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

Netanyahu feared flying over Saudi Arabia over threat of Houthi missiles

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he was deterred from flying to the United Arab Emirates through Saudi Arabian airspace last week because of the threat of missile fire from Iranian proxies in Yemen.

Netanyahu had called off a visit to the Emirates last week over a spat with neighboring Jordan, which had temporarily closed its airspace to the Israeli prime minister’s flight.

But rather than bypass Jordanian airspace and take a more southerly route across Saudi skies, Netanyahu told Israel’s Channel 13 on Saturday “there were also problems a week ago in the skies of Saudi Arabia,” referring to recent missile attacks by Yemen’s Houthi rebels.

Netanyahu did not elaborate, nor did he say his plane was targeted by the Iran-backed Houthis.

Smoke billows during clashes between forces loyal to Yemen’s Saudi-backed government and Houthi rebel fighters in al-Jadaan area in central Yemen on February 11, 2021 (AFP)

Yemen’s Houthi rebels, who control the capital and much of the country’s north, have escalated their cross-border attacks on critical Saudi infrastructure in recent weeks, crashing bomb-laden drones and missiles into the kingdom’s Patriot missile batteries and revealing gaps in the country’s defenses.

Last week, missiles and drones hit one of the world’s largest oil shipping ports and halted air traffic toward the international airport in the port city of Jiddah. While Houthi-claimed attacks on Saudi Arabia rarely cause substantial damage, such strikes have roiled the world economy and raise the risk of a disruption in global oil supplies.

Netanyahu was slated to make the first official visit by an Israeli leader to the United Arab Emirates, half a year after the countries established formal relations. He had hoped to use the audience with the UAE’s crown prince to boost his reelection campaign less than two weeks before Israel’s March 23 parliamentary elections.

The Prime Minister’s Office said it had difficulties coordinating the flight over Jordanian airspace after Jordan’s crown prince canceled a visit to the Temple Mount, which is under Jordanian custodianship, due to disagreements over security arrangements.

The prime minister insists that relations between the two countries are positive, adding that “Jordan needs good relations with us no less than we need good relations with Jordan.”

West Bank Palestinians gripped by ‘unprecedented’ wave of virus cases

West Bank Palestinians see 1,798 new coronavirus infections in the past 24 hours, the Palestinian Authority Health Ministry reports.

The Palestinian Authority has been seeing what its health officials have described as an “unprecedented” third wave. West Bank Palestinian areas are set to enter total lockdown on Monday, after hospitals reportedly reached full capacity over the weekend.

There are currently 20,694 active cases among Palestinians — 18,599 in the West Bank and 2,095 in the Gaza Strip. According to the PA Health Ministry, 2,255 Palestinians have died of virus since the outbreak of the pandemic last March.

Around 18.6 percent of coronavirus tests came back positive across the West Bank on Sunday, according to Health Ministry figures. The high figure indicates that the virus is likely spreading widely undetected.

“Given that many Palestinians are not being tested, the true infection rate is likely twice the figures we’ve announced,” PA health official Osama al-Najjar estimates to Voice of Palestine Radio.

Likud’s Regev: Whoever doesn’t vote for us is a misanthrope, ungrateful

Minister Miri Regev says any Israeli who doesn’t vote for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party in next week’s election is a “misanthrope” and “ungrateful.”

She makes the comment at a conference in Jerusalem.

“If there is someone who saves your life and makes sure you have a good life, those who don’t vote for such a person are misanthropes,” she says.

Regev further asserts that Gideon Sa’ar,  who left Likud to form New Hope, “spat in the face” of Likud and “betrayed” the party.

Likud Minister Miri Regev (R) at the Besheva conference in Jerusalem on March 14, 2021 (Miri Moldovan)

Taskforce: Early indications vaccine can help relieve long-haul COVID symptoms

A military-run taskforce on the pandemic says there are preliminary indications that the coronavirus vaccine can help relieve lingering symptoms among “long-haul” COVID patients.

“Preliminary reports indicate that those who suffer from persistent symptoms even after their recovery are reporting a significant improvement in their condition after receiving a vaccine dose,” a report by the taskforce says.

Israel has recommended that those who formerly had COVID-19 receive a single vaccine dose.

An Israeli man receives a COVID-19 vaccine at a Clalit vaccination center in Jerusalem on March 11, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Liberman under fire for saying he’ll dump Netanyahu, Haredim ‘in a landfill’

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman comes under fire after pledging he’ll take the “ultra-Orthodox together with Bibi [Netanyahu] on a wheelbarrow to a landfill. “

United Torah Judaism leader Moshe Gafni says he “expects the legal authorities to deal with this anti-Semitic statement.”

