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80% of public unsatisfied with election results, anti-PM voters back Bennett

TV poll indicates majority of supporters of anti-Netanyahu bloc think Lapid should cede premiership to Yamina chair, who may have better shot at forming coalition

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

Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett seen during an election campaign event in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, March 17, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)
Yamina party leader Naftali Bennett seen during an election campaign event in the southern Israeli city of Sderot, March 17, 2021. (Yossi Zeliger/Flash90)

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

Over half US Jews have experienced anti-Semitism in past 5 years — ADL survey

Illustrative: Klan members salute during a KKK rally in Justice Park Saturday, July 8, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)
Illustrative: Klan members salute during a KKK rally in Justice Park Saturday, July 8, 2017, in Charlottesville, Virginia. (AP Photo/Steve Helber)

Well over half of Jewish Americans have either experienced or directly witnessed some form of anti-Semitic incident in the last five years, according to a new poll released by the Anti-Defamation League.

The poll finds that 63 percent of respondents have either experienced or heard anti-Semitic comments, slurs or threats targeting others — an increase from 54% in the 2020 survey.

Nine percent of American Jews indicated in the survey they had been physically attacked in the last five years because they are Jewish — up slightly from 2020, but still within the margin of error.

“In the aftermath of major antisemitic attacks in Pittsburgh, Poway, Jersey City and Monsey, American Jews are reporting that they feel less safe in the U.S. today than they were just a decade earlier,” says ADL CEO Jonathan Greenblatt in a statement. “Looking back on the past five years, which were bookended by the antisemitism in Charlottesville in 2017 and the hateful symbols on display during the breach of the US Capitol on January 6, it is understandable that the level of anxiety is rising and concerns about communal safety are on everyone’s minds.”

(Grpahic courtesy of the Anti Defamation League)

Gaza sees highest COVID spike in months with over 1,000 new daily cases

Palestinian workers unload a truck from 20,000 doses of Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine upon its arrival to Gaza Strip, at the Rafah crossing border with Egypt, February 21, 2021. (Khalil Hamra/AP)
Palestinian workers unload a truck from 20,000 doses of Russian-made Sputnik V vaccine upon its arrival to Gaza Strip, at the Rafah crossing border with Egypt, February 21, 2021. (Khalil Hamra/AP)

Gaza’s health ministry says that more than a thousand cases of coronavirus were recorded over the previous day, the highest daily infection toll in several months.

The spike in the coastal Palestinian enclave, controlled by Hamas Islamists since 2007, stands in contrast to the slowdown in infections in Israel, which maintains a tight blockade on Gaza.

“The epidemiological situation in the Gaza Strip is dangerous,” says Magdy Dahir, deputy director of primary care at the Gaza health ministry. “There is a clear increase in hospitalizations.”

In Gaza, 65,500 people have been infected with the coronavirus and 610 deaths have been recorded since the start of the pandemic.

The Hamas-run government, which imposed a 9 p.m. (1800 GMT) curfew on Saturday to curb transmission, has ordered new restrictions on gatherings beginning Wednesday, the Gaza Hotels and Restaurants Association said.

The Palestinian health ministry announced that, as of Monday morning, more than 69,000 Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza had received one dose of vaccine.

By contrast, more than half of Israel’s roughly 9.3 million residents have been inoculated with two Pfizer-BioNTech shots.

The latest daily increase in Israel was 442 cases, down from thousands of daily cases earlier in March.

Rights groups have called on Israel to supply vaccines to Palestinians. Israel has given a limited number of doses, but it says the Palestinian Authority is responsible for the general vaccination campaign.

After Rivlin decries hold-up of budget, Likud MKs accuse him of playing politics

President Reuven Rivlin addresses, via video link, a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya on March 15, 2021 (screenshot: GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin addresses, via video link, a conference at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya on March 15, 2021 (screenshot: GPO)

After President Reuven Rivlin called for “unusual collaborations” to solve the extended political deadlock and lamented the Netanyahu-led government’s failure to pass a budget, Likud lawmakers lash out at the president, accusing him of being politically motivated.

“The president does not determine the election results! He must not become a political player,” say Energy Minister Yuval Steinitz, Public Security Minister Amir Ohana and Knesset Speaker Yariv Levin in a rare joint statement.

“Since the establishment of the state, all the presidents of Israel have given the first opportunity to form a government to the candidate who received the largest number of recommendations — and this should be the case this time as well,” the three say.

Rivlin earlier said his main consideration in picking a candidate to form the next government would be their “chance of forming a government that will win the Knesset’s endorsement” — a possible indication that he won’t necessarily pick the lawmaker with the most formal recommendations.

Rivlin said the extended political crisis harms Israel’s democracy, and called for a government that will “pass the state budget, oversee the healing of damaged systems and citizens, and rescue state bodies from the political freeze we have landed in at a time when the people needs the state bodies more than ever.”

BioNTech-Pfizer say Covid vaccine 100% effective on 12-15 year olds

A healthcare worker prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in the Negev's main Bedouin town of Rahat, on February 17, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
A healthcare worker prepares a shot of the Pfizer-BioNtech COVID-19 vaccine at a clinic in the Negev's main Bedouin town of Rahat, on February 17, 2021. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

BioNTech-Pfizer says its vaccine showed 100 percent efficacy against the coronavirus in 12- to 15-year-olds, as it eyes approval for adolescents to get the shots before the next school year.

Phase 3 trials carried out on 2,260 adolescents in the United States “demonstrated 100 percent efficacy and robust antibody responses,” the companies says in a statement.

