FM Israel Katz to serve as acting prime minister while Netanyahu’s in US
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Bennett conditions support for Trump peace plan on immediate annexation

Defense minister says his Yamina party won’t support establishment or recognition of Palestinian state, calls for government to apply sovereignty over settlements next week

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett gives a statement to the media in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
Defense Minister Naftali Bennett gives a statement to the media in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

The Times of Israel liveblogged Sunday’s events as they happened.

Government okays travel of Israelis to Saudi Arabia

In a fresh sign of warming ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia, citizens of the Jewish state will from now on be allowed to travel to the neighboring Arab kingdom under certain circumstances, the government announces today.

Interior Minister Aryeh Deri signed an order permitting Muslim citizens of Israel to travel to the Saudi city of Mecca to perform the Hajj or Umrah religious pilgrimage.

It also allows Israelis to go to the kingdom to participate in business meetings or to search for investments for up to nine days, provided that they have an invitation from an official body and have taken care of the necessary paperwork to enter the country.

It isn’t clear whether the new order will in fact allow Israelis to visit Saudi Arabia, however, since Riyadh generally bars Israeli nationals from the country and hasn’t made an announcement easing those restrictions.

Iraqi protesters keep up rallies despite pressure from riot police

BAGHDAD — Security forces shoot live rounds to clear protest hotspots in Baghdad and southern Iraq for a second day, sparking skirmishes with demonstrators determined to keep up their movement.

Violence has resurged in the capital and Shiite-majority south this week, with more than 15 people killed as anti-government activists ramped up their road closures and sit-ins while security forces sought to snuff out the campaign.

Yesterday, four protesters were shot dead as riot police stormed protest camps across the country, according to medics, stoking fears of a broader crackdown.

But the demonstrators returned in large numbers throughout the evening and by this morning, they were rallying again.

In Basra, hundreds of students protest over riot police’s dismantling of their main protest camp the previous day, according to an AFP correspondent.

Others gather in the holy city of Najaf and university students lead a protest in Kut, where they erect new tents to replace those taken down the previous day.

— AFP

Anti-government protesters set tires aflame at a make-shift roadblock along the road leading to Najaf International Airport in the central Iraqi holy shrine city on January 26, 2020. (Haidar Hamdani/AFP)

FM Israel Katz to serve as acting prime minister while Netanyahu’s in US

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taps Foreign Minister Israel Katz to fill in as acting prime minister while he’s in the United States this week.

Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, will also chair the high-level security cabinet in the premier’s absence.

Netanyahu will take off this afternoon for Washington, where he is set to meet with US President Donald Trump for talks on the White House’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s chief political rival, will meet with Trump at the White House tomorrow.

Gantz is set to return to Israel on Tuesday, when the Knesset will vote on forming the panel that will debate Netanyahu’s request for immunity from charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, will meet with Trump that day and not return to Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Foreign Minister Israel Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, October 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP)

Bennett approves IDF’s multi-year Momentum Plan

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett approves the military’s latest multi-year Momentum Plan, saying it will make the Israel Defense Forces “more flexible, intelligent and lethal,” according to his office.

The multi-year plan, known in Hebrew as Tenufa, still requires official approval from the security cabinet, but this is likely now that it has received a green light from the defense minister.

It is not immediately clear if Bennett’s approval includes the significant budget increase needed to implement the Momentum Plan.

The defense minister’s office did not immediately respond for comment.

— Judah Ari Gross

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett (L) speaks with IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kohavi (R) and Brig. Gen. Avi Gil, head of Northern Command’s 36th Division, in the Golan Heights on December 18, 2019. (Ariel Hermoni/Defense Ministry)

Netanyahu ally says right-wing bloc to skip vote on immunity panel

Lawmakers from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s 55-seat bloc of right-wing and religious parties will skip a Knessum plenum vote Tuesday on forming the panel that will weigh the premier’s request for immunity from graft charges, Likud MK Miki Zohar says.

