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Netanyahu: Aide’s comments on Likud voters ‘unacceptable’

PM says Natan Eshel apologizes for saying ‘non-Ashkenazi’ supporters driven by hate, claims his party is home to all parts of Israeli society

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

Natan Eshel attends Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 20, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)
Natan Eshel attends Jerusalem Day celebrations, May 20, 2012. (Noam Moskowitz/Flash90)

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

Joint List MK: We’re willing to do a great deal to topple Netanyahu

Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi says his majority-Arab party is “ready to do a great deal” to topple Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

With the election less than two days away, Tibi says the Joint List is inching closer to its goal of 15 or 16 seats in the Knesset. In the last race, they won 13 seats.

Much of the ability for the Netanyahu-led right-wing, religious bloc to win a 61-seat majority on Monday will depend on turnout in the Arab Israeli sector. In the September election, the minority came out in higher numbers than expected amid a Likud campaign to place cameras in their polling stations due to alleged voter fraud.

Netanyahu has dropped the targeted campaign against the demographic this time around, instead reaching out to Arab Israelis and encouraging them to vote for Likud.

Over 85,000 infected globally by coronavirus, over 2,900 deaths

The coronavirus outbreak that began in China has infected more than 85,000 people globally.

The latest figures, based on WHO and national counts:

— Mainland China: 2,835 deaths among 79,251 cases, mostly in the central province of Hubei

— Hong Kong: 94 cases, 2 deaths

— Macao: 10 cases

— South Korea: 3,150 cases, 17 deaths

— Japan: 941 cases, including 705 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, 11 deaths

— Italy: 888 cases, 18 deaths

— Iran: 593 cases, 43 deaths

— Singapore: 98 cases

— United States: 62

— France: 57 cases, 2 deaths

— Germany: 57 cases

— Spain: 46

— Kuwait: 45

— Thailand: 42

— Taiwan: 39 cases, 1 death

— Bahrain: 38 cases

— Malaysia: 24

— Australia: 23

— United Kingdom: 20 cases, 1 death

— United Arab Emirates: 19 cases

— Vietnam: 16

— Canada: 14

— Sweden: 12

— Switzerland: 10

— Iraq: 8

— Norway: 6

— Oman: 6

— Austria: 5

— Russia: 5

— Croatia: 5

— Israel: 5

— Netherlands: 4

— Pakistan: 4

— Philippines: 3 cases, 1 death

— Finland: 3 cases

— Greece: 3

— India: 3

— Lebanon: 3

— Romania: 3

— Norway: 2

— Denmark: 2

— Georgia: 2

— Mexico: 2

— Egypt: 1

— Algeria: 1

— Afghanistan: 1

— North Macedonia: 1

— Estonia: 1

— Lithuania: 1

— Belgium: 1

— Belarus: 1

— Nepal: 1

— Sri Lanka: 1

— Cambodia: 1

— Brazil: 1

— New Zealand: 1

— Nigeria: 1

— Azerbaijan: 1

— Monaco: 1

— Qatar: 1

— AP

France cancels Paris half-marathon, gatherings of more than 5,000 over virus fears

French authorities have announced the cancellation of the Paris half-marathon scheduled for tomorrow amid coronavirus fears.

Authorities have also barred gatherings of more than 5,000 people.

There have been 57 cases of coronavirus in the country with two of them leading to deaths.

— with AFP

7th Israeli to contract coronavirus had returned from Naples

The seventh Israeli to contract the coronavirus had returned from Naples last week days before the Health Ministry ordered all travelers who were in Italy to quarantine themselves for two weeks.

The outbreak in Italy was believed to have started in the north of the country in Milan, but has apparently spread all the way to Naples in the south.

The man, Roni Bargill, agreed to publicize his identity in order to encourage Israelis to follow Health Ministry orders. The resident of the northern town of Migdal Ha’emek published a post on Facebook apologizing to anyone he might have infected.

He writes that he was in contact with other Israelis for several days before being diagnosed with the virus on Friday. He has since been quarantined at Tel Hashomer’s Sheba Medical Center.

Netta cancels appearance at pre-Eurovision concert in Croatia over virus fears

Israeli singer Netta Barzilai has cancelled her appearance tonight at a pre-Eurovision song contest concert in Croatia due to fears regarding the coronavirus outbreak.

There have been five cases of the disease thus far in Croatia.

