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In U-turn, ultra-Orthodox may drop opposition to Blue and White’s Lapid

United Torah Judaism leaders reportedly set to consult with their rabbis on move, which could pave way to joining coalition with centrist party

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Then-Blue and White party co-chair Yair Lapid casts his ballot at a voting station in Tel Aviv during parliamentary elections, September 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)
Then-Blue and White party co-chair Yair Lapid casts his ballot at a voting station in Tel Aviv during parliamentary elections, September 17, 2019. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

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

Blue and White officials dismiss PM’s proposal as ‘desperate,’ ‘spin’

Senior officials within the Blue and White party dismiss Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer of a “unity government” that includes all the religious right-wing parties, as Benny Gantz’s centrist alliance was set to issue its official response.

The premier called on Gantz to join a government that includes those parties, pressuring him to drop his demand for a “secular” unity government with Likud, minus the ultra-Orthodox and religious parties.

All right-wing, religious parties finish signing pledge of allegiance to Netanyahu in effort to foil secular unity government

The leaders of all the parties in the right-wing religious bloc have signed a document pledging to recommend Benjamin Netanyahu as the next prime minister and vowing to enter a coalition only as a single unit, as the premier called on Blue and White chief Benny Gantz to join a “unity government” that includes those parties.

Gantz during the election spoke of his interest in forming a “secular unity government” ostensibly void of the Haredi parties Shas and United Torah Judaism as well as the more hardline members of the Yamina party.

Iran diplomat warns of ‘all-out war’ if hit for Saudi attack

Iran’s foreign minister warns that any attack on his country over a drone-and-missile strike on Saudi Arabia’s oil industry will result in “all-out war,” further pushing up tensions across the Persian Gulf.

The comments by Mohammad Javad Zarif represent the starkest warning offered yet by Iran in a long summer of mysterious attacks and incidents following the collapse of Iran’s nuclear deal with world powers, over a year after US President Donald Trump unilaterally withdrew America from the accord.

Zarif’s comments also appear to be in response to US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, who a day earlier while traveling to Saudi Arabia referred to the attack as an “act of war.”

— AP

Gantz rejects ‘spin’ of unity government led by Netanyahu; says he’ll be next PM

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz asserts that he will be the one forming and leading a unity government, rejecting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s offer for the centrist alliance to join a government headed by the Likud leader.

“I am interested and intend to form a broad, liberal unity government under my leadership,” Gantz says in a statement ahead of Blue and White’s first faction meeting since winning 33 seats (according to the latest count) in yesterday’s election — two more than Netanyahu’s Likud.

“To form a unity government you do not come forward with political blocs and spins but rather honesty, statesmanship, responsibility and seriousness,” Gantz says, referring to the political bloc deal Netanyahu inked hours earlier with the leaders of UTJ, Shas and Yamina.

The leaders of the right-wing religious parties agreed to enter coalition negotiations as one unit led by Netanyahu.

Lapid: Netanyahu unwilling to accept election results

Blue and White MK Yair Lapid says Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is refusing to accept the results of yesterday’s election and is accordingly dragging the country toward the year’s third election.

“One person is preventing the formation of a liberal unity government. One person. When faced with the choice between what’s important for the country and what’s important for one person, the country comes first,” Lapid says ahead of a Blue and White faction meeting.

“The public didn’t give him their confidence — he’s trying to replace the public,” he adds.

Lapid says Blue and White is seeking to form a coalition of those who believe in civil marriage and public transportation on the Sabbath, all but ruling out the Haredi parties as well as most members of Yamina.

Netanyahu expresses ‘disappointment’ over Blue and White head’s refusal to meet

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expresses “disappointment” over what he claims is Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz’s refusal to meet with him.

The statement from the premier was issued moments after Gantz asserted that he will be the one forming and leading a unity government and rejected Netanyahu’s offer for the centrist alliance to join a coalition headed by Likud.

“I was surprised and disappointed that as of now, Benny Gantz still refuses to respond to my call to meet. The president called for a unity government, but without a meeting between the two major party leaders, it is impossible to form a unity government,” Netanyahu says in a statement.

“The State of Israel needs as broad a unity government as possible — not another election and certainly not a government that relies on anti-Zionist parties,” he adds ostensibly referring to the Joint List.

The latest tally showed Blue and White leading Likud 33-31 in the seat count. Gantz has expressed interest in forming a coalition with Likud, but has called for a “liberal unity government” — one that the Haredi parties and Yamina would likely have a hard time joining.

But earlier today, Netanyahu convinced the leaders of all three religious parties to sign a document in which they agreed to enter coalition negotiations as one bloc led by Netanyahu.

US-sanctioned Lebanese bank tied to Hezbollah self-liquidates

Lebanon’s Central Bank announces it had agreed to the self-liquidation request it received from a bank hit by US sanctions last month over ties with Lebanese Shiite movement Hezbollah.

