The Times of Israel liveblogged Thursday’s events as they unfolded.

UK PM Johnson urges ‘end to hostilities’ in call with Rouhani

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has urged Iran’s President Hassan Rouhani to end to its confrontation with the United States and stressed Britain’s commitments to Tehran’s nuclear deal, 10 Downing Street says.

Johnson “called for an end to hostilities” and underlined Britain’s commitment to Iran’s nuclear agreement with foreign powers, calling it “the best arrangement currently available to deliver on our goal of stopping Iran from having a nuclear weapon,” his spokesman says.

EU official to Iran: Avoid ‘irreversible acts’

A top European Union official is urging Iran’s president to avoid “irreversible acts” potentially fatal to the Iran nuclear deal that is aimed at preventing the country from developing nuclear weapons.

European Council president Charles Michel speaks with President Hassan Rouhani ahead of a meeting of EU foreign affairs ministers Friday to assess the rising tensions between the US and Iran.

According to a European Council statement, Rouhani has told Michel his country wants to continue a “close cooperation” with the EU.

Iran struck the nuclear deal in 2015 with the United States, France, Germany, Britain, Russia and China but US President Donald Trump decided to unilaterally abandon the agreement in 2018, triggering sanctions that have badly hurt Iran’s economy.

After the US killed Iran’s top general last week, Tehran announced it would no longer respect limits on how many centrifuges it can use to enrich uranium.

— AP

Statue mocking Donald Trump torched in Slovenia

A wooden statue mocking US President Donald Trump has been burned to the ground in Slovenia, the birthplace of his wife Melania, authorities say.

 A wooden sculpture resembling US president Trump is on fire, in Moravce, Slovenia, January 9, 2020. (Municipality of Moravce via AP)

The nearly eight-meter (26-foot) high construction, erected last year in a village in northeast of Slovenia, showed Trump with his trademark hair style, blue suit, white shirt and a long red tie. His right arm — fist clenched — was raised high like that of New York’s Statue of Liberty.

Slovenian police are looking for the arsonist.

When triggered, a mechanism inside the statue opened a red-painted mouth and shark-like teeth used to appear.

“Like all populists, the statue has two faces,” its creator, Tomaz Schlegl, said when he unveiled the statue last August. “One is humane and nice, the other is that of a vampire.”

Although the construction quickly became a tourist attraction, some local villagers were unhappy with its appearance, pledging to torch it by Halloween, October 31. It had to be moved to another village in the area.

Milan Balazic, the mayor of Moravce where the statue ended up, says that unknown arsonists have burned it.

— AP

Prominent Israeli actor Moshe Ivgy convicted of indecent assault

Prominent Israeli actor Moshe Ivgy is convicted of one count of indecent assault against a female co-worker.

Actor Moshe Ivgy delivers a statement regarding sexual harassment allegations against him, at the end of a theater show in Tel Aviv on February 7, 2016 (Flash90)

Prosecutors filed the charges in 2018, saying they found sufficient evidence that Ivgy had exploited his status to commit indecent acts and sexually harass four women in 2012 and 2013, some of them at his workplace.

But the Haifa Magistrate’s Court acquits Ivgy of the other charges against him, citing insufficient evidence.

Man, 70, dies of flu complications at Soroka hospital

A 70-year-old man died this morning of complications of the flu virus at Soroka Medical Center in Beersheba, the hospital says in a statement.

“The man arrived showing symptoms of the flu and was hospitalized,” the statement says. “After a short while his body systems suddenly failed despite the medical treatment he was receiving.”

The man, a resident of the north of the country, is the 18th flu victim this winter, according to Hebrew-language media.

US strike kills Taliban splinter-group commander in Afghanistan

A US airstrike killed a Taliban splinter-group commander and several other fighters in the western Afghan province of Herat, Afghan and military sources say.

The commander, named as Mullah Nangyalay, was killed in Shindand district, close to the border with Iran, says Herat provincial governor’s spokesman Jailani Farhad.

Nangyalay split from the main branch of the Taliban after the 2013 death of founder Mullah Omar and joined a smaller breakaway faction led by a commander known as Mullah Rasool.

A senior provincial police source says the airstrike was carried out by a US drone.

