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Israel said trying to mend France ties strained over reported NSO phone hack

Report says Paris has frozen some cooperation with Jerusalem over alleged hack of Macron’s phone; Israel said to offer to prevent targeting of French phones in future cyber deals

A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)
A logo adorns a wall on a branch of the Israeli NSO Group company, near the southern Israeli town of Sapir, on August 24, 2021. (AP/Sebastian Scheiner)

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

Thousands of young Jews gather in Tel Aviv for largest such event since COVID

Thousands of young Jews from around the world gathered yesterday in Tel Aviv for the largest event of its kind since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, the Masa Israel Journey program says in a press release.

Since its 2004 founding by The Jewish Agency and government of Israel, Masa says it has served over 170,000 young people from more than 60 countries.

The event at Hayarkon Park marked the start of its 18th programming year. Attended by 3,000 people, it was also live-streamed to overseas crowds.

It featured a special greeting by President Isaac Herzog, speeches by Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai and acting Jewish Agency chief Yaakov Hagoel, and a musical performance by the Hatikva 6 band.

Masa says attendees “took part in community-building workshops, consisting of games, and an art wall where Fellows were encouraged to leave their creative mark representing their journey ahead.

“The event also included activity and food booths with countries from around the world, representing the global cultures that make up the Masa community.”

Israel said set to okay 3,000 settlement homes, 1,300 Palestinian homes next week

Israel will next week advance the construction of more than 3,000 settlement homes and some 1,300 Palestinian homes in the West Bank’s Area C, according to a weekly schedule published by the Civil Administration’s planning committee and reported by Hebrew media.

It would be the first time settlement units are approved during the Biden administration and the current Israeli government. The plan was originally planned to be approved two months ago but was stalled by the Civil Administration, the Kan public broadcaster says.

The settlement homes will be in Revava, Kedumim, Elon Moreh, Karnei Shomron and communities in Gush Etzion and the Hebron Hills.

US mediator: If Israel-Lebanon border talks renew, they have to conclude quickly

Then-US vice president Joe Biden (left) talks with State Department Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein during the Caribbean Energy Security Summit, at the State Department in Washington, DC, on January 26, 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)
Then-US vice president Joe Biden (left) talks with State Department Special Envoy for International Energy Affairs Amos Hochstein during the Caribbean Energy Security Summit, at the State Department in Washington, DC, on January 26, 2015. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/AP)

Israel-Lebanon talks over maritime border demarcation must be completed within a short period if they are to succeed, the US mediator seeking to renew the negotiations says.

Senior adviser for energy security Amos Hochstein tells Al Hadath TV during a visit to Beirut that resolving the matter would help “alleviate Lebanon’s power shortage by allowing it to develop its offshore gas resources,” according to Reuters.

After 2 years, Israel said to resume training for strike on Iran nuclear sites

Israel’s Air Force has resumed training for a potential military strike on Iranian nuclear sites after a two-year lull, Channel 12 news reports.

The report says IDF chief Aviv Kohavi has ordered funding for the move, which comes against the backdrop of US efforts to bring Tehran back to the negotiating table for a renewed nuclear deal.

Jerusalem, and perhaps Washington as well, are said to understand that a military back-up plan must be available in case diplomacy fails, and that it would be hard to convince Iran to negotiate without a viable military option.

Report: Israel trying to mend ties with France strained over NSO phone hack

Eyal Hulata, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy)
Eyal Hulata, in an undated photograph. (Courtesy)

National Security Adviser Eyal Hulata visited France in recent days in an attempt to defuse a crisis involving the suspected use of Israeli spyware developed by NSO Group to hack the phones of French President Emmanuel Macron and other senior French officials, the Walla news site reports.

Citing senior Israeli sources, the outlet says Hulata met at the Elysee Palace with Macron’s diplomatic adviser Emmanuel Bonne, with the crisis one of the central issues discussed.

According to the report, an international investigation that in July unveiled the alleged hacking caused a diplomatic rift and Macron called Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, who promised to investigate the matter. Days later, Defense Minister Benny Gantz flew to Paris and presented initial findings.

Walla says France froze a significant part of the diplomatic, security and intelligence ties with Israel over the matter until it is clarified, including halting mutual visits. Hulata has since been leading covert talks to defuse the crisis.

