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US puts temporary hold on sale of F-35s to UAE

Washington reviewing some foreign arms sales during Trump administration, including deal reached as part of Israel normalization; new US secretary speaks to Israeli counterpart

Two US Navy F-35C Lightning II jets fly in formation during an exercise out of Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, November 16, 2018. (US Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe)
Two US Navy F-35C Lightning II jets fly in formation during an exercise out of Naval Air Station Lemoore, California, November 16, 2018. (US Navy/Chief Mass Communication Specialist Shannon E. Renfroe)

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

Biden administration freezes F-35 sales to UAE

The Biden administration has put a temporary hold on several major foreign arms sales initiated by former President Donald Trump.

Officials say that among the deals being paused is a massive $23 billion transfer of stealth F-35 fighters to the United Arab Emirates. That sale and several other massive purchases of US weaponry by Gulf Arab countries had been harshly criticized by Democrats in Congress. The officials did not identify the other sales that had been temporarily halted.

The new administration is reviewing the sales but has not made any determination about whether they will actually go through, the State Department says. It calls the pause “a routine administrative action” that most incoming administrations take with large-scale arms sales.

“The department is temporarily pausing the implementation of some pending U.S. defense transfers and sales under Foreign Military Sales and Direct Commercial Sales to allow incoming leadership an opportunity to review,” the department says.

“This is a routine administrative action typical to most any transition, and demonstrates the administration’s commitment to transparency and good governance, as well as ensuring US arms sales meet our strategic objectives of building stronger, interoperable, and more capable security partners,” it says.

In its waning months, the Trump administration authorized tens of billions of dollars in new arms sales, including announcing plans to send 50 F-35s to the UAE. That announcement came shortly after Trump lost the Nov. 6 election to now-President Joe Biden and followed the signing of the Abraham Accords between Israel, Bahrain and the UAE, under which the Arab states agreed to normalize relations with Israel.

Two US F-35 Lightning II’s bank after receiving fuel over the Midwestern United States, September 19, 2019. (US Air Force/Master Sgt. Ben Mota)


New US secretary speaks to Israel’s top diplomat on Iran, peace

Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi speaks with the new US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, the Foreign Ministry says, in the highest-level contacts yet between Jerusalem and the new American administration.

The two discussed “expanding the circle of peace, the Iranian threat and other issues,” the ministry says.

Ashkenazi congratulates Blinken on his new role and expresses confidence Jerusalem and Washington will “combat global terrorism” and the Iranian threat.

The two agreed to continue talks and meet when pandemic restrictions permit.

US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu have yet to speak.

Then-US Deputy Secretary of State Antony Blinken, in Seoul, South Korea, April 19, 2016. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

Sudan wants to sign Israel normalization agreement at White House — report

Sudan wants to sign its normalization deal with Israel at the White House, according to Axios. The report says Israel favors the arrangement.

“There is no rush. We think it is a good idea to sign this agreement in Washington with the support of the Biden administration. It is important for the Sudanese, and it will strengthen the agreement,” an Israeli official is quoted saying.

Sudan has yet to respond officially to Israel’s proposal on the establishment of ties, according to the report. When pressed to sign, the head of Sudan’s governing council, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Burhan, said he wants the new US administration to back the agreement and laid out his demand for a Washington ceremony, it says.

Fatah official hails Biden’s intention to reopen Palestinian diplomatic offices

The Palestinian Authority welcomes the new US administration’s intention to reopen the offices of the Palestine Liberation Organization in Washington, closed under former president Donald Trump.

“We welcome the contents of the speech of the US administration’s representative to the (UN) Security Council yesterday,” Jibril Rajoub, a senior official in the ruling Fatah party, tells AFP.

“The opening of the East Jerusalem consulate, the reopening of the PLO office in Washington, and the new US administration’s commitment to the two-state solution are welcome positive indicators,” he says.

Senior Fatah official Jibril Rajoub, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, hosts by video conference a meeting with deputy Hamas chief Saleh Arouri (on screen from Beirut) discussing Israel’s plan to annex parts of the West Bank, on July 2, 2020. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

On Tuesday, Washington’s interim UN envoy Richard Mills said that newly sworn-in US President Joe Biden intended to “restore credible US engagement with Palestinians as well as Israelis.” Biden intended to “restore US assistance programs that support economic development and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people and to take steps to re-open diplomatic missions that were closed by the last US administration,” he added.

Under Trump, the US had stopped supporting the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) and closed the Palestinians’ liaison office in Washington

At the same time, the White House stepped up its support of Israel, recognizing Jerusalem as its capital and declaring settlements should not be considered breach of international law.

“We expect that the new administration will raise a red card to the Israeli unilateral expansionist steps on the ground, dictating realities to undermine any possibility for the emergence of a Palestinian independent sovereign state,” Rajoub says.

Hundreds of Austrian, Slovakian Holocaust survivors get vaccinated

Hundreds of Holocaust survivors in Austria and Slovakia get their first dose of a coronavirus vaccine, an acknowledgment of past suffering and a tribute to resilience 76 years after Soviet troops liberated the Auschwitz death camp in Nazi-occupied Poland.

