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Italy coronavirus death toll hits 107, with more than 3,000 cases

Israel dramatically widens coronavirus rules, Germany warns that the outbreak has turned into a global pandemic

A nurse controls the temperature of a woman in the a pre-triage medical tent in front of the Cremona hospital, in Cremona, northern Italy, on March 4, 2020 (Miguel MEDINA / AFP)
A nurse controls the temperature of a woman in the a pre-triage medical tent in front of the Cremona hospital, in Cremona, northern Italy, on March 4, 2020 (Miguel MEDINA / AFP)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Wednesday’s news as it developed.

MK Levy-Abekasis denies reports she could defect to the right

MK Orly Levy-Abekasis rejects reports that she could defect from her Labor-Gesher-Meretz party to the right and help prop up a coalition led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In a tweet, Levy-Abekasis says the reports are “completely untrue. There aren’t and have not been any contacts with any political operatives. Everything that has been published thus far is no more than spin.”

She also rejects reports that her father, former minister David Levy, could receive the right’s support for a presidential run should she choose to defect.

“The attempt to bring my father’s name into an offer is absurd, and could only occur to those who think anything can be bought.”

Coronavirus death toll in Iran climbs to 92

Iran says that the new coronavirus has killed 92 people amid 2,922 confirmed cases across the Islamic Republic, the highest death toll in the world outside of China.

Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour announces the new figures at a news conference in Tehran, raising Iran’s death toll from the new illness to higher than Italy’s, where there has also been a serious spike in infections.

The virus has sickened top leaders inside Iran’s civilian government and Shiite theocracy. Iran stands alone in how the virus has affected its government, even compared to hard-hit China, the epicenter of the outbreak. Worldwide, the virus has infected more than 90,000 people and caused over 3,100 deaths.

Iranian state television says Friday prayers have been canceled across all provincial capitals amid the country’s growing coronavirus outbreak.


Mona Lisa’s smile restored: Louvre reopens after virus fears

This should restore the Mona Lisa’s famous smile: Her Paris home, the Louvre Museum, is open again after management eased workers’ fears about catching the coronavirus.

Louvre Museum employees who had stayed off the job since Sunday for fear of infection voted overwhelmingly today to resume work, allowing the world’s most-visited museum to open its doors again in the afternoon.

Management presented a raft of new anti-virus measures to try to coax employees back to work. Among them: wider distributions of disinfectant gels and more frequent staff rotations so employees can wash their hands.

Staff members will be pulled back from the room where Leonardo da Vinci’s iconic “Mona Lisa” is displayed. Instead of rubbing shoulders with visitors in the room itself, workers will just be posted at the entrances.

Most of the museum’s 9.6 million visitors last year came from abroad.


Trump: Democratic establishment ‘crushed’ Sanders on Super Tuesday

US President Donald Trump tweets his commentary on the results of Super Tuesday in the Democratic primaries, which saw a resurgent Joe Biden pick up several states at the expense of his rival Bernie Sanders.

Opposition MK against law that would bar Netanyahu from premiership

MK Omer Bar-Lev of Labor-Gesher-Meretz registers his opposition to a proposed bill that would target Netanyahu by prohibiting a lawmaker under indictment from forming a government.

“I fought against personal laws when they helped Netanyahu, and I oppose the initiative to legislate a personal law against him,” Bar-Lev says. “This is not the way to replace Netanyahu.”

Iran says ‘no obligation’ to let UN nuclear watchdog into certain sites

Tehran has no obligation to grant the UN’s nuclear watchdog access to sites in Iran when it deems that requests are based on “fabricated information,” Iran’s UN ambassador in Vienna says.

“Intelligence services’ fabricated information… creates no obligation for Iran to consider such requests,” says a statement from Iran’s ambassador to the UN in Vienna, Kazem Gharib Abadi.

It comes a day after a report from the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in which it reprimanded Iran for refusing access to two sites which diplomats believe could be connected to Iran’s historic nuclear activity.

Gharib Abadi also accuses the US and Israel of trying to “exert pressure on the Agency… in order to distort the proactive and constructive cooperation” between the IAEA and Iran.

