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Far-right parties led by Smotrich, Ben Gvir merge ahead of election

Netanyahu has been pushing alliance over concerns factions would fall under electoral threshold if they ran alone

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)
Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s developments as they unfolded.

Egypt conditioning Netanyahu visit on goodwill gesture to Palestinians — report

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is seeking to visit Egypt before the March elections, the Walla news site reports.

But Egyptian President Abdel Fattah el-Sissi is conditioning the visit on a goodwill gesture by Netanyahu to the Palestinians, such as a declaration in support of a two-state solution, according to two Israeli sources. Netanyahu pushed back against such a demand, the report says.

The Prime Minister’s Office denies any condition was set for the visit.

According to the report, the move is a bid by Egypt to impress the Biden administration.

“President el-Sissi doesn’t care so much about the Palestinian issue, but he knows Netanyahu is looking for a campaign photo-op and is trying to get a diplomatic achievement for Egypt out of it,” an Israeli official says.

Talks over the potential visit have been ongoing for months. The trip almost went ahead last month, but was postponed by Egypt after the Israeli elections were moved up, the report says.

The last official visit by Netanyahu to Egypt was in January 2011, when he met then-president Hosni Mubarak, though he reportedly paid a secret, unofficial visit in 2018. An official visit had reportedly been set to go ahead in 2016 but was canceled after Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz said Egypt had taken action — at Israel’s request — to seal a cross-border tunnel from Gaza built by the Hamas terror group.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly in New York on September 27, 2018. (Avi Ohayon / PMO)

Former Mossad chief’s retirees party won’t run in election

Former Mossad chief Danny Yatom announces that his retirees party won’t run in the upcoming election on March 23.

Yatom, in his announcement, attributes the decision to financial difficulties.

He urges all center-left parties to merge before a Thursday night deadline under the leadership of Yair Lapid to achieve a “historic change of leadership.”

Former Mossad director Danny Yatom. (Photo credit: Olivier Fitoussi /Flash90)

High Court approves demolishing home of suspected killer of Esther Horgen

The High Court of Justice rules that the home of the suspected terrorist who killed Esther Horgen in December can be destroyed.

Justices say both the top floor of the structure and the second floor, where the killer’s wife and family are living, should be demolished.

The decision follows an appeal by the family of suspect Muhammad Mruh Kabha against the demolition.

Esther Horgen, 52, who was found dead in the northern West Bank in a suspected terror attack on December 20, 2020. (Courtesy)

Gantz’s Blue and White registers party, ruling out mergers

Political parties are starting to register for the March elections in the Knesset.

One of the first parties to do so was Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s centrist Blue and White, which got 14 seats in the previous election — as part of an alliance with Yesh Atid that got 33 seats in total — but is now teetering on the edge of extinction after Gantz broke his central campaign promise not to join a Netanyahu-led government.

That means Blue and White will not merge with any other center-left party, and its votes may end up being wasted.

Gantz’s slate includes MK Pnina Tamano-Shata as his No. 2, followed by MKs Chili Tropper, Michael Biton and Orit Farkash-Hacohen.

— with Michael Bachner

Yesh Atid registers party slate for March elections

Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid unveils its party slate for the March elections.

Yesh Atid is the first party to officially register its slate, which is shaping up in opinion polls to be the main challenger to Netanyahu’s leadership as the second-largest party.

“We have a strong team with clear principles and values,” says faction chairman Meir Cohen in a statement. “Anyone looking for stability knows that they can trust us and that we keep our word. It’s time for a sane and liberal government – only a strong Yesh Atid, the election of as many members of this list as possible, will make that happen.”

The candidates are:

1. Yair Lapid
2. Orna Barbivai
3. Meir Cohen
4. Karine Elharrar
5. Meirav Cohen
6. Yoel Razvozov
7. Elazar Stern
8. Mickey Levy
9. Merav Ben-Ari
10. Ram Ben Barak
11. Yoav Segalovitz
12. Boaz Toporovsky
13. Idan Roll
14. Yorai Lahav Hertzanu
15. Vladimir Beliak
16. Ron Katz
17. Nira Shpak
18. Tanya Mazarsky
19. Yasmin Sacks Friedman
20. Inbar Bezek
21. Moshe (Kinley) Tur Paz
22. Simon Davidson
23. Ronit Erenfroind
24. Zohar Bloom
25. Ifat Ben Shoshan
26. Ibrahem Kasem
27. Oz Haim
28. Tommer Vinner
29. Michal Slawny Cababia
30. Yaron Levi

According to a statement from the party: “The Yesh Atid list includes 50% women on the list including three in the top five. The list includes two Maj. Generals (Res.), two deputy police commissioners, a deputy head of the Mossad and three recipients of the annual prize from the Movement for Quality Government.

Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid arrives at the Blue and White party headquarters in Tel Aviv, on election night, March 3, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

“From the top 30 candidates for Knesset ten weren’t born in Israel, eleven speak languages other than Hebrew and English including Arabic, Russia, French, Spanish and Hungarian, eleven have a background in local government, ten have law degrees, twelve have been professionally involved in sports and ten play either the guitar, piano, accordion or recorder.”

Bennett’s Yamina registers party for elections

Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party is also set to register for elections, nixing the prospects, however dim, of an alliance with New Hope.

The right-wing Yamina’s top ten includes party leader Naftali Bennett followed by MK Ayelet Shaked, Sderot Mayor Alon Davidi, MK Matan Kahana, IDF veteran Amichai Chikli, former Jewish Home party manager Nir Orbach, small business protest leader Abir Kara, MK Idit Silman, social activist Shirley Pinto, and right-wing activist and lawyer Shai Maimon.

Ayelet Shaked and Naftali Bennett (L) at a press conference in Ramat Gan announcing Shaked as the new leader of the New Right party, July 21, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

UK says study vindicates choice to delay 2nd vaccine dose

Britain’s health chief says that a new study suggesting that a single dose of the Oxford-AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine provides a high level of protection for 12 weeks supports the government’s strategy of delaying the second shot so it can protect more people quickly with a first dose.

Britain’s decision has been criticized as risky by other European countries, but Health Secretary Matt Hancock says the study “backs the strategy that we’ve taken and it shows the world that the Oxford vaccine works effectively.”

Hancock’s comments comes after Oxford University released a study showing the vaccine cut transmission of the virus by two-thirds and prevented severe disease.

Mene Pangalos, executive vice president of biopharmaceuticals research and development at AstraZeneca, says no patients experienced severe disease or hospitalization three weeks after receiving a first dose, and that efficacy appeared to increase up to 12 weeks after the initial shot.

82-year-old Brian Pinker receives the Oxford University/AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine from nurse Sam Foster at the Churchill Hospital in Oxford, England, January 4, 2021. (Steve Parsons/Pool Photo via AP)

“Our data suggest you want to be as close to the 12 weeks as you can” for the second dose, he tells a news conference.

The study has not been peer-reviewed yet and does not address the efficacy of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the other one currently in use in the UK. Pfizer recommends that its shots be given 21 days apart and has not endorsed the UK government’s decision to lengthen the time between doses.

But the Oxford research was greeted with excitement by UK officials under pressure to justify their decision to delay the second dose.

Germany says Russia may face additional EU sanctions over Navalny jailing

Germany warns that Russia may face further EU sanctions over the jailing of opposition figure Alexei Navalny.

“After this ruling, there will now also be talks among EU partners. Further sanctions cannot be ruled out,” says Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert.

Nevertheless, he tells reporters the government had not changed its position in support of the controversial Nord Stream 2 pipeline with Russia.

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a class cage during a hearing in the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, February 2, 2021. (Moscow City Court via AP)

Health officials to recommend reopening some school grades in low-infection areas

The Health Ministry will recommend reopening kindergartens and some school grades in low-infection cities and towns from next week, according to Army Radio.

These include first and second grades, along with 11th and 12th, the report says.

In addition, takeout will be permitted in these areas and workplaces that don’t serve customers in person will be allowed to reopen, according to the report.

In low-infection locales, gatherings will still be limited to 10 outdoors and 5 indoors.

The report says a recommendation on high-infection areas has yet to be formulated.

Ministers will meet today to hammer out a plan to lift the restrictions.

Israeli children wearing face masks attend a class lesson at the Beit Hakerem school in Jerusalem, November 24, 2020. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Jerusalem council member Ofer Berkovitch joining New Hope

Jerusalem council member Ofer Berkovitch, head of the Hitorerut movement, is joining Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope.

Berkovitch, 37, ran for Jerusalem mayor in 2018 against another member of New Hope, Ze’ev Elkin, though both were defeated by current mayor Moshe Lion.

Ofer Berkovitch, Jerusalem Mayoral candidate and head of the Hitorerut (Awakening) movement, is seen at the opening of the Hitorerut election campaign in Jerusalem on September 2, 2018. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)


Turkey’s Erdogan describes student protesters as ‘terrorists’

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan denounces student protesters as “terrorists” and vows to crack down on demonstrations opposing the appointment of a government loyalist to head Istanbul’s most prestigious university.

Students and faculty members of Bogazici University have spent weeks protesting Erdogan’s Jan. 1 appointment of Melih Bulu, an academic who once ran for parliament as a candidate for Erdogan’s party. They have called for Bulu to resign as the university’s rector and for the university to be allowed to elect its own president, saying the appointment was an affront to academic liberties.

Scores of students have been detained amid the protests, some taken away following raids of their homes.