More than 400 Austrian survivors, most in their 80s or 90s, are expected to get shots at the convention center in Vienna. Some are brought by shuttle or by ambulance, while others were accompanied by their children. The fittest among them took the subway.

“We owe this to them,” says Erika Jakubovits, who organized the capital vaccination drive for the Jewish Community of Vienna. “They have suffered so much trauma and have felt even more insecure during this pandemic.”

A vial and a syringe of the Pfizer/BioNTech Comirnaty Covid-19 vaccine at the Bordeaux CHU hospital, January 7, 2021. (MEHDI FEDOUACH / AFP)

Jakubovits set up the vaccination drive with support from the Austrian Health Ministry and Vienna city officials. Twelve doctors, all members of the Viennese Jewish community, volunteered to administer shots to older Jews.

While the event took place on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, vaccinations were not limited to survivors of the Shoah. All Jews in the area older than 85 were eligible to receive them during the special tribute drive.

In a similar project to that in Vienna, the Jewish community of Bratislava in Slovakia also vaccinates Holocaust survivors on Wednesday.

“We’re very, very grateful that the vaccinations are taking place on this symbolic day,” says Tomas Stern, the head of the Jewish community in Bratislava.

Some 128 survivors were to receive their first shot at Bratislava’s Jewish community center on Wednesday and another 330 across Slovakia in the coming days.

US issues nationwide terror alert over anti-government extremists

The US Department of Homeland Security declares a nationwide terrorism alert, citing the potential threat from domestic anti-government extremists opposed to Joe Biden as president.

“Information suggests that some ideologically-motivated violent extremists with objections to the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition, as well as other perceived grievances fueled by false narratives, could continue to mobilize to incite or commit violence,” the department says.

The National Terrorism Advisory System Bulletin says a heightened threat of attack “will persist in the weeks following the successful presidential inauguration,” which took place on January 20.

“DHS does not have any information to indicate a specific, credible plot,” it says.

“However, violent riots have continued in recent days and we remain concerned that individuals frustrated with the exercise of governmental authority and the presidential transition… could continue to mobilize a broad range of ideologically-motivated actors to incite or commit violence.”

US National Guard soldiers are seen in silhouette as they keep guard in front of the Capitol Building and near the Washington Monument in Washington, DC on January 19, 2021, ahead of the 59th inaugural ceremony for President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris. (Photo by ROBERTO SCHMIDT / AFP)

The alert says there have been mounting threats since last year from domestic violent extremists motivated by COVID-19 restrictions, Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump in the November election, police brutality and illegal immigration.

DHS says these motivations could remain in place for the coming months and that the January 6 attack by Trump supporters on Congress could embolden extremists “to target elected officials and government facilities.”

More than 150 people, including members of armed extremist groups, have been arrested since the attack, which has been branded as an insurrection.

The department urges the public to report suspicious activity and threats of violence.

Joint List on course to dissolve alliance as talks fall apart

In a press conference, representatives of the four-party strong alliance of Arab parties known as the Joint List say that negotiations to maintain the unity of the bloc have failed, making it likely the alliance will fall apart.

“We’ve failed, unfortunately. The Joint List will not continue in its current lineup,” says Balad MK Mtanes Shehadeh.

Mansour Abbas of the Ra’am party holds a press conference after a meeting with President Reuven Rivlin at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem on April 16, 2019. (Noam Revkin Fenton/Flash90)

Tensions among the four Arab parties have been rising steadily over the past few months, stoked by renegade Ra’am party chief Mansour Abbas. Abbas has publicly warmed ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a move seen by his Joint List colleagues as beyond the pale.

Three meetings between Joint List representatives have been held over the past few days in an attempt to maintain the party’s unity ahead of the March elections. All have ended so far without result.

Iman Khatib-Yasin, right, next to Joint List head Ayman Odeh at a campaign event, August 20, 2019. (Gili Yaari/ Flash90/ via Zman)

Ta’al representative MK Osama Saadi was more circumspect than Shehadeh, indicating that eight days were left until the deadline for submitting lists of candidates. But he sounds an extremely pessimistic note about the prospects.

“We will now return to our political groups and decide how to move forward after this terrible meeting,” Saadi says.

Ra’am party secretary Walid Hawashleh tells The Times of Israel that the decision to break the alliance of Arab parties is not final.

“Sure, right now, the whole situation is totally crazy. But politics is like soccer, there’s still time. We have until February 4th, when the final lists must be presented, just like in soccer, where every game lasts 90 minutes,” Hawashleh says.

Hawashleh says that the Islamist party’s Shura council will meet in the coming days to decide whether or not to formally break off from the Joint List or reach a compromise.

But Hawashleh agrees the potential for unity now seems “remote.”

Israel to close Allenby Crossing to Jordan from Thursday evening

The Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) announces that the Allenby Bridge border crossing linking Israel and Jordan will be closed from 5 p.m. on Thursday, in both directions, until further notice.

The move is aimed at preventing virus variants from entering Israel.

Another 4,778 diagnosed with COVID-19 since midnight

The Health Ministry records another 4,778 coronavirus cases since midnight, bringing the number of active cases to 74,785.

