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

US soldier arrested in plot to blow up 9/11 Memorial in NYC

NEW YORK — A US Army soldier was arrested today in Georgia on charges that he plotted to blow up New York City’s 9/11 Memorial and attack US soldiers in the Middle East, authorities say.

Cole James Bridges of Stow, Ohio, is in custody on charges of attempted material support of a terrorist organization — the Islamic State group — and attempted murder of a military member, says Nicholas Biase, a spokesperson for Manhattan federal prosecutors.

The 20-year-old soldier, also known as Cole Gonzales, is with the Third Infantry Division out of Fort Stewart, Georgia, Biase says.

He is scheduled to make an initial appearance in federal court in Georgia on Thursday.

It isn’t immediately clear who will represent him.

Poll: Netanyahu’s Likud regaining support, Sa’ar’s New Hope losing it

A new poll published by Channel 12 news suggests Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party is regaining supporters, while ex-Likud minister Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope seems to be shedding them.

According to the poll, Likud would pick up 30 seats if new elections were held today, down from its current tally of 36 but up from other recent surveys.

New Hope would be the second-largest party in the Knesset with 15 seats. In a poll published by the network on December 15, Likud was forecast to pick up 27 seats and New Hope 21, signaling Netanyahu’s party is opening up a wide lead.

Following New Hope was Opposition Leader Yair Lapid’s Yesh Atid with 14 seats, MK Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina with 13 seats and the predominantly-Arab Joint List with 10.

The ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, part of Netanyahu’s bloc, got eight seats a piece.

Rounding out the poll was MK Avigdor Liberman’s secular right-wing Yisrael Beytenu party with seven seats, the left-wing Meretz with six, Defense Minister Benny Gantz’s Blue and White with five and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai’s The Israelis with four.

Even if Yamina were to return to Netahyahu’s right-wing religious bloc, the parties would together have 59 seats, two short of a majority, though it remains far from clear that parties opposed to the Likud chief could put aside their differences to form a government without him.

The survey, conducted by pollster Manu Geva, included 504 respondents and had a 4.4 percent margin of error.

IDF says rocket fired from Gaza Strip toward Israel

The IDF confirms that a rocket was fired by Palestinian terrorists in the Gaza Strip toward Israel.

The military doesn’t specify where the projectile landed, but Hebrew media reports indicate it struck a field near Kibbutz Nahal Oz.

There are no reports of injuries.

Health Ministry reports 5,092 infections, 8 COVID deaths since midnight

Updated Health Ministry figures show 5,092 new coronavirus cases have been confirmed since midnight, bringing the number of infections since the pandemic began to 565,629.

The death toll stands at 4,080, with eight more fatalities since midnight.

Of the 82,652 active cases, there are 1,147 people in serious condition, including 293 on ventilators.

The ministry says 9.6 percent of tests today have come back positive.

The update comes after a record 10,051 cases were recorded yesterday and 10.3% of tests were positive.

Nearly 180,000 Israelis were vaccinated yesterday, also a record.

According to the Health Ministry, 2,215,963 have now received the first dose of a coronavirus vaccine and 479,818 have received the second.

Health Ministry recommends that pregnant women receive COVID vaccine

The Health Ministry is recommending that pregnant women who wish to be vaccinated against COVID-19, especially those with a higher chance of exposure to the coronavirus or who have existing health conditions, receive a vaccine.

According to the ministry, pregnant women infected with the coronavirus virus are more likely to experience complications from COVID-19 than others of a similar age. It stresses the need for social distancing and mask-wearing.

Citing experts, the ministry says there is no indication that vaccination causes harm to either the mother or fetus.

The ministry issues the recommendation as Hebrew media reports say 10 pregnant women are hospitalized in serious condition due to coronavirus complications, with the Ynet news site saying at least three of them appear to be infected with the British variant of the virus.

Police confirm far fewer fines issued for lockdown violations in Haredi areas

Data published by police this evening confirms far fewer fines are handed out in ultra-Orthodox areas for violations of lockdown rules.

According to police, from January 8 to 18, 27,457 fines in total were given out, a per capita average of 58.6 per 10,000 people.

