The Times of Israel liveblogged Thursday’s events as they unfolded.
Metzger to serve 4.5 years after judge scuppers plea deal
A Jerusalem judge rejects plea deal with former chief rabbi Yona Metzger, handing down a harsher sentence of four and a half years in prison on a slew of bribery and corruption charges.
On January 30, Metzger pleaded guilty to charges involving some NIS 10 million ($2.6 million), based on a plea deal that recommended he be jailed for three and a half years.
But the Jerusalem District Court is now adding another year to his sentence in a rare move for the court.
The plea deal came after months of negotiations between Metzger’s attorneys and senior officials in the State Attorney’s Office.
Metzger admitted to fraud, theft, conspiracy, breach of trust, money laundering, tax offenses and accepting bribes. In addition to a prison term, the court will decide how long Metzger will be on probation and will foreclose on an apartment in his name in central Tel Aviv. He was also pay NIS 5 million ($1.3 million) in fines, a court spokesperson said last month.
PM’s former aide admits fraud and breach of trust
Perach Lerner, a former senior adviser to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, confesses to fraud and breach of trust as part of a deal that will see prosecutors closing a criminal probe against her.
She will, however, face disciplinary proceedings within the civil service during which she will have to admit a string of disciplinary offenses connected to using her position to advance the interests of several clients connected to her husband‘s public relations company.
Lerner — according to a statement from the Justice Ministry — will have to resign from the civil service and stay away from civil service jobs for five years, avoid all public positions for a year and pay a fine of NIS 20,000 ($5,400).
Should she break the conditions of the deal, reached by lawyers from both sides, she will be charged and tried in a criminal court.
UN-sponsored Syria talks resume in Geneva after 10 months
Syrian peace talks under the auspices of the United Nations resume in Geneva, 10 months after falling apart over escalating bloodshed in the war-torn country.
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura convenes his first meeting with the delegation of the Syrian government, headed by Bashar al-Ja’aafari.
He is also meeting with the head of the opposition delegation in Geneva, Yahya Kadamani, and Nasr Hariri, a senior member of the largest opposition group, the Syrian National Coalition.
Speaking ahead of the meeting, an opposition delegation spokesman said that they hoped to achieve “at least something at the human dimension: lifting the siege in certain areas, getting aid to those who are besieged.”
He also hoped there would be serious work on the issue of political transition, a sticking point of past talks. “The world has to end this saga. The world has to end these brutalities,” he said.
Syria rebels announce capture of Al-Bab from IS
Turkish-backed Syrian rebels announce they had taken full control of the northern town of Al-Bab from the Islamic State jihadist group after weeks of deadly fighting.
“We are announcing Al-Bab completely liberated, and we are now clearing mines from the residential neighborhoods,” says Ahmad Othman, commander of the Sultan Mourad rebel group.
Field commanders from two other rebel factions in the town confirmed the news to AFP.
US gas giant agrees to finance Israel’s biggest offshore gas field
US energy giant Noble Energy announces that financing has been secured to develop the Israel’s offshore Leviathan gas field, with the aim of bringing it online by 2019.
“Bringing Leviathan online will expand Israel’s supply of natural gas, further support the State’s commitment to convert coal-fired power generation facilities to cleaner burning gas, and provide affordable energy resources to Israeli citizens and neighboring countries in the undersupplied region,” David L. Stover, Noble Energy’s chairman, president and CEO, says in a statement.
Israel hopes the development of Leviathan will allow it to export gas, which could help grease the wheels of regional diplomacy.
The announcement ends months of deadlock over the specific terms of the deal.
Leviathan, discovered in 2010, is estimated to hold 18.9 trillion cubic feet (535 billion cubic meters) of natural gas, along with 34.1 million barrels of condensate.
Netanyahu welcomes deal to drill for gas
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu praises the decision of Noble Energy to invest $3.75 billion in the Leviathan gas field.
“This is a good news day for the economy and citizens of Israel,” he writes on Twitter. “The move will provide a supply of gas to the State of Israel and will advance our cooperation with regional partners.”
