The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s events as they happened.
COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Danish government proposes a fourth COVID-19 vaccine dose for highly vulnerable people, amid a spike in cases of the Omicron variant.
Health Minister Magnus Heunicke says the move marks a “new chapter” in the fight against the spread of the Covid-19 virus.
Denmark will offer the fourth dose to “the most vulnerable citizens” — notably those diagnosed with serious ailments who received an initial booster during the autumn, Heunicke tells a news conference.
Health authorities say those concerned will be contacted by early next week.
Praising an “ambitious” immunization campaign, Heunicke says Denmark “once again has the epidemic under control” as it looks to join Israel and Chile in offering a fourth dose to at-risk citizens.
Police say they are dispersing a riot in the southern city of Rahat amid protests by Bedouin residents against forestry work in the Negev Desert.
Officers arrest six suspects and police say the incident is “under control.”
Police also announce the arrest of another suspect in the town of Tel Sheva and say rocks were thrown at a car driving on Route 25, causing damage to the vehicle but no injuries.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to receive a fourth dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, Channel 12 reports.
Quoting unnamed sources in Netanyahu’s “circle,” the network says the former prime minister took an antibody test and plans to get the fourth dose soon.
While still serving as premier, he was the first person in Israel to be vaccinated. Netanyahu, 72, later received a booster shot after Israel began offering third vaccine doses over the summer.
So far, Israel has only made fourth doses available to people over 60, the immunocompromised and medical workers.
Economy Minister Orna Barbivai urges the mandatory quarantine period for asymptomatic coronavirus carriers to be shortened to five days.
“What the CDC recommended for America the great is right for us as well,” Barbivai writes on Twitter.
The tweet comes hours before new quarantine guidelines take effect at midnight, with asymptomatic patients required to self-isolate for seven days instead of at least 10.
President Isaac Herzog received calls from Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas and Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, who phoned to express their condolences over the passing of his mother, Aura Herzog.
“There is no doubt that the loss of a mother is a very difficult loss. I share your sorrow,” Abbas told Herzog, according to a statement from the latter’s office.
Herzog also received a letter of condolences from US President Joe Biden, who noted he met Aura Herzog when her late husband Chaim Herzog was president.
Thank you, my dear friend @POTUS Joe Biden, for this touching tribute to my late mother, Aura. Your personal memory of her touched me greatly. My family and I are deeply moved by your warm and kind words. pic.twitter.com/vfxjgCjBM7
— יצחק הרצוג Isaac Herzog (@Isaac_Herzog) January 12, 2022
A Knesset member who was allegedly targeted as part of an Iranian espionage operation says she was in “total shock” upon learning about the affair.
“I did not understand where this came from, I was in total shock,” Likud MK Keti Shitrit tells Channel 12 news. “I was really surprised when the Shin Bet called and asked to speak with me.”
Shitrit says she was in contact with one of the women implicated by the Shin Bet, who is suspected of having filmed the opposition lawmaker, and had met with her at a mall several months ago.
“I asked her how she’s doing and she told me she had problems with her son. I understand this was related to the army,” Shitrit says. “I explained to her that I have no ability to transfer people from place to place in the army.”
Shitrit will be a prosecution witness in the case, the TV report says.
It says one of the suspects was told by her Iranian handler to try to film Shitrit in compromising circumstances, and was unable to do so. The suspect was also told to try to get Shitrit to help the suspect’s son obtain a transfer to the IDF’s elite 8200 intelligence unit — an effort that also failed.
Meanwhile, lawyers for the five suspects say they intended no harm. One of their sons is quoted saying by Channel 12 that his mother is an elderly woman who would never do anything to harm Israel and worked to encourage the immigration of Jews from Iran.
Babek Yitzhaki, an Iranian-born journalist, says the affair is an “earthquake” in the community of Israelis born in Iran.
GENEVA — The Omicron variant of COVID-19 is dangerous — and especially so for those who have not been vaccinated against the disease, the World Health Organization says.
The WHO says the huge global spike in cases was being driven by Omicron but insists there should be no surrender to the variant of concern.
“While Omicron causes less severe disease than Delta, it remains a dangerous virus, particularly for those who are unvaccinated,” WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus tells a press conference.
“We mustn’t allow this virus a free ride or wave the white flag, especially when so many people around the remain unvaccinated.
“In Africa, over 85 percent of people are yet to receive a single dose of vaccine. We can’t end the acute phase of the pandemic unless we close this gap.”