Students of Bogazici University hold placards during a protest in Istanbul, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021. (AP Photo/Huseyin Aldemir)

“I do not accept these youngsters, who are members of terrorist groups, as sharing our country’s national and moral values,” Erdogan says in a video address to thousands of ruling party members who are holding regional congresses.

“Are you students… or are you terrorists who try to raid the office of the rector and occupy it?” he asks.

Erdogan goes on to say that his government would not allow mass anti-government protests like the ones that swept across Turkey in 2013. The protests were sparked by the government’s construction plans at Gezi Park, adjacent to Istanbul main Taksim square.

“This country won’t be a country dominated by terrorists. We will never allow it,” the Turkish leader says. “This country won’t re-live incidents such as the Gezi events at Taksim.”

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan speaks to his ruling party’s lawmakers, in Ankara, Turkey, Wednesday, Dec. 23. 2020 (Turkish Presidency via AP, Pool)

Tensions flared this week after a group of students were arrested over a poster, which was displayed at Bogazici University, that depicted Islam’s most sacred site with LGBT rights flags. The students were arrested over the weekend on charges of inciting hatred and insulting religious values.

Released on bail, British-Iranian academic flees Iran through mountains

A British-Iranian academic says he fled Iran across a mountain border after being sentenced to nine years in jail for collaborating with a hostile government.

Kameel Ahmady, a social anthropologist studying female genital mutilation and child marriage in Iran, tells the BBC and The Guardian newspaper that he escaped while on bail after being sentenced, as he feared he would not see his young son again.

“I just simply left. I packed my bag with shaving kit, a few books of mine and a laptop and I think pajamas… and warm clothes,” he tells BBC radio.

British-Iranian anthropologist Kameel Ahmady was held in Iran for three months before being released on bail on November 21, 2019. (Facebook)

After being detained for suspected links with foreign intelligence services, he spent three months in Tehran’s notorious Evin prison, where he said he was subjected to “so-called white torture, a psychological pressure they put on you.”

He was then released on bail and later sentenced in December last year and fined 600,000 euros (£529,000, $722,000) for receiving “illegitimate funds” and working on projects with “subversive institutions,” Iran’s Tasnim news agency reported.

British media reported that he escaped while on bail pending his appeal.

He describes the journey as “very cold, very long, very dark and very scary.”

Iranian news reports have said Ahmady was sentenced by Iran’s Revolutionary Court on charges of cooperation with European embassies in support of promoting homosexuality, visiting Israel as a reporter for the BBC, cooperation and communication with foreign and hostile media, infiltration aimed at changing the law, and sending false reports about the country to the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in Iran.

Ahmady is now living in London with his wife and son, British media reports, and his appeal was thrown out in his absence on Monday.

He tells the Guardian he does not know whether Iranian authorities were aware of his escape.

He says he took the paths used by smugglers of goods from Iraq and Turkey, wading through deep snow and evading Iranian border patrols.

Ahmady tells the BBC that as a dual-national and “a researcher who was digging up sensitive issues,” he was aware he faced being detained.

“I always knew that I am an attractive and potential asset,” he says. “But that doesn’t mean that I have done anything wrong.”

UN’s top court to rule on jurisdiction to hear Iran sanctions case

The UN’s top court will rule whether it can take on Iran’s bid to overturn US nuclear sanctions, reimposed by the administration of former US president Donald Trump.

Tehran dragged the United States to the International Court of Justice in mid-2018, saying Washington breached a 1955 friendship treaty between the two countries.

Then-president Trump reimposed the sanctions after pulling out of a 2015 nuclear deal with Iran to the dismay of European allies.

The United States says the Hague-based ICJ does not have jurisdiction and must throw out the case.

It also argues the sanctions were necessary because Iran posed a “grave threat” to international security.

The ICJ was set up by the United Nations after World War II to rule in disputes between member states.

If the court allows the case to go ahead, a final ruling could still be months or even years away.

Israeli drone comes under fire over Lebanon, isn’t damaged — IDF

An unmanned Israeli aircraft came under fire while flying over Lebanese territory, the Israeli military says.

“A short time ago, anti-aircraft fire from Lebanese territory was fired at a drone during routine operations over Lebanese territory. The craft was not damaged and continued its mission,” the Israel Defense Forces says in a statement.

Lebanese media had previously reported that an Israeli plane “exploded in south Lebanon.”

An Israeli drone crashed on Monday in southern Lebanon, with the Hezbollah terror group saying it shot it down. Hezbollah has not yet commented on whether it was responsible for firing on the drone today.

Israeli Shira Haas nominated for Golden Globe over ‘Unorthodox’ role

Israeli actress Shira Haas is nominated for a Golden Globe in the category of Best Actress – Television Motion Picture for her role in Netflix’s “Unorthodox.”

Also nominated in that category are Cate Blanchett for “Mrs. America,” Anya Taylor-Joy for “The Queen’s Gambit,” Nicole Kidman for “The Undoing,” and Daisy Edgar-Jones for “Normal People.”

