Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu left to Washington, DC, early Sunday to address Congress on the Iranian nuclear deal on Tuesday, and to speak at the AIPAC policy forum on Monday night. Before departing, he said he is on a “fateful, even historic, mission.”
Zionist Union leader Isaac Herzog vocally opposed the prime minister’s upcoming US speech, saying it’s “solely for the sake of elections.” Meanwhile, an Iranian officials said the speech will “benefit Iran.”
A group of veteran security officials urged Netanyahu to call off the speech, and accused him of destroying ties with the US and bringing Iran closer to the bomb.
The annual AIPAC policy forum kicked off in Washington, DC. Senators Lindsey Graham and Ben Cardin addressed the crowds on the Iranian nuclear deal and US-Israel ties. Both called for a “good deal” with Tehran, while cautioning that the Islamic Republic is not to be trusted.
House Speaker John Boehner said he’s never seen such a “demand for tickets” as that for Netanyahu’s speech to Congress. He said attacks by the administration on him and the prime minister were “remarkable.”
The Times of Israel liveblogged developments as they unfolded.
Likud hopes speech will help party pull ahead
An unnamed Knesset member in the Likud party tells the Ynet news website he hopes Netanyahu’s speech will garner votes for the “faltering” party.
“It’s all up in the air for the Likud right now, and the question is whether Netanyahu will rise up or not,” the MK says. “We hope the speech earns us back some mandates.”
Friday’s polls had the Zionist Union at a slight edge over the Likud party, with a projected 25-23, and 23-22 in two surveys. A survey on the Walla news site had the two parties tied at 23.
PM’s speech good for Iran – Iranian official
An aide to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani says Netanyahu’s Congress address will “benefit Iran.”
“Netanyahu’s comments at the US Congress will further widen the existing gaps (between Israel and its supporters) in different arenas and finally will benefit Iran,” writes Hamid Aboutalebi, Rouhani’s deputy chief of staff for political affairs, on Twitter, according to the semi-official Fars News Agency.
Meanwhile, Iranian General Masoud Jazayeri says Israel is “bluffing” in its military threats against Tehran.
“All high-ranking military experts confirm that the Zionist regime is merely bluffing and is not able to stage the slightest military action against the Islamic Republic of Iran,” Jazayeri says, according to Fars.
“Both the Zionists and Americans know well that the countdown for Israel’s annihilation starts the very moment that the slightest attack is staged,” he adds.
‘Jihadi John’ kin said under watch in Kuwait
Kuwaiti authorities are closely monitoring several relatives of “Jihadi John” who live and work in the Gulf emirate where the Islamic State executioner was born, press reports say.
A number of relatives of Mohammed Emwazi, named as the man who has beheaded at least five Western hostages, are working in Kuwait and, like him, hold British citizenship, Al-Qabas newspaper reports.
“Security agencies have taken the necessary measures to monitor them round the clock,” the paper says, citing an “informed source.”
The daily did not say how many of Emwazi’s relatives are in Kuwait. Authorities have remained silent on the issue.
Al-Rai newspaper cites security sources as saying that Emwazi’s father, Jassem Abdulkareem, also a British national, is currently in Kuwait and is expected to be summoned by authorities.
Emwazi visited Kuwait several times, the last of them between January 18 and April 26, 2010, Al-Qabas says.
He arrived from the United Arab Emirates using his British passport to obtain a Kuwaiti entry visa.
A year later, he was denied entry to Kuwait after his name came up during investigations into attacks in Britain, the newspaper says.
Emwazi’s visits to Kuwait were largely of a social nature and he was briefly engaged to a stateless Kuwaiti resident, the paper adds.
Emwazi was born in Kuwait but moved to London in the early 1990s when he was a child, and attended school and university in the British capital.
The Daily Telegraph reports that he went to school with two other boys who went on to become jihadis — Choukri Ellekhlifi, who was killed fighting in Syria, and Mohammed Sakr, killed fighting in Somalia.
