Knesset advances conscription bill, securing coalition deal
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Knesset advances conscription bill, securing coalition deal

Lawmakers vote 59-38 for bill exempting ultra-Orthodox seminary students from IDF draft, formally accepting agreement that ends worst coalition crisis since last elections

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset plenum session on March 12, 2018.(Miriam Alster/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at a Knesset plenum session on March 12, 2018.(Miriam Alster/Flash90)

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

Hamas hints Israel carried out Hamdallah assassination attempt

Hamas, blamed by the Palestinian Authority for the attempted assassination of PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah on Tuesday, condemns the attack and suggests Israel may have carried it out.

In an English-language statement on its website, Hamas says (typos in the original):

The Palestinian Islamic Movement Hamas condemns targeting the convoy of Dr Rami Hamadallah and considers it part of the attempts to destabilise the security in the Gaza Strip, as well as an attempt to undermine ongoing efforts to achieve the national unity and internal reconcilaiiton.

Hamas stresses that those, who targeted Hamadallah’s convoy, are the same people who assassinated martyr Mazen Foqahaa and attempted to assassinate Major General Tawfiq abu-Naim.

Meanwhile, Hamas condemns the ready accusations by the Palestinian presidency against Hamas, which calls for the security services and the ministry of interior to open an urgent and immediate investigation into the incident in order to know who is responsible for it and to bring the perpetrators to the court.

Fawzi Barhoum, spokesman of the Palestinian Islamic Movement Hamas

Last May, Hamas accused Israel’s internal security service, the Shin Bet, of assassinating Mazen Faqha in a shooting in the Gaza Strip. Faqha, a senior Hamas operative, was responsible for planning terror attacks against Israelis from the West Bank.

Abbas says Hamas responsible for Hamdallah bombing, which ‘serves Israel’

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s office says it holds Hamas responsible for “the premeditated aggression against the convoy of the [PA] prime minister [Rami Hamdallah] and the head of intelligence [Majed Faraj],” the official PA outlet Wafa reports.

The report quotes the PA president’s office charging that “this attack against the convoy of the prime minister [is] aimed at efforts and steps by President Mahmoud Abbas to end division and achieve reconciliation.”

And it accuses: “Whoever carried out this act directly serves the interest of the Israeli occupation, the main beneficiary from the division.”

Abbas to meet security chiefs

PA President Mahmoud Abbas is set to meet with his security chiefs following the attempted killing of PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah in Gaza earlier today.

PA intelligence chief Majed Faraj, who was in the vehicle with Hamdallah when the roadside explosion detonated, wounding seven, says the attack was “a cowardly act aimed at harming national unity,” according to the official PA news service Wafa.

“It is too early to accuse anyone, but those who are in charge shoulder the full responsibility for security on the ground,” he is quoted as saying, a reference to Hamas, which rules the Gaza Strip and was responsible for securing Hamdallah’s visit.

PA says it doesn’t trust Hamas to investigate Gaza explosion

Adnan Damiri, a spokesperson for the Palestinian Authority’s security forces, says, “We don’t trust Hamas to investigate the explosion. We suspect Hamas was involved. Hamas must remove itself from the investigation.”

— Khaled Abu Toameh

IDF uniforms found being smuggled into Gaza

Israeli border officials stop a shipment of IDF uniforms as they were being smuggled into the Gaza Strip via the Kerem Shalom border crossing.

The clothes, found in the back of the truck, includes both dress uniforms and battle fatigues, fleeces, hats, bags and belts.

Officials suspect the uniforms were meant to be used as part of an attack against Israel by Gazan terror groups.

IDF uniforms caught at the Kerem Shalom border crossing as they were being smuggled into Gaza. (Defense Ministry)
IDF uniforms caught at the Kerem Shalom border crossing as they were being smuggled into Gaza. (Defense Ministry)
IDF uniforms caught at the Kerem Shalom border crossing as they were being smuggled into Gaza. (Defense Ministry)
IDF uniforms caught at the Kerem Shalom border crossing as they were being smuggled into Gaza. (Defense Ministry)

In sudden move, Trump fires secretary of state Rex Tillerson

In a sudden announcement on Twitter, US President Donald Trump fires Rex Tillerson, his secretary of state. CIA director Mike Pompeo replaces him.

Gina Haspel, Trump says, will become the new head of the CIA, the first woman to hold the post.

Tillerson aide says Trump never explained why he was fired

An aide to now-ex-secretary of state Rex Tillerson tells AP that US President Donald Trump never explained to Tillerson why he was fired.

Tillerson wanted to stay in the job, the aide says.