Tedros wanted every country to have 10 percent of their population vaccinated by the end of September 2021, 40 percent by the end of December, and 70 percent by mid-2022.
But 90 countries have still not reached 40 percent, 36 of them still short of the 10-percent mark, he says.
The “overwhelming majority” of people admitted to hospitals around the world were unvaccinated, he adds.
While vaccines remain very effective at preventing death and severe COVID-19 disease, they do not fully prevent transmission, says Tedros.
“More transmission means more hospitalizations, more deaths, more people off work — including teachers and health workers — and more risk of another variant emerging that is even more transmissible and more deadly than Omicron.”
Tedros says that the number of deaths worldwide had stabilized at around 50,000 per week.
“Learning to live with this virus does not mean we can, or should, accept this number of deaths,” he says.
WHO emergencies director Michael Ryan adds: “This is not the time to declare this is a welcome virus.”
Police arrest five people during rioting in the southern Bedouin communities of Segev Shalom and Tel Sheva amid protests over tree planting in the Negev Desert.
The five — four Segev Shalom residents and a man from Tel Sheva — are suspected of disturbing the peace, throwing rocks and burning tires.
“Calm has been restored,” a police statement says, adding that officers remain at the scene.
הנטיעות נעצרו, הפרות הסדר לא.
כוחות משטרה פועלים כעת לפיזור מפרי סדר בשגב שלום ובתל שבע. בשלב זה כמה עשרות מפרי סדר במקום ולטענת המשטרה האירועים בשליטה. pic.twitter.com/jB5UuqbDD0
— almog boker (@bokeralmog) January 12, 2022
BEIRUT — Lebanon’s powerful Hezbollah terror group hosts a conference for Saudi opposition figures in its stronghold south of Beirut, in a defiant gesture certain to anger the oil-rich kingdom.
The gathering comes as the Lebanese government is trying to mend relations with Saudi Arabia that hit a new low in October when the kingdom recalled its ambassador from Beirut and banned all Lebanese imports.
Top Hezbollah official Hashem Safieddine says Saudi Arabia should stop its policy of “bullying” others as well as its interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.
The conference is attended by Saudi opposition figures as well as members of Yemen’s Iran-backed Houthi rebels. It’s meant to commemorate the anniversary of influential Saudi Shiite cleric Nimr al-Nimr, who was executed in January 2016 in a mass execution of 47 people in the kingdom.
Al-Nimr was an outspoken government critic and a key leader of Shiite protests in eastern Saudi Arabia in 2011 demanding greater rights in the majority Sunni nation and fair treatment.
Among the little-known Saudi figures who attend the conference are Fouad Ibrahim, Abbas Sadeq, Hamza al-Hassan and Sheikh Jasem Mahmoud Ali who blasted the Saudi royal family for al-Nimr’s death. Minutes after Safieddine finished his speech, Saudi ambassador to Lebanon Waleed Bukhari tweets that “the painful truth is that the terrorist Hezbollah is acting above the state.”
The Saudi move to withdraw its ambassador and ban Lebanese imports followed comments by a Lebanese cabinet minister who said in a televised interview that the war in Yemen was futile and called it an aggression by the Saudi-led coalition.
In early December, Lebanese Information Minister George Kordahi, who made the comments before he took the job, resigned from his post but the move did not ease the tense relations and the war of words between Hezbollah and Saudi officials has continued.
The military announces that it plans to raze the home of Muhammad Jadarat, one of the suspected terrorists in the shooting attack that killed Yehuda Dimentman near the West Bank outpost of Homesh last month.
The Israel Defense Forces says Jadarat’s family has been informed of the planned demolition and notes it can appeal.
UNITED NATIONS — Eight countries that include Iran, Venezuela and Sudan have lost their right to vote at the United Nations because of unpaid dues.
A total of 11 countries are behind in their payments, Secretary-General Antonio Guterres says in a letter to the General Assembly. AFP obtained the letter today.
Under the UN charter, a member country’s right to vote is suspended when its arrears equal or exceed the amount of dues it should have paid over the preceding two years.
If the outstanding debt is deemed to be “due to conditions beyond the control of the member,” the assembly may let that country continue to vote.
For 2022 this is the case of the Comoro Islands, Sao Tome and Principe, and Somalia, Guterres says.