Zohar accuses rival parties, led by Blue and White, of acting in a manner “contrary to all the rules since the day of the Knesset’s establishment” by voting to setup the House Committee.

“We won’t take part in this and won’t cooperate in their election campaign of ‘just not Bibi [Netanyahu],'” tweets Zohar, an ally of the prime minister.

Netanyahu’s political bloc includes the Likud, Yamina, Shas and United Torah Judaism parties. So far only UTJ has not confirmed it will boycott Tuesday’s vote, according to the Kan public broadcaster.

The boycott appears largely symbolic, as the other 65 Knesset members are expected to vote in favor of establishing the committee, which will debate — and likely reject — Netanyahu’s immunity request before the March 2 elections.

Likud MK Miki Zohar reacts during an Arrangements Committee meeting at the Knesset in Jerusalem, January 13, 2020. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

Blue and White rips decision by right-wing bloc to skip immunity panel vote

The Blue and White party rips Benjamin Netanyahu after his Likud party and its allies decide to boycott Tuesday’s vote to establish the Knesset panel that will consider the prime minister’s request for immunity from graft charges.

“It’s unfortunate that the head of a transition government [Netanyahu] continues to ridicule the Israeli Knesset and democratic rule,” Blue and White says in a statement.

“Netanyahu asked for a hearing on his immunity — Netanyahu will get [a hearing],” the party adds.

Netanyahu en route to Trump meeting: ‘Together we’ll make history’

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu vows to “make history” as he heads to Washington for two meetings with US President Donald Trump, during which the White House is expected to unveil its much-anticipated plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

“Over the last three years, I spoke countless times with President Trump — a huge friend of Israel — and his team about these vital security needs, about our security, about our justice,” he declares. “I will meet with President Trump tomorrow, and on Tuesday, together with him, we will make history.”

As he boards his Boeing 777 en route to the American capital, Netanyahu contrasts his antagonistic stance toward the last US president, Barack Obama, with his strong alliance with the current inhabitant of the Oval Office.

“Five years ago, I went to Washington, to Congress, because I was forced to oppose a plan proposed by the American president, because I believed that this plan endangered Israel’s most vital security needs and indeed its very existence,” he says, referring to the 2015 Iran nuclear deal that Obama championed.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu speaks to reporters at Ben Gurion Airport before boarding a flight to Washington, January 26, 2019. (Screen capture: Twitter)

At the time, Netanyahu addressed a joint meeting of US Congress to advocate against the deal.

“Today, I am going to Washington to stand next to an American president who is proposing a deal that, I believe, advances Israel’s most vital security,” Netanyahu says, referring to Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century.

The deal, which is expected to be released on Tuesday, has been deemed the most pro-Israel outline for Middle East peace ever presented by a US administration.

Also today, Netanyahu’s main political rival, Blue and White party chief Benny Gantz, took off for Washington for a separate meeting with the US president.

Both Netanyahu and Gantz are scheduled to meet with Trump in the White House tomorrow.

— Raphael Ahren

Backpacker jailed in Russia submits formal pardon request

An Israeli-American woman jailed in Russia on drug charges files a request to be pardoned with Russian President Vladimir Putin, Hebrew media reports.

Naama Issachar’s filing of the request comes after the Kremlin said Friday that she has not formally asked for a pardon, delaying any possible release.

Issachar, 27, was sentenced by Russia to 7.5 years in prison after nearly 10 grams of marijuana was found in her luggage during a layover in a Moscow airport in April. She has denied smuggling drugs, noting she had not sought to enter Russia during the layover on her way to Israel from India, and had no access to her luggage during her brief stay in the Russian airport.

Issachar’s mother on Thursday met with Putin, who was in Jerusalem for the World Holocaust Forum. He told her in a meeting that he will return her daughter home.

Israeli Naama Issachar gestures during an appeal hearings in a courtroom in Moscow, Russia, Thursday, Dec. 19, 2019. (AP/Alexander Zemlianichenko Jr.)