Cabinet committee set for key vote that could decide early elections

It’s the last week of the Knesset’s winter session, and maybe the last week of the 20th Knesset. By this evening, coalition lawmakers should know whether any compromise can be reached between the ultra-Orthodox lawmakers demanding the advance of a bill to exempt their youth from the military draft — even from registering for it, since their youth are already granted automatic exemptions from actually serving — and the Yisrael Beytenu party that says granting the exemption in formal law is discriminatory and could hurt the nation’s security.

At 6 p.m., the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, a committee of cabinet members that grants government backing for bills, is set to vote on whether it will support the ultra-Orthodox-sponsored bill. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is said to be speaking to Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, head of Yisrael Beytenu, to convince him to at least have his party’s lawmakers, including Absorption Minister Sofa Landver, who sits on the ministerial committee, absent themselves from the vote if they won’t vote for it.

In other words, at 6 p.m. we should know more about whether the country is going to elections.

Austrian chancellor meets Israeli Foreign Ministry chief

Hamdallah returns to Ramallah, says attack was ‘well prepared’

The official PA news agency Wafa says PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah has returned to Ramallah after surviving an assassination attempt directed at his motorcade in the Gaza Strip earlier today.

Hamdallah reportedly says the attack was “well prepared and the bomb was buried two meters into the ground,” according to Wafa.

He calls the attack “a cowardly act that doesn’t represent the Palestinian unity and neither the Palestinian people.”

Seven of his bodyguards are injured, he says, and are all being treated in Ramallah.

“This attack will not prevent us from completing our work in Gaza and achieving national reconciliation,” he says.

Iraq reopens Kurdish airports to international flights

Iraq is reopening airports in the country’s Kurdish region to international flights after federal authority was restored at the hubs, according to a statement from the country’s prime minister Haider al-Abadi.

The announcement comes some six months after the airports were initially shut to international flights following a controversial referendum vote in northern Iraq’s self-ruled Kurdish region that overwhelmingly backed independence from Baghdad.

The airports are due to open “within a few days” government spokesman Saad al-Hadithi tells The Associated Press.

Al-Abadi describes the move as “a gift to the people of Kurdistan,” during a meeting aired on Iraqi state television and adds that the central government would also release salaries for government employees in the Kurdish region ahead of the celebration of the Kurdish new year later this month.

The decision to lift the flight ban comes as Iraq is preparing for national elections slated to be held in May. Initially, al-Aabdi’s tough line on Iraq’s Kurds translated into widespread public support among his base in Iraq’s Shiite heartland.

— AP

Initial reports say coalition leaders may be turning away from early elections

Army Radio quotes unnamed “senior sources in prime minister [Benjamin Netanyahu’s] circle” saying, “We have taken a major step away from elections… we believe we can avoid early elections.”

The sentiment is echoed by Hadashot television news political correspondent Amit Segal, though neither Hadashot nor Army Radio offer any details as to the compromise that might have helped prevent elections.

Trump wanted new team ahead of North Korea talks, US official says

US President Donald Trump wants to change up his cabinet team before launching high-stakes negotiations with North Korea, a senior US official says Tuesday, after the president announces Mike Pompeo would succeed Rex Tillerson as his top diplomat.

“The president wanted to make sure to have his new team in place in advance of the upcoming talks with North Korea,” the official says.

The reshuffle comes days after the spectacular announcement of a meeting between Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, whose date and details have yet to be determined.

— AFP

Netanyahu said close to compromise solution to coalition crisis

Netanyahu appears to be coming close to a compromise solution to the coalition crisis, according to multiple Hebrew media reports.

The compromise, according to Hadashot TV’s Amit Segal, will see the ultra-Orthodox-backed conscription bill passing its first of three votes, while the Yisrael Beytenu party, which opposes it, will vote against — and all parties will approve the 2019 budget.

The final version of the conscription bill will only be brought to a vote after the spring recess, which begins Thursday, and will see a team from the Defense Ministry take part in drafting its final version.

White House Gaza conference is underway, sans the Palestinians

A senior White House official says the White House’s conference on aiding the beleaguered Gaza Strip has begun.

The statement lists the following countries and organizations attending:

Bahrain, Canada, Cyprus, Egypt, the EU, France, Ireland, Israel, Italy, Japan, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, the Netherlands, Norway, Oman, the Quartet, Qatar, Sweden, Switzerland, the United Arab Emirates, the UK, and the United Nations.

Missing, of course, is the Palestinian Authority itself, which is boycotting the event amid its general boycott of American officials, following Trump’s December 9 recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Israel has highest birthrate in developed world

Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics says Israel has the highest birthrate in the developed world, at 3.11 children per woman in 2016, surpassing second-place Saudi Arabia, whose 2015 average was 2.7, according to the OECD. The US 2015 average is 1.8.

Divided by religious lines, the CBS finds that Jewish women in Israel have a birthrate of 3.16 and Muslim women of 3.29, the Ynet news site reports.

