Lebanese PM: Hezbollah must pledge ‘neutrality’ in regional conflicts
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Lebanese PM: Hezbollah must pledge ‘neutrality’ in regional conflicts

Saad Hariri says he could withdraw resignation if terror group accepts condition, slams Iran influence; 7.2-magnitude quake rocks northern Iraq; tremor felt in central Israel

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

  • Lebanese watch an interview with Lebanon's resigned prime minister Saad Hariri at a coffee shop in Beirut on November 12, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO)
    Lebanese watch an interview with Lebanon's resigned prime minister Saad Hariri at a coffee shop in Beirut on November 12, 2017.(AFP PHOTO / ANWAR AMRO)
  • Illustrative: Iraqi tanks deploy in the village of Bashir, south of Kirkuk, Iraq, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. Kurdish forces have withdrawn from the edges of a disputed region in northern Iraq, a commander said Friday, amid tensions with Iraq's central government over the administration of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. (AP Photo/Emad Matti)
    Illustrative: Iraqi tanks deploy in the village of Bashir, south of Kirkuk, Iraq, Friday, Oct. 13, 2017. Kurdish forces have withdrawn from the edges of a disputed region in northern Iraq, a commander said Friday, amid tensions with Iraq's central government over the administration of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. (AP Photo/Emad Matti)
  • A Lebanese woman holds a placard supporting the outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to return from Saudi Arabia during the Beirut Marathon, in Beirut, Lebanon, November 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
    A Lebanese woman holds a placard supporting the outgoing Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri to return from Saudi Arabia during the Beirut Marathon, in Beirut, Lebanon, November 12, 2017. (AP Photo/Hassan Ammar)
  • A photo composite showing Nasser, right, and Akram Badawi, who are believed to have carried out a number of shooting attacks against Israelis since November. (Shin Bet)
    A photo composite showing Nasser, right, and Akram Badawi, who are believed to have carried out a number of shooting attacks against Israelis since November. (Shin Bet)
  • Illustrative: Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group attend the funeral of fellow terrorists killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israel in central Gaza, on October 31, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
    Illustrative: Members of the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group attend the funeral of fellow terrorists killed in an Israeli operation to blow up a tunnel stretching from the Gaza Strip into Israel in central Gaza, on October 31, 2017. (AFP/Thomas Coex)
  • Former interim communications minister Tzachi Hanegbi speaks at a stamp issuance for Etzel fighters at the Prime Minister Office in Jerusalem on May 17, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
    Former interim communications minister Tzachi Hanegbi speaks at a stamp issuance for Etzel fighters at the Prime Minister Office in Jerusalem on May 17, 2017. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)
  • Jewish National Fund workers protest  outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem against legislation requiring JNF to transfer large sums of its revenues to the government, on October 12, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
    Jewish National Fund workers protest outside the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem against legislation requiring JNF to transfer large sums of its revenues to the government, on October 12, 2017. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
  • National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)
    National Security Adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat. (Amos Ben Gerschom/GPO)

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

Ministers okay appointment of new national security adviser

The cabinet approves the appointment of Meir Ben-Shabbat as the new national security adviser, a position vacant since 2015.

Ben-Shabbat, a former senior official in the Shin Bet security service, assumed the position in August. 

At the weekly cabinet meeting, Netanyahu hails Ben-Shabbat for his “sharpness of mind, his rich experience, the clarity in which he presents matters… he doesn’t whitewash, he states his opinion in the clearest manner, bluntly.”

Yossi Cohen, who currently leads the Mossad intelligence agency, served as national security adviser from 2013 to 2015. When he left, the position was left empty.

Yaakov Nagel served as acting national security adviser from 2015 until March of this year, leaving the position for personal reasons. He was replaced on an interim basis by Eitan Ben-David.

At Beirut marathon, Lebanese call for PM to return

Runners taking part in Lebanon’s annual marathon are urging Prime Minister Saad Hariri to return home after he resigned under mysterious circumstances during a visit to Saudi Arabia.

Spectators along the 26.2 mile (42.2 kilometer) course held signs reading “Running for you” and “Waiting for you,” addressed to the prime minister, who participated in past races.

Lebanese President Michel Aoun had encouraged runners to call on Hariri to return.

