the US National Security Agency — the army also reveals it thwarted an Iranian cyber attack against Israeli public and private computer systems.

“This foiling was possible thanks to the close tracking of the Iranian network’s activities,” an IDF officer says on condition of anonymity.

— Judah Ari Gross

Police confront telecom mogul, ex-Netanyahu adviser with alleged graft witness

As part of the expanding probe into Case 4000 — a corruption case in which close associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu are suspected of arranging positive coverage for the PM by advancing government policies beneficial to the owner of a major news website — police confronted a key witness with two key suspects on Wednesday.

Bezeq telecommunications giant owner Shaul Elovitz and former Netanyahu media adviser Nir Hefetz, both suspects in the case, were confronted with Ilan Yeshua, the CEO of the Walla news site which is owned by Elovitz, who reportedly accused Elovitz of having ordered him to tilt coverage in Netanyahu’s favor.

Elovitz put him in contact with Hefetz, a Netanyahu spokesman, Yeshua claims, according to leaks to Hebrew-language media on Wednesday.

Hefetz allegedly served as the contact point in the Prime Minister’s Office for Yeshua.

The confrontation took place at the Lod headquarters of the Israel Police’s national anti-fraud and major crimes unit Lahav 433.

Elovitz is suspected of bribery, Hefetz of receiving the bribe, in the latest developing graft story surrounding Netanyahu.

Key figure in PM graft case promised no criminal sanction to turn state witness

Hadashot television news reveals new details about the state’s witness agreement signed last night with suspended Communications Ministry director-general Shlomo Filber, who has become a key witness in the bribery case known as Case 4000.

Filber’s state’s witness agreement, according to Hadashot, protects him from criminal indictment, specifying that he can only face a disciplinary process in the Civil Service Commission, which does not have the power to imprison. He also agrees to a permanent suspension from the public service.

According to sources, the generous agreement, despite the suspicions that he facilitated systematic bribery, is due to Filber’s willingness to cooperate fully with the investigation and the importance of the information he is able to provide prosecutors.

Filber is a key witness in the Bezeq bribery scandal that has also embroiled former Netanyahu adviser Nir Hefetz, Bezeq CEO Stella Handler and Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitz.

Tel Aviv court extends Bezeq CEO’s remand in ‘Case 4000’ graft probe

The Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court on Wednesday extends the remand of Bezeq telecom giant CEO Stella Handler by six days in the ongoing Case 4000 investigation.

The judge in the remand hearing says there is a “reasonable suspicion, and more than that, of serious corruption,” according to Hadashot television news.

Handler is a key suspect in a case in which police suspect a quid pro quo deal between Bezeq owner Shaul Elovitz to provide favorable coverage for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on the popular Walla news site, which Elovitz also owns, in exchange for Communications Ministry decisions that favored Bezeq’s business interests.

Spielberg, Katzenberg pledge $1m to gun control march by Florida students

Director Steven Spielberg and producer Jeffrey Katzenberg have pledged $500,000 each to the student-organized March For Our Lives imploring action on gun control.

The nationwide protest scheduled for March 24 is the brainchild of the Never Again movement organized by the student survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting in Parkland, Florida, and joined by students from across Florida and the United States.

In their announcements on Tuesday, Spielberg and his wife, Kate Capshaw, and Katzenberg and his wife, Marilyn, joined stars such as George Clooney and his wife, Amal, and Oprah Winfrey in pledging $500,000 to offset costs of the protest.

Seventeen students and teachers were killed and at least a dozen others wounded in a shooting rampage February 14 at the school by a 19-year-old expelled student with a legally purchased AR-15 assault rifle.

The march to demand action on gun control will take place in Washington, DC, and other cities. Students nationally also plan a walkout from school on March 14.

— JTA

Speaking to US Jewish leaders, Netanyahu again thanks Trump over Jerusalem

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is addressing the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations delegation currently meeting in Israel.

He reiterates his longstanding gratitude to US President Donald Trump for his recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Saying he wants to issue a few “thank yous,” he says, “the first thank you is to President Trump, this is the first [Conference of Presidents gathering] since his recognition of Jerusalem, which touched all our hearts.”

— Raoul Wootliff

Netanyahu: Our intel services stopped dozens of terror attacks worldwide

Netanyahu continues his talk to the American Jewish leaders:

“Thank you to the Israeli intelligence services. We revealed today that the security agencies prevented the shooting down of an Australian airliner. This is just one of the dozens of terrorist attacks that we have stopped around the world. [The intelligence services] deserve all the support we can give, not only for protecting the citizens of Israel, but for protecting people all over the world.”

Netanyahu: We will never allow Iran to establish military bases in Syria

Speaking to the Conference of Presidents, Netanyahu says:

“We will never allow Iran to establish military bases in Syria to be used against us. We will never allow Iran to get nuclear weapons. This is the most important point of our policy.”

Netanyahu: American people know Iran is the problem, not the solution

Speaking to the Conference of Presidents, Netanyahu says: “I think that the American people understand that Iran is the problem, not the solution and I thank President Trump for leading them on that.”

