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Sa’ar says Netanyahu being ‘extorted’ by ultra-Orthodox on Reform conversions

New Hope leader claims PM ‘afraid of making decisions,’ Haredi parties ‘forced paralysis’ by thwarting compromise that could have prevented this week’s High Court ruling

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-interior minister Gideon Sa'ar, left, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 25, 2012. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90/ File)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, and then-interior minister Gideon Sa'ar, left, at the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem on December 25, 2012. (Miriam Alster/ Flash90/ File)

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

Ministers set to vote on reopening eateries, attractions, hotels, some schools

The coronavirus cabinet is expected to approve rules for the next phase of economy reopening over the next several hours, shortly before they come into effect tomorrow.

The formulation of the new easing of lockdown restrictions has again been fraught with disagreements, delays and politics, especially with the March 23 Knesset elections looming closer while coronavirus infections are still high despite the widespread vaccination campaign.

The vote, which was delayed from yesterday, is expected to approve reopening restaurants under restrictive conditions that are yet to be finalized, as well as reopening some schools, cafes, event venues, attractions and hotels — with some of the activities available only to those with Green Passes signaling they are immunized against the virus.

The holdup has frustrated some business owners, who need to carry out lengthy preparations before reopening. Restaurateurs have expressed outrage about reported “shameful and disrespectful” changes to the proposed framework in a letter to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

According to Channel 12 news, the new framework will allow restaurants to serve up to 100 customers with Green Passes indoors, and 100 more outdoors (including those without a Green Pass).

California okays reopening ball parks, Disneyland

The US state of California has cleared a path for fans to hit the stands at opening day baseball games and return to Disneyland nearly a year after coronavirus restrictions shuttered major entertainment spots.

The state relaxes guidelines for reopening outdoor venues. Coronavirus infection rates, hospitalizations and deaths have plunged, and vaccination rates are rising. New rules allow concert stadiums and sports arenas to reopen with limited attendance on April 1.

This week, the seven-day average rate of positive results from tests has dropped to 2.2%, a record low.

Theme parks can reopen in counties that have fallen from the state’s most restrictive tier. In all cases, park capacities will be limited, and coronavirus safety rules such as mask-wearing requirements will apply.

More than 10 million COVID-19 vaccine doses have been given in the three months since the first vaccination in California, the Department of Public Health says. Just over 3 million people have been fully vaccinated, or about 10% of the population 16 and older.

Anti-Netanyahu protester attacked, lightly wounded in northern Israel

A protester against Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been attacked in the town of Yavne’el in northern Israel, police say, adding that she suffered mild injuries.

Police say they have begun an investigation, adding they believe the attackers are minors.

Labor chief says Gantz should quit, doesn’t rule out coalition with Sa’ar, Bennett

Merav Michaeli, the leader of the left-wing Labor party, tells Channel 12’s “Meet the Press” that she doesn’t rule out joining a coalition that includes the right-wing New Hope headed by Gideon Sa’ar or even Naftali Bennett’s hard-right Yamina, hoping to form a government without Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

She calls on Defense Minister Benny Gantz to quit the Knesset race with his centrist Blue and White, which has been polling dangerously close to the electoral threshold.

“This is a party that doesn’t represent anything and is still sitting under Netanyahu,” Michaeli says.

She mocks Gantz for comparing himself to former prime minister and Labor chief Yitzhak Rabin, saying: “Rabin wouldn’t have sat [in a government] under Netanyahu, who has three indictments against him.”

MK Merav Michaeli speaks in the Knesset on December 7, 2016. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Biden, Democrats prevail as US Senate okays $1.9 trillion virus relief bill

An exhausted US Senate has narrowly approved a $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill as US President Joe Biden and his Democratic allies notch a victory they call crucial for hoisting the country out of the pandemic and economic doldrums.

After laboring through the night on a mountain of amendments — nearly all from Republicans and rejected — bleary-eyed senators approve the sprawling package on a 50-49 party-line vote. That sets up final congressional approval by the House next week so lawmakers can send it to Biden for his signature.