Hariri, a close Saudi ally, unexpectedly announced his resignation a week ago in a pre-recorded message broadcast on Saudi TV. Many Lebanese suspect he was placed under house arrest as part of a Saudi plan to wreck a coalition government he had formed with Hezbollah. Saudi Arabia has stepped up its rhetoric against Hezbollah and its patron, Iran, in recent days.

AP

Charges dropped against rabbi accused of raping 14-year-old

Prosecutors on Thursday drop charges against a rabbi accused of raping a 14-year-old girl at the religious girls’ school where he worked, saying the case was unlikely to result in a conviction.

In a letter to the Jerusalem District Court, prosecutors say that as a result of an “evidentiary development” in the plaintiff’s testimony, there was no longer a “reasonable chance” of convicting David Harrison, who was indicted in the case last December.

While praising the decision to drop the charges, Harrison’s attorney criticized prosecutors for charging him in the first place. According to Israel Radio, Harrison plans to sue for damages.

Times of Israel staff

Turkey denies report of plan to kidnap cleric Gulen from US

Turkey on Sunday dismisses as “ludicrous and groundless” a report that Turkish officials may have discussed kidnapping a US-based Muslim cleric in exchange for millions of dollars.

On Friday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Special Counsel Robert Mueller was investigating an alleged plot involving former US National Security Adviser Michael Flynn and his son to forcibly remove Fethullah Gulen and hand him over to Ankara for as much as $15 million.

Turkey blames Gulen for last year’s failed coup attempt. Gulen denies the claim.

In a statement on Twitter, Turkey’s embassy in Washington reiterates demands that the US extradite Gulen so he can stand trial. The embassy says Turkey has been working with US agencies to provide evidence of Gulen’s culpability and rejected “allegations that Turkey would resort to means external to the rule of law.”

AP

In this March 15, 2014 file photo, Turkish Muslim cleric Fethullah Gulen sits in his residence in Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. (AP Photo/Selahattin Sevi, File)

New mass graves found in Iraq could contain 400 bodies

An Iraqi official says mass graves found in an area recently retaken from the Islamic State group could contain up to 400 bodies.

Kirkuk governor Rakan Saed says Sunday that the bodies of civilians and security forces have been found in an abandoned base near Hawija, a northern town retaken in early October.

Khalaf Luhaibi, a local shepherd who led troops to the site, says IS used to bring captives to the area and shoot them dead or pour oil over them and light it on fire. The area was strewn with torn clothing and what appeared to be human bones and skulls.

Iraqi forces have driven IS from nearly all the territory it once controlled. Authorities have already uncovered several mass graves in other newly liberated areas.

AP

33,293 migrants died en route to Europe — report

The German paper Der Tagesspiegel publishes a list of 33,293 people who it says died while trying to immigrate to Europe.

The list is 46 pages long and covers the period from 1993 to May 29, 2017. The newspaper cites the victims’ names, ages, countries of origin, circumstances, date of death and the source of information. Often, the names are not given because the dead were not identified.

One listing said Iraqi migrant Talat Abdulhamid, 36, froze to death on January 6 after walking for 48 hours through the mountains on the Turkish-Bulgarian border.

Another says a 15-year-old boy drowned and 23 others survived on November 15, 2016, when their rubber dinghy sunk en route from Libya to Europe, according to the UN refugee agency.

AP

Migrants arrive on the shores of the Greek island of Lesbos after crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey on a dinghy on September 9, 2015. (AFP / ANGELOS TZORTZINIS)

Hundreds rally for Catalan independence in Brussels

Several hundred people rally in Brussels on Sunday to back the independence push in Catalonia, slamming the EU and demanding Spain release jailed regional officials.

Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont, who is in self-imposed exile in Belgium, is a no-show at the demonstration that included pro-independence European Parliament members and several members of the exiled regional government.

“Democracy in Spain is not only sick, it is practically dead,” Spanish MEP Josep-Maria Terricabras, who backs Catalan independence, tells the demonstrators.

“I think that it is absolutely terrible that the European institutions don’t understand that when you attack democracy you cannot applaud (Spanish Prime Minister Mariano) Rajoy and institutions in Spain that are outside the law,” he adds.

The protest, just meters from the European Union’s main institutions, came a day after hundreds of thousands of Catalans protested the jailing of regional officials for their push for independence from Spain.