Israel’s Netta Barzilai, the winner of last year’s Eurovision contest, performs during the opening ceremony of the first semi-final of the 64th edition of the Eurovision Song Contest 2019 at Expo Tel Aviv on May 14, 2019. (Jack Guez/AFP)

100K Israelis flock to national parks and trails throughout country over Sabbath

One hundred thousand Israelis took to the trails and national parks throughout the country thanks to Saturday’s mild conditions, according to the Nature and Parks Authority.

Among the most popular sites have been Masada in the south, which welcomed some 3,300 visits and the Banias up north with 3,000 hikers. The Ein Gedi and Eshkol national parks received 2,500 visitors each, according to the Nature and Parks Authority.

Opposition urges ‘Russia without Putin’ in rally for slain liberal

Thousands rally in central Moscow to call on Russian President Vladimir Putin not to stay in power indefinitely, in the first major protest by the Russian opposition since the Kremlin chief announced controversial plans to change the constitution.

The rally marks five years since the assassination of opposition politician Boris Nemtsov, but its organizers also want the event to send a message to Putin after he proposed major constitutional changes.

Organizers, including the country’s most prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny, called for a mass turnout to show Putin that he must not consider staying in power by any means when his current mandate ends in 2024.

Moscow authorities have given permission to the rally — after a succession of demonstrations urging fair elections last summer were roughly dispersed — and the street was packed by a flow of protesters, an AFP correspondent says.

“The Putin regime is a threat to humankind,” says the slogan on one placard next to a portrait of Nemtsov.

“Putin’s policies are based on total lies,” says another, quoting the liberal politician who was assassinated in central Moscow on February 27, 2015.

“Russia without Putin!” the crowds chant repeatedly as they marched.

The White Counter monitor which counts attendance at protests said 22,300 people took part in the march. The interior ministry said 10,500 took part.

— AFP

EU: US-Taliban deal is first step to Afghanistan peace process

The European Union says a landmark deal between the US and the Taliban, and a separate US-Afghanistan declaration, are “important first steps towards a comprehensive peace process” in Afghanistan.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says in a statement that “the current opportunity to move towards peace should not be missed” and the bloc expected “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led negotiations to start without delay in an inclusive manner and aiming at a lasting peace.”

The signing of the US-Taliban accord in the Qatari capital Doha is historic, opening the way to a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in return for Taliban security guarantees.

There are hopes it will put an end to nearly two decades of conflict in Afghanistan, where US-led forces have propped up the government in Kabul in the face of an unceasing Taliban insurgency.

To achieve peace, though, the accord will have to lead to intra-Afghan talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The Afghan government was not directly involved in the negotiations resulting in Saturday’s deal signed in Doha. But US Defense Secretary Mark Esper was in Kabul to make a joint declaration with the government.

Borrell says the EU stood ready to help with an Afghan peace process in which “all political factions, where notably Afghan women and minorities as well as the civil society, are represented in a meaningful manner”.

He adds: “It is vital that all people of Afghanistan feel represented in the next government and in peace negotiations. This would help address grievances, including in the context of the recent electoral process, and promote reconciliation.”

— AFP

Japan’s leader announces $2.5b package to help fight virus

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announces a 270 billion yen ($2.5 billion) emergency economic package to help fight the coronavirus as he sought the public’s support for his government’s fight against the outbreak.

Abe says at a news conference that Japan is at critical juncture to determine whether the country can keep the outbreak under control ahead of the Tokyo summer Olympics.

Abe, whose announcement this past week of a plan to close all schools for more than a month through the end of the Japanese academic year sparked public criticism, says the emergency package includes financial support for parents and their employers affected by the school closures.

He said that much about COVID-19 — the disease caused by the new virus — is still unknown, and that “fighting against an unknown and unclear enemy is not easy.”

“Frankly speaking, this battle cannot be won solely by the efforts of the government,” Abe says. “We cannot do it without understanding and cooperation from every one of you, including medical institutions, families, companies and local governments.”

He says he understands that closing schools through the end of March would spoil celebrations for students who are graduating and would cause parents to take extra days off from work. But he said the step was necessary to minimize the risk of children and teachers developing mass infections.

Abe calls on the public to understand his school plan, and promised to provide support from the emergency package, especially for parents with small children who might lose some of their income. The economic package also includes measures to amplify medical preparedness in case of an escalation of the outbreak, and help in the development of vaccines and more efficient virus testing kits.

Abe also urges companies to accommodate the needs of workers who might have trouble finding outside help to look after their small children during school closures.

Japan has at least 940 confirmed cases of the virus, including 705 from the Diamond Princess cruise ship, whose quarantine in Yokohama led to international criticism that the containment was ineffective. Several of about 1,000 former passengers who tested virus-free and were allowed to get off the ship after a 14-day quarantine have since tested positive.