Resolute Support, NATO’s mission in Afghanistan, tells AFP their forces have launched “a defensive airstrike in support of Afghan forces,” with a spokesman confirming US participation in the operation.

The main Taliban group has been negotiating with Washington for more than a year over the withdrawal of US troops in exchange for security guarantees from the jihadists that could pave the way to intra-Afghan peace talks.


Panel finds Malka Leifer fit to stand trial — report

A panel of psychiatrists appointed by the Jerusalem District Court to determine whether Malka Leifer is fit to stand trial has ruled that she is, and she has been feigning mental illness, Channel 13 reports.

That means the ultra-Orthodox former teacher wanted for more than 70 sexual offenses in Australia could face extradition soon, after years of court proceedings.

Malka Leifer accuser hails ‘incredible news’ that she is fit to stand trial

Dassi Erlich, who accuses Malka Leifer of sex offenses against her and many others while Leifer was her teacher in Australia, hails the news that a panel of psychiatrists has found her fit to stand trial, paving the way for her possible extradition after years of delay.

Leifer lawyers confident court will reject conclusion that she can stand trial

Malka Leifer’s attorneys, Tal Gabbay and Yehuda Fried, say there is “no surprise” in the ruling by a panel of psychiatrists that Leifer is fit to stand trial, expressing confidence the the Jerusalem District Court will reject the finding.

“It is important to emphasize and remind that two previous opinions ruling that Leifer is feigning [mental illness] and is fit to stand trial were wholely rejected by the court after a discussion of the evidence. We expect that will be the case for this opinion as well,” the attorneys say.

Organization praises Malka Leifer panel ruling as ‘monumental development’

Kol V’Oz, an Israel-based organization combating child sexual abuse in the global Jewish community, welcomes the ruling by a panel of psychiatrists that Malka Leifer — wanted in Australia for 74 counts of sexual assault, including rape — is fit to stand trial.

“This is a monumental development in this prolonged case,” says the group’s CEO, Manny Waks.

“It seems that finally justice will prevail. We are delighted for the three courageous sisters, Nicole, Dassi & Elly,” he says of the three sisters who say they were Leifer’s victims and have waged a campaign to have her extradited.

“We will continue to do all that we can to ensure Leifer is put on a plane back to Australia as soon as possible so that she can stand trial.”

Iran says it is ready to launch ‘hundreds’ of missiles as US bases

The brigadier general who leads Iran’s aerospace program says its forces launched 13 missiles at bases in Iraq used by US troops early Wednesday “but we were ready to launch hundreds.”

Gen. Amir Ali Hajizadeh also tells Iranian state television his forces simultaneously carried out a cyberattack on a US military monitoring service in Iraq.

He asserts that dozens of US forces were killed and wounded “but we were not after killing anyone in this operation.” He says that “we were after hitting the enemy’s military machine.”

The US, however, has said no Americans were killed in the missile strike.

— AP

Putin attends massive war games testing hypersonic missiles off Crimea

Russian President Vladimir Putin has observed massive military drills off the coast of Moscow-annexed Crimea that involved test launches of cruise and hypersonic missiles.

Russia’s commander-in-chief was on board the cruiser Marshal Ustinov to watch the joint drills by the Northern and Black Sea Fleets, the Kremlin says.

He watched test launches of Kalibr (Caliber) cruise missiles and Kinzhal (Dagger) hypersonic missiles among others, the Kremlin says.

Russia annexed the peninsula of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, in a move condemned by the West that was followed by the outbreak of an insurgency in eastern Ukraine. The conflict has claimed more than 13,000 lives.


Decision expected Sunday on whether PM’s immunity request will be discussed before election

The Knesset legal adviser will on Sunday publish his contentious legal opinion that could determine whether the parliament will be able to discuss Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s request for immunity from prosecution in three corruption cases before the March 2 elections, the Knesset spokesperson’s office says.

Eyal Yinon is formulating a legal opinion on the specifics of the ability of Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein — a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party — to singlehandedly prevent the formation during a transitional government of a House Committee, the only body that can discuss the request, even if a majority of lawmakers support forming it.

