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Lebanon says it will not attend US-led economic peace summit in Bahrain

Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil says Beirut won’t make trip to Manama because Palestinians won’t be either, though it’s unclear if they were even invited

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil (R) shakes hands with visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following a public statement in the Lebanese capital Beirut on March 22, 2019. (Jim Young/Pool/AFP)
Lebanese Foreign Minister Gibran Bassil (R) shakes hands with visiting US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo following a public statement in the Lebanese capital Beirut on March 22, 2019. (Jim Young/Pool/AFP)

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

Forest on Gaza border torched by incendiary balloons

Firefighters are working to extinguish three blazes caused by incendiary balloons in the Kissufim forest bordering the Gaza Strip, authorities say.

Yesterday, municipal officials said that four fires had been ignited by incendiary balloons near Gaza border communities, with one of them burning hundreds of dunams of wheat fields.

On Friday Army Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi said that an unofficial deal with Gazan terrorist groups for calm along the border was proving effective, and that there had been a decrease in the number of incendiary devices flown into Israel.

In addition, Kohavi told heads of communities near Gaza that violence along the border fence had calmed significantly from earlier this year, when clashes between protesting Palestinians and Israeli troops had been a near-daily occurrence.

‘It was not a day of work. It was a day of abuse,’ ex-cleaner testifies against Sara Netanyahu

A woman who is suing the prime minister’s wife, Sara Netanyahu, for alleged abuse in the workplace when she was employed as a cleaner at the Prime Minister’s Residence has taken the stand in court for the first time and is facing a cross-examination from a defense attorney who accused her of lying.

Shira Raban, then a 24-year-old ultra-Orthodox mother of three, worked as a cleaner at the Netanyahu official residence for a month in 2017. She filed her lawsuit shortly after leaving her position, claiming NIS 225,000 ($64,000) in damages. Raban has alleged that the prime minister’s wife insulted her relentlessly throughout her short tenure.

Raban is giving testimony at the Jerusalem District Labor Court, where she repeated claims she made in an affidavit of the unacceptable conditions she was forced to endure by Netanyahu.

“On the first day I was in shock,” she says. “The conduct in the residence is unusual. It was important for Mrs. Netanyahu on the first day to show me the ropes. That I would understand the rules of the second floor and that I made sure to wash my hands before and after each thing I did.”

“It’s not a day’s work, it’s a day of abuse,” she said of the work conditions allegedly imposed on her. “It harms the body from the first second.”

PMO director-general tells Netanyahu he plans on stepping down soon

Prime Minister’s Office Director-General Yoav Horowitz has told Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu he would like to leave his post soon, the PMO says in a statement.

Horowitz had said before the April elections said he would be stepping down after the establishment of a new government, or by June at the latest.

Horowitz, 59, a longtime close confidant of Netanyahu since the two served together at the Israel Defense Forces elite unit Sayaret Matkal, has been Netanyahu’s chief of staff since 2016 and the PMO director-general since May 2018, when his predecessor Eli Groner resigned.

The statement says Netanyahu thanked Horowitz for three years of “dedicated and professional work” and added he was “sure he will continue to be successful in the future.”

Horowitz thanks Netanyahu “for the opportunity and trust I got from him and the privilege of working alongside him, serving the citizens of Israel and the State of Israel.”

Iraq’s judiciary denies deal to commute French jihadist death sentences

Iraq’s judiciary has denied it had struck a deal with Paris to commute the death sentences of French nationals convicted in Baghdad for belonging to the Islamic State group.

A Baghdad court issued death sentences in recent weeks for 11 Frenchmen transferred to Iraqi custody from neighboring Syria, where they were caught fighting for IS.

Only an appeals court — not a bilateral agreement — can change their sentences, according to Abdalsattar Bayraqdar, spokesman for Iraq’s Supreme Judicial Council.

“The sentences issued by Iraqi courts can only be reviewed by the court of cessation — which has the prerogative under the law to reaffirm the sentence or alter it depending on the circumstances of each crime — and not through deals between countries,” he says.