Screen capture from video of Yisrael Beytenu leader MK Avigdor Liberman during an interview with Channel 12 news, December 29, 2020. (Channel 12 news)

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett says, in a tweet: “As usual, a few days before elections, Liberman is coming out with disgusting cries of hatred to garner votes.”

Likud’s Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen calls his statement “borderline anti-Semitism.”

New Hope’s Ofer Berkovitch characterizes it as “shameful.”

Netanyahu visits West Bank outpost ahead of election

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits the Givat Harel illegal outpost in the West Bank, settlers say.

The visit comes ahead of next week’s election. Netanyahu is accompanied by Binyamin Regional Council chairman Yisrael Gantz.

A horse stable located on private Palestinian land in the West Bank outpost of Givat Harel. (Jacob Magid/Times of Israel)

Kosovo officially opens Israel embassy in Jerusalem

Kosovo’s Foreign Ministry says it has formally opened its embassy to Israel in Jerusalem.

A statement says the move was made after the establishment of diplomatic ties with Israel on February 1 and a Kosovo-Serbia summit held at the White House in September.

“The Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Diaspora announces that the Kosovo Embassy in the State of Israel, with headquarters in Jerusalem, officially has been opened,” says the statement.

Kosovo becomes the first European country and Muslim-majority one to establish its embassy in Jerusalem, following similar moves by the US and Guatemala.

Kosovo’s decision was taken when outgoing Prime Minister Avdullah Hoti met with Serb President Aleksandar Vucic at the White House in September with then-president Donald Trump.

Albin Kurti leader of Vetevendosje (Self-Determination) speaks during an interview with The Associated Press in capital Pristina, Kosovo on February 14, 2021. (Visar Kryeziu/AP)

“Setting of the plaques and the state flag at the Kosovo Embassy in Israel reflects the Government of Kosovo’s commitment to comply with the pledge for establishing the diplomatic mission to Jerusalem,” it says.

Albin Kurti, prime minister-designate, has found himself in a difficult diplomatic position ahead of taking up his post after pressure from Turkey, a close ally of the new Western Balkan country to change its mind about the Jerusalem location.

Kurti has said that “the place where the embassy will be located is to be considered following checking of the documentation of the outgoing government.”

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has warned Kosovo that the move could damage future relations with his country.

Shaked claims 5th election inevitable unless Bennett’s PM

Ahead of the fourth election cycle in two years, Yamina’s Ayelet Shaked claims Israel will likely be forced to call a fifth vote — unless Naftali Bennett is prime minister.

“If Bennett doesn’t form the next government, we’ll be forced to go to a fifth election,” she tells a local radio station in northern Israel.

Yamina is currently polling as the third or fourth largest party.

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked speaks during a press conference in Jerusalem on May 14, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Teen charged with murder after setting elderly neighbor on fire over parking

A Haifa court charges a 19-year-old man with murder after he lit his elderly neighbor on fire in a dispute over parking.

Suheil bin Hilal Jarban of Jisr az-Zarqa is accused of torching his neighbor, a man in his 70s, in his vehicle on February 12.

Regev walks back comment calling non-Likud voters ‘misanthropes’

Likud Minister Miri Regev is walking back her comment that Israelis who don’t vote for Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s party are “misanthropes.”

She says the word “doesn’t correctly express what I intended,” according to Channel 12.

Liberman: Ultra-Orthodox politicians must ‘become history’

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman says the ultra-Orthodox politicians must be relegated to the dustbins of history.

Liberman, who has been condemned for his weekend remarks on the Haredim, addresses the controversy in an interview with 103 FM radio.

Liberman refuses to apologize and slams his ultra-Orthodox critics for their “hypocrisy,” saying that they were behind the “worst incitement we have seen” in their own political campaign.

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman and Interior Affairs Minister Aryeh Deri attend the special plenary session opening the winter session of the Knesset, on October 23, 2017. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

“There is no one who harms the ultra-Orthodox more than the leadership of Shas and United Torah Judaism,” he charges.

Liberman on Friday said he would dump the Haredim and Netanyahu “in a landfill,” drawing accusations of anti-Semitism.

Asked if he accepted the claim that his use of the analogy was reminiscent of “the worst period in our history,” Liberman shoots back, “We need to send them to history, they need to become history. And in that sense I very much hope that we will send Netanyahu to the opposition, and also Litzman and Deri.”

Nightclubs expected to reopen next week

Israel will likely reopen nightclubs next week, as COVID-19 infections continue to drop and with most of the population vaccinated, media reports say.

The reports come after a meeting between Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and nightclub owners.