Hulata has reportedly presented additional findings to Bonne and proposed an Israeli promise that any future offensive cyber software deal with a third country will include a clause forbidding the targeting of French phones numbers, similar to deals already in place with the US and Britain.

Knesset committee okays gradually raising women’s retirement age from 62 to 65

The Knesset’s Finance Committee has approved raising the retirement age for women from the current 62 to 65, as part of a bill set to be passed next month alongside the state budget.

The plan has undergone many changes after some activists argued it would harm women from marginalized groups, and it still faces some objections, but isn’t expected to be changed again.

The plan would raise the retirement age gradually over the next 11 years: It will be raised by four months each year until 2024, and then by three months each year until 2032.

It also stipulates that starting in 2038, the retirement age for women will be automatically raised every three years by two-thirds of the rise in life expectancy for 65-year-old women over that time. When the women’s retirement age reaches that of men — 67 — this mechanism will start applying to both men and women.

US group’s local chapter pans ‘antisemitic’ boycott of Zionist groups by DC wing

A spokesperson from the Sunrise Movement engages with a protester at the Art Mural #SealTheDeal for Climate, Jobs, Care, and Justice in San Francisco, on August 19, 2021. (Thos Robinson/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network)
A spokesperson from the Sunrise Movement engages with a protester at the Art Mural #SealTheDeal for Climate, Jobs, Care, and Justice in San Francisco, on August 19, 2021. (Thos Robinson/Getty Images for Green New Deal Network)

Sunrise GW, a local university chapter of a US national climate action organization calls out the decision by the Sunrise DC chapter to refuse participation in a voting rights rally due to the participation of several Zionist organizations.

“Sunrise GW unequivocally condemns the Sunrise DC hub’s statement this week calling for the removal of 3 Jewish organizations from the Declaration for American Democracy Coalition,” Sunrise’s George Washington University chapter tweets.

“Standing in solidarity with the Palestinian people is morally just and not antisemitic. Singling out explicitly Jewish organizations despite non-Jewish organizations in the coalition holding similar stances on Israel is unquestionably antisemitic and has no place in our movement,” the group adds.

Sunrise DC drew swift condemnation from Jewish groups and several Democratic lawmakers over its decision on Tuesday to pull out of the voting rights rally over its inclusion of a “number of Zionist organizations,” including National Council of Jewish Women, the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center and the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.

“Given our commitment to racial justice, self-governance and indigenous sovereignty, we oppose Zionism and any state that enforces its ideology,” Sunrise DC said in a statement it posted Tuesday on Twitter.

Blast cuts power to Afghan capital Kabul, national power company says

An explosion has brought down power lines and cut off electricity to Kabul, the national power company says.

“An explosion blew up a power pylon in Qala Murad Beg area of Kabul province, cutting off a 220 kV imported power line,” the Breshna power company says in a message to customers.

Likud reacts to AG: Sa’ar’s law is ‘definitely personal and tramples democracy’

Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party lambastes Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s remark that a proposed law to bar lawmakers charged over serious crimes from becoming prime minister “isn’t personal.”

The party repeats comments it has made in recent days, alleging the law is reminiscent of Iran and anti-democratic, and that it is meant to “steal the next election.”

“Gideon Sa’ar’s Iranian law is meant to deny millions of right-wing voters their freedom to vote for a candidate they overwhelmingly want as prime minister,” Likud says.

The statement notes that the law’s proponents “aren’t even bothering to only apply it to new cases,” concluding the law is “definitely personal and openly tramples democracy.”

Wiesenthal Center slams ‘boycott Israel’ signs on London bus stops

Simon Wiesenthal Center slams London bus stop billboards calling for a boycott of Israel, calling them “hate attacks.”

The posters say that “normal people boycott Israel.” Some reports have indicated authorities are preparing to remove them.

In a letter addressed to the CEO of advertising company JCDecaux, the center’s director for international relations, Shimon Samuels, recounts how similar billboards in Paris drew measures to remove them and demands similar action in the UK.

He says that regarding “sabotage and abuse of your bus-stop billboards in France, measures were taken against the spate of ‘Boycott Israel’ posters, apparently placed by a pro-Hamas group.