Shira Haas in Netflix’s ‘Unorthodox” (Anika Molnar/Netflix)

“Unorthodox” is also nominated for Best Television Motion Picture.

Jewish actor Sacha Baron-Cohen is nominated for lead actor in “Borat Subsequent Moviefilm” and for supporting actor in “Trial of the Chicago 7,” where he played activist Abbie Hoffman.

Sacha Baron Cohen as Abbie Hoffman left) in ‘Chicago 7’ and the title character in ‘Borat 2.’ courtesy)

UN-backed program seeks rollout of 100 million vaccines to poor countries by late March

A UN-backed program to deploy COVID-19 vaccines to the neediest people worldwide, especially in poor countries, announces plans for an initial distribution of some 100 million doses by the end of March and more than 200 million more by the end of June.

The COVAX Facility, which is seeking the fair distribution of vaccines at a time of short supplies, says that nearly all of the doses expected for the first phase will come from British-Swedish drugmaker AstraZeneca and its partner, the Serum Institute of India.

Dr. Seth Berkley, the CEO of GAVI, the Vaccine Alliance, says COVAX plans for the initial distribution of 336 million doses of the vaccine, which AstraZeneca developed with Oxford University, through June to dozens of countries.

GAVI expects that nearly one-third of those doses — more than 100 million — will start being delivered to targeted countries by the end of March, officials say.

Another 1.2 million doses of the vaccine from US-based Pfizer and German partner BioNTech are expected to be shared by 18 countries during the first quarter of the year.

Illustrative: Courtney Senechal unpacks a special refrigerated box of Moderna COVID-19 vaccines as she prepared to ready more supply for use at the East Boston Neighborhood Health Center in Boston, Massachusetts, December 24, 2020. (Joseph Prezioso/AFP)

The AstraZeneca vaccine rollout will be contingent on the World Health Organization authorizing the shot for emergency use, which is expected to happen this month. The Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine already has received such approval, but supplying it to poorer nations is a challenge because the vaccine requires storage at extremely cold temperatures.

Such rollouts are contingent on regulatory approvals and countries’ readiness to receive the vaccines.

Some 190 countries and territories that are participating in COVAX have been awaiting details of the rollout. The participants include “self-financing” upper- and middle-income countries that have put up money and 93 lower-income countries which are expected to benefit.

WHO officials have consistently said the way to beat the pandemic is to make sure that everyone is safe from it — not just those in wealthier countries that launched vaccination drives in December.

COVAX has faced challenges as rich countries have scooped up vaccine supplies, sometimes at premium prices, and undercut WHO’s goal of equitable vaccine distribution. Program leaders have faced issues trying to strike deals with pharmaceutical manufacturers, and only a fraction of the 2 billion doses that have been secured for COVAX involve firm deals.

The 18 countries set to receive the Pfizer vaccine are Bhutan, Bolivia, Bosnia, Cabo Verde, Colombia, El Salvador, Georgia, Maldives, Moldova, Mongolia, Peru, Philippines, South Korea, Rwanda, South Africa, Tunisia, and Ukraine, as well as the Palestinian territories.

Israel and Greece said negotiating travel corridor for the vaccinated

Israel and Greece are negotiating a tourism pact to mutually recognize the countries’ vaccination certificates, enabling the ability to travel between the states, according to Hebrew media reports.

Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis is expected to travel to Israel on Monday to announce the deal, reports say.

But according to the Walla news site, the Health Ministry has yet to approve the plan.

People gather in Limanakia Vouliagenis beach in southern Athens, on Aug. 6, 2020 (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis)

Bnei Brak principal summoned for questioning after illegally opening school

A principal in the predominantly ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak has been summoned for police questioning after illegally opening a school during the lockdown.

Police found dozens of students at the institution, against the closure rules.

Government experts say only vaccinated teachers should teach in person

A panel of experts advising the government recommends that only vaccinated teachers be allowed to teach in person when the lockdown is lifted, according to Hebrew reports.

Just 53 percent of teachers have received the first dose of the vaccine, and 27% both doses, despite being prioritized for eligibility.

The experts further recommend opening kindergarten to second grade in low-infection areas, as well as resuming classes for 11th and 12th graders — but only if the teenage students are vaccinated.

It recommends keeping schools in high-infection towns and cities closed for the time being.

Cabinet meeting on easing lockdown rules postponed

The cabinet meeting on easing the lockdown, which was set to start at 6 p.m., is postponed, the Prime Minister’s Office says.

A new time will be announced this evening, it says.

UN court says it can hear case brought by Iran against US sanctions

The United Nations’ highest court rules that it can hear a case brought by Iran against the United States in a bid to end sanctions the Trump administration re-imposed in 2018 after pulling out of an international deal aimed at curtailing Tehran’s nuclear program.