Gantz on whether he fears ‘trap’ in Washington: I think everyone has ‘true’ intentions

Blue and White chair Benny Gantz addresses his meeting tomorrow at the White House with US President Donald Trump as he makes a stopover at the airport in Zurich.

Gantz is asked whether he believes someone is setting “some sort of trap” for him in Washington.

“It’s a very, very important meeting. I believe everyone has strategic, true and fundamental intentions and that’s how I’m approaching this,” he tells the Kan public broadcaster.

Gantz announced yesterday that he would meet with Trump privately on Monday and not on Tuesday with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who he is trying to replace as premier in the upcoming elections.

The Blue and White leader reportedly felt a “trap” had been set for him when US Vice President Mike Pence announced last week that Gantz’s invitation to the White House was at Netanyahu’s suggestion, setting him up to possibly look as a third wheel if he accepted — or to face potential political and diplomatic consequences of turning down an invite from Trump.

German FM calls to fight anti-Semitism to avoid Jewish exodus

BERLIN — Germany’s foreign minister is calling for strengthened efforts against anti-Semitism to ward off the possibility that many Jews decide to leave the country.

Heiko Maas says in an article for the weekly Der Spiegel that German politicians must do more “but there is one thing they can’t do: replace solidarity in everyday life.”

Maas’ comments come a day before the 75th anniversary of the Soviet liberation of the Nazis’ Auschwitz death camp and at a time of rising concern in Germany and elsewhere in Europe about anti-Semitism.

In October, a man tried to force his way into a synagogue in Halle on Judaism’s holiest day, later killing two passers-by before being arrested. The suspect posted an anti-Jewish screed before the attack.

German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas passes a barbed wire fence in the former German concentration camp Auschwitz on August 20, 2018. (AFP Photo/Janek Skarzynski)

Maas says anti-Semitism has become part of everyday life now for Jews in Germany and “it doesn’t surprise me that nearly every second Jew in Germany has thought about leaving the country.”

“We must urgently take countermeasures so that such thoughts don’t turn into bitter reality and it doesn’t come to a massive exodus of Jews from Germany,” he writes. “That people of Jewish faith no longer feel at home here is a real nightmare — and a disgrace, 75 years after the liberation of Auschwitz.”

Maas says too few European Union countries have national commissioners against anti-Semitism. He says when Germany holds the EU presidency later this year, it will step up the fight against online hate and disinformation.

He says the security of Jewish facilities and communities must be improved throughout Europe. Germany will give the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe 500,000 euros ($551,000) this year to that end.

— AP

Jordanian hit with terror charges over tourist stabbings

AMMAN, Jordan — A Jordanian court levels terrorism charges against a man suspected of wounding eight people in a November knife attack at a popular tourist site.

The suspect, Moustafa Abourouis, 22, faces up to 20 years in prison after the stabbing of three Mexicans, a Swiss woman, a Jordanian tour guide and a security officer at the Roman city of Jerash.

At a hearing open to the press, prosecutors accuse Abourouis of committing a “terrorist act” and “promoting the ideas of a terrorist group” — a reference to the Islamic State jihadist group.

Abourouis, who is of Palestinian origin and grew up in the refugee camp of Souf, was arrested immediately after the attack at Jerash, close to the camp and around 50 kilometers (30 miles) north of Amman.

The Jordanian prosecutor accuses Abourouis of trying to join IS, one of whose operatives in Syria had “ordered him to commit attacks against foreigners.”

Two alleged accomplices, also Jordanians of Palestinian origin, are charged with terrorism in the same case. All three plead not guilty.

The court is scheduled to hear witnesses next Sunday, with the date for a verdict to be confirmed.

— AFP

Illustrative: Tourists walk through the main street, the South Cardo, in the well preserved Ancient Roman city of Gerasa, in the city of Jerash, Jordan, November 13, 2015. (AP Photo/Nasser Nasser)

Liberman calls for vote on Jordan Valley annexation by next week

Yisrael Beytenu chief Avigdor Liberman visits the Jordan Valley, an area of the West Bank that he and other leading Israeli politicians have called to annex.