Abe’s government has also been criticized for being slow to act in the early stages of the outbreak in China, allowing tens of thousands of Chinese tourists into Japan before imposing limited travel bans.

— AP

3-month-old transferred to quarantine ward for coronavirus virus

A three-month-old baby girl has been transferred to the isolation ward at Tel Hashomer’s Sheba Medical Center over fears she might have contracted the coronavirus.

She had returned from Italy with her family on February 17.

Israelis assault Palestinian farmer at site of evacuated settlement — rights group

Roughly half a dozen Israelis assaulted a Palestinian farmer near Homesh, a northern West Bank settlement that was evacuated in 2005 as part of the Gaza disengagement, the Yesh Din rights group reports.

The farmer, in his 50s, was beaten with sticks and stones and has been hospitalized at Rafidia Hospital in Nablus, according to Yesh Din.

Yesterday, the IDF lifted an order barring Palestinian farmers from reaching their lands in Homesh which had been in place for 15 years despite the evacuation.

A yeshiva continues to operate on the abandoned hilltop without IDF enforcement.

Turkey raises migrant pressure on EU over Syria conflict

Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has threatened to let thousands of refugees cross into Europe and warned Damascus will “pay a price” in retaliation after dozens of Turkish troops were killed inside Syria.

At the Turkish border, Greek police are clashing with several thousand migrants already gathered at the entrance to EU territory, where they hurled rocks at security forces firing tear gas across the frontier.

Dozens of other migrants landed on Greek islands in dinghies after crossing from the Turkish coastline.

Turkey and Russia, who back opposing forces in the Syria conflict, have held talks to defuse tensions after an air strike killed the Turkish troops, sparking fears of a broader war and a new migration crisis for Europe.

But Erdogan has raised the stakes and vowed to allow refugees to travel to Europe from NATO-member Turkey as a way to pressure EU governments over the Syrian conflict.

Turkey already hosts 3.6 million Syrian refugees.

Erdogan’s comments are his first after 34 Turkish troops were killed since Thursday in northern Syria’s Idlib where Moscow-backed Syrian regime forces are battling to retake the last rebel enclave.

— AFP

Joint List chairman: We won’t allow ‘racist’ Liberman to become minister

Joint List chairman Ayman Odeh tells the Kan public broadcaster that his majority-Arab party will not allow the “racist” Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman to become minister.

One of the scenarios available for Blue and White to form a government would be a minority coalition with Labor-Gesher-Meretz and Yisrael Beytenu, but it would require the outside support of the Joint List.

Odeh’s comments appeared to throw a wrench into those plans.

“We will not make Lieberman, the brains behind the transfer idea, a minister,” Odeh says, referring to Liberman’s support for the idea of having the Arab Israeli towns in the so-called triangle be transferred to the future state of Palestine in a peace deal.

Odeh claims that the only difference between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Liberman is that the latter is better at evading corruption charges.

Iran says ‘tens of thousands’ may get tested for coronavirus

Iran is preparing for the possibility of “tens of thousands” of people getting tested for the new coronavirus as the number of confirmed cases has spiked again, an official says, underscoring the fear both at home and abroad over the outbreak in the Islamic Republic.

The virus and the COVID-19 illness it causes have killed 43 people out of 593 confirmed cases in Iran, Health Ministry spokesman Kianoush Jahanpour says. He disputed a report by the BBC’s Persian service citing anonymous medical officials in Iran putting the death toll at over four times as much.

But the number of known cases versus deaths would put the virus’ death rate in Iran at over 7%, much higher than other countries. That’s worried experts at the World Health Organization and elsewhere that Iran may be underreporting the number of cases now affecting it.

Yet even as Iran sends spray trucks and fumigators into the streets, officials still are trying to downplay the virus’ reach.

“During these 10 days that we are talking about the coronavirus in the country, more than 480 people of our country has been killed in traffic accidents, but no one noticed them,” Jahanpour says.

— AP

Ben Gvir: Netanyahu and Bennett aren’t really right wing

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir tells Channel 12 that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Naftali Bennett are not truly right wing.

While his far-right party is far from likely to clear the electoral threshold on Monday according to polls, Ben Gvir says he has no intention to drop out unless Netanyahu agrees to a long list of demands, including the immediate evacuation of the Bedouin hamlet of Khan al-Ahmar.