There are 1,160 people in serious condition, including 316 on ventilators.

The death toll stands at 4,574, up by 35 fatalities since this morning.

The ministry also says over 100,000 more people have been vaccinated today. 2,804,041 Israelis have received the first dose of the vaccine, with 1,448,827 of them receiving both shots.

Health Ministry says Israelis over 35 can now get vaccine

The Health Ministry says Israelis over 35 years old are now eligible to receive the coronavirus vaccine, lowering the age from 40.

Health providers are instructed to begin administering the shots to the age group from Thursday.


Treasury, public hospitals said to reach budget agreement

The Finance Ministry and public hospitals have reached an agreement on state budgets, according to Hebrew media reports.

Under the deal, the state will provide another NIS 105 million ($32 million) per month to the medical centers and review its other requests. The cash-strapped hospitals have complained of serious budget and manpower shortages amid the pandemic.


Biden warns Holocaust deniers’ voice growing louder

Expressing concern over the increasingly amplified voice of Holocaust deniers, US President Joe Biden stresses the importance of passing down the lessons of the Nazi-perpetrated genocide to future generations, in a statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“We must pass the history of the Holocaust on to our grandchildren and their grandchildren in order to keep real the promise of ‘never again,'” says Biden in the statement released by the White House. “That is how we prevent future genocides. Remembering the victims, heroes and lessons of the Holocaust is particularly important today as Holocaust deniers and minimizers are growing louder in our public discourse.”

Biden highlights the 2017 march in Charlottesville, Virginia where “white nationalists and neo-Nazis spewing the same anti-Semitic bile we heard in the 1930s in Europe” and says the harrowing scenes were ultimately what drove him to run for president.

US President Joe Biden answers questions from reporters in the South Court Auditorium on the White House complex, Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

“The Holocaust was no accident of history. It occurred because too many governments cold-bloodedly adopted and implemented hate-fueled laws, policies and practices to vilify and dehumanize entire groups of people, and too many individuals stood by silently,” the president says.

He stresses the importance of combating the “resurgent tide of anti-Semitism, and other forms of bigotry and intolerance, here at home and around the world.”

Biden also pledges to be a “champion justice for Holocaust survivors and their heirs.”

Unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, whose first statement marking International Holocaust Remembrance Day failed to explicitly mention Jews, Biden highlights the religious minority right off the bat.

“Today, we join together with people from nations around the world to commemorate International Holocaust Remembrance Day by remembering the 6 million Jews, as well as the Roma and Sinti, Slavs, disabled persons, LGBTQ+ individuals, and many others, who were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Shoah,” he says.

Gantz appears to rebuke IDF chief over warning to Iran

Defense Minister Benny Gantz appears to criticize IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi over a speech yesterday in which he threatened potential military action against Iran to block its nuclear program.

“A nuclear Iran is a danger to the world, to the region and is a challenge to the security of Israel. Of course, Israel must be prepared to defend itself in any way, but red lines are drawn in closed rooms,” Gantz says.

In his speech yesterday, Kohavi denounced American intentions to rejoin the 2015 nuclear deal as “bad” and “wrong” and said he had ordered the military to develop operational plans for striking Iran’s nuclear program.

It is highly uncommon for the IDF chief of staff to make public comments critical of an American administration, which provides significant financial and logistical support to the Israeli military.

Defense Minister Benny Gantz, center, speaks to an IDF officer as army chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi, right, watches on during a visit to the IDF Central Command in Jerusalem, on September 15, 2020. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Gantz unveils IDF enlistment plan for ultra-Orthodox, Arabs

Defense Minister Benny Gantz announces a fresh plan to address the roughly half of eligible Israelis who do not enlist in the Israel Defense Forces, most of them ultra-Orthodox and Arab, who are exempt from service.

According to Gantz’s plan, all Israelis will be required to perform some form of national service after high school, with the military getting first choice of the recruits. Besides the IDF, Israelis will be able to serve in the police or as educators or in other civil service roles.

This model was developed by a group called Pnina, which was recently led by the director-general of Gantz’s ministry, Maj. Gen. (res.) Amir Eshel, and is meant to both bring different groups in Israeli society together through national service and to provide them with access to training and education to help them get jobs later in life.

Illustrative: Ultra-Orthodox IDF soldiers at the Peles Military Base in the Jordan Valley. (Yaakov Naumi/Flash90)

Gantz’s proposal comes as the High Court of Justice has demanded of the government that it sort out its policies regarding the near blanket exemption of ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Israelis from military service, which the court has found to be unfair and illegal under the current legislation.

Gantz says he is demanding that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu bring his proposal to a vote in the upcoming cabinet meeting on Sunday, threatening to allow the High Court of Justice to overturn the law preventing the conscription of Haredi Israelis if this does not happen.

However, it is unlikely that an interim government such as the one currently in power would be able to institute such a sweeping change to a major piece of legislation as Gantz proposes.

Fauci says there’s reason for concern over South African variant and vaccine

Dr. Anthony Fauci says there’s reason to be concerned about the impact of some coronavirus mutations on vaccines, but scientists have plenty of options for adjustments to maintain the effectiveness of vaccines and treatments.