“For us the Jordan Valley is the most-agreed upon [thing] in Israeli society since the Alon Plan through [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin and up to Gandhi [Rehavam Ze’evi],” Liberman writes on Facebook.

Liberman says that he hopes by next week at the latest, the Knesset will vote on a bill backed by his party to apply Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, “just as the prime minister promised.”

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week called for a vote to immediately extend sovereignty over the area, after his political rival Benny Gantz said he would work to do so after the March 2 elections with international backing.

“If ultimately because of all types of excuses the vote doesn’t come up for a vote next week it means only one thing: The prime minister simply took residents of the [Jordan] Valley for a spin and in the end there won’t be Israeli sovereignty here or anywhere else,” he says.

The comments come as Netanyahu takes off for Washington to meet with US President Donald Trump for talks on the White House’s peace plan.

Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman visits the Jordan Valley, January 26, 2020. (Flash90)

193,800 Holocaust survivors currently living in Israel — statistics agency

Ahead of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, the Central Bureau of Statistics releases data on the 193,800 Holocaust survivors living in Israel as of December.

The CBS says 64 percent of the survivors are from Europe, while 11% survived the Farhud pogrom in Iraq during June 1941. Another 16% are from Morocco and 2% from Algeria, both of which placed restrictions on Jews as colonies of France’s Vichy regime.

All of those listed as Holocaust survivors are 74 or older, with 15% over 90-years-old.

Holocaust survivor Szmul Icek shows his Auschwitz prison number 117568 on his arm, during a photo session at his home in Jerusalem on December 8, 2019. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Ultra-Orthodox protesters block Jerusalem roads over arrest of draft dodger

Ultra-Orthodox men are demonstrating in Jerusalem after a yeshiva student was arrested for not registering with the Israel Defense Forces draft office.

The protesters are blocking the intersection at Jaffa and Sarei Israel streets, causing traffic jams at the city center.

Video footage shows police officers trying to clear the demonstrators from the street.

Pope Francis on Holocaust: Let’s all say never again

VATICAN CITY — Pope Francis is inviting prayers and reflection about the “atrocity” of the Holocaust, urging people to vow in their heart “never again.”

In remarks to the public in St. Peter’s Square, Francis notes that tomorrow is the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Nazi’s Auschwitz-Birkenau death camp.

He says that “in the face of this huge tragedy, this atrocity, indifference is not admissible and memory is a duty.” He says that tomorrow “all are invited to take a moment for prayer and for reflection, each one saying in one’s own heart: never again, never again!”

The pope himself prayed on the camp’s memorial grounds during a 2016 pilgrimage to Poland.

— AP

Pope Francis looks at balloons released by a child during the Angelus noon prayer at the Vatican, January 26, 2020. (AP Photo/Gregorio Borgia)

Palestinians threaten to ditch Oslo Accords over Trump peace plan

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Palestinian officials threaten to withdraw from key provisions of the Oslo Accords, which define relations with Israel, if US President Donald Trump announces his Middle East peace plan in the next week.

Chief Palestinian negotiation Saeb Erekat tells AFP that the Palestinian Liberation Organization reserves the right “to withdraw from the interim agreement,” the concrete part of the Oslo deal, if Trump unveils his plan.

The Trump initiative will turn Israel’s “temporary occupation (of Palestinian territory) into a permanent occupation,” Erekat says.

— AFP

Saeb Erekat speaks during a press conference in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on September 11, 2018. (AP Photo/Nasser Shiyoukhi)

Abbas said threatening to dismantle PA in protest of Trump peace plan

Mahmoud Abbas is threatening to dismantle the Palestinian Authority in response to the pending release of US President Donald Trump’s peace plan, the Ynet news site reports.

“The deal of the century won’t pass without the agreement of the Palestinian people. The leadership, with the support of the plan, will thwart the efforts to bring an end to the Palestinian issue,” the websites quotes Abbas, the PA president, as saying.