In Haredi areas, 1,628 fines were issued, coming out to a per capita average of 26, while cops fined 10,692 residents of Arab Israeli towns, an average of 80 per 10,000 people.

McConnell points finger at Trump in US Capitol riot: ‘The mob was fed lies’

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is explicitly pointing his finger at US President Donald Trump for helping to spur the attack on the Capitol by the outgoing president’s supporters.

The Kentucky Republican says today on the Senate floor, “The mob was fed lies. They were provoked by the president and other powerful people.”

McConnell speaks six days after the Democratic-led House impeached Trump on charges of inciting the January 6 attack. A Senate trial on whether to convict Trump and perhaps bar him from ever again holding federal office is expected to begin in the coming days.

After years of supporting Trump with little criticism of him, the influential McConnell has said he’s not decided whether he would vote to convict him. His decision may prove critical, because in a Senate that will be divided 50-50 between the two parties, it would take 17 Republicans to join all Democrats for the two-thirds margin needed for conviction.

Joe Biden replaces Trump as president at noon EST tomorrow.

Government extends tightened lockdown until January 31

Government ministers unanimously approve extending the tightened lockdown measures now in force until January 31.

Ministers also okay a requirement that travelers entering Israel present a negative coronavirus test from within 72 hours before their flight.

The ministerial decision to extend the lockdown for another 10 days was unanimous. Minister Ofir Akunis (Likud), who opposes the move, did not participate in the vote.

Pompeo says China’s policies toward Muslims in Xinjiang amount to ‘genocide’

WASHINGTON — On his way out the door, US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo hits China with new sanctions by declaring that China’s policies on Muslims and ethnic minorities in western Xinjiang Province constitute a “genocide.”

Pompeo makes the determination just 24 hours before President-elect Joe Biden takes office. There is no immediate response from the incoming Biden team, although several members have been sympathetic to such a designation in the past. Pompeo’s determination doesn’t come with any immediate repercussions.

Many of those accused of having taken part in repression in Xinjiang are already under US sanctions, and today’s move is the latest in a series of steps the outgoing Trump administration has taken against China.

Five days ago, the administration announced it would halt imports of cotton and tomatoes from Xinjiang with Customs and Border Protection officials saying they would block products from there suspected of being produced with forced labor.

Xinjiang is a major global supplier of cotton, so the order could have significant effects on international commerce. The Trump administration has already blocked imports from individual companies linked to forced labor in the region, and the US has imposed sanctions on Communist Party officials with prominent roles in the campaign.

China has imprisoned more than 1 million people, including Uighurs and members of other mostly-Muslim ethnic groups, in a vast network of concentration camps, according to US officials and human rights groups. People have been subjected to torture, sterilization and political indoctrination in addition to forced labor as part of an assimilation campaign in a region whose inhabitants are ethnically and culturally distinct from the Han Chinese majority.

Iran sanctions Trump for Soleimani killing, support of Israel

TEHRAN, Iran — Iran imposes sanctions on US President Donald Trump and a number of members of his administration over their alleged role in support of “terrorism,” according to its foreign ministry website.

Ministry spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh says that besides Trump, sanctions are imposed on Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, CIA chief Gina Haspel and six other ranking US officials.

The foreign ministry doesn’t say what kind of sanctions were imposed.

From time to time, Iran imposes symbolic sanctions on US officials. Today’s announcement comes on Trump’s last full day in office.

Khatibzadeh says the sanctions were based on Iranian law. He says they are the result in part of the administration’s role in killing Iranian top general Qassem Soleimani in 2020 and its support for Israel in its conflict with the Palestinians.

He also cites the US’s alleged role in the killing of Iranian nuclear scientist Mohsen Fakhrizadeh in December, as well as its alleged role in the “criminal war” in Yemen.

In December, Iran imposed sanctions on the US ambassador in Yemen for his alleged role in support of airstrikes conducted by the Saudi-led coalition against Iran-backed Yemeni rebels known as Houthis.

Biden’s pick for intel chief predicts he won’t swiftly rejoin Iran nuclear deal

Joe Biden’s nominee for director of national intelligence predicts the US president-elect won’t swiftly return the United States to the international accord limiting Iran’s nuclear program.