It was also reported that Emwazi had contacts with the men responsible for failed attacks on London’s public transport system in 2005, two weeks after suicide bombings killed 52 people in the British capital.
Pope prays for IS kidnap victims
Pope Francis leads tens of thousands of people in prayer in St. Peter’s Square for Christians and others who have been kidnapped or are victims of other “intolerable brutality” in Syria and Iraq.
The pope on Sunday also appeals for “everyone, in line with their possibilities, (to) act to alleviate the suffering.”
More than 220 Syrian Christians were kidnapped last week by the Islamic State group, with no word on their fate.
Francis calls for silent prayers for “these sisters and brothers who suffer for their faith in Syria and Iraq.” The packed square fell silent for a minute or so.
The pope says he wanted to assure the victims of kidnappings, abuse and other violence that “we don’t forget them.”
Corruption verdict delayed for Abbas rival
A Palestinian court postpones its verdict in the trial of exiled Gaza strongman Mohammad Dahlan, who is being tried in absentia on corruption charges, an AFP correspondent reports.
The ruling, which was to have been handed down at an anti-corruption court in the West Bank city of Ramallah, is delayed until the high court can rule on an earlier appeal regarding Dahlan’s parliamentary immunity, which was revoked in 2011.
Dahlan’s immunity was revoked by presidential decree shortly after his expulsion from the ruling Fatah party of PA president Mahmoud Abbas.
But according to Salameh Halaseh, one of the lawyers working for Dahlan, such a step can only be taken after a vote in parliament, which has not convened since 2007 when Hamas seized control of the Gaza Strip, triggering a major crisis with Fatah.
“On March 18, the high court will rule on Dahlan’s parliamentary immunity,” Halaseh says, indicating that the corruption court would only give its ruling once that issue was decided.
“This is a new twist,” says Sevag Torossian, who is also representing Dahlan and who has previously denounced the corruption trial as a “farce.”
The trial of Dahlan, once a leading Fatah figure who headed Gaza’s powerful security forces, began in December in connection with the alleged misuse of $17 million (15 million euros) in expenses.
Under Palestinian law, the fact that the trial is being held in absentia means his lawyers are denied access to the indictment itself or to any other court files pertaining to the trial.
300 soldiers said disabled by Gaza war
Channel 2 reports that 300 IDF soldiers will receive disability benefits for injuries sustained during their service in the summer Gaza conflict.
According to the TV report, nine soldiers have been recognized as 100 percent disabled, and 150 were labeled as over 20% handicapped. Sixty-two others were marked as between 10% and 19%, and 55 soldiers below 10 percent.
The report says the Defense Ministry is still considering some 200 additional requests, and notes that only a few soldiers were granted disability benefits for PTSD.
Boycott of Israel products said in effect in 80% of Palestinian stores
A Palestinian activist says 80 percent of West Bank shops no longer carry products from six major Israel food companies, as a boycott takes hold.
Fatah activists gave shops until this weekend to remove the products.
Campaign leader Abdullah Kmail says that 20 percent of the shops still carry some Israeli goods, but “are getting rid of what they have.”
He says the boycott in its current form would end if tax transfers from Israel resume, but that appeals to consumers to shun Israeli goods will continue.
ToI’s Elhanan Miller, reporting from Ramallah, wrote last week that Palestinian vendors were “noticeably unmoved” by the boycott, and that shelves remained stocked with Israeli food products.
— AP, Times of Israel staff
Iran may let in Google, Internet firms
Iran could allow Internet giants such as Google to operate in the Islamic Republic if they respect its “cultural” rules, the semi-official Fars news agency says, quoting a senior official.
“We are not opposed to any of the entities operating in global markets who want to offer services in Iran,” Deputy Telecommunications and Information Technology Minister Nasrollah Jahangard tells Fars.
“We are ready to negotiate with them and if they accept our cultural rules and policies they can offer their services in Iran,” he says.
Jahangard says Iran is “also ready to provide Google or any other company with facilities” that could enable them to provide their services to the region.
Forty million people out of a population of around 78 million use the Internet in Iran.