“These hate attacks continue in JCDecaux billboards at London Transport bus-stops,” he adds, urging the firm “to file a complaint with the Metropolitan Police to take legal action against the perpetrators.”

Sa’ar says he’s ‘not deterred’ by ‘wild attacks’ over anti-Netanyahu law

Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar attends the Golan Heights Conference on Economics and Regional Development, on October 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)
Justice Minister Gideon Sa'ar attends the Golan Heights Conference on Economics and Regional Development, on October 11, 2021. (David Cohen/Flash90)

Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar says he’s “not deterred” by the intense criticism he has been facing since unveiling a law to bar lawmakers indicted for serious crimes from becoming prime minister.

At an event in memory of former chief justice Meir Shamgar, Sa’ar says: “My law is at an important crossroads. Avoiding its legislation could return Israel to very dangerous places that may crush our fundamental regime foundations.

“I’m not deterred by the wild attacks and I intend to continue fulfiling my role for the benefit of the country, as I see it.”

Netanyahu’s Likud party has in recent days lambasted the law as “anti-democratic” and as reminiscent of Iran.

AG backs law that would bar Netanyahu from being PM, says it isn’t personal

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, on November 20, 2019 (left); Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit addresses the press in Jerusalem, on November 21, 2019. (Gali Tibon; Menahem Kahana/AFP)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu at the Knesset, on November 20, 2019 (left); Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit addresses the press in Jerusalem, on November 21, 2019. (Gali Tibon; Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit gives his blessing to Justice Minister Gideon Sa’ar’s bill that would bar any lawmaker charged with serious crime from becoming prime minister, saying it isn’t personally directed against opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

“The amendment isn’t personal, it is general and forward-looking, while including qualifications and oversight mechanisms,” Mandelblit says.

“Additionally, this amendment doesn’t create a precedent out of nowhere. It goes along the path set by [previous] legislation and Supreme Court rulings,” he adds, referring to a 1990s ruling that said criminal defendants can’t become ministers.

“The suggested law aims to apply the current legal situation regarding the eligibility of other elected officials also to the eligibility of the prime minister,” Mandelblit says. “It ensures statesmanship will prevail over any personal interest.”

‘Big John,’ biggest triceratops skeleton ever, sells for €6.6m

A triceratops skeleton exposed ahead of its auction sale at Drouot auction house, August 31, 2021. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)
A triceratops skeleton exposed ahead of its auction sale at Drouot auction house, August 31, 2021. (Photo by Christophe ARCHAMBAULT / AFP)

“Big John,” 66 million years old and the largest triceratops skeleton ever unearthed at eight meters long, is sold at auction to a US collector for 6.6 million euros ($7.68 million).

The final price reached at the Drouot auction house — 5.5 million euros before fees — is well above the expected 1.5 million euros.

80,000-180,000 health workers may have died from COVID by May 2021 — WHO

The World Health Organization says that 80,000 to 180,000 health care workers may have been killed by COVID-19 up to May this year, insisting they should be prioritized for vaccination.

“A new WHO working paper estimates that between 80,000 to 180,000 health and care workers could have died from COVID-19 in the period between January 2020 to May 2021,” the UN health agency says.

German parties aim to install Scholz-led govt early December

The three parties working to form Germany’s next coalition government say they are aiming for Finance Minister Olaf Scholz from the Social Democrats to be installed as chancellor in the week of December 6.

“The timeline is ambitious,” says Volker Wissing, general secretary of the liberal Free Democrats, at the start of formal coalition talks with the center-left SPD and the Greens.

“Germany needs to have a stable government as soon as possible,” he adds.

Budget to be presented Oct. 31, kicking off marathon discussions before deadline

The coalition decides that the state budget will be formally presented to the Knesset on October 31, ahead of a November 14 deadline to approve the budget in second and third readings in the Knesset plenum. If it doesn’t pass, the government will automatically fall and elections will be triggered.

Marathon discussions on the budget will kick off November 1, taking an estimated one week. The coalition wants the discussions to start relatively early, so that there is time to tackle any unexpected obstacles.

In practice, the Knesset vote will likely have to take place by November 10, since the parliament’s plenum is usually active only from Monday to Wednesday.