His statement comes after reports that Iraq’s government had struck a deal with Paris to commute the French citizens’ death sentences in exchange for money.

The 11 sentences are still not final.

According to Iraqi law, defendants have 30 days to appeal any sentence and for those facing the gallows, the appeal is automatically referred to the cassation court.

There, it will be reviewed by 12 judges, according to Mudhaffar Jaryan, a lawyer for one of the convicted men.


EU blocks Thyssenkrupp-Tata steel merger plan

The EU’s powerful antitrust authority has blocked the merger of German industrial conglomerate Thyssenkrupp with Indian steel giant Tata, an expected veto that kills the deal.

“We prohibited the merger to avoid serious harm to European industrial customers and consumers,” EU competition commissioner Margrethe Vestager says in a statement.

The aim of the merger had been to create the second largest European steel company behind multinational giant ArcelorMittal and to join forces in the face of the surge of Chinese steel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is already under pressure over his involvement with SeaDrift, which has ties to ThyssenKrupp and plays a role in the high-profile Case 3000 investigation. That investigation has snared several close associates of Netanyahu, but not the premier himself, on suspicion that they received illicit funds as part of a massive graft scheme in the multi-billion-shekel state purchase of naval vessels and submarines from the German shipbuilder. Some have called it the largest suspected graft scandal in Israel’s history.

with AFP

Iran press slams German FM’s defense of EU on nuclear deal

Iran’s conservative press is mocking the EU’s position on a 2015 nuclear deal abandoned by Washington, accusing Germany’s foreign minister of exhibiting both impotence and high-handedness during talks in Tehran.

Since US President Donald Trump quit the agreement in May last year, the European Union has repeatedly renewed its own commitment and pledged to reward Iran’s compliance with the sanctions relief promised under the deal.

But its failure to find an effective mechanism to enable its firms to continue doing business following the reimposition of US sanctions has left Tehran increasingly frustrated.

And strong criticism by the EU last month of Iran’s decision to retaliate by declaring itself no longer bound by some of its commitments has sparked further anger.

The ultra-conservative Javan newspaper has run a front-page cartoon depicting Foreign Minister Heiko Maas wearing a swastika armband, sporting a toothbrush moustache and performing a Nazi salute.

“The stinking leftovers of Nazism and fascism have manifested themselves in the spirit of the weakest Europe in history,” it says in an accompanying editorial.

The European Union “sent its envoy to Iran to say ‘Europe cannot implement without America’s approval but cannot accept Iran’s refusal to deliver on some of its commitments,'” the paper complains.


France busts neo-Nazi cell over plot to hit places of worship

French police busted a neo-Nazi cell accused of plotting attacks on Jewish or Muslim places of worship, judicial sources tell AFP.

Five members of the group, who were “close in ideology to the neo-Nazi movement,” were charged between September and May over the alleged plot, which was still “ill-defined.” a source close to the investigation says.


Knesset approves $79 million budget for year’s second round of elections

The Knesset’s Finance Committee has approved a $79 million budget for the Central Elections Committee to hold the year’s second round of elections on September 17, 2019.

The budget is equivalent to that of the April elections.

US resident held in Iran freed, flies to Beirut

A Lebanese official says a US permanent resident imprisoned for years in Iran is free and on his way to Lebanon.

The official says Nizar Zakka, a Lebanese businessman, is on a plane with the chief of Lebanon’s General Security Directorate Gen. Ibrahim Abbas and heading to the Lebanese capital.

The official spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity in line with regulations.

Zakka has been imprisoned in Iran since 2015. He is one of several prisoners with either dual nationality or links to the West held in Iran. His release comes as tensions between Iran and the US remain high after President Donald Trump withdrew America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

— AP

Reserve soldiers hang pride flag at post in Orthodox settlement

A group of IDF reserve soldiers have hung an LGBT pride flag at their post on the Orthodox settlement of Elon Moreh in the northern West Bank.

Driver in crash that wiped out family of 8 convicted of manslaughter

The Beersheba Magistrate’s Court has convicted Laurent Ankri, 52, of manslaughter for killing eight members of the same family in a head-on collision between his SUV and their minivan in November.