He avoids answering a question of whether he is a Kahanist, saying that there are many things that the late extremist rabbi Meir Kahane believed in that he does as well. However, Ben Gvir says he does not agree with Kahane’s stance that there should be separate beaches for Jews and Arabs.

Otzma Yehudit chairman: I was offered money to drop out of the race

Otzma Yehudit chairman Itamar Ben Gvir tells Channel 12 that he was offered all sorts of jobs and even “money” to pull his far-right party out of the race.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his associates have worked for weeks to convince Ben Gvir to drop out ahead of Monday’s election, worried about wasting right-wing votes.

Netanyahu: There is no longer an option for a unity government

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Walla news that there is no longer an option for a unity government made up of Likud and Blue and White to be formed after the elections.

“Either we’ll head into a fourth election if we [the right-wing, religious bloc] don’t have the majority, or Benny Gantz will form a minority government with [Joint List MKs] Ahmad Tibi and Ayman Odeh,” he says.

 

Labor head stands by pick for health minister who said virus was created in lab

Labor-Gesher-Meretz chairman Amir Peretz stands by his No. 3 Orly Levy-Abekasis, who as his party’s candidate for health minister claimed last week that the coronavirus was invented in a lab in China as a form of medical warfare.

Largely dodging the question, Peretz says Levy-Abekasis meant that Israel is not prepared to handle the coronavirus.

Peretz says there is nothing to the rumors about Likud efforts to convince Levy-Abekasis to jump ship and join a right-wing, religious coalition led by Netanyahu after the election and that she will stick with the party through and through.

The Labor-Gesher-Meretz chairman says he’s agreed with Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz on guiding principles for government together.

Liberman: There are 90 MKs with whom I’m willing to build a coalition

Yisrael Beytenu chairman Avigdor Liberman tells Channel 12 that there are 90 MKs who he’d be willing to sit in a coalition with after ruling out Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the Joint List majority-Arab party and the ultra-Orthodox Shas and United Torah Judaism factions.

Liberman declines to reveal how exactly such a coalition would look, but says other Likud MKs besides Netanyahu would be welcome.

Yisrael Beytenu has enjoyed the role of kingmaker in the previous two elections, but in both has refused to decide between supporting Netanyahu or Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz to form a coalition.

Netanyahu vows not to pursue plea deal after election

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells the Ynet news site that he will not seek to reach a plea agreement in the corruption cases he faces following the election.

His trial begins on March 17 and some lawmakers have speculated that he will try and reach a plea deal before that date.

Shas chairman declines to rule out fourth election

Pressed by Channel 12 on whether he is willing to commit to preventing a fourth straight election in Israel at all costs, Shas chairman Aryeh Deri declines to do so.

Gantz says ex-adviser that trashed him doesn’t know anything about security

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz tells Channel 12 that his recently fired adviser Yisrael Bachar “knows where Iran is on a map” but beyond that “doesn’t know anything about security.”

In recordings leaked on Thursday, Bachar could be heard saying that Gantz represents a “threat” to Israel and that he doesn’t have the courage to attack Iran.

Blue and White chair rules out relying on passive support from Joint List

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz rules out the possibility of relying on the support of the majority-Arab Joint List party to form a coalition.

Gantz says this means not including them in his coalition, not asking them to support the coalition in votes from the opposition and not relying on them to walk out of votes either.

 

PM dismisses ‘politically motivated’ ex-security chiefs who called him danger to state

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu dismisses as politically motivated former heads of the Shin Bet and Mossad, who called the premier a danger to Israel’s national security.

He tells Channel 12 that the ex-security chiefs had opposed his decision — which he stands by to this day — to push for the US to exit the Iran nuclear deal.

Gantz was my third choice as IDF chief of staff, says Netanyahu

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu claims on Channel 12 that Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz had been his third choice for IDF chief of staff in 2011 after Likud MK Yoav Gallant and Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi.

Netanyahu: I won’t seek to fire AG, but his conduct must be probed

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu tells Channel 12 that he won’t seek to fire after the election Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit, who has indicted him on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

The premier says that instead, Mandelblit’s conduct in cases against him and his rivals should be probed.

PM aide says negative campaigning works on ‘non-Ashkenazi’ voters

Channel 12 releases a recording of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s senior aide Natan Eshel saying that the premier’s negative campaign works well on “non-Ashkenazi” voters.

Eshel appeared to be referring to its base of voters from Mizrahi communities — Jewish Israelis of Middle Eastern descent — often in the periphery, who have long supported Likud

Eshel also calls Likud minister Miri Regev a “beast” but admits she’s the best of anyone in the part at the fear-mongering campaign.