Israel has claimed that a trove of information obtained by its intelligence services contains new information on a previous nuclear weapons program in Iran.

The two sites that the IAEA was denied access to were among three locations that the agency had been raising questions over since last summer.

In a second report issued on Tuesday the IAEA reported Iran was continuing to breach the terms of the 2015 nuclear accord with world powers but did not report any restrictions in access to nuclear facilities.


Health Ministry scales back self-quarantine for fans at Tel Aviv soccer game

The Health Ministry sends out updated guidelines significantly reducing the number of people who must self-quarantine after attending a soccer game in Tel Aviv last week.

It now says that only people who attended the game between Hapoel Tel Aviv and Maccabi Tel Aviv in Bloomfield Stadium on February 24, and sat in Gates 7-8, section 425, rows 43-49, seats 167-179, must enter quarantine until March 8.

According to the Ynet news site, the new instructions reduce the number of people who must self-quarantine from about 1,000 to 77.

Chief rabbi calls on public not to kiss mezuzot over virus fears

Chief Rabbi David Lau issues a directive to the Israeli public to stop kissing mezuzot, the boxes containing scrolls of biblical verses that Jews traditionally hang on their doorposts, for fear of spreading the new coronavirus.

In a statement, Lau points out that there is no requirement to kiss mezuzot; rather, the practice is merely a non-binding custom.

Saudi Arabia suspends ‘umrah’ pilgrimage over coronavirus fears

Saudi Arabia is suspending the year-round umrah pilgrimage over fears of the new coronavirus spreading to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina, the interior ministry says.

The Gulf state has decided “to suspend umrah temporarily for citizens and residents in the kingdom,” the ministry says in a statement carried by the official Saudi Press Agency.

They are also barred from “visits to the Prophet’s mosque in Medina,” according to a foreign ministry tweet.

The decision comes after Saudi Arabia last week suspended visas for the pilgrimage and barred citizens from the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council from entering Mecca and Medina, two of Islam’s holiest cities.

Saudi Arabia on Monday confirmed its first case of new coronavirus after one its citizens who had returned from COVID-19 hotspot Iran tested positive.

The unprecedented moves have left thousands of Muslim pilgrims in limbo, raising uncertainty over the annual hajj to Mecca scheduled for the end of July.

The holy sites, which draw millions of pilgrims every year, are a potential source of contagion but also a key revenue earner and a pillar of political legitimacy for Saudi rulers.


Knesset legal adviser hedges on law to block Netanyahu premiership

The Knesset’s legal adviser appears to dodge questions on a reported move to pass a law that would bar Netanyahu from forming a government in light of the indictment against him.

“As a rule, the Knesset plenum and the Knesset committees do not tend to convene in the two weeks between the elections and the swearing in of the new Knesset,” Eyal Yinon says in a brief statement in response to queries from reporters. “As for private member bills — they are entirely impossible in this period.”

It is unclear how Yinon’s response relates to the initiative itself, whose sponsors in the Blue and White party reportedly already plan to wait until after the new Knesset is sworn in to bring it to a vote.

PM calls on Israelis to stop handshakes; new EU nations added to quarantine list

Netanyahu delivers a statement to the press on the measures Israel is implementing to combat the spread of the new coronavirus, and calls on Israelis to refrain entirely from shaking each other’s hands.

He says that the world is in the midst of a pandemic — “this is the truth and it must be said.”

He also adds Spain, Germany, Austria, Switzerland and France — but notably not the United States — to the list of countries that Israelis must self-quarantine after returning from.

“Israel is one of the only countries in the West that is in a relatively good place,” Netanyahu says. “We’ve taking severe measures in order to prevent the spread [of the virus].”

Health minister says assemblies of more than 5,000 banned over virus fears

Health Minister Yaakov Litzman says assemblies of more than 5,000 people will no longer be permitted due to the coronavirus.

“We will not allow international conferences in Israel,” Litzman adds, addressing reporters after Netanyahu. “This is international. There are countries that are working on it and taking various steps, and there are countries that haven’t yet internalized the severity of the situation.”