The eight countries that have lost their right to vote for now are Iran, Sudan, Venezuela, Antigua and Barbuda, Congo, Guinea and Papua New Guinea, he says.
He spells out the minimum amount each must pay to recover their vote. For Iran, for instance, it is just over $18 million while Sudan needs to come up with nearly $300,000 and Venezuela around $40 million.
Last year Iran also lost its vote over unpaid dues. It said it could not pay even the minimum amount because of US economic sanctions.
After months of negotiations Iran was granted an exemption — it was allowed to access money blocked by the US Treasury — and got back its vote in June in time for the election of new members of the Security Council.
The UN’s operating budget approved in December is around $3 billion. Its budget for peacekeeping operations, which is separate and was passed in June, is around $6.5 billion.
Police say they are working to disperse rioters at a police post in Tel Sheva and in the nearby town of Segev Shalom, a day after riots by local Bedouin residents over forestation work in the area.
A police statement says the situation is “under control.”
“The Israel Police allows freedom of protest and deals with rioting and displays of violence with determination and with zero tolerance,” the statement says.
Coalition MKs leave the plenum after failing to secure a majority for votes on several bills, as Ra’am lawmakers continue to boycott voting in protest of forestry work in the south.
Due to the coalition’s absence, opposition MKs are able to pass several bills in their preliminary readings.
The coalition had sought to get Ra’am MKs to attend the plenum session, but the Islamist party skipped the votes despite the brokering of an agreement aimed at resolving the controversy over the tree-planting program.
“There are no winners and losers, all of us together as citizens will win when we plant and hope and allow the residents of the Negev to live and make a living with honor,” Ra’am chief Mansour Abbas tweets.
“We will promote discussion that will lead to acceptable agreements,” Abbas adds, saying it is “in all of our interests, Jews and Arabs,” to reach a resolution on the Negev.
“Israeli governments have failed in dealing with the issue of the Negev. Together, we will restore the fabric of relations and the Negev will flourish and thrive for all of our benefit.”
Israel Railways announces reduced service on several train lines tomorrow due to rising morbidity among its employees.
The railway operator says it will offer transportation to riders at stations where service is halted.
WARSAW, Poland — The third-largest group in the European Parliament calls for the establishment of a committee to investigate abuses by European Union governments with powerful spyware produced by Israel’s NSO Group.
Renew Europe, a liberal political grouping, makes its appeal following reports that the NSO Group’s Pegasus software has been used to hack the smartphones of opposition politicians, lawyers, journalists and critics of the right-wing governments in Hungary and Poland.
“We need a full inquiry into the Pegasus spyware scandal. European democracy is being undermined, and the EU should act accordingly,” says Sophie in ’t Veld, a Dutch member of the European Parliament and a co-initiator of the calls for the inquiry. “We cannot let this pass; our democracy is at stake.”
In ’t Veld says that the European Commission, the executive branch of the 27-member union, should follow the example of the United States government and “quickly blacklist Pegasus’ parent company NSO.”
The Biden administration put new export limits in November on Israel’s NSO Group, saying its tools have been used to “conduct transnational repression.”
Renew sats in a statement that it hopes other groups will support its call, noting that an inquiry would constitute the first action on the matter from an EU institution.
Pegasus is a powerful surveillance tool sold exclusively to government agencies and intended to fight terrorism and other serious crime. But investigations have been turning up case after case of the powerful in many places using it to target domestic critics and rivals.
Yamina MK Nir Orbach has left the Knesset and is refusing to return until Ra’am lawmakers resume voting with the coalition, Channel 12 reports.
Ra’am MKs failed to show for today’s plenum votes. The Islamist party vowed to stop voting with the coalition until forestation work in the Negev Desert is halted, which Bedouin protesters are opposed to.
The absence of Ra’am lawmakers from the Knesset comes despite the brokering of a temporary deal to pause the tree-planting program as negotiations on the matter are held.
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett hails the Shin Bet after the security agency announced the arrest of five Israeli citizens who allegedly helped an Iranian operative gather intelligence and make contacts in Israel.
“The State of Israel is in an ongoing campaign against Iran,” Bennett says in a statement, citing “unceasing” efforts by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards to enlist Israelis as spies.
“These attempts are not only in the security and intelligence spheres but are also expanding to efforts to influence Israeli citizens and society, sow polarization and division, undermine political stability in Israel and harm the public’s trust in the government,” the premier adds.
He urges Israelis to be on the lookout for such efforts.