“We plan to submit these data to (US regulator) FDA as a proposed amendment to our Emergency Use Authorization in the coming weeks and to other regulators around the world, with the hope of starting to vaccinate this age group before the start of the next school year,” says Pfizer chief executive Albert Bourla.

Chief executive of German company BioNTech says the results showing high protection for teens were “very encouraging given the trends we have seen in recent weeks regarding the spread of the B.1.1.7 UK variant.”

The BioNTech/Pfizer shot is based on novel mRNA technology and was the first Covid-19 vaccine to be approved in the West late last year.

Both the United States and the European Union have approved its use for people aged 16 and above. Since then, it has been used in millions of adults in more than 65 countries.

A real world study involving 1.2 million people in Israel found it to be 94 percent effective.

BioNTech and Pfizer last week began studies of the shot on children, with the first group of 5- to 11-year-olds getting the vaccine.

A younger cohort of 2- to 5-year-olds are expected to get their first dose next week in the study, which will also cover children as young as six months old.

Germany closes case against deported ex-Nazi guard, 95

German prosecutors say they have closed their case due to lack of evidence against a 95-year-old former Nazi concentration camp guard recently deported by the United States.

Friedrich Karl Berger arrived in Frankfurt on February 20, “possibly the last” such expulsion by Washington of a former Nazi, a US official had said then.

Prosecutors in the city of Celle, who had previously halted their probe of the man, had reopened investigations over suspicion of complicity in murders on his return, as Berger had said he was willing to be questioned.

But “after exhausting all evidence, prosecutors at Celle have once again closed the investigation because of a lack of sufficient suspicion,” they say in a statement.

Berger, who had retained German citizenship, was deported for taking part in “Nazi-sponsored acts of persecution” while serving as an armed guard at the Neuengamme concentration camp system in 1945, the US Justice Department said.

He had been living in the US since 1959, and was stationed as a young man from January 28, 1945 to April 4, 1945, at a subcamp of Neuengamme, near Meppen, Germany.

German investigators had been examining whether during his time there, and in particular when “monitoring a march evacuating the sub-camp, he had contributed to the death of many detainees.”

More than 40,000 prisoners died in the Neuengamme system, records show.

Germany has been hunting down former Nazi staff since the 2011 conviction of former guard John Demjanjuk on the basis he served as part of the Nazi killing machine set a legal precedent.

Since then, courts have handed down several guilty verdicts on those grounds rather than for murders or atrocities directly linked to the individual accused.

Among those who were brought to late justice were Oskar Groening, an accountant at Auschwitz, and Reinhold Hanning, an SS guard at the same camp.

Both were convicted of complicity in mass murder at the age of 94 but died before they could be imprisoned.

In February, German prosecutors charged a 95-year-old who had been secretary at the Stutthof camp with complicity in the murders of 10,000 people, in the first such case in recent years against a woman.

Days later, a 100-year-old former guard at the Sachsenhausen camp, north of Berlin, was charged with complicity in 3,518 murders.

Biden taking his sweet time filling ambassador posts, angering top diplomats

US President Joe Biden has been presented with the names of top contenders for ambassadorships to the European Union, NATO and other high-level posts, including China and Russia, and is expected to make a decision on at least some of those positions in April, but people familiar with the matter tell CNN that the president is still weeks away from deciding on the broader makeup of his diplomatic corps.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki did not have an update on the matter when pressed on Tuesday.

The drawn-out process is the subject of rising frustration among some top-level donors who have been eyeing some of the posts, as well as senior diplomats frustrated with how the vacancies are preventing them from operating properly.

Early frustrations at the State Department are rooted in fears about whether the president will uphold his commitment to enable career diplomats, State Department officials tell CNN.

Two rumored candidates for the vacancy in Israel are former ambassador Dan Shapiro and longtime Biden donor Michael Adler. The latter candidate has indicated that he’d be interested in the role, though campaign surrogates of the president have expressed concern regarding the appointment of someone with no diplomatic experience.

Sources familiar with the matter have told The Times of Israel that an appointment of the Israeli ambassadorship is not expected before June.

WHO experts say Chinese shots show ‘safety,’ but data lacking

A staff member inspects syringes of COVID-19 inactivated vaccine products at a packaging plant of the Beijing Biological Products Institute Co., Ltd, a unit of state-owned Sinopharm in Beijing, December 25, 2020. (Zhang Yuwei/Xinhua via AP)
A staff member inspects syringes of COVID-19 inactivated vaccine products at a packaging plant of the Beijing Biological Products Institute Co., Ltd, a unit of state-owned Sinopharm in Beijing, December 25, 2020. (Zhang Yuwei/Xinhua via AP)

WHO vaccine experts say that an interim analysis of clinical trial data from two Chinese Covid-19 vaccines showed they demonstrated “safety and good efficacy,” but that more data was needed.

The Chinese firms Sinovac and Sinopharm, whose Covid shots are already being used in several countries, have submitted data in applications for the World Health Organization’s emergency use listing (EUL) green light.

The UN health agency’s Strategic Advisory Group of Experts on Immunization (SAGE) says it had reviewed the data provided so far, and that both vaccines “demonstrated safety and good efficacy against symptomatic Covid-19 disease.”

However, it warns, “both vaccines lacked data in older age groups and in persons with co-morbidities,” meaning other medical conditions.