The prosecution is expected to request that Laurent be sentenced to up to 13 years behind bars.

US House to debate bill to purchase 2 Iron Dome batteries

A US lawmaker has submitted a House bill to purchase two Israeli-developed Iron Dome batteries and deploy them to protect American soldiers.

The proposal lodged by Democratic Rep. Mikie Sherrill (New Jersey) on Monday came four months after the Israeli Defense Ministry and US Department of Defense confirmed the upcoming purchase.

“Iron Dome is a proven defense system that will provide increased protection for our troops in the field. Access to this technology addresses critical gaps in our current capabilities,” says Sherrill in a statement.

Egypt, Jordan and Morocco said to confirm attendance at US-led summit in Bahrain

Jordan, Egypt and Morocco will reportedly be attending the US-led economic summit in Bahrain later this month.

Jared Kushner tells the al-Quds Palestinian daily that Amman and Cairo will particapate in the workshop and Channel 13 cites a US official who says that Morocco has also confirmed that it will be attending.

The US administration and Bahrain announced in mid-May that they will host an economic workshop in the Bahraini capital on June 25 and 26 that “will facilitate discussions on an ambitious, achievable vision and framework for a prosperous future for the Palestinian people and the region.”

American officials have said that the meeting will deal with the economic portion of its apparently forthcoming plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Kushner also tells the Palestinian newspaper that an official announcement regarding the participation of Jordan and Egypt in the summit in Bahrain will be made in the coming hours.

— with Adam Rasgon

Authorities suspect incendiary balloon caused fire near Gaza border town

Authorities in the Sdot Hanegev Regional Council suspect that an incendiary balloon sparked a fire in an open field in their municipality earlier today.

Botswana High Court decriminalizes homosexuality

Botswana’s High Court, in a highly-anticipated verdict, rules in favor of decriminalizing homosexuality, which is outlawed under the country’s 1965 penal code.

Judge Michael Elburu “set aside” the “provisions of a Victorian era” and ordered the laws be amended.

In a courtroom packed with activists, the judge emphasizes that the current laws oppressed a minority of the population.

The High Court had been petitioned by an anonymous person, identified only by initials LM for security reasons.

The individual challenged two sections of the penal code under which offenders face a jail sentence of up to seven years.


White House confirms Egypt, Jordan and Morocco attendance at Bahrain summit

The White House has confirmed the attendance of three more countries at its economic peace summit in Bahrain later this month

“Morocco, Jordan, and Egypt have told us that they are attending,” a senior White House official tells The Times of Israel.

Rabat, Amman and Cairo have yet to release statements of their own on the matter, but the US says the three countries are slated to join Saudi Arabia, Qatar, the UAE and host country Bahrain at the confab in Manama on June 25-26.

— Jacob Magid

Netanyahu taps vegan activist Tal Gilboa as animal rights adviser

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announces that he has tapped vegan activist Tal Gilboa as his animal rights adviser.

“I asked Tal Gilboa to advise me on animal rights issues, a subject that has gradually become closer to my heart,” the prime minister says in a video statement.

Gilboa thanks Netanyahu and calls it “a historic day for animals.”

Buttigieg: America won’t foot the bill of West Bank settlement annexation

In his first major foreign policy address as a Democratic presidential candidate, South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg warns that if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “makes good on his threat to annex West Bank settlements, he should know that a President Buttigieg would take steps to ensure American taxpayers won’t help foot the bill.”

He adds that it is possible to be pro-Israel while criticizing Netanyahu’s “right-wing” government, which has “turned away from peace.”

IDF Northern Command head: Israel won’t allow Hezbollah to fulfill its destructive ambitions

The head of the IDF Northern Command says Israel “will not allow [Hezbollah] to fulfill its plans and the destructive ambitions that it and its patron Hezbollah have.”

Maj. Gen. Amir Baram accuses the terror group of amassing rockets and building up a “terrorist infrastructure” in southern Lebanon, in contradiction of a UN resolution that is meant to keep the terror group out of the area.