Person in Washington state first in US to die from new virus

A person has died in Washington state of COVID-19, state health officials said Saturday, marking the first such reported death in the United States.

State officials issued a terse news release announcing the death, gave no details and scheduled a news conference.

Health officials in California, Oregon and Washington state worried about the novel coronavirus spreading through West Coast communities after confirming three patients were infected by unknown means.

The patients — an older Northern California woman with chronic health conditions, a high school student in Everett, Washington and an employee at a Portland, Oregon-area school — hadn’t recently traveled overseas or had any known close contact with a traveler or an infected person, authorities said.

Earlier US cases include three people who were evacuated from the central China city of Wuhan, epicenter of the outbreak; 14 people who returned from China, or their spouses; and 42 American passengers on the Diamond Princess cruise ship, who were flown to U.S. military bases in California and Texas for quarantining.

Convinced that the number of cases will grow but determined to keep them from exploding, health agencies are ramping up efforts to identify patients.

— AP

Report: Likud MKs ask Netanyahu to cease personal attacks on Gantz

Likud MKs have reached out to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in recent days asking the premier to cease the personal attacks on Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, according to the Kan public broadcaster, which did not reveal the identities of the disturbed Likud MKs or provide any sourcing for the report.

Whether or not the report is true, Netanyahu did not appear to head the advice, telling Channel 12 moments earlier that he thinks “something happened” to Gantz in recent months and that he is not fit to serve as prime minister.

Blue and White will seek to dispel Likud-sewn claim that it’ll rely on Joint List

The Blue and White party has come to the conclusion that Netanyahu’s campaign to convince Israelis that the centrist alliance is reliant on the majority-Arab Joint List to form a government has worked, Kan reports.

Therefore, Gantz’s party has been working in recent days to “dispel the myth” that is costing them support in the polls, Kan adds.

Parties hold final mass campaign events ahead of Monday vote

Several parties are holding final mass election events across the country.

In Tel Aviv, some 1,000 Blue and White activists are gathering at Hangar 11 to hear the party leadership speak in the final days of the campaign.

Party No. 4 former chief of staff Gaby Ashkenazi vows that “we in Blue and White will not let hate win, we will not let racism win.”

“We have had enough. This is our chance,” he says. “Victory is so near.”

In Jerusalem, some 900 people are at an “emergency rally” for Shas at the Hizbin synagogue attended by the party’s rabbinic council.

— Raoul Wootliff

Gantz claims ‘Netanyahu and his friends’ will try and disrupt elections

Speaking at Blue and White’s final mass election event before Monday’s national vote, Blue and White chair Benny Gantz warns that “there are those that will try to disrupt election day.”

“They did it in the past and they will try again,” he says. “Netanyahu and his friends have no boundaries.”

Gantz gave the same warning ahead of the last vote.

— Raoul Wootliff

Turkey drone strikes kill 26 Syrian soldiers in NW Syria — monitor

Turkish drone strikes have killed 26 Syrian soldiers in northwestern Syria Saturday, the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights war monitor says.

Earlier in the day, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan threatened reprisals for the killing of dozens of Turkish troops in Syria on Thursday.

“Twenty-six members of the Syrian army were killed when Turkish drones targeted positions of the regime forces in the Idlib and Aleppo countryside,” the Britain-based Observatory says.

The apparent retaliation comes after 33 Turkish soldiers were killed in an air strike by Syrian regime forces on Thursday. A 34th soldier later died from his injuries.

— AFP

Ecuador reports 1st new virus case; Mexico confirms 2 more

Officials in Ecuador have confirmed the first case of the new coronavirus in the South American nation and Mexico reported two more to raise the country’s total to four.

Ecuador’s Health Minister Catalina Andramuño Zeballos says a more-than-70-year-old Ecuadoran woman who lives in Spain arrived in the country on Feb. 14 showing no symptoms of illness.

“In the following days she began to feel badly with a fever,” Andramuño says at a news conference, adding that she was taken to a medical center. The National Institute of Public Health and Investigation in Ecuador confirmed the virus.

The deputy minister of health, Julio López says that the patient’s condition was “critical.”

It is the second case in South America, following a Brazilian case reported on Wednesday.

President Lenín Moreno sends out a tweet urging people to stay calm, and the Interior Ministry announced it was barring mass gatherings in the cities of Guayaquil — where the infected woman was located — and Babahoyo.

— AP

Trump says not to panic after first coronavirus death in US

US President Donald Trump said Saturday that despite the first death on US soil from the new coronavirus, the threat to Americans remains low and there is no reason for “panic.”