“Post-introduction vaccine effectiveness and safety studies will be needed to address the impact on those sub-populations,” SAGE says in a list of highlights published after a meeting last week to discuss developments on vaccines against a range of diseases.

The two vaccines are among four homegrown ones that have been approved by Chinese regulators so far, but SAGE pointed out that neither had yet received authorization by what the WHO considers “a stringent regulatory authority.”

Gantz asks Health Ministry to clarify why it needs so many more vaccines

Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)
Defense Minister Benny Gantz in Tel Aviv on March 15, 2021. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

Defense Minister Benny Gantz pens a letter to the Health Ministry urging the government office to clarify why it’s asking the cabinet to approve the transfer of billions of shekels for the purchase of millions of additional vaccine doses after the majority of the country has already been vaccinated.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday accused Gantz of holding up the transfer for political reasons, saying the defense minister was endangering public health.

Gantz in response is urging the Health Ministry to come clean about why it thinks such a large number of additional doses is necessary.

Health experts in recent weeks have suggested that Israelis may need to receive booster shots in the not-so-distant future in order to continue fending off the virus.

Biden to unveil massive $2 trillion infrastructure plan; AOC says not big enough

US President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, March 25, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US President Joe Biden speaks during a news conference in the East Room of the White House, March 25, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden will later today propose a $2 trillion infrastructure plan aimed at modernizing the United States’ crumbling transportation network, creating millions of jobs and enabling the country to “out-compete” China.

The first phase of Biden’s “Build Back Better” program, which he will unveil in a speech in Pittsburgh, will detail massive investment spread over eight years.

It plans to inject $620 billion into transportation, including upgrading 20,000 miles (32,000 kilometers) of roads and highways, repairing thousands of bridges and doubling federal funding for public transit.

The president, whom Donald Trump tried to caricature as “Sleepy Joe” and a man without strong ideas or motivation, intends to make the bold infrastructure plan one of his flagship policies.

The investment would be partly paid for by raising corporate tax from 21 percent to 28 percent.

“The president is proposing to fundamentally reform the corporate tax code so that it incentivizes job creation and investment… and ensures that large corporations are paying their fair share,” a senior administration official said ahead of the speech.

The new legislative offensive comes soon after Congress passed a nearly $2 trillion Covid-19 economic stimulus plan.

And Biden’s speech is set to open a bitter battle in Congress, where the Democrats hold only a narrow majority and will face strong opposition from the Republicans.

The first criticisms of the plan came before Biden even gave his speech, some of it from the progressive wing of his party.

Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez says the package “needs to be way bigger.”

At the other end of the spectrum Republican Senator John Barrasso dismissed the plan as “a Trojan horse for more liberal spending & higher taxes.”

The coming months will test the negotiating skills of the Democratic president, a veteran of Washington politics and deal-making, and the chances of his infrastructure plan passing into law remain uncertain.

Far-right party’s spiritual leader stops short of nixing a Ra’am-backed coalition

Rabbi Chaim Meir Druckman, file (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)
Rabbi Chaim Meir Druckman, file (Tsafrir Abayov/Flash90)

Religious Zionism party spiritual leader Rabbi Chaim Druckman appears to stop short of a flat rejection of a right-wing, Netanyahu-led government reliant on the outside support of the Islamist party Ra’am.

“There is no need for a government reliant on Ra’am. This is a hypothetical thing,” he tells Army Radio. “It is necessary for there to be a stable government. This is what the people want and the will of the people must be respected and we certainly should not return back to the polls.”

Palestinian security prisoner Barghouti, ex-senior Fatah official Naser al-Kidwa to merge slates

Nasser al-Qudwa, a member of Fatah's Central Committee and the nephew of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, addresses a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 23, 2019, against a backdrop showing Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock mosque, to comment on a decision by an Israeli court to issue a temporary lien for a plot of land belonging to Arafat in East Jerusalem. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)
Nasser al-Qudwa, a member of Fatah's Central Committee and the nephew of late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, addresses a news conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah on January 23, 2019, against a backdrop showing Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock mosque, to comment on a decision by an Israeli court to issue a temporary lien for a plot of land belonging to Arafat in East Jerusalem. (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

In a twist in the scheduled Palestinian legislative vote, Palestinian security prisoner Marwan Barghouti and former senior Fatah official Naser al-Kidwa are planning to unite their slates, a senior Palestinian official confirmed to The Times of Israel.

According to Palestinian media reports, their joint slate of candidates will be called the Freedom List and is set to be presented in the coming hours.

Barghouti is serving five life sentences in Israeli prison for masterminding terror attacks during the Second Intifada. But he is widely popular among Palestinians, many of whom see him as a symbol of resistance untainted by corruption.

Al-Kidwa is a widely respected senior diplomat and Yasser Arafat’s nephew; until recently, he served as a member of Fatah’s Central Committee, the Palestinian movement’s most powerful decision-making body.

A longtime critic of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, al-Kidwa has sharpened his rhetoric in recent months. After he announced that he would run his own slate of candidates against Abbas’s Fatah list, he was expelled from the Central Committee in early February.

Kosovo’s top diplomat calls Jerusalem embassy ‘a done deal’

Illustrative: A Kosovo government official takes a self-photo during a signing ceremony held digitally, in the capital Pristina, establishing diplomatic ties between Kosovo and Israel, February 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)
Illustrative: A Kosovo government official takes a self-photo during a signing ceremony held digitally, in the capital Pristina, establishing diplomatic ties between Kosovo and Israel, February 1, 2021. (AP Photo/Visar Kryeziu)

Kosovo’s new foreign minister says she considers the opening of the country’s embassy in Jerusalem to be “a done deal.”