Netanyahu has made the gas deal a centerpiece of his agenda, saying the discovery of large reserves would bring energy self-sufficiency and billions of dollars in tax revenues. But critics said the deal gave excessively favorable terms to the government’s corporate partners.
Satmar Hasidic matzah bakery damaged in fire
A well-known matzah bakery in Brooklyn in New York City is heavily damaged in a major fire.
The fire broke out in the bakery owned and run by Williamsburg’s Congregation Yetev Lev D’Satmar, the main synagogue of the Satmar Hasidic sect. The bakery has baked matzah there for the last 60 years.
The fire, first reported by the Yeshiva World News website, appears to have been caused by a new wood-burning oven that had been used the prior day for the first time. The building did not have a sprinkler system in place near the ovens, according to reports.
“The damage was extensive to the matzah,” Rabbi David Niederman, head of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, tells DNAinfo, speaking on behalf of the bakery. “It’s a tremendous loss but it’s not an issue that there will be no matzah.”
Despite controversial ties, Venezuelan president meets Jewish leaders
Venezuela’s President Nicolas Maduro welcomes Jewish leaders at the governmental palace in a bid to “strengthen cooperation.”
Ties between the government and the Jewish community have faced roadblocks at times in the country.
“A good day of dialog for peace. Boosting the co-existence and the dialog of civilizations, of religions to consolidate our nation,” Maduro tweets after the meeting in Caracas, which was also attended by foreign affairs minister Delcy Rodriguez.
The Jewish delegation was led by Rabbi Isaac Cohen, spiritual leader of the Asociacion Israelita de Venezuela, which represents the country’s Sephardic community. Members of the country’s umbrella Jewish organization, the Confederacion de Asociaciones Israelitas de Venezuela, also attended.
According to the state-owned Telesur channel, which distributed the news to all other media outlets, the meetings were intended to “strengthen the cooperation and fraternity ties” with the Jewish community.
Yiddish-Cuban opera to premiere in Havana
A new opera based on an 86-year-old Yiddish poem about a Taino indigenous chief who resisted the Spanish invaders will have its premiere in Havana next month, the New York Times reports.
Composed by Frank London of the Klezmatics, the opera, “Hatuey: Memory of Fire,” is based on a 1931 epic poem written in Yiddish by Oscar Pinis, a Ukrainian refugee who fled to Cuba and edited a Yiddish newspaper there, and who later took the name Ascher Penn.
“It’s quite a story — it kind of rocks my world,” London tells the newspaper, describing how the score weaves together several of his musical passions. “I’ve been playing Afro-Cuban music longer than I’ve been playing Jewish music.”
In order to bring it to the Caribbean island, London agreed to have most of the opera’s Yiddish passages translated into Spanish after the founder of the performing company warned that it would otherwise be inaccessible.
“There are still a few of the Jews almost, not quite, but almost from the generation of our poet,” he says, adding that one woman still had a copy of the opera’s source in its original Yiddish.
High Court rejects petition against demolition of terrorist’s home
The High Court of Justice rejects a petition seeking to prevent the planned demolition of the home of Fadi al-Qadr, the perpetrator of a deadly terrorist attack last month.
Four soldiers were killed and 17 were injured in the car-ramming attack in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood of Jerusalem when a terrorist rammed his truck into a group of people, the majority of them army cadets, who were touring the capital.
Al-Qadr, 28, from the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Jabel Mukaber, was shot dead at the scene.
While noting the hardship that the move will cause the family, judges accepted the state’s position that the order was legal and said there was significant legal precedent for it to be carried out.
Nonetheless, the state was instructed to give the family at least 10 days in order to “organize their belongings” and leave the property.
IDF shoots down Hamas drone
An IDF fighter jet shoots down a Hamas drone flying from the Gaza Strip toward the Mediterranean Sea, the army says.
The unmanned aerial vehicle never entered Israeli territory, army notes.
“The IDF will not allow any violation of [Israel’s] air space and will operate with determination against any attempt to do so,” the IDF says in a statement.