Testifying before the Senate Intelligence Committee, Avril Haines notes Biden has condition rejoining the 2015 deal on Iran returning to compliance with its terms.

“I think frankly we’re a long ways from that,” she says.

Haines adds: “The president has also indicated and I agree with this, that in doing so we also have to look at the ballistic missile issues… and there are other obviously destabilizing activities that Iran engages in.”

Britain reports daily record of 1,610 COVID deaths

LONDON — Britain registers another 1,610 deaths from coronavirus, a record high since the pandemic hit last year.

The UK’s total COVID-19 death toll now stands at 91,470, with a further 33,355 new coronavirus cases also reported over the last day, taking the total number of infections to nearly 3.5 million.

Biden taps ex-envoy to UAE as Middle East director on NSC

The Biden transition team has appointed former US ambassador Barbara Leaf to serve as special assistant to the president and senior director for Middle East and North Africa affairs on the National Security Council.

Leaf served as US envoy to the United Arab Emirates during both the Obama and Trump administrations from 2014 to 2018. More recently, she was a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, which has gained a reputation as a pro-Israel think-tank.

She will hold the Middle East file on President-elect Joe Biden’s NSC along with coordinator Brett H. McGurk, another national security veteran who served in both Democrat and Republican administrations.

In a November interview with The The Times of Israel, she said the last-minute batch of sanctions imposed by the Trump administration against the Iranian regime was meant to “tie the next administration’s hands.” Biden has said he plans to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal, so long as Iran returns to strict compliance with it. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come out vociferously against such a strategy.

EU aims to vaccinate 70% of adults by end of August

BRUSSELS — The European Union is aiming to inoculate 70 percent of its adult population against the coronavirus before the end of August, European Commission Vice President Margaritis Schinas tells a media conference.

That aim, agreed in a meeting of all EU commissioners, comes as most member states are struggling to achieve liftoff with their vaccination programs.

The bloc started injections three weeks ago and has so far approved two vaccines — from BioNTech/Pfizer and from Moderna — with others soon expected to follow.

But its pace of vaccination trails behind countries such as the US, Britain, Israel and the United Arab Emirates.

Health commissioner Stella Kyriakides says that the EU’s joint-buying strategy means there are already enough doses to vaccinate 80 percent of the EU’s population of about 450 million.

She admits, though, that “vaccinations need to speed up.”

Schinas says: “We also propose that by summer, this year, member states should have vaccinated a minimum of 70 percent of the adult population.”

Later, he explains that that meant “by the end of summer,” which he says in Europe runs from June to the end of August.

EU chief Ursula von der Leyen says in a statement that meeting the goal of 70 percent could be “a turning point in our fight against this virus.”

Netanyahu proposes extending lockdown to end of January

As ministers discuss extending coronavirus lockdown measures, Prime Minister Netanyahu suggests the current restrictions remain in force until the night of January 31, according to leaks from the meeting.

EU touts commitment to helping ensure ‘transparent’ Palestinian elections

The European Union will provide “all that is necessary” to hold “transparent Palestinian elections,” an EU spokesperson says in a statement.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas issued an election decree last week ordering the first Palestinian elections in 14 years. Analysts remain skeptical they will take place, however, as such attempts have flopped in the past.

Nonetheless, EU representatives met today with Palestinian Central Elections Committee chief Hana Naser to discuss plans for the elections.

“During the discussion, there was discussion around what the EU could provide in the coming period, especially in terms of international observers,” says Shadi Othman, a spokesperson for the EU’s mission to the Palestinians.

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh had asked the European Union yesterday to provide international observers to monitor Palestinian voting in East Jerusalem.

2 self-described militia members jailed for storming US Capitol

CINCINNATI — Two self-described militia members facing federal charges that they participated in the assault on the US Capitol earlier this month are jailed today.

Jessica Watkins and Donovan Crowl, both from Ohio, are being held at a county jail in Dayton, after being arrested yesterday. Federal documents identify them as members of the Ohio State Regular Militia, dues-paying members of the Oath Keepers. The FBI complaints call the Oath Keepers a paramilitary group that believes in a “shadowy conspiracy” to strip Americans of their rights. It often recruits current and former military, police or other first responders.