Authorities regularly block access to networks including Facebook, YouTube and Twitter since protests against the disputed 2009 re-election of hardline president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
‘Jihadi John’ ID’ed by free download
“Jihadi John” was identified by intelligence services as Mohammed Emwazi after he tried to download a free trial of web design software in Syria using his student code, the Sunday Express reports.
The code was linked to his name, age, date of birth, and study track at London’s Westminster University, the report says.
CNN mistakes Putin for ‘Jihadi John’
CNN accidentally runs a photo of Russian President Vladimir Putin with a caption reading: “Reports: Jihadi John identified.”
The network apologizes, saying it was a technical glitch.
— The Telegraph (@Telegraph) March 1, 2015
Security officials urge PM to cancel speech
With the prime minister on his way to Washington, a group of veteran security officials urge Netanyahu to call off the address.
In a press conference, members of the “Commanders for Israel’s Security” group say Netanyahu’s “security-political policies destroyed the alliance with the US, and destroyed Israeli deterrence, and bring Iran closer to the nuclear bomb, rather than distancing it.”
Iran is gloating about Netanyahu’s speech, the organization says in a statement, because it shows that “Israel is weakened politically, and Israel no longer enjoys unconditional support from its strategic ally.”
Among the detractors is Netanyahu’s former commander in the IDF.
“I admit that on a personal level, it’s hard for me to come out against Bibi [Netanyahu],” Gen. (res.) Amiram Levin says. “I was his commander, I drafted him into the Sayeret Matkal [elite commando unit, directly administered by the IDF chief of staff], I taught him how to navigate, and I tell him now — Bibi you are navigating incorrectly. The goal is Tehran, not Washington.”
Kerry, Netanyahu said to speak by phone
The New York Times reports that Kerry and Netanyahu held a phone conversation on Saturday, quoting an unnamed US official.
The two discuss the Iranian nuclear talks, the financial straits of the PA, and Netanyahu’s Washington visit, the official says.
Likud, Bennett slam security officials
The Likud party and Jewish Home chief Naftali Bennett condemn the joint statement by veteran security officials urging Netanyahu to cancel his speech to Congress.
“This is a recycled account by those same generals, leftists who promised peace with Oslo, supported the disengagement [from Gaza in 2005], supported the Arab Peace Initiative which calls for dividing Jerusalem, and promoted withdrawals from Judea and Samaria [a biblical term for the West Bank] and the Golan Heights,” the Likud party said in a statement. “Today they were representatives of the huge left-wing campaign, sponsored — with millions of dollars — by leftists from abroad.”
Bennett, too, listed the various political initiatives backed by these security veterans — the Oslo Accords, withdrawal from Gaza and the Golan Heights — and says “you were wrong” with regard to all three.
“Why should we listen to you this time?” he writes on Facebook.
Soccer team owner shot, lightly hurt
Israeli police say the owner of Beitar Jerusalem FC is wounded after he is shot by unidentified gunmen.
Police spokeswoman Luba Samri says Eli Tabib is slightly wounded when the assailants open fire on his car. Samri say the gunmen fled and that the motive for Saturday’s shooting was unclear.
Tabib is set to appear in court tomorrow to be sentenced following his conviction for assaulting a minor protesting outside his home. It was not clear if that incident is related to the shooting.
After being released from hospital, Tabib tells Israeli news site Ynet that he needed to “think hard about whether to stay in the world of soccer.”
Beitar is one of Israel’s flagship football franchises. Tabib has owned the club since 2013.
PM’s approval ratings up in US — poll
A joint poll by the Wall Street Journal and NBC News shows that some 48 percent of registered US voters are against House Speaker John Boehner’s invitation to Netanyahu to address Congress on the Iranian nuclear deal, which bypassed Obama. Thirty percent say Boehner should have gone through the president before extending the invitation, while one-fifth didn’t have an answer.
But despite the tensions over the address, the survey finds that among both Republicans and Democrats, Netanyahu’s approval ratings have gone up since August 2014. Overall, some 30% favor Netanyahu (up from 26% in August), and 17% view him negatively.