Netanyahu and his allies want to prevent the House Committee — which is practically guaranteed to reject the request — from forming, to delay the charges being formally filed in court. They have claimed Yinon has a conflict of interest since his wife is a prosecutor who worked on the cases against the premier. Yinon argues that his decision deals with matters of principle, not with the specific cases against Netanyahu.

Edelstein’s office says that shortly after he receives Yinon’s opinion, he will publish his decision on whether a House Committee will be formed.

Anti-abuse group ‘elated’ by panel ruling that Leifer is fit to stand trial

The founder of a US Jewish group dedicated to fighting child sexual abuse praises the decision by a panel of psychiatrists that accused serial pedophile Malka Leifer is fit to stand trial ahead of possible extradition to Australia.

“We are elated at the news that the expert panel appointed by the District Court determined today that Malka Leifer is fit to stand trial to be extradited to Australia and that she is faking her illness,” says Meyer Seewald, founder of Jewish Community Watch, which hired the private investigators that found alleged evidence Leifer had secretly been leading a normal life.

“From the day we began collecting evidence that Malka Leifer was faking her mental illness, we have been waiting anxiously for this outcome,” he adds. “We hope that this is a turning point in this drawn-out saga and that Malka Leifer will be swiftly extradited to Australia to face her accusers in court.”

Attorney for nearly two dozen Epstein accusers writes memoir

The attorney of more than 20 alleged victims of Jeffrey Epstein has written a book about his decade-long quest to bring the US billionaire financier to justice.

Gallery Books announces that Bradley J. Edwards’ “Relentless Pursuit: My Fight for the Victims of Jeffrey Epstein” will come out March 31.

In this December 4, 2018 file photo, US attorney Bradley Edwards listens to a public apology from Jeffrey Epstein, being read by Epstein’s attorney Scott Link, in a Palm Beach County, Florida, Court after a civil settlement was reached where Epstein admitted that the charges he leveled against Edwards were completely false. (Emily Michot/Miami Herald via AP, File)

“Edwards gives his riveting, blow-by-blow account of battling Epstein on behalf of his clients and provides stunning details never shared before,” according to Gallery, an imprint of Simon & Schuster. “He explains how he tracked Epstein’s criminal enterprise from Florida, to New York, to Europe, to a Caribbean island, and, in the process, became the one person Epstein most feared could take him down.”

The book was co-written by Brittany Henderson, a fellow trial lawyer based in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

Epstein was found dead in his jail cell in New York last summer. Accused of sexually abusing dozens of underage girls, he had been indicted on federal charges more than a decade after he secretly struck a deal with federal prosecutors in Florida to dispose of similar charges of sex trafficking. He pleaded guilty in 2008, the same year Edwards first heard from one of his accusers, to soliciting a minor for prostitution and served 13 months.

Federal prosecutors in New York reopened the probe after investigative reporting by The Miami Herald stirred outrage over the plea bargain.

— AP

Saudi Arabia denounces ‘Iranian violations of Iraqi sovereignty’

Saudi Arabia denounces “Iranian violations of Iraqi sovereignty” after Iran fired missiles at Iraq bases there where US troops are deployed in retaliation for the killing of a top commander.

“The kingdom denounces and condemns the Iranian violations of Iraqi sovereignty,” says a statement carried by the official SPA news agency following yesterday’s retaliatory strikes by Riyadh’s foe Iran.


Rain in north breaks 50-year record for fortnight; January average already surpassed

Recent torrential downpours in northern Israel have broken a 50-year record of rain falling within two weeks, the Israel Meteorological Service (IMS) says.

The IMS says that the Western and Upper Galilee have seen more than 400 millimeters (15.7 inches) of rain, causing major floods in the coastal cities of Haifa and Nahariya. Some meteorological stations have even recorded more than 450 millimeters (17.7 inches).

Such numbers have only been seen twice since measuring started 80 years ago — in December 1951 and in January 1969.

The rain that fell in the first nine days of January has surpassed the average for the entire month.

Trump to attend Davos conference after skipping last year

US President Donald Trump will attend this year’s global economic forum in the Swiss alpine resort of Davos, having canceled last year’s trip, a senior administration official says.

The official confirms Trump will make the January 21-22 trip, even though several other major world leaders are expected to stay away.

Last year, Trump pulled out of Davos, which attracts wealthy business people, celebrities and politicians, in the midst of a budget battle with Congress that saw the US government shut down.