Abbas adds: “We warn of grave consequences for the entire region if it is announced the plan will be implemented.”

Separately, the National and Islamic Forces in Ramallah declare Tuesday — when Prime Minister Netanyahu will meet with Trump at the White House — as a day of rage.

The group is made up of local activists, many of who come from the different Palestinian parties.

Trump said last week he would likely release the plan before he meets this week with Netanyahu and Blue and White party leader Benny Gantz.

Hebrew media reports have described the Trump administration’s plan as the most generous to Israel ever.

Palestinians protest against US President Donald Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century, in the West Bank city of Hebron, February 22, 2019. (Wisam Hashlamoun/Flash90)

38 detained in Jerusalem protest over draft dodger’s arrest

Police have arrested 38 demonstrators during a protest in Jerusalem over the arrest of an ultra-Orthodox draft dodger.

Police say the protesters are blocking traffic and the city’s light rail line.

The demonstration was reportedly organized by the Jerusalem Faction, a hardline ultra-Orthodox group that opposes mandatory military service for members of the community.

Bennett to give statement from Ariel settlement on Trump peace plan

Defense Minister and Yamina chairman Naftali Bennett will make his “first press statements on Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century'” at 7 p.m. in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, his party says.

The deal, which is expected to be released on Tuesday, has been deemed the most pro-Israel outline for Middle East peace ever presented by a US administration.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White leader Benny Gantz will both meet with Trump in the White House to discuss the deal in the coming days.

— Raoul Wootliff

Naftali Bennett speaks at the ceremony for a new Faculty of Medicine at Ariel University in the West Bank, on August 19, 2018. (Ben Dori/Flash90)

AG to charge Likud MK with bribery in graft case

Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has decided to charge Likud MK David Bitan with bribery, pending a hearing.

Mandelblit will also charge Bitan with fraud and breach of trust.

Bitan is accused of receiving NIS 992,000 bribes while serving as deputy mayor of Rishon Lezion and as a Knesset member.

He has denied wrongdoing.

Lawyer for Likud MK: There won’t be a need to ask for immunity

A lawyer for Likud MK David Bitan responds to Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit’s decision to charge him with bribery, pending a hearing.

“Just now we got the charging document,” Ephraim Dimri tells Radio 103FM. “From an initial look at the material, there won’t be a need to ask for immunity because most of the clauses will turn out to be nothing during the [pre-indictment] hearing.”

Likud MK asks he not be given investigatory materials until after the election

Likud MK David Bitan is asking that the investigatory materials in the corruption investigation implicating him not be given to him or other suspects in the case until after the March 2 elections.

The request is due to concerns the material could be leaked.

“We are about a month before elections in the most sensitive period politically. Revealing investigatory materials could cause serious harm to the integrity of the elections and the voters,” Dror Matityahu, one of Bitan’s lawyers, is quoted saying by Channel 13 news.

Oman’s top diplomat meets with Zarif in Tehran for second time in a week

TEHRAN, Iran — Top Iranian diplomat Mohammad Javad Zarif hosts his Omani counterpart Yusuf bin Alawi today for the second time in a week for talks on security in the sensitive Gulf.

Alawi is making the visit to Tehran on the tail end of his trip to the World Economic Forum (WEF) in Davos, Switzerland, which Zarif skipped after scheduling changes to the annual event.

Zarif and Alawi discussed “bilateral cooperation regarding the Strait of Hormuz and emphasised their governments’ will… to guarantee maritime and energy security for all,” Iran’s foreign ministry says in a statement.

It is their second meeting in the Iranian capital since Tuesday and at least their fourth encounter since late July.

Tensions have soared in the region and especially between Tehran and Washington since a US drone strike killed Iranian general Qassem Soleimani in Baghdad on January 3.

Iran retaliated five days later by launching a wave of missiles at US troops stationed in Iraq.

Tehran had been on high alert hours later when its air defenses mistakenly shot down a Ukraine International Airlines passenger jet, killing all 176 people on board.