— Judah Ari Gross
Jerusalem to get NIS 700 million budget boost
The Finance Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality reach an agreement that will see NIS 700 million allotted to the capital’s 2017 budget, ending months of financial crisis and a brief strike last month aimed at pressuring the national government to fill a funding gap of some NIS 300 million.
In late January, labor unions and municipal workers called a general strike, suspending garbage collection, welfare and social services for three days before Mayor Nir Barkat called for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene. School schedules were also disrupted.
Netanyahu, Turnbull release joint statement after meeting
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Australian counterpart Malcom Turnbull release a joint statement after their meeting in Melbourne saying that they are both “committed to invigorate the relationship to maximize the opportunities it presents and to enable it to meet today’s challenges.”
“Australia re-affirmed its commitment to Israel’s right to exist, as the nation-state of the Jewish people, in peace within secure borders, and its steadfast opposition to attempts to undermine Israel’s legitimacy. Israel thanked Australia for its consistent support in this regard,” the statement reads. “Both countries re-stated their support for a directly negotiated peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Australia affirmed its support for a two-state solution.”
Notably, the statement did not say that Israel affirmed support for the two-state solution.
Netanyahu is currently in the country for the first ever visit of an Israeli prime minister. He invited Prime Turnbull to visit Israel at the earliest opportunity.
US white supremacist David Duke praises France’s Le Pen
American white supremacist David Duke praises France’s far-right presidential candidate Marine Le Pen, extolling her political prowess and controversial father.
“Her father is a great man, a true patriot. He raised a strong & intelligent woman who understands how to play 21st century politics,” Duke says on Twitter, responding to a question about his views on Le Pen.
Jean-Marie Le Pen, 88, is the founder of France’s far-right National Front party, a five-time presidential candidate who has had multiple convictions for inciting racial hatred and denying crimes against humanity.
Marine Le Pen took over leadership of the party in 2011 and has softened some of its views, increasing its appeal to a broader spectrum of voters.
Wilders halts public activities after security leak
Anti-Islam Dutch MP Geert Wilders and his far-right Freedom Party suspend all public activities after a police agent was arrested for allegedly leaking information about him to a Moroccan gang.
“Very disturbing news. The Freedom Party is suspending all public activities until all facts in connection with the investigation are known,” Wilders says on Twitter, as Dutch political parties gear up for a crunch election on March 15.
The firebrand MP, who has courted controversy with his hardline anti-Islam, anti-immigrant stance and his incendiary insults against Moroccans and Turks, has long been under 24-hour police protection.
Tensions are escalating ahead of the election in which the Freedom Party is running neck-and-neck with the Liberals of Prime Minister Mark Rutte.
Ramat Hasharon chief rabbi dies at 93
Rabbbi Ya’akov Edelstein, the chief rabbi of Ramat Hasharon near Tel Aviv, passes away at the age of 93.
Edelstein was hospitalized Monday in serious condition after feeling unwell. He had undergone a complex operation last year and had been hospitalized several since then.
A funeral procession will set out Thursday afternoon from Kiryat Sanz in Netanyahu, through Bnei Brak and will end in Ramat Hasharon where he will be buried.
Ellison, in run-up to DNC chair election, calls for party to fight anti-Semitism
Rep. Keith Ellison callS for Democrats to speak out against anti-Semitism and reject hatred of refugees during a debate for candidates to head the Democratic Party.
Ellison also says that he supports Israel and has strong support from the Jewish community. He is vying with seven others to chair the Democratic National Committee.
He notes his “long, strong history of interfaith dialogue, interfaith communication” and calls suggestions that he is personally anti-Semitic – based on his involvement with Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam while he was in college – “smears.”
“I just want to say, it is critical that we speak up against this anti-Semitism because right now, you have Jewish cemeteries being defaced and desecrated. Right now, you have Jewish institutions getting bomb threats. We have to stand with the Jewish community right here, right now, four square, and that’s what the Democratic Party is all about,” he says.
New round of threats made against US Jewish community centers
The Jewish community center in New Orleans receives a bomb threat in what appears to be another round of incidents affecting JCCs across the US.