Foreign Minister Donika Gervalla is asked during an interview about the pressure Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has put on Kosovo’s new government to reconsider the Balkan nation’s recent opening of an embassy in Jerusalem.

“I believe that the issue of our embassy in Israel is a done deal. Why is it a done deal? Because we cannot get involved in diplomatic adventures to reconsider an issue that already has ended,” Gervalla says during the interview with online news site Kallxo.com.

Gervalla says Kosovo wants to strengthen ties with Israel but also wants to have “a good friendship, good ties with Palestinian authorities.”

Kosovo established diplomatic ties with Israel on Feb. 1, and earlier this month became the first European country and the first Muslim-majority one to establish an embassy in the western part of Jerusalem.

The moves followed a White House summit Kosovo’s former prime minister, Avdullah Hoti, attended in September with then-US president Donald Trump and Serbian President Aleksander Vucic.

The United States and Guatemala are the only other countries with embassies in Jerusalem. Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war and later annexed, as the capital of a future state. Most nations have their Israel embassies in Tel Aviv.

Erdogan asked Kosovo to reconsider in a letter of congratulation to Prime Minister Albin Kurti after he took office last week.

Stll playing catch-up, EU to have received 107 million vaccine doses by end of week

In this photo provided by Russian Direct Investment Fund, a COVID-19 vaccine is on display at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia, August 6, 2020. (Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/ Russian Direct Investment Fund via AP, File)
In this photo provided by Russian Direct Investment Fund, a COVID-19 vaccine is on display at the Nikolai Gamaleya National Center of Epidemiology and Microbiology in Moscow, Russia, August 6, 2020. (Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr/ Russian Direct Investment Fund via AP, File)

European Union member states will have received a total of 107 million doses of coronavirus vaccine by the end of this week, a European Commission spokeswoman says.

Deliveries for the first three months of the year are made up of 67.2 million doses from BioNtech/Pfizer, 29.8 million from AstraZeneca, and 9.8 million from Moderna, the commission says.

The overall figure was revised down dramatically after the Anglo-Swedish pharma giant AstraZeneca slashed the number it was providing from a contracted 120 million doses.

The production shortfall has contributed to a stuttering start to the EU’s vaccination campaign that has seen the bloc lag behind countries including the United States, Britain, and Israel.

Deliveries are expected to pick up considerably in the second quarter of the year, with the commission saying it should receive at least 300 million doses by the end of June.

That figure should include 55 million shots of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which officials hope will help speed up vaccination rates.

Sudan coughs up $335 million for US terror victims in delisting deal that followed Israel normalization

Sudan has paid $335 million as agreed to compensate victims of past anti-US attacks as part of a deal that removed the struggling country from the US terror blacklist, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken says.

The transitional, civilian-backed government provided the funds for survivors and victims’ families from attacks including the 1998 bombings of the US embassies in Kenya and Tanzania by al-Qaeda, which was backed by Sudan’s then dictator.

“We hope this aids them in finding some resolution for the terrible tragedies that occurred,” Blinken says in a statement.

“With this challenging process behind us, US-Sudan relations can start a new chapter,” he said.

“We look forward to expanding our bilateral relationship and to continuing our support for the efforts of the civilian-led transitional government to deliver freedom, peace and justice to the Sudanese people.”

Sudan agreed to the package last year as it desperately sought to exit the US blacklist of state sponsors of terrorism, a designation that severely hindered investment in a country rattled by unrest over tough economic conditions.

Former president Donald Trump agreed last year to remove Sudan but only after securing an agreement by Sudan to recognize US ally Israel.

The delisting enjoyed wide agreement in Washington although some said it was unfair by focusing on US victims and not providing the same compensation to Africans who made up the bulk of the dead in the 1998 bombings.

The compensation will also cover the 2000 attack by Al-Qaeda on the USS Cole off Yemen’s coast and the killing of US development worker John Granville in Khartoum in 2008.

Some lawmakers had also pushed for Sudan to pay compensation to the victims of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

Strongman Omar al-Bashir, who welcomed Al-Qaeda as part of an Islamist turn in the 1990s, was toppled in April 2019 after mounting street protests.

Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok has vowed to turn a page by ending conflicts and bringing more economic opportunities, and put an early priority on reconciling with the United States.

Last week the United States said it had assisted Sudan with more than $1 billion in credit to clear arrears, making the country again eligible for support from the World Bank and IMF.

Number of seriously ill patients falls below 400 for first time in months

Students receive COVID-19 vaccine injections, at Amal high school in the southern city of Beersheba, March 17, 2021. (Flash90)
Students receive COVID-19 vaccine injections, at Amal high school in the southern city of Beersheba, March 17, 2021. (Flash90)

The number of seriously ill patients in Israel has dropped below 400 for the first time in months, according to updated coronavirus figures from the Health Ministry.

There are currently 7,844 active patients, 396 of whom are in serious condition. There were 442 new cases yesterday, but just one percent of the 44,746 samples tested yesterday came back positive.

The death toll stands at 6,201.

Over 5.2 million Israelis have received the first dose of the vaccine and over 4.7 million Israelis have been fully vaccinated.

Divers examine bottom of big boat that got stuck sideways in Suez

The Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, is pulled by one of the Suez Canal tugboats, in the Suez Canal, Egypt, March 29, 2021. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)
The Ever Given, a Panama-flagged cargo ship, is pulled by one of the Suez Canal tugboats, in the Suez Canal, Egypt, March 29, 2021. (Suez Canal Authority via AP)

Divers inspected the underside of a colossal containership that had blocked the Suez Canal, spotting some damage to the bow but not severe enough to ground the vessel, officials say.