Federal investigators used social media posts and news media interviews the suspects gave to help identify them. They each face three charges: entering a restricted building or grounds; violent entry or disorderly conduct, and obstruction of an official proceeding. No information is available immediately on whether they had attorneys yet.

They are among more than 125 people arrested so far on charges related to the January 6 violent insurrection led by supporters of President Donald Trump, where a Capitol police officer and four others were killed. US authorities last week announced arrests of a Cleveland woman and a Wilmington man on related charges.

The FBI states in charging documents that Oath Keepers wearing helmets, protective vests and items with the group’s name were seen to “move in an organized and practiced fashion and force their way to the front of the crowd gathered around a door to the US Capitol.”

Watkins, a 38-year-old self-described commanding officer of the Ohio State Regular Militia, posted video and comments January 6 on the Parler social media site, investigators say.

Minister Itzik Shmuli says he won’t seek Labor Party leadership

Welfare Minister Itzik Shmuli says he won’t run in the upcoming Labor leadership primaries and that he has decided to leave the center-left party.

“This isn’t an easy decision for me. This party is a home for me… It’s basic and binding values will continue to accompany me, but I’ll lead their implementation from another political place,” Shmuli writes on Twitter.

He also calls for an alliance of parties whose chief goal will be replacing Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Shmuli previously ran in the Labor leadership primaries in July 2019, finishing third behind Amir Peretz and Stav Shaffir.

Peretz, the Knesset’s longest-serving member, announced he would step aside as a Labor leader and earlier this month said he won’t run in the upcoming elections.

Shmuli’s announcement comes a day after former Labor prime minister Ehud Barak also said he wouldn’t run to lead the party, which ruled Israel during its first 30 years and remained a dominant force in the country’s politics until several years ago, but has lost virtually all of its support. Recent opinion polls predict it will fail to enter the Knesset on its own.

EU’s top diplomat says Iran nuclear deal at ‘critical juncture’

BRUSSELS — EU foreign policy chief Josep Borrell warns the Iran nuclear deal is at a “critical juncture,” as Tehran’s moves to breach it threaten efforts to get the US back on board.

“We have seen very concerning developments on the nuclear side as well as new rounds of US sanctions,” Borrell writes to EU foreign ministers in a letter seen by AFP today.

“That risks undermining diplomatic efforts, including ours, to facilitate a US return to the JCPOA and to bring back Iran to the full implementation of its JCPOA commitments,” says the letter sent ahead of a meeting of the top diplomats yesterday.

The JCPOA, or Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, is the instrument agreed to implement the 2015 accord.

The EU and other signatories to the pact are pushing to get US President-elect Joe Biden to return to the agreement after scrambling to keep it alive following Donald Trump’s withdrawal over two years ago.

But they face a struggle to get Iran and the US back on the same page after Trump reimposed harsh sanctions and Tehran responded by breaching limits set by the deal.

Head of small business owners’ group joins Bennett’s Yamina

The head of a protest group representing representing independent business owners, Abir Kara, will run as part of MK Naftali Bennett’s right-wing Yamina party in the upcoming elections, according to Hebrew media reports.

There is no immediate confirmation from Yamina that Kara is joining the party.

Kara leads the “I Am Shulman” group, which was formed in 2019 and has become a social media rallying point for the self-employed in Israel, who have long complained of unfair treatment by the government. Many of them have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic.

Prime Minister Netanyahu implored members of the group to back his Likud party during a Zoom meeting last week, video of which was leaked to Israeli television. According to Channel 12, the meeting took place after Kara rejected Netanyahu’s offer to join Likud.

Gantz urges ultra-Orthodox politicians to back increased lockdown enforcement in Haredi areas

Defense Minister Benny Gantz calls on ultra-Orthodox lawmakers allied with Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud party to support increased enforcement of coronavirus restrictions in Haredi areas with high infection rates, amid growing complaints that authorities are turning a blind eye to lockdown violations there.

In a tweet directed at the heads of the Shas and United Torah Judaism parties, Gantz says most ultra-Orthodox Israelis follow the lockdown rules, but those who don’t are endangering others.