Since January 9, there have been at least 69 bomb threat incidents at 54 JCCs in 27 states and one Canadian province. All were hoaxes. The latest wave of threats came on Monday, when threats were called in to 11 JCCs.
— Judah Ari Gross
Israel said to freeze plan to take in 100 Syrian child refugees
Israel has put the brakes on a plan reported last month to grant refugee status to 100 orphaned Syrian refugee children, according to Israel Radio.
In line with a decision by Interior Minister Aryeh Deri, the children were set to receive temporary resident status and become permanent residents after four years, and be able to remain in Israel for their entire lives. Channel 10 said that the children were to be integrated into Arab Israeli families. Furthermore, any of the children’s immediate relatives were also to be considered for refugee status.
But the plan has now reportedly come up against opposition from within the government.
Despite agreement from various government agencies last month, no further efforts have been made to advance the program, the report says.
Netanyahu’s former chief of staff to face fraud charges
Police investigators will recommend bribery and breach of trust charges against a former chief of staff and aide to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to a police statement.
California-born Ari Harow has been under investigation since mid-2015 on suspicion of using his ties to Netanyahu to advance his private business interests.
According to a Thursday police statement, Harow signed a conflict of interest agreement before being appointed chief of staff under Netanyahu in 2014. In the agreement, which is required of all high-level public service appointees, he agreed to sell his political consulting company 3H in order to avoid conflicts of interest in his new position.
But investigators said Thursday that Harow’s sale of the company was allegedly fictitious, as he continued de facto management of the company and advanced its interests while serving at the prime minister’s side.
The police recommendation lists four charges: bribery, breach of trust, fraud and money laundering.
Harow was unavailable to comment on the allegations.
Asked if Harow had provided any services or information to 3H during his time in the PMO, a spokesperson for the company declined to comment.
Religious Rio mayor said to be planning Israel trip to avoid annual carnival
Rio de Janeiro’s mayor, Marcelo Crivella, a retired Pentecostal bishop, is reportedly planning on coming to Israel this week in an effort to avoid participating in his city’s annual Carnival.
The former gospel singer and missionary, a high-profile member of one of Brazil’s most powerful evangelical churches who took office on January 1, signaled this week that he may not participate in the festivities starting Friday.
The mayor is usually in charge of the traditional presentation of the city’s key to “Rei Momo,” or “king of the party” and is often photographed taking part in the celebrations.
Crivella’s office declined to make him available for an interview or say what he would do during the Carnival period if he doesn’t attend. Local reports have said a trip to Israel could be on the books.
— with AP
Egypt denies reports about giving Sinai to Palestinians
The spokesman for Egypt’s president is categorically denying a report that Egypt has proposed giving up part of Sinai Peninsula for the Palestinians to set up an independent state.
In a statement, Alaa Youssef says the issue has not been discussed or presented “on any level.”
“It’s unimaginable to get into such unrealistic and unacceptable proposals especially in Sinai, which is a dear part of the nation,” he says.
His remarks came at the end of a meeting on Thursday between top commanders of the Egyptian army and police with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi in Cairo.
Predicting a sharp and somewhat bewildering shift in policy, Minister Ayoub Kara said before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with US President Donald Trump two weeks ago that the two planned to discuss a plan to establish a Palestinian state in Gaza and the Sinai Peninsula and not in the West Bank, reviving an idea long rejected by the international community.
After the meeting, an Israeli official told The Times of Israel that Kara’s comments were “unauthorized speculation.”
Netanyahu reportedly took 2-hour flight detour to avoid Indonesian airspace
Flying from Singapore to Australia earlier this week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was forced to take a two-and-a-half-hour detour in order to avoid Indonesian airspace, the Guardian reports.
A member of the delegation confirmed to the paper that the plane took a roundabout route that added hours to the normal flight time. The average direct flight from Singapore to Sydney is around eight and a half hours. Netanyahu’s flight took over 11.
The prime minister was flying on an El Al plane, which, as Israel’s national carrier, is barred from the airspace of many Muslim nations.
Last year Netanyahu called for the establishment of official diplomatic relations with Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim country.