Israel to allow vaccinated or recovered tourists to enter starting Nov. 1

Travelers are seen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on September 20, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Travelers are seen at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on September 20, 2021. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

Ministers approve the entry to Israel of tourists who are vaccinated against COVID-19 or recovered from the disease starting November 1. The decision must still be approved by the high-level coronavirus cabinet.

However, only tourists from countries that aren’t defined as “red” due to high infection rates will be allowed in. Additionally, reports say tourists won’t be allowed to travel from countries that are seeing an outbreak of the new AY4.2 variant, which has been causing concern.

Ministers have decided not to recognize Russia’s Sputnik V vaccine, with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett reportedly requesting a few more days to weigh that. It is possible he’ll announce such recognition during his meeting tomorrow in Sochi with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Only tourists who have been vaccinated during the 180 days before they boarded the plane will be allowed to enter Israel. In the case of the Pfizer vaccine, seven days must have past from the second (or booster) shot until entry to Israel. In the case of Moderna, Astrazeneca, Johnson & Johnson (one dose, not two), Sinovac and Sinopharm, that will be 14 days.

The vast majority of tourists have effectively been banned from entering Israel since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March of last year. Under current regulations, tourists only began arriving in organized groups in May, though in a very limited capacity. Additionally, first-degree relatives of Israeli citizens or residents were able to apply for permits to travel to the country.

Syria says it executed 24 people for starting fatal wildfires last summer

The Syrian government has executed 24 people accused of involvement in starting deadly wildfires last summer, state media reports.

Those executed yesterday were charged with “committing terrorist acts that led to death and damage to state infrastructure and public and private property through the use of flammable material,” the official SANA news agency says.

Report: Israel considering $200m onshore pipeline to export more gas to Egypt

Israel is considering a $200 million project that would connect its natural gas grid with an Egyptian grid, in an attempt to boost the Jewish state’s exports, the Reuters news agency reports, citing Israel’s Energy Ministry and industry sources close to the discussions.

The new onshore pipeline, which would run through the north of the Sinai Peninsula, could be operational within 2 years, the sources say.

The Energy Ministry is quoted as saying: “Israel and Egypt are holding talks on possible cooperation in the supply of natural gas. One of the options being studied, following a request by Egypt for further natural gas supplies, is an onshore gas pipeline.”

Facebook oversight panel says it will review VIP exemption system

Facebook’s oversight panel announces a probe of the system that has reportedly exempted high-profile users from its rules, the latest fallout in one of the platform’s biggest crises yet.

The semi-independent oversight board “has accepted a request from Facebook, in the form of a policy advisory opinion, to review the company’s cross-check system and make recommendations on how it can be changed,” it says in a blog post.

3rd dose of Pfizer vaccine 95.6% effective against Delta — phase 3 trial result

A third dose of the vaccine against COVID-19 developed by Pfizer-BioNTech is 95.6% effective against symptomatic infection, according to a study by the makers published today.

The clinical phase 3 trial with “10,000 participants 16 years of age and older” showed “a relative vaccine efficacy of 95.6 percent against disease during a period when Delta was the prevalent strain,” the companies say in a statement.

Ali Harbi Ali charged with terror murder of British MP David Amess

Screen capture from video of Ali Harbi Ali, the suspect in the stabbing to death of British MP David Amess, October 15, 2021. (Daily Mail)
Screen capture from video of Ali Harbi Ali, the suspect in the stabbing to death of British MP David Amess, October 15, 2021. (Daily Mail)

British prosecutors say they have charged Ali Harbi Ali for the murder of MP Sir David Amess last Friday, in an indictment that includes terrorism charges.

“We will submit to the court that this murder has a terrorist connection, namely that it had both religious and ideological motivations,” says Nick Price, head of the Crown Prosecution Service’s Special Crime and Counter Terrorism Division.

“He has also been charged with the preparation of terrorist acts. This follows a review of the evidence gathered by the Metropolitan Police in its investigation,” he says.

The statement adds that Ali will appear before Westminster Magistrates’ Court later today.

Ex-general Gal Hirsch indicted on tax evasion charges totaling $1.9 million

Former IDF brigadier general Gal Hirsch is seen at a press conference in Tel Aviv to announce his entry to politics on December 26, 2018. (Flash90)
Former IDF brigadier general Gal Hirsch is seen at a press conference in Tel Aviv to announce his entry to politics on December 26, 2018. (Flash90)

An indictment has been filed at the Tel Aviv Magistrate’s Court against a former Israel Defense Force brigadier general who was once in line to head the Israel Police over tax offenses.