— Raoul Wootliff

Netanyahu: Nuke deal emboldens Iran, which is uniting Middle East against it

Netanyahu says Middle Eastern nations are turning toward Israel over concerns at Iran’s “aggression.”

“There are great changes in the region. Anyone with eyes in their head can see this dramatic change. It starts with the fact that most Arab countries see Israel not as their enemy but as an ally in facing challenges. The greatest challenge we face is from radical Islam.

“They are concerned with Iran’s agression and that agression is growing. The Iran nuclear deal both enriched Iran and increased Iran’s aggression.”

— Raoul Wootliff

Poll: 50% of Israelis say PM should leave over latest graft suspicions

A Hadashot television news poll finds that in the wake of Netanyahu’s latest graft investigation, the so-called Case 4000, about half of Israelis believe he should resign or suspend himself for the duration of the investigations.

Asked if Netanyahu should resign or suspend himself, 50 percent said he should while 33% said he should stay in office.

The poll also asked Israelis if they supported holding early elections in the wake of the allegations. It found 42% for new elections and 36% against.

The numbers reflect steady support for Netanyahu among his right-wing base, and suggest the latest allegations have not dented that support.

Kahlon laments ‘unpleasant shadow’ of graft probe, but will stay in coalition

One of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s top coalition partners, Kulanu chief and finance minister Moshe Kahlon, is among the first coalition party chiefs to speak openly about the explosive revelations surrounding the Bezeq graft probe.

The latest allegations “cast a dark and unpleasant shadow” over the coalition, Kahlon said in a speech in Migdal Haemek Wednesday.

But, he added, “we’re a nation of laws, and the law says there’s only one person in the state of Israel authorized to indict a prime minister, and that’s the attorney general.”

Kulanu would not take any steps out of the coalition until the attorney general gave his decision in the case, Kahlon said, in what amounts to a welcome political boost to the embattled Netanyahu.

Channel 10: Even in midst of graft probe, Netanyahu doesn’t hurt Likud

Channel 10 television news releases a poll carried out earlier today by the Midgam polling company that shows Likud remains squarely in the lead if any election were held today.

If Netanyahu continues to lead Likud, the party would get 27 seats, the poll finds, followed by Yesh Atid’s 23, Zionist Union 15 and the Joint (Arab) List’s 12. Jewish Home takes 10, Kulanu 8, Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu 7 each, and Haredi parties UTJ and Shas 6 and 5, respectively.

If Netanyahu is ousted as Likud leader, the figures are the same, within the margin of error. Likud takes 26, Yesh Atid 23, Zionist Union 16, Joint List 12, Jewish Home 10, Kulanu 8, Meretz 7, Yisrael Beytenu 7, UTJ 6 and Shas 5.

The poll spoke to 714 Israelis, and has a 3.7% margin of error.

Polish Holocaust law won’t lead to criminal charges, minister says

The newly passed Polish Holocaust law will not lead to criminal charges, according to a government minister.

The law, which takes effect at the end of the month, criminalizes claims that the Polish nation or state are responsible for Nazi crimes.

Polish Deputy Foreign Minister Bartosz Cichocki says in an interview on Polish television that no criminal charges will be brought against offenders, but Poland will require some remedy for untrue statements, The Associated Press reports.

Poland will “react, demand clarifications, argue against them, but no means of prosecution will be implemented,” Cichocki says on TVN24.

The law, which has been sent to the country’s Constitutional Court for review, provides for jail sentences of up to three years for violations, such as using the term “Polish death camp.”

— JTA

Netanyahu said to warn coalition partners against seeking his removal

Channel 10 reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is working hard to shore up his political position in order to weather the storm of the latest graft allegations in the Case 4000 investigation.

According to the report, Netanyahu has conveyed to the heads of other parties in his ruling coalition that if they try to force him to resign or suspend himself ahead of a possible indictment, he will call early elections.

Polls by both Likud’s internal pollster and Channel 10 all suggest Likud would win the election, a fact that gives Netanyahu’s threat credibility.

Amid graft probe, PM tells US Jewish leaders they’ll ‘meet again next year’

In his talk this evening to the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made no direct reference to the corruption probes surrounding him and his associates.

The closest he gets to such a mention is in this final passage of his address:

“I want to thank you for standing up for Israel, standing by Israel, standing up for the truth time and again. Thank you.

“We’ll meet again next year right here in Jerusalem, the united capital, forever united, of the State of Israel. Thank you all. Thank you for your support.”

Remand extended for ex-Netanyahu spokesman suspected of trying to bribe judge

Nir Hefetz, a former spokesperson for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s family sees his detention extended for another three days over bribery suspicions.

Hefetz is suspected of suggesting in 2015 that a judge could be appointed attorney general if she agreed to halt an investigation into the prime minister’s wife Sara.

At the remand hearing, police told the judge that Hefetz, who was arrested on Sunday, was exercising his right to remain silent.

The alleged attempts to bribe a judge has been dubbed by police as Case 1270, and is one of several corruption scandals involving the prime minister.

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