Report: Netanyahu closed Israel airspace from Jordan in retaliation

Last week, after Jordan held up Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s planned flight to the United Arab Emirates, the Israeli leader ordered Israel’s airspace closed to flights from Jordan, according to the Maariv daily.

Netanyahu did not consult with or inform the Defense Ministry, Mossad intelligence agency, Shin Bet security service or Foreign Ministry of his decision, the report says.

The report says Netanyahu’s office was ultimately persuaded to retract the order, which would have caused a serious diplomatic crisis and been a violation of the 1994 peace treaty between the two countries.

Mossad chief denies political ties with Netanyahu

Mossad intelligence chief Yossi Cohen denies he has political ties with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party.

The Movement for Quality Government in Israel anti-corruption organization has called on Cohen to clarify that he does not have any political ties to Netanyahu. The watchdog’s appeal came after Netanyahu told Channel 13 News that he is considering including Cohen in his next government. “In the government I will form, I will make sure to use the talents of Yossi Cohen,” the premier said on Saturday.

Cohen says he has no partisan connections and says he is solely focused on Israel’s security, regardless of the identity of the prime minister.

In the same interview to Channel 13 News, Netanyahu addressed the allegations that surfaced last week, claiming that Cohen promised to be loyal to the prime minister and his wife when he sought the position of national security adviser in 2013. “No such thing happened,” said Netanyahu. “Choosing Yossi Cohen was an entirely clean and correct decision.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (left) and head of the Mossad Yossi Cohen during a toast ceremony for the Jewish New Year on October 2, 2017 (Haim Zach/GPO)

Cohen has been regarded as Netanyahu’s “shadow warrior” in many covert efforts, including the battle against Iran’s nuclear program, and is seen as the premier’s preferred successor.

Israel to roll out rapid tests for entry to pools, restaurants, gyms, hotels

Children and the unvaccinated will be permitted to enter pools, gyms, restaurants hotels, and other sites from next week if they undergo a rapid coronavirus test at the entrance.

The Health Ministry plans to roll out the rapid tests program from next Sunday.

Currently, only the vaccinated and those who recovered from COVID-19 can enter these facilities.

Israeli women prepare their gym for the reopening next week at the Fithood Gym in Tel Aviv on February 16, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Virus czar says no restrictions expected over Passover

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash, in a briefing with reporters, says no additional restrictions are expected to be imposed over the upcoming Passover holiday.

Passover begins on March 27.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash at a vaccination center in Herzliya, December 20, 2020 (Flash90)

Virus czar says unlikely additional rules to be imposed over Ramadan

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash says he doesn’t anticipate further restrictions over Ramadan, which begins on April 13.

Ash says a final decision will be made closer to the date.


US mulls reducing social distancing rule to 3 feet apart

The United States’ top pandemic adviser says that authorities are considering cutting social distancing rules to three feet (one meter), a move that would change a key tenet of the global fight against Covid-19.

Anthony Fauci, a world-respected figure during the coronavirus crisis, says experts at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are examining a Massachusetts study that found “no substantial difference” in Covid cases in schools observing six-foot and three-foot rules.

Asked on CNN’s “State of the Union” show whether that meant that a three-foot separation was sufficient, Fauci replies, “It does, indeed.”

People wearing masks wait in line amid the coronavirus pandemic on May 18, 2020 in New York City. (Photo by Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images/ via JTA/SUE)

While cautioning that the CDC was still poring over the new data and conducting tests of its own, he says its findings would come “soon.”

The six-foot social distancing rule has been a widely adopted global measure to prevent the spread of the coronavirus, along with mask-wearing and hand-washing.

Israel to send vaccines to its diplomats in US — reports

Israel is expected to send hundreds of vaccines for diplomats stationed in the United States and their families, media reports say.

According to Channel 12, the diplomats had protested Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s plan to gives surplus immunizations to other countries, while its Foreign Ministry representatives remain unvaccinated.

A Magen David Adom paramedic holds up a vial of the Pfizer-BioNTech COVID-19 vaccine, before inoculating Palestinians in a mobile clinic on February 26, 2021, at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Foreign and health ministries confirm plan to vaccinate diplomats in US

The Foreign Ministry and Health Ministry confirm a plan to send vaccines to the United States for some 500 Israeli government officials and their relatives.

Under the plan, the shots will be sent to New York, and diplomats will travel there to get the shots. A second shipment will be sent three weeks later for the second dose.

The ministries say hundreds of diplomats stationed elsewhere have been vaccinated in a special program that saw them flown to Israel to get the immunizations.

More schools set to reopen as virus ebbs

Tens of thousands of additional students will head back to class on Monday as more schools reopen.