Lawyers for the United States argued at hearings last year that the case should be thrown out by the International Court of Justice for lack of jurisdiction and admissibility.

However, the court’s president, Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, says that judges rejected US arguments.

In this photo provided by the United Nations, President of the International Court of Justice, Judge Abdulqawi Ahmed Yusuf, is seen on screens as he addresses the United Nations General Assembly to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the United Nations, September 21, 2020 (Manuel Elías/United Nations via AP)

Iran filed the case in July 2018 a few months after then-US president Donald Trump said he was pulling the US out of a 2015 international agreement over Iran’s nuclear program and would re-impose sanctions on Tehran. Washington also threatened other countries with sanctions if they don’t cut off Iranian oil imports by early November.

In its case, Iran alleges that the sanctions breach a 1955 bilateral agreement known as the Treaty of Amity that regulates and promotes economic and consular ties between the two countries.

The ruling Wednesday comes as new US President Joe Biden is seeking to enhance diplomacy toward Iran while Washington looks at restoring constraints on the country’s nuclear program and reining in its regional ambitions.

3 Israelis, 3 Palestinians charged with smuggling air-soft rifles into West Bank

Three Israelis and three Palestinians are charged with smuggling air-powered rifles into the West Bank, where they were converted into lethal weapons, the Shin Bet security service says.

The alleged ringleader of this operation is an Israeli man from the town of Sderot, Yuri Shaulov, who owned a store that sold these so-called air-soft guns, the Shin Bet says.

Air-soft rifles — generally regarded as children’s toys — are far less dangerous than standard firearms. They typically rely on compressed air to fire a plastic ball down a smooth-bore barrel. However, over the past several years, the Shin Bet has noted that a small industry has sprung up in Israel and the West Bank that specializes in converting these toys into lethal weapons by changing the barrel and the internal mechanism to allow it to hold bullets.

According to the Shin Bet, over the past two years, the primary suspect, Shaulov had sold a number of these air-soft rifles to Palestinians in the West Bank through two Bedouin intermediaries, “despite knowing that it was illegal to sell them in the West Bank and that the weapons that he sold were meant to be converted into proper firearms.”

The Shin Bet does not directly tie the air-soft rifles sold by Shaulov to any terrorist activities, but notes that this type of makeshift weapon has been used for attacks in the past.

Plan to reopen schools in low-infection areas likely excludes Jerusalem, Tel Aviv

If the government chooses to reopen some school grades next week exclusively in low-infection areas, per a reported Health Ministry plan, most of Israel’s major cities won’t make the cut, according to data from earlier today.

According to a Health Ministry color-coded ranking of cities of towns — which will likely change by next week — Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Ashdod, Ashkelon, Netanya, Rishon Lezion, Petah Tikva, Beersheba, Beit Shemesh, Holon, Hadera, and others are currently flagged as “orange” or “red” high-infection zones.

Haifa, Herzliya, Raanana, and numerous Arab towns and cities that recently saw major outbreaks that have since been quelled would be eligible to reopen.


UAE and Israeli soccer clubs to play first friendlies since normalization

UAE soccer club Al-Ain will play Israel’s Maccabi Haifa in two friendlies, the Emirati side says, the first such fixtures since the two countries normalized relations last year.

The announcement comes during the virtual signing of a deal between the two clubs and follows the United Arab Emirates’ landmark move to normalize relations with the Jewish state in August. They signed a formal deal in Washington in September.

“(The agreement) will consolidate the policy of bridge-building and cooperation between the two major clubs in various fields including marketing, technical cooperation, investment, commercial activities, media and sport,” says Mohamed Thaaloob, chairman of the Al-Ain club investment company.

The clubs, two of the most successful in their respective leagues, also agreed to stage two friendlies, the first to be hosted by Al-Ain and the second to be held in Haifa at an unspecified future date, he adds.

“I am pleased to witness this important moment in the history of the Israeli and Emirati game, and for sport in general,” said Yaqoub Shahar, president of Maccabi Haifa Club.

In October the Emirati and Israeli soccer federations signed a cooperation agreement, a first between the two nations, intended to promote closer sporting ties.

Maccabi Haifa’s Ukrainian midfielder Maxim Plakushchenko (C) celebrates with teammates after scoring a goal during the UEFA Europa League preliminary round football match between Strasbourg and Maccabi Haifa at the Meinau stadium in Strasbourg, on July 25, 2019. (PATRICK HERTZOG / AFP)

US extends sole remaining nuclear arms treaty with Russia

The United States joins Russia in extending the two countries’ last remaining treaty limiting their stockpiles of nuclear weapons, two days before the pact was set to expire.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken says in a statement the US would use the five years of the New START treaty’s renewal to pursue limits on all of Russia’s nuclear weapons. That’s after the Trump administration pulled out of two other such deals, as part of a broad withdrawal from international accords.