Trump confirms that the first fatality, announced by officials in Washington state, is a woman in her late 50s. She lived in King county, which includes Seattle, local officials said.

“Additional cases in the United States are likely,” Trump tells a White House news conference, adding that “healthy individuals should be able to fully recover.”

“Our country is prepared for any circumstance,” Trump insists, calling on “the media and politicians and everybody else involved not to do anything to incite panic.”

The Republican leader and other officials also announce a more complete ban on travel from Iran, which has seen a rapid spread of the disease, and encouraged Americans to avoid travel to hard-hit areas in Italy and South Korea.

US Vice President Mike Pence, charged by Trump to lead efforts against the virus, says that an existing ban on travel from Iran had been expanded to include any foreign national who has visited the Islamic republic within the last 14 days.

Trump says he would meet with leaders of big pharmaceutical groups at the White House on Monday to discuss treatments and efforts to develop a vaccine to combat the virus.

— AFP

Israel refuses entry to 4 Italian nationals

Israeli authorities refuse entry to four Italian nationals over the course of Saturday, the Israeli Population and Immigration Authority says.

Two Italian travelers are turned back upon arrival at Ben Gurion International Airport, a third national is refused entry at the Ramon Airport in Eilat and a fourth is turned away at the Taba border crossing from Egypt.

Earlier this week, Israel issued a travel advisory for Italy due to a surge of coronavirus cases there. Two Israelis who traveled to the country in recent days have tested positive for the virus.

On Thursday, Israeli turned back several dozen Italian citizens on separate flights after their arrival in Israel.

Trump: US troop withdrawal in Afghanistan begins ‘today’

US President Donald Trump says that the first withdrawals of US troops from Afghanistan are starting “immediately,” following the successful signing of a deal with the Taliban.

Asked when the drawdown would begin under the accord, Trump tells journalists: “Like today, OK? Today. They’ll start immediately.”

The deal signed today in Doha will see US troops and the smaller numbers of foreign allies pulling out of Afghanistan within 14 months, as long as the Taliban stick to commitments to negotiate with the Western-backed government in Kabul and repel international jihadist groups.

The US, which currently has between 12,000 and 13,000 troops in Afghanistan, will draw that number down to 8,600 within 135 days of the signing.

— AFP

Italy reports virus cases top 1,100, deaths reach 29

Italian tourism officials fear a new virus could do more damage to the industry than the September 11 terror attacks as the number of confirmed cases in the country shot up past the 1,000 mark and deaths climbed to 29.

Authorities report that Italy’s total confirmed cases grew to 1,128, a 27% increase from 24 hours earlier. The vast majority are in three northern regions, all economically productive and among the most visited in the country: Lombardy, Veneto and Emilia Romagna.

Eight more people infected with the coronavirus died since Friday night, all of them elderly and all in the same three regions, according to civil protection authorities.

The increase comes despite strong measures aimed at containing the spread of the virus — including isolating 11 towns with a combined population of over 50,000. Health officials cautioned that the impact of the measures adopted a week ago would not result in slowing case numbers until some 14 days — the period of incubation — had elapsed.

‘’The cases we are verifying are likely to have been contracted before we adopted these measures,” said Silvio Brusaferro, president of the national health institute.

Still, the steadily rising numbers were likely to bring more pressure on Italy’s tourism industry, a chief economic motor in a country famed for its world-class museums, archaeological sites, art cities and natural beauty.

— AP

Blue and White: PM aide who said ‘hate unites’ Likud camp speaks for Netanyahu

Asked to comment on the leaked recording in which he says that “hate unites” the pro-Netanyahu camp of non-Ashkenazi voters, Eshel says he would not respond to “lies,” though it was unclear what exactly could not have been true about a recording of his own voice.

The Likud party appears to recognize that the recording was indeed real, but asserted in a statement that “it is impossible to compare Nathan Eshel’s erroneous private opinion when he has no role in the Likud campaign to the shocking testimony of Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz’s senior adviser, Israel Bachar, who says Gantz is a danger to Israel and does not deserve to be prime minister.”

Bachar, in a recording leaked to Channel 12 on Thursday, could be heard saying that Gantz does not have the courage to attack Iran and could pose a danger to Israel’s security

Blue and White for its part says the Eshel recording shows what the Netanyahu aide “really thinks of Likud voters.”

“It is Netanyahu’s spirit that is poisoning Israel. It will be over in two days. Bibi, go home! the centrist party adds.