Gal Hirsch, who left the military in 2006 amid criticism over the IDF’s failures in the Second Lebanon War, is accused of fraud, false reporting and alleged tax evasion valued at NIS 6.1 million ($1.9 million). The charges come at the conclusion of corruption probes into Hirsch’s business dealings as head of the defense services firm Defensive Shield after he left the IDF.

Last year, the state prosecutor’s office for tax and financial crimes informed Hirsch that it was considering indicting him and three others, for tax crimes that allegedly took place in 2007-2009.

According to prosecutors, the four men — Hirsch, Oded Shachnai, Yaniv Adam and Mikhael Benimini — were partners in Defensive Shield, a company that provided defense advice and military training and brokered arms sales to Georgia, and also provided services to other countries between 2007 and 2009.

Prosecutors allege that the men collectively enriched themselves to the tune of NIS 40 million (about $11.5 million), but failed to report this income to the Tax Authority.

The indictment alleges that the four business partners set up a web of companies and bank accounts in Israel, Georgia, Switzerland and Guernsey that they used to receive income from Georgia’s Defense Ministry, divvy it up among themselves, and hide it from Israel’s Tax Authority.

Channel 13 reported this week that Hirsch has been in touch with prosecutors in recent weeks about a possible plea deal, but the sides failed to reach an agreement.

Adam is facing a separate indictment after reaching a plea deal.

UAE official: Nixing controversial oil deal won’t damage Israel ties

An aerial view of the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company's (EAPC) oil terminal at Israel's southern Red Sea port city of Eilat, on February 9, 2021. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)
An aerial view of the Eilat-Ashkelon Pipeline Company's (EAPC) oil terminal at Israel's southern Red Sea port city of Eilat, on February 9, 2021. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

The government of the United Arab Emirates is not involved in a controversial oil deal to channel Gulf crude from Eilat on the Red Sea to Ashkelon on the Mediterranean, and cancellation of the deal will not in any way impact UAE-Israel relations, a senior official at the UAE Embassy in Israel tells the Times of Israel.

This contradicts a claim made to the High Court that nixing the deal — bitterly opposed by environmentalists — would damage the recently formed ties with the Gulf nation.

In a bombshell background briefing, the official confirms, “We have clarified to the Israeli government that this is not a government project. There’s very close communication at the highest level. Israel is aware that this is not an UAE government project but rather a private commercial deal.”

The official also stresses that while the signing ceremony of the original commercial memorandum of understanding between the governments on the matter took place in August during broader events celebrating the Abraham Accords, the deal itself had nothing to do with the accords themselves.

The deal is between the EAPC, a secretive company set up between Israel and Iran before the 1979 Islamic Revolution; MED-RED Land Bridge, jointly owned by Petromal, part of the private, Abu Dhabi-based conglomerate National Holding; and the Israeli companies AF Entrepreneurship, owned by Yona Fogel and Malachi Alper, and Lubber Line, owned by Yariv Elbaz.

The plan is opposed by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, a forum of some 20 environmental organizations and scores of scientists and Eilat residents, given EAPC’s poor environmental record and numerous past leaks — it was responsible, six years ago, for the largest environmental disaster in Israel’s history — and the importance of Eilat’s coral reefs not only to the city’s tourism and employment sectors, but also globally.

In July, the EAPC told the High Court in response to a petition filed by green groups against the agreement that the threat of environmental damage is “negligible” and that cancellation of the deal could lead to “significant damage to the foreign relations of the State of Israel.”

Liberman: Confrontation with Iran ‘only a matter of time, and not a lot of time’

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaking at a press conference about the state budget, at the Ministry of Finance in Jerusalem, August 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman speaking at a press conference about the state budget, at the Ministry of Finance in Jerusalem, August 30, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman tells the Walla news site that “a confrontation with Iran is only a matter of time, and not a lot of time,” in the latest Israeli threat of military action against the Islamic Republic’s nuclear sites.

Amid efforts to resume talks between Tehran and world powers about renewing the 2015 nuclear deal, Liberman adds that “no diplomatic process or agreement will stop Iran’s nuclear program.”

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