The dives were part of a continuing investigation into what caused the grounding of the Ever Given, now anchored in the Great Bitter Lake, a wide stretch of water halfway between the north and south ends of the canal.

Salvage teams succeeded in finally freeing the skyscraper-size vessel on Monday afternoon. The ship got stuck sideways in a narrow stretch of the canal, shaking the global shipping industry when it halted billions of dollars a day in maritime commerce for around a week.

Two senior canal officials, speaking on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to talk to reporters, say “slight to medium” damage was found at the vessel’s bulbous bow.

One of the officials, who is a canal pilot, says experts were studying the extent of damage, but he said it unlikely would impede the Panama-flagged, Japanese-owned ship’s navigation. He said the navigation of the ship would depend on “several legal and procedural” measures that the canal authority would discuss with Ever Given’s operator.

Investigations were ongoing to determine what caused the skyscraper-sized ship to become wedged across the canal.

When blame gets assigned, it will likely lead to years of litigation to recoup the costs of repairing the ship, fixing the canal and reimbursing those who saw their cargo shipments disrupted. The vessel is owned by a Japanese firm, operated by a Taiwanese shipper, flagged in Panama and now stuck in Egypt, so matters could quickly become complicated.

The vessel was freed Monday after a flotilla of tugboats, helped by the tides, wrenched its bulbous bow from the canal’s eastern bank, where it had been firmly lodged since March 23.

Senior health official downplays positive news on Pfizer vaccine’s efficacy on children

Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, during a briefing on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot / GPO)
Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, during a briefing on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot / GPO)

The head of public health services in the Health Ministry, Dr. Sharon Alroy-Preis, downplays an earlier announcement from BioNTech-Pfizer that said its vaccine showed 100 percent efficacy against the coronavirus in 12- to 15-year-olds.

“I do not think we should run to vaccinate children,” Alroy-Preis tells Ynet, adding that the announcement is good news but that Israel will wait until the FDA gives its approval for vaccinating young teens.

“I believe we will lead the world as we led in vaccinating pregnant women,” she adds.

Lapid, Gantz meet to discuss replacing Netanyahu; no developments reached

Yair Lapid (left) and Benny Gantz speak to supporters in Tel Aviv, on February 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Yair Lapid (left) and Benny Gantz speak to supporters in Tel Aviv, on February 20, 2020. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz and Yesh Atid leader Yair Lapid have concluded their first meeting since the election, discussing ways to cooperate in order to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Gantz has not yet pledged to recommend that Lapid be tapped to form the next government.

The two party leaders have a lot of bad blood between them after they ran together in the last election, only to split when Gantz decided to form a government with Netanyahu.

Gantz laments ‘dark day’ tomorrow when Israel will no longer have justice minister

Defense Minister Gantz at the launch of a "resilience center" in Kibbutz Kabri on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot/Defense Ministry)
Defense Minister Gantz at the launch of a "resilience center" in Kibbutz Kabri on March 15, 2021. (Screenshot/Defense Ministry)

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz declares that tomorrow will be a “dark day” as Israel will no longer have a justice minister thanks to what he claims is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s efforts to block a vote on the matter in the cabinet.

Gantz has served as justice minister for the past several months in an interim capacity, but that term is slated to expire tomorrow.

Speaking at a press conference, he calls on Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to compel Netanyahu to allow the appointment of a permanent justice minister.

“I will not allow this violation of the rule of law,” he says.

Netanyahu to address public at 8 p.m. Israel time

(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on March 26, 2021, shows (R to L) Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Israeli Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party party, on March 15, 2021, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on March 11, 2021 and Mansour Abbas, head of a conservative Islamic party Raam, on March 23, 2021. - Netanyahu this week has a unique challenge in Israeli history: rallying the far right and the Islamists in the same government. (Photos by various sources / AFP)
(COMBO) This combination of pictures created on March 26, 2021, shows (R to L) Itamar Ben Gvir, head of the Israeli Jewish Power (Otzma Yehudit) party party, on March 15, 2021, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, on March 11, 2021 and Mansour Abbas, head of a conservative Islamic party Raam, on March 23, 2021. - Netanyahu this week has a unique challenge in Israeli history: rallying the far right and the Islamists in the same government. (Photos by various sources / AFP)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will address the public in less than two hours at 8 p.m. Israel time, his office says.

He will likely address the political situation, perhaps calling on right-wing party leaders Naftali Bennett and Gideon Sa’ar to put aside their political differences and join a Likud-led coalition.

Mansour Abbas: We won’t compromise on our national and civilian rights

Ra'am party leader Mansour Abbas at the party headquarters in Tamra, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Flash90)
Ra'am party leader Mansour Abbas at the party headquarters in Tamra, on election night, March 23, 2021. (Flash90)

Coalition kingmaker, Ra’am chairman Mansour Abbas, tells the Turkish Anadolu Agency that his party will not compromise on either its national or civilian rights when deciding who to back to become the next prime minister.

“Our red lines are our rights whether national or civilian rights,” Abbas says. “We don’t negotiate or compromise on these rights. We may not be able to achieve them all, but we will not abandon them.”

The comments come as Netanyahu loyalists have intensified their campaign in recent days to legitimize support for the idea that Ra’am will prop up a right-wing, Netanyahu-led coalition from outside the government, claiming that the Islamist party is only focused on civilian issues.