“We tell the American people, help is on the way,” says Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat. Citing the country’s desire to resume normalcy, he adds: “Our job right now is to help our country get from this stormy present to that hopeful future.”

The huge package — its total spending is nearly one-tenth the size of the entire US economy — is Biden’s biggest early priority. It stands as his formula for addressing the deadly virus and a limping economy, twin crises that have afflicted the country for a year.

Ministers approve resuming studies for grades 7-10, other education institutions

The coronavirus cabinet approves the plan to return students in grades 7-10 to schools in areas with low-to-medium coronavirus infection levels, starting tomorrow.

Additionally, higher education institutions and religious seminaries will be opened to vaccinated or recovered people. Courses for adults will be allowed to operate with up to 20 people, rather than the current 10. Youth groups will be allowed to hold activities with up to 50 people outside.

Pope sent ‘warm greetings’ to Rivlin during flight over Israel to Iraq

Pope Francis relayed a message to President Reuven Rivlin during the pontiff’s flight yesterday over northern Israel on his way to Iraq, Rivlin’s office says.

The message was relayed by the pilot of the Alitalia plane.

“To His Excellency Reuven Rivlin, President of the State of Israel. Entering Israeli airspace on my Apostolic journey to Iraq, I send warm greetings to you and the people of the nation. Praying that almighty God will bless you all with His gift of harmony and peace. Franciscus Papa,” he said.

Rivlin’s office says that “air traffic control of the Israel Airports Authority in the north of the country thanked the pilot and promised to convey the message to the president, who was deeply moved by the kind words from the Pope, with whom he is in close and warm contact.”

Rivlin has tweeted his thanks.

Meretz leader Horowitz under fire for saying ICC probe of Israel is justified

Right-wing and centrist parties lambaste MK Nitzan Horowitz, the leader of the left-wing Meretz party, after Horowitz justified the decision by the International Criminal Court to probe possible war crimes by Israel and the Palestinians in the summer of 2014.

“I am in favor of cooperating with the court,” Horowitz tells Channel 13 news. “Unfortunately, I say this with great sadness, there was a place for this decision. I don’t want Israel to face these situations… but Israel needs to ask itself what it needs to do to prevent that.”

Prime Minister Netanyahu’s Likud reacts by saying Horowitz “is abandoning IDF soldiers who guard him and all of us” and adds the premier will fight the “anti-Semitic” decision.

Gideon Sa’ar’s New Hope party calls the remark “miserable” and urges Horowitz to apologize for “supporting an anti-Semitic decision.”

Yamina MK Ayelet Shaked says her party won’t sit with Meretz in the same coalition, citing the remark justifying the ICC’s “political and anti-Semitic activity persecuting IDF soldiers” and calling it an “embarrassment for the Knesset.”

Itamar Ben-Gvir, an extreme-right candidate for the Religious Zionism party, says he has urged Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit to open an investigation against Horowitz on suspicion of “treason.”

Blue and White leader Benny Gantz, speaking to Channel 13, also criticizes Horowitz for his “unacceptable” remark.

2.5 weeks before election, over 10% still don’t know whom they’ll vote for

More than one in 10 Israelis haven’t decided yet whom they will vote for in the upcoming Knesset elections, just 2.5 weeks before the March 23 vote, a survey has shown.

The poll, done by the Midgam institute and aired by Channel 12 news, shows 10.6% of the public is undecided on which party to support, compared with 8.5% in the equivalent time before the previous elections last year.

Among those who have decided who to support, just 51% say they are sure it won’t change, compared to 58% last year.

Ministers approve reopening eateries, more venues starting tomorrow

Ministers have approved — after several delays that have been widely criticized — the next phase of the reopening of the economy after the third coronavirus lockdown.

Event halls will be allowed to open with 50% capacity and up to 300 guests.

Restaurants will be able to serve up to 100 customers indoors with up to 75% capacity, only for those with Green Passes indicating they have been immunized against COVID-19. Outdoors, customers can be served without a Green Pass.

