The Times of Israel liveblogged Monday’s events as they occurred.

Vatican to return three Parthenon marble fragments to Greece

The marble head of a young man, a tiny fragment from the 2,500-year-old sculptured decoration of the Parthenon Temple on the ancient Acropolis, is displayed during a presentation to the press at the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, Nov. 5, 2008. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)
The marble head of a young man, a tiny fragment from the 2,500-year-old sculptured decoration of the Parthenon Temple on the ancient Acropolis, is displayed during a presentation to the press at the new Acropolis Museum in Athens, Nov. 5, 2008. (AP Photo/Thanassis Stavrakis, File)

The Vatican and Greece are finalizing a deal for the return of three sculpture fragments from the Parthenon that have been in the collection of the Vatican Museums for two centuries, the latest case of a Western museum bowing to demands for restitution.

The Vatican has termed the return an ecumenical “donation” to the Orthodox Christian archbishop of Athens and all Greece, not necessarily a state-to-state transfer. But it nevertheless puts pressure on the British Museum to conclude a deal with Greece over the fate of its much bigger collection of Parthenon sculptures.

The fragments are expected to arrive in Athens later this month, with a March 24 ceremony planned to receive them.

The British Museum has refused decades of appeals from Greece to return its much larger collection of Parthenon sculptures, which have been a centerpiece of the museum since 1816.

IDF to open probe after troops seen dancing with settlers instead of securing Huwara

The Israel Defense Forces is expected to probe an incident of soldiers seen dancing with settlers in the West Bank town of Huwara, although it does not immediately issue a statement on the matter.

The video shows settlers celebrating the Purim holiday in Huwara, with some soldiers dancing with them instead of being on guard duty.

Clashes are also reported in the town between settlers and Palestinians, with a number of locals wounded.

Clashes break out between settlers and Palestinians in Huwara

Clashes are reported between Israeli settlers and Palestinians in the West Bank town of Huwara.

According to the Palestinian Red Crescent, five Palestinians are hurt by stones hurled by settlers and pepper spray.

Israeli medics say that at least three Israeli-owned cars were hit by stones while driving through the town, but none of the motorists is hurt.

The Israel Defense Forces does not immediately comment on the incidents.

‘You can go to hell,’ Likud minister tells IDF reservists protesting judicial overhaul

Likud MK Shlomo Karhi speaks during a rally against the government in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90/ File)
Likud MK Shlomo Karhi speaks during a rally against the government in Tel Aviv, December 7, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/ Flash90/ File)

In a Purim holiday message to his social media followers, Likud Communications Minister Shlomo Karhi uses the opportunity to lambast the growing number of prominent IDF reservists who have threatened not to report for duty if the government continues to advance its plan to radically overhaul the judiciary.

“And Mordechai would not kneel nor bow down” Karhi writes, quoting a text from the Purim story. “There are times when one must stand firm against the hegemony.”

“To those refusing to serve, we say to them what Mordechai told Esther: ‘Profit and salvation will arise for the Jews from another place, and your father’s house will be destroyed.'”

“The people of Israel will manage without you and you can go to hell,” Karhi writes.

“The [judicial] reform movement will move forward. It was for this movement that we came to power.”

El Al losing money on face-saving Netanyahu trip to Rome — report

El Al will fly Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his entourage to Italy later this week for the rock-bottom price of $22,000, Channel 12 news reports, a fraction of what is normally charged for chartering such a flight.

The channel reports that the airline will lose money on the flight to Italy; another airline that bid on the same tender proposed a budget of over $100,000.

El Al had insisted that it would win the contract to fly Netanyahu after the premier’s office opened bidding to other airlines, when the flagship carrier was unable to find pilots to fly the Boeing 777 that Netanyahu preferred. Many had suspected the reason to be political and some close to the prime minister called for the airline to be boycotted, which led it to underbid for the contract in order to keep one of its best clients happy.

In January, Netanyahu flew to France on a 777, though sources at the time told the Haaretz daily that the plane was unnecessarily large for such a trip and cost three times more than the 737 that would have been more appropriate.