The approval rate was higher among Republicans at 49% (an increase from 36% in August). Among Democrats, some 13% ranked him favorably, up slightly from 12% in August.
Meanwhile, nearly half (47%) of the participants viewed Israel positively, and 17% negatively.
The poll surveyed 800 respondents between February 25-28, with a margin of error of 3.46 percent.
Kerry says PM ‘obviously’ can speak in US
Kerry tells ABC that Netanyahu is “welcome to speak in the United States, obviously,” but says he hopes that the address does not turn the issue of the Iranian nuclear talks into “some great political football.”
The US deserves “the benefit of the doubt” on the Iranian nuclear talks, Kerry maintains, according to Reuters.
Likud candidate indicted for pollution
The mayor of Beit She’an, who holds the number 18 position on the Likud party slate, is indicted for polluting a stream and dumping garbage in public areas.
Jacky Levy is charged — along with several other municipality workers — for additional environmental misdemeanors as well.
IDF mobilizes 13,000 troops in surprise drill
The IDF’s Central Command will mobilize 13,000 soldiers in a surprise exercise by the new chief of staff Gadi Eizenkot, the army says in a statement.
Of the 13,000 troops summoned, only 3,000 will have to show up for active duty, the statement says.
At AIPAC, senators call for ‘good deal’
Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) and Senator Ben Cardin (D-MD) speak at a panel at the AIPAC policy conference in Washington, DC, on the Iranian nuclear deal and US-Israel ties.
Graham maintains that in theory, diplomatic efforts with Iran are the way to go, because “nobody wants another war with anyone.”
“If it was a good deal, I would vote for it,” he says.
“A bad deal would be one that would allow Iran one day to develop a nuclear weapon… a bad deal would be locking in place an enrichment program that is only monitored by the UN,” Graham says.
“A good deal would be a peaceful nuclear power program, that the Iranians claim they want, that could never turn into a weapon. That’s a good deal. Anything beyond that is a bad deal,” Graham says.
With regard to the Western powers negotiating for a final accord, Graham says he doesn’t “have a lot of faith in the Russians to get us to the promised land.”
Ben Cardin also calls for “a good deal” and “transparent agreement” that would have Tehran give up its nuclear weapon ambitions.
Cardin says inspectors would have to be on the ground to monitor the implementation of any deal, “because quite frankly, you can’t trust Iran.” If the talks fall through, Cardin says, we need to “tighten sanctions.”
Graham, too, casts doubt on what the Iranians would do if sanctions are lifted.
“You think they would build schools and hospitals?” he asks incredulously. “Given their behavior today, they’re likely to invest in their military to wreak more havoc.” He points to Yemen, Syria’s Assad, Lebanon’s Hezbollah, and says “this is what they’re doing without a nuclear weapon!”
“You got to know who you’re dealing with,” Graham says. “They lie, they cheat, they’re not trustworthy. They killed Americans, they would destroy Israel tomorrow if they could.”
The two senators also discuss the US-Israel tensions over Netanyahu’s speech.
Cardin says the invitation was “not as it should have been, and we all know that.”
“But don’t lose focus, Iran is the bad guy,” he says. “The focus must be on the Iranian nuclear negotiations.”
Cardin says Israel can never become “a political wedge issue.”
Graham weighs in, saying he “looks forward” to Netanyahu’s speech, and will be “in the front row” listening. He adds that after the address “he will have to decide what’s best for the United States.”
ToI’s Avi Issacharoff at AIPAC
The Times of Israel’s Avi Issacharoff interviews the “Son of Hamas,” Mosab Hassan Yousef at the AIPAC conference.
Barry Freundel resigns from Towson U.
Rabbi Barry Freundel, who pleaded guilty to voyeurism charges, resigns as a professor at Towson University in Maryland.
Freundel submitted his letter of resignation to the suburban Baltimore university on Thursday, Towson spokesman Ray Feldmann tells the Baltimore Sun.
His resignation is effective March 27. Freundel had taught ethics and religion since 2009 and was tenured. He was on paid leave since his arrest in October.