Far-right Polish lawmaker says natural selection at pogroms made Jews powerful

A far-right lawmaker in Poland said that natural selection in pogroms have made Jews powerful, and that “there are theories” that rabbis provoked violence to achieve this.

Janusz Korwin-Mikke made the comment in an interview for the Polsat channel last week about the coronavirus, the Do Rzeczy newspaper reports.

“Jews are now powerful because they had pogroms,” he says. “As a result of pogroms, the strongest and the most gifted survived. This is a warning to anti-Semites: That is why Jews are powerful, because they had pogroms. There are even theories that rabbis deliberately provoke pogroms precisely so that Jews survive and then there is natural selection.”

Janusz Korwin-Mikke speaking at the Polish parliament in Warsaw on June 26, 2015. (Adrian Grycuk/Wikimedia Commons)

Korwin-Mikke, a former lawmaker in the European Parliament and a leader of the Confederation Liberty and Independence party, has a history of making anti-Semitic statements and stunts.

Last year, he slipped a kippah on the head of a state secretary while she was speaking at a televised debate that Korwin-Mikke also attended.

Also in 2019, he aired a conspiracy theory about Jews while commenting on reports in the Israeli media on a custom in which residents of the town of Pruchnik beat with sticks an effigy of an Orthodox Jew representing Judas Iscariot, the betrayer of Jesus.

Korwin-Mikke’s party has 11 seats out of 466 in the Sejm, the lower house of the Polish parliament.


Bloomberg drops out of Democratic race, endorses Biden

Billionaire Mike Bloomberg has dropped out of the Democratic presidential race and endorsed Joe Biden.

Bloomberg, a former mayor of New York, had an abysmal showing on Super Tuesday. He has spent some $500 million of his personal fortune on his run.

with AP

Jerusalem reviewing new Health Ministry directives ahead of marathon

The Jerusalem Municipality says it is reviewing the Health Ministry’s latest directive in light of the international marathon it is due to host later this month, and will determine how and if it will proceed with the event.

The marathon is scheduled for March 20, with tens of thousands of people due to participate, including some 5,000 runners from abroad. Earlier the Health Ministry said that it would ban assemblies of more than 5,000 people for fear of hastening the spread of the new coronavirus.

“The Jerusalem Municipality announces that it is thoroughly examining the Health Ministry’s directives and will publish the ramifications that it will have for the marathon shortly,” a spokesperson for the marathon says.

Judah Ari Gross

Concerts, sporting events called off after assemblies of more than 5,000 banned

A series of large events are canceled after the Health Ministry bans assemblies of more than 5,000 people in order to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

These included concerts by singers Ishay Ribo and Nathan Goshen at the Menora Mivtachim Arena in Tel Aviv tomorrow, a soccer state cup quarter final match game between Maccabi Haifa and Hapoel Beersheba in Haifa tonight, and a run in Rishon Lezion.

The Adloyada Purim parade in Holon, which was set to take place next week, is also called off.

Netanyahu says Gantz trying to ‘steal elections’ with bill to disqualify him

Netanyahu takes aim at an initiative to pass a law banning a Knesset member under indictment from forming a government.

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz is trying to “steal the elections” by passing the law, he charges in a meeting with right-wing Knesset members.

Such a bill “undermines the foundations of democracy.”

Netanyahu notes that Blue and White would require the support of the majority-Arab Joint List party, whose members he calls “terror supporters” who “oppose the State of Israel.”

He notes that right-wing parties in the bloc that he leads received 58 seats, as opposed to 47 seats for the Zionist parties in the opposition.

“The will of the people is clear,” Netanyahu says, adding that the Joint List is “not part of that equation.”

Prominent pollster: Estimated 87% of Arab voters cast ballots for the Joint List

An estimated 87% of Arab Israelis who cast ballots in the Knesset elections on Monday voted for the Joint List, as many Arabs deserted Zionist parties for the alliance of the four largest Arab-majority factions — bucking Blue and White’s rightward push, a prominent pollster says.

The number marks an increase in support for the Joint List among Arabs compared to the last national elections in September, when an estimated 80% of Arab voters backed it, Yousef Makladeh, the head of the Statnet research institute, tells The Times of Israel.