The countries last week announced plans to extend the agreement, even as the Biden administration has stepped up criticism of Russia over the jailing of opposition leader Alexei Navalny, its involvement in a massive hack and other issues.

In this March 10, 2011, file photo, US Vice President Joe Biden, left, shakes hands with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in Moscow, Russia. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko, File)

“Especially during times of tension, verifiable limits on Russia’s intercontinental-range nuclear weapons are vitally important. Extending the New START Treaty makes the United States, US allies and partners, and the world safer,” Blinken says. “An unconstrained nuclear competition would endanger us all.”

The treaty, signed in 2010 by President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits the number of US and Russian strategic nuclear weapons.

The outgoing Trump administration made a late bid to extend the treaty, but Russia rejected its conditions.

The treaty was due to expire Friday. Both houses of the Russian parliament voted unanimously last month for the extension, and President Vladimir Putin signed the bill.

That was after President Joe Biden and Putin talked and agreed on the extension, part of a quick round of diplomacy by the less than month-old US administration to keep the treaty going. The extension doesn’t require formal congressional approval in the United States.

The Biden administration will also work on control measures for China’s smaller but growing arsenal of nuclear warheads, Blinken says.

Iran hails UN court sanctions ruling as ‘victory’

Iran’s top diplomat hails as a “victory” a ruling by the UN’s top court that it is allowed to take on his country’s bid to overturn US sanctions.

“Another legal victory for Iran,” Mohammad Javad Zarif tweets, adding that the International Court of Justice “dismissed all US preliminary objections in the case brought by Iran over unlawful US sanctions.”

Tehran dragged the United States to the ICJ three years ago, saying Washington breached a 1955 friendship treaty between the two countries.

Then-president Donald Trump reimposed US sanctions in 2018 after pulling out of a landmark nuclear deal with Iran and world powers, which limited Tehran’s nuclear program in exchange for international sanctions relief.

In the same year, the ICJ ordered the US to ease sanctions on humanitarian goods, and Washington responded by formally ending the 1955 “Treaty of Amity.”

Washington also had said the Hague-based ICJ did not have jurisdiction and must throw out the case, while arguing the sanctions were necessary because Tehran posed a “grave threat” to international security.

US Supreme Court sides with Germany in Nazi-era art dispute

The US Supreme Court is making it harder for a multimillion-dollar lawsuit involving centuries-old religious artworks obtained by the Nazis from Jewish art dealers to continue in American courts.

The court rules unanimously in a case involving the 1935 sale of a collection of medieval Christian artwork called the Guelph Treasure. The heirs of the art dealers contended the sale of the works, now said to be worth at least $250 million, was done under pressure. Germany disagreed and argued that the case did not belong in the American legal system.

The justices say the heirs had not at this point shown that federal law allowed them to bring their case in US courts. The court sends the case back for additional arguments.

Because of that ruling, the Supreme Court also sends a similar case involving a group of Hungarian Holocaust survivors back to a lower court. They are seeking to be compensated for property taken from them and their families when they were forced to board trains to concentration camps.

Netanyahu hires ex-Breitbart journalist as campaign chief

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has named a former journalist with the right-wing Breitbart news site, who authored books challenging Barack Obama’s fitness for president, as his campaign chief for March national elections.

Aaron Klein, who has served as a political strategist to Netanyahu since last year, confirms his appointment to The Associated Press on Wednesday. He was appointed several weeks ago, according to a campaign official.

Klein also worked on Netanyahu’s March 2020 campaign and his efforts were credited by the prime minister with helping Likud become the largest party in that vote, according to JNS.

Klein is a former US radio show host and ex-Jerusalem bureau chief for Breitbart News. He was appointed by the site’s executive chairman at the time, Steven Bannon, who would later become a key strategist to Donald Trump.

Aaron Klein (courtesy)

Klein is the author of a number of books about Obama. They include: “The Manchurian President: Barack Obama’s Ties to Communists, Socialists and Other Anti-American Extremists”; “Fool Me Twice: Obama’s Shocking Plans for the Next Four Years Exposed”; and “Impeachable Offenses: The Case for Removing Barack Obama from Office.”

Netanyahu, who is fighting a tough reelection battle, has a long history of using American campaign advisers. One of his main challengers, Gideon Sa’ar, recently hired several founders of “The Lincoln Project,” an anti-Trump Republican organization, as advisers.

Netanyahu and Obama clashed repeatedly during his time in office over Israel’s policies toward the Palestinians and the nuclear agreement Obama’s administration negotiated with Iran. President Joe Biden is expected to restore many of these policies.

Democrats call for reinstating sanctions against Israeli billionaire Gertler

The chairman of the US House Foreign Affairs Committee along with two other Democratic members are calling on the Biden administration to reinstate sanctions against an Israeli business billionaire accused of corruption in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

The State Department hit Dan Gertler with sanctions in December 2017 for “opaque and corrupt mining deals” struck with help from his friend, then Congolese President Joseph Kabila. Washington claims Gertler deprived the DRC of $1.4 billion in tax revenues over the past decade.