“It may be that those behind the information you consume and share on social media are Iranians,” he says.
Bennett also warns Iran, saying, “Let there be no doubt — the long arm of the security establishment will reach whoever tries to harm Israel’s security.”
NEW YORK — A US judge has denied Prince Andrew’s plea to dismiss a sexual assault lawsuit brought against him, paving the way for the case to proceed, a court filing shows.
New York Judge Lewis Kaplan says in his ruling that the British royal’s motion to dismiss the complaint brought by accuser Virginia Giuffre was “denied in all respects.”
Prime Minister Naftali Bennett launches a fresh broadside against opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu over a video in which the former premier questions the reliability of rapid antigen tests.
Israel has recently updated its testing guidelines to prioritize PCR tests for those over 60 and others at risk, while encouraging the use of rapid antigen tests for the rest of the population.
“I have no other way to say this: Netanyahu is knowingly lying and endangering lives, just for political gain,” Bennett writes in a Facebook post. “Antigen tests have already saved a great many lives around the world from the coronavirus by identifying infectious people and quarantining them, and prevent the continued infection of people who may be sick or even die.”
Bennett acknowledges PCR tests are better able to detect the presence of viral material, but says the limited supply of them must be reserved for the most vulnerable.
“If all of us, including young people, only go get PCR tests, we’ll only get the results in 5-6 days. In this situation, the same elderly man who was infected will already be in serious condition, and the medication Paxlovid, which must be given at an early stage, will no longer help,” he says.
Returning fire, Netanyahu doubles down on his criticism of the rapid tests, accusing the premier of having Israelis pay with their own money for “inaccurate” home-test kits.
“Bennett has lost control over the coronavirus and abandoned Israeli citizens to their fates,” he says in a statement.
The Shin Bet security service announces the arrests of five Jewish Israelis accused of assisting an Iranian operative gather intelligence and make connections in Israel. Some of the five, who were paid for the information they provided, suspected that the operative was working for the Iranian regime, the Shin Bet says.
The five suspects — four women and one man — are all Jewish immigrants from Iran or the descendants of Iranian immigrants. Their names are all barred from publication under a court-issued gag order that was requested by their attorneys.
According to the Shin Bet, the suspects took photographs of strategically significant sites in Israel, including the US Consulate in Tel Aviv; attempted to form relationships with politicians; provided information about security arrangements at various sites; and committed other offenses — all at the direction of the Iranian operative and in exchange for thousands of dollars.
In one case, the operative, who went by the moniker Rambod Namdar and pretended to be Jewish, attempted to convince one of the suspects’ sons to improve his knowledge of the Persian language and join a Military Intelligence unit, the Shin Bet says.
In some cases, the suspects acknowledged that they were aware that Namdar may have been an Iranian intelligence operative, but continued their communications with him anyway, according to the security service.
“With their grave actions, those involved put themselves, their families and innocent Israeli citizens at risk, as their information was transferred to Iranian intelligence, in addition to the information that was given over about Israeli sites and American sites in Israel, which would be used for terrorist purposes,” a senior Shin Bet official says.
The five suspects were indicted earlier today in the Jerusalem District Court.
United Torah Judaism MK Yitzhak Pindrus has tested positive for the coronavirus, adding to a growing list of infected lawmakers.
Military Police have opened an investigation into the death of an elderly Palestinian man who allegedly suffered a heart attack after a violent arrest by Israel Defense Forces soldiers, the military says.
Jiljilya resident Amr Abd al-Majid As’ad, 80, was allegedly detained in his hometown after returning home late at night. “According to his family’s account, Israeli soldiers stopped him, tied his hands, and beat him, which led him to suffer a heart attack,” the Palestinian Authority health ministry said in a statement this morning.
The IDF acknowledges that As’ad had been arrested overnight, but does not comment on the allegations of violence.
“The Palestinian was arrested during an operation by IDF troops after he refused a security search. The detainee was released later that night,” the IDF says.
“The Military Police have opened an investigation into the circumstances of the incident, after which the findings will be handed over to the Military Prosecution for consideration,” the IDF says.
TEHRAN, Iran — Iran has arrested an alleged “counter-revolutionary agent” on suspicion of carrying out an arson attack on a memorial to a revered general killed in a US drone strike, a judicial official says.
The statue of General Qassem Soleimani, who headed the Quds Force, the foreign operations arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, up to his death on January 3, 2020, was torched just hours after it was unveiled in the southwestern town of Shahrekord last week.