Sweden’s ruling party vows to ban religious schools

STOCKHOLM, Sweden — Sweden’s Social Democratic party, which leads a minority government, on Tuesday pledges to ban all religious charter schools in order to tackle segregation in the country, which took in a record number of asylum seekers in recent years.

“We have to knock down segregation to keep Sweden together…school segregation must therefore also be broken down,” Ardalan Shekarabi, a leading member of the Social Democrats, tells a news conference in Stockholm.

The proposal is not backed by the majority of the parliament at this stage, as most of the charter schools are Christian. The announcement is largely seen as a symbolic move six months ahead of the September 9 general election.

Shekarabi, who is the minister for public administration, says his party, the nation’s largest, hopes to gain voters’ support on the issue in the poll.

Out of the 71 primary and upper secondary (for students aged 16 to 18) religious charter schools — five percent of all charter schools in Sweden — 59 are Christian, 11 are Muslim and one is Jewish.

— AFP

Turkish forces ‘surround’ Syrian Kurdish city

Turkey says its army and allied rebels had surrounded the Kurdish city of Afrin in northern Syria, raising the prospect of another devastating siege in the country’s long conflict.

In a statement Tuesday, the Turkish military says it had completely encircled Afrin city, home to some 350,000 people and defended by a well-armed Syrian Kurdish militia, the People’s Protection Units (YPG).

Birusk Hasakeh, a YPG spokesman inside Afrin, denies the city had been totally besieged but says the last route leading out of it was being shelled heavily.

“If they do encircle the city, we will be ready for a long fight. We will resist,” he tells AFP.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says Turkish forces had moved to within firing range of that last access route, which leads to a pair of regime-held towns — essentially encircling Afrin and 90 villages to its west.

— AFP

More major White House ‘personnel shifts’ expected — report

New York Times White House correspondent Maggie Haberman says the surprise personnel shifts aren’t over in the Trump White House.

“People close to the White House say they expect more major personnel shifts this week. An effort to rip off the bandaid fast on a number of fronts is likely.”

White House fires State official over Tillerson firing statement

The State Department’s now-former under secretary of state Steve Goldstein, who revealed earlier today that Tillerson did not know why he was being fired, is himself being fired.

That’s according to NBC.

National Geographic acknowledges past racist coverage

The National Geographic magazine acknowledges it covered the world through a racist lens for generations, with its magazine portrayals of bare-breasted women and native brown-skinned tribesmen as savage, unsophisticated, and unintelligent.

“We had to own our story to move beyond it,” editor-in-chief Susan Goldberg tells The Associated Press in an interview about the yellow-bordered magazine’s April issue, which is devoted to race.

National Geographic first published its magazine in 1888. An investigation conducted last fall by University of Virginia photography historian John Edwin Mason showed that, until the 1970s, it virtually ignored people of color in the United States who were not domestics or laborers, and it reinforced repeatedly the idea that people of color from foreign lands were “exotics, famously and frequently unclothed, happy hunters, noble savages — every type of cliché.”

For example, in a 1916 article about Australia, the caption on a photo of two Aboriginal people read: “South Australian Blackfellows: These savages rank lowest in intelligence of all human beings.”

In addition, National Geographic perpetuated the cliche of native people fascinated by technology, and overloaded the magazine with pictures of beautiful Pacific island women.

In National Geographic’s April issue, Goldberg, who identified herself as National Geographic’s first woman and first Jewish editor, wrote a letter titled, “For Decades, Our Coverage Was Racist. To Rise Above Our Past, We Must Acknowledge It.”

— AP

EU slams Hamdallah assassination bid, urges Palestinian unity

The European Union’s top foreign policy official says the attempted assassination of PA Prime Minister Rami Hamdallah earlier today was “a deliberate attempt to undermine recent efforts to reunite Gaza and the West Bank under one legitimate Palestinian Authority.”

The statement, issued by Federica Mogherini’s office, says the EU “strongly commends the courageous efforts by Prime Minister Hamdallah and others, who continue to work to improve the situation for people on the ground and towards Palestinian unity, which is an important element for reaching the two-state solution and lasting peace.”

Rocket sirens sound nationwide in major drill

Rocket sirens are sounding throughout Israel at 7:05 p.m. local time in a major national emergency preparedness drill.

Israelis are asked to locate and enter their nearest bomb shelters.

But relax, it’s only a drill.

Cabinet approves coalition compromise, averting early elections

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation votes unanimously to allow coalition lawmakers to vote as they wish on the ultra-Orthodox-backed conscription bill.

The vote means a compromise deal struck between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and two rival coalition partners has apparently been finalized and is now being implemented.

According to the deal, the conscription bill will pass its first of three votes later this week, before the Knesset goes to its spring recess on Thursday. Meanwhile, Yisrael Beytenu’s five lawmakers, who are fiercely opposed to the law, will be permitted to vote against it.