The government’s top infectious disease expert says there’s particular concern about the so-called South African variant, because lab tests have shown that it can diminish the protective power of the vaccines approved to date.

However, Fauci stresses the level of protection provided was still well within what he called the “cushion” of vaccine effectiveness.

Fauci says one vaccine that’s still in testing is being measured for effectiveness against the South African variant and another strain that has emerged in Brazil. He called that a promising development.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, laughs while speaking in the James Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House, Jan. 21, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Iran military threatens to strike Haifa, Tel Aviv if Israel ‘errs’

If Israel “errs” against Iran, Tehran will “strike Haifa and Tel Aviv as soon as possible,” Iranian military spokesperson Brig. Gen. Aboulfazl Shekarji says in a statement.

The bellicose remark is apparently a response to Israeli military Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi’s speech last night, where he said he had ordered officers to prepare “operational plans” against the Iranian nuclear program.

US may reach 514,000 deaths by Feb. 20 — CDC

White House Coronavirus Coordinator Jeff Zients is saying in the Biden administration’s first formal briefing on the pandemic that officials will always hew to the science and level with the public.

Rochelle Walensky, the new head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, says her agency’s latest forecast indicates the US will record between 479,000 to 514,000 deaths by February 20.

Dr. Rochelle Walensky, President-elect Joe Biden’s pick to head the Centers for Disease Control, speaks during a news conference at the Queen Theater December 8, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. (Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images/AFP)

Zients says the federal Department of Health and Human Services is acting Wednesday to make more professionals available to administer vaccinations. The government will authorize nurses and doctors who have retired to administer vaccines, and professionals licensed in one state will be able to administer shots in other states. Such measures are fairly standard in health emergencies.

The US leads the world with 25.4 million confirmed cases and more than 425,000 deaths.

Biden’s nominee for UN envoy: Israel boycott movement ‘verges on anti-Semitic’

US President Joe Biden’s nominee for UN ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, condemns the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement against Israel during her Senate confirmation hearing.

“I find the actions and the approach that BDS has taken toward Israel as unacceptable. It verges on anti-Semitic, and it’s important that they not be allowed to have a voice at the UN, and I intend to work against that,” she says.

In this Jan. 9, 2014, file photo Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield, right, testifies during a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Capitol Hill in Washington. (AP/Pablo Martinez Monsivais, File)

18 prisoners contract COVID-19, week after first vaccine dose

The Israel Prisons Service says 18 inmates at HaSharon Prison have contracted COVID-19.

The diagnoses come a week after prisoners received the first dose of the coronavirus vaccine.

The prisoners have been moved into quarantine, the service says.

French Holocaust memorial vandalized on remembrance day

Vandals paint graffiti on France’s Holocaust Memorial ahead of international commemorations of the Nazi slaughter of millions of Jews.

The Israeli Embassy in France tweets a photo of the pro-Uighur graffiti scrawled on a wall etched with the names of tens of thousands of French victims of the Holocaust. The embassy expresses “horror and anger” at the vandalism “on such a symbolic day.”

Paris police say the graffiti was discovered Wednesday morning, as ceremonies were being held or planned around the world to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is observed on the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on January 27, 1945.

The graffiti was quickly cleaned off.

While France sees persistent but scattered anti-Semitic vandalism or violence, the graffiti was not explicitly anti-Jewish. It included the message “Uighur Lives Matter” and appeared aimed at calling attention to China’s treatment of mostly Muslim Uighurs.

The Chinese government has detained an estimated 1 million or more members of ethnic Turkic minority groups in Xinjiang, holding them in internment camps and prisons where they are subjected to ideological discipline, forced to denounce their religion and language and physically abused. China has long suspected the Uighurs of harboring separatist tendencies.

Biden’s nominee as UN envoy vows to fight anti-Israel bias at forum

US President Joe Biden’s nominee for UN envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, says she will fight bias against Israel at the international forum if confirmed.

“I look forward to standing with Israel, standing against the unfair targeting of Israel, the relentless resolutions proposed against Israel unfairly,” she says at her Senate confirmation hearing, adding that she looks forward to working with her Israeli counterparts to bolster the Jewish state’s security and “to widen the circle of peace.”

She adds: “I look forward to working with Israel to develop a strategy with them for engaging with countries that would appreciate having Israel’s expertise to support their development efforts.”

“I’m hopeful that those countries that have recognized Israel under the Abraham Accord will also see some opportunities to be more cooperative at the UN and more supportive of Israel’s presence there,” she says of the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan.

President-elect Joe Biden listens as his nominee for U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations , Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, speaks at The Queen theater, Nov. 24, 2020, in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster)

Blue and White warns lockdown won’t be extended until fines hiked for violations

The Blue and White party says it won’t allow the cabinet to meet Thursday to extend the nationwide lockdown unless legislation upping fines for violators goes ahead.

“There will be no cabinet meeting on extending the lockdown if there is no equal enforcement for all,” the party says. “Either everyone heeds the lockdown — or there will be no fake lockdown.”

The fine hike legislation, which aims to crack down on ultra-Orthodox schools open in violation of the rules, is stuck in committee amid disagreements between Haredi politicians, Blue and White, and Likud.