He will make the trip amid mounting tension over his Senate impeachment trial and fears of conflict in the Middle East after the US killing of a leading Iranian general and Tehran’s retaliatory missile strike against US troops in Iraq.

The White House says Trump’s delegation will include his daughter Ivanka Trump and her husband and top presidential adviser Jared Kushner.

A high-level economic team will include Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, and Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer.


Iran plane crash caused by anti-aircraft missile, likely by mistake — report

The Ukrainian plane that crashed this week shortly after taking off from Tehran airport was struck by an Iranian anti-aircraft missile, likely by mistake, Newsweek reports citing a Pentagon official, a senior US intelligence official and an Iraqi intelligence official.

The Pentagon’s assessment is that the incident was accidental, the US website reports.

Iran has claimed the plane crash, which killed all 176 on board, was caused by a technical malfunction.

UK demands ‘full, credible and transparent’ probe into Iran air crash

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants a “full, credible and transparent” investigation into what caused a Ukrainian passenger plane to crash in Iran, killing all 176 people on board, his office says.

Reports that the Boeing 737 turned back after suffering a problem “are very concerning and we are urgently looking into them,” the prime minister’s spokesman says after Johnson spoke by phone to Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky.


US officials ‘confident’ Iran shot down plane, launches detected — report

CBS News is reporting that US officials are “confident” the Ukrainian plane that crashed this week near Tehran was shot down by Iran.

US intelligence picked up satellite signals of two Iranian missiles, likely SA-15s, followed by an infrared blip of an explosion, the US website reports. Before that, it detected signals of a radar being turned on.

NATO to examine increased Middle East options after Trump request

NATO will consider an increased role in the Middle East, particularly in training missions, the head of the alliance says, after US President Donald Trump demanded it do more.

Responding to a call from the US leader for the transatlantic alliance to “become much more involved” in the troubled region, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg says this does not have to mean large deployments of combat troops.

He points to training missions run by the alliance in Afghanistan and Iraq — where some 500 NATO forces are deployed to train local troops.

“I strongly believe that the best way we can fight international terrorism is not always by deploying NATO troops in big combat operations,” Stoltenberg tells reporters.

“The best way is to enable local forces to fight terrorism themselves, and that is exactly what we do in Afghanistan, what we do in Iraq, and of course we can look into if we can do more of that kind of activity.”


Ukraine: Iran will share all data on plane crash

Ukraine’s leader says Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has assured him of full cooperation in investigating the fatal crash of a Ukrainian airliner near the Iranian capital and that he has said Iran will provide experts access to all data.

President Volodymyr Zelensky has spoken with Rouhani by telephone.

A statement on the Ukrainian presidential website says: “The Iranian party assured full cooperation with a view to holding an objective investigation and finding out the causes of the tragedy. Hassan Rouhani stressed that Iran would provide the Ukrainian expert group with prompt access to all the necessary data.”

— AP

Trump hints Iran responsible for downing of Ukrainian jetliner

US President Donald Trump suggests that he believes Iran is responsible for an incident in which a Ukrainian jetliner crashed near Tehran.

He doesn’t directly lay the blame on Iran, but he dismisses their claims that it was a mechanical issue — and denies any US responsibility.

“Somebody could have made a mistake on the other side,” Trump says, noting the plane was flying in a “pretty rough neighborhood.”

“Some people say it was mechanical,” Trump adds. “I personally don’t think that’s even a question.”

Two US officials have said it is “highly likely” that an Iranian anti-aircraft missile downed a Ukrainian jetliner late Tuesday, killing all 176 people on board.

The crash came just a few hours after Iran launched a ballistic missile attack against Iraqi military bases housing US troops amid a confrontation with Washington over the US drone strike that killed Iranian Revolutionary Guard general Qassem Soleimani last week. The officials, citing US intelligence, speak on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. They have no immediate information on intent.

— AP

Trump says new Iran sanctions already in effect, without elaborating

US President Donald Trump says his administration has imposed new sanctions on Iran following missile strikes on bases housing US troops in Iraq that resulted in no American or Iraqi deaths.

“It’s already been done. We’ve increased them. They were very severe, but now it’s increased substantially,” Trump says, without offering any specifics.