AFP

JNF leaders appeal to Netanyahu over bill taking cut of its funds

Jewish National Fund leaders around the world pen letters to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu protesting a bill that would seize NIS 2 billion of the organization’s funds for national infrastructure projects.

The bill was approved by the Knesset’s Finance Committee last week for its final readings in the plenum.

“For 116 years JNF/KKL has been supporting critical environmental projects in Israel. We believe that any action to expropriate funds from the organization could cause serious damage to it,” writes Peter Smaller, JNF Australia president. “We fervently request that you do not, in any way, pass laws that change the status of KKL/JNF.”

The president of the JNF’s Belgium branch writes that he “regrets” the proposal was advanced without consultations with JNF offices abroad, “considering that the JNF KKL has been created by the Jewish Diaspora in 1901.”

“The government’s proposal… ignores the will of the Jewish people and its long-standing investment from around the world who understood the importance of redeeming land in the State of Israel,” writes Jacky Benzennou. “We appeal to you not to take this decision and prevent this destructive step that will harm the citizens of Israel and the Jewish people, and will cause great damage to the connection with the Jewish communities around the world.”

Earlier, hundreds of JNF employees rallied outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem.

Tahini recalled over salmonella fears

The Galil food company recalls tahini, citing fears shipments may be contaminated with salmonella.

The products in question include tubs of 380 grams (barcode: 7290000411682) and 720 grams (barcode: 7290000411699) with an expiration date of February 2020.

British gov’t accused of hurting case of woman jailed in Iran

Britain says Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson has spoken to the husband of a British woman imprisoned in Iran as pressure mounts on the Conservative government to step up efforts to free her.

The Foreign Office says Johnson and Richard Ratcliffe spoke by phone Sunday, but did not elaborate further.

Dual UK-Iranian citizen Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe is serving a five-year sentence for plotting the “soft toppling” of Iran’s government.

Earlier this month, Johnson told lawmakers that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was “teaching people journalism” when she was detained last year. Her family and employer insist she was simply visiting her family.

On Sunday, Environment Secretary Michael Gove says “I don’t know” when asked what Zaghari-Ratcliffe was doing in Iran.

Family and friends say the confusion has put Zaghari-Ratcliffe at risk of a longer prison sentence.

AP

Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe with her daughter Gabriella (AFP)

Minister appears to criticize deal to distance Iran from border

Regional Cooperation Minister Tzachi Hanegbi appears to criticize the reported trilateral US-Russia-Jordanian deal to keep Iran away from Israel’s border, in the first official Israeli response to the agreement.

The deal “does not meet Israel’s unequivocal demand the there will not be developments that bring the forces of Hezbollah or Iran to the Israel-Syria border in the north,” Hanegbi says, according to Reuters.

“There’s reflection here of the understanding that Israel has set red lines, and will stand firm on this,” he adds.

The United States, Russia and Jordan had reportedly reached an agreement on a ceasefire deal in southern Syria that would include the expulsion of Iranian-backed militias from the border with Israel in the Golan Heights. Under the agreement apparently inked Saturday, all non-Syrian fighters, including Iranian proxies fighting on behalf of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s regime, would be required to leave the border area and eventually Syria, Hebrew media reports said Sunday, citing an American official.

UN envoy says Gaza terror groups risk a ‘dangerous escalation’

UN Special Coordinator for the Middle East Nickolay Mladenov says Palestinian groups risk “a dangerous escalation” with their “reckless actions and statements.”

He is addressing blustery statements by the Palestinian Islamic Jihad group in Gaza, which is threatening Israel with retaliation for the destruction of a terror tunnel it dug under the border into Israel.

“Palestinians have embarked on a course to solve the humaniatarian [sic] crisis in the Strip and bring back the legitimate authorities. They should not be distracted by extemists [sic],” he writes on Twitter.

Trump should be ‘ashamed’ of attacks on ex-intel chiefs — former CIA head

Former CIA chief John Brennan hits back at Donald Trump on Sunday, saying the president should be “ashamed” after he attacked as “political hacks” the intelligence leaders who concluded Russia meddled in the 2016 election.

“Considering the source of the criticism, I consider that criticism a badge of honor,” Brennan tells CNN’s “State of the Union,” where he appears alongside former director of National Intelligence James Clapper.

“I found it particularly reprehensible that on Veterans Day Donald Trump would attack and impugn the integrity and the character of Jim Clapper, who served in uniform for 35 years,” says the ex-CIA chief.