UK variant found in 70 countries, South African in 31 — WHO

The new and more contagious COVID-19 variant first spotted in Britain has now spread to 70 countries — 10 more than a week ago, the World Health Organization says.

In its latest epidemiological update, the UN health agency also says the variant of the virus first found in South Africa had spread to eight more countries in the past week and was now present in 31 nations; meanwhile, another variant discovered in Brazil has spread to eight countries.

Health care workers take coronavirus test samples of Israelis in a drive through complex in Jerusalem, January 4, 2021. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Knesset okays lockdown extension until Sunday, despite Gantz’s threat

The Knesset approves the lockdown rules, effective through Sunday, despite a threat by Blue and White leader Benny Gantz to oppose the legislation until a separate bill hiking up fines against violators is advanced.

The rules are backed by 34 lawmakers, while seven vote against it. Four Blue and White MKs oppose it, while the rest are not present.

The legislation on the fines, aimed at shutting down ultra-Orthodox institutions open in violation of the lockdown, has been held up in a committee amid disagreements between the Haredi parties and Blue and White.

Police fear Hasidic groups will hold illegal gatherings over Tu Bishvat — TV

Police are concerned Hasidic sects will hold illegal mass gatherings to mark the holiday of Tu Bishvat, which begins this evening, in violation of the lockdown rules, according to Channel 12.

Police clash with ultra-Orthodox Jewish men during enforcement of coronavirus regulations, in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, January 24, 2021 (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Justice Ministry says Likud, Yisrael Beytenu compromised voter privacy with app

The Justice Ministry’s Privacy Protection Authority says the Likud and Yisrael Beytenu parties violated voters’ privacy with their use of the Elector app during two election campaigns in 2019.

Likud’s use of the app also caused a major leak of private information.

The Elector app is intended to enable political parties to conduct real-time data-crunching on election day, showing data on individual voters, polling stations (including rates of support for a party by station) and regions, information vital to a party’s grassroots get-out-the-vote effort.

Election campaign billboards for Likud and its leader Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (foreground), and the Blue and White party led by Benny Gantz (background), in Bnei Brak, February 23, 2020. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

But a flaw in the app’s web interface gave easy “admin access” to the entire database, allowing anybody to access and copy the Israeli voter registry, along with additional information gathered by Likud about hundreds of thousands of voters, including information supplied by friends and family about individuals’ political preferences. The exposed database also included the full name, sex, home address, and, in many cases, cellphone number and responses to political polling for 6.5 million Israeli adults.

Officials had looked into possible breaches of privacy laws — including handing over the voter registry to the programmers of Elector. Israeli election law gives political parties access to the registry, but forbids handing it to a third party.

According to the Haaretz daily, Likud, Yisrael Beytenu and Elector could be fined for their use of the app, in what would be an unprecedented step.

Pfizer, Moderna working on booster shots targeting variants

Pfizer and Moderna say they’re working on booster shots targeting coronavirus variants, should the strains prove resistant to the existing vaccines.

“We are already laying the groundwork to respond quickly if a variant of SARS-CoV-2 shows evidence of escaping immunity by our vaccine,” Pfizer tells Reuters.

Moderna, meanwhile, said Monday it would work on a booster tailored to the South African variant.

Health Ministry confirms 30 cases of South African variant in Israel

The Health Ministry confirms that three more cases of the South African coronavirus variant have been found in Israel, bringing the total number of infections from the strain to 30.

Three of the cases were discovered in a random sampling, raising concerns of undetected community spread.

Police bust illegal school housed in Jerusalem synagogue

Dozens of ultra-Orthodox students are found studying in a synagogue in Jerusalem Ramat Shlomo’s neighborhood, in violation of the lockdown rules.

Police arrive at the synagogue, fine the teacher who held classes at the site, and disperse the gathering.

Netanyahu: Just a matter of time before vaccine-resistant strain develops

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to the World Economic Forum about Israel’s successful vaccine drive.

“We didn’t quibble about the price,” he says via videoconference on negotiations with Pfizer. Netanyahu says he told bureaucrats to “cut the c-word,” and advance the sale.

The prime minister says a major “selling point” in encouraging the US pharmaceutical company to swiftly provide stocks of vaccines to the Jewish state was that “Israel could serve as a world laboratory for herd immunity or something approaching herd immunity very quickly.”

Israel “can serve as a global test case” on the vaccine, and on reopening the economy, says Netanyahu.

Netanyahu says he expects that “we’ll have to inoculate ourselves at least annually, that’s my guess.” He says he wants to sign future contracts to purchase new or modified vaccines for mutations, and for teenagers and children. “We should stock them and deliver them.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu receives his second shot of Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine at Sheba Medical Center in Ramat Gan on January 9, 2021. (Amos Ben-Gershom/GPO)

While stressing that he’s not an expert on vaccines, Netanyahu says: “It’s just a matter of time until we hit a strain that the current vaccines are not susceptible to.”

He says that’s why Israel’s main airport shut down.

“All the mutations that you see today… that’s two weeks too late. And the new ones you wouldn’t know about” for two weeks or so, says Netanyahu.