Abbas says he is prepared to back a candidate to form the next government “in return for “improving conditions of the Arab citizens and ending injustice, marginalization and exclusion against them.”

He says a broad government plan to combat crime in Arab towns and an end to Arab home demolitions are among Ra’am’s demands in exchange for its backing of the next premier.

Balad’s 1 MK announces that he’ll back no one to serve as next prime minister

Joint List MK Sami Abou Shehadeh (Screen capture: YouTube)
Joint List MK Sami Abou Shehadeh (Screen capture: YouTube)

The Palestinian nationalist Balad party says it will not recommend any candidate be tapped with forming the next government.

“All the candidates deny the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people and support continuing the occupation, expanding settlements, Judaizing Jerusalem and targeting Al-Aqsa Mosque and all holy sites,” the party’s politburo says in a statement.

Balad, which is part of the Arab Joint List, has only one parliamentarian in the upcoming Knesset: party chief Sami Abou Shehadeh. As early as February, Abou Shehadeh had publicly insisted that he would not consider recommending Yair Lapid for prime minister, who was already seen as the politician likely to get the most mandates after ruling Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The party calls on the rest of the Joint List to refrain from recommending anyone to President Reuven Rivlin.

COVID was third leading cause of US deaths in 2020

Paramedic Clive Maleso stands next to a Saaberie Chishty ambulance before transferring a COVID-19 patient from his home to the hospital in Lenasia, South Africa, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)
Paramedic Clive Maleso stands next to a Saaberie Chishty ambulance before transferring a COVID-19 patient from his home to the hospital in Lenasia, South Africa, Thursday, Jan. 7, 2021 (AP Photo/Bram Janssen)

COVID-19 was the third leading cause of death in the United States in 2020, according to provisional data released on Wednesday by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Heart disease was responsible for about 690,000 deaths, cancer for 598,000 deaths and COVID for 345,000 deaths, according to a new report.

These were followed by unintentional injury, stroke, chronic lower respiratory disease, Alzheimer disease, diabetes, influenza and pneumonia and kidney disease, in line with previous years.

COVID death rates were highest among adults aged 85 and over, Black people, Native Americans and males.

Overall, 3,358,814 people died in 2020, excluding deaths of residents of US territories and foreign countries,

The age-adjusted death rate increased by 15.9 percent, from 715.2 to 828.7 deaths per 100,000.

Age-adjustment is a statistical method used to allow populations with different age structures to be compared.

COVID-19 was reported as the underlying cause of death or a contributing cause of death for 377,883 deaths — or 345,323 deaths where it was the underlying cause, which was 91 percent of cases.

COVID death rates were just 0.2 per 100,000 among children aged one to 14, but rose dramatically to 1,797.8 per 100,000 in people aged 85 and over.

Between races, the age-adjusted COVID death rate was lowest among Asian non-Hispanic people at 66.7 per 100,000, and highest among Hispanic people, at 164.3 per 100,000.

Among white people it was 72.5 per 100,000 and among Black people it was 151.1 per 100,000.

Biden administration quietly allocating $100 million in aid for Palestinians

A Palestinian pupil walks past United Nations Relief and Works Agency, (UNRWA) and USAID humanitarian aid, on June 6, 2010 in the Shatie refugee camp in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)
A Palestinian pupil walks past United Nations Relief and Works Agency, (UNRWA) and USAID humanitarian aid, on June 6, 2010 in the Shatie refugee camp in Gaza City. (AP Photo/Lefteris Pitarakis, File)

The Biden administration is quietly ramping up assistance to the Palestinians after former president Donald Trump cut off nearly all aid. Since taking office with a pledge to reverse many of Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian decisions, the administration has allocated nearly $100 million for the Palestinians, only a small portion of which has been publicized.

The administration announced last Thursday it was giving $15 million to vulnerable Palestinian communities in the West Bank and Gaza to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic. A day later, with no public announcement, it notified Congress that it will give the Palestinians $75 million for economic support, to be used in part to regain their “trust and goodwill” after the Trump-era cuts.

The State Department declined to comment on the notification and it wasn’t clear if the $75 million includes the $15 million in pandemic aid. Nevertheless, the funding plan represents a major shift in the US approach to the Palestinians after the mutual recriminations during the Trump years.

Russia’s Navalny announces start of prison hunger strike

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a class cage during a hearing in the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, February 2, 2021. (Moscow City Court via AP)
Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny stands in a class cage during a hearing in the Moscow City Court in Moscow, Russia, February 2, 2021. (Moscow City Court via AP)

Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny has started a hunger strike in prison to protest officials’ failure to provide proper treatment for his back and leg pains.

In a statement posted on Instagram, Navalny complains about prison authorities’ refusal to give him the right medicines and to allow his doctor to visit him behind bars.

He also protests the hourly checks a guard makes on him at night, saying they amount to sleep deprivation torture.

Navalny says in his statement that he had no choice but to protest with a hunger strike because his physical condition has worsened. He said his back pains have spread to his right leg and he feels numbness in his left leg.

“What else could I do?” he writes. “I have declared a hunger strike demanding that they allow a visit by an invited doctor in compliance with the law. So I’m lying here, hungry, but still with two legs.”

The 44-year-old Navalny, who is President Vladimir Putin’s most outspoken opponent, was arrested in January upon his return from Germany, where he spent five months recovering from a nerve-agent poisoning that he blames on the Kremlin. Russian authorities have rejected the accusation.