“I think it’s something Mr. Trump should be ashamed of,” he adds.

AFP

Iran denies involvement in Bahrain pipeline attack

Iran denies allegations it was behind a militant attack on a pipeline outside Bahrain’s capital.

Foreign Ministry spokesman Bahram Ghasemi is quoted by the state-run IRNA news agency Sunday as rejecting the “baseless and fake claims” and “childish finger-pointing” from Bahraini authorities.

Bahrain has been combating a low-level insurgency since the Sunni monarchy quashed a 2011 Arab Spring uprising led by majority Shiites.

Bahrain’s interior minister, Sheikh Rashid bin Abdullah Al Khalifa, said Saturday’s blast was “the latest example of a terrorist act performed by terrorists in direct contact with and under instruction from Iran.”

Gulf tensions have intensified in recent days after Sunni-led Saudi Arabia blamed Shiite Iran for a ballistic missile fired by Yemen’s Shiite rebels that was intercepted near Riyadh. Iran has denied any involvement.

AP

Intelligence minister offers lukewarm welcome to Syria border deal

Israeli Intelligence Minister Israel Katz tells The Associated Press the Syrian border agreement is a positive development. But he stressed that Israel is not a party to the agreement and will defend its interests.

“We have proved that before and we will prove it again in the future,” Katz says.

While largely staying on the sidelines of the Syrian war, Israel has carried out repeated airstrikes against suspected weapons shipments to Hezbollah.

The agreement, announced in a US-Russian statement Saturday, affirms a call for “the reduction, and ultimate elimination” of foreign fighters from southern Syria.

Israel opposes any permanent presence in Syria by Iran and its Hezbollah allies, especially near the Israeli border.

AP, Times of Israel staff

At least 50 dead in heavy bombardment in Syria, monitor says

Dozens of civilians have died in artillery fire and Russian bombardment of two displacement camps and surrounding territory in eastern Syria, a monitor says Sunday in a new toll.

The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights says ongoing heavy bombardment in the Deir Ezzor province had killed 50 civilians, including 20 children, since late Friday night.

The new toll was nearly double the Britain-based monitor’s count on Saturday of 26 dead.

The bombardment has targeted territory along the Euphrates River, as well as villages and displacement camps full of people fleeing fighting in the Syrian border town of Albu Kamal.

AFP

Lebanese president claims PM being held by Saudis

A statement from Lebanese President Michel Aoun claims the country’s prime minister, Saad Hariri, is being held in Riyadh, with restrictions on his freedom, MTV Lebanon reports.

A political crisis has gripped Lebanon and shattered the relative peace maintained by its coalition government since Hariri’s stunning announcement November 4 from the Saudi capital that he was resigning. Lebanese officials have insisted on the return home of Hariri from Saudi Arabia amid rumors he is being held against his will.

Hariri is set to give an interview from Riyadh at 8:30 p.m.

with AP

Arab League to meet on Iran at Saudi request

The Arab League will hold an extraordinary meeting next Sunday at the request of Saudi Arabia to discuss “violations” committed by Iran in the region, according to a memorandum shown to AFP by diplomats.

Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates support the Saudi request, which was also approved by Djibouti, the current chair of the Arab League, according to the memorandum seen on Sunday.

Tensions have been rising between Saudi Arabia and Iran, including over League members Qatar and Lebanon.

AFP

Hebron brothers sentenced to life in prison for sniper attacks

A military court sentences two Hebron brothers to life in prison for a series of sniper attacks on Israeli civilians and soldiers in the West Bank, the army says.

From November 2015 to January 2016, Nasser and Akram Badawi committed a number of shooting attacks, injuring two civilians and two IDF soldiers.

They were arrested by the Shin Bet security service in January 2016 and convicted of 12 counts of attempted murder, as well as other security violations.

In addition to their life sentences, the Badawi brothers are to pay a total of NIS 60,000 ($17,000) to their victims, the army says.

“The IDF will continues to work to provide security to Judea and Samaria and will bring terrorist operatives to justice,” the military says in a statement, using the biblical term for the West Bank.

— Judah Ari Gross

Defense minister praises Morrissey over pro-Israel song

Defense Minister Avigdor Liberman tweets his support for Morrissey after the Smiths frontman sings his support for the Jewish state in his new album.