British police called to AstraZeneca production plant to deal with ‘incident’

British police are dealing with an “incident” at an industrial complex in Wales where doses of the Oxford-AstraZeneca coronavirus vaccine are produced and stored.

North Wales Police say the incident is ongoing at the Wrexham Industrial Estate, about 42 miles (68 kilometers) south of Liverpool.

“The roads are currently closed and we would ask the public to avoid the area until further notice,” the force says in a statement. It does not provide details.

The BBC reports that a bomb disposal unit has been called to deal with a suspicious package and says there are no reports of injuries.

This undated file photo issued by the University of Oxford on November 23, 2020, shows of vial of coronavirus vaccine developed by AstraZeneca and Oxford (John Cairns/University of Oxford via AP, File)

At German parliament, Holocaust survivor sounds alarm over far-right

Holocaust survivor Charlotte Knobloch calls for a stronger defense of the country’s “fragile” democracy and issues a searing rebuke to the far right: “We will fight for our Germany.”

In an emotional speech to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, Knobloch tells the Bundestag lower house of parliament that extremists and conspiracy theorists had again taken aim at liberal European values.

“We must not forget for a single day how fragile the precious achievements of the last 76 years are” since the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp on January 27, 1945.

“Anti-Semitic thought and words draw votes again, are socially acceptable again — from schools to corona protests and of course the internet, that catalyst for hatred and incitement of all kinds.”

The Vice President of the European Jewish Congress and the World Jewish Congress Charlotte Knobloch (C) greets Petra Pau (L) of the left wing “Die Linke” (The Left) party and member of the Bundestag, as she leaves the plenary hall with German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier (R), following a ceremony marking the 76th anniversary of the liberation of Nazi Germany’s Auschwitz death camp, on International Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27, 2021 at the Bundestag (lower house of parliament) in Berlin. (Tobias SCHWARZ / AFP)

Knobloch, a former leader of Germany’s 200,000-strong Jewish community who survived the Holocaust in hiding as a child in Bavaria, warns that the “enemies of democracy are stronger than many think.”

“I call on you: take care of our country,” she says, calling right-wing extremism “the greatest danger for all” in Germany.

Addressing deputies of the hard-right Alternative for Germany, the largest opposition group in parliament with nearly 100 seats, Knobloch accused many of its followers of “picking up the tradition” of the Nazis.

“I tell you: you lost your fight 76 years ago,” Knobloch says. “You will continue to fight for your Germany and we will keep fighting for our Germany.”

Knobloch fights back tears as she recounted the terror of the Nazis’ rise and her grandmother, Albertine Neuland, sacrificing her life to save her own by taking her place on a deportation train to the Theresienstadt concentration camp.

Neuland was murdered there in 1944.

“I stand before you as a proud German, against all odds and although much still makes it unlikely. Sadness, pain, desperation and loneliness accompany me,” she says.

But she says Germany’s enduring commitment to the culture of remembrance made her hopeful.

“I am proud of the young people in our country. They are free of guilt for the past but they assume responsibility for today and tomorrow: interested, passionate and courageous.”

Germany has officially marked Holocaust Remembrance Day every January 27 since 1996 with a solemn ceremony at the Bundestag featuring a speech by a survivor and commemorations across the country.

Palestinian prisoner Barghouti expected to nominate himself for PA presidency

Sources tell Qatari news site Al-Arabi al-Jadeed that Palestinian prisoner Marwan al-Barghouti — currently serving life sentences in Israeli jail for directing several suicide bombings — intends to nominate himself for the PA presidency.

Al-Barghouti is quite popular among Palestinians, and his name is frequently mentioned as a potential successor to aging Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

In a recent opinion poll, 37 percent of those surveyed named Al-Barghouti as their preferred candidate. Hamas terror chief Ismail Haniyeh was the runner-up with 23 percent.

A decree issued by Abbas earlier this month set presidential elections for July 31, but observers remain skeptical they’ll happen. The Palestinians have not seen national elections for 14 years, and several promises by Palestinian leaders that their people would return to the polls have fallen through over the years.

A man holds a photo of convicted Palestinian terrorist Marwan Barghouti calling for his release during a rally supporting those detained in Israeli jails after hundreds of prisoners launched a hunger strike, in the West Bank town of Hebron on April 17, 2017. (AFP Photo/Hazem Bader)

Israel to seal borders to Jordan, Egypt to keep virus out

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri has ordered border crossings to Egypt and Jordan closed to both Israelis and foreigners to keep virus variants from entering the country.

The order goes into effect on Thursday morning at 6 a.m., through Sunday.

The Allenby Crossing, however, will remain open to allow West Bank residents to cross to and from Jordan.

Illustrative photo of the Taba border crossing between the Israel and Egypt. April 17, 2010. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Netanyahu: We’ll extend lockdown, closure of airport beyond Sunday

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says the government will extend the nationwide lockdown and the closure of Ben Gurion Airport — both of which are set to expire Sunday — during a meeting on Thursday.

He says the exact length of the extension will be determined by the infection rates, which have remained stubbornly high despite a three-week lockdown.