Iranian director barred from leaving country wins top prize at Berlin film fest

Dissident Iranian director Mohammad Rasoulof has won the top prize at the Berlin film festival for “There is no evil,” a searingly critical work about the death penalty in his country.

Rasoulof, 48, is currently banned from leaving Iran and was unable to accept the Golden Bear in person.

“I wish Mohammad could be here himself, but unfortunately he is not allowed to leave the country,” says producer Farzad Pak, accepting the award on his behalf.

“I would like to thank the amazing cast and crew who, put their lives in danger to be on this film.”

Rasoulof was sentenced to a year in prison last year for “attacking the security of the state,” and banned from making films for life.

He is yet to be imprisoned. His passport was confiscated in 2017 after his anti-corruption film “A Man of Integrity” premiered at Cannes.

Industry magazine “Variety” said his Golden Bear winning film was Rasoulof’s “most openly critical statement yet.”

— AFP

French-Iranian researcher who was hospitalized due to coronavirus fears back in jail

A French-Iranian academic jailed since June, Fariba Adelkhah, has returned to her Tehran prison cell after being hospitalized, her lawyer says, voicing concern over the health of inmates due to the spread of the new coronavirus in the country.

Said Dehghan says his client had been taken back to the women’s section of Evin prison but was still complaining of kidney pain.

The lawyer adds that he had called for conjugal visits to Evin prisoners to be suspended to prevent any spread of the virus at the jail, a call he says authorities accepted.

Adelkhah, a research director at Sciences Po University in Paris, is due to go on trial on March 3 on charges including conspiring against national security.

She was transferred to a prison hospital after her health deteriorated as “a consequence of the (six-week) hunger strike” which she ended on February, the lawyer said Tuesday.

As Iran struggles to contain a surge in new cases of COVID-19, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a British-Iranian woman also jailed in Tehran, believes she has contracted the virus, her husband says.

The Free Nazanin Campaign says that although there were reports of at least one coronavirus-related inmate death inside Evin prison, staff had refused to test her.

In a statement issued via the campaign, Zaghari-Ratcliffe says: “I am not good. I feel very bad in fact. It is a strange cold. Not like usual. I know the kinds of cold I normally have, how my body reacts.”

Iran’s health ministry today reported nine new deaths from coronavirus and a 53 percent jump in infections over the previous 24 hours, taking the overall totals to 43 deaths among 593 cases.

— AFP

Protesters decry Cyprus crossing point closures over virus

Dozens of people are pushing aside police barriers in Cyprus to protest the closing of a crossing point in the medieval core of the ethnically divided island nation’s capital.

Protesters chant and raise placards opposing the closure of the Nicosia crossing point, which the Cypriot government says it ordered to help prevent the possible spread of the new coronavirus.

The government has shut four of nine such crossings along the 180-kilometer (120-mile) length of the United Nations-controlled buffer zone that separates a breakaway Turkish Cypriot north from an internationally recognized Greek Cypriot south.

There have been no confirmed cases of the coronavirus found so far on either side of the divide.

Protesters say the closings would do nothing to prevent the virus’ spread and ascribed political motives to the move.

But Cypriot President Nicos Anastasiades says “there was no choice” other than to temporarily shut some of the crossing points to better enable police and medical staff to screen for possible carriers of the virus crossing either northward or southward.

“Those who think that they’re causing a political problem for the government aren’t justified,” Anastasiades tells reporters. “The government has an obligation to take steps safeguarding the public’s health.”

— AP

Virus fears keep hundreds of cruise passengers at sea

Operators of a British cruise ship that was turned away from its destination due to fears of the new coronavirus say they have chartered planes to ferry passengers home — but don’t yet have permission to dock anywhere.

The Braemar, which had been scheduled to disembark its hundreds of passengers in the Dominican Republic on Friday, was still cruising through the Caribbean more than a day later, with no immediate word on where it might wind up.

Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines issued statements insisting that nobody aboard had symptoms consistent with the COVID-19 illness. Dominican officials had refused to allow the vessel into port due to what the company said were “a very small number of influenza-like cases on board.”

That left both those aboard the ship and people who had arrived in the Dominican Republic to start a new 14-day cruise aboard the vessel in limbo.

“Now that we have secured aircraft, we are continuing discussions with nearby Caribbean islands to confirm our next port of call, and acquiring the necessary permissions to land at the appropriate airports,” the company says in a statement.

“These discussions are ongoing, and whilst we are unable to confirm final arrangements on when these flights will depart, and from which island, we are having positive discussions with the relevant authorities,” it adds.