Last month, Navalny was sentenced to 2 1/2 years in prison for violating the terms of his probation during his convalescence in Germany. The sentence stems from a 2014 embezzlement conviction that Navalny has rejected as fabricated — and which the European Сourt of Human Rights has ruled to be unlawful.

Navalny was moved this month from a Moscow jail to a penal colony in Pokrov in the Vladimir region, 85 kilometers (53 miles) east of the Russian capital. The facility called IK-2 stands out among Russian penitentiaries for its particularly strict inmate routines, which include standing at attention for hours.

French Islamic State widow in Syria camp, veil-free, wants to ‘go home’

In a Syrian detention camp for people linked to the Islamic State group, French mother-of-five Emilie Konig has swapped her all-engulfing black robe for a sweatshirt and baseball cap.

The 36-year-old widow — who is on UN and US blacklists of dangerous militants, accused of recruiting IS fighters and inciting attacks in the West — says she’s now desperate to go home.

Joining IS “wrecked” her life, said Konig, who was captured in late 2017 by Kurdish forces battling the jihadists in the eastern Syrian town of Shadadi.

“I want to go home to France,” she told AFP. “I have my family there. I want to start my life over and right my mistakes.”

Konig — who frequently appeared in IS propaganda videos, including in a 2013 clip showing her training with a shotgun — now lives in the Kurdish-run Roj camp in northeast Syria.

Now sporting a hooded top, faux leather leggings and white hightop trainers, she said: “I’m already dressing … to get used to my returning.”

She said she hopes to work as an accountant back in France — even if Paris has been reluctant to repatriate citizens with IS links and would likely seek to try them on terror-related charges.

“When I do return, I won’t be able to wear” a veil, she said, her dark, blond-streaked hair braided into a plait under her Yankees cap. “In the job I want to do… you can’t wear it.”

Blinken reaffirms Trump-era ruling on Hong Kong autonomy

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about the release of the '2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,' at the State Department in Washington, March 30, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks about the release of the '2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices,' at the State Department in Washington, March 30, 2021. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via AP)

Secretary of State Antony Blinken has reaffirmed a determination made last year by the Trump administration that Hong Kong is no longer autonomous and remains undeserving of special treatment by the United States.

In a notice sent to Congress, Blinken says China had continued to “dismantle” Hong Kong’s autonomy since his predecessor, Mike Pompeo, first made the determination in May 2020. As a result, Blinken said, the former British colony does not warrant US trade and financial perks it had enjoyed since it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997 with a pledge from Beijing that it would enjoy significant autonomy for 50 years.

The decision is yet another indication that President Joe Biden’s administration has not strayed from the hard line that was taken by President Donald Trump on China. On Tuesday, the State Department once again repeated the Trump administration’s characterization of Chinese treatment of Uighur Muslims and other minorities in China’s western Xinjiang region as “genocide.”

“Over the past year, the People’s Republic of China has continued to dismantle Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, in violation of its obligations under the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law,” Blinken said. “In particular, the PRC government’s adoption and the Hong Kong government’s implementation of the National Security Law have severely undermined the rights and freedoms of people in Hong Kong.”

In an accompanying report, Blinken cited the passage of the security law as well as arbitrary arrests and detentions of pro-democracy demonstrators, opposition figures and politicians as well as a sharp reduction in the number of directly elected members of the territory’s legislature.

The certification to Congress is required by the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which passed overwhelmingly with bipartisan support in 2019 and was signed into law by Trump.

Netanyahu calls on Sa’ar, Bennett to ‘come home’ to right-wing coalition led by Likud

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement on March 31, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu makes a statement on March 31, 2021 (Channel 12 screenshot)

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gives his first public statement since the official results of last week’s election came in, showing neither bloc has a clear path to a majority.

Unlike the previous three elections, this time, he says, “the people made their will known clearly… The public gave the right-wing parties a clear majority — of 65 seats.”

He includes both Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope and Naftali Bennett’s Yamina in the right-wing bloc, despite Sa’ar campaigning aggressively against sitting with Netanyahu and Bennett pushing to replace the premier.

Netanyahu claims a right-wing coalition with Likud, UTJ, Shas, Religious Zionism, Yamina and New Hope will be stable and be able to rule for years to come, allowing “all Israelis to benefit.”

“It can be established right away…and that’s what is required,” Netanyahu says.

“Any government other than a right-wing government will be a left-wing, unstable government and will be established in clear opposition to the ideology of the great majority of the public that voted for Likud and for other right-wing parties,” he says, neglecting to mention that New Hope’s mandate of six seats is built off of its refusal to sit with Netanyahu.

“Such a government with its internal contradictions would destroy all our achievements in recent years and would collapse very fast,” Netanyahu claims. “It would be a great disaster for the state of Israel.

“I appeal to you Naftali Bennett and Gideon Saar, it’s no secret that we’ve had differences over the years, but we’ve known how to get over them and work together for the benefit of Israel’s citizens,” Netanyahu says.

“The public decided that we have to sit together,” he continues. “I call upon you: come home, come back to your natural home — to the right.”

“Let’s unify and together and build a stable national government… a unified, stable, right-wing government that will look after, as we always have, all the citizens of Israel,” he concludes.