“Central Bank Governor Riad Salameh announced today he approved the request made by Jammal Trust Bank SAL,” the Lebanese state-run National News Agency reports.

On August 29, Washington slapped heavy financial sanctions on JTB, which was accused of acting as a key financial institution for Hezbollah.

The US Treasury said the bank was used for enabling several of the Shiite militant group’s financial activities, “including sending payments to families of suicide bombers.”

The news agency quotes Salameh as stressing that the value of the bank’s assets and of its contribution to the national deposit guarantee body were sufficient “in principle” to pay back all deposits and fulfill obligations.

Iran-backed Hezbollah has been a US-designated terrorist group since 1997 and fights alongside the regime of Syrian President Bashar Assad in the neighboring country’s civil war.

It is Tehran’s most potent proxy on the regional scene and also wields significant influence in Lebanese politics.

One of a handful of Shiite-owned Lebanese banks, JTB had specialized in micro-credit in remote areas of the country’s Shiite-majority south, which is also Hezbollah’s heartland.


Lambasting PM’s deal with religious parties, Liberman calls on Netanyahu to cease the ‘tricks and shtick’

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman assailed Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for forming a technical bloc with the religious Shas, UTJ and Yamina parties, claiming the premier was dragging the country into the year’s third election because of his refusal to let go of his hold on power.

“Quit the political exercises, tricks and shtick,” Liberman says in a Facebook post. “Come sit — you, [Blue and White chairman] Benny [Gantz] and I — in order to form a broad liberal unity government for the future of the State of Israel.”

Liberman said planning to recommend Gantz be tasked with forming government

Channel 12 reports that Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman is planning on recommending Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz be tasked with forming the next government.

Earlier today, Liberman expressed disgust over the agreement signed by the leaders of Shas, UTJ and Yamina, in which they agreed to enter coalition negotiations as one bloc with Likud led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Lebanon says crashed Beirut drones were on Israeli attack mission

A Lebanese government investigation has concluded that the two drones were on an attack mission when they crashed in the capital last month, one of them armed with 4.5 kilograms (10 pounds) of explosives, Lebanon’s defense minister said Thursday.

Elias Bou Saab says investigations show the drones came from over the Mediterranean Sea on August 25, with one drone crashing on the roof of the terror group Hezbollah’s media office in southern Beirut, while the other exploded and crashed into a nearby plot of land 42 minutes later.

Speaking at a press conference in Beirut to present the findings of the investigation, Bou Saab says it was “the most dangerous act of aggression by Israel” since the month-long war between Israel and Hezbollah in 2006.

“It is clear that Israel wanted to change the rules of engagement with Lebanon. It was the first time we see drones carrying explosives fly over the airport, endangering civil aviation and commercial flights and explode in the streets of Lebanon,” he says.

Bou Saab describes a sophisticated military mission involving three other unmanned aerial vehicles controlling the attack drones controlling from above. He said it was unclear what the attack’s target was, but it was clear they were not on an intelligence mission.

Journalists were shown the drone that crashed, which was described as a “custom made military drone.”

The attack raised the potential for conflict amid heightened regional tensions. Israel has not confirmed its involvement, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accused Iran and its Lebanese proxy Hezbollah of racing to build a missile-production program in Lebanon and vowed to destroy the project.

— AP

Iran’s judo federation calls ban unfair

Iran’s judo federation calls its suspension from international competition “unfair” and says it “was a pre-planned scenario,” official news agency IRNA reports.

“I believe that suspending Iran’s judo was a pre-planned scenario and unfortunately one of our athletes got involved and intensified” the problem, IRNA quotes the head of Iran’s judo federation Arash Miresmaeili as saying.

The International Judo Federation (IJF) said earlier it banned Iran for allegedly ordering a judoka to lose at the world championships to avoid facing an Israeli competitor.

Saeid Mollaei, who entered last month’s event in Tokyo as the reigning world champion in the -81kg class, said he was ordered to throw his semifinal rather than risk facing an Israeli in the final.

Mollaei lost to Belgian Matthias Casse who in turn lost to Sagi Muki of Israel in the final.


Shaked calls on Gantz to sit with Netanyahu and join coalition of her liking

Yamina chairwoman Ayelet Shaked calls on Blue and White head Benny Gantz to meet with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is seeking to build a religious unity government under his leadership.

This despite the fact that Blue and White received the most seats in Tuesday’s election (33 as of the latest count), compared to Likud’s 31.

“The people have chosen the right, but not enough to form a government,” Shaked tells reporters.

“It is clear that we’ll have to form a unity government. I call on Benny Gantz to put the boycotts aside and meet with Netanyahu.”

Armenia to open embassy in Israel

The Foreign Ministry issues a statement welcoming the Armenian government’s decision to open an embassy in Israel.