Netanyahu has faced years of questions over his seeming preference for costly creature comforts while flying, such as having a special bed installed for a short trip to the UK several years ago. An airplane he commissioned for use by the state’s leaders, also a 777, was mothballed by the previous administration as a waste of money, but has since been revived by Netanyahu.

Turkish opposition agrees on candidate to challenge Erdogan

A six-party alliance in Turkey has nominated main opposition party leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu as its common candidate to challenge President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in elections in May, ending months of uncertainty and bickering that had frustrated their supporters.

The alliance tapped the leader of the pro-secular, center-left Republican People’s Party, or CHP, hours after a key member of the grouping — who had rejected Kilicdaroglu’s candidacy — agreed to a compromise solution and returned to the coalition.

Turkey is headed toward pivotal presidential and general elections on May 14 that could shift the country toward a more democratic course or extend Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian rule into a third decade.

The elections are Erdogan’s toughest during his 20-year rule and come amid economic turmoil and criticism of the government’s response to a devastating earthquake last month.

Netanyahu ready to back off overhaul but stymied by Levin — report

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (seated) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (seated) with Justice Minister Yariv Levin in the Knesset in Jerusalem, on February 22, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

A report by Channel 12 political analysts claims that turmoil is growing within the governing coalition against plans to radically reshape the judiciary, with even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu backing a compromise, but cowed by less flexible partners.

Netanyahu is open to halting the process and compromising, but is worried about the reaction of Justice Minister Yariv Levin, who has spearheaded the overhaul, the channel reports citing unnamed Likud party sources.

The intensity of protests and particularly a wave of reserves refusing to keep serving have set the premier on edge, and he now hopes that Levin and Religious Zionism MK Simcha Rothman can be reined in with help from President Isaac Herzog, who has pushed for the coalition and opposition to hold talks on softening the legislation, Channel 12 says.

The channel reports that Herzog has put together a draft framework of a compromise plan by consulting with academics representing both opposition and coalition viewpoints, in the hopes politicians will eventually come to the table and agree to plug their compromises into the Knesset bills, instead of the coalition’s proposals.

Among other outstanding issues is the size and makeup of the panel that nominates judges, which the coalition has sought to impose political control over. The channel reports that it seems clear the coalition will not be able to pass a law giving it an automatic majority on such decisions.

Netanyahu to fly to Rome on 737 after El Al issues finding willing pilot

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his wife Sara will fly to Rome on a Boeing 737 instead of the 777 they preferred, after carrier El Al was unable to find a suitable pilot for the state trip.

The premier is slated to fly to Italy for high-level meetings on Thursday, one of Netanyahu’s first trips abroad since retaking the premiership. The Prime Minister’s Office had arranged a Boeing 777 wide-body airliner to ferry the prime minister and his coterie, but no El Al pilot certified to fly the plane was able to fly the route.

Hebrew news sites report that after the PMO issued a new tender for the flight, now on a narrower 737, El Al won the commission again and this time has a pilot and crew.

On Sunday night, an El Al spokesperson claimed that a crew was been found, as the PMO announced it would re-open the tender to other carriers, a blow to El Al, which has flown Israeli leaders for decades.

The El Al spokesperson denied that the issue finding pilots was political in nature, instead blaming it on the 777 fleet’s crew not fully returning to service after being grounded during the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to the Calcalist business daily, moving to the smaller 737 will save Israeli taxpayers hundreds of thousands of shekels.

Twitter goes on fritz, again; Musk cutbacks fingered

Twitter is experiencing a bevy of glitches as links stop working, some users are unable to log in, and images are not loading for others.

The company, which has experienced an uptick, says, “Some parts of Twitter may not be working as expected right now. We made an internal change that had some unintended consequences. We’re working on this now and will share an update when it’s fixed.”

Twitter engineers and experts have been warning that the platform is at an increased risk of fraying since Musk fired most of the people who worked on keeping it running. Just last month, a bug left users unable to send tweets.

In November, engineers who left Twitter said they expect considerable unpleasantness for Twitter’s more than 230 million users, now that well over two-thirds of the San Francisco-based company’s pre-Musk core services engineers are apparently gone.

While they do not anticipate near-term collapse, the engineers said Twitter could get very rough at the edges — especially if Musk makes major changes without much off-platform testing.