“We are protecting ourselves from the mutations. The British mutations is raging around the world and has also entered Israel. We managed to curb it. We must reduce it further and ensure that new mutations which we have yet to encounter don’t enter [the country],” says Netanyahu.

He also says Israel will block entry into the country from Jordan.

The prime minister makes the comments during a visit to a vaccination center in Sderot.

Germany compensates heirs for Nazi-looted Liszt scores

A German classical music foundation says it has found the rightful heirs of a Jewish woman who was forced by the Nazis to sell two scores by composer Franz Liszt before being deported to a concentration camp.

Klassik Stiftung Weimar says that researchers were able to trace relatives of Emma Frankenbacher living in Argentina, where her daughter and son-in-law had fled Nazi persecution in the 1930s.

Frankenberger, who died at 67 in the Theresienstadt concentration camp, sold the two handwritten manuscripts to a Liszt museum in 1937 for 150 Reichsmark (about $370 at the time).

Such transactions are usually considered forced sales, as Jews had no other option to but to agree to often very low prices.

The foundation says it has now reached an agreement with the heirs to buy the scores for the museum. It didn’t disclose the purchase price.

Jerusalem therapist arrested, suspected of sexually assaulting patient

A therapist in Jerusalem has been arrested on suspicion of sexually assaulting a young female patient, according to the Israel Police.

The therapist is a man in his 60s. He has not been identified.

Hebrew media reports say the woman, in her 20s, sought psychological counseling after experiencing serious violence, without elaborating.

On Holocaust Remembrance Day, pope warns mass extermination could happen again

Pope Francis marks Holocaust Remembrance Day by warning that warped ideologies can pave the way to another mass extermination.

Francis speaks off the cuff at the end of his weekly general audience, held in his private library because of coronavirus restrictions, to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp in Poland, where Nazis killed more than 1 million Jews and others.

The Argentine pope insists on the need to remember, saying it was a sign of humanity and a condition for a peaceful future. But he says remembering “also means to be aware that these things can happen again, starting with ideological proposals that claim to save a people and end up destroying a people and humanity.”

He warns that the Holocaust began that way, opening “this path of death, extermination and brutality.”

Francis prayed at the Auschwitz-Birkenau memorial during his 2016 visit to Poland.

Pope Francis prays in front of a memorial at the former Nazi death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, in Oswiecim, Poland, July 29, 2016. (L’Osservatore Romano/Pool photo via AP)

Luxembourg signs restitution deal for Holocaust victims

The Luxembourg government signs a deal with the World Jewish Restitution Organization to pay reparations and to restitute dormant bank accounts, insurance policies as well as looted art to Holocaust survivors.

The deal announced on International Holocaust Remembrance Day will also provide financial resources to promote remembrance, education and research of the Holocaust in Luxembourg.

“The agreement today is a profound statement by Luxembourg of its abiding commitment to preserving the memory of Jews who were persecuted and murdered during the Nazi occupation of Luxembourg,” says Gideon Taylor, the World Jewish Restitution Organization chair of operations.

The Nazis occupied Luxembourg in May 1940. About 2,000 Luxembourg Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

In 1st since Biden elected, US bomber flies over Persian Gulf in warning to Iran

For the first time since Joe Biden became US president and in the sixth incident since last fall, a US B-52 bomber flies over the Persian Gulf in a warning to Iran, the Wall Street Journal reports.

“Our intent is to maintain that enduring defensive posture, to deter any aggression in the region, promote regional security and assure our allies,” a senior US military official tells the paper.

A B-52 heavy bomber, flanked by fighter jets, flies to the Middle East in a tacit threat to Iran on November 21, 2020. (US Air Force/Facebook)

Russian parliament approves extension of nuclear pact with US

Russian lawmakers quickly approved the extension of the last remaining nuclear Russia-US arms control, a fast-track action that comes just days before it’s due to expire.

Both houses of parliament vote unanimously to extend the New START treaty for five years, a day after a phone call between US President Joe Biden and Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Kremlin says they agreed to complete the necessary extension procedures in the next few days.

The pact’s extension doesn’t require congressional approval in the US, but Russian lawmakers must ratify the move and Putin has to sign the relevant bill into law.

Deputy Foreign Minister Sergei Ryabkov tells lawmakers that the extension will be validated by exchanging diplomatic notes once all the procedures are completed.

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

Upper house Speaker Valentina Matvienko says after the vote that the decision to extend the pact shows that Russia and the US can reach agreements on major issues despite the tensions between them.

New START expires on February 5. After taking office last week, Biden proposed extending the treaty for five years, and the Kremlin quickly welcomed the offer.

The treaty, signed in 2010 by US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, limits each country to no more than 1,550 deployed nuclear warheads and 700 deployed missiles and bombers, and envisages sweeping on-site inspections to verify compliance.

Man convicted, then acquitted, over Daniel Pearl’s murder now admits ‘minor’ role

In a dramatic turn of events, a man convicted and later acquitted in the 2002 killing of Jewish American journalist Daniel Pearl admitted a “minor” role in his death, upending 18 years of denials, the Pearl family lawyer say.