Last week, Freundel pleaded guilty to 52 counts of misdemeanor voyeurism for videotaping women undressing in the mikvah at his prominent Washington synagogue, Kesher Israel. He is facing a maximum penalty of 52 years in prison and tens of thousands of dollars in fines when he is sentenced in Washington Superior Court on May 15.
Kesher Israel, an Orthodox congregation, has fired Freundel, 63, and ordered him to vacate its rabbinic residence. He reportedly will leave the home in early March.
Tents pitched to protest housing crisis, again
Over three years after a wave of social justice protests swept Israel, several activists pitched tents in Tel Aviv’s Rothschild Boulevard — the site where the first series of rallies against the cost of living began.
It was unclear how many tents were pitched and whether the activity will sprout a larger campaign, but Channel 10 reports that “hundreds” of people were expected to join later tonight.
The organizer, Shai Cohen, says he decided to renew the protests after he turned 40. At 40, he is still unable to afford an apartment, he says.
Jewish senator calls Netanyahu ‘arrogant’
Sen. Dianne Feinstein says Netanyahu’s assertion that he speaks for all Jews is “arrogant,” but says she’ll attend the Congress speech on Tuesday anyway.
“He doesn’t speak for me on this,” she tells CNN. “I think it’s a rather arrogant statement. I think the Jewish community is like any other community. There are different points of view. I think that arrogance does not befit Israel, candidly.”
Supporters rally for triumphant Argentine president
Tens of thousands of supporters rally for Argentine President Cristina Kirchner, days after a judge dismissed allegations brought against her by a prosecutor who died mysteriously.
Seeking to seize the spotlight from a mass rally last month in memory of late prosecutor Alberto Nisman, whose death unleashed a crisis for Kirchner’s government, the president’s supporters flooded the streets around Congress for her final opening address before the legislature.
With balloons and giant puppets of Kirchner’s late husband and predecessor Nestor (2003-2007), tens of thousands of supporters gathered with banners bearing slogans such as “Cristina is the people.”
Kirchner, 62, will step down on December 10 after elections. She is battling to salvage her remaining months in office — as well as her legacy and her late husband’s presidential dynasty — from the scandal that erupted when Nisman was found dead in his bathroom on January 18.
Egypt says 172 Sinai jihadists killed in February
Egypt’s army says at least 172 jihadists were killed in February in joint police and military operations in the restive Sinai, where security forces are battling an Islamist insurgency.
The militants were killed in a series of security operations in the peninsula after a deadly January 29 attack by jihadists left 30 people dead, mostly soldiers.
The army adds that the militants were killed in the North Sinai cities of el-Arish and Sheikh Zuweid and in the town of Rafah, which borders Israel and the Palestinian Gaza Strip.
Another 229 suspected jihadists were arrested in these operations, while 85 militant hideouts were destroyed last month, the army claims in a statement accompanied by a picture of a suspected militant shot dead.
Ex-Israel envoy to head Uruguay Foreign Ministry
The new president of Uruguay appoints the country’s former ambassador to Israel as head of the Foreign Ministry.
Dr. Tabare Vazquez names Bernardo Greiver as secretary general of the ministry — a move that was seen as signaling closer Israel-Uruguay ties. Greiver, who is Jewish, has spoken publicly in recent years in favor of strong ties between Israel and Uruguay.
The new Uruguayan foreign minister, Nir Novoa, says in a radio interview that Greiver was tapped “because he knows the office, he is a diplomat with experience and is a hard worker.” Novoa tells Universal Radio that he “talked with members of the Jewish community and they are pleased with this appointment.
“Without any doubt, this can be considered as a signal to Israel,” he says. “Uruguay had a very important role in the creation of the State of Israel and we need to continue on this path.”
In 1947, Uruguay voted at the United Nations in favor of declaring a Jewish state in Israel. The other two countries in the South American Cone — Argentina and Chile — abstained.
Greiver succeeds Luis Almagro, who served between 1991 and 1996 as the Uruguayan ambassador to Iran.