The bill will then be amended according to recommendations to be drafted by the Defense Ministry, and will face its final two votes in the summer.

Ultra-Orthodox concerned conscription bill may be victim of coalition compromise

As the coalition appears to draw back from the brink of early elections, ultra-Orthodox lawmakers are convening in the Knesset to raise concerns over the compromise reached by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other coalition partners. The deal says the ultra-Orthodox-backed conscription bill will move forward, but not all coalition lawmakers will be required to vote for it.

Haredi lawmakers, led by United Torah Judaism chief Yaakov Litzman, say that could mean the law won’t pass its first of three votes this week as promised by the PM.

What’s actually in the coalition compromise deal?

The coalition agreement to avert elections says the following:

1. Each coalition party will vote en masse either for or against a private member bill by Shas MK Yoav Ben Tzur that would exempt all ultra-Orthodox seminary students from military service. This is to allow Yisrael Beytenu to vote against the bill without it counting as a violation of coalition agreements.

2. If the bill passes a preliminary vote in the Knesset, the ultra-Orthodox parties will vote for the 2019 state budget before the Knesset goes to recess on Thursday night.

3. The coalition then commits to present a Defense Ministry-drafted version of the conscription bill when the Knesset returns from recess in mid-April. That bill would be merged with the Ben Tzur bill, and would be advanced with coalition support — including, presumably, the votes of Yisrael Beytenu, whose leader Avigdor Liberman heads the Defense Ministry that will have drafted the bill.

4. The result: Everyone gets what they want. The ultra-Orthodox get a show of political relevance for their constituents. Yisrael Beytenu gets to claim it stopped the Haredi-drafted version of the bill. Netanyahu gets a commitment of all coalition partners to pass the 2019 budget and — possibly — prevent any early elections before the winter of 2019.

Tillerson to speak from State Department on surprise firing

Rex Tillerson, America’s just-fired secretary of state, will give an “on-camera statement” from the State Department in Washington at 2 p.m. local time, 9 p.m. Israel time.

Netanyahu praises ‘responsibility’ of coalition partners, mocks opposition

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu confirms the news of a coalition agreement that averted early elections.

“I said yesterday I’d make a supreme effort to prevent elections… I promised, and I have kept that promise,” he tells lawmakers in the Knesset plenum.

He thanks his coalition partners for “showing responsibility. It’s important that we decided together to keep going, together.”

He also mocks the opposition lawmakers in the plenum, saying, “That was scary, huh?”

He assures his opponents he would have won the elections, had they taken place: “If there were elections, I’d be back standing here, and you’d be back to interpreting me over there. The public trust in us is huge. Now we’re going back to work.”

Elections averted, Bennett praises win for ‘national interest,’ ‘common sense’

Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s issues a statement following the resolution of the coalition crisis:

“Common sense won. The national interest prevailed. I congratulate my friends in the coalition who took part in solving this crisis. We will continue to serve Israel. A lot of work is still ahead.”

Liberman claims he torpedoed ultra-Orthodox ‘draft-dodging bill’

Taking credit for the coalition compromise, Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman, whose Yisrael Beytenu party opposes the ultra-Orthodox-backed conscription bill, says he froze the bill and stands against draft-dodging.

“Our word is our word! The framework we demanded all along has been accepted in full,” Liberman says in a statement.

“1. Yisrael Beytenu will vote against the draft-dodging bill.
“2. By the start of the summer session [in mid-April], a Defense Ministry professional team will draft a bill that will form the basis of a government bill.
“3. Legislation on religion and state will be frozen. We will continue to defend the status quo.”

Sacked Tillerson: US must respond to Russia’s behavior

Outgoing US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson warns in his farewell remarks that Washington must do more to respond to Russia’s “troubling behavior and actions.”

After he is sacked by US President Donald Trump, Tillerson also says US efforts to pressure North Korea had worked better than expected and reveals he will pass authority to his deputy at midnight.

The former oil executive says he will remain at the department until March 31 to conclude an administrative handover, but that Deputy Secretary John Sullivan will take charge.

— AFP

Knesset advances conscription bill, securing coalition deal

The Knesset plenum voted 59-38 in favor of a bill exempting ultra-Orthodox seminary students from the military draft. It was the preliminary vote of a version of the bill proposed by Shas MK Yoav Ben Tzur, and its successful advance in the plenum officially secured the coalition agreement from earlier this evening that ended the worst coalition crisis since this government was formed in mid-2015.

The conscription bill will now be frozen until the Knesset returns from its recess in mid-April, when a government bill drafted by the Defense Ministry will be proposed and merged with the Ben Tzur bill, taking the army’s personnel needs into account as the Knesset takes up once again the question of ultra-Orthodox draft exemptions.

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