Don’t call us an existential threat, protesting reserves troops growl at PM

Organizers behind a rash of reserves soldiers opposed to the judicial overhaul saying they will not heed military orders snap back at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, after he says the protest movement threatens the state’s existence.

“The prime minister stands next to a Kahanist criminal who calls for villages to be wiped out and preaches to us against insubordination and in favor of national unity,” the group says in a statement, the Ynet news site reports.

“Don’t lie to us about cohesion when you are leading a violent dictatorial coup, don’t call us insubordinate, and don’t call us an existential threat,” the statement adds. “We will not volunteer to serve under a dictatorship.”

Ben Gvir: You can protest Thursday, but we won’t tolerate ‘anarchy’

National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir says at a press conference alongside Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that authorities will not block anti-government protests planned for Thursday, but won’t allow “anarchy or incitement.”

“We will fight for your right to protest, your right to yell, but we won’t tolerate incitement, sedition or harm to the state of Israel,” he says.

Ben Gvir, whose ministry post gives him control over the police, has consistently described protesters as spreading anarchy, and is seen as behind officers stepping up the use of force against protesters who have held weeks of major demonstrations against plans to curtail judicial powers.

Gallant, Halevi to meet with reservists Tuesday

Defense Minister Yoav Gallant will hold a meeting tomorrow with a number of reservists from various units, his office says.

The meeting, to be held at the defense minister’s office military’s headquarters in Tel Aviv, comes at a time of calls by reserve units to refuse to serve in protest of the government’s judicial overhaul.

IDF chief Herzi Halevi will also join in the meeting, according to Gallant’s office.

Netanyahu: Soldiers refusing service threatening our existence

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks out against the phenomenon of reserves soldiers threatening to refuse service or training, saying members of Israel’s defense forces have never before abandoned the state.

“There’s no room for refusals,” he says in a press conference from a Border Police base in the West Bank settlement of Beit Horon, standing alongside National Security Minister Itamar Ben Gvir and Knesset Speaker Amir Ohana. “When you are on the battlefield and look right or left, you don’t do that to check the political viewpoints of your neighbors.”

“This is the first and most important foundation of our existence in our land,” he says, noting all the times soldiers did not refuse service. “The refusals threaten the foundation of our existence.”

“In society there is room for protest, room for opposing viewpoints, but no room for refusals,” he adds.


Iran to avoid censure by UN atomic watchdog after Grossi meet

Iran will evade fresh censure by the UN nuclear watchdog after making “concrete” commitments over the weekend to be transparent following the discovery of particles enriched to near weapons-grade, diplomats tell AFP.

The development comes after International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) head Rafael Grossi received assurances from Iran that surveillance cameras at several nuclear sites would be reconnected and the pace of inspections increased.

On Saturday, Grossi returned from a two-day visit to Tehran, which sought greater cooperation over its atomic activities, following the discovery of uranium particles enriched to near weapons-grade level.

Three Western diplomats tell AFP on the first day of the Board of Governors meeting of the Vienna-based IAEA that no new resolution criticizing Iran over its nuclear program was planned.

“But it remains to be seen whether anything agreed in Tehran results in real progress,” a Western diplomat cautions.

Grossi dismisses the perception that he had merely obtained empty promises from Iran over the weekend.

These are “not promises, we do have certain agreements which are concrete,” he tells reporters in Vienna.

“We seem to be moving into more firm ground,” he adds.

International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Director General Rafael Grossi, addresses a news conference during an IAEA Board of Governors meeting in Vienna, Austria, Monday, Feb. 6, 2023. (AP/Heinz-Peter Bader)

Grossi hails “a marked improvement” in his discussions with the Iranian government last week.

He said the measures he agreed with Iran should be in place “very soon” following a technical meeting due to travel to Tehran.

In January, the IAEA’s Grossi said Iran had “amassed enough nuclear material for several nuclear weapons.”

A confidential IAEA report seen by AFP detailed that uranium particles enriched up to 83.7 percent — just under the 90 percent needed to produce an atomic bomb — had been detected.

Smotrich: Gantz and Lapid dissing Herzog by refusing overhaul talks

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich says opposition leaders are slighting President Isaac Herzog by refusing to accede to his plea for talks on the judicial overhaul moving through the Knesset.