The cities where schools are set to resume in-person classes include Nazareth and Umm al-Fahm.

Most schools around the country have reopened since the government began lifting restrictions of its third lockdown.

Fifth grade students at the Alomot Elementary School in Efrat on February 21, 2021 (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Paris may face new lockdown as ICUs fill up

Officials say the Paris region may be headed toward a new lockdown as new variants of the virus fill up intensive care units and limited vaccine supplies drag down inoculation efforts.

Special medical planes dispatched patients from the Paris area to less-saturated regions over the weekend.

“If we have to lock down, we will do it,” the head of the national health agency, Jerome Salomon, says on BFM television Sunday. “The situation is complex, tense and is worsening in the Paris region.”

Salomon acknowledges that a nationwide 6 p.m. curfew “wasn’t enough” in some regions to prevent a spike in cases, notably of the variant first identified in Britain.

The French government has been relying on curfews for months — along with the long-term closures of restaurants and some other businesses — to try to avoid a costly new lockdown. But localized outbreaks are raising questions about the government’s virus-fighting strategy.

Salomon says France has more people in intensive care for COVID-19 and other ailments – about 6,300 — than the overall number of ICU beds it had going into the pandemic.

France has reported 90,315 virus-related deaths, among the world’s highest death tolls.

Netanyahu blocked FM Ashkenazi from traveling to UAE — TV

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has intervened to prevent Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi from traveling to the UAE on Monday to inaugurate Israel’s new missions in the Gulf country, Channel 12 reports.

Sources in the Foreign Ministry say Netanyahu blocked the visit because “he didn’t want the foreign minister to travel there before he does.”

Netanyahu has repeatedly canceled his plans to travel to the United Arab Emirates, most recently last week. Israel and the UAE announced over the summer they were establishing diplomatic ties.

Fauci: Trump should urge his followers to get vaccinated

Dr. Anthony Fauci says he wishes former US president Donald Trump would use his popularity among Republicans to persuade his followers to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

In a round of interviews on the morning news shows, the government’s top infectious disease expert laments polling showing that Trump supporters are more likely to refuse to get vaccinated, saying politics needs to be separated from “commonsense, no-brainer” public health measures.

Fauci says it would be a “game changer” for the country’s vaccine efforts if the former president used his “incredible influence” among Republicans.

“If he came out and said, ‘Go and get vaccinated. It’s really important for your health, the health of your family and the health of the country,’ it seems absolutely inevitable that the vast majority of people who are his close followers would listen to him,” Fauci tells “Fox News Sunday.”

Trump has urged people to get vaccinated, doing so again late last month at a conservative political gathering in Florida.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, speaks with reporters at the White House, in Washington, January 21, 2021 (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

But he hasn’t been among former presidents and other public officials who have been vaccinated on camera to encourage others to get the shot. It was revealed only recently that he was vaccinated in private at the White House before leaving office in January.

Trump did not appear in a new public service campaign for the COVID-19 vaccine that included former US presidents Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

Polls have shown Republicans joining Blacks and other groups in expressing greater skepticism than others about the safety of the vaccines.

Fauci says he doesn’t understand the resistance.

“What is the problem here? This is a vaccine that is going to be lifesaving for millions of people,” he says on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” He adds: “I mean, I just can’t comprehend what the reason for that is when you have a vaccine that’s 94-95% effective and it is very safe. I just don’t get it.”

Ireland becomes 4th country to suspend AstraZeneca shots over clotting

Irish health officials recommend the temporary suspension of the AstraZeneca vaccine after reports of serious blood clotting after inoculations in Norway.

Dr. Ronan Glynn, Ireland’s deputy chief medical officer, says the recommendation was made after Norway’s medicines agency reported four cases of blood clotting in adults after receiving the AstraZeneca vaccine.

He says that while there was no conclusive link between the vaccine and the cases, Irish health officials are recommending the suspension of the vaccine’s rollout as a precaution.

Danish, Norwegian and Icelandic authorities have taken similar precautionary steps. The World Health Organization and the European Union’s medicines regulator said earlier in the week that there was no link between the jab and an increased risk of developing a clot.

A health worker prepares a dose of the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine to be administered at a vaccination center set up in front of Rome’s Termini central station, March 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Alessandra Tarantino)

The UK’s medicines regulator, the MHRA, said Thursday that “reports of blood clots received so far are not greater than the number that would have occurred naturally in the vaccinated population” and that “available evidence does not confirm that the vaccine is the cause.”

It said people should still go and get their COVID-19 vaccine when asked to do so.

Israel’s COVID death toll surpasses 6,000

Israel’s coronavirus death toll since the start of the pandemic surpasses 6,000.