Oman has often acted as a mediator between Iran and its regional foes and also played a key role in facilitating talks involving the United States that lead to the 2015 nuclear deal.

US President Donald Trump’s administration withdrew from the agreement in 2018 and began reimposing sanctions on the Islamic Republic, which retaliated by scaling back some of its nuclear commitments.

— AFP

Oman’s Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Yousuf bin Alawi bin Abdullah, right, attends a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Tehran on July 27, 2019. (Atta Kenare/AFP)

Blue and White takes jab at Netanyahu over bribery charges against Likud MK

The Blue and White party takes a dig at Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his political allies after the attorney general decides to charge Likud MK David Bitan with bribery in a corruption probe, pending a hearing.

“The charging document against MK David Bitan demonstrates that Netanyahu’s immunity bloc is composed of the most corrupt coalition in Israel’s history,” the party says in a statement.

Besides Bitan, Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit has announced charges against Netanyahu and Likud MK Haim Katz. Police have also recommended Interior Minister Aryeh Deri and Health Minister Yaakov Litzman face criminal charges.

All have denied wrongdoing and Netanyahu and Katz, both of whom had their pre-indictment hearings, have asked the Knesset to grant them parliamentary immunity from the respective charges against them.

Customs officials say they won’t check passengers coming from China over virus fears

Customs officials at Ben Gurion Airport announce they won’t check passengers coming from China over concerns they could be infected by the new coronavirus.

The airport employees say they do not have proper equipment and could endanger themselves and their loved ones if they check passengers who were in China.

Rocket fired from Gaza toward southern Israel

A rocket was fired at an open field in southern Israel from the Gaza Strip, the military says.

No injuries or damage are reported.

As the projectile was heading toward an unpopulated area no alarms were triggered in Israeli communities, but notifications were sent to smart phones in the area and nearby alarm systems.

— Judah Ari Gross

Rockets strike near US embassy in Baghdad

BAGHDAD — A volley of rockets lands near the US embassy in the Iraqi capital of Baghdad on Sunday, two security sources tells AFP, in the latest unclaimed attack on American installations in the country.

AFP reporters hear loud thuds emanating from the western bank of the Tigris, where most foreign embassies are located.

One security source says three Katyusha rockets hit near the high-security compound while another says as many as five struck the area.

There is no immediate word on casualties.

— AFP

Woman who was in China hospitalized with symptoms of coronavirus

An Israeli woman in her 60s has been hospitalized and is being examined for the coronavirus.

Ichilov Hospital in Tel Aviv says the woman, who returned a few days ago from China, has a fever and other symptoms of a respiratory disease.

It adds that the woman, who has been placed in an isolated unit, is “in good condition.”

Yesterday, the Health Ministry said three Israelis who were suspected of having come into contact with the virus were medically cleared.

Bennett conditions support for Trump peace plan on immediate annexation

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett says his national-religious Yamina party will only support US President Donald Trump’s peace plan if Israel can annex swathes of the West Bank as soon as next week.

“If they annex, we’ll support [the plan]. If they don’t annex, we won’t support [it],” Bennett says during a press conference in the Ariel settlement.

“If this entire event ends without the extension of Israeli law [in the West Bank] now, before the elections, when the Americans are providing us tailwind and a chance to do so, then there won’t be a deal of the century, but rather a missed opportunity of the century,” he adds.

Bennett also says his national-religious Yamina party will not support any establishment or recognition of a Palestinian state.

“Under no circumstances will we allow the establishment or recognition of a Palestinian state nor will we allow an inch of land to be turned over to the Arabs,” he says.

He calls on Prime Minister Netanyahu to bring before the government next week a measure to extend Israeli sovereignty over all settlements in the West Bank.

“The right-wing government will be tested [in its ability to apply sovereignty over the entirety of [Israeli] settlement at the Sunday cabinet meeting. Not actions, words,” he says.