“This decision reflects the significant progress in our diplomatic relations over the past year.”

“The opening of the embassy is a new and important chapter in bilateral relations and we are confident that this will further strengthen the friendship between the two peoples and enhance cooperation between the states in all areas.”

Pompeo wants ‘peaceful’ solution to crisis over Saudi strikes

US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo says his country wants a “peaceful resolution” to the crisis over attacks on Saudi oil infrastructure.

“We’d like a peaceful resolution. I hope the Islamic Republic of Iran sees it the same way,” he tells reporters after talks with the leaders of the United Arab Emirates, following Saturday’s attacks.


Rivlin to start consulting with parties on Sunday over who will form next coalition

President Reuven Rivlin will begin holding consultations with parties on Sunday as he prepares to decide whom he will task with forming a coalition.

The Democratic Camp and Labor have already expressed that they intend to recommend Gantz for prime minister.

The Joint List says it is still mulling the option, but if it does and Liberman — who Channel 12 reports is telling confidants that he is planning on backing Gantz — follows suit, the Blue and White leader will have the majority of recommendations needed to form the next government.

Liberman, for his part, has vowed not to sit with the Joint List.

Committee says it aims to release unofficial results today

The Central Elections Committee issues a statement saying it is working to release the unofficial results of Tuesday’s elections by the end of the day.

PM associates dismiss reports he’s seeking to reach plea bargain ahead of pre-indictment hearing

Associates of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tell Army Radio that reports the premier is seeking to reach a plea bargain with Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit ahead of the scheduled pre-indictment hearing next month are false.

The associates say that Netanyahu’s defense team will present “crushing arguments” at the October 2-3 hearing.

Benny Gantz sits down with Democratic Camp head Nitzan Horowitz ahead of Rivlin consultations

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz is currently meeting with Democratic Camp chairman Nitzan Horowitz.

Horowitz has already said his party plans on recommending Gantz be tasked with forming the next coalition.

President Reuven Rivlin will begin holding consultations with parties on Sunday and will use their recommendations to decide who will be next prime minister.

Tillerson: Netanyahu would provide Trump with ‘misinformation’

US President Donald Trump’s first secretary of state Rex Tillerson calls Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “a bit Machiavellian” and laments that he had tried to persuade Washington using “misinformation.”

Speaking on a panel at Harvard University Tillerson calls Netanyahu “an extraordinarily skilled” politician and diplomat, albeit “a bit Machiavellian,” the Harvard Gazette reports him as saying.

“In dealing with Bibi, it’s always useful to carry a healthy amount of skepticism in your discussions with him,” Tillerson recounts adding that Israeli government would share “misinformation” in an effort to convince Trump that something was necessary.

“They did that with the president on a couple of occasions, to persuade him that ‘We’re the good guys, they’re the bad guys.’ We later exposed it to the president so he understood, ‘You’ve been played,’” says Tillerson. “It bothers me that an ally that’s that close and important to us would do that to us.”

Rocket sirens sound in Sderot, Gaza border communities

Incoming rocket sirens sound in the town of Sderot and in the surrounding communities, sending thousands of residents rushing to bomb shelters.

There are no immediate reports of injuries or damage.

Judah Ari Gross

False alarm: IDF says no rockets fired at Israel

The Israel Defense Forces says the rocket sirens were triggered in a false alarm.

No rockets were fired at Israel, the army says.

2 Israelis infected with Zika virus in Thailand

Two Israelis from central Israel have been diagnosed with the Zika virus, reports say.

The pair, from Tel Aviv and the Sharon area, contracted the disease while on vacation in Thailand, but only detected it upon their return to Israel.

UNC-Duke program too positive on Islam, Trump officials say

The Trump administration is threatening to cut funding for a Middle East studies program run by the University of North Carolina and Duke University, arguing that it’s misusing a federal grant to advance “ideological priorities” and unfairly promote “the positive aspects of Islam” but not Christianity or Judaism.

An August 29 letter from the US Education Department ordered the Duke-UNC Consortium for Middle East Studies to revise its offerings by September 22 or risk losing future funding from a federal grant that’s awarded to dozens of universities to support foreign language instruction. The consortium received $235,000 from the grant last year, according to Education Department data.

Officials at Duke and at UNC-Chapel Hill, which houses the consortium, declined to comment. The Education Department declined to say if it’s examining similar programs at other schools.

Academic freedom advocates say the government could be setting a dangerous precedent if it injects politics into funding decisions. Some said they had never heard of the Education Department asserting control over such minute details of a program’s offerings.

“Is the government now going to judge funding programs based on the opinions of instructors or the approach of each course?” says Henry Reichman, chairman of a committee on academic freedom for the American Association of University Professors. “The odor of right wing political correctness that comes through this definitely could have a chilling effect.”