It was one of at least three cruise ships turned away from Caribbean ports over the past week due to concerns over possible viral infections, though no passengers on any of the ships has been confirmed to have the disease.

— AP

Yair Netanyahu ordered to pay $81K after losing libel suit to journalist

A court has ruled that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s son Yair, must pay former Walla news site editor Avi Alkalay NIS 286,000 ($81,900) in damages after losing a libel suit.

Netanyahu shared a post on Facebook that called Alkalay a “planted mole from the Wexner Foundation,” a group that the Netanyahu family accuses of funding left-wing NGOs and campaigns.

Alkalay’s attorney, Ron Levinthal, says in response: “It is regrettable that at first the defendant underestimated the plaintiff, posted things without reviewing them, and later disregarded the court and the law, and did not bother to file a defense. From a prime minister’s son, higher standards could be expected.”

Netanyahu says aide’s leaked comments on Likud voters ‘unnacceptable’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says he called his aide Natan Eshel and told him that his comments are “inappropriate and unacceptable.”

“He apologized immediately. The Likud is home to all parts of the Israeli public and that’s the way it will always be,” Netanyahu says in a statement sent to the press.

In a recording aired on Saturday, Eshel is heard saying that negative campaigning works well with “non-Ashkenazi” voters and that “hate is what unites” the right-wing camp led by the Likud party.

Eshel appeared to be referring to the Likud base of voters from Mizrahi communities, often in the periphery, who have long supported the party.

“If you haven’t stolen, what exactly have you come [into politics] for? We’ve checked this. And to my shock, they [the public] do not understand [this notion] of going into politics to do what’s good for the nation. You go into politics in order to steal and you need to be a man,” Eshel claims in the recording aired by Channel 12.

“Now, in this public, I’ll call it… non-Ashkenazi…What gets them worked up? Why do they hate the press?…They hate everything and we’ve succeeded in whipping up that hatred. Hatred is what unites our camp,” Eshel says plainly.

Blue and White MK: PM evading responsibility by saying Gantz lacks guts to strike Iran

Blue and White MK Gabi Ashkenazi says party leader Benny Gantz would have carried out a strike on Iran if ordered to do so when he was IDF chief of staff under Prime Minister Netanyahu.

Ashkenazi is pushing back on a recording aired by Israeli television last week in which Blue and White political adviser Israel Bachar can be heard saying Gantz didn’t have the courage to attack Iran and was a “threat” to Israel. Gantz fired Bachar after the recording aired.

Speaking with Army Radio, Ashkenazi says the job of the IDF chief of staff is to prepare military options for political leaders and that Gantz did not so in the case of Iran.

Ashkenazi, who preceded Gantz as IDF chief, accuses Netanyahu of evading responsibility by accusing the Blue and White leader of not having the guts to strike Iran, as any decision to do ultimately rests with Israel’s political leaders.

Then incoming IDF chief of staff Benny Gantz (R), then defense minister Ehud Barak (2nd-R), Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (2nd-L) and then outgoing chief of staff Gabi Ashkenazi at a ceremony in Jerusalem on February 14, 2011. (Abir Sultan/Flash90)
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EU: US-Taliban deal is first step to Afghanistan peace process

The European Union says a landmark deal between the US and the Taliban, and a separate US-Afghanistan declaration, are “important first steps towards a comprehensive peace process” in Afghanistan.

The EU’s foreign policy chief Josep Borrell says in a statement that “the current opportunity to move towards peace should not be missed” and the bloc expected “Afghan-owned and Afghan-led negotiations to start without delay in an inclusive manner and aiming at a lasting peace.”

The signing of the US-Taliban accord in the Qatari capital Doha is historic, opening the way to a withdrawal of US troops from Afghanistan in return for Taliban security guarantees.

There are hopes it will put an end to nearly two decades of conflict in Afghanistan, where US-led forces have propped up the government in Kabul in the face of an unceasing Taliban insurgency.

To achieve peace, though, the accord will have to lead to intra-Afghan talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban.

The Afghan government was not directly involved in the negotiations resulting in Saturday’s deal signed in Doha. But US Defense Secretary Mark Esper was in Kabul to make a joint declaration with the government.

Borrell says the EU stood ready to help with an Afghan peace process in which “all political factions, where notably Afghan women and minorities as well as the civil society, are represented in a meaningful manner”.

He adds: “It is vital that all people of Afghanistan feel represented in the next government and in peace negotiations. This would help address grievances, including in the context of the recent electoral process, and promote reconciliation.”

— AFP