“Please allow Bibi [Netanyahu] to apply equal enforcement in Haredi cities as well,” Gantz says.

He cites the Jewish legal principle of pikuah nefesh, or saving a life, which trumps almost all other religious requirements.

Iran said to convict dual US-Iranian national on spying charges

WASHINGTON — Iranian authorities have convicted an American-Iranian businessman on spying charges, US media reports, in a recently revealed case that comes amid high tensions between the two countries.

The US State Department confirms in a statement to AFP that “we are aware of the reports that Iran has detained another US citizen.”

It doesn’t identify the person and declines to provide further details, but Iranian media reports the conviction of Emad Sharqi, describing him as the deputy head for international affairs at an Iranian venture capital company called Sarava.

The Young Journalists Club, a news agency linked to Iranian state television, says Sharqi had been caught “trying to illegally flee the country from western borders.” It doesn’t disclose that he was a dual US citizen, as Tehran does not recognize dual-nationality.

He had been sentenced to 10 years in prison on charges of espionage and gathering military information and was out on bail ahead of an appeal when he tried to abscond, the YJC says.

But a family friend quoted by NBC says Sharqi, 56, whom the US television channel identifies as Iranian-American, was summoned to a Tehran court on November 30 and told that he had been convicted of espionage without a trial.

Revelations of the case come as US President-elect Joe Biden is due to be sworn in tomorrow, with the difficult relationship between Washington and Tehran one of the top foreign policy challenges at the start of his administration.

Virus czar to cabinet: UK mutation believed to account for 30-40% of infections

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash tells ministers that health officials estimate the British coronavirus variant is behind 30-40 percent of current infections and will become the dominant strain in Israel within weeks, according to leaks from the cabinet meeting.

Ministers convene to discuss extending virus lockdown

Government ministers convene to discuss extending lockdown restrictions, a day after Israel recorded a record number of daily coronavirus infections.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu releases a statement ahead of the meeting calling for the lockdown to be extended, without specifying how long.

“This might not be popular nor convenient during elections, but this is what we need to decide today,” he says. “It’s a lot easier to ignore the incredible jump in morbidity and just open everything, but this will cost many lives.”

He adds: “I know this is a difficult decision for many Israeli citizens but a last effort is needed here, a joint effort by all of us to get out of the coronavirus [pandemic] and save lives.”

Netanyahu also refers to a mass wedding in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak last night that violated lockdown rules, describing it as a “bloodletting.”

The tightened restrictions currently in force, which took effect earlier this month after the government already ordered a lockdown, are set to expire Thursday night if not extended.

According to Hebrew media reports, Defense Minister Benny Gantz is demanding that virus rules be enforced in areas with high morbidity rates as a condition for his Blue and White party to support extending the lockdown, among other measures.

Data published by the Kan public broadcaster yesterday showed enforcement was far more lax in ultra-Orthodox areas, despite them having some of the highest per capita infection rates in the country.

Clashes in Bnei Brak as cops disperse Haredi yeshiva students for breaching lockdown

Clashes break out in Bnei Brak between ultra-Orthodox students and cops at a yeshiva that opened in violation of the coronavirus lockdown.

Police say officers who entered the yeshiva found dozens gathered there. The current lockdown rules limit indoor gatherings to five people.

“After the forces ordered the dispersal of the gathering, those present began to riot while entrenching themselves in the place, throwing stones toward the officers and a police cruiser and blocking a road. Police forces are now operating to disperse them,” a police statement says.

Trump bestows Legion of Merit on Bahrain king for Israel normalization

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates — US President Donald Trump bestows a rare award on King Hamad of Bahrain, acknowledging the Gulf state’s normalization of ties with Israel on his last full day in office.

Trump, who sees Arab recognition of Israel as a key overseas achievement of his presidency, already conferred the same award on King Mohammed VI of Morocco last week for his move to restore ties.

Announcing his bestowal of the Legion of Merit, Degree Chief Commander, on King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, Trump also pays tribute to Bahrain’s hosting of a June 2019 conference on the economic dimensions of his Middle East peace plan, which broke with decades of international consensus and was boycotted by the Palestinians.