Israel reinstates life term of Hamas prisoner freed in swap
An Israeli court has ordered a senior Hamas member to complete his life sentence after the man was freed in a 2011 swap of hundreds of inmates for an Israeli soldier held by the terrorist organization, according to Palestinian activists.
At the time of the exchange, Nael Barghouti had served 33 years for participating in the kidnapping and killing of an Israeli soldier, making him one of the longest-held Palestinians.
Israel has since rearrested scores of Palestinians for allegedly resuming anti-Israel activities.
Prisoner rights campaigner Qadoura Fares says that a military court reinstated Barghouti’s original sentence on appeal, life plus 18 years.
There was no immediate comment from the Israeli military on the issue.
UN envoy urges Syrian rivals to take ‘historical’ responsibility
UN Syria envoy Staffan de Mistura calls on regime and opposition negotiators Thursday to accept the “historical” responsibility to seek a peaceful solution to the country’s six-year conflict.
He said the peace talks in Geneva will officially launch later Thursday evening and that he was not expecting miracles, while urging rival sides to guide the Syrian people out of the “nightmare” caused by the war.
“This is… our solemn responsibility… a historical responsibility not to condemn the future generations of Syrian children to long years of bitter and bloody conflict,” he tells rival delegations gathered together for a brief ceremony at the United Nations headquarters.
“The Syrian people desperately want to end this conflict,” he says. “We face an uphill task. It will not be easy,” he continues, adding all sides know “what will happen if we fail again: more death, more suffering.”
De Mistura met separately with government and rebel delegations earlier in the day in preparation for the formal talks.
Hungary to erect new fence to deter migrants
The Hungarian government says it plans to start building a new fence on the border with Serbia in the spring because of the risk that large numbers of migrants may try to enter the country.
Janos Lazar, Prime Minister Viktor Orban’s chief of staff, says that work on the second barrier will start as soon as weather conditions allow.
Lazar says the government will spend some 38 billion forints ($130.7 million) on erecting the new fence and to set up shipping containers in transit zones at the Serbian border.
Asylum-seekers will be forced to wait there while their requests for protection are reviewed by Hungarian officials.
The stricter measures for refugees have been strongly criticized by human rights advocates. Amnesty International says the government is “demonizing” asylum-seekers.
Over 1,000 migrants rescued in 48 hours from Mediterranean
More than 1,000 migrants have been rescued in the Mediterranean Sea during several operations in the last 48 hours, and many more are expected to attempt the perilous journey as winter ends.
Rescuers found 332 people on Thursday in three separate rubber boats traveling north of the Libyan coast, according to Proactiva Open Arms, the nonprofit that operates the Golfo Azzurro rescue vessel.
The first boat was located 25 miles offshore. It carried 99 people, including two pregnant women and some passengers with burn injuries, Proactiva spokeswoman Laura Lanuza says.
The nonprofit group found two more boats in the afternoon and rescued all 233 people on board. The Golfo Azzurro was escorting them to a port in Sicily.
In a separate operation, Italy’s coast guard said that some of the 730 migrants rescued during seven different operations Wednesday were brought ashore Thursday.
Israeli MK elected as deputy president of international parliament body
Zionist Union MK Amir Peretz is to serve as deputy president of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Mediterranean (PAM).
Peretz, who is the longest current serving member of Knesset, was elected to the position during the organization’s annual plenary session, being held this week in Portugal. He received an overwhelming majority of 49 out of 61 votes.
PAM is an interstate forum where “the Parliaments of the region come together and operate to reach those common objectives towards the creation of the best political, social, economic and cultural environment and conditions for the fellow citizens of the member states,” the organization’s website reads.
Peretz’s election is “an important achievement for Israel in the international area,” a statement released by his office reads.
US promises Mexico no mass deportations or military force
US Homeland Security Secretary John Kelly promises there will be “no mass deportations” or use of military force against immigrants in the United States despite a crackdown on those in the country illegally.
“There will be no, repeat no, mass deportations,” Kelly tells a news conference in Mexico City after meeting with Mexican ministers. “There will be no use of military force for immigration operations.”