More than a dozen universities receive National Resource Center grants for their Middle East programs, including Columbia, Georgetown, Yale and the University of Texas. The Duke-UNC consortium was founded in 2005 and first received the grant nearly a decade ago.


Parents of Israeli held in Gaza plea for news, action five years on

The parents of an Israeli man believed to be held by Hamas in Gaza since 2014 travel to Geneva this week to demand international action to help bring him home.

Avera Mengistu, a 33-year-old Israeli of Ethiopian descent, was depressed and suffering from mental problems since the death of his older brother when he crossed into Gaza five years ago.

He was filmed by an Israeli security camera climbing the frontier fence with the Gaza Strip in September 2014.

Israel’s Defense Ministry determined he was being held by Hamas, but the Islamist movement governing Gaza has to date provided no information about his whereabouts or condition.

“This is just plain cruelty,” Avera’s mother Agarnesh tells AFP, speaking through an interpreter.

Agarnesh Mengistu, with her son Ilan, in Washington, DC, Nov. 17, 2017. (Ron Kampeas)

With tears trickling down her face, she implores Hamas to “provide any sign of life.”

“Is he alive or not? Does he eat? Does he receive medical care? Are they taking care of him?” she asks. After five years in the dark she is consumed by worry, she says.

“I cannot sleep, I cannot work, I cannot rest.”

She and her husband Ayelin, who live in the southern city of Ashkelon near the Gaza border, say they are traveling to Geneva to meet with diplomats and UN officials to ask why the international community was not doing more to help Avera, one of their 10 children.

They say countries that provide aid to Gaza should be able to put pressure on Hamas.

“Please help us! He is a sick person,” Agarnesh says.


Israeli army raids offices of Palestinian prisoners NGO

Israel’s army raided the offices of a prominent Palestinian NGO early Thursday, its director says, in an operation Amnesty International said aimed to “crush peaceful activism.”

Israeli soldiers forced their way into the offices of prisoner support group Addameer in the West Bank city of Ramallah at around 2:00 a.m., the organization’s director Sahar Francis says.

No staff were in the office at that time, she adds, but Israeli forces seized thousands of dollars worth of equipment, including five computers.

“They searched the whole office,” Francis says.

Addameer works to support Palestinian prisoners in both Israeli and Palestinian prisons.

Israeli right-wing activists accuse it of links to the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, considered a terrorist organization by Israel, the United States and the European Union.

The Israeli army did not immediately respond to request for comment on the raid.


In U-turn, Ultra-Orthodox party may drop opposition to Blue and White’s Lapid

Ultra-Orthodox parties are willing to drop their longstanding opposition to Blue and White’s No. 2 Yair Lapid, television reports say.

According to Channel 12, United Torah Judaism’s Degel HaTorah faction will consult will their spiritual adviser, Rabbi Chaim Kanievsky, on Thursday night with a request to “remove the veto on Lapid.”

UTJ’s other faction, Agudat Yisrael, will similarly consult with their rabbis on the issue. The TV station says the rabbis are expected to approve the request, allowing the ultra-Orthodox party to join a coalition with Blue and White.

Lapid is loathed in ultra-Orthodox circles for his secularist policies during his stint in the government in 2013-2014, which they claim targeted the Haredi population.

Netanyahu said to court Labor chief, offer Finance Ministry, in vain

Sources close to Netanyahu have begun trying to court Labor-Gesher’s Amir Peretz in a bid to woo him into a Netanyahu-led coalition, Channel 13 reports.

According to the report, Netanyahu’s associates have offered Peretz the Finance Ministry and two other ministerial portfolios. They promised the prime minister would raise the minimum wage, cover college costs for all discharged IDF soldiers, and pass a mandatory pension law.

Peretz has rejected the offer.

Netanyahu’s right-wing and religious bloc won 55 seats, according to the latest results, making him six seats shy of a Knesset majority. Labor-Gesher is projected to win six seats.

Reports of explosions in Damascus area

Syrian media says explosions are heard in the Damascus area.

The source of the blasts is not immediately clear.

Drone reportedly downed outside Damascus

Syrian state-run Sana is quoting unconfirmed reports that a drone flying above Aqraba in rural Damascus has been destroyed.

President to consult with parties over 2 days, beginning with largest

President Reuven Rivlin will meet with the five largest parties on Sunday afternoon — Blue and White, Likud, Joint List, Shas, and Yisrael Beytenu — for consultations on who should be appointed to form the next coalition.

The meeting will continue on Monday afternoon, with United Torah Judaism, Yamina, Labor-Gesher, and Democratic Union.

The consultations will be broadcast live.

Israel’s president has the power to appoint one of the 120 MKs elected on Tuesday as the next prime minister of Israel. The designated lawmaker must then cobble together a coalition that wins the support of a majority of Knesset members.

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