“King Hamad has shown extraordinary courage and leadership through his support of the Vision for Peace and his decision to establish full diplomatic relations with the State of Israel,” the official Bahrain News Agency quotes Trump as saying.

“King Hamad has challenged old assumptions about the possibility for peace in the region, and in doing so, positively reshaped the landscape of the Middle East for generations,” Trump adds.

Just across the Gulf from Iran, Bahrain is a longstanding Western ally which is home to the US Fifth Fleet.

The Legion of Merit is a military award that was created to honor allied leaders in World War II and had gone into obscurity until it was revived by Trump, who last month also presented it to the prime ministers of Australia, India and Japan.

Cabinet won’t vote on legalizing 5 settlement outposts, as Netanyahu reportedly pushed for

A proposal to legalize five settlement outposts in the West Bank won’t be voted on during today’s cabinet meeting, despite Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly pushing for swift approval of the measure.

According to Hebrew media reports, Netanyahu wanted to push through the move before US President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration tomorrow and Defense Minister Benny Gantz gave his approval yesterday, despite previously voicing opposition to the move.

However, Gantz comes out against the proposal ahead of the meeting and the item isn’t included on the agenda.

“During the cabinet meeting no proposal that is irresponsible diplomatically will come up in such a sensitive period,” a statement from Gantz’s office says.

A nuclear disaster: Ex-FBI head Comey likens Trump’s effect on US to Chernobyl

Former FBI director James Comey compares the devastating impact of outgoing US President Donald Trump on America, culminating in the Trump-incited January 6 mob assault on the Capitol, to the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor.

In an interview today with the Guardian, Comey says the US always had a “radioactive stew” of violence, but it was held in check by a containment building (the law) and tamed by control rods (cultural expectations, including the N-word becoming taboo).

“What Donald Trump has done for the last five years is attack the building from the outside to weaken its foundation,” Comey tells the British paper. “He’s withdrawn the control rods, and that’s a recipe for a nuclear disaster, a radioactive release. That’s what you saw on Capitol Hill, our own Chernobyl, when the ugly radioactive violence and racism of America explodes in public view.”

Comey, who was sacked by Trump in May 2017, says he was “sickened” on January 6 “to watch an attack on the literal and symbolic heart of our democracy,” but also “mystified and angry that Capitol Hill wasn’t defended.

“It’s a hill! If you wanted to defend it, you could defend it, and for some reason it was not defended. I think that’s a 9/11-size failure and we’re going to need a 9/11-type commission to understand it so that we don’t repeat it,” he warns.

In this January 10, 2017, photo, then-FBI Director James Comey testifies on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP Photo/Cliff Owen)

Based on his direct dealings with Trump, Comey muses in the interview on how and why so many people have proved ready to embrace and enable the US president’s false narratives. “He rarely stops talking in a way that not only is filled with constant lying, but draws those to whom he’s speaking into an involuntary circle of assent,” Comey suggests. “He has this way of lying and saying: ‘Everybody agrees and of course we all agree,’ and a wave of lies hits you.”

Complicating all this, he adds, is that “the person speaking is in some sense an object of reverence in the American civic religion: he’s sitting in the Oval Office and he’s the president of the United States, so you want to believe him and respect him.”

That combination “makes him uniquely able to bend people – and he has bent a lot of people. It’s a really hard thing to resist. I bent in small ways that I convinced myself were tactical,” Comey recalls. “I gave silence in response to a request for loyalty and I said: ‘I’ll be honest,’ and then when I got ‘honest loyalty’ I agreed to that to get out of that conversation.”

He claims Trump tends to attract people who lack a solid moral framework: “They tell themselves stories like: ‘I’ve got to deal with this to protect the country; because I’m so important to the nation, I’ll make these compromises.’ And then he’s eaten your soul, it’s too late, and then you’re the attorney general of the United States marching across Lafayette Square thick with choking pepper smoke after protesters have been cleared so the man can hold the Bible up. That’s where you end up.”

He also says that the Republican Party “needs to be burned down or changed” and hopes a break is nearing “between the Trumpists and those people who want to try and build a responsible conservative party.”