According to the Health Ministry, 6,008 have died from COVID-19 since the outbreak of the virus last March.

A burial services employee with the remains of a coronavirus victim on January 28, 2021 (Gili Yaari / Flash90)

The ministry says 640 people are in serious condition, 221 of them on ventilators. It says another 466 virus cases have been diagnosed since midnight.

The number of active cases dips under 30,000, hitting 27,974.

Over 4.1 million Israelis are fully vaccinated.

Police open sex abuse investigation into ZAKA head

The Israel Police has opened an investigation into Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the co-founder and chairman of the ZAKA volunteer emergency, over allegations of sex abuse.

Meshi-Zahav was initially accused Thursday of sexual assault, rape, and abuse by six people in a report by the Haaretz daily. The allegations against Meshi-Zahav were made by both men and women, some of whom were minors at the time of the alleged events. Additional testimonies have since emerged, though it remains unclear if any are within the statute of limitations.

Meshi-Zahav is a prominent figure in the ultra-Orthodox community, with ZAKA a major part of Israel’s emergency response services at home and abroad. Earlier this month, he was announced as a winner of the prestigious Israel Prize, but by Friday, said he was giving up the award.

Hamas elects first woman to political bureau

Jamila al-Shanti has become the first woman elected to the Hamas terror group’s political bureau, its highest decision-making body.

Al-Shanti, a member of the defunct Palestinian legislature, is the widow of assassinated Hamas leader Abd al-Aziz al-Rantisi, who was killed by Israel during the Second Intifada.

“This confirms the Hamas movement’s respect for Palestinian women, their struggle, heroism, and sacrifices,” senior Hamas official Suheil al-Hindi tells Palestinian media outlet Dunya al-Watan.

Hamas has been conducting its internal elections for the past few months. The vote is conducted in secret in Gaza, the West Bank, abroad, and in Israeli prisons. Some Hamas members, such as senior official Yahya Mousa, had publicly urged the election of more women to high-ranking Hamas positions.

Poll: Blocs split 58-58; Ra’am could be tie-breaker

A Channel 13 poll predicts continued deadlock after the election, with the blocs evenly split and the Islamist Ra’am party narrowly crossing the electoral threshold to become possible kingmaker.

The survey gives Likud 28 seats, followed by Yesh Atid with 20. Yamina is third with 11 seats, followed by Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope with 9; Joint List with 8; Yisrael Beytenu with 7; United Torah Judaism with 7; Shas with 6;  Religious Zionism with 6; Labor with 6.

Just clearing the electoral threshold are Meretz, Blue and White, and Ra’am, all of which pick up four seats.

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)

The survey indicates that neither Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his allies, or those opposed to Netanyahu, can form a majority coalition of at least 61 seats. Netanyahu and his allies have 47 seats, which rises to 58 if Yamina joins. The anti-Netanyahu bloc also has 58 seats, without Yamina. Ra’am could be the tie-breaker.

But according to the survey, 38 percent of respondents say they may change their vote before election day. Among that group, 41% say they will make a final decision on election day, 33% say they will decide 24 hours before next week’s vote, and 26% say they’ll decide this week.

In terms of their preferred prime minister, 35% say Netanyahu, 21 percent say Yesh Atid’s Yair Lapid, 12% say New Hope’s Sa’ar and 10% say Yamina’s Naftali Bennett.

Asked if they share Netanyahu’s declared assessment that COVID-19 is behind us, 49% say not for a long time, 28% say no, and 16% say yes.

Citing Jordan airspace fight, Gantz accuses PM of endangering Israel’s security

Defense Minister Benny Gantz accuses Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of endangering Israel’s security, following reports the Israeli leader ordered the closing of Israeli airspace to flights heading to and from Jordan in retaliation for Amman’s delaying of a plane slated to shuttle the premier to the United Arab Emirates last week.

“Netanyahu is motivated by personal, political needs and is violating diplomatic agreements,” tweets Gantz, who heads the Blue and White party. “The attempt to bypass the defense establishment and foreign service upends the entire… decision-making system of the state.

“This just shows that he has entirely lost his reason and is doing everything to take care of himself instead of the country,” says Gantz.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) Defense Minister Benny Gantz (Yonatan Sindel, David Cohen/Flash90)

Health Ministry may scrap mask requirement outdoors next month

The Health Ministry may cancel the requirement to wear masks outdoors from next month, Channel 12 reports.

The network further says Israel could also reopen to tourists from some countries in April, specifically Greece, Cyprus, and Georgia.

Israelis enjoy the beach in Tel Aviv on March 13, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
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