“The perpetrator of this shameful act has been arrested,” the judiciary chief of Chahar Mahal-Bakhtiari province, Ahmad-Reza Bahrami, tells the judiciary’s Mizan news website.
“The provincial courts will punish the perpetrator of this outrage as quickly as possible in accordance with sharia (Islamic law) and the law.”
The unveiling of the statue in Shahrekord was one of a number of commemorative events held last week to mark the second anniversary of Soleimani’s assassination.
Aura Herzog, the mother of President Isaac Herzog, is buried at Mount Herzl national cemetery alongside the grave of her late husband Chaim Herzog, Israel’s sixth president.
“Mother, you had three great loves in your life. First of all, your love of our father and the family. You were his source of strength and his partner on his extraordinary life journey,” the president says during the eulogy.
“Your second love was the State of Israel,” Herzog continues, hailing his mother as “a pioneer.”
“For you, the state was above all else; hence your wonderful suitability — yours and father’s — for all your roles, because your mission, your shared mission, for our nation and our state, was above all else.”
He says his mother’s other great love was “good taste, aesthetics, warm and high-quality hospitality, cordially welcoming guests, and understanding the big wide world.”
The Health Ministry reports that as of the last week of December, 3,663 Israelis had been hospitalized with the flu.
The ministry says that at least 57 hospital patients with the flu have died, most of them 65 or older.
“However, it is still not known if the flu was the main cause of death or not,” a Health Ministry statement says.
It urges that anyone age 6 months and up get inoculated against the flu.
LONDON — British Prime Minister Boris Johnson says sorry after admitting he attended a lockdown-breaching party in Downing Street, but deflects opposition demands for his resignation.
Johnson tells parliament that millions of Britons had made “extraordinary sacrifices” during the first COVID lockdown in 2020 and while the party appeared to him to be a work event, he issues “heartfelt apologies.”
BRUSSELS — Senior NATO and Russian officials are meeting today to try to bridge seemingly irreconcilable differences over the future of Ukraine, amid deep skepticism that Russian President Vladimir Putin’s security proposals for easing tensions are genuine.
The talks come during a week of high-stakes diplomacy and a US-led effort to prevent preparations for what Washington believes could be a Russian invasion of Ukraine. Moscow denies it is planning an attack. Still, its history of military action in Ukraine and Georgia worries NATO.
NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg, Russian Deputy Foreign Minister Alexander Grushko and Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin are stern-faced as they pose for the media before the NATO-Russia Council. There is no public handshake, although the Russian delegation fist-bumps officials from the 30 NATO member countries inside the meeting venue.
Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman leads the US team at NATO headquarters in Brussels.
Stoltenberg tweets that “it is a timely opportunity for dialogue at a critical moment for European security. When tensions are high, it is even more important that we sit down around the same table and address our concerns.”
The meeting is the first of its kind in over two years. The NATO-Russia Council, their chief forum for talks, was set up two decades ago but full meetings paused when Russia annexed Ukraine’s Crimean Peninsula in 2014. It has met only sporadically since, the last time in July 2019.
DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — An Iranian employee of the British Council arrested in Tehran and later sentenced to 10 years in prison over internationally criticized espionage charges has been freed and traveled to the United Kingdom, the organization says.
Iranian authorities don’t immediately acknowledge the release of Aras Amiri. However, it comes amid ongoing negotiations in Vienna between Iran and world powers, including the UK, over its tattered 2015 nuclear deal.
The British Council says today that an appeal her lawyers made to Iran’s Supreme Court has been successful. Amiri worked for the council’s London office.
“We have always refuted the original charges made against Aras,” the council says in a statement. “We are very proud of her work in our London office as an arts program officer supporting a greater understanding and appreciation of Iranian culture in the UK”
Iran announced her conviction in 2019. Authorities there accused her of spying on cultural activities in Iran. The British Council previously said she traveled to Tehran to visit family on a private trip that didn’t involve her work at the nonpolitical organization, which works in arts, culture and education.
Yesh Atid Minister Meir Cohen has brokered an agreement to halt forestation work in the Negev that sparked a coalition crisis and was met with violent protests by Bedouin residents of southern Israel, Hebrew media reports.
According to the reports, the deal will see the tree-planting program stopped, KKL-JNF tractors leave and the sides hold fast-track negotiations to resolve the matter.
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