Dan Gertler sits in his office in Ramat Gan on September 18, 2000. (AP/Mati Stein)

Former US president Donald Trump substantially eased sanctions on the billionaire during his final days in office.

In a letter to Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen, Chairman Gregory Meeks, Rep. Karen Bass and Rep. James Himes express concern over the Trump administration’s decision to lift sanctions and issue a license to Gertler without justification.

“Lifting the sanctions against Mr. Gertler upends US policy toward the DRC and threatens the integrity of US sanctions programs more broadly. The Treasury Department’s sudden reversal of its own careful 2017 decision is not only arbitrary and capricious, but as far as we can tell was done without even a scintilla of policy or legal justification. Given these stark facts, we strongly encourage you to revoke this license as soon as possible,” write the lawmakers.

As cabinet meeting delayed, Netanyahu to address violence in Arab communities

As the cabinet meeting is delayed, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is set to give a press conference on violence in Arab Israeli communities, following the killing of a nursing student in Tamra in a police shootout with criminals on Tuesday.

Netanyahu has been reaching out to Arab voters ahead of the March elections, in a sharp change from his previous rhetoric on the minority. He has vowed to crack down on violence in their towns and cities.

The cabinet meeting, which is to be focused on easing the lockdown rules, could be postponed until tomorrow, according to Hebrew media reports. The delay has angered Blue and White, which is insisting on holding the meeting tonight, even if it goes late into the night, according to Channel 12.

Number of babies diagnosed with COVID nearly quadrupled in Jan. — report

Channel 12 reports that the number of babies who have been diagnosed with COVID-19 last month nearly quadrupled, as compared to a month earlier.

It says 5,780 infants contracted the coronavirus in January, and 1,526 in December.

The report attributes the rise to the coronavirus mutations.

Another 4,666 virus cases diagnosed since midnight

The Health Ministry says 4,666 new virus cases have been diagnosed since midnight, bringing the total number of active cases to 73,000.

Of them, 1,104 are in serious condition.

The death toll rises to 4,928. Over the past week, 415 people have died of COVID-19.

Canada designates the Proud Boys a terrorist entity

The Canadian government designates the Proud Boys group as a terrorist entity, noting they played a pivotal role in the insurrection at the US Capitol on Jan. 6.

The Proud Boys have faced increased scrutiny after seizing on the former Trump administration’s policies and was a major agitator during earlier protests and the Capitol riot on Jan. 6. The Proud Boys is a far-right, male chauvinist extremist group known for engaging in violent clashes at political rallies. Canada is the first country to designate them as a terrorist entity.

During a September presidential debate, Donald Trump had urged them to “stand back and stand by” when asked to condemn them by a moderator.

A Canadian government senior official says the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol contributed to the designation.

The terrorist designation means the group may have assets seized and face harsher terrorism-related criminal penalties. A government official says just because they are a member doesn’t mean they will be charged with a crime, but if they do engage in violent acts they could be charged with terrorist crimes.

Sending money to the organization or buying Proud Boys paraphernalia would also be a crime.

Members of the Proud Boys and other right-wing demonstrators march across the Hawthorne Bridge during an ‘End Domestic Terrorism’ rally in Portland, Oregon, on August 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

“The group and its members have openly encouraged, planned, and conducted violent activities against those they perceive to be opposed to their ideology and political beliefs,” the Canadian government says in briefing materials.

“The group regularly attends Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests as counter-protesters, often engaging in violence targeting BLM supporters. On January 6, 2021, the Proud Boys played a pivotal role in the insurrection at the US Capitol.”

The government calls the Proud Boys a neo-fascist organization with semiautonomous chapters located in the United States, Canada, and internationally. It said it engages in political violence and that members espouse misogynistic, Islamophobic, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, and white supremacist ideologies.

Far-right parties led by Smotrich, Ben Gvir merge ahead of elections

Two far-right parties have signed a merger agreement and will run jointly in the upcoming election.

The alliance brings together Bezalel Smotrich of the National Religious Party and Itamar Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit.

The merger was reportedly pushed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. According to Channels 12 and 13 on Tuesday, the prime minister has promised Smotrich that he’ll place a candidate of Smotrich’s choice on Likud’s slate and offer him at least one ministerial portfolio if he merges with Otzma Yehudit.

Otzma Yehudit party member Itamar Ben Gvir (R) speaks with National Union faction leader Betzalel Smotrich during a campaign event in Bat Yam, April 6, 2019. (Flash90)

Otzma Yehudit is made up of followers of late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane. It supports encouraging emigration of non-Jews from Israel and expelling Palestinians and Israeli Arabs who refuse to declare loyalty to Israel and accept diminished status in an expanded Jewish state whose sovereignty extends throughout the West Bank. Ben Gvir’s former running mate, ex-MK Michael Ben-Ari, was disqualified from running for the Knesset over racism accusations.