A letter handwritten by Ahmad Saeed Omar Sheikh in 2019, in which he admits limited involvement in the death of the Wall Street Journal reporter, was submitted to Pakistan’s Supreme Court nearly two weeks ago. It wasn’t until Wednesday that Sheikh’s lawyers confirmed their client wrote it.

The high court is hearing an appeal of a lower court’s acquittal of Sheikh, charged with murder in the death of Pearl. The appeal was filed by Pearl’s family and the Pakistan government.

The 38-year-old reporter from Encino, California, was abducted January 23, 2002. His body was later found in a shallow grave in a southern Karachi neighborhood.

Murdered journalist Daniel Pearl. (Photo credit: the Daniel Pearl Foundation)
Daniel Pearl was a journalist for The Wall Street Journal. (The Daniel Pearl Foundation)

Pearl family attorney Faisal Siddiqi calls Sheikh’s confirmation that he authored the letter a “dramatic development” demanding the conviction and death penalty be reinstated.

“This is very, very important because for the last 18 years the position of Omar Saeed Sheikh is that he did not know Danny Pearl, he never met Danny Pearl,” he says in an interview with The Associated Press. “He has taken a position of complete ignorance regarding this case, but now in a handwritten letter he has admitted to at least a limited role.”

“He has not asked that he be acquitted. He accepts his guilt but asks that his sentence may be reduced,” he adds.

In the handwritten letter, a copy of which The AP has received, Sheikh writes “my role in this matter was a relatively minor one, which does not warrant the death sentence.”

He also admits to knowing who killed Pearl, naming Pakistani militant Atta-ur-Rahman, alias Naeem Bokhari, who has since been executed in connection with an attack on a paramilitary base in southern Karachi.

Ahmed Omar Saeed Sheikh, the alleged mastermind behind the Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl’s kidnap-slaying, appears at the court in Karachi, Pakistan, March 29, 2002. (Zia Mazhar/AP)

In the letter dated July 25, 2019, and stamped with the seal of the High Court of Sindh, Sheikh asks that he be given an opportunity to “clarify my actual role in this matter so that my sentence may be reduced accordingly to one which is consistent with the requirement of justice.”

Sheikh’s lawyer, Mehmood A. Sheikh, who is no relation, says his client wrote the letter under duress and denies he knew Pearl or had any connection with Pearl. He says his client described his condition in prison as “worse than the life of an animal.”

Sheikh, the lawyer, said his client wrote the letter in an attempt to get a hearing, not make an admission of guilt. Rather, “he wanted to be able to be heard.”

The appeal is expected to wrap up this week, says Siddiqi. He said he expects a quick decision after Sheikh’s admission of involvement, even in a minor capacity, in Pearl’s death. “This (letter) changes everything,” he says.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

Tnufa leader says merger with Labor, Huldai’s party is ‘natural’

Leader of the center-left Tnufa faction Ofer Shelah, who broke away from Yesh Atid to form his own party, hints that he seeks to merge with Merav Michaeli’s Labor party and Ron Huldai’s The Israelis.

His comments come ahead of a February 4 deadline to lock down the party slates before March’s election.

“The alliance between us and Labor and The Israelis is natural. Together we can reach a double digit number of seats,” Shelah tells Army Radio.

MK Ofer Shelah holds a press conference in Tel Aviv on December 24, 2020, announcing the establishment of a new party. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

West Bank settler population grew by 13% since 2017 — report

Israel’s West Bank settler population has grown at a far higher rate than the country as a whole over the last four years, a pro-settler group says, a period that coincides with the Trump administration’s unprecedented acceptance of settlement activity.

The report by West Bank Jewish Population Stats shows the settler population growing by around 13% since the start of 2017 to reach 475,481. During the same period, Israel’s population grew by around 8% to reach nearly 9.3 million, according to the government.

The group’s report, which is based on official government data, does not include East Jerusalem.

View of neighborhoods in the Israeli settlement of Maale Adumim, near Jerusalem, on June 28, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Baruch Gordon, the director of West Bank Jewish Population Stats, downplays the influence of US policy, saying the annual growth rate actually declined in recent years even before the coronavirus pandemic. The West Bank settler population grew by 2.62% in 2020, according to his figures, compared to 1.7% in Israel as a whole. In 2016, the settler population grew 3.59%.

“I don’t think any American president can influence that much, because growth on the ground is (dependent on) internal Israeli government decisions on how much construction to do and not to do,” he says.

Many settlers are religious Jews who tend to have larger families, driving population growth, and many Israelis are drawn to the settlements because they offer more affordable housing.

Gordon expects growth to continue even if US President Joe Biden pressures Israel to rein it in. “The facts on the ground are stronger than any American foreign policy,” he says.

The West Bank settlement of Ma’ale Efraim on the hills of the Jordan Valley, February 18, 2020. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

3 cases of South African variant found in random sampling

The Health Ministry has found three cases of the South African variant this week after sequencing a random group of test samples, prompting concern the strain could be spreading undetected in the country.

The three people had not been exposed to the previous 27 cases of the South African mutation confirmed in Israel.

Experts fear the variant could prove vaccine-resistant, though initial studies have indicated the shots would still offer protection against the strain.

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