Makladeh says his calculations are based on the results of 99% of the total vote in the elections. The Central Elections Committee has not released the final and complete elections results.

He also says his calculations reflect approximations because it is not feasible to precisely determine how Arab voters cast ballots in mixed Jewish-Arab towns like Jaffa and Ramle.

The Joint List appears to be poised to garner 15 seats in the Knesset and become the third-largest party in the parliament, according to the almost-final results. The party received 13 seats in the parliament in September 2019’s elections.

Adam Rasgon

Gantz to Netanyahu: ‘Have a drink of water, wait for the final results’

Gantz responds to Netanyahu’s attack on an initiative to ban him from forming a government because of his looming corruption trial.

“Bibi, have a drink of water, wait for the final results [of the elections], and promise to respect them,” he tweets.

Germany calls coronavirus a ‘pandemic’

Germany warns that the coronavirus outbreak has turned into a global pandemic, as countries around the world bolstered supplies and boosted protective measures in a bid to slow the rapid rise of the deadly disease.

More than 90,000 people have been infected and around 3,200 have died worldwide from the virus, the vast majority in China where COVID-19 first emerged late last year.

Germany’s health minister says the outbreak has become a pandemic — defined as an epidemic that spreads throughout the world through local transmission.

“The coronavirus outbreak in China has become a global pandemic,” Jens Spahn tells German lawmakers.

“The situation is changing very quickly… What’s clear is that we have not yet reached the peak of the outbreak.”

The World Health Organization (WHO) has so far stopped short of declaring a pandemic, though it has said the world must prepare for the possibility.

The virus has reached 81 countries and territories around the world, with South Korea, Iran and Italy emerging as hotspots outside China.


Wife, children, neighbor of NY Jewish lawyer also test positive for coronavirus

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo announces that the wife, two children and a neighbor of a New York lawyer who is hospitalized in critical condition with COVID-19 have also tested positive for the disease. That increases the number of confirmed cases in the state to six.

Yeshiva University, where one of the children is a student, says it’s canceling classes at the upper Manhattan campus where he is enrolled.

The positive test results for the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19 came one day after Cuomo announced that the student’s father had become the second coronavirus case in New York state. The family has been quarantined at home in suburban Westchester County. The neighbor is also self-quarantined at home.


Italy coronavirus death toll passes 100

Italy’s death toll from the new coronavirus passed 100 today and the number of cases went over 3,000, the government says.

Twenty-eight more people died in the past 24 hours, bringing the toll to 107 — the highest number of fatalities outside China — while the number of cases reached 3,089, official figures show.


All civil servants banned from work trips abroad; IDF chief calls off US visit

The Civil Service Commission bans all work trips abroad for civil servants, based on the new directives issued by the Health Ministry in an attempt to slow the spread of the coronavirus.

In light of that decision, the military announces that a planned work visit to the US next week by army chief Lt. Gen. Aviv Kohavi will be postponed.

The Israel Defense Forces says the decision was made in consultation with the Health Ministry.

The military does not specify a new date for the visit.

— with Judah Ari Gross

Swiss tapped to lead UN agency that aids Palestinian refugees: source

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres has recommended a Swiss expert in humanitarian affairs to lead the UN agency responsible for aiding Palestinian refugees, a UN source says.

Guterres’ pick for the sensitive UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) post, Philippe Lazzarini, has served as the UN coordinator in Lebanon for the past five years.

He has deep experience in humanitarian relief work in conflict zones, including Somalia, Iraq, Angola and the Palestinian territories.

Lazzarini also held positions with the International Committee of the Red Cross in Africa, the Balkans and the Middle East.

If approved by the agency’s advisory board, Lazzarini would follow Pierre Krahenbuhl, another Swiss national, who resigned as UNRWA director in November 2019 amid accusations of mismanagement.

Founded in 1949, UNRWA runs schools and provides vital aid to millions of Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Syria and the Palestinian territories.

The United States ended its annual $300 million contribution to UNRWA in 2018.

The United States and Israel contend the agency has no reason to exist in its current form, and oppose the Palestinians being allowed to transfer refugee status to their children.