Health Ministry to push for lockdown extension until Monday — TV

The Health Ministry will seek an extension of the nationwide lockdown until Monday, according to Channel 13.

The closure is currently set to expire on Friday morning.

The cabinet meeting on the lockdown has yet to be rescheduled after it was delayed from this evening.

Benny Gantz’s Blue and White is insisting the lockdown end on Friday.

Led by 6 ex-Likud MKs, New Hope registers party for election

Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope officially registers the right-wing party ahead of the March elections, with half a dozen former Likud members in its first 10 slots.

The party lineup is as follows:

1. Gideon Sa’ar
2. Yifat Shasha-Biton
3. Ze’ev Elkin
4. Yoaz Hendel
5. Sharren Haskel
6. Benny Begin
7. Meir Yitzhak Halevy
8. Zvi Hauser
9. Michal Shir
10. Hila Shay Vazan
11. Dani Dayan
12. Michel Buskila
13. Ofer Berkovitch
14. Avi Ganon
15. Michal Diamant
16. Sahar Pinto

The party includes six former Likud MKs and ministers, one former Blue and White MK, and two former Derech Eretz MKs.

Israeli politician Gideon Sa’ar poses for a photo at the party headquarters in Tel Aviv, Israel, January 14, 2021. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Lapid: If you vote for Netanyahu, you’ll get Ben Gvir as minister

Opposition leader Yair Lapid responds to the merger of two far-right parties, predicting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will appoint far-rightist Itamar Ben Gvir as a minister if elected.

“Whoever wants Ben Gvir to become a minister in the government should vote for Netanyahu. Whoever wants a sane government, Yesh Atid,” tweets Lapid.

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett, a former partner to Bezalel Smotrich whose party merged with Ben Gvir’s Otzma Yehudit, congratulates them on the alliance in an interview with Channel 13.

Gantz envisions having 10-year political career, insists he won’t quit

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz says he won’t drop out of the election race, despite recent opinion polls that saw his centrist party hovering near the electoral threshold.

“I’m pressing ahead. I entered politics for 10 years,” Gantz, a former IDF chief of staff who entered politics in 2019, tells Channel 12.

Alternate Prime Minister and Minister of Defense Benny Gantz visits the Jerusalem Municipality on November 10, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Netanyahu appoints ex-police official to combat violence in Arab communities

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is appointing retired senior police official Aharon Franko to serve as a czar for violence in Arab communities and has proposed a long-awaited plan to combat the spread of organized crime in Arab towns and cities.

According to the Abraham Initiatives nonprofit, 96 Arab Israelis died in homicides in 2020, the highest in recent memory.

Netanyahu has been promising for months to propose a wide-ranging plan to combat the roots of violence in the Arab sector. The pressure has mounted in recent days following the shooting death of Ahmad Hijazi, a 22-year-old resident of Tamra, during a shootout between police and criminal gunmen.

The plan will see around 100 million NIS ($30 million) dedicated to building six new police stations in Arab cities and towns and aiming to increase the collection of illegal weaponry, among other goals.

Asked by a reporter about the timing of the plan’s announcement, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana dismissed concerns that the initiative was related to the March elections.

“It’s always a good time to save lives,” Ohana says.

Arab politicians scorn the plan as too little, too late. Franko’s appointment also sparked controversy, as the former police officer once called Arabs “ungrateful,” according to the Ynet news site.

“Netanyahu is offering us a bandaid,” says Joint List chair Ayman Odeh, adding: “It’s impossible to solve a decade of neglect with 100 million NIS.”

After blasting PM-backed, Otzma Yehudit merger in 2019, AIPAC declines to do so again

The American Israel Public Affairs Committee has declined to comment on Wednesday’s merger agreement between the extremist Otzma Yehudit party, the anti-LGBT Noam party and the Religious Zionism party that was midwifed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In 2019, AIPAC broke from its typical aversion from commenting on internal Israeli politics, issuing a statement after Otzma Yehudit merged with Jewish Home and National Union, then too at Netanyahu’s behest.

Then, AIPAC tweeted that it had “a longstanding policy not to meet with members of this racist and reprehensible party.”

In that tweet the pro-Israel lobbying group also agreed with a statement from the American Jewish Committee, which said the “views of Otzma Yehudit are reprehensible. They do not reflect the core values that are the very foundation of the State of Israel.”

Asked if AIPAC wanted to comment on the matter in light of Wednesday’s merger, which places Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir in the No. 3 spot on the joint list and in a better position to enter the Knesset than he was three years ago, a spokesman for the group said it would not be commenting further on the matter.

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