— with Jacob Magid

Defense Minister Naftali Bennett gives a statement to the media in the West Bank settlement of Ariel, January 26, 2020. (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Israel strikes Hamas post after Gaza rocket fire

An Israeli aircraft attacks a Hamas observation post in southern Gaza in response to attacks earlier in the evening on southern Israel from the coastal enclave, the Israel Defense Forces says.

There are no Palestinian injuries immediately reported.

“IDF aircraft struck a military post controlled by the Hamas terror group in the Southern Gaza Strip in response to rocket fire and the launching of balloon-borne explosive devices from the Gaza Strip into Israeli territory earlier today,” the military says in a statement.

— Judah Ari Gross

Trump to meet with Netanyahu at White House before Gantz — report

US President Donald Trump will meet tomorrow with Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House before meeting with Blue and White chair Benny Gantz, Reuters reports.

Citing a US official, the news agency says the meetings will be back-to-back and that Trump will likely reveal some details of his Israeli-Palestinian peace plan to the political rivals.

Gantz announced last night that he had received an invitation to meet privately with Trump on Monday, after initially being invited to meet with the US president on Tuesday alongside Netanyahu for talks on the administration’s peace plan.

Following Gantz’s announcement, Netanyahu said he would meet with Trump on both Monday and Tuesday.

Hamas chief says Trump peace plan ‘bound to fail,’ hints at violent reaction

GAZA CITY, Gaza Strip — Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh says the Middle East peace plan that US President Donald Trump is expected to unveil soon “will not pass,” and could lead to renewed Palestinian violence.

“We firmly declare that the ‘deal of the century’ will not pass. The new plot aimed against Palestine is bound to fail,” and could lead the Palestinians to a “new phase in their struggle” against Israel, Haniyeh says in a statement.

— AFP

Hamas leader Ismail Haniyeh gestures as he delivers a speech over US President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, in Gaza City, December 7, 2017. (Said Khatib/AFP)

Chinese laborer hospitalized at Ashkelon hospital for suspected virus infection

A Chinese laborer is hospitalized at Barzilai Medical Center over suspicions he may be infected with the new coronavirus that originated in China.

Video shows paramedics in hazmat suits taking the patient from an ambulance into the hospital on a gurney with protective covering.

France reports 27% increase last year in anti-Semitic acts

PARIS — Anti-Semitic acts increased in France last year by 27 percent, acts against Muslims inched higher while anti-Christian acts remained stable. France’s interior minister denounced the rising acts of anti-Semitism as an intolerable situation.

On top of that, acts described as bearing a racist and xenophobic character, mostly threats, more than doubled between 2018 and 2019 — increasing from 496 to 1,142, according to a statement by Interior Minister Christophe Castaner.

“Expressions and acts of hate, whether they target origins or religious beliefs, whether they take the form of physical violence or verbal threats, are an intolerable attack on our common project, the foundations of our social… pact,” the statement says.

To mobilize against forces of hate, and its banalization, the ministry is creating a network of special investigators around France. And it has designated experts on racism and anti-Semitism in gendarmeries and departments, the statement says.

French Interior Minister Christophe Castaner, center, followed by Strasbourg Chief Rabbi Harold Abraham Weill, second right, walk amid vandalized tombs in the Jewish cemetery of Westhoffen, west of the city of Strasbourg, eastern France, December 4, 2019. (Jean-Francois Badias/AP)

The statistics revealing the “permanence of anti-Semitic hate” take on a particular significance as the world marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz Nazi death camp, he notes.

A total of 687 anti-Semitic acts were counted in 2019, compared to 541 the previous year. The account by the interior ministry showed that 151 of the acts were of the most severe category, “actions,” meaning attacks on people or their possessions, theft or physical acts. There were 536 threats.

Anti-Muslim acts were counted at 154 compared to 100 in 2018. Anti-Christian acts were stable in 2019, but the figure was high at 1,052, mainly attacks on goods or property with a religious character.

An online platform that would allow investigators to chat with witnesses and victims of hate is being set up, among a series of new measures now in place or in the works, the statement says.