Health Ministry director defends extraordinary measures

The director general of the Health Ministry defends Israel’s sweeping measures to slow the spread of the coronavirus — considered the most stringent in the world — from criticism that they could harm the economy.

“They said we were exaggerating,” Moshe Bar Siman Tov says.

“They said we were hysterical. If we hadn’t closed [Israel to arrivals from] Italy a few days ago, we’d be in the grip of a mass infection today.”

He also denies the suggestion that Israel is allowing travel from the United States, while blocking it from much of Europe, because of political considerations.

Biden campaign says Sanders is dividing party

Joe Biden’s presidential campaign is embracing his renewed status as Democratic front-runner, chiding Bernie Sanders for negative advertising and casting the Vermont senator as dividing the party.

The Biden campaign’s national co-chairman, Louisiana Rep. Cedric Richmond, blasts Sanders for his suggestions that the Democratic establishment is colluding against the progressive’s White House bid. Richmond says Biden is earning his votes.

“I just did not know that African Americans in the South were considered part of the establishment,” Richmond says, noting Biden’s overwhelming black support that gave him wide delegate gains in Alabama, North Carolina and Virginia, among other states.

Richmond and Biden spokeswoman Kate Bedingfield allude to the 2016 campaign, when a nominating fight between Sanders and Hillary Clinton left bitter feelings that hobbled Clinton’s general election campaign.

“We’ve seen what kind of campaign Bernie Sanders runs,” Bedingfield says, referring to new attack ads Sanders released today. “We all need to link arms to defeat Donald Trump.”


US contractor accused of giving highly classified material to Hezbollah

A contractor of the US Defense Department is charged with transmitting highly sensitive classified material to a foreign national connected to Hezbollah.

In a statement, the Defense Department alleges that linguist Mariam Taha Thompson, 61, formerly of Rochester, Minnesota, “gathered and transmitted” material that included “classified national defense information regarding active human assets, including their true names.”

“While in a war zone, the defendant allegedly gave sensitive national defense information, including the names of individuals helping the United States, to a Lebanese national located overseas,” says Assistant Attorney General for National Security John C. Demers.

“If true, this conduct is a disgrace, especially for someone serving as a contractor with the United States military,” he says. “This betrayal of country and colleagues will be punished.”

Thompson was arrested by FBI Special Agents on February 27, 2020, at an overseas US military facility, where she worked as a contract linguist and held a top secret government security clearance, the statement says.

If convicted, she faces a maximum sentence of life in prison.

Man who is supposed to be quarantined attends meeting with Netanyahu

A reporter who returned from France a few days ago, and is required to self-quarantine under new Health Ministry regulations, attended a meeting of leaders of right-wing parties, including Netanyahu, this evening, because he hadn’t heard of the new directives, Ynet reports.

The report says that Hezki Baruch of the right-wing Israel National News site arrived at the Knesset at 5 p.m., half an hour after the new Health Ministry directives were released.

The report says there were some 150 people present at the meeting.

Biden wins Maine, his 10th Super Tuesday victory

Joe Biden has notched his 10th Super Tuesday victory by winning Maine’s Democratic presidential primary.

The state, which is called today for Biden, has 24 delegates at stake.

Secretary of State Matthew Dunlap says turnout was higher than he had anticipated.

It was the state’s first presidential primary in 20 years. Maine last used primaries in 1996 and 2000 and then switched to the caucus system for the next four presidential election cycles. Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders handily won Maine’s Democratic caucuses in 2016.

Biden also won Alabama, Arkansas, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia, while Sanders captured California, Colorado, Utah and Vermont.

— AP

10th person dies in Washington state from virus

Washington state has reported a 10th death from the new coronavirus.

The state Department of Health releases updated figures this morning, showing that nine people died in King County, the state’s most populous, and one person in Snohomish County. The state has now reported 39 COVID-19 cases, all in the greater Seattle area.

No other information about the newly reported death is immediately available.

Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington on Sunday said they had evidence COVID-19 may have been circulating in the state for up to six weeks undetected. If true, that could mean that there are hundreds of undiagnosed cases in the area.


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