Lapid said willing to anoint Bennett PM if Yamina head vows not to sit with Netanyahu

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid (R) and Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett present an agreement reached between Israel's technological colleges and the Finance Ministry, at the Knesset, on October 27, 2013. (Flash90)
Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid (R) and Jewish Home head Naftali Bennett present an agreement reached between Israel's technological colleges and the Finance Ministry, at the Knesset, on October 27, 2013. (Flash90)

Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid has passed along a message to the Yamina party that he is prepared to accept a scenario in which Yamina head Naftali Bennett will be prime minister so long as he agrees to first pledge that he will not join a Netanyahu government, Channel 12 reports.

The report does not specify whether Lapid is willing to split the premiership with Bennett in a rotational capacity or whether Bennett would be the sole prime minister.

Both sides are hesitant to be the first to move on the deal, Channel 12 reports.

Unsourced news report: Likud offers Yamina 7 reserved spots in party if it agrees to back Netanyahu

In this Sunday, November 24, 2019 photo, then-defense minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border. (Atef Safadi/Pool via AP, File)
In this Sunday, November 24, 2019 photo, then-defense minister Naftali Bennett and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit an Israeli army base in the Golan Heights, on the Israeli-Syrian border. (Atef Safadi/Pool via AP, File)

The Likud has extended a lavish offer to Yamina in order to try and convince Naftali Bennett’s party to recommend Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu be tapped with forming the next government, according to an unsourced Channel 12 report.

The offer includes seven spots on Likud’s list for all seven Yamina lawmakers — meaning Yamina would effectively be dissolved into Likud. This is something that Bennett and his No. 2 Ayelet Shaked have long wanted, but that Netanyahu’s wife Sara has reportedly blocked for years due to her personal loathing of the two lawmakers.

The reserved spots would be promised for two straight Knesset sessions during which Yamina lawmakers would be promised senior positions in the governments that are formed, according to Channel 12.

The deal also offers Yamina 20,000 members in the Likud Central Committee. It was not immediately clear how Netanyahu could make such a promise because Yamina does not have nearly that many supporters.

Netanyahu reportedly considers asking to be excused from next month of hearings

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to a hearing in his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court, Feb. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Reuven Castro, Pool)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu prior to a hearing in his corruption trial at the Jerusalem District Court, Feb. 8, 2021. (AP Photo/Reuven Castro, Pool)

Less than a week before his criminal trial is set to restart, Channel 12 reports that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is considering asking the Jerusalem District Court that he be excused from attending all 20 hearings slated to take place over the next month.

Hearings are scheduled to take place three times a week from 9 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., and as of now Netanyahu is expected to be in attendance.

PA to begin vaccinating families of security prisoners in Israeli jails

Palestinians in the West Bank receive a shot of the coronavirus vaccine on Sunday March 21, 2021 (WAFA)
Palestinians in the West Bank receive a shot of the coronavirus vaccine on Sunday March 21, 2021 (WAFA)

The Palestinian Authority health ministry will begin administering coronavirus vaccines to the families of security prisoners in Israeli jails tomorrow, PA health officials say.

PA health minister Mai al-Kaila says in a statement released by the official WAFA news agency that the vaccination program is intended to allow them to visit their relatives in Israeli jails. The vaccination of prisoners’ families is set to begin in Ramallah and al-Bireh governorate tomorrow, but will soon be extended to other West Bank governorates.

Besides the families of security prisoners, only the elderly and those with underlying conditions such as cancer are technically eligible for the vaccine. Ramallah has received international criticism for the benefits it hands out to the families of those imprisoned by Israel for terrorism.

Accusations of nepotism and corruption have also dogged the vaccine rollout since the start. The PA has acknowledged that at least some vaccines went to government officials and the Palestinian national soccer team rather than frontline health care workers.

According to the PA, around 55,871 West Bank Palestinians have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine as of Wednesday.

80% of public unsatisfied with election results, anti-PM voters back Bennett — poll

Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Yamina leader Naftali Bennett at the annual Jerusalem Conference of the 'Besheva' group, on March 15, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A Channel 13 poll shows that 80% of Israelis are unsatisfied with the results of the fourth election, which were largely identical to the results of the previous three elections when neither the pro- or anti-Netanyahu blocs mustered up a majority to form a stable coalition.

The poll shows that 62% of supporters of the anti-Netanyahu bloc think that Yesh Atid chairman Yair Lapid should cede the premiership to Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett, despite the former leading a party that is more than twice the size of Yamina.

This is likely because Bennett appears to have a more realistic shot at forming the next coalition as parties across the political spectrum have indicated that they’re prepared to back Bennett in order to replace Netanyahu.

Supporters of the pro-Netanyahu bloc were asked for their thoughts on a right-wing government reliant on the backing of the Islamist Ra’am party. Forty-five percent of them supported the idea, while 39% opposed it.

Bennett, Sa’ar respond to Netanyahu, tell him to kick rocks

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in the Knesset on July 29, 2013, with Naftali Bennett (left) and Gideon Sa'ar. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (right) in the Knesset on July 29, 2013, with Naftali Bennett (left) and Gideon Sa'ar. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90/File)

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on New Hope’s Gideon Sa’ar and Yamina’s Naftali Bennett to agree to sit underneath him in a right-wing government, the two party leaders give him the cold shoulder.

Sa’ar says in a response statement: “I will fulfill my commitment to the voters. I will not join or support a Netanyahu-led government.

“Continuing Netanyahu’s tenure, which prioritizes his personal good over the good of the state, is harmful to Israel.”

For its part, Yamina says, “Bennett cares about the people, not positions.”

Bennett “will continue to make every effort to form a good and stable government that will rescue Israel from chaos,” the party adds.

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