Baram makes his remarks at a ceremony marking 13 years since the 2006 Second Lebanon War against Hezbollah.

The Northern Command chief says that, in a future war against the terror group, the country of Lebanon is likely to “pay a heavy price” for allowing Hezbollah to take root there.

“Hezbollah’s loyalty was and remains to the supreme leader of Iran, not to the citizens of Lebanon,” Baram says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Incendiary balloons cause 7 fires in region bordering Gaza, authorities say

Seven fires were sparked in the Eshkol region of southern Israel by balloon-borne incendiary devices throughout the day, the local fire department says.

All seven blazes have been brought under control and are being extinguished fully by teams from Fire and Rescue Services, the Jewish National Fund, the Parks and Nature Authority, and by military firefighters, a fire department spokesperson says.

“An investigation of the fires conducted by a fire investigator from Fire and Rescue Services determined that they were caused by incendiary balloons,” the spokesman says.

— Judah Ari Gross

Netanyahu meets with URWP leaders to divvy up cabinet posts

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu meets with Union of Right-Wing Parties leaders Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich, in his Jerusalem office.

The trio are expected to negotiate cabinet positions, with Peretz demanding to be education minister and Smotrich eyeing transportation minister, as well as one other post in the transitional government.

IDF reportedly shrinks fishing zone to six miles, amid incendiary balloon onslaught

The IDF has shrunk the Gaza fishing zone from 10 to six nautical miles, following an onslaught of incendiary balloons that have caused over a dozen fires in Israel over the past two days, the Ynet news site reports.

PMO director-general stepping down, due to disagreements with Netanyahu — report

Channel 13 reports that PMO Secretary-General Yoav Horowitz, who informed Netanyahu earlier today that he plans on stepping down from his post, is doing so because of growing disagreements with the premier on political matters.

Horowitz has grown apart from the prime minister, as the latter’s legal situation has become more complicated in recent months, according to Channel 13.

Ayelet Shaked to Jewish Home activists: I should lead right-wing alliance

Former Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked told Jewish Home activists earlier this week that she thinks she deserves to be at the head of an alliance of small right-wing parties that will run together in the September elections, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

IDF cancels entry of Jewish worshipers to Nablus after accidentally opening fire at PA security forces,

The IDF has cancelled a planned entry of Jewish worshipers into the northern West Bank Palestinian city of Nablus early tomorrow morning, after accidentally opening fire against PA security forces this morning, the Kan public broadcaster reports.


Israeli court approves Jerusalem church land sale to settler group

Israel’s top court has given final approval for the 2004 sale of properties by the Greek Orthodox Church to a Jewish pro-settlement organization in mainly Palestinian areas of annexed east Jerusalem.

In its ruling earlier today, the Supreme Court rejected the church’s appeal against a district court’s 2017 approval of the same deal.

Three companies linked to a group named Ateret Cohanim in 2004 secured the long-term lease of three buildings owned by the Greek Orthodox Church — the Petra hostel and the New Imperial Hotel, both located by the Jaffa Gate, and a residential building in the Muslim Quarter.

Ateret Cohanim works to “Judaize” East Jerusalem in its entirety, by purchasing real estate in the city’s Palestinian areas through front companies.

The deal makes Ateret Cohanim the owner of the majority of the properties between the Old City’s Jaffa Gate and Arab market.


No cabinet posts divvied up during URWP meeting with PM

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s meeting with URWP leaders Rafi Peretz and Bezalel Smotrich has concluded with limited progress made.

The sides will meet again tomorrow in an effort to reach an agreement over which cabinet posts the premier will give the URWP leaders.

Lebanon says it will not attend US-led economic peace summit in Bahrain

Lebanon’s Foreign Minister Gebran Bassil announces that his country will not participate in the US-led economic peace summit in Bahrain later this month.

Bassil says that Beirut will not be attending because the Palestinians will not be there. Moreover, he says that not enough information has been given about the plan for them to play along.

However, it is not clear if the US invited Lebanon to participate.

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