In the interview, Comey again defends his actions in the run-up to the 2016 elections, and specifically his handling of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s use of a private email server when she was secretary of state, while acknowledging that Clinton blames him for her defeat to Trump. He says he has never met Clinton, but if he did, “I think I would tell her that I’m sorry for her pain. I remember reading that she said I shivved [stabbed] her. I’m sick of talking about it, but if she wanted to, I would try to have her understand why we made the decisions we made.”

Expert panel: China, WHO should have moved quicker to stop COVID pandemic

GENEVA (AP) — A panel of experts commissioned by the World Health Organization criticizes China and other countries for not moving to stem the initial outbreak of the coronavirus earlier and questions whether the UN health agency should have labeled it a pandemic sooner.

In a report issued to the media today, the panel led by former Liberian president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark says there were “lost opportunities” to set up basic public health measures as early as possible.

“What is clear to the panel is that public health measures could have been applied more forcefully by local and national health authorities in China in January,” shortly after the coronavirus began sickening clusters of people, it says.

The panel also cites evidence of cases in other countries in late January, saying public health containment measures should have been put in place immediately in any country with a likely case, adding: “They were not.”

“The reality is that only a minority of countries took full advantage of the information available to them to respond to the evidence of an emerging pandemic,” the panel says.

The experts also wondered why WHO did not declare a global public health emergency — its highest warning for outbreaks — sooner. The UN health agency convened its emergency committee on January 22, but did not characterize the emerging pandemic as an international emergency until a week later. At the time, WHO said its expert committee was divided on whether a global emergency should be declared.

“One more question is whether it would have helped if WHO used the word pandemic earlier than it did,” the panel says.

Biden’s secretary of state nominee vows US will lead but restore alliances

WASHINGTON — Antony Blinken, US President-elect Joe Biden’s choice to be secretary of state, will vow today that the United States will “outcompete” a rising China while reviving frayed alliances, in a sea change from Donald Trump’s go-it-alone “America First” approach.

On the eve of Biden’s inauguration, Blinken is set to say at his confirmation hearing that the United States will seek to remain the preeminent global power but renew cooperation on common challenges such as COVID-19 and climate change.

“America at its best still has a greater ability than any country on earth to mobilize others for the greater good,” Blinken, a mild-mannered longtime aide to Biden, is to tell the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, according to his prepared remarks.

“We can outcompete China — and remind the world that a government of the people, by the people, can deliver for its people,” Blinken says, paraphrasing Abraham Lincoln’s paean to democracy, two weeks after a mob of Trump supporters ransacked the Capitol in hopes of overturning Biden’s victory.

The stepson of a Holocaust survivor who found refuge in the United States, Blinken, 58, is known for his passion on humanitarian causes.

He is expected to win Senate confirmation although Republicans have vowed to press him hard on his consulting work since leaving Barack Obama’s administration four years ago.

In a sharp shift in tone from Trump’s secretary of state Mike Pompeo — who spoke of “swagger,” “American exceptionalism” and global conflict with China — Blinken says he’ll show “humility.”

“Not one of the big challenges we face can be met by one country acting alone — even one as powerful as the US,” Blinken says.

“We can revitalize our core alliances – force multipliers of our influence around the world. Together, we are far better positioned to counter threats posed by Russia, Iran, and North Korea and to stand up for democracy and human rights.”

Israel’s virus czar says 1st dose proving less effective than Pfizer indicated — report

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash says the first dose of Pfizer’s vaccine is turning out to provide less protection against COVID-19 than the US pharmaceutical firm had initially indicated it would, Army Radio reports.

Many people have gotten infected between the first and second Pfizer shots, he reportedly says, and it appears the protection offered by the first dose is “less effective than we had thought.” The data on the protective effect against the virus of the first dose, it is estimated, is “lower than Pfizer presented,” he is quoted saying.

Over 2 million Israelis have had their first Pfizer shot. Over 400,000 have had the second.

During talks among Health Ministry officials ahead of today’s cabinet meeting, Ash also says it’s not certain that vaccines can protect against mutated variants of the coronavirus, according to the report.

Ash is also quoted saying he won’t insist that tightened lockdown measures be extended for two more weeks and that he’ll settle for another week and a half.

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