Trump had promised the “additional punishing sanctions” in an address to the nation yesterday in retaliation for the attack — seen by experts as a measured first response by Tehran to the killing of Iran’s top General, Qassem Soleimani, in an American drone strike in Baghdad.


Lawmakers finally approve Brexit bill, UK on course for January 31 exit

Britain’s House of Commons has given final approval to the bill authorizing the country’s departure from the European Union, paving the way for Brexit at the end of the month.

Lawmakers vote 330-231 to pass the EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill. It will become law once it is approved by Parliament’s upper chamber, the House of Lords, which does not have the power to overturn decisions of the elected Commons.

The bill’s Commons passage is a victory for Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has vowed that Britain will leave the EU on the scheduled date of January 31.

The comfortable majority won in last month’s election by Johnson’s Conservatives ended years of political deadlock over Brexit and allowed the bill to be approved despite opposition from smaller parties.

— AP

Iran says claims that missile caused plane crash make ‘no sense’

Iran rules out a missile strike as the cause of a Ukrainian passenger plane crash near Tehran, saying such a scenario makes “no sense.”

The plane crashed shortly after take off yesterday, killing all 176 people on board, shortly after Iran fired a volley of missiles against military bases in Iraq housing US personnel.

“Several internal and international flights were flying at the same time in Iranian airspace at the same altitude of 8,000 feet (2,440 meters),” Iran’s transport ministry says.

“This story of a missile striking a plane cannot be correct at all,” it says in a statement.

“Such rumors make no sense,” Ali Abedzadeh, head of Iran’s civil aviation organization and deputy transport minister, says in the statement.

Abedzadeh is reacting to reports by US media that the Boeing 737 was hit by a missile and social media rumors that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards is to blame.

He says Iran and Ukraine are in the process of “downloading information” from black boxes retrieved from the crash site.

“But if more specialized work is required to extract and analyse the data, we can do it in France or another country,” he adds.


Jewish Home said to offer potential lawmaker spot to 20-year-old

In its attempts to find a suitable woman for its electoral slate in the upcoming elections, the Jewish Home party has reportedly offered the post to a woman who would be the youngest-ever Israeli lawmaker by far if she accepts and is elected.

Channel 13 says the religious right-wing party has offered a high spot on the list of candidates to 20-year-old Orit Mark-Ettinger, who founded a charity in memory of her father, Rabbi Michael Mark, who was killed in a Palestinian terror attack in 2016.

The youngest-ever Knesset member was Inbal Gavrieli, who was elected in 2003 as part of the Likud party, when she was 27.

Network of Syrian, Iraqi spies helped US kill Soleimani — report

A series of Syrian and Iraqi informants are suspected of providing the US with the information that led to the killing of Iran’s Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani last week, according to a Reuters exposé.

The suspected informants — two security employees at Baghdad airport and two workers in private Syrian airline Cham Wings — gave the intelligence about Soleimani’s secret flight from Damascus to Baghdad, the news agency reports, quoting “two security officials with direct knowledge of Iraq’s investigation, two Baghdad airport employees, two police officials and two employees of Syria’s Cham Wings Airlines.”

A member of Iraq’s National Security Agency is quoted as saying there are “strong indications that a network of spies inside Baghdad Airport was involved in leaking sensitive security details.”

Rocket falls in Iraq, near base housing US troops — report

A rocket lands in northern Iraq, near a base where US troops are stationed, the Reuters news agency reports citing local police sources.

The origin of the rocket is unknown, the sources are quoted as saying, but it comes after two successive nights in which Iran or its proxies fired either missiles or rockets at US-linked targets in Iraq.

The rocket — which fell in the Fadhlan area of the Dujail district in Salahuddin province, near the Balad air base — caused no casualties, the report says.

Ukraine calls for ‘evidence’ in Iran plane crash probe

Ukraine asks Western nations to provide any evidence they may have to help investigators probing a Ukrainian passenger plane that crashed in Iran, as US media reports it was mistakenly shot down by a missile.

“Our country has every interest in establishing the truth. That is why we are calling on Ukraine’s Western partners: If you have evidence to assist the inquiry, we call on you to provide it,” the Ukraine presidency says in a statement.


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