Israelis will be allowed to travel to the country from seven destinations, with a requirement to isolate with electronic monitoring.

There will no longer be a requirement to measure the temperature of customers at the entrance to public places and businesses.

Director of Qalansawe Municipality shot, seriously wounded

The director-general of the Qalansawe Municipality in central Israel, Ashraf Khatib, has been seriously wounded by gunshots sustained while he was in his car.

Magen David Adom paramedics take the 46-year-old Khatib to Beilinson hospital, sedated and on a respirator.

Police say they have opened an investigation and are probing the background of the incident.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri speaks with Qalansawe Mayor Abdel Basset al-Salama, calling the incident an “attempted assassination.”

He says the incident constitutes the “crossing of a red line” and vows to step up the fight against rampant criminal violence in the Arab Israeli community.

COVID-19 cases in Israel just short of 800,000; positivity rate keeps dropping

The Health Ministry says 3,716 new coronavirus cases were identified yesterday and 1,371 more infections were confirmed thus far today, bringing the total cases since the pandemic began to 799,727, just short of the 800,000 mark.

The rate of positive tests has continued its steep drop and now stands at 3.6% after passing 10% in January.

There are 40,565 active cases, including 710 in serious condition, of them 273 listed as critical and 234 on ventilators.

The death toll has grown to 5,856.

Almost 5 million — 4,925,155 — have received at least one dose of a vaccine, with 3,705,330 getting both shots.

Biden hails Senate passage of ‘desperately needed’ rescue plan

US President Joe Biden hails the Senate passage of a $1.9 trillion relief package for the pandemic-stricken American economy, following a marathon overnight voting session.

“I promised the American people help was on the way. Today, I can say we’ve taken one more giant step forward in delivering on that promise,” Biden says after the plan was approved along strict party lines.

“It obviously wasn’t easy. It wasn’t always pretty. But it was so desperately needed, urgently needed,” he says of the plan — which now heads back to the Democratic-led House of Representatives.

Sa’ar says Netanyahu being ‘extorted’ by ultra-Orthodox on Reform conversions

Gideon Sa’ar, head of the right-wing New Hope party, tells Channel 12 news that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is being “extorted” by the ultra-Orthodox parties, referring to the High Court decision to recognize Reform and Conservative conversions performed in Israel.

The Haredi parties have railed against the decision and said they’ll only join a coalition that will overturn the ruling via legislation, even though those parties had earlier rejected a compromise plan that would have also okayed conversions by some relatively liberal Orthodox rabbis, prompting the High Court to intervene after 15 years of proceedings.

“The Haredi parties have forced paralysis,” Sa’ar says. “They are trying to bend the hand of the political system. Netanyahu is afraid of making decisions, he’s gripped by fear.”

Asked if the premier is being extorted by Shas and United Torah Judaism, Sa’ar says: “Absolutely. Since the most important thing for Netanyahu is to hold on to the leadership, he must give [them] anything. That’s why he didn’t make a decision on conversions.”

Sa’ar backs a compromise that would hand some recognition to “streams in the United States” and “give every community what it deserves.”

Half of serious COVID cases are Arab Israelis; 95% aren’t immunized

Half of the country’s 710 serious COVID-19 patients are from the Arab Israeli community, where the vaccination rates are the lowest, according to Channel 12 news.

According to the data, 95% of the patients in serious condition haven’t been immunized against the disease.

Some 25% of the patients are under the age of 50.

Israel’s chief rabbi: If a Reform convert weds a Jew, the marriage is invalid

Israel’s Sephardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef has chastised the Reform movement following the High Court’s ruling this week recognizing Reform and Conservative conversions to Judaism performed in Israel for the purpose of granting them citizenship.

“What is Reform conversion? It isn’t Jewish,” Yosef says in footage aired by Hebrew media. “If a Reform convert comes before me after marrying a Jewish woman, I’ll send her away without a divorce. She doesn’t need a divorce, the marriage is invalid. They have nothing, no mitzvahs and nothing else.”

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