“[Yair] Lapid and [Benny] Gantz are humiliating the president and proving again that they have no interest in dialogue or compromise,” Smotrich tweets.

Lapid and Gantz earlier responded to Herzog’s call for compromise talks by reiterating their position that negotiations can only take place if the legislative process is frozen. The coalition has demanded talks without preconditions.

Smotrich alleges that protests against the judicial overhaul, which observers say will fundamentally harm protections for democratic norms, are “totally political and designed to create chaos and harm the country to bring down the right-wing government.”


Nasrallah: Death penalty law will just motivate attackers

Hezbollah supporters hold up portraits of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah as he speaks via a video link during a ceremony marking Prophet Muhammad's birthday, in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022.  (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)
Hezbollah supporters hold up portraits of Hezbollah leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah as he speaks via a video link during a ceremony marking Prophet Muhammad's birthday, in the southern Beirut suburb of Dahiyeh, Lebanon, Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Bilal Hussein)

Hezbollah terror group leader Hassan Nasrallah says Israel is shooting itself in the foot and authoring its own demise by pursuing a law that will impose a death penalty for certain terror offenses.

“Any time your enemy decides to pass a law to execute prisoners, it means he is a fool,” Nasrallah says in an address to his followers that mostly focuses on internal Lebanese politics.

He claims that the law will increase the motivation of Palestinians to carry out attacks.

“Everything happening indicates the end of this entity,” he says, attempting to dunk on civil strife enveloping Israel.

He also praises Lebanese citizens who he says have faced off against Israeli troops along the Blue Line, the unofficial border between the countries.

Overhaul divisions harming ability to deal with Iran, former top security wonk says

A former top policy official in the Defense Ministry says the crisis surrounding the government’s efforts to overhaul the military is the most serious he has ever seen.

“Based on my experience of the last four decades that I used to serve the country, this is the most profound, deep, internal crisis that I remember here,” says Zohar Palti, a former head of the Defense Ministry’s military policy bureau.

He makes the comments to a policy forum held by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, where he is a fellow.

Asked whether the clamor will affect Israel’s security, Palti gives an emphatic “definitely yes.”

Palti notes that some in the government lack military experience and don’t understand the implications of what they are doing, in apparent reference to ministers Itamar Ben Gvir, who did not serve, and Bezalel Smotrich, who served only a shortened stint.

But he also blames a lack of dialogue and societal rifts for endangering the country.

“It seems to me that if somebody attacks Israel right now, we can overcome it,” he says, but adds that a large offensive, a “big one, huge one regarding an existential threat, right now in this position to go out like that, you need unity for that.”

He notes that while all this is happening, Iranian nuclear enrichment has ramped up to nearly weapons-grade levels.

“It’s at the worst point that we have ever been, and [it’s] coming, from an internal point of view, in the worst situation,” he warns.

If you want to do something against Iran, he adds, “you need to unify.”

Modeling agent accused of assaulting women freed to house arrest

Shai Avital, a modeling agent arrested in The Netherlands and extradited to Israel last year to face sexual assault accusations has been released to house arrest.

Avital will wear an electronic monitor and be confined to his Ashkelon home, a judge rules, rejecting a police request to keep him in custody. He is also ordered to post NIS 1.35 million ($380,000) bail.

Avital, who denies any wrongdoing, left Israel in 2021, shortly before media reports about a slew of accusations began to surface against him. After refusing to show up for court for over a year, he was captured in Amsterdam last year and brought to Israel after dropping his objections to extradition.

He faces charges stemming from complaints from two women who say he forced himself onto them while running the Elite Modeling Agency, including one who was a minor at the time.

No charges have been filed related to complaints from 24 other women who claim Avital harassed or assaulted them.

Detention extended for suspects accused of sexually assaulting Eilat hotel guests

A judge has ordered two men suspected of sexually assaulting two women in their Eilat hotel room held behind bars for at least three more days as police investigate the allegations.

The two are accused of entering a hotel room in the resort city where the two women had been sleeping and trying to engage them sexually. They were arrested Sunday after a police complaint was filed over the weekend.

“I felt something touching me while I slept, trying to undress me,” one of the complainants tells Kan. “I opened my eyes and saw my friend on the bed not responding while a man was on top of her and she was half naked. Touching her, kissing her. I turned my head and saw a strange man behind me and started to scream.”

According to Channel 13 news, it is thought that the suspects had followed the two victims on Instagram. Investigators are still trying to determine how the suspects gained access to the room.

One of the suspects told police that he was dragged along by his friend, who misled him by telling him that he knew the victims. Earlier reports indicated that the two claimed they were there consensually.

A sister of one of the victims, who was supposed to join the pair on the trip, expressed anger at the hotel for not keeping its guests safer.

“They break into your most private place, a hotel that you know is supposed to safeguard your privacy. How can something like this happen,” she tells Channel 13 news.

Sphinx-like statue thought to be of Roman emperor uncovered in southern Egypt

In this undated photo distributed Monday, March 6, 2023, by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, a sphinx statue believed to be made in the likeness of a Roman emperor is uncovered from an archaeological site in Qena, Egypt. (Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities via AP)
In this undated photo distributed Monday, March 6, 2023, by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, a sphinx statue believed to be made in the likeness of a Roman emperor is uncovered from an archaeological site in Qena, Egypt. (Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities via AP)

Archaeologists unearthed a Sphinx-like statue and the remains of a shrine in an ancient temple in southern Egypt, antiquities authorities say.

The artifacts were found in the temple of Dendera in Qena Province, 280 miles (450 kilometers) south of the capital of Cairo, the Antiquities Ministry says in a statement.

Archaeologists believe the statue’s smiling features may belong to the Roman emperor Claudius, who extended Rome’s rule into North Africa between 41 and 54 CE, the ministry says.

Archaeologists will conduct more studies on the markings on the stone slab, which could reveal more information to statue’s identity and the area. The statue is much smaller than the towering, well-known Sphinx in the Pyramids of Giza complex, which is 66 feet (20 meters) high.

In this undated photo distributed Monday, March 6, 2023, by the Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities, a sphinx statue believed to be made in the likeness of a Roman emperor is uncovered from an archaeological site in Qena, Egypt. (Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities via AP)

The archaeologists also found a Roman-era stone slab with demotic and hieroglyphic inscriptions.

The limestone shrine includes a two-layer platform and a mud-brick basin from the Byzantine era, the ministry says.

Such discoveries are usually touted by the Egyptian government in hopes of attracting more tourists, a significant source of foreign currency for the cash-strapped North African country.

Judge said to reduce administrative detention for teen held over Huwara rampage

A minor sent into administrative detention for four months has had his jail term halved by a court, a legal aid group representing the suspected Jewish extremist says.

The minor, 17, was one of two suspects ordered held behind bars last week after being arrested following a deadly settler rampage through the Palestinian town of Huwara.

In a hearing, Lod District Court Judge Ruth Lorch cuts the period the teen can be held from four months to two months, according to the Honenu legal rights group, which is known for providing legal services to Israelis accused of crimes against Palestinians.

The decision comes a day after Lorch ordered administrative detention for 29-year-old David Chai Chasdai to be slashed from four months to three.

A man walks past destroyed cars at a scrapyard in the town of Huwara near Nablus in the West Bank on February 27, 2023, after they were torched overnight. (JAAFAR ASHTIYEH / AFP)

Administrative detention is a controversial practice whereby individuals can be held without charge practically indefinitely, and are not granted access to the evidence against them.

While it is rarely used against Jewish suspects, nearly 1,000 Palestinians are currently held in custody under the practice.

The two were among a handful of settlers arrested last week over the violence in Huwara, where vigilante settlers attacked Palestinians, torching cars and homes and leaving one man dead in unclear circumstances. The riot came hours after two Israeli brothers were gunned down while passing through the West Bank town.

The other suspects have all been freed, some to house arrest.

A senior security official speaking to Channel 12 news last week claimed the pair had been “planning and had carried out operations against IDF forces. [They] are extremely dangerous.”

Shin Bet says it busted Turkey-based Hamas ring planning attacks

The Shin Bet security agency says four Palestinian students from the West Bank have been detained over plans to carry out attacks on behalf of the Hamas terror group.

According to the agency, Ahmed Mahmoud Abu Salah, 24, was arrested in recent weeks after returning from studying abroad.

The Shin Bet says that while he was in Turkey, Abu Salah was recruited by Hamas, and carried out military training in Turkey and Syria.

The training included “weapons training and studying the manufacturing of explosives, in order to advance terror attacks against the State of Israel,” the agency says.

Before returning to the West Bank, Abu Salah allegedly met with senior Hamas officials in Turkey, who instructed him to recruit others for a local cell to carry out terror attacks.

The interrogation of Abu Salah led to the arrest of three others, the Shin Bet says.
Iyas Mahmoud Abu Salah, 20, Salah Mahmoud Abu Salah, 23, and Hassin Fauz Aqra, 25, all planned to carry out attacks, including a bombing attack, according to the Shin Bet.

A Shin Bet handout photo showing mugshots of, from left, Hassin Fauz Aqra, Ahmed Abu Salah, Iyas Mahmoud Abu Salah and Salah Mahmoud Abu Salah.

The Shin Bet says the four were regularly in contact with a relative who lives in Turkey, who is the son of a senior Hamas official there.

Turkey has long had close ties with the Gaza Strip-based Hamas, and hosts terror group officials and units in the country.

IDF confirms Halevi planning meetings to deal with overhaul protests among troops

An Israel Defense Forces spokesperson confirms that military chief Herzi Halevi will meet with troops over concerns that reserves soldiers protesting against the government’s judicial overhaul will refuse to show up for service or training.

Halevi will meet Tuesday with reserves pilots and air force commanders, and on Wednesday with officers from an array of other reserves units, the spokesperson says, confirming an earlier report from Channel 12 news.

Halevi has warned that protests against the overhaul sparking refusals to serve or train could harm the military’s operational capabilities.

A military official, speaking on condition of anonymity, confirms that the top general will not hold a sit-down with the 37 pilots of a single IAF jet squadron who announced that they would not show up to one of their planned training sessions later this week in protest of the overhaul.

Iran says it wants to move ahead with Belgium prisoner swap

Iran expresses its readiness for a long-awaited prisoner swap with Belgium, days after the European country’s Constitutional Court gave the green light for such a move.

Following the decision “by the Belgian Constitutional Court, we can now say that the way to implement the agreement has been opened, and the Islamic Republic of Iran certainly welcomes this change,” foreign ministry spokesman Nasser Kanani tells reporters in Tehran.

The move would see Belgian aid worker Olivier Vandecasteele — sentenced in Iran to 40 years in jail for several charges including spying — swapped for Iranian official Assadollah Assadi who was convicted in Belgium for masterminding a plot to blow up a 2018 opposition event outside Paris.

Under a treaty Belgium and Iran signed in 2022, Vandecasteele would have been eligible to be swapped for Assadi but in December Belgium’s constitutional court suspended the implementation of the treaty. That suspension was lifted Friday.

“We have stated that he (Assadi) must be released unconditionally, compensation must be paid, and a commitment should be given not to repeat such actions,” Kanani says, adding that “with the recent change, we hope to see an opening regarding the diplomat’s case.”

Opposition brass puts kibosh on overhaul talks without legislative freeze

File: Then prime minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog (left) at a memorial service marking 27 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
File: Then prime minister Yair Lapid and President Isaac Herzog (left) at a memorial service marking 27 years since the assassination of prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, at Mount Herzl cemetery in Jerusalem on November 6, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Formally responding to President Isaac Herzog’s announcement that a framework agreement on judicial reform is “closer than ever,” opposition party leaders Yair Lapid and Benny Gantz reaffirm in a joint statement their stance that the coalition must first halt its legislative march before dialogue can take place.

“We greatly respect and appreciate the efforts of the president to engage in dialogue and reach broad agreements,” Yesh Atid’s Lapid and National Unity’s Gantz write. “But in order to have honest and effective dialogue that will lead to preserving democracy and national unity, [Prime Minister Benjamin] Netanyahu must announce a complete, comprehensive, and actual halt to the legislative process.”

They add that previous calls to pause legislating and engage in talks “were trampled upon and met with refusal.”

“All attempts at shortcuts are a violation of real communication,” the two conclude.

Israeli tech sleuths uncover large pro-Trump bot network

Over the past 11 months, someone created thousands of fake, automated Twitter accounts — perhaps hundreds of thousands of them — to offer a stream of praise for Donald Trump, an Israeli tech firm has found.

The new pro-Trump network is actually three different networks of Twitter accounts, all created in huge batches in April, October and November 2022. In all, researchers believe hundreds of thousands of accounts could be involved.

The sprawling bot network was uncovered by researchers at Cyabra, an Israeli tech firm. While the identify of those behind the network of fake accounts is unknown, Cyabra’s analysts determined that it was likely created within the US.

Besides posting adoring words about the former president, the fake accounts ridiculed Trump’s critics from both parties and attacked Nikki Haley, the former South Carolina governor and UN ambassador who is challenging her onetime boss for the 2024 Republican presidential nomination.

When it came to Ron DeSantis, the bots aggressively suggested that the Florida governor couldn’t beat Trump, but would be a great running mate.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis shakes hands with people after speaking at an annual leadership meeting of the Republican Jewish Coalition, November 19, 2022, in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/John Locher)

“One account will say, ‘Biden is trying to take our guns; Trump was the best,’ and another will say, ‘Jan. 6 was a lie and Trump was innocent,'” says Jules Gross, the Cyabra engineer who first discovered the network. “Those voices are not people. For the sake of democracy I want people to know this is happening.”

The triple network was discovered after Gross analyzed Tweets about different national political figures and noticed that many of the accounts posting the content were created on the same day. Most of the accounts remain active, though they have relatively modest numbers of followers.

The network helped popularize a call for DeSantis to join Trump as his vice presidential running mate — an outcome that would serve Trump well and allow him to avoid a potentially bitter matchup if DeSantis enters the race.

The same network of accounts shared overwhelmingly positive content about Trump and contributed to an overall false picture of his support online, researchers found.

“Our understanding of what is mainstream Republican sentiment for 2024 is being manipulated by the prevalence of bots online,” the Cyabra researchers concluded.

A message left with a spokesman for Trump’s campaign was not immediately returned.

IDF chief to meet with pilots, troops to stanch flow of refusals

IDF chief Herzi Halevi is reportedly set to meet with military pilots and other soldiers over threats to skip out on training or service in protest of the government’s push to make wide-ranging changes to judicial authority.

Halevi is planning to sit down with air force pilots and representatives from all IAF squadrons, as well as with a group of commanders from the military’s ground forces, Channel 12 news reports.

The army chief is not slated to meet with the 37 pilots from a single 40-man squadron who announced Sunday that they would refuse to show up for training.

IDF Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi at a ceremony in the Kirya base in Tel Aviv, January 16, 2023. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

The military does not respond to a request to comment on the report.

The group is the latest, and highest-profile, in a growing list of IDF units, including some of the most elite, seeing members threaten to not show up amid widescale opposition to the government’s plans that critics say will undermine democracy and harm the economy and security.

Halevi will tell the soldiers that they should not refuse to serve and should not bring political disputes into the military, appealing to their sense of duty to always respond when needed, the channel reports.

Likud MK urges army to discharge protesting pilot reservists

A Likud MK says pilots who refused to show up for reserves training should be discharged as a warning to other soldiers threatening to sit out service to protest the government’s planned overhaul of the judiciary.

“We can’t be held hostage by a group exploiting the power it has to force policies on the government,” Ariel Kellner tells Army Radio. “If they have demands, discharge them. [Otherwise] tomorrow we’ll get infantry soldiers saying ‘we won’t serve.'”

On Sunday, nearly all reservist members of an IAF jet squadron announced that they would not show up to one of their planned training sessions later this week in protest of the overhaul, sparking warnings from both Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Herzi Halevi and Defense Minister Yoav Gallant that such protests could harm the military’s operational capabilities.

Maj. Gen. (Res.) Gershon Hacohen, a former senior commander who has publicly identified with the right wing, tells Kan that soldiers should keep service and politics separate.

“Let’s keep the army out of this. Something is happening here that has crossed red lines. Someone who won’t stand with the army in a tough spot isn’t in the right place,” he says.