— AP

Netanyahu facing calls in Likud to drop immunity request — reports

Prime Minister Netanyahu is facing growing calls in his Likud party to pull his request for parliamentary immunity from graft charges, according to reports on Israel’s main evening news broadcasts.

Some Likud lawmakers believe that, as a majority of Knesset members oppose granting him immunity, the outcome of the upcoming Knesset House Committee hearings has already been determined, the Kan public broadcaster reports.

The report says the Likud lawmakers also believe the immunity hearings could hurt Likud at the polls when Israelis vote on March 2.

According to Channel 13 news, some of Netanyahu’s close advisers are urging him to drop his immunity request, saying it will benefit him politically, despite it meaning criminal charges will formally be filed against him.

Netanyahu is still considering the move and has not made a decision, the network says.

The prime minister faces charges of fraud and breach of trust in three cases, as well as bribery in one of them. He denies wrongdoing and has called the investigations a witch hunt.

Jordan’s king on Trump peace plan: The word ‘no’ is clear to all

Jordan’s King Abdullah is asked about his stance on US President Donald Trump’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan ahead of its expected rollout this week.

“Our stance is well known,” Channel 13 news quotes him saying during an event in Aqaba. “The word ‘no’ is clear to everyone.”

Jordan’s King Abdullah II (R) is greeted by US President Donald Trump at the White House on June 25, 2018. (AFP Photo/Brendan Smialowski)

Abbas said to refuse to take phone call from Trump

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas recently refused to take a phone call from US President Donald Trump, the state-run Turkish Anadolu Agency reports, citing a high-ranking Palestinian official.

The report comes ahead of separate meetings that Trump is slated to hold with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Blue and White chief Benny Gantz in Washington, DC, today to discuss the administration’s plan to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“There were attempts by Trump to hold a phone call with Abbas, but the latter refused,” the official, who was not named, told Anadolu, adding that they took place in the past couple of days.

PA Social Affairs Minister Ahmad Majdalani confirmed the Anadolu report to the Gaza-based Dunia al-Watan news site, saying that Abbas recently “refused a phone call from Trump.”

Adam Rasgon

Afghan passenger plane crashes in Taliban-held eastern area

A passenger plane from Afghanistan’s Ariana Airlines crashed today in a Taliban-held area of the eastern Ghazni province, local officials say.

Arif Noori, spokesman for the provincial governor, says the plane went down around 1:10 p.m. local time (8:40 a.m. GMT) in Deh Yak district, which is held by the Taliban. Two provincial council members also confirmed the crash.

However, Ariana Airlines tells The Associated Press that none of its planes have crashed in Afghanistan, according to Mirwais Mirzakwal, the company’s acting director. The state-owned airline also releases a statement on its website saying all its aircraft are operational and safe.

The conflicting accounts cannot immediately be reconciled. The number of people on board and their fate is not immediately known, nor is the cause of the crash.

The mountainous Ghazni province sits in the foothills of the Hindu Kush mountains and is bitterly cold in winter. The Taliban control or hold sway over around half the country.

AP

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FM Israel Katz to serve as acting prime minister while Netanyahu’s in US

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu taps Foreign Minister Israel Katz to fill in as acting prime minister while he’s in the United States this week.

Katz, a member of Netanyahu’s Likud party, will also chair the high-level security cabinet in the premier’s absence.

Netanyahu will take off this afternoon for Washington, where he is set to meet with US President Donald Trump for talks on the White House’s Israeli-Palestinian peace plan.

Blue and White chairman Benny Gantz, Netanyahu’s chief political rival, will meet with Trump at the White House tomorrow.

Gantz is set to return to Israel on Tuesday, when the Knesset will vote on forming the panel that will debate Netanyahu’s request for immunity from charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust.

Netanyahu, who denies wrongdoing, will meet with Trump that day and not return to Israel.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, right, listens to Foreign Minister Israel Katz during the weekly cabinet meeting at his office in Jerusalem, October 27, 2019. (Gali Tibbon/Pool Photo via AP)