Recent events have shown some tension related to the Iranian presence in the South American region and especially in Uruguay.
President Jose Alberto “Pepe” Mujica, who stepped down Sunday, said during Israel’s 50-day operation in Gaza last summer that Israel was committing “genocide” against the Palestinians, as did Almagro. They also said “Gaza is a big concentration camp.”
Vazquez, who is from the same party as Mujica, when asked if he agreed with the president, said that Israel “was not committing genocide.”
Boehner: Huge ‘demand for tickets’ for PM speech
House Speaker John Boehner, who invited Netanyahu to address Congress, says there’s a huge “demand for tickets” to attend the prime minister’s speech.
“The demand for seats in the House, the demand for tickets, I’ve never seen anything like it. Everybody wants to be there,” Boehner tells CBS News.
The house speaker speaks out against the Obama administration for “attacking” him and Netanyahu.
“What I do wonder is why the White House feels threatened because the Congress wants to support Israel and wants to hear what a trusted ally has to say. It has been, frankly, remarkable to me, the extent to which, over the last five or six weeks, the White House has attacked the prime minister, attacked me, for wanting to hear from one of our closest allies,” he explains.
He adds that the strained ties between Israel and the US is “is no secret here in this town,” but the administration has “certainly made it worse over the last five or six weeks.”
Netanyahu “can talk about this threat, I believe, better than anyone. And the United States Congress wants to hear from him. And so do the American people,” Boehner says.
“We’re not going to resolve this issue by sticking our heads in the sand,” Boehner adds in reference to the Iranian nuclear threat.
State to pay right-wing activist NIS 500,000
A Jerusalem court orders the state to pay Temple Mount activist Yehudah Glick — who survived an assassination attempt on October 29, 2014 — NIS 500,000 ($125,000) for unlawfully distancing him from the holy site, the Ynet news website reports.
The court also commands the state to cover the NIS 150,000 ($37,500) in legal fees, the report says.
After water deal, Palestinian city moves forward
The builder of the first planned Palestinian city in the West Bank confirms Israel has agreed to connect Rawabi to its water grid, ending months of costly delays.
Rawabi, a state-of-the-art city, is to have 6,000 apartments, a mall and an amphitheater. It is the West Bank’s largest private investment project, totaling more than $1 billion, and is seen as a symbol of Palestinian state building.
Developer Bashar Masri says that the wrangling over the water had put off potential buyers and forced him to slow construction. Masri adds he now hopes to hand over 650 apartments by early summer.
Israel has said it has an interest in seeing Rawabi being built, but has caused repeated delays, prompting intervention by senior Western officials in the city’s behalf.
Bennett says Iran deal ‘unmitigated disaster’
Speaking at AIPAC, Jewish Home party leader Naftali Bennett says: “The agreement [with Iran] is an unmitigated disaster.
“The deal being spoken about with Iran gives it the mandate to enrich uranium for its nuclear program, paving the way to create a nuclear weapon within a few years,” he continues.
Bennett calls for additional sanctions against the Islamic Republic to “bring Iran to the point it will have no choice but to give up its nuclear ambitions.”
IS frees 19 Assyrian Christians
Islamic State jihadists free 19 of the 220 Assyrian Christians they took hostage in Syria last week, after a ransom was paid for their release, activists say.
“Nineteen Assyrian hostages arrived on Sunday at the Church of Our Lady in Hasakeh after they were released by IS,” says Osama Edward, the director of the Assyrian Network for Human Rights.
“They arrived on two buses from Shaddadeh,” the IS stronghold in the northeastern province of Hasakeh where they had been detained, he tells AFP.
Edward says an IS religious court decided on Saturday to release the Christians in exchange for a sum of money for each family that IS considers as jizya — tax — paid by non-Muslims.
He is unable to say how much was paid, but recalled that in November IS released Assyrians after receiving payments of $1,700 per person.
The activist says negotiations for the release of all hostages began on Saturday between Assyrian officials and Arab Muslim tribal chiefs.