Three charged with stealing millions of shekels by impersonating bank employees

Three Israelis have been arrested on suspicion of scamming hundreds of Israelis out of millions of shekels by posing as bank officials.

Moshe Dekula, 25, Kobi Peretz, 23, and Yarin Yamin, 21, from Yavne and Holon, are accused of sending their victims messages via text or online, including through dummy websites meant to emulate bank sites, according to Hebrew-language media reports.

Among the charges is that the three used hacked bank data to fraudulently withdraw cash from victims’ accounts using couriers at ATM terminals, Channel 12 news reports.

The trio are accused of stealing over $2 million, according to Ynet.

The arrests cap off a two-month undercover investigation.

Saudis send $5 billion to Ankara to shore up Turkish lira

Saudi Arabia says it deposited $5 billion into the Turkish central bank, likely helping Ankara firm up its long-weakening currency, the lira, after last month’s massive earthquake that struck southeast Turkey and northern Syria.

The deposit provides a capstone for just how far relations have improved between the kingdom and Turkey after years of tensions between the nations, particularly after the 2018 killing and dismemberment of Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi Consulate in Istanbul. Turkey also backed Qatar in a years-long boycott by the kingdom, Bahrain, Egypt and the United Arab Emirates.

The deposit will also likely help boost Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan ahead of upcoming elections this year.

The kingdom makes the announcement via a statement on the state-run Saudi Press Agency, describing it as “a testament to the close cooperation and historical ties that exist between the kingdom of Saudi Arabia and the Republic of Turkey and its brotherly people.” It said the money came from the Saudi Fund for Development.

The statement offers no details on how the cash would be used or if the kingdom could call for the sum to be returned. However, such deposits can help firm up exchange rates for a nation’s currency against other currencies internationally.

Former top general warns about protests rippling through reserves

A former head of Israel’s military intelligence is warning that the government should not lose sight of complicated security issues while pursuing its judicial overhaul, as a wave of protests sweeps through the military’s reserve corps, leading to threats to not serve.

“Nobody is refusing yet, but this is a flashing warning light before danger,” Aharon Zeevi Farkash tells the Ynet news site. “The legislative push is dangerous. If they are mistaken — it’s a disaster. … I’m in touch with other senior commanders. We are trying to calm things down.”

Farkash warns, “We’re in a complicated month before an explosion, and we need to speak about that first,” referring to various “dramatic developments” with the Palestinians and Iran, as well as domestic societal divisions.

“I think those responsible for managing the country need to take a look at this from the outside,” he says.

Rebuffing Herzog, Gantz says overhaul talks only possible if bills frozen

National Unity party leader Benny Gantz says talks on a compromise judicial overhaul framework will only take place once the legislative process is put on the backburner, responding to President Isaac Herzog’s announcement that a deal is possible if the sides can get together.

“Things depend on one simple thing – stopping the legislative process and reaching a dialogue,” he says at a Knesset event, in response to Herzog’s statement.

“When it happens, everything will happen, and if it doesn’t, nothing will happen,” adds Gantz, considered the opposition’s most bullish voice on reaching compromise.

Herzog says sides closer than ever to judicial compromise

President Isaac Herzog says politicians have made significant progress toward a compromise framework for judicial reform, potentially creating a breakthrough on an issue that has polarized Israeli society over the past two months.

“We are closer than ever to the possibility of an agreed-upon framework,” Herzog says during an “emergency meeting” his office hosted to seek the support of nearly 100 Israeli mayors and local authority leaders in pushing for political compromise.

“There are behind-the-scenes agreements on most things. They make sense and they are reasonable,” he adds, while cautioning that failure to adjust the reform threatens Israeli democracy.

Providing only superficial details of the developing framework, Herzog says it would provide solutions “for both sides” of the political debate.

Among the principles Herzog said that plan included are: diversity of judiciary powers; creating “constitutional foundations,” important because Israel lacks a formal constitution; preserving the independence of the courts; protecting human rights; and maintaining Israel as “a Jewish and democratic state, based on the principles of the Declaration of Independence.”

“The framework I am working to put together… enshrines a healthy balance between authorities, preserves democracy and human rights at all costs,” he says.

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