“Waiting with bated breath for Morrissey’s new album!” Liberman writes on Twitter, accompanied by an article about the singer’s new music.

The British rocker has not one but two Jewish-themed songs on his forthcoming album, “Low in High School.” In “Israel,” he offers a blunt rebuke of critics of the Jewish state.

“In other climes they bitch and whine/Just because you are not like them — Israel, Israel,” Morrissey sings on the album’s six-minute closing track, according to the Jewish Chronicle. “And they who rain abuse upon you — they are jealous of you as well,” the 58-year-old Irish Catholic sings.

The song and its full lyrics have yet to be released.

JTA contributed

Charismatic solo artist Morrissey, originally of The Smiths (Courtesy Orit Pnini)

Clapper says downplaying Russian plots would be ‘peril’ to US

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper says US President Donald Trump’s downplaying of Russia’s attempts to undercut the United States is a “peril to this country.”

Clapper, speaking to CNN’s State of the Union, is referring to comments by Trump, who had lashed out at Brennan, Clapper and former FBI director James Comey, after facing stiff criticism at home for saying he believed President Vladimir Putin was sincere in insisting that Russia had not interfered in the US election.

“Putin is committed to undermining our system, our democracy and our whole process,” Clapper said. “And to try to paint it in any other way is, I think, astounding and, in fact, poses a peril to this country.”

With AFP

Former director of National Intelligence James Clapper preparing to testify before the US Senate Judiciary Committee on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, May 8, 2017. (AFP/Jim Watson)

Earthquake felt in central Israel

Earthquake felt in central Israel, primarily in the Gush Dan region.

Details to follow.

Hariri says he’ll return to Lebanon to resign

Lebanon’s Prime Minister Saad Hariri gives his first interview from Saudi Arabia since his shock resignation on November 4.

Hariri says he will return to Lebanon to comply with the official procedure of resignation, when certain security measures are in place.

He is dismissive of suggestion the he is being held captive by Saudi Arabia, saying the kingdom’s crown prince “respects me and I respect him.”

Hariri, who quit with a tirade gainst Iran and its proxy, Hezbollah, says he is not opposed to the terrorist group’s political power.

“I’m not against Hezbollah as a political party, but that does not mean allowing Hezbollah to ruin Lebanon,” he says, according to a translation from Naharnet.

“Lebanon is exposed to a risk that is useless, that is not necessary,” he says. “On my most recent visit, I discovered certain things. And I want to save my country.”

7.2-magnitude earthquake rocks northern Iraq

The US Geological Survey reports a 7.2-magnitude earthquake in northern Iraq, near the border with Iran.

There is no immediate information on damages or casualties.

Report: Saudis told Abbas to accept Trump peace plan or quit

Channel 10 reports that PA President Mahmoud Abbas was ordered by Saudi Arabia to either accept the Trump peace plan or resign.

Summoned to the kingdom last week, Abbas was rebuked by Riyadh over Fatah’s ties with Hezbollah and his association with Hamas leader Salah al-Arouri, according to the TV report, which is unsourced.

Lebanese PM: Saudi Arabia helped us during 2006 war with Israel

Hariri says Saudi Arabia aided Lebanon during the 2006 war with Israel.

“When Israel attacked Lebanon in 2006, Saudi Arabia helped us. Saudi Arabia wants us to protect Lebanon as well,” the Lebanese PM says.

But the country now faces a slew of threats, including the Islamic State terrorist group and al-Nusra, he says.

“Why should we put ourselves” in other regional conflicts? he asks, apparently referring to Hezbollah’s vow to continue fighting Israel.

Hariri says Iran has been meddling in Lebanon for several years, through Hezbollah.

The Lebanese premier says he cannot accept Iranian interference in his country.

Lebanon PM says he is ‘free’ in Saudi Arabia

Hariri also insists he is “free” while in Saudi Arabia and can travel as he pleases, in his first interview after his resignation last weekend.

“I am free here. If I want to travel tomorrow, I will,” Hariri tells his party’s Future Television in an interview from Riyadh.

With AFP

Hariri conditions withdrawing resignation on Hezbollah ‘neutrality’

Hariri says withdrawing his resignation would be conditional on Hezbollah committing to remain “